Recently, I took upon a course called Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities in my sociology program (hence why I’ve failed to update this blog in a few weeks!). This class has opened my mind up to the numerous ways that the construction of gender is oppressive AND empowering. It has lead me to understand a whole new world in which gender and sexuality are not simply things determined by birth, but are things influenced by societal forces. For example, did you know that only one sex used to be considered? “Women were seen … as lesser men, with the clitoris and the uterus but reduced or inverted versions of the penis and scrotum” (Allen and Felluga). It wasn’t until the 19th century that the two sex model came about, which ultimately leads to the creation of two genders (re: sex =/= gender).
Heterosexuality is not natural
Even more interesting, the term “heterosexuality” is not natural! The first years of heterosexuality were from 1892-1900. The very first use of the word was found in a medical journal article by Dr. James G. Kiernan on March 7 1982 (Katz 86). Prior to this, people were not as intent on having sex as they are today. In the United States and England, the dominant ideology of gender in the Victorian era was the ideas of “True Manhood”, “True Womanhood”, and “True Love”. Under this regime, men and women were considered to simply be tools of production and sex was only acceptable under the notion that it was done to procreate. Any other form of sex was looked down upon, so much so that sodomy laws were put in place to monitor such sexual activity. In this sense, gays and lesbians were seen as monsters. But let’s get back to heterosexuality for another second! The term emerged in the midst of a consumerist society, one in which men and women were alleviated of being productive bodies and became consumptive bodies. That is when sex began to sell and medical practitioners felt the need to categorize sexual activity into “heterosexual” and “homosexual”. But get this:
- Heterosexuals were not exemplars of normality. Far from! They “were defined by a mental condition, ‘physical hermaphrotism.’ Its symptoms were ‘inclinations to both sexes’, [and] inclinations to ‘abnormal methods of gratification’, that is techniques to insure pleasure without procreation” (Katz 87).
- Homosexuals, on the other hand, were persons whose “general mental state is that of the opposite sex” (qtd. in Katz 87). What? So homosexuals were not defined by their sexual activity, but by their deviant behaviours, while heterosexuals were defined by their deviance from gender and procreative norms.
The terms didn’t gain their modern understandings until Dr. Krafft-Ebing came along and defined heterosexuality as an erotic attraction to the opposite sex and homosexuality as an erotic attraction to the same sex. Homosexuals became known as far more deviant from the norm (heterosexuality) due to the issue of not being able to procreate. This was a far stretch away from the pre-cursor ideology of “True” manhood, womanhood, and love. But in no means, is heterosexuality natural. This very history of it exemplifies a social construction to the term, which implies it is a norm, not a natural occurrence. In the same breath, we can understand gender as performance.
Gender as performance
If heterosexuality and homosexuality is a social construction, it can be argued that sexuality is fluid throughout life (not to take away from any innate desires that we experience). It is social conventions that influence us on whether we may feel safe enough acting on those inner desires. Perhaps we feel the need to be heterosexual because of the family we are brought up in, are under threat of public persecution for otherwise, have always desired the opposite sex and never given a thought to the same sex, or any number of reasons. Whatever it is, in the same sense, gender can be understood as a performance. Have you ever seen little girls or boys playing with toys that are ascribed to the opposite gender? Have you ever wondered if that child will grow up gay or trans* because they are transgressing gender roles? Have you ever personally tried to take a toy away from a child because it did not coincide with their gender? It is the constant policing of gender roles by parents, families, schools, and other institutions which influences children to grow up from either a cis boy into a “man” or a cis girl into a “woman”. When children are taught that they can’t play with a toy or act a certain way because they are a “girl”/“boy”, they are told that they must act in accordance to a gender role or suffer the consequences. When they perform a gender well, they are rewarded with pleasurable experiences. This goes on to influence adult life.
But what about those who don’t fall into these gender roles? What about trans* people? What about gay people? Trans* people are forced into this gender dichotomy when they seek medical intervention. They are forced to identify as having gender identity disorder, thereby claiming a disability (when they are not disabled at all). They have to showcase a desperate need to be the other gender. However, this is not always the case. In an article by Dean Spade, sie points out that some trans* individuals lie for the sake of having the surgery they desire. Some trans* individuals do not seek to be a part of the gender dichotomy, but simply to have a body that coincides with who they feel they are.
Gays and Trans* are constantly faced with this idea of being the “right kind” of gay/trans*
Looking at the dominant ideology of the Western world, we can ascribe that there is a “right kind” of gay or trans*. The “right kind” of person is someone who is heterosexual, white, middle-class, monogamous, procreative, and cis men and women. (Please note that by the “right kind”, I mean those who are given more rights and privileges than other groups. In no way do I favour one over the other). With that in mind, this idea of the “right kind” transcends its heterosexual boundaries and imposes heterosexist ideals on the lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans* individuals. What you’ll notice is that the “right kind” of gay is monogamous, demonstrating heterosexist gender roles, and middle-class. Meanwhile, the “right kind” of trans* has successfully undergone gender reassignment surgery, is living up to their identified gender’s roles, and is middle-class. This is constantly imposed on us by the media and the institutions before us. All over the media, the “right kind” of gay is displayed as a happy young monogamous couple with a middle-class lifestyle. Meanwhile, the “right kind” of trans* is showcased for their ability to successfully achieve the body of the opposite gender.
What does this do to people? It makes those who do not conform to gender roles feel the societal pressures of being non-conforming. Those who are racialized heterosexual/homosexual/transsexual, lower class, non-monogamous, or not procreative (not to be understood as a grouping, but on an individual basis) are often ignored in this whole ordeal of what is normative and non-normative. As a result, some privileges are revoked to these groups while those who do live up to the idea of the “right kind’ are rewarded by social, economic, and political gains.
What to get out of this
We need to talk more about non-normative genders and sexualities and allow for heterosexuality to be spoken about in the same context. Heterosexuality should no longer be considered the invisible majority who are able to pass by everyday life as something that is natural. All genders, sexes, and sexualities need to be recognized for their diversity so that they may stop trapping people into these rigid conceptions of what they are.
There are a lot of contrasts being made between femininity/masculinity and homosexuality. There needs to be more discussion about other masculinities and femininities. What about homosexual masculinities and femininities? What about trans* bodies? While this may reinforce the gender dichotomy, it does at the same time tear it apart. Dominant gender ideologies are very narrow as we see it today. We hold people to these hyper-masculine and -feminine values and yet no one really lives up to it. As Dean Spade suggests, these ideas of gender lead to unnecessary classifications of deviance and normality. Gender nonconformity is considered a mental illness, diagnosed as “[a] strong and persistent cross-gender identification” (Spade 25). Ironically, this line between gender boundaries is quite blurred as the symptoms of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in DSM-IV are contradicted by a disclaimer, which states that tomboys and sissies may be exempt from GID. It is things like these that need to be testified against. There needs to be more discussion, acceptance, and normalizing of non-normative masculinities, femininities, androgynies, and so on. By discussing and normalizing these non-normative forms of gender, we can open up the way for gender to be deconstructed of its historical roots. Perhaps one day in the future, an open forum of discussion about non-normative gender identities will lead to less medicalization and monitoring of the trans* community (whom currently require non-trans* medical professional’s surveillance to receive “gender” reassignment).
Emily Allen & Dino Felluga. General Introduction to Theories of Gender and Sex. http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/genderandsex/modules/introduction.html
Jonathan Ned Katz. (2010). “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” In Privilege: A Reader, edited by Michael L. Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, 83-98.
Dean Spade. (2003). “Resisting Medicine, Re/modeling Gender” Berkely Women’s Law Journal 15.