Gender (Performativity) is Canceled

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

My best friend Amy is a trans-woman and she’s beautiful. She also chooses to dress and present in stereotypically feminine ways and she looks amazing doing it; why would anybody be staring at her or giving her dirty looks? And so, for ages, I said all the usual things girls say to support and encourage each other— ‘If they’re staring, it’s because they’re jealous,’ ‘They’re thinking about how pretty you are,’ etc. And I genuinely believed every word I said, until Amy shut down all of my well-intentioned platitudes with, ‘They’re trying to figure out what I am.’ And that’s when I realised she was right.

For me, someone who loves her, who sees how beautiful she is, the thought that she would be perceived as anything other than female was ridiculous. But because she’s trans, and because discrimination has always been an intrinsic part of her transition, Amy has a finely-tuned radar that I don’t, one which prevents her from ever assuming that people’s impressions of her are positive. She sees—and deeply feels—the long stares, the curious glances, the sideways looks that wash right over me. Why? Because I’m cis. Because I’ve never had to notice it. And because I choose to present as very feminine people react differently to me because they’re never trying to figure out my gender.

That’s exactly what I’m sick of. It’s a perfect example of cis privilege, and it’s a privilege I don’t need. Nobody does. Gender needs to be cancelled, and by that I mean every single element of gender performativity. That’s what is meant by the statement that ‘gender is a social construct.’  It’s the social pressure to conform to standards of performative gender that perpetuates ideals like toxic masculinity, leaving men with the belief that they have two acceptable ranges of emotion: false stoicism and anger. It’s what conditions men to perceive me as ‘feminine’ or ‘delicate’ based on the way I present, and thereby go out of their way to carry my bags or give me free drinks at bars. Why? Because even those seemingly nice actions are drawing on centuries-old stereotypes which equate femininity with weakness.

Sure, that might be an example of ‘positive discrimination,’ or stereotypes which work out in my favour, but the fact remains that they’re still toxic. Because if gender performativity invites undeserved positive treatment in some cases, then by necessity, the corollary is that it also leads to negativity and harmful discrimination. It leads to transpeople being misgendered on the phone, one simple act which can ruin someone’s mood and lead to a spiral of depression. It leads to Amy being afraid to run out to the corner shop unless she’s in a dress and full makeup because she’s afraid of being misgendered. It leads to lovely, innocent people having anxiety attacks on a daily basis because they’re overanalysing every look, every word, every gesture when they go out.

No one needs that. Because the core issue driving this discrimination is the social desire to immediately identify someone’s gender, to know where they fit within the performative web we’ve constructed for ourselves. And the fact is, it’s ultimately a non-issue. It’s not confusing to children, and it’s not inconvenient for adults. All anyone has to do is accept that they/them are completely valid pronouns, that you can have a conversation without assuming gender, and that everyone is deserving of respect. And if the vast majority of six-year-olds can get that, what excuse do any of us have as adults?

It doesn’t matter that someone who presents as male also enjoys traditionally feminine colours like pink or wears nail polish. It doesn’t matter if a woman chooses to present in non-feminine ways or doesn’t look the way you think female people should look. In Amy’s case, what matters is that she’s funny and kind and an incredible artist. What matters is that she enjoys going to the pub with friends and that she deserves to do so without feeling intimidated or out of place. That’s what you need to know about a person, not whether their gender identity lines up with your standards of approval.

People are who they are and they can like what they like. It’s as simple and freeing as that. No one owes gender performativity to anyone else. And if you’re wondering what you can do to be more inclusive, to aid in the demolition of toxic standards, these are a few small but helpful steps you can take:

  • Don’t assume gender.

Just call someone by their name and make a habit of using gender-neutral pronouns like they/them until someone tells you which pronouns they prefer.

  • Use inclusive language

Once you do know someone’s gender identity, you can show your commitment to inclusivity by consistently using the correct pronouns and social pet names for their gender. For example, make a conscious effort to call the trans women in your life ‘love,’ ‘hun’ etc. instead of ‘mate,’ ‘buddy,’ or ‘pal.’

  • Normalise pronoun disclosure

One super simple way to do this is by featuring your pronouns on your social media profiles or e-mail signatures with a simple line stating something like, ‘My pronouns are: she/her.’ This is a great reminder to everyone that gender shouldn’t be assumed and that you’re open to letting people identify themselves the way they choose.

  • Go out of your way to be kind

Without exception, a single compliment can pretty much make Amy’s day, especially if it’s one that acknowledges her femininity. Compliments on her dress, makeup, etc. mean the world because it’s a reminder that people recognise her as a woman, so always remember that a simple, ‘Love your dress!’ or ‘You look pretty today!’ can do more than you imagine.

Being inclusive isn’t hard and with consistency and kindness, you can help destroy harmful stereotypes.

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