The gender revolution has much to teach

February 8, 2018 — by Kaitlyn Wang

Brush it off, I thought. Place one foot in front of the other. Slip around the corner and out of sight.

Although distance stretched between me and the table I sped past, the question still echoed.

“Why is that guy walking into the girls’ bathroom?”

It wasn’t the first — or second or even third — time someone has mistaken me for a guy. Apparently, I don’t seem like a girl because of my short hair and somewhat low voice.

I never corrected whoever made the assumption because I have a bad habit of not standing up for myself. And I always regretted remaining silent while others defined my gender based on their internal stereotypes.

As a result, I want to share my experiences and explore how they have shaped my perspective on gender. I am not blaming anyone or wallowing in bitterness — I just want people to recognize that it is harmful for gender to dictate the way people view others and, more importantly, themselves.

Since childhood, people have told me that I should wear “girly” clothes and grow my hair out for people to tell that I’m a girl, that I have to make it obvious because it’s strange for people to see me and not immediately know my gender.

My reaction has always been: So what? Does looking like how a girl is “supposed” to look really matter to me?

But while I act like it doesn’t, I can’t help but doubt whether sensing people staring is just self-consciousness, or if they are appalled by my nonexistent fashion sense (likely) or if they are trying to discern my gender. I can’t help but feel guilty when I see how my refusal to wear certain clothes frustrates my mom. And I can’t help but laugh and feign agreement with friends who find it hilarious that I’ve been called “sir” and “young man.”

But other times, I’m reminded that there is no reason appearances or characteristics should be fixed into two categories and two categories only.

Oftentimes, when the divide between “male” and “female” appears blurred, people feel uncomfortable. But it is necessary to grow past discomfort, to not only accept the expected and to overcome the way media, tradition and bias have shaped what people associate with “male” or “female.”

For me, appearance seemed to define my gender because that’s what people first saw.  

After I cut my hair, someone told me that she liked it and that she always wanted short hair but never had the courage. I thanked her, but I was a bit surprised. Her words reminded me that fear of others’ opinions can prevent people from making changes as simple as a haircut.

Being a girl meant growing up under the shadow of the knowledge that some of my relatives value boys more than girls. They believe that boys are required to carry on the family name and more likely to become successful.

Being a girl meant listening to my mom tell me that I have to get into a “good college” to prove to doubtful family members that I am capable despite my gender.

Being a person meant questioning again and again why gender constructs expectations that may manipulate someone’s future.  

Shaped by history and perpetuated as current stereotypes, gender roles, including “male breadwinner model,” are fading but still ingrained.

According to a 2013 study published by Oxford University, countries with a history of plough agriculture are more likely to retain traditional gender roles and express less support for gender equality. Because the plough, unlike the hoe and other handheld tools, requires considerable upper-body strength, men often farmed while women worked in the home.

This separation of labor carried over to other occupations besides farming, and statistics suggest that the belief that women should stay at home and men should work remains pervasive: According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, 51 percent of surveyees thought that children are “better off” with their mothers staying home, while 7 percent thought the same for fathers — even though the proportion of families with fathers as breadwinners and mothers as homemakers decreased from 70 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 2011.

While adherence to traditional gender roles decreases, it is becoming increasingly common for people to identify as neither male nor female, as Time reports that “20 percent of millennials identify as something other than strictly straight and cisgender (someone whose gender is in line with the sex they were assigned at birth), compared with 7 percent of boomers.”

In addition, a 2015 survey for Fusion Media determined that 50 percent of people between 18 and 34 think that gender is a spectrum.

While some people believe that gender is set at birth, determined by anatomy and chromosomes, others believe that self-identity defines gender. What defines gender is debatable, but considering and being exposed to more people and more stories is important to accept someone regardless of their perspectives and gender identity.

Over the summer, I attended a program at CalArts where teachers asked what pronouns I and other attendees preferred.

Most of my peers said she/her or he/him. But a few said they/them — it was the first time I heard of singular they/them pronouns. My ignorant self soon learned that people, usually called non-binary, can be gender neutral.

Meeting new people in an open environment helped me discover aspects of identity that I had never thought of.

Although people may joke, “Did you just assume their gender?” doing so can feel mocking for people who really have struggled with negative experiences surrounding gender. When I hear that question, I am reminded of the embarrassment I’ve felt every time someone has mistaken me for somebody I was not — but I also know that the next time someone assumes my gender or thinks that my gender can define who I am or what I can do, I will speak up.


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