Gender Expression: Where Trans, Gay and Mainstream Intersect
(Originally published in GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine as an introduction. Possibly old-hat to readers here. References footnoted rather than directly hyperlinked)
In 2007, I wrote “Conversion Therapy in the Womb?”1 in response to the Southern Baptist leader Rev. Albert Mohler’s blog, in which he speculated about the possibility that future genetic studies would be able to cure homosexuality and transgenderism in utero (ironically without, of course, completely acknowledging that there could be any intrinsic nature to them instead of the usual “sinful choice” meme that churches adamantly tout).
In 2010, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Maria I. New (with some assistance from intersex and trans-specific researcher and therapist Heino F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg) is studying exactly that. She is examining the use of Dexamethasone – a drug that has commonly been used with pregnant women when there is a history and risk of the fetus developing the intersex condition of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia – to redirect sexual orientation and gender expressive development of the fetus. Research partner Meyer-Bahlburg writes that “CAH women as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role. As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.” 2
I won’t go into all the implications again, and will provide footnotes3 for those who want to know more about the Dexamethasone issue, but I do think it’s very telling that achieving interest in marriage, acceptance of traditional roles, desire for pregnancy and certain kinds of dress and interests are all seen as part and parcel of erasing or “curing” lesbianism on a medical level. Similar themes are found in disproven but socially persistent conversion (aversion / ex-gay) therapies. These are issues of gender expression, and are where non-trans people can also experience trans-related prejudices and discrimination. Gender expression is why trans (which is about who one is rather than who one loves) is an integral part of LGBT(TQIAQ…)
Gender expression is how a person expresses their gender to others, through behavior, clothing, role, hairstyle, voice, gesture, and emphasis on visual characteristics or signals.
A person doesn’t have to think of themselves as trans in any way to experience prejudice based on gender expression. When Lethbridge-area student Hamish Jacobs was told he couldn’t wear his kilt to his grad convocation earlier this year4 (a decision which was later reversed), it was because the symbolism of the kilt was misinterpreted according to gender expectations. When Ontario waitress Stacey Fearnall was fired from her job last year after shaving her head to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research,5 that was an objection to how she expressed her gender. When Brian Prowel was fired from his job, it was not because he was gay, but because of his behaviour and presentation, which was seen as effeminate.6
Through A Gender Queerly
I know that the word “queer” presses buttons for some folks, but since the late 1990s, some have embraced it in the concept of “genderqueer.” This grew out of the concept of “butch / femme” visual expression meeting transgender and feminist thought (though is not only embraced by women), and while it’s impossible to sum up in two short paragraphs, is roughly about toying with gender presentation and transgressive gender expression (though not all genderqueer folks consider themselves to be transgender). Genderqueer might refer to intentional androgyny, occasionally to hyper-femininity/hyper-masculinity done contrary to genitalia-based expectations, or mixing and matching gender-assumed clothing and / or roles in order to challenge societal assumptions.
Genderqueer can include anyone who feels they don’t fit a strict binary of “male” / “female,” or people who willfully reject such a binary in defining their own identity. They may refuse to conform to gender stereotypes, or may even snub them emphatically. Gender neutral pronouns such as “zie” (pronounced “zee”) or “hir” (pronounced “heer”) might be used. Drag performers sometimes embrace a kind of genderf— in their performances, arguably taken to the extreme in shock performances like rough drag, but they haven’t necessarily embraced the term.
While it may sound radical to some, queering gender is really only an acceptance of and exploration of something that has been so intertwined with gay, lesbian and trans expression for long enough and often enough that society has long believed that changing gender expression is a means of or part of “curing” homosexuality.
The Time is C-389. Do You Know Where Your MP Is?
As with gender identity (transsexuals), there are currently implicit protections in Canadian law based on gender expression. As with gender identity, those implicit protections are vulnerable to the possibility that a new precedent could occur which would overturn them. There is currently a bill before Parliament (C-389) that proposes explicit inclusion for both gender identity and expression, and it is crucial that LGBT people express their support to their Members of Parliament. LGBT organizations are also needed to speak up to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, to testify how these protections are needed, and without restrictions that would sabotage them.
However, I find that some gay and lesbian people are still strongly resistant to trans inclusion and trans advocacy and that LGB organizations still often cite that political activity threatens charitable status (Revenue Canada allows for some lobbying directly affiliated with an organization’s mandate) as reason not to get involved with trans issues. Complacency is a bigger issue, and sometimes washroom panic – one of the favorite recourses for the far right – and related fears are cited.
There has been a drive from the religious right in the U.S. to start defining laws to prevent male-to-female crossdressers from using womens’ restrooms using inflated caricatures to generate panic, and then enforce those rules also against transitioning and transitioned (even post-surgical) transsexuals. Trans protections have existed in over 125 jurisdictions in North America, some as far back as 1975,7 and during that time, there has been no pattern of criminal behaviour in restrooms by specifically trans people (of any stripe) compared to any other segment of the population. And certainly, transsexuals (and some traveling crossdressers as well) have used restrooms in travels for as long as we’ve existed – and using them with a desire for privacy, like anyone else. It’s important to note that unethical or illegal behaviour in restrooms remains unethical or illegal, and trans-protective legislation does not change that (and in practice, has not facilitated any kind of increase). The trans washroom argument plays on a trans predator assumption which has no basis in reality.
Gender-neutral (i.e. single-stall, locking restrooms) are often pointed to as a compromise, and where they are readily available and when ones presentation is likely to cause discomfort from others, I recommend using them out of respect to a reasonable extent (and segregated alternatives in any instances such as showers where actual nudity might occur) – however, I do not see this as a final, concrete compromise solution. Gender-neutral restrooms are not always accessible (i.e. may not be present, may be distant, may be occupied during an emergency). And reliance on them as a sole option for trans people creates a Jim Crow-ist separate-but-not-equal othering climate all for the sake of sparing people from having to acknowledge that trans people exist. We don’t restrict physically disabled people from public restrooms because of a concern that they might make people feel guilty or awkward or because folks might have to explain to their children about limb loss or Downs Syndrome. A transgender person is a person in your neighbourhood – see what I said above about risk, and get over it. I don’t say this without empathy for the anxieties experienced by rape survivors – however, fear of rape was once used to whip up anxiety about gay men in mens’ rooms, lesbians in womens’ rooms and years before about black people sharing restrooms with white people: the use of panic to exclude entire classes of people wasn’t right then, and it’s not any less so now.
2 “What Causes Low Rates of Child-Bearing in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia? <http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/84/6/1844> Meyer-Bahlburg
“Sexual Orientation in Women with Classical or Non-Classical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia as a Function of Degree of Prenatal Androgen Excess, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18157628> ” (Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2008) Meyer-Bahlburg and New