Monday, April 4, 2011

A 'Gender-Free' World Might Default to Male


Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

In response to Monday's post about the need to transition in a gender-free world, some readers questioned what such a world might look like and whether or not it could actually exist. I personally have no idea, but that has never stopped me from writing about something before.

My theory, which was always kind of a formless collection of thoughts, but which has taken on more structure in my mind after contemplating Monday's discussion, is that a socially constructed "gender-free world" would not be gender free at all – at least in Western culture, it would default to male.  

My thinking is not based on scientific fact (it rarely is – my sister, not me, is the one who reads books about quantum physics and string theory for pleasure). It's based on a series of random observations.


Observation 1: We have tried to eliminate gender bias in the workplace with laws, certainly, but both before, during, and even after these legal phases designed to promote women's equality in work settings, women were instructed on how to comport themselves on the job to get ahead – by "acting more like men." So-called "male" or "masculine" behaviors became the genderless default. If everyone acted the same, there would be equality, and those appropriate actions were identified as those that our culture considers to be traditionally male.

A while back, I wrote about a controversy surrounding Debrahlee Lorenzana at work. She was considered "too sexy for her job," and she was instructed not to wear certain clothing to work because it was distracting to her male co-workers. She was basically instructed not to be too "womanly." How many men have been disciplined for being too "manly" on the job? Male is the default acceptable standard, and a socially constructed "gender-free world" in the U.S. would likely default to that standard for everyone.

Observation 2: While I am well aware that Star Trek is fiction, Starfleet protocol (at least in the movies) was generally to address all personnel of a certain rank by "mister" and "sir," regardless of their sex. This was not always the case, and once that person reached a certain rank, he or she was called by that rank's title, but in one of the movies I saw, "mister" was thrown around a lot for both women and men. This is no doubt a futuristic way of eliminating gender distinctions – but it defaults to male. While women were called "mister," no man was ever called "ma'am."

Observation 3: Again with the fictionalized Star Trek, but I think it tells us something. When I first started my transition (and had a television set), I happened to catch a late-night rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation that featured the J'naii, a race of androgynous beings that regarded gender identity and expression as a sickness to be cured.

It was actually a fascinating episode for someone in the early stages of transition, because it represented everything that I was battling, but in reverse. People with gendered identities literally had to disguise them and act and appear in an androgynous manner to be accepted. If their gendered leanings were discovered, they were sent for treatment.

The one thing I noticed, however, was that the androgynous J'naii tended toward a "male" appearance. And this is borne out on the Memory Alpha website, linked to above, in the description of how the J'naii were created by the Star Trek makeup and costume team:

"In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Makeup FX Journal (page 89) it is stated that to achieve the neutered look of a sexless race that was still made up of individuals, the women of varying ages who were hired had their breasts taped down, and only a subtle forehead piece was created, according to Michael Westmore, to cover the eyebrow areas of the actresses that women tend to pluck and shape."

So the female actors who were hired to portray the J'naii had their breasts flattened and their upper face reconstructed. They defaulted to male.

Observation 4: We have already begun the default. The words "actor" and "actress" have defaulted to the male "actor," and "actress" is sometimes seen as offensive now (because it signifies "female"). "Comedian" and "comedienne" have defaulted to "comedian." But when men joined the ranks of air hospitality and service, their title did not default to "stewardess." The name for the entire field changed to "flight attendant."

These are just a few examples. I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to create a gender-free world. And I worry that, in trying to do so, the closest we would come is a male default, because we value those characteristics that have been labeled as "masculine" and we devalue those characteristics that have been labeled as "feminine."

Better to value all physical bodies and all types of gender expression, including those that encompass the extremes of what we traditionally refer to as "masculine" and "feminine." This would be my gender utopia. 

Thoughts?