Rage and gender norms

I may be starting to figure out why people are so often panic-stricken (and frequently enraged to the point of violence) by others who don’t comply with gender norms. I believe that it is because the norms are fragile, but also something we’ve been taught to measure our identity against. So, this aspect of identity, which most never question, and which has always seemed to them to be as solid as bedrock, turns out to be a social construct, something of an illusion.

This is how I’ve been pondering it: Babies & kids up to puberty are essentially undifferentiated as regards male/female traits in their faces. Even after that, teens can be very neutral. So, there’s a lot of attention paid to making the labeling clear: behavior, haircuts, clothes, even makeup. Parents, perhaps without realizing it, watch every aspect of this. Is that boy playing a bit too much with dolls? Has that girl gotten a little too carried away with toy bulldozers & trucks? Kids can’t be allowed to wear the wrong clothes, have their hair outside of norms…

If you mess with any of those signals, observers are confused. In my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, I recall hearing adults saying, ‘you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.’

So? Why would it matter to adults that a complete stranger doesn’t look a particular way?

Well, you’re told (verbally & otherwise) practically from birth that ‘being a man’ or ‘being a lady’ is essentially the foundation of your identity. If some other guy can be mistaken for a girl or woman just because their clothing isn’t precisely within a narrow range of guy-appropriate clothes, then the difference between men & women might not be as clear as we’ve been taught all our lives. Translation: “Oh my God! Someone might mistake me for a woman! NOoooooo!”  

It can be very threatening to start to realize that the foundations of your identity are built on sand, not bedrock.

Men who dress as women on purpose are really threatening, because it shows the importance of makeup & clothes in making women look like women. Many women and men, shorn of hair and beard & sans makeup, look alike. It’s not easy to tell which face is male & which is female. Humans look alike. Shocker. I suspect that as with most things, there is a bell-shaped curve, where most people are neutral & an observer wouldn’t be able tell with certainty which sex they are. Outside the middle of the bell curve, some men might be mistaken as female, some women might be mistaken as male. Then you have the smaller number of cis men & women who would not be confused by any observers. I imagine that our societal rules for gender presentation work to push men to look more like these ‘prototypically masculine’ individuals and push women to comply with the ‘prototypically feminine’ individuals.

The fact that most humans just look human, not like either of the prototypical gender models, becomes clearer if you look at people who are past their youth. Photographers can help us see this. Portraits of elderly people, where the clothing & makeup signals have been minimized, frequently look undifferentiated to a large degree.

I believe that the anger directed toward those who don’t match gender norms is rooted in people’s fear of losing their identity, of having their identity challenged. I think that a ‘challenge to identity’ lies at the base of a lot of the anger in our society.

Shout-out to the memory David Bowie, who frequently challenged my notions of what it meant to be a man and a human being.

I don’t understand; I don’t need to.

I was raised in the 1960s & 1970s in a nearly all-white town. I don’t understand the life experiences or struggles of Black people in America. I don’t need to understand, to see that Black lives matter.

I’m not an immigrant, nor were my parents. I don’t understand the life experiences or struggles people face trying to find their way in a new land. I don’t need to understand, to see that immigrants are not my enemies just because they’re from somewhere else.

I don’t understand the life experiences or struggles of trans people. I don’t need to understand, to know that their lives matter.

I don’t understand the depths of hatred that LGBTQA people frequently experience, because my cisgender identity has protected me from much of that hatred. I don’t need to understand that to know that people who are different from me are still human & have value.

I don’t know the struggles of people dealing with life-disrupting mental illnesses. But I don’t have to understand that to know that people don’t lose their value as human beings because they’re ill.

I don’t know the struggles of people dealing with life-disrupting chronic illnesses. But I don’t have to understand that to know that people don’t lose their value as human beings because they’re ill.

I don’t understand the life experiences & struggles that women face, living in a patriarchal society with pervasive sexual violence. But I don’t have to understand, to know that women’s experiences are valid.

It’s entirely possible to not understand something without reacting with fear, hatred, exclusion, violence, or disdain.

I don’t understand much about the world, & I frequently find that what I thought I understood was inaccurate & based on bias that I didn’t even know I had. But I don’t need to understand everything about the world to see that people should not have to live in fear because of who they are, who they love, or what they look like.

Risk Transference

I read an interesting article on risk this morning. “When Safety Proves Dangerous.”

It mentions one idea (risk transference) that feels to me as if it might be related to problems we’re seeing in policing in America. I believe that rich (and frequently white) people have used the police to make themselves feel safer, while ignoring the fact that they’ve transferred the risks to poor (and frequently Black or brown) communities. Since we’re raised to believe that people not like us are not as real as we are, not as valuable as we are, it makes it easier to ignore the damage our policies are doing to other humans.

We’ve literally dehumanized each other.

I believe that among many other changes that we need, we need to change the methods, aims, and culture of our police.

Changing the structure of policing doesn’t necessarily mean shifting the risk back to the rich people (which is what is white people fear) …we know that the rich people will never let that happen.

If done well, it might mean reducing the risk level for everyone. IMHO, the possibility of this actually happening hinges on a change away from behavior change modeled as punishment.

I’m not smart enough to guess what that model might look like. I’ve seen some indications that other countries have found more humane policing structures. In any case, it’s clear that the punishment model of law enforcement is not working.

When we see something stated starkly as ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves,‘ we recognize the absurdity of it, but we accept variations of that every day.

When police respond to protests against police violence with even more extreme police violence, many of us will just see it as ‘getting the situation under control,’ entirely missing the absurdity of it.

These riots will eventually end, as previous summers of violence have. But at some point, we as a nation have to do something about the underlying problems, because even if the people in power can ignore the injustice, the people suffering will not forget it.

Nor should we, who are less directly affected by the injustice. Because guess what? We all are affected by it. This is a poison in our nation, like the lead in the water in Flint. The systemic racism, the violence against the disenfranchised persons in our communities, is a bit like the coronavirus. Like the virus, it may be invisible to us, but it is no less deadly.


Note: This post is probably even rougher than my usual ranting. It’s because I’m trying to write something for my other blog, and this stuff kept churning in my mind, so I thought I’d type it out to get it out of my thoughts.