Why do we have difficulty accepting the variety of gender expressions?
Isn’t it self-evident that gender would always be uniquely expressed in each person?
Gender is not binary, but alters from culture to culture, from generation to generation
I know we’ve all heard this stuff before: men and women and boys and girls are “different”: they think differently, they think about different things, and they interact with the world in different ways. But those are dangerous ideas. Why? Because they simplify both women and/or men as stereotypical, and we know that stereotypes flatten the complexity of the human person. Each of us is complicated, amazing, contradictory, mysterious, hopeful, sad – and in all other matters of being human. We have already left other stereotypes behind us. For instance, we know not all Canadians are polite or Irish people good singers and dancers. Furthermore, we as individuals appreciate being taken as we are, in our own lives as ourselves, and not as representations of all women and/or all men in all circumstances, all of the time.
So why is it that we have so much difficulty in accepting the variety of gender expressions and in being nice about it? Isn’t it self-evident that gender would always be uniquely expressed in each person? For a long time feminist and cultural studies scholars have made the convincing case that sex is primarily the biological reality of someone as male and/or female, while gender is what is socialised. Gender is not binary, but alters from culture to culture, from generation to generation, from family to family and community to community.
It is time to embrace the incredible variety of gender identities and gender expressions as part of societal change. In Canada, a bill was introduced by Justin Trudeau’s government in May of 2016, passed the legislative process and, upon receiving Royal Assent in June of 2017, became law. The purpose of Bill C-16 was to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code by adding “gender expression and gender identity” as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.
Seems like a no-brainer but there was a backlash in regards to the use of pronouns (he, him, his or she, her, hers or they, them, theirs). The backlash rested on an argument about government infringing on freedom of speech and enacting something called “compelled speech”. The protesters wanted to be able to refuse to use different pronouns for those who do not subscribe to binary gender. If someone asked them to refer to them as “they” or “them”, they didn’t want to feel “compelled” to honour this because of freedom of expression.
But what’s so difficult about it? If Elizabeth Jones at the bookstore, say, asked me to call her Mrs Jones, why would I say “Nope. I am more comfortable with calling you Betty”? And if Pat asked you to call Pat “them”, wouldn’t you?
It’s not a big ask, and the world would be a better place if we were nice to each other. In any event, the Canadian Bar Association argued that the Bill C-16 provides necessary protections for transgender people in particular and posed no risk to freedom of expression. Thankfully, the debate seems to have settled down but, sad to say, often rages elsewhere.
Ours is a world of incredible social change. We will need to make necessary adjustments as we go forward as a society. We should all get to decide how we are to be addressed. This matters because our words reveal us and create us. Words reveal how we see the world, how we see and understand others and can create our views and attitudes.
A civilised society respects all people. We live our lives as free agents who love, work, rest and think in our own unique ways. If we can’t see the commonalities of all people and the uniqueness of each person, if we always see sex and gender as the biggest deal in who someone is, then we are doomed to this gender/sexuality conflict forever.
To be kind and gracious with some added Canadian politeness to all persons through thoughtful language, regardless of gender expressions, sexuality, sex, religion, ethnicity, race and socio-economic status, is the only way forward. Whether we be men and/or women, teachers and/or lawyers, straight and/or gay, conservative and/or liberal, we can respect all persons. Basic respect for others is necessary for all of us to live good, just and peaceful lives with those around us. Let’s play nice.
Dr Allyson Jule’s new book Speaking Up: Understanding Language and Gender is published by Channel View