In the Blog

But That’s Not Normal… Or How Even People In The Liberal Arts Are Enshrined In Gender Norms

May 16th, 2011     by Naz Afsahi     Comments

There is something I would like to share with all of you, readers. I’d like to talk about a conversation I had this past week with a new coworker and friend, J. During our dinner hour (as J and I munched on some delicious falafels and chicken kebabs), we began to discuss how certain persons at work appear or act uncomfortable around J.

To provide some background, J and I work as ushers/concession at a theatre venue located in downtown Toronto. Most of us are just getting to know each other and J is an intelligent, fantastically outgoing and friendly person. He also loves to wear makeup and nail polish, to talk about flat-ironing his hair (and how it might be misbehaving that day) and is open and all-embracing about being gay.

J is not a caricature and there are several overlapping issues at work here, but I feel that the negative reactions are predominantly stemming from his transgressions of accepted gender and sexual norms. There is also something else happening here and I think that it has to do with the pervasiveness of gender norms and assumptions around the liberal arts. There exists a societal assumption that the liberal arts and the work environments they provide are intrinsically more liberal, open-minded or accepting of differences in comparison to other work environments. While this assumption may be true to certain extents and with regards to particular issues (such as the importance of the arts), the securitization of J’s appearance has made me question such an assumption.

The process of gendering - of assigning female or male genders to persons and bodies - relies heavily on accepted gendered norms and codes. Individuals who transgress those norms, who call into question perceptions and interpretations of gender, can cause anxiety or discomfort for others who assume they know “what gender/sex” someone is. The process of gendering relies heavily on being able to assign a single gender based on audio-visual codes and it exists within a binary system that maintains that there are only two sexes and genders and that they relate to each other in a specific manner - maleness and femaleness correspond to masculinity and femininity (and that these modes of being relate to each other within the narrow scope of reproductive heterosexuality).

So, when an activity such as wearing makeup - which is socially coded as being feminine and to be performed by female bodies only - is enacted by a different body, it unbalances the process of gendering. Transgressed norms cause great anxiety because such acts shed light on the constructed nature of gender, of how certain beliefs about femininity or masculinity has come to be ‘naturalized’. Meanwhile certain individuals experience cis-privilege by performing gender in accepted ways, thus they are unquestioned and their sex embodiment is taken for granted.

If you have never come across the prefix ‘cis,’ allow me to briefly elaborate. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the prefix “cis,” from the original Latin, to denote “on this side of”. If transgender and transsexual are terms used to define bodies who transgress or cross established gender and sexual norms, then those bodies that experience their felt gender and physical sex as aligned (who are, therefore, not trans) can be described using the terms cisgender and cissexual.* Julia Serano uses cissexual to refer to “people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned” (Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 12). Cissexual privilege, then, as defined by Serano, refers to the privilege of having one’s femaleness or maleness viewed as natural and authentic.

Although Serano discusses transsexuality specifically when talking about cissexual privilege, I wanted to employ the idea of cis-privilege because I find it helpful in highlighting how J (and many others out there who engage in acts that are socially coded for one gender or sex) is perceived and has judgments passed about his person.

It is in J’s use of traditionally coded feminine actions (like flat-ironing one’s hair or wearing makeup) that throws some people off in their gendering process of him, making them uncomfortable with this crossing of social boundaries. This process occurs regardless of the fact that we work what is seen as a more liberal sector because gender norms are such an ingrained part of our socialization and extremely difficult to escape. After all, since the moment a child is born - since that first utterance of “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy” - we are enshrined in expectations about how this child is to behave and present her/himself.

*It should be noted that cis can be conceptualized as a description of the way that one is perceived by others, rather than actual differences between cissexual and trans-persons. Just as it is important to remember that not all trans persons experience the world in the same way, I also don’t want to generalize and say that cis-persons remain a homogenous group nor that they escape other forms of prejudice such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia or (dis)ableism.

Tags: arts, gender, trans-

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