Monday, June 1, 2009

Deconstructing Gender (May 31, 2009)

By the time a child is ready for kindergarten, it knows some basic things. It usually knows colors and shapes, it knows how to use a bathroom and put on a jacket. It knows the days of the week and the seasons. And it knows gender. It knows from a visit to any children’s clothing store, that there are girls, who like pink and purple and flowers and sparkly things, and there are boys, who like blue and red and trucks. I didn’t understand how well we were teaching this lesson until my son wore his brand new Dora the Explorer shoes to church. For those of you who have not had preschoolers in your home for the past few years, Dora is a cartoon about a little Latina girl who goes on adventures with her backpack and her monkey friend Boots, teaching children Spanish words and sequencing. Dora is not a particularly effeminate character, being an explorer and all, but whoever is in charge of her licensing has decided to put her image on only the most frilly, flowery, pink and purple sparkly clothing, for sale only in the “little girls” department. And this first time my 2 year old son wore his brand new Dora sneakers to church, a UU church mind you, one of the preschool girls raised by very progressive parents announced in a shocked voice “those are girl shoes!”

It makes you wonder. Why do we even have segregated clothing departments for boys and girls? At that age the sizes and shapes of the kids are pretty much the same. We as a society have invested a lot in our gender sorting system. I think of all the time toddlers spend trying to fit the circle and square and triangle blocks into their sorting toys, and realize that gender feels a lot like that. Government forms ask us to check “male or female.” Public restrooms ask us to sort ourselves “girls and boys” We need to know which of those 2 holes each of us fits into, and which hole everyone around us fits into. And what happens when you run into a star, or a hexagon? In western society, violence happens. People who cross gender lines tell stories of being hit by a parent, beat-up on the playground, beaten by police in a raid. There is something about this binary gender-sorting system of ours that is so basic, so deeply held, taught so early and reinforced all our lives, that deconstructing gender feels as scary to some folks as asking “what if there is no God?”

In our culture- women have fought to enlarge their the size of the slot they were sorted into. They had to fight for such basic rights as the right to own property and to vote, the right to be free from violence in their own home. The generations of women today have fought to have access to many things which had previously been rigidly held in the male sphere- the right to study and challenge the intellect, to pursue careers in science, math, ministry, finance. They fought for the right to play football and run the marathon in the Olympics. And in entering the traditionally male spheres, they gained the right to wear clothes that did not encumber climbing a mountain, or serving in the armed forces, or running for president. Whereas a generation ago, woman could be arrested for “impersonating a man” if not wearing at least 3 pieces of woman’s clothing, the lines have blurred significantly. If I put on a pair of trousers or work boots today, no one is going to blink an eye.

But folks whom the doctor called “boy” filling out the birth certificate seem to have a more restricted realm of self expression. When a man puts on a skirt, or a little boy wears Dora Sneakers, is still a dangerous moment in our culture. It seems to be socially normative even in young hip shows like “Heros” to make fun of a male character for being nurse, or for staying at home as a full-time parent. And women’s role is still constricted as well- we know what challenges face a woman who decides to run for president.

So I’m guessing just about everyone in this room has bumped up against the rules of their “gender” at one time or another in their life. I preached a service about gender several years ago, and lead off with the theme song from the progressive 70s musical “Free to be you and me” which reminds us that

“There’s a land that I see
Where the Children are free.
And I say it ain’t far
To this land, from where we are.

Every boy in this land
Grows to be his own man.
In this land, every girl
Grows to be her own woman.”

And my heart sank as my dear colleage got up speak, and told her story about how as a little boy he didn’t want to grow up to be his own man, and how he grew up to be her own woman. I had thought my vision of gender roles was quite progressive, but it left a dear friend out in the cold. As much as I chafe at the restrictions of the gender I express, Leslie Feinberg writes: “Those of us who cross the cultural boundaries of sex and gender are paying a terrible price. We face discrimination and physical violence. We are denied the right to live and work with dignity and respect. It takes so much courage to live our lives that sometimes just leaving our homes in the morning and facing the world as who we really are is in itself an act of resistance.” (This is from her landmark book Transgender Warriors, which I am proud to say is published by our own Beacon Press.)

Feinberg was the author of one of the readings we heard today- talking about how she could not pass as either male or female as she tried to get a job. Gender expression is more than whether your shoes came from the boys department or the girls department, it is more than which box the doctor checked off on your birth certificate. For those of us who have the privilege of having a gender that’s easily read, a gender that agrees with the one on our birth certificate, we don’t question the doctor’s authority to make that call. All you need to do is check under your diaper, or check your chromosomes. But while biology tells us something- it doesn’t tell us everything. Did you know that some folks are born with xxx or xxy or xo chromosomes? Folks are born with ambiguous bodies. The doctor makes a choice, and sometimes even changes the body of a newborn to make sure it fits through one of the sorting holes. And sometimes, for example, a baby with male chromosomes will not produce or process the testosterone necessary to change a fetus (we all start out female) into the shape of a male baby. And sometimes the testosterone will kick in during adolescence, creating an apparent gender shift as the adolescent body develops.

So some aspect of this sorting process is not biologically determined but culturally determined. And not every culture has the same gender system as we do. I read recently that one indigenous culture recognizes 49 genders. While that seems pretty rare, many communal cultures recognize the “two-spirit”, one who holds in some way the spirit of the female and the male. This expression sacred in many tribes, a position of honor and power. Theologically this makes perfect sense to me, because a “two-spirit” overcomes the duality of the world, representing the one-ness of all things. It is also true that magic and power can be found at the crossroads- at the intersection of things, at the edge of thought and belief. Says Holger Kalweit (quoted in Gender Outlaw) “Holiness means feeling many –all – spheres of existence within oneself.” How much richer would our society be if we could embrace the unique wisdom and experience of those who inhabit gender in different ways. You will not be surprised to hear that the Two-spirits were singled out for colonial violence when European settlers came to these shores.

So how can we turn the tide away from violence and discrimination towards a wider embrace that acknowledges one another’s experience and wisdom? With what images can we use to engage gender beyond the preschool sorting boxes? Call to mind the yin-yang symbol, the black and white representing the male and female principles, and the yin holds the yang within itself, and the yang holds the yin within itself. But still we are stuck in dualism- good and evil, black and white, male and female.
One could also imagine a continuum from male to female, with each person their own unique shade of grey. But we are still stuck in a binary system. Male on one end and female on the other. You know, when I print the front of this order of service, I can choose to print it in greyscale, like our black and white continuum, or I can choose to print in full color. You can’t tell from looking at the shades of grey which pane of glass is red or yellow, because Red is not a shade of grey, it’s red. I wonder if we could ever allow ourselves that fullness of gender expression in this culture.

When we listen to one another we hear about the toll it takes on some souls to fit into the binary shape sorter. We hear the voices of folks who feel like circles even when the world tells them they are squares, and we heard from folks that just don’t get why they have to choose one or the other, when their lived experience is something radically different- a star perhaps.

Now Unitarian Universalists have a long history of listening to the voices of folks who feel oppressed by societal structures. And we are not just talking here about the right to freedom of expression, which I’m pretty sure is given to us under the constitution. But we are talking about the right to employment and housing without discrimination. We are talking about the right to fair treatment under the law and a right to a life free of violence. Both Pennsylvania and New York legislatures are currently looking at Bills that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. The New York State Assembly passed a bill (A. 5710) on May 14. HB300 is a Pennsylvania bill in process with a similar intent, but it remains to be seen whether either will become law.

This is another chance for UUs to be on the leading edge of thought and leaders as a religious movement. But to do that, we each need to do our own work first. Each of us needs to ask ourselves: what makes me think I know my own gender? What makes me think I know the gender of my friends, of the people I pass on the street? How do I feel when I don’t know someone’s gender? Why? Is there any part of my own expression that I limit because I am afraid of what will happen if I transgress a boundary? Why does anyone even care if a little boy wears Dora the Explorer shoes? Folks who self-identify as “trans gendered,” that is, crossing through the boxes and lines that make boundaries around gender, challenge us to think in a new way about these structures in our society who oppress us all. Says author and performance artist Kate Bornstein:
“Like other border outlaws, transgenderd people are here to open some doorway that’s been closed off for a long long time. We’re gatekeepers, nothing more.”
Because of these gatekeepers, we don’t have to figure this out on our own- there are wonderful writers and thinkers and artists expanding the field of gender theory, and we have our friends and family, each of who has their own way of inhabiting and expressing their gender, each of whom has a story to tell.

May ours be a faith that continues to question the assumptions of our culture, especially when those assumptions result in violence or discrimination. And may we raise our children to know, that we will love them and watch over them, whether their role model is Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder, or a hero in a new shape and color that opens a new door for us all.

Primary Sources:

Kate Bornstein. Gender Outlaw. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Leslie Feinberg. Transgender Warriors. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Joan Nestle, Claree Howell, Riki Wilchins eds. GenderQueer. New York: Alyson Books, 2002.

Service Readings taken from:

Marlo Thomas & Friends. Free to be you and me, Philadelphia: Running Press, 1997.

Peggy Orenstein. "The Hillary Lesson: What Her Candidacy Has Taught Our Daughters" The New York Times Magazine May 18, 2008

Tom Chiarella "What Is a Man?" Esquire April 6, 2009.

Andrea U'Ren. Pugdog, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.