Saturday, September 17, 2011

Genderqueer

Shooting the Frog Prince
Shooting the Frog Prince, Marburg, 2011

I had an interesting discussion the other day with two of my fellow bloggers, Nathan and Nella Lou, over at her blog, Madhushala. They were trying on the descriptor "genderqueer" for themselves, despite being heterosexual. Turns out the term means something like "non-conforming. Not comfortable with behaving or thinking in those gender programmed ways," as Nella Lou describes it.

The discussion felt a bit odd. The reason for that is that from where I'm at, there's nothing particularly strange about either Nella Lou's or Nathan's views or actions regarding gender issues that I can see. On the contrary, both are eminently sensible and level-headed about these issues. And by "sensible," I mean they think like any right-thinking person should, namely, me.

This whole gender wars thing is a bit of a new acquaintance for me. I've been snorting at Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus style tripe from time to time, but I never had to think of it. That's privilege talking there, naturally—I'm white, straight, and male, and most of my "non-conforming" behaviors or thought patterns are not immediately obvious. In fact, I think most of them are about things I don't do rather than things I do do, which means they're invisible most of the time. Such as having no interest whatsoever in competitive sport, either as a spectator or a participant. But "not caring about ice hockey" rarely causes any obvious friction; all I have to do is shut up when others are talking about it. So I've never really had to think about it. Privilege.

As to the less obvious things, I think they only come up in fairly close conversation. I've been told by a number of women over the years that I talk with them—and, perhaps, listen to them—differently than most men. They seem to quite like it, whatever it is. I wouldn't know, since I've never talked to men while being a woman. I guess I'll have to take them at their word, that there is something "non-conforming" there.

And in case you were wondering, no, whatever it was did not invariably and automatically condemn me permanently to the friend zone.

I think I've had the biggest communication problems with women who try really hard to be feminine; I never see the person behind the mask. Then again, I have that same problem with anyone who tries really hard to act out any kind of identity. Extremely Buddhisty Buddhists, to pick one example.

It's the acting bit that sticks. There are hyper-feminine women who really are that way, and don't need to act it out. And there are hyper-Buddhisty Buddhists who also really are that way and don't need to put on an act either. I usually have no problems relating to them either, nor, as far as I can tell, they to me. It's the people who put on a persona I have problems with.

Lately I've been keeping more of an eye out for this gender normativity thing, though, and yeah, it does look like a lot of people, perhaps even most people, have some pretty weird ideas about gender. It's never really occurred to me to think that women are somehow fundamentally different from men. There is the plumbing, of course, and there may be some statistically significant differences in some specific areas that you can tease out if you pick a large enough population and look hard enough, but overall "male" or "female" really tells very little about anyone.

Yet, if you look out for it, the world is chock-full of generalizing statements about men or women, and lots of people seem to really believe them. Strange. Not to mention pressure to conform to those norms; the kind of stuff that gets young girls to pose half-naked for evening papers, or, I think, pushes a certain subset of young men to give up on the hope of ever having a girlfriend and retreating into sullen misogyny instead. Or rampant, oblivious privilege, like in this little incident for example.

A part of this is probably cultural. I'm fairly certain that few of my friends and acquaintances really think of men and women in terms of stereotypes; the few that do tend to stick out, and we tend to condescend at the poor cavemen, which must irritate them no end. But then I don't know how typical the circles I move in are.

I don't think gender roles ever were quite as deeply divided in Scandinavian countries as, say, Central European or Anglo-Saxon countries. Our deep roots are in peasant egalitarianism; a society of small farmers tilling land they own. There wasn't all that much leisure, and while there certainly was a division between men's work and women's work, there wasn't quite as much of a status difference to it as elsewhere. I just read that some archaeologists had re-examined the bones of Vikings who arrived in England, and it turned out that lots of the people they'd categorized as men were actually women: they'd made the mistake because they'd been buried with their swords and shields. Real-life Valkyries. That rings true too. And certainly, by most measures, the Nordic countries are among the most gender-equal in the world. Our countries have or have had women as presidents, prime ministers, archbishops, corporate executives.

Which isn't to say there is complete equality, or even close to it. There isn't. But compared to most places, the Nordic countries really are a bit different, even if Finland is about 20 years behind Sweden, as usual.

But a part of this non-conformity of mine certainly stems from personal experience. One in particular stands out: my primary school years, between the ages of nine and twelve. We had a fairly unusual class, in that we never segregated into boys' and girls' groups. Instead, we just kept on playing together, until we hit our teens and started to hang out together for rather different reasons. That was a bit unusual, and I'm sure it would have made a big difference if that split had happened; if there had been several formative years of "eww, cooties" followed by the hormonal storm that is puberty. Why did this happen? I don't know, but I have a hunch our teacher had something to do with it. She was a genius. Her name was A. Mattsson, so naturally we called her the Amazon. We loved the hell out of her.

If the world declares Nella Lou and Nathan—and, presumably, me too, since I can't see where their take differs from mine—genderqueers, then it's the world that has its head up its ass about gender. I selfishly hope this really is an Anglo-American thing, and I haven't just been oblivious to it all my life. If it is the former, well hey, welcome to Scandinavia. With climate change, it's gonna be nice and toasty here too, in another few years, if the sea level doesn't get us first.

4 comments:

  1. It's a curious issue, I agree. Although I have always felt like my sexuality is a bit more fluid than the average guy, it's always manifested in what looks heterosexual. I.e. dating only women and most of my attraction being towards women. And then there's the fact that my queer friends were the ones who first brought up the genderqueer label for me, noting how the way I am in the world has much more in common with their lives than the average "het."

    And no doubt, there are some seriously strange ideas about gender out there. Reading some of the discussions I do for the relationship blog I write has been eye opening - and sometimes highly cringe-inducing.

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  2. That. It's an interesting blog, too. I've been lurking there a bit, but haven't felt it appropriate to comment. My life situation is a bit different than yours (married for eleven years and counting), so I'm not sure what I could say that would add something to the discussion rather than derail it.

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  3. A lot of it is about "dating culture", I know. I've done some writing there that is beyond dating - such as my current post - but I guess being single right now, the dating culture issues stand out more. Anyway, if something strikes you, feel free to comment. And lurk away in any regard :)

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  4. Thanks. It's just that I remember that back when I was single, especially if I was in the middle of a dry spell, nothing was quite as irritating as happily paired people explaining how you're doing it wrong. And just about anything they said felt like that's what they were doing.

    So for now, I'll probably just lurk.

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