Monday, August 23, 2010

What's a male? מיהו זכר

This recent article עברית about a same-sex couple that was refused a family admission to two national park sites got me to thinking about the actual encounter between the family in the story and the employees who refused them admission. Aside from the obvious disgraceful, blatant discrimination involved, another, less explicit yet no less insidious phenomenon is at work here, namely our arrogant presumptions regarding “what is a man” and “what is a woman”.

In both cases, as far as we know (the article does not say that in either case they were required to show their ID cards, on which one’s gender is specified) the employee attempting to bar the couple from entrance based on their family membership clearly assumed both adults to be a particular sex (in this case male) based on what they saw, i.e., based on their assumptions about gender combined with the mens’ actual appearances. Supposing, though, that one of the men had no facial hair, wore his hair long, and wore typically feminine clothing or jewelry. Would the couple then have been admitted? I believe it is safe to presume so.

This puts me in mind of blacks “passing”, a phenomenon engaged in during the 20th century under circumstances wherein blacks were not allowed into certain establishments. The success of passing was entirely based on the assumptions whites held about “what a Negro looks like”, which did not include light complexions and / or Caucasian features.

What I conclude from both phenomena described herein is that both race and gender are nearly wholly socio-cultural (as opposed to biological) constructs: We see what we want to see, i.e., “we” in the case of passing being the members of the white majority; and “we” in the former case being “the vast majority of society that conforms in appearance to what it believes a girl / woman / boy / man ought to look like”. Just another illustration of why I can’t let go of my quixotic crusade to banish gender stereotypes from society. And in closing:

When her child was two, a friend took a parenting class. At the final session, my friend asked the facilatator (a family therapist) what serious problems brought more families to her office than any others. Without even pausing to think, the facilitator replied that with the exception of actual abuse, it was relatives (parents and grandparents specifically) who failed to love a child for who that child is, but instead constantly dinned into the child's ears what a disappointment s/he was.

Among the specific examples the therapist cited: the child who comes from three generations of doctors and lawyers, and wants a career in the arts; the child whose family is heavily into competitive athletics, yet has no interest in sports; and children who do not meet their parents' expectations for gender attire or behavior.
Parents and others who love children, take note...


  1. I really have trouble understanding why women are still taking their husbands last name. I learned recently that in Europe it is becoming much rarer for women, so eventually maybe we will catch up.

    On another note regarding gender, I ran into this article on Eve Tahmincioglu's Career Diva Blog about a story where Transgender Men were allowed to go topless but women weren't, due to the specifics in the law that list what body parts men can show in public and women can show. Here is a link to the article:

  2. Helynna, I read the article, and yep, you're absolutely right. Another example of "I know a man / woman / boy / girl when I see one" thinking.