Note: This post is a part of my final project for a Gender and Sexuality class that I took in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is written for academia, but has a touch of personal opinion as well.
In the process of completing life’s most mundane tasks—going to the dentist, getting a driver’s license, applying for college, etc.— society expects us to divulge a certain amount of information about ourselves. We are asked time and time again to fill out forms that beg the same questions: name, birthday, gender. Next to “gender,” you will see two options with two small checkboxes next to them: male and female. It’s a question that is supposed to have a simple reflexive answer, one that doesn’t require hesitation; at the time, we don’t think about the meaning latent in checking one box or the other. However, the way we are desensitized to this question does not erase the fact that its binary nature is representative of how our society is constructed. We are told to identify with one or the other and are, in turn, placed in little boxes that have a specific set of rules, behaviors, and norms that we are expected to follow. The majority of human beings who are able to answer this question without qualms may be surprised to learn that not everyone fits into these boxes— it is unrealistic and unfair to assume that everyone is able to complacently abide by this “package deal.” Thus, begins the emergence of queerness.
This blog will be about queerness in terms of gender and sexuality in a heteronormative world that places people’s behaviors and sexual preferences into boxes that limit our ability to see outside of the hegemonic straight/gay/male/female paradigms. First, it will explain the binary relationship between masculinity and femininity and how these behaviors about gender lead to assumptions about sexuality. Lastly, it will clarify what “queer” means and how these behaviors are treated in the U.S. versus in Scandinavia.
The relationship between masculinity and femininity is deeply rooted in theories of gender performativity. Judith Butler regards gender as “is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts precede; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time— an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts,” (Butler). Hence, gender is constantly being constructed and depends on time, cultural context, and the different assumptions that certain behaviors evoke. For example, a man wearing a skirt in the United States would be violating the gender norms for being male; however, men in Scotland regularly wear kilts (an article of clothing similar to a skirt) and unlike in Western culture, donning a skirt does not equate to a lack of masculinity. Hence, gender performativity is highly dependent on cultural context.
So what happens when people violate the codes, gestures, and behaviors assigned to their gender? The “deviant” individual is alienated by society to a certain extent and given a label to mark their “otherness.” An outspoken girl who does not enjoy playing with dolls or wearing dresses is called a tomboy. A boy who would rather learn to cook than play baseball is deemed a “sissy,” “pussy,” or a “wuss.” People feel uncomfortable when the boundaries of these gender norms are crossed, therefore they validate their own gender identity and sameness with society by marking the difference of the one who stands out. This point was proven in a recent social experiment conducted by my classmates and I, in which we attempt to break a gender norm and observe people’s reactions. The way we decided to carry out the experiment was by putting makeup on a male friend in the middle of a public square. This minor infraction of stereotypical gender norms was met with unabashed gawking and staring by the two women sitting next to us, their expressions communicating clear discomfort and excommunication of my classmate.
This vilification becomes damaging for a number of reasons, one of them being that notions on gender performativity in today’s society also leads to assumptions on sexuality. Gender and sexuality are interrelated, but they are not synonymous with each other.
To explain what I mean, I will use a real life example. A female friend of mine has an appearance that very much resembles that of a boy; she wears her hair very short, dresses in men’s clothes, and has mannerisms and gestures that are considered masculine (sitting with legs spread out, etc.). The first question I always hear when people meet her or see a picture of her is, “She’s gay right?” Without fail, the question is always asked and based purely on observations of how she performs her gender. To their immediate surprise, I inform them that she has a boyfriend; the shock that a woman with a “butch” appearance is indeed in a heterosexual relationship catches them off guard every time. When this situation occurs, it reminds me how, as we perform our gender, we unwillingly take on meaning about our sexuality that is interpreted by others. A very effeminate man is assumed to be gay. A tomboy is questioned whether or not she is a lesbian. Along the same vein, a woman who follows feminine norms and the codes of her gender is always assumed to be straight; The same can be said for a very masculine man. By checking a “male” or “female” box, you take on an entire set of meanings about sexuality, behavior, and attitude—meanings that change depending on how well you perform that gender.
Queerness is regarded as confusing, even detrimental, to some because it is deviation from the norm. Queerness does not fit into homosexual and heterosexual binaries, similar to how androgyny rejects masculine and feminine binaries. Both are stigmatized and those who identify with either are “othered” from society due to a lack of understanding or discomfort with boundary crossing. “Queer” has had many definitions throughout history, the meaning of the word changing over time depending on the social conditions of that era. Traditionally, the word “queer” was used as a pejorative term to alienate homosexuals in the early twentieth century. Since then, as sexualities that depart from the heterosexual norm are increasingly more tolerated—even celebrated— queerness is less stigmatized as more and more people identify as “queer.” In everyday usage, the label means odd, strange, or deviating from society’s constructed norms (Klages). When discussing gender and sexuality, the term refers to someone who is able to have intimate connections with both genders and is not restrictively attracted to a single sex. In Key Terms in Literary Theory, Mary Klages states the word “queer” points to “a specific mode of thinking about sexuality that goes beyond the binary categories of homosexual and heterosexual.” She goes on to explain that the latter half of the twentieth century saw “queer” as referring to disruptive and deconstructing performances of gender and sexuality. The destabilization of gender performance can come in many forms, from a man wearing a dress to a trans woman who chooses to grow a beard.
Personally, when talking to those who identify as queer, I am very interested to learn that many of these individuals see queerness as a spectrum, similar to The Kinsey Scale. A friend who identifies as queer explained to me that significant portions of her own friends describe themselves as being on “the queer spectrum”— an inclusive space for those who don’t feel altogether comfortable identifying as purely gay or straight.
Attitudes towards queerness and homosexuality vary from country to country, culminating in a global divide on if these non-heteronormative behaviors should be accepted or not. The Pew Research Center found that there is more tolerance for the LGBT* and queer communities in secular countries such as the United States and European Union. In a study conducted in 2013, 39 countries were asked, “Should society accept homosexuality?” The results showed a 60 percent majority in the U.S. who answered yes (Cohut). Over the past two decades, Americans have showed increasingly more support for legislation that expands LGBTQ* rights. This has come to fruition with the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, which originally put a federal ban on gay marriage.
In addition to legislative support, influential pop culture phenomena such as Glee and Lady Gaga have reinforced a tolerant mindset among the younger generation, an attitude that was not present ten years ago. In 2012, the first rap song to advocate for same-sex marriage, “Same Love” by Macklemore, received significant critical acclaim and permeated mainstream radios and award shows across the country. Furthermore, queer visibility is more present in film and television; Namely, actress Laverne Cox is a trans woman actually playing a transgender character in the hit Netflix original, Orange is the New Black, and has made significant strides for the transgender community as a whole. Progressive cultural attitudes along with legislation that supports LGBTQ* rights makes the United States more tolerant of queer individuals, or those who operate outside of the heteronormative paradigm.
Studies also show that the Scandinavian countries are even more accepting of queer individuals than the United States. According to the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), Sweden was named in 2010 as Europe’s most gay friendly country (Wockner).This tolerance is seen through legislation that protects the queer community, such as: anti-discrimination protections, recognition of same-sex partnerships and parenting, hate-crime and hate-speech laws, and equal age-of-consent laws.
Sweden is also working to dismantle the cultural expectations of gender performativity. I have witnessed these efforts first hand through campaigns by Top Toys (a toy company in league with Toys ‘R Us) to decrease stereotypical representations of boys and girls in their catalogs. These depictions include using gender-neutral colors instead of the typical “pink for girl toys,” “blue for boy toys” motif, along with portraying boys in more sensitive and passive poses, and girls in more assertive and active roles.
However, although Sweden is praised as a “gender equality paradise,” it still fails in some arenas. Below are two additional ads found in the same Toys ‘R Us that have evident gender bias and culturally reinforcing gender stereotypes. The first ad shows a group of children singing, wearing traditional colors assigned to gender—blue for the boy and pink for the girl. The second ad depicts both genders shooting Nerf guns, however, the toy gun for the girl has been adorned with pink and floral print to seem more “girly” and cute.
Furthermore, although ILGA-Europe crowned Sweden the most gay-friendly country, they haven’t done much work for the transgender community, a quote from the organization saying they “won’t start tracking transgender issues until next year,” (Wockner).
As visibility and acceptance for the queer community increases in the decades to come, the perpetually solid construction of the heteronormative world we live in will slowly be dismantled. For this deconstruction to happen however, education about gender performativity and the ability to see outside of limiting gender binaries is paramount. Otherwise, the codes on how each gender should behave will never be challenged, those who do not fit into the limiting boxes of male/female binaries will always be thought of as deviant, and gender performance will continue to lead to assumptions about sexuality. Those who are heteronormative will continue to be privileged as part of the majority, a process that involves marginalizing queer individuals.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. 40.4 (1988): n. page. Web. 7 Jul. 2014. <http://www.flimmer.nu/sites/default/files/butlerPerformance.pdf>.