On Gender Journeys

In March 2019 I was asked to comment a bit about non-binary identities for a UK news site, and I thought it would make sense to talk about how people come to understand more about their gender position. The journalist found out that someone who was instrumental in getting the X marker on Oregon driver licenses had chosen to relinquish their non-binary identity to take a stand in a male gender. Before I got into talking about non-binary folks, I wanted to point out that people can have all sorts of genders throughout life. Just because a person chooses to move through multiple positionalities doesn’t undermine or negate that person, other people, or any of the genders they move through. It just means that that’s their path.

Folks can have all sorts of gender journeys, and that can involve passing through multiple ideas of gender. Gender is one facet of who we are as people, and having a lifespan view of gender can be very helpful, I think. To talk about a lifespan view of gender, I think it’s helpful to look at the cis hetero models of gender identity, and then tease that apart a bit to display how gender is a fluid thing throughout life. To be clear, I’m not trying to undermine cis hetero people, many of whom have genders that are perfectly nonviolent and congruent for them; that said, I think that pondering and unraveling gender is a helpful exercise for anybody, because it makes life so much more fun.

In the cis het world, to take the example of the normalized male gender, people actually have distinct gender identities and expressions that are compressed and normalized under the rubric of ‘male.’ A baby designated male at birth has a very different gender role and different socialized expectations than a young boy, and that young boy has different expectations than a teenaged boy, who in turn has different expectations and life activities than a young man, a father, a grandfather, etc. These different gender roles are due in part to lifespan changes, in part due to socialization (e.g social conditioning), and in part they are based on individual differences in how people change over time and adapt their responses to themselves and the world based on situations, experience, and prior learning.

So we each get to change over time, and part of what gets to change is our gender, including gender identity, expression, and performance. Even within a binary gender category, there is room to be a certain kind of a man, a certain kind of a woman; to dress certain kinds of ways; to act, move, and speak in certain kinds of ways; to hold particular interests, particular identities, and particular ways of being. Furthermore, these ways of being and doing arise in contexts, so that a man (to continue with our example) has a certain kind of role to perform as a father, colleague, supervisor, friend, lover, etc. Because that can change over time, we also have the potential for endless variety in our individual gender careers, because of how our genders (identity, expression, and performance) change throughout life and in different contexts. In the most radical analysis, we could say that there are at least as many genders as there are people, extended through time and contexts.

I personally feel that having a wide enough view of gender to allow for that kind of playfulness and creativity makes space enough for everyone to do their gender as they see fit. However, just for there to be gender freedom (or, as Kate Bornstein put it, “creative gender anarchy,” in the sense of non-hierarchy) doesn’t address the very real forms of oppression that gender-expansive people face. I take that up in the next post, on gender oppression.

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