I chose to read and learn more about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition and her experiences as she struggled through life with her identity issues. When it comes to what visual cues we use to determine another’s gender, most would think of the stereotypical “male” or “female” characteristics and style of clothing. Since most people think of gender as binary – male or female – that is what most often goes through peoples’ heads when they are analyzing a person. I don’t think it’s a process that we ever really think about because we’re only looking superficially and quickly and are often not actively thinking, “Is that person a male or female?” Additionally, most people associate gender explicitly with biological sex, and we still have a lot of progress to make in this area and people understanding that gender is fluid and not exclusive to just male or female. We see long hair, female-typical clothes like dresses or leggings, soft features, and smaller (because “it’s not feminine to be bigger or muscular”) and assume that person is a female. Alternatively, we see short hair, muscles, male-typical clothes like loose-fitting jeans, sneakers, a hat, etc., and we assume that person is a male. Seeing “Bruce” walk in public in a dress in the 80’s, would seriously challenge our typical assumptions.
Caitlyn was rightfully worried about people’s reactions if Bruce would have fully transitioned in the 80s – the public would seriously question and struggle with the idea that someone who they see as so masculine, strong, and athletic identifying and transitioning into a female — as is also the reaction to seeing anyone in public (who’s not famous) who challenges the general idea of what gender should look like. Ruby Rose makes some good points in her interview about gender fluidity, as well. When she was younger, a waiter at the restaurant she was eating at with her dad confined her into one of two categories: a beautiful girl or a handsome boy. That spoke volumes to me, because this is still an issue that we are constantly dealing with today and basically confine society into those two categories as well. It’s not acceptable to be a strong, handsome girl? Or a beautiful boy? Or, what about the wild notion that we’re not defined by our looks? Why can’t we described first by characteristics like courage, intelligent, caring, or empathetic? While I don’t necessarily agree with all of her criticisms of the transgender community, Burket also made some good points in her article, “What Makes a Woman?” She really emphasized the fact that there is no concrete definition of what a woman is supposed to look like or act like. We don’t have to be emotional, we don’t have to be sexy, we don’t have to be damsels in distress, and we don’t have to be stereotypically “feminine.” She makes the point that each of us who identify as a woman contributes to the fluid “definition” of a woman and all have our own idea of what that looks like – and that’s how it should be.
For me, specifically, when I was younger and growing up in a small town with a lot of close-minded people, I have to admit that I, unfortunately, used the exact visual cues that I talked about above when deciding if I was looking at a male or female. I didn’t think there was more than one gender, because I also connected it so closely with biological sex. I understood that there were females who dressed more masculine and vice versa, but it wasn’t something I really thought about and I generally thought of those people as few and far between. Moving to East Lansing and going to a diverse university, my eyes were opened a lot to so many things – and I am so grateful for it, I bring it up a lot in conversation. I’ve learned about other cultures, religions, genders, and many things that make people different and I really learned what intersectionality means pretty early on. I find myself educating my family members constantly on these issues, and how the many issues and factors that affect just one person will have an impact on their perception of the world, their experiences, and especially the specific discrimination they deal with because of their identity. I do definitely still catch myself making assumptions about what gender a person might identify with, but I am continuously making a conscious effort to correct this. Gender identity is such an easy thing to make assumptions about.
Burkett, E. (2015, June 6). What Makes a Woman? https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html