“Gender isn't about biology or science. It is a man-made set of concepts and ideas about how men and women are supposed to look, act, relate and interrelate, based on their sex. Gender isn’t anatomical: it’s intellectual, psychological and social (and even optional); about identity, roles and status based on ideas about sex and what it means to different people and groups. As part of that set of concepts is also the idea -- even though we know by now it's flawed -- that gender is only male or female in the first place. Like sex, gender is often presented as binary: as being only one thing or the other, without any overlap or grey area in between.”
Genderpalooza! A Sex & Gender Primer ,” Scarleteen.com
It wasn’t until my last year of high school, when I was seventeen, that I realized that sex and gender are radically different things.I remember the moment my awareness shifted. I was living on my own for the first time, sharing an apartment with two twenty-somethings who had real jobs. That summer, the summer after high school, I followed some friends of mine to a festival in the woods. It was a week-long event, collectively organized by volunteers, and it was international- it took place in a different country every year. The Vancouver edition meant camping on a large expanse of land on Vancouver Island. The festival was called Queeruption, and it was an opportunity for radical queers from all over the world to get together and live in anarchic style, putting their DIY ethics into practice.
Every day, there were workshops on topics from polyamory and revolutionary relationship models to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Signs posted all over the grounds reminded participants never to assume anyone’s gender, and to be aware of how their own actions might be reflecting personal privileges and silencing those around them. Awareness and sensibility were key to maintaining a safe space. (Even with all these precautions in place, the festival didn’t entirely succeed—not everyone felt included, or like their voice was being equally heard. There were problems and complications and lots of questions, social anxiety and arguments. But all of that was necessary—it was part of the process of learning how to live as a community, even for just a little while).
The cool thing about Queeruption was that I stopped noticing if the people I met and became friends with were male or female. They weren’t male or female, a lot of the time. Sure, they had a male or female biological sex, but that had nothing to do with their gender. A lot of people went by gender-neutral pronouns; that is, they identified themselves not by the gendered/binary “he” or “she,” but with the more neutral “they,” or more inventive pronouns like “ze” or “xie.” By making friends with people who identified in various, complex, fluid ways, I gained the courage to begin to question my own female socialization. Thanks to the people I met that week, I realized that I don’t have to abide by any particular standards of “femininity” to be pretty, worthwhile, or loved. I can just be me, whatever that means, even if it changes over time – and that’s okay. This change of mindset was instrumental in realizing and embracing my queer sexuality.
Gender policing—the act of keeping the people around us in rigid binary (male/female) gender boxes—is everywhere in society. Try to become more aware of it, just for a day. Every time someone asks, “is that a boy or a girl?” it is a form of gender policing. When a form only has two boxes on it, male or female, that is gender policing. When there are only male and female washrooms, that is gender policing, because what do you do if your gender identity is neither male nor female?
This is a lot to think about. The world of gender and sexuality is rich and complex. Check out some of the resources below for more information, since I can’t possibly do justice to this topic in the column space here. I've also included some personal videos of individuals who identify as genderqueer or gender fluid.
image by Cristy C. Road