Jun 8, 2010
Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, Part 2: Gender
Yesterday, in part 1 of this series, I blogged about major LGBTQ stereotypes. Today I’m blogging about gender. Once again, here’s the complete schedule of posts:
If you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you might want to check it out before you read today’s. On to part 2 …
It’s easy to dismiss the stereotypes I blogged about yesterday as homophobic, and to say to yourself, “I’m not homophobic, so I would never write like that.” But many of those stereotypes stem from something else: gender.
Gender is a concept that most people believe they understand, but in order to truly unpack what it means and how it affects representations of LGBTQ people, you have to look deeper than the surface meaning.
First, gender is not the same as sex.
Sex is an individual’s biological classification as male or female.
What is gender?
Gender consists of the social meanings that cultures assign to those biological differences.
For example, in contemporary American society, we have many beliefs about what a woman is. These include her appearance (her hair length, whether she wears makeup, the clothes she wears); the way she speaks (is her voice modulated and soft? is she strident?); even the way she moves (does she walk with a feminine gait?).
Consider the way you get up and get ready for the day. You probably brush your teeth before heading out of the house, but you might also wash your face with particular facial cleansing products. You might do your hair in a particular hairstyle — do you wear it in a pony tail? Do you clip it back with a comb? Do you blow dry it and then use styling products?
You might also apply makeup — anything from simple lipgloss and powder to full-on foundation, eye makeup, blush, etc. You might put on earrings or other jewelry. When you get dressed, you choose whether to wear trousers or jeans or a skirt and blouse, or a dress. You choose which shoes to wear: sneakers? heels? sandals?
By the time you’ve left the house, you’ve put on a public persona. When you do this every day, day in and day out, you essentially create your gender identity. This is what queer theorist Judith Butler calls gender performativity ((Admittedly, I’m simplifying it a bit.)). It’s about the everyday things you do, repeatedly, that mark you as a woman or a man.
Now, beneath the clothing and makeup and shoes and hairstyle, biologically you have a particular sex. That does not change according to what you wear. But your gender can appear markedly different depending on how you present your body to the public.
This is gender expression.
Gender expression is how a person behaves, appears, or presents oneself with regard to societal expectations of gender.
If a girl chooses to wear combat boots and baggy jeans instead of a frilly pink dress, that is a kind of gender expression.
If you think back on the stereotypes I talked about, you’ll see that many of them relate to gender expression. The belief that a feminine boy is unnatural relates to societal beliefs about what makes a man. The belief that a girl should cross her legs and act demure, instead of taking up as much room on the subway as a boy her own age, is about societal beliefs about women. These are issues of gender.
These societal expectations about gender often constrain us in our daily lives. I think that often times people find it easier to be gay-friendly than to accept people who are genderqueer ((I’m using the term “genderqueer” to describe someone who does not appear to be traditionally feminine or masculine.)). I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone express the belief that it’s fine for so-and-so to be gay, but why does she have to dress like a man? It even happens within the queer community.
Obviously, not everyone is comfortable with people who choose to express their gender in nontraditional ways. The reason I’m writing an entire blog post specifically about gender is because I find that many people don’t understand the way that gender often underscores — unconsciously, even — homophobia.
These social beliefs about what makes a woman a “real” woman can be extremely constraining to someone who does not fall within heterosexual norms. As a writer, I believe it’s your responsibility to understand what makes a character who they are. There is no “right” way to write about gay characters, but it’s very important to take an honest look at your assumptions.
So I encourage you to think about your assumptions about gender and gender expression, especially when you’re writing about queer characters. Be aware of your own beliefs, so that your characters can have their own beliefs.
* * *
Do you have any questions about gender? An experience to share? Please note: Comments will be moderated, and homophobia is not tolerated on my website.