In my Jan 16 blog-entry (" The Limits of Radical Androgyny") I promised to cycle back to an interesting subset of people in society, the folks who dissent from what we gender activists say but not because they think all males should be normal masculine folks and all females normal feminine folks, and that society should be full-on intolerant of folks like us. Instead, these are the ones who say that of course gender variance should be socially acceptable, but who claim that they don’t see any sign that it isn’t now or hasn’t been so, and that we make mountains out of molehills, that there’s just no social problem there to speak of.
Oh, if you give examples, they may concede that there some background attitude that we have to contend with, but they’ll say it’s no worse than, say, the pressure on people to be right-handed. Easy to ignore.
I’ll have to admit I’ve often found such folks frustrating to deal with. What’s up with these infuriating people, who say that the social forces we’ve struggled against all our lives are no big deal? In contrast, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the mindset of the conservative gender-orthodox, the unapologetic prescriptivists with all their fears of horrible things happening if we don’t maintain and shore up gender norms and keep men men and women women and so on.
Well, after listening to some of the dismissive people over the course of 35 years of gender activism, I think I’ve noticed some patterns that may help to explain them a bit, although, as ever, these are reductive generalizations that may not apply to everyone.
PATTERN ONE: Defensive Denial
I’ve never been in the military and have not spent much time being shot at, but I am told that if you are part of a combat detail and have to attain some objective while people are shooting at you, the best thing to do is to tune it out as best you can and do whatever tasks you have to do with your full attention on them.
In graduate school, my friend Vivian spoke once about crossing a dark campus parking lot at night and how no one ever bothers her the way many female students reported being accosted and harassed. She doesn’t move the way a person moves when they are wary and worried about something happening; she moves with complete self-assured confidence, a middle-aged butch lesbian that nobody is going to mess with. Of course, being a middle-aged butch lesbian is no guarantee against unwanted creepy attention in a parking lot, but because her image of herself is so thoroughly that of a no-nonsense person who would not tolerate such things, she broadcasts that self-image, it is manifest in the way she walks, the way she looks at people, the way she holds bags and car keys and so on.
I’ve deployed a similar technique in a different setting myself, especially in my younger and more volatile days. I would be determined to sit across from some damn school official or organizational bureaucrat and have a conversation, and I discovered fairly early on that if I presented myself to the receptionist and waited to be given permission to go on back, I’d be waiting a long time or would be told that the person in question was not willing or interested in meeting with me. But if I strode past as if I worked there myself and was very busy with whatever mission-task occupied my attention, that would often work to get me past the gatekeeper and would nearly always suffice once I was in the corridors I didn’t properly belong in. There is a lot of authority conveyed simply by acting like you know what you’re doing and that you belong where you’re at.
This is all defensive denial, in various forms. The tricky part can be remaining aware on a detached intellectual level that the risk really does exist, but without dwelling on it and becoming functionally aware of it.
Gender socialization pressures are abstract and complex, and for all of us they are a constant unmitigated backdrop. Defensive denial, which is a great coping mechanism especially for anyone who is somewhat gender-atypical, can become an unconscious habit that I think some people engage in without any awareness, a sort of second-tier defensive denial in which it erases its own tracks from the mind.
PATTERN TWO: Signal Lost Amidst the Noise
If you step out your front door tomorrow morning and find yourself face to face with a grizzly bear, you may make a number of pertinent observations in the first couple moments, but none of them is likely to be the bear’s sex.
That’s a facile example, in large part because we aren’t sexually turned on by bears. Well most of us aren’t. At least not actual genuine non-human ursine bears at any rate. We take notice of each other’s sex and make a big deal of it in our heads, generally speaking, because sexuality and sexual attraction is a big deal to us, and for most people’s sexuality the sex of other people is a highly relevant consideration.
But to a less extreme degree, a person who tends to tick off other people’s awareness of oddity and atypicality in assorted other ways may have an affect on them where they don’t notice or care that that person is also gender atypical. There are many patterns of expected behavior, especially socially interactive behavior, and one interesting effect of being in violation of one or more of those expected patterns is that observers, having already seen and assessed the individual as peculiar in this way and perhaps that other way, take less notice of yet more departures from normative patterns. Or they conflate them into their mental impression of that person’s already-perceived oddities.
A person from a foreign culture that isn’t often encountered in some environment is seen as foreign and exotic; if that person is also exhibiting atypical gender behavior, the atypical gender behavior is often perceived as part of that person’s foreign exotic ways and not as a phenomenon unto itself.
PATTERN THREE: Obsequious Denial
Some people who cave to social pressures to be a certain way pretend to themselves and to others that they have not, in fact, allowed social pressures dictate to them how they should be, and then deny that the social pressures amount to much of anything, since by denying the latter they can more easily deny the former as well.
This is also a pattern I’ve seen from time to time. A resident of the Bible Belt attends church despite having been an agnostic before moving there, and denies having been made to feel that they won’t be accepted among their work colleagues and that the neighbor’s kids won’t be allowed to socialize with his children. He has some reason or rationale for why he has decided to go to church on Sundays, but it isn’t social pressure, nope, haven’t experienced any of that down here, really. I could stay at home and work on my lawn or watch TV, nothing to prevent me from doing so, I just decided it’s kind of peaceful to get away from my daily routine and the stained glass windows are pretty…
When it comes to gender variance, the people I’ve seen evincing this behavior are most often folks who aren’t very far-flung from the official gender norm for their sex, just variant enough that they may have to conform a bit more than they wish to in order to be spared the remarkes and glances and other reactions that gender-variant behavior tends to elicit.
This is a crosspost of a blog entry. Cleared with the mods.