“The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?” ― Jeff Garvin, “Symptoms of Being Human”.
There are two ways to answer this question.
First, we see gender as the identity that has been assigned to you at birth, after the doctors check your genitalia. They label you ‘male’ or ‘female’; it’s a binary. A lot of people do not question their assigned gender (or the identity with it). They are what we call ‘Cisgender’. Those who do question it, and who transition to the opposite gender are what we call ‘Transgender’.
People who are born with ‘non-normative’ genitalia (neither typically ‘male’ nor typically ‘female’) may be made to undergo a surgery to make their genitalia ‘normative’. It is without their consent or knowledge as it is done after a few days of their birth. They may be put in the category of ‘intersex’, a category which a lot of people think is the same as transgender. (FYI, not true!)
The second way to define the term is a person’s personal sense of identity – masculine, feminine, transgender, genderqueer, agender and so on. And this is not based on the genitalia you are born with, because people have a right to identity however they want to, duh! Here people self-identify. It happens after someone examines if their assigned gender is how they think about themselves. Some may accept the gender they were given at birth, and some may not.
Well, we have an idea of what gender identity is now. But it shouldn’t be confused with gender expression.
When we think of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ identities, we may have a certain idea of how each looks. But is it necessary for a person to abide by the roles and appearances commonly associated with their gender? For example, can a cisgender man’s favourite colour not be pink? Can he not grow his hair out? Can a cisgender woman not cut her hair and wear pants? Of course they can! In the same way, a transgender man might love to wear skirts, and a transgender woman may hate to wear make-up. But the idea of what is ‘male’ and ‘female’ is so strict that we sometimes forget this.
Since forever, clothes have been divided into a binary (by patriarchy, WHO ELSE!?). Skirts, dresses and high heels for girls. Pants, shirts, and brogues for men. And something as simple as shopping can seem like a nightmare for gender non-conforming people. This established bipolarity between two genders makes it extremely difficult for a non-binary to navigate the world of clothing.
A lot of non-binary people try to dress androgynously, which usually means finding clothes which make you look like anything but the gender you were assigned at birth. As a non-binary person myself, I find it helps maintain the ‘otherness’, as I do not want to be a part of the ‘male’/’female’ divide.
But how much of a role does clothing really play in our lives. It’s just fabric, right? Well, even our pronouns (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) are unnecessarily tied to the clothes one wears. The minute we see a person wearing certain kind of clothing, our bias and prejudice that comes with it is projected at that person. The person is not them but the clothes they wear. Shouldn’t you at least ask us our pronouns before assuming something based on our clothes!?
A lot of people have issues with a man wearing ‘women’s clothes’; that person might be banned from entering their college, or from a flight. He might be bullied and insulted. Interestingly, a woman wearing pants isn’t looked down upon (at least in many places in India). You can clearly see how it’s acceptable for women to be ‘masc/masculine’, as it denotes power, but it’s not okay for men to be ‘femme/feminine’, because of femininity’s association with weakness, and inferiority to masculinity.
For me, androgyny is about making sure people can’t figure out the gender I was assigned at birth. I think I make for a nice mixture of what is seen as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ in our society.
Of course, we also need to understand that what is considered ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ according one particular society may not be the same in another. Scottish men wear kilts, which a lot of societies will consider ‘feminine’ dressing, as it is, after all, a skirt. On the other hand, trousers worn by women has been equally contentious. However, let’s go back to when female spies were introduced during the First World War. There, the line between what is ‘masc’ and what is ‘femme’ were blurred, and how! Over the years, many activists and artists have tried to play with the normative understanding of gendered clothing. Luisa Capetillo, a women’s rights activist and the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear trousers in public, was one of them.
So gendered phrases like “who wears the pants?” have slowly become redundant, with gender expression becoming more and more diverse.
But not everyone got the memo on gender diversity. We should not invalidate someone’s gender identity based on how they look (if a trans boy likes wearing skirts, he’s still a boy; if a cisgender woman doesn’t shave or thread her eyebrows and upper lip, then we have no right to call her a man). It is rude. The minute someone invalidates someone’s gender identity, it feeds into the already set idea of gender polarisation. A person’s gender identity is something very integral to their sense of self. We all need to understand how distressing it is not to be accepted for who you are.
We humans have an innate need to belong somewhere and be accepted. Not being able to express oneself is one of top causes of mental health issues. Many people undergo immense stress due to this external pressure to perform the way you are ‘supposed to’.
So ask yourself this question, how necessary is it for us to put someone in a box based solely on your perception? Is the entirety of a person based on the label we give them, or they are more than that? How much discomfort do you actually feel when you see someone not adhering to the set gender norms? Asking yourself these questions might reveal how you’ve given into the socialisation you have gone through. But not to worry! It’s time to question it and become more inclusive.
Knowing more about all gender identities can increase sensitivity in our society, and also take the pressure off people of performing their gender in a strict way
Constantly trying to fit people in the way you view the world has been the reason for racism, fascism, sexism, misogyny, casteism, homophobia, ableism, linguicism, religious discrimination, xenophobia and many more. There is a definite power play. Is there a need for this hoarding of power? This ‘Us vs Them’ is the reason we indulge in these such discriminatory behaviour. To undo the shackles of gender roles that we have had to live with so far, we need to find similarities with each other. And nobody puts it better than African-American writer, Audre Lorde:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”