As I reflect upon the gender observations I have made, I am confronted by realities I believe I had known, yet did not fully appreciate. More exactly, gender seems to have an effect more pervasive than I had believed, as there is also a complex quality to it reinforcing its power in virtually every culture. Certainly, I had accepted that gender concepts have immense and multiple effects on how life is lived, often dictating reflex behaviors. I now perceive, however, that the effects are foundational in ways going to basic human interaction because they both affirm and create ideas of actual, individual identity. “Masculine” and “feminine” are not adjuncts to being, or even powerful aspects of being; I feel more that they are so ingrained within the cultural consciousness as identifiers, they virtually establish platforms of identity, and all those elements we believe as actually defining us are the peripheral.
This sense of the vast power of gender is one I gain from noting how threatened people are when the sexuality element of it defies norms. In the case of the adolescent lesbian charged with rape, even as her partner asserted that the sex was consensual, it seems obvious to me that the parents making charges against the girl were threatened on deeply personal levels. My belief here is that the factor of sex itself was not especially relevant; what I believe upset the parents was that the other girl was now identified as deviant, as the gay sex gave her an identity unacceptable to the parents. She was made into a “victim” because this choice on her part defied what her parents felt was decent for a girl. I also think that other elements came into play here, in that it is dangerous for any young girl to express a desire for any sexuality at all. It seems also likely to me that the lesbian incident may have been non-sexual to the girl as well, and was a way for her to define herself as rebelling against the norms of her parents. In all of this, then, the femaleness of the girl automatically translates to sexuality, and she is who she is, more than anything else, by virtue of these factors.
Along the same lines, I perceive a kind of threatening in the conversations I had with the male co-worker. He was extremely resistant to the idea that a man should be concerned about contraception, just as he felt my disinclination to be a mother was unnatural. The force of his feelings leads me to conclude that my views violated important standards. It seems likely that any other preference I expressed would not have triggered this kind of resistance, which means that I was challenging his convictions beyond what women and men choose to do; I was challenging his views on what is natural and correct. This then translates to my own identity as being “wrong” to him. Once again, gender goes far deeper than outward form or behaviors because these are relied upon as evidence of the correct ways of actual being.
Other observations consistently support this pervasive power of gender to define, and in every arena of living. I would not say that the neighbor I helped to change a tire was threatened by my ability to do it. At the same time, her reaction clearly indicated a kind of shock. That I could change a tire was not seen by her as an extension of myself as a person; it was seen as a violation or aberration of what a woman should be able to do, and this then means that, once again, my identity is first and foremost based upon my gender. She was not angered, of course, but I had crossed a line, and I was to her a strange woman, rather than a person with an identity all my own. Perhaps the most striking development here, however, was how my simple action opened up possibilities for herself, as though defying gender roles was suddenly seen by her as possibly not a bad idea.
Nonetheless, levels of perception as to gender roles are so widespread and ingrained, they are self-perpetuating. This I noticed in the race with my young nephews, already with fixed ideas that females cannot do what males can. It seems to me there is then a very short distance from “cannot” to “should not,” and from this the culture creates the standards defining man and women on the most basic levels. My nephews, as with the neighbor, were intrigued by my being able to behave “like a man,” and this is promising. The reality remains, however, that gender constructs are so powerful, they are the primary ways in which we are identified. More to the point, any deviation from them triggers alarms, and this reveals just how potent they are in our lives.