Changing views of gender


NPR reporter Margot Adler does softer feature stories for the network and is one of their best reporters, thoughtfully examining various aspects of political and social life. From various things she has spoken about in the past, I figure she is roughly my age which is perhaps why I find many of her takes on issues resonating with me.

In a recent report she described her experience during a recent visit to a college where it struck her forcefully how rapidly views on gender identify have changed in recent years and how she, like many of us in the older generation, has to learn to keep up with the changes, especially with the nature of civil rights struggles. (You can listen to the audio below or read the transcript here.

Adler says:

I went to one of the smartest people I know in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Carl Siciliano. He is the executive director of the Ali Forney Center for LBGT homeless youth. Of the nine homeless young people who have been murdered in New York since he ran the center, seven of them, he says, were transgender. They experience more violence at home, at school, and on the streets.

So, he says to me, these college students you saw identifying with transgender people, the most marginalized group in our society, how different is that from you, when you were in college, identifying with the most marginalized and joining the black Civil Rights movement? He brought me up short. I had to think long and hard.

Within my own lifetime, I have gone from unthinkingly viewing gender identity in purely binary terms that were identical with biological sex to now seeing it as occupying a multidimensional and even continuous spectrum; from thinking that male and female gender identity were fixed at birth to now seeing it as more fluid and transient. It has helped that I now personally know half a dozen people who are in various stages of gender transition and identity.

Like Adler, I too have to fight the tendency to view the major political issues of my own youth as the important ones and the ones that came later as not so important. We have to avoid the temptation to rank-order injustices, and instead take a more all-encompassing view that the right to be treated equally and with dignity should not depend on the size of the community that is affected nor how recently the issue has entered the public’s consciousness.

Older people like me will undoubtedly have trouble dealing with gender identities that do not fit into the older binary categories that we grew up with and will stumble over the nuances from time to time. But a clear-eyed focus that all people must be treated with dignity and their rights respected should be possible for anyone.

Comments

  1. Corvus illustris says

    I have gone from unthinkingly viewing gender identity in purely binary terms that were identical with biological sex to now seeing it as occupying a multidimensional and even continuous spectrum; from thinking that male and female gender identity were fixed at birth to now seeing it as more fluid and transient.

    Ya, and this not only for gender identity but for (the related, but not identical) sexuality. Neither a binary classification in the first case nor the “Kinsey scale” in the second makes any sense: as in the case of the famous color vision diagrams, you’d expect some sort of convex body in more than one dimension, with various, non-uniquely-determined combinations of extreme points producing the same gender identity or pattern of sexual expression respectively. Of course there would also be time dependence. The analogy with color perception is obvious but I don’t know of any attempts at such an approach by psychologists.

    As to the NPR discussion of personal pronouns: we could replace English with Finnish or Estonian, thus freeing ourselves of grammatical gender–uh, and gaining 14 or 15 cases and vowel harmony …

    It has helped that I now personally know half a dozen people who are in various stages of gender transition and identity.

    You’re forced to wonder why the culture made such a big deal of it. A parallel situation is that of having gay people in the family.

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    One reason for optimism about the human race is how easily and rapidly attitudes can change. Assumptions and prejudices about racial and gender characteristics, traits- even identity- that existed almost without question for generations have been discarded like old clothes and people often don’t even notice they’ve changed their minds.

  3. Nepenthe says

    I listened to the story when it was first aired and I have to say that I was very disappointed with the reporting. In a story about gender fluidity and transgender issues, they managed to avoid speaking to any self-identified gender fluid or genderqueer individuals and pose the only trans person interviewed as the one conservative pro binary figure. It was extremely uncomfortable to listen to a bunch of presumably cis “experts” talk about these strange trans people with their strange ways.

    I half expected it to be followed up by a story on race which interviewed only white people.

  4. CaitieCat says

    Yeah, I see that happen a lot, Nepenthe.

    On the other hand, almost every legislature which has legalized marriage equality has been by far majority heterosexual (at least, certainly in terms of self-declaration, which I’m loath to suggest should not be taken seriously, for reasons that should be self-evident); most places passing anti-racism laws are not themselves affected by it. That’s not to say they should have cookies for doing it, but we can be hopeful even though we are not yet very much represented.

    If it goes the way I’ve seen other civil rights issues have gone in the last forty-odd years or so, we’ll have the cis folk talking about us for a while, and then when just hearing about us isn’t enough to gain the edge in ratings, someone will start inviting some of us along for token appearances. Later, it’ll be weird not to have some of us along; later still, it’ll become more or less invisible to most people again.

    The question always remains, though: how many years in a “later”?

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