The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
From a young age we learn from the language and guidance of our family, friends, and society to determine who and what we are. Every time we meet someone we are questioned, labeled and categorized using a series of questions and observation of behaviors. Some questions are easy for us to answer while other questions are much more difficult. The challenges of identifying who and what we are are most apparent during childhood once we’ve begun mastering social concepts.
“What’s your name?”
This one is easy, our parent’s tell us this every day.
“How old are you?”
Oh, when was I born? Hold on, let me count.
“Are you a boy or girl?”
…hmm… How do I know?
At a tender young age, I clearly recollect asking my parents how I know who is a boy and who is a girl. They kindly informed me that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina and, as time passed and I grew older, it seemed all I would ever receive was an extremely elementary understanding of gender. In high school health class, biology and sexual education I was not informed of the possible genders outside of boy or girl, man or woman, each in correspondence to a sex.
This gender duality strictly paired with a matched sex seemed to make sense, but something always tugged at the back of my mind. I have always had a strong aversion to the rigid description of what maleness is because I disagree strongly with so much of it. To add to that, my peers were quick to inform me when I was behaving in a feminine manner because, “that’s not what boys do.” The constant reinforcement of the broadly defined and stringently defended idea of masculinity was, and is, a nightmare. I never signed up to play “masculinity police and feminine robbers.”
(If I have, please take me off that list.)
It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to different theories of sex and gender. Sex in a sociological perspective is defined as the biological and physiological differences between men and women, which are contrasted in terms of reproductive function. Gender refers to society’s expectations about how we should think and act as girls and boys, and women and men. It is our biological, social, and legal status as women and men. I was quite surprised when I learned of this after having been taught that gender really wasn’t a choice for most of my life.
But even this didn’t seem to satisfy my personal objections. It appeared to me that regardless of the definition of gender, society forcibly labels people as only one of two genders. Why not neither, between or none at all? I’ve yet to hear an adequate answer to this question. I believe that the general methods of identifying and naming acceptable genders in the United States has remained stagnant for extremely poor reasons like tradition, religious practices and deeply ingrained, irrational fears of changing of the status quo. For these reasons, I thought to search into other cultures that tend toward accepting more diverse lifestyles.
To my surprise, I found that many past and present cultures across the world had and have formally recognized third genders. In fact, today, Australia’s government announced that under new national guidelines, individuals will be given the option of selecting male, female, or “X” (indeterminate/intersex/unspecified) for personal government records.
This is not an uncommon practice throughout the rest of the world either. Many countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand, recognize several different kinds of genders including Hijras, Kathoeys and Other. Historically, indigenous cultures of North America also recognized third genders. The Wintke, Blackfoot and Zapotec Muxe all had formally recognized third genders as well. I’ll be speaking more in depth about what kinds of genders these are and how they are understood within each culture in part two of this series.
After considering the diverse types of gender within the world, part three will discuss how our country’s discourse of gender could be modified by considering the impact on the lives of gender non-conforming peoples in our country.
I’ll shed light on the challenges of gender non-conformity by observing how this undefined group is affected by not being formally recognized as how they identify. These people have a voice and meaningful lives that must be valued and understood on their terms, given legislation to protect them as well as providing societal terms in which to understand and accept them.