Why Gender Must Be Its Own Conversation
Volatile binaries around the biological determination of sex threaten to subsume the gender conversation. Here’s why they must not.
Here’s my bottom line: We need to encourage more fluid performances of gender as an antidote to the damaging impact created by our narrow and bullying man box culture of masculinity. One immediate benefit of collectively accepting wider ranging performances of gender, is that we each are freer to find the gender performance that best fits for us, instead of being forced into the narrow gender definitions defined by man box culture.
Man box culture, the way by which boys and men are bullied into forming their masculine identity is:
a) deeply socially isolating
b) denigrating of women.
Creating a better culture of masculinity requires a conversation about our cultural construction of gender. But recently when addressing the deeply limiting notions of “gender as a simple binary” on my Facebook community page, the conversation kept derailing to a discussion of sex as defined by biology.
The sex as defined by biology debate out there is volatile. So volatile that a much needed conversation about gender, universally accepted as a social construct, is at risk for being subsumed in the acrimonious back and forth over male female identity and biology. Crucial gender conversations, designed to directly challenge man box culture, are at risk of being derailed. A conversation that arguably impacts everyone can be derailed by a super-heated battle between a much smaller population of partisans. But this is how binary debates operate on the net. They swarm other spaces. They shut down more civil nuanced conversations.
And this is how that looks.
Our dominant culture of masculinity, man box culture, does its greatest damage by bullying and policing boys into giving up their crucially important relational capacities by wrongly gendering boys’ need for friendship and emotional expression as feminine and then shaming that expression as “girly or gay.” (Niobe Way, Deep Secrets)
When I suggest countering man box culture’s lock on our notions of masculinity, by advocating for wider ranging gender fluidity, some arrive asserting that male only and female only spaces need to be protected, coded language for the biology based debate on sexual identity. I have never advocated to end male or female only spaces. I’m a ManKind Project brother. I do men’s work in man only spaces.
Someone then posts that male/female sex is actually not a binary, which is quickly followed by comments on x and y chromosomes, and we’re off to the races on biology. The debate is fierce and divisive.
I enter the thread and remind folks that we’re talking about gender. At which point, I’m quizzed on my definition of gender because “some are using false notions of gender in the biology debate.” Yet, more subsuming of gender discourses.
Subsuming the gender discussion, into the biology binary wars will do great harm to those who suffer under man box culture. I firmly believe that the emerging widespread permission for more fluid expressions of gender will strike a death blow to man box culture. Creating a healthier, more connecting culture of masculinity would end much of the violence and abuse women and men face, including those abuse issues we struggle to define via the biology frame.
A conversation about gender is crucial to breaking out of the man box. When we introduce the biology debate to the gender conversation in derailing ways, we increase the complexity and the volatility of that conversation by a factor of ten, thereby blunting its effectiveness. Growing cultural acceptance for a more fluid performance of gender helps all of us. What’s more, we already have a clear consensus around creating that outcome across a wide range of stake holders.
So, please, let’s keep a conversation about gender going that is free of the acrimony of other more binary debates. We need a robust conversation on gender to go forward separately.
Mark Greene is the author of The Little #MeToo Book for Men.