Blog

LGBT Lessons (Not) learned: Dominant gender ideology as a basis for transphobic and homophobic violence

SHARE THIS:
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gerald Walton, Lakehead University
Guest Contributors

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

In September 2011, the Institute for Canadian Values ran an advertisement in the National Post asking that children not be “exposed” to discussions in school about LGBT issues. Children’s identities as boys and girls, the Institute reasoned, would be “corrupted.” The Institute presumptuously speaks for all Canadians’ values, but the ad says something significant about the investment we collectively have made in gender. Put bluntly, gender is an ideological force, meaning that the practices by which people indicate to others that they are boys or men, or girls or women, is socially significant and highly regulated. Rather than being fixed and static, gender norms and expectations are dynamic and powerfully shaped through processes of normalization, indoctrination, regulation, and, at times, resistance.

As a concept, gender is hard to pin down but predictable patterns in how gender tends to play out in society can, nevertheless, be identified. Gender is not simply about two discrete categories of “boys” and “men” (that are presumed to accompany maleness), and “girls” and “women” (that are presumed to accompany femaleness) and the supposed differences between girls and boys, and women and men. Significantly, gender is also about learning and relearning the codes, norms, and expectations of what it means to be a boy, man, girl, or woman, in accordance with cultural, ethnic, and historically specific contexts, and how such codes are reinforced and regulated. Gender, then, provides a framework by which “normal” and “natural” are created.

Children and youth learn the lessons of gender from the day they are born. For most babies, gendering begins with the normative provision of pink blankets for females and blue ones for males. Such gendering continues in most families and is reinforced in schools as children and youth interact with each other and with teachers and administrators. Gender insiders and outsiders are constructed in accordance with those who fall within the scope of “normal” and “natural” gender presentations and those who do not. It is the former group, the gender typical, who is socially privileged on the basis of being gender normative. The latter group, on the other hand, is routinely dismissed as inferior, stigmatized through fear and shaming, and targeted with violence of exclusion if not verbal and physical assault on the basis of being gender atypical.

Children and youth learn the lessons of gender from the day they are born. For most babies, gendering begins with the normative provision of pink blankets for females and blue ones for males. Such gendering continues in most families and is reinforced in schools as children and youth interact with each other and with teachers and administrators. Gender insiders and outsiders are constructed in accordance with those who fall within the scope of “normal” and “natural” gender presentations and those who do not. It is the former group, the gender typical, who is socially privileged on the basis of being gender normative. The latter group, on the other hand, is routinely dismissed as inferior, stigmatized through fear and shaming, and targeted with violence of exclusion if not verbal and physical assault on the basis of being gender atypical.

It is not the case that humans can be so easily dichotomized between insiders and outsiders; many of us are simultaneously insiders and outsiders in different ways and at different times. In general, however, gender outsiders – as atypical – clearly indicate that, when people stretch the boundaries of normative gender presentations and expectations, negative reactions from others, ranging from teasing and bullying to verbal and physical violence, are predictable consequences. Transgender activist and scholar Kate Bornstein refers to “gender outlaws” to indicate that there are indeed rules of gender presentation (clothing, physical and vocal mannerisms, interests, occupations and so on) that adversely affect those who are not gender typical. As gender theorist Judith Butler famously points out, norms become norms only through repeated practices that collectively and over time create social convention, foster continual scrutiny, and, when warranted, incite correction. Gender “performativity” is that which has become normative and thus not readily noticed by the “performers.” In other words, most people barely even notice the ways that they present their gender every day.

Norms and expectations of gender presentation can also be linked to norms and expectations of sexuality. Sexual orientation is often attributed to individuals on the basis of gender presentation because of widespread assumptions about sexual orientation on the basis of mannerisms, clothing, and ways of moving and talking. Among children, for instance, masculine girls may get taunted with “dyke” regardless of being a lesbian or not, and feminine boys may get called “queer” or “fag” regardless of actual sexual orientation. More cogently, such taunting is likely to target boys and girls who defy their prescribed and normative gender role, namely, masculinity for boys and femininity for girls. Viviane Namaste offers the term “genderbashing” to describe what actually happens during so-called “gaybashings” which tend to target gender transgressors rather than actual gay men and lesbians.

The rules of gender are highly evident in the reactions of others towards students who break them. The term “sissy” is a usual verbal weapon that targets gender atypical boys. Such boys are perceived as threatening to other boys, that somehow they will infect them with (what are perceived as) their feminine afflictions. To maintain masculinity of other boys, sissies must be rejected or expunged through bullying, ostracism, and violence. In 2008, such panic took a deadly turn when 15 year-old Lawrence King was shot to death in Oxnard California by a male peer because Lawrence King liked feminine jewellery, clothing, and makeup. The King case, as well as other less extreme but daily practices of genderbashing, signifies to all other boys what could happen to them if they do not live up to the social expectations of what it means to act like a “real” boy. In short, violence towards those deemed sissies maintains gender boundaries and highlights how normalcy is constructed and regulated.

By comparison to sissies, tomboys are generally seen as socially acceptable but only until puberty after which most tomboys, according to Harriet Bradley, are expected to act and look like gender normative girls. For many parents, gender non-conforming behaviour and interests of their children raise the fear that they will grow up to be gay or lesbian. Medically, gender non-normative people, including children, are sometimes diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), more commonly referred to as “gender dysphoria” which is a diagnostic category of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Such “dysphoria” is used to describe people who experience a high and consistent degree of anxiety and unhappiness about their gender identity. Despite strong social sanction for gender non-conformity, supported by such medicalization, being a sissy or tomboy does not have to be viewed as a condition in need of treatment. Perhaps the “problem” is not gender atypicality at all, but the dominant gender schema by which some people are included and considered “normal” and others are excluded and considered gendered “freaks.” Thus, being a feminine boy is widely equated with being weak, which is anathema to normalized ideas about masculinity, boyhood, and manhood. Masculine girls tend to incite fears in others that she is or will be a mannish lesbian. Such fears are social prejudices, not just individual ones.

In 2010, Dan Savage and Terry Miller launched the “It Gets Better” campaign in response to media attention on several suicides of young gay men and those perceived as gay. From what began as one video that offered to message to gender and sexuality minority youth that life does get better after high school, the It Gets Better channel on youtube.com has amassed over twenty-two thousand videos, including one from United States  President Barack Obama. The campaign was widely celebrated. Critics, however, pointed out that gender atypical children and youth, as well as those who are lesbian or gay, should not have to wait for their situations to “get better.” For instance, in response to the 300 suicides of youth in Canada in 2011, Rick Mercer emphatically challenged all LGBT adults in one of his weekly “Rick’s Rants” to come out and be visible so that LGBT youth have role models and can see through such modelling that, not only will their situations improve over time, but they can be better now.

Facilitating school safety requires curriculum and policy that is inclusive of gender atypical children and youth. National surveys from GLSEN in the United States and Egale in Canada indicate that gender atypical youth are more likely to be the target of harassment and bullying than their gender typical counterparts.

Some targeted youth demonstrate resilience and resistance in the face of unsafe learning environments. However, it should not be left up to students alone to protect themselves or enact social change in schools. In short, violence against gender difference should be named in policy because homophobia proliferates among children and youth – and sometimes among administrators and teachers. Doing so is not only morally and ethically necessary, but also legally astute to foster cultures in schools that support the actual diversity of students. Increasingly, victims of bullying and their parents are taking teachers and administrators to court for lack of effective policies and practices on creating safe learning environments for LGBT youth and those so perceived.

Depicting curriculum and policies in schools that address violence against gender atypicality as “corrupting children,” as the Institute for Canadian Values did through the National Post, is not only a bigotry disguised as “values” that operates among religious fundamentalists. Such fears are also evident less obviously in daily experiences of children and youth who are constantly in emotional and physical danger in schools through no fault of their own. It behoves educators and parents to consider gender not as a simplistic duality but as a complex set of social arrangements that creates divisions between insider and outsider, often expressed through forms of violence such as bullying and genderbashing. To insist upon maintaining the dominant gender ideology means to not really care about safety in schools, after all, despite claims to the contrary.

Gerald Walton is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at  Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  Email:  gwalton [at] lakeheadu [dot] ca

Category

Equity Matters

Tags

Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-SpiritedGender equityEducation and Equity