Of course gender matters in this world, and it would be stupid to say otherwise. What baffles me isn’t that it matters, but the way that the issue seems to bother some people so much.
A woman who is a friend of mine has an infant whom she likes to take with her when she goes out shopping. Naturally, many other people (mostly other women, but not exclusively) will come up and look and say “beautiful baby”! Except when they see that she has dressed the infant in gender-neutral clothing.
Then, people become visibly frustrated, awkward, and sometimes even upset.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell… is it a boy or a girl?” they will ask.
My friend will simply say that she’s a girl, as long as the question is asked politely. And sometimes, the issue is then dropped; but some strangers feel it is important to give a little unsolicited parenting advice at this point.
“You know, you should really dress her so that people can tell,” the helpful stranger will offer.
“Why? Would you treat her differently if she is wearing pink or blue?” my friend will ask.
The conversation usually doesn’t last much longer than that.
But what I find most interesting, based on the way my friend tells it, is that some strangers will not simply be politely interested in the issue… they will be visibly bothered by the fact that they can’t “tell” the gender of her baby.
Recently Rush Limbaugh was expressing his outrage that a public middle school had instituted a policy that transgendered students should use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, and that other students were to accept that and not complain about it. In fact, the school went so far as to say that expressing negativity about transgender students for being transgendered was considered to be against school policy and would be punished.
Rush Limbaugh was outraged. “Can you imagine!” he sputtered, “Imagine being a 15 year old girl, and not knowing if the person in the next stall is really a girl, or some transgendered boy who happens to identify as a girl that day?”
(For now, let’s just blow past the insulting “…that day”, which simply shows that he doesn’t understand what the word “transgendered” means. Maybe that can be the topic of another article later.)
Once again, it’s clear that Rush Limbaugh is upset, flustered, and even angered by the idea that some girl might not know the gender of the person in the next stall over when using a bathroom in a public place.
He clearly expects that other people would “naturally” be upset by this as well: “Can you imagine? If that girl feels uncomfortable in the same bathroom with a transgendered person, she has absolutely no recourse!”
So why would she feel uncomfortable?
Would she go to the bathroom differently, if the person in the next stall were a female-identified transgender rather than a genetic female? Would she wash her hands differently, afterwards? Is she in any more danger, if the person in the next stall is a female-identified transgender person? (There is no reason you would think this, unless you incorrectly think that simply being transgendered makes a person “dangerous” somehow.)
It makes no sense. But once again, this is no “idle curiosity” that people have: it bothers people when they think they might not know someone’s gender.
There was recently a story about the AP Guidelines having some difficulty in communicating how same-sex couples should be reported about. Individuals who are in an opposite-sex marriage are commonly referred to as “husband” and “wife”, so if you are reporting on a woman named Patty Nickerbocker, and you wanted to talk about Patty’s spouse, you would write about it this way: “Patty’s husband, Paul, did such-and-such, and so on”.
One might think that the same rules could apply for same-sex couples. If you are reporting on a man named Pat Nickerbocker, and you wanted to talk about Pat’s spouse, you could write about it this way: “Pat’s husband, Paul, did such-and-such, and so on”.
NOT SO FAST, according to the AP guidelines. In the case of a same-sex couple, they are only to refer to a spouse using the term “husband” or “wife” if it is in reference to a label that is being used by the people in the relationship.
Huh? That’s right. As an AP writer, you can write something like “Pat says that his husband, Paul, did such-and-such….” However, if you are not actually writing about what one of the people said, you are to use the word partner.
I can’t think of any reason why they might make this kind of distinction….. unless, once again, we are up against the dreaded gender confusion issue. Are they worried that readers might be confused? If a reader reads the phrase “Pat Nickerbocker’s husband”, maybe there is the fear that a reader might have to endure the trauma and heartbreak of a moment of confusion…. during which the reader is not completely sure whether “Pat” is a man or a woman.
And the very idea that a reader might not be absolutely certain of Pat’s gender makes people feel… awkward and weird.
(That’s why that Saturday Night Live sketch is so funny.)
I think all of these issues are related. In fact I don’t think the issues of Rush’s objection to transgendered students in bathrooms, or the AP’s confusion about how to talk about same-sex couples, are really about homophobia per se. Or at least, not only about that.
As our culture explores becoming more accepting of gender-role diversity in relationships, that exploration will naturally bring along with it another deep issue that causes problems in the American psyche: the problem of gender confusion. How do I act if I can’t tell what gender a person is? What words do I use if I’m not sure of the gender of a person’s spouse? Whose last name should the household telephone number be under?
It is ridiculous that people would have a level of fear, hatred, and anxiety wound up so tightly with simple ambiguities… but there you have it:
People just get mad if they don’t know the gender of your baby.