In honour of Pride Week, I thought I would do a post on gender. This post is largely from a paper I wrote in 2012 called “The Implications of Restrictive Gender Categories.”
In this blog post, I’ll propose gender be looked at as a continuum rather than restrictive categories of girl or boy, man or woman, male or female. Let’s begin with how we interpret the classifications we give ourselves.
Gender is a Social Construction
People are dynamic, their course of action and ways of being are affected by their conceptions and reactions to labels. In philosophy, there is a term called the “Looping Effect.” The looping effect refers to when a person becomes aware of the way in which they are described; they then experience themselves in different ways as a result of that classification (Sugarman, 2009). So once the looping effect occurs, the individual internalizes the label and they become moving targets because they are now no longer the same as they were before they internalized the label.
Another philosophy concept of Foucault’s dynamic nominalism helps us to understand our descriptions and names for phenomena actually interact with the phenomena (Sugarman, 2009). Our conceptualizations and classification systems are subjective and they are not static; they are in fact dynamic through time. For example, it is understood child abuse occurred in the 17th century but it was not considered to be abuse for that era (Sugarman, 2009). So, the conceptualization of child abuse is true of the past as it did occur, but not true in the past as they did not see or understand child abuse in such a way. Similarly, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until DSM III in 1973. Today, it is no longer a mental illness and it is more socially accepted. Society should then be attentive to the language and the conceptualizations systems we use as labels are dynamic, subjective and can have negative consequences of how a person perceives them self and how they are perceived by the rest of society.
Sex and Gender
Although women have gained equal access into the economic sphere, the glass ceiling still persists especially in the upper levels of society. Education has played a key factor for women accessing careers outside of traditional female careers. Women use to be restricted to jobs that portrayed nurturing and caring qualities which are characteristic of femininity like nursing and teaching. Women are now seen in more careers associated with masculinity such as a police officer, lawyer, fire chief and even in trades. Even though there are more women in these careers than ever before, these women are stereotyped as being butch, a lesbian, a bitch and ultimately as inferior to the men in these careers because they are a woman. Recent news reports of sexual harassment in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police provide evidence discrimination of women is still pervasive and present. Although, women can now match or even surpass men in educational attainment, disparities in earnings between men and women suggest the gender gap
Representations of Gender
Stigmatization of Gender Variance
Until 1973, homosexuality was regarded as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Mental health professionals helped legitimize their stigmatization and isolation within society. This is why some have argued the Diagnostic Statistical Manual as a means of social control which fails to distinguish between mental disorders and nonconforming social behavior which may seem to be abnormal, but is psychologically sound (Kirk & Kutchins, 1992; Kutchins & Kirk, 1997; Lev, 2006; Szasz, 1965 as cited in Kamens, 2011). Diagnosis with a mental disorder involves labels that tend to stick which in turn affect how the individual sees them self and how they are seen and treated by the rest of society. The diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder arrived eight years after the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis. It describes symptoms related to transsexualism which refers to a gender identity that does not match their sex (American Psychological Association, 2011). The American Psychological Association (2011) defines transgender as someone who’s gender identity, expressions or behavior does not conform to those which are typified by their sex. Some believe Gender Identity Disorder is a useful category and it just lacks more empirical research while others believe it to be a value label, an outdated social construction (Wilson, 2003 as cited in Kamens, 2011). Creating categorizations for those who do not fit the norm based on their gender expressions does not seem to have ended with the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Rather eight years later they created a new disorder to encompass gender behaviors outside of one’s sex. Using science to legitimize a socially constructed disorder illustrates the power of categories and societal norms in controlling society’s beliefs and attitudes towards gender.
Many activists for the lesbian, gay and transgendered community have argued it is wrong to label expressions of gender variance as symptoms of a mental disorder (Drescher, 2009). A diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder further stigmatizes and causes harm to transgendered individuals who are already a highly vulnerable population (Drescher, 2009). There are either two treatment options for Gender Identity Disorder which are clinical therapy to match the child’s biological sex to his/her’s gender identity or change the biological sex to match the child’s gender identity (American Psychological Association, 2011). Currently, transgendered people are significantly stigmatized in society. For example in the United States, most cities do not have anti-discrimination laws extending to transgendered people. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found transgender people to experience pervasive and severe discrimination (Grant, Mottet & Tanis, 2011). They reported transgender people face increasing discrimination in employment, housing, health care, education, legal systems, and even in their own families (Grant, Mottet & Tanis, 2011). This study supports the LGBT activists who argue such a disorder like Gender Identity perpetuates preventable social prejudice which results in psychological distress for those individuals who deal with such discrimination on a daily basis in every aspect of their lives. The diagnosis of gender identity disorder reinforces an outdated view of gender as binary (Butler, 2004 as cited in Kamen, 2011). Gender is a social construction of beliefs and attitudes towards what typifies a particular sex. To diagnose and treat an individual who has gender beliefs outside of society’s norm is contradictory especially when it involves such drastic measures like sex reassignment surgery. Critics have questioned the ethics of the treatments for gender identity disorder and argue it advocates heterosexuality masked in a psychological intervention (Drescher, 2010 as cited in Kamen, 2011, 40). It reinforces the idea that one’s gender identity should typify the behaviors and expressions of either male or female and if it doesn’t the individual has to result to surgery in order to match one’s sex to one’s gender. Thus, it seems gender identity disorder reflects societal pressures to conform to the norm of what typifies a particular gender identity for a given sex rather than representing a true mental illness.
With the DSM V being released in May 2012, there is an opportunity to remove Gender Identity Disorder as a psychiatric diagnosis. The Sexual and Gender Identity Task Force for the DSM V released a report in 2008 proposing gender variance is the foundation for linking lesbian, gays and bisexuals to transgender issues (American Psychological Association, 2009). It explained transgendered people experience stigmatization and discrimination because they are living in a gendered world where they do not easily fit. It is not implicitly said, but it seems this report suggests variations in sexuality can be treated to fit society’s norm of heterosexuality. Furthermore, the Task Force has decided to drop the words identity disorder from the diagnosis and suggested the diagnosis be called Gender Incongruence. Their rationale being the term incongruence is more descriptive suggesting the person is experiencing a conflicting dilemma between the gender identity they express and experience to how one is expected to behave based on their sex in society (Meyer-Bahlburg, 2009; Winters, 2005 as cited in Kamens, 2011). Moreover, a survey of transgendered individuals revealed they believed the wording of identity disorder perpetuated their stigmatization in society (APA, 2010 as cited in Kamens, 2011). The Task Force then did listen to some of the public outcry from transgendered individuals for removing some of the social stigma associated with a mental disorder. In addition, the Task Force suggested the removal of the distress criterion for a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder. They reasoned empirical research is lacking on illustrating people with Gender Identity Disorder are significantly distressed or physically and socially impaired as a result of their condition (Kamens, 2011). By removing the distress criterion, the Task Force was addressing a primary complaint of the LGBT community. Studies have shown stigma plays a mediating role in the relationship between psychological distress and gender variance. Increasing levels of distress are observed in youth who experience sexual and gender variance which is more likely to be a function of social stigma and not of their sexual orientation (Kelleher, 2009; Winters, 2005 as cited in Kamens, 2011). However, LGBT activists wanted the complete removal of a gender variance diagnosis. They argue the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder or gender incongruence is misogynistic, sexist, stigmatizing, overinclusive, and blames the victims of discrimination for their own oppression (Kamens, 2011). Thus, science and the medical community play a role in the alienation and stigmatization of alternative sexual and gender behaviors that do not fit within society’s expectations.
The Power of Language
Foucault examines how power resides in the constitutive role of language. He introduced the concept of Power-Knowledge which is not a relationship or an entity, rather it is a singular concept demonstrating theory is practice, knowledge is power, and these are annunciated modalities (Lea, 1998). Our reality is constructed through language. Foucault (1977) demonstrates how today people live in a surveillance society, where institutions do not need to monitor all of us as society does it for them (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). Haskell and Burtch (2011) illustrate in their study of interviews with high school graduates from British Columbia who were identified as queer that high schools function as a “surveillance society.” It functions universally rather than directly by discouraging those who disobey societal norms from doing so again while also deterring others (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). We police ourselves and we police others in society who do not conform. People act as agents of social and moral control; we become judges of normality (Foucault, 1977). People would not be distressed about their gender identity or sexual orientation if society did not stigmatize and discriminate the way they do for those individuals who do not reflect society’s norm. Being conscious of the power relations within society and how they play a role in shaping our attitudes, beliefs and values for societal norms is liberating.
By believing social hierarchies of gender and sex are natural categories rather than social constructions, they are led to police others by imposing these beliefs on those who do not obey the perceived gender and sex norms (Bourdieu, 1991 as cited in Haskell & Burtch, 2011). This led to gender dominance which is a form of what Bourdieu (1991) calls symbolic violence involves actions that impose valued beliefs of society on others (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). In high schools, those who do not conform to the gender identity expected of them based on their sex become victims of symbolic violence. They are ostracized and bullied for their appearance because they are “normal.” Because symbolic violence is so subtle, some of its victims are even unaware when it occurs. Some examples are not including homosexual or transgender issues in the curriculum and encouraging aggressive sports that emanate heterosexuality such as football. It denies the existence of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexuality as sexual orientations and reinforces heterosexuality as the socially acceptable orientation at the top of the hierarchy. Participants in their study often focused on the extreme forms of homophobia and transphobia such as physical violence rather than subtle forms of harassment, indicating that “it could have been worst,” (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). However, these subtle forms of symbolic violence are the root of the problem as it perpetuates a social hierarchy whether it is based on gender, race, socio-economic status and etc. Haskell & Burtch (2011) illustrate how in BC high schools, heterosexuality and gender conformity is encouraged and enforced. In the McCreary 2008 Adolescent Health Survey for British Columbia, they found lesbian and gay youth were 28% at risk for suicide compared to 4% of heterosexual youth (McCreary Centre Society, 2009) In Haskell & Burtch’s (2011) study they had a participant report she had a girlfriend who committed suicide because the bullying was so painful. This illustrates the psychological stress symbolic violence creates is deadly. By perceiving social hierarchies of gender to be objective truth, it has led others to persecute those who do not reflect these categories and in turn this creates a symbolic violence that is harmful to the individual’s psychological and physical well being.
Much of the discrimination and violence lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people experience is a result of the homophobia and transphobia that is perpetuated and enforced within society (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). Restrictive categorizations do not allow for diversity and when social institutions legitimize these categories, they perpetuate the stigmatization of the people who do not fit into an either/or category which will escalate to violence. In the 2004 General Social Survey of Victimization, those who identified as being gay or lesbian were victimized two times higher and for bisexual four times higher than those who identified as being heterosexual (Beauchamp, 2004 as cited in Haskell & Burtch, 2011). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals are at an increased risk for being a victim of violence as a result of living in a heterosexual world. As Haskell & Burtch (2011) illustrate their assailants do not just become gay bashers overnight, it is a long process of being continuously exposed to homophobia and transphobia in all facets of society from the medical community with the DSM to local high schools. “Knowledge can be emancipatory. The better we understand the external constraints on our thoughts and action, the more we will see through them and the less effective they become (Haskell & Burtch, 2010). Thinking critically of society’s conceptualizations is essential as they can have disastrous consequences on legitimizations of inhumane actions. Society is constantly producing and inventing knowledge and claiming it to be an objective truth and how things ought to be. Since categorizations are dynamic, society can change the way gender affects how we see and treat ourselves and others. Using gender as a continuum rather than a restrictive category in at least some aspects of society like the DSM, the media and high schools would be a step forward in alleviating both the gender gap and the discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
Adopting a Continuum Model of Gender
Although the consequences of restrictive gender categories are disastrous, society can still change the norm as society’s values, beliefs and attitudes are always changing. Education is important in changing society’s expectations. By educating society that gender categories are social constructions and not objective truth, individuals will be more attentive to the consequences of strict gender classifications. Some companies such as Jacobs and Dove have gone against the norm and portraying more realistic and healthy reflections of gender ideals for women. Also, “the Code of Gender” documentary illustrates how a new code for gender is emerging. It portrays powerful women in male dominated fields such as Nascar, but it still not enough to break the old traditional female codes (Jhally, 2009). Women are trapped in these traditional codes of gender because women in masculine spheres have to be recognized as real women. So, this is why many of these successful and powerful women will pose in provocative female poses. Some have argued this is degrading to women, but on the contrary it illustrates how women can be women in male dominated disciplines. They are not successful because they are “a bitch” and not a real woman. Women can have masculine qualities such as aggressive, competitive and independent and it does not mean they are any lesser of a women. The rigid categories of gender are then misleading because women and men should not be penalized for possessing qualities of the opposite gender as realistically many of us do. Instead, gender should be seen as a continuum on a continuous gender feedback loop (Crawley, 2008). Classification systems create people that may not have existed before and it is not static as persons are moving targets. A complex interaction of a thousand different inputs accounts for the development of a person and that one person cannot have absolute control over how their being will turn out (Crawley, 2008). Instead, there should be a degendering of society where people can come in all shapes, sizes, colors and sexes and not be categorized based on body characteristics for a status identification, to not obsess over conformity in a diverse world, but to embrace this diversity as it occurs (Lober, 2005 as cited in Crawley, 2008). By adopting a continuum model of gender, individuals will not be ostracized for possessing stereotypical qualities of the opposite sex which will accept and embrace diversity. This will also help alleviate the homophobia and transphobia in society by not perpetuating a heterosexual world. Perceiving gender on a continuous feedback loop rather than two restrictive categories will alleviate the gender gap and the physical and psychological distress those who do not reflect the idealized standard of gender or fit into an either/or category.
By perceiving gender as a continuous feedback loop rather than two opposing categories, it will allow for more diversity in regards to gender identity and sexual orientation which will combat current social problems resulting from restrictive categories like the gender gap and the psychologically and physically damaging effects of those who do not reflect the idealized standard of gender or fit into an either/or category of gender. The way in which people are categorized affects the way they perceive themselves and the way others perceive them and so it changes people in a way they may not have existed before (Sugarman, 2009). Even though there is no single measure to determine biological sex reliably, these restrictive categories still dictate the appropriate gender identity based on a person’s sex. The gender gap continues to exist in the economic, political and social spheres of society because the restraining dichotomy of gender does not let women escape the traditional gender roles expected of them and when they do manage they are scrutinized for doing so. In addition, the representations of what constitutes “a real man or real woman” is psychologically and physically harmful because it decreases an individual’s self-esteem, eroticizes violence against women and it leads people to resort to dangerous means such as developing eating disorders to achieve such an ideal. Foucault illustrates how knowledge creates power which results in a surveillance society where individuals are unknowingly socially controlled by punishing those who disobey societal norms while also deterring others (Haskell & Burtch, 2011). The current rigid categories of gender allow for the manipulation of femininity and masculinity for the purpose of gender governance. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals have an increased risk of being physically and emotionally victimized which stems from a symbolic violence that goes undetected and is perpetuated every day in all aspects of society. Living in a society that creates a social hierarchy with heterosexuality at the top as the desired ideal and also repressing other sexual orientations legitimizes the stigmatization and discrimination sexual minorities’ experience. In order to improve the disastrous consequences the rigid categories of gender have created, awareness and education about a continuum model of gender will allow for a society accepting of diversity.