How useful is the concept of gender?
Would you believe me if I told you we lived in a world where the concept of gender identity itself isn’t a thing that fits in a nice little check box or even a series of them? Most of you probably won’t, and more still will tell me that I have it easier than most. I identify as male, which is congruent with my biological sex. But I’m in a unique position, some days I feel neither male nor female. And most days I have thoughts that my gender identity is both of the most importance, and the most useless construct ever to hit mankind.
I know, it’s very confusing. That’s why I’m writing this. You see, I was born male, I identify as male, and I suppose I am mostly heterosexual. So what could I possibly have to say about gender? You would think I have it easy, but what is gender exactly?
Encapsulated into the idea of gender is the correlative idea of gender roles; the notion that people want to feel certain societal roles based on their biological sex. It is about the expectations tied up in that fulfillment. These traditional roles have been called into question, and many of them are being pushed aside in favor of more fluid ways of being. But the vestiges of the traditional gender roles still bother many of us who were born into this before this question began.
So what could I have to say about gender? About the expectations placed upon one based on how they appear. I wish I could say nothing, but I’m in a wheelchair. As it turns out, just because of that, I can actually say a lot.
For the rest of this, instead of using the word male, I will employ the word man. This is with the purpose that the term man is loaded with various other implicit ideas, such as self-sufficiency, The ability to provide for others, the ability to be the familial protector, as well as a patriarch, or the traditional “head of the family.”
When I was first born, I was an only child. That’s when I felt most of the expectations tied to gender probably mattered the least, and then my little brother was born. My responsibility and caring for him increased with time, and when he became self-sufficient. My status as a man was relegated to something slightly less than that. And while he was 10 years my junior, and still is, it was he who was called upon to do most of the things one would expect, even if I happened to be capable. Here’s the weird thing: as I aged, I began to realize that I was never really completely a man in that sense of the word, not because I didn’t want to, or because I think that those things in themselves are valuable in some context or another, but simply because the society in which I live would probably never see me as capable of those things. Chances are, you also live in one of those places.
You see, when it comes to self-sufficiency, there are some problems. The first of which being the lack of employment opportunity for people with disabilities. It’s not because we are all lazy, or because the world is out to get us necessarily. It’s because it would cost money to make accommodations that would enable a person with certain kinds of disabilities to do one what another physically capable person would be able to do. This is a huge deterrent for a lot of companies. There are some companies out there that claim to be opportunity employers, but aren’t actually complying with the ADA where equal opportunity employment is concerned. Who can blame them?
In many cases, this tends to lead to dependency on the social welfare system, things like Social Security. This deepens the chasm between dependency and self-sufficiency, for many of us, our medical insurance is tied to our receiving SSI benefits. Being disabled is expensive, and we need to make sure that we will have access to all of the necessary equipment for daily living. This means that even the most capable of us must be judicious when taking a job, to ensure that if a job offers medical insurance, that it is adequate.
Then there are the things that come with having a physical impairment or some other kind of impairment. Sometimes, there will be days you just can’t work, and in a society like ours, there is not much leeway for that sort of thing.
The other aspects of this equation are a little more convoluted, so I hope you can stick it out with me. The self-sufficiency portion and provider portions are inextricably linked, so I don’t think I’ll need to talk about them too much from this point forward. But protector and patriarch are a different matter.
There is a general conception that people with disabilities are inherently less capable of living fulfilling lives, and if you’re starting to see why, good job! I mean that, sincerely. But if not, let me spell it out for you. In a society organized around the idea of a social patriarchy, particularly one in the family unit, the idea of self-sufficiency is the key to all the rest.
I remember having a conversation with my younger sister in which she told me how bad it sucked being the youngest and a girl. How she can’t go where she wants, and do what she wants, but that my brother and I can. She said that it was only that way because she’s a girl. And as right as she might be, I have always tried to treat her equally, even when the rest of my family didn’t. The one thing that has always been hard for her to see, is that up until about the age of 13, I was raised with the exact same kinds of restrictions as she complained about. Not because I was a girl, but because I was in a wheelchair. I was not given the freedom that males are traditionally given in old school families, out of fear. The same type of fear that usually drives such male oriented families to feel as though they need to protect the women in their family more so than anything else.
This instinctive fear brings us to the idea of protector, an idea that is still prominent, even if subconsciously when it comes to mate selection. Whether one knows it or not, normally, someone will choose a mate that makes him “feel safe.” This usually involves a combination of physical and emotional safety. But when the two are at odds, the perceived lack of physical safety will usually disqualify someone.
Usually, it’s expected that people will at some point form some sort of pair bond type of relationship. That is usually very difficult when someone is missing one or more core components that are perceived as necessary for a relationship to blossom. Also, almost no one would argue that these types of relationships can add a tremendous dimension to one’s quality-of-life. And in the traditional sense, these types of relationships are normally necessary for the fulfilment of the latter half of the gender to be considered complete.
I’ve spent the bulk of this actually talking about the idea of ableism; the idea that society is organized around able-bodied privilege without ever using the word. Even in a society where, traditional gender roles are being cast aside, if you consider these conditions carefully, it is very difficult for one to see themselves as complete when pushed up against what are still fairly strong, but dated societal norms.
So I have to ask you a question. How useful is the concept of gender? Multiple academic fields have sprung up and attempted to answer this, as well as many related questions. Is this the most effective approach, or does it further define artificial barriers, and deepen the chasm of social inequality? As we have seen, these various –isms are more closely related than they seem at first glance, with this knowledge, what will you do to leave your corner of the world better off than you found it?