When Biological Sex and Gender Identity Don't Align: Policing Practices
How significant is the relationship between biological sex and gender identity? The answer is surprising. It’s a relationship that tends to be completely ignored until we suddenly find ourselves in situations where our way of organizing our perceptions doesn’t seem to apply. Social scientists like Kessler and McKenna (1978) claim that every time we encounter a new social situation, the first thing we do is attribute a gender to the people we observe. We also present ourselves to others using culturally established rules, behaviors, mannerisms, and other cues we’ve been conditioned to associate with members of “our” gender (Lucal, 1999). Goffman (1959) called this phenomenon gender displays. On Saturday Night Live, comedienne Julia Sweeney created a character named Pat. The whole premise of the skits was that Pat never revealed his/her gender. Dress, voice, and demeanor could go either way. And the hilarity resulted from various ploys used to determine Pat’s true gender. Unfortunately, those whose gender (and sexual) identity is ambiguous must deal with a harsher reality. They are often the target of ridicule, verbal and physical harassment, and even hatred.
In the 1970s, feminist scholars challenged the assumption that masculine behaviors were the sole and most desirable traits in men and feminine attributes aligned solely with womanhood. In particular, Bem (1974), a feminist psychologist, argued that masculinity and femininity can be understood as socially constructed, multiple, and changeable, rather than viewed as fixed biological essences.
Feminists such as Brownmiller (1975) and Morgan (1970) questioned the patriarchal nature of Western culture, where women were paid lower wages, had fewer chances at career advancement, and lacked access to political office and leadership positions. They explored ways in which gender roles are “policed” in our culture. Indeed, tremendous social consequences await those who do not conform to gender roles in Western culture (Gagne, Tewksbury, & McGaughey, 1997; Skidmore, Linsenmeier, & Bailey, 2006; Witten & Eyler, 1999). “There is not a single word for people who don’t fit gender norms that is positive, affirming, and complimentary” (Wilchins, 2004, p. 38).
Girls/women who exhibit masculine behavioral traits are sometimes labeled “tomboys” and boys/men who exhibit feminine traits are labeled “sissies” or “girlyboys.” But “tomboy” is often used as an indulgent, amused term, indicating “she’ll grow out of it,” whereas the policing practices are far harsher for boys. Quite simply, men and masculine traits are more highly valued in Western culture than are women and feminine traits (Bowers & Bieschke, 2005; Morrow, 2000; Skidmore et al., 2006). Gender-nonconforming boys more than girls tend to suffer rejection by peers and parents, particularly by their fathers (LaMar & Kite, 1998; Landolt, Bartholomew, Saffrey, Oram, & Perlman, 2004; Skidmore et al., 2006). Hatred of feminine attributes in men is considered to be the cornerstone of masculinity in our culture (Herek, 1989, 2002a; Herek & Capitanio, 1996; Kimmel & Mahler, 2003).
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