Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On being "gender atypical"

I've written before about how LGBT issues are ultimately about gender role conformity in general, and Dan Savage posted on that topic today in relation to the It Gets Better Project:
Got this question last night at Cornell University... 
Cornell professor Ritch Savin-Williams said in the New York Times that he's concerned that it's not about gay youth, but about gender-atypical kids. Is the "It Gets Better" campaign too narrowly focused?
The kids who suffer the most from anti-gay bullying—the prime targets—are the gender-nonconforming kids, i.e. the sissies and the tomboys, the kids who can't pass for straight. And some of the kids who can't pass for straight are straight. Most kids who are gender nonconforming, or gender atypical, are lesbian, gay, bi, or trans, and the IGBP was created to reach out to these queer kids. But the messages at the IGBP are relevant to straight gender-atypical kids, and we know that straight-but-gender-nonconforming kids are watching the videos, commenting on them, taking hope from them, and contributing their own videos. 
But, yes, we have to address issues around gender—gender expectations and stereotypes—to truly address anti-gay bullying. We can learn to recognize rough gender norms without stigmatizing or punishing kids who depart from those norms. 
Homophobia doesn't just punish people who are actually gay, bi, or trans. It punishes everyone who doesn't match a traditional idea of what maleness and femaleness are.  I was a tree-climbing short-haired tomboy through most of elementary and middle school, and was called a dyke more times than I'd care to remember by the same straight guys who punished each other regularly for deviating from a rigid standard of machismo in the slightest. I feel sorry for them in retrospect, because they were victims of the same rigid, idiotic standards of gender that they inflicted on me.

Jen McCreight channels her 13-year-old self to reply to Savage:
I like boys, and I have a huuuuge crush on one who I think likes me back. But I'm a tomboy and I always have been. . .  
And that's why everyone thinks I'm a lesbian. I don't care if people are gay, but the way they say the word hurts so much. They whisper it like I'm dirty or broken. Girls don't like changing by me in gym class, even though I'm more concerned that my underwear is dorky than what they look like in their underwear. I know it'll probably stop when I get a boyfriend (if that ever happens, sigh) but that just makes me feel worse, knowing that the kids who really are gay can't hide like that and have to put up with this forever. 
But when I'm feeling down, I can watch the It Gets Better Project videos and know I'm not alone. So this big letter was to say "thank you."

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