Judith Lorber’s “‘Night to his Day’: The Social Construction of Gender” really spoke to me this week. I think she had the perfect opening to her piece, not just with describing how gender is to humans what water is to fish [it is 100% everywhere and constantly assumed], but her examples of two fathers in public settings holding babies really struck me. These examples are something I can relate to very much—to the point where they actually make me feel better about my own gender identity—and I think they work well to begin her assertion that gender is a construct that is enforced on individuals from the time they are born [and even before we are born!].
Personally, I identify with a lot of what Lorber theorizes. I have always—and for a long time, without realizing it—strayed from many of the gender norms that society has constructed and helped reinforce. Though I am a cisgender female, I have been mistaken for a male since I was a little kid. It does not matter what I am wearing or how long my hair is; even when I was in elementary school, it happened. My mom always dressed me extremely “feminine” as a kid. I remember one day when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, playing on the playground and getting asked by another little kid whether I was a boy or a girl. I was crushed, and ran to my mom crying. She laughed and pointed out my long, curly hair and my big, bright pink bow, and my flowery pink outfit that matched. What a perfect example of gender being something that is defined by the culture we live in, from when we are children! My mom defined my femininity by dressing me in girly clothes all the time; she reinforced this to me and to everyone around me by dressing me up in dresses and skirts and bows and pantyhose. Still, there were times when people would mistake me for a boy no matter what I was wearing. I hated it.
I think that the strongest emotions I feel, when looking at my gender and society, are fear and shame. I am ashamed that people mistake me for a guy all the time [now even more so that my hair is short], and always conflicted between the idea that I feel extremely feminine, yet society does not see me as very feminine [whether it is because of my short hair, my height, my voice, or my sometimes-beachy/casual attire]. I don’t want to always wear big bows and dresses and skirts—though I do like wearing them sometimes—mostly because I don’t want to do it every day just to “help” people see me as a girl. Yet I feel ashamed every time I get called “Sir” [most recently, by a professor who saw me raise my hand in class and called on me by saying “Yes, Sir!”].
I also feel a lot of fear when considering my gender and society. I often get weird looks in public bathrooms, and find myself clearing my throat or humming as high-pitched as possible in order to “sound feminine” to other girls in there. I was fixing my lipstick in a public bathroom recently I saw a girl walk in, see my reflection in the mirror, and rush out the door to double-check that the sign next to the door was marked “Women.” These occurrences cause me a great deal of embarrassment, yes, but also fear, especially with some of the new “bathroom bills” going around. Many women my age feel free to look at kids and smile in public; I feel afraid to do so because their parents might think I’m a pervert or deviant. I also feel particularly afraid when alone around certain groups of men; though things are changing for the better in our society, there are still a lot of males that have issues with women who are what they view as “too masculine.” Again, this is not because I identify as masculine at all; on the contrary, it is because they see me and identify me this way.
I took a Queer Studies class last semester that taught me more than I could have hoped, and gave me so many “a-ha!” moments. Reading pieces like Lorber’s gives me more of those moments, and comforts me that it is not something I am doing wrong, or that people have a “problem” with me—not technically—but rather the fact that our society constructs gender as this concrete, all-encompassing thing that everybody makes assumptions about and nobody can escape from, even if we don’t realize we’re actually doing it.