The Devil in the Anatomical Details: Putting Gender in its Place

Just one card in the deck!

Just one card in the deck!

With all the advances in our country towards full and equal partnership between women and men, I look around me and see that we still seem to be obsessed by gender. Like race, we have generally agreed as a society that gender should have no institutionally sanctioned role in education, politics and work (though most would admit that with both race and gender we still have a ways to go). So while we are striving to remove gender as a defining factor in how we interact with each other in society, we still seem to caught up in promoting, even fetishizing, differences between women and men, at the expense of the full flowering of the human potential in each of us.

As a parent who has watched his two kids, one male and one female, grow up among their peers, I have witnessed much of that adult obsession with gender focused on children, and youth culture. Sure… part of a kid’s developmental process is to gender identify. But from my experience as a kid, and later experience watching other kids, most of that developmental process has nothing to do with whether you are a boy or a girl. Being “all boy” or “daddy’s girl” are adult inventions, romanticizing to point of fetishizing gender identification. The reality seems to be that most kids quickly and easily gender identify and don’t need all these vicarious expectations and other baggage heaped upon them.

Start with most parents going to great lengths to dress their small children, particularly female children, so there is no shadow of a doubt which gender the kid is. Next you have TV programming and particularly commercials, where boys and girls are presented as two teams, almost always divided by gender, who play with different toys, think about different things and have different goals based on their sexual anatomy. Finally, you have portrayals of adult culture like “Sex in the City” that that take the whole boys versus girls theme into the adult world as something for kids to aspire towards.

Now 54 years into this life, I am wondering more and more if this is all just smoke and mirrors, an excuse for consumerism and vicarious adult fixation with youth, and basically “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

As we move toward an American society with a full and equal partnership between men and women, less and less of what we do in the adult world has to do with gender. Though there is still a “pink collar ghetto” of female dominated jobs, our trajectory and agreed societal policy is to open up all types of job to both genders. More and more women are sharing the boardrooms and legislative assemblies alongside men, charged with the same tasks regardless of their anatomy. Even in religion, more and more denominations are accepting women to lead congregations and participate in higher levels of denominational governance.

Some people I share my ideas about gender with respond that if men and women aren’t different (or at least don’t behave differently) life would be overwhelmed by a boring sameness. It’s that whole “vive la difference” thing. Plus in our society still in the grips of patriarchal conventional wisdom (now thousands of years old), men tend to only notice or take seriously women who are sexually intriguing, even if the venue is a work environment that has nothing to do with sex.

But in my experience, the really exciting differences between individuals is in the uniqueness of their individual consciousnesses if allowed and encouraged to fully express in how they dress, behave, and otherwise present a unique persona to the world. Our fixation with gender-based dress, behavior and personas, paradoxically limits the range of unique expression within individuals. From my point of view, it leads to boring sameness among men and a different boring sameness among women.

I have been privileged to have a glimpse to witness the power of individual diversity that perhaps includes gender but does not depend on it. I have witnessed Unitarian-Universalist camps and conferences for older youth (that my son and daughter participated in) where, based on the UU belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, the kids appear to be much more free than in a school environment to adopt more quirky and individualized personas that sometime include, sometime ignore their gender. In the UU youth communities I have been involved with there is much less normative adult and youth-peer pressure for the young men to act “masculine” and the women “feminine”. The kids seem happy, more relaxed than older youth in other environments, with their gender minimized in favor of their individuality.

What I see are these kids challenging our fixation on the legacy of thousands of years of patriarchy, where the sorting and ranking of people is a pillar of the social structure, including masters over slave, later lords over peasants, whites over people of color, and always men over women. Through our societal consensus, as reflected in our law, we have made a commitment to end this hierarchical form of societal organization in favor of egalitarian partnership. But understandably, people are slow to change habits transmitted from generation to generation for thousands of years reinforcing the ancient message that “boys will be boys and girls will be girls”.

To the extent that this routing and sorting by gender continues, it can corrode self-esteem in the individual young person, create anxiety, and lead to an adult who is not fully realized, not comfortable in their own skin, and not best able to proceed with their own evolution and contribute to the ongoing evolution of human society.

In my vocabulary, the adjectives “feminine” and “masculine” have become outmoded relics of that patriarchal gender ranking. Both men and women seem happier and more effective in our contemporary society to the extent that they exhibit a mix of relational and directive skills traditionally identified as “feminine” and “masculine”. So much so to the point that the words have little meeting except in describing traditional behavior.

And finally, at the deepest metaphysical or spiritual level of who we are, I am convinced that our soul, our consciousness, or whatever you might call it, is neither male nor female. We inhabit an animal body with either male or female anatomy and the hormones that go with that anatomy. And even at this level there is enough variation that many of us are physically attracted to the same gender rather than the other, or do not fully identify with the gender that is indicated by that anatomy.

It seems to me, at least in our contemporary high-technology, information society, that other than choosing a mate and giving birth (still of course critical functions to the continuation of human society) your gender is not all its cracked up to be. I urge everyone not to get too caught up in your reproductive “plumbing” as your most salient characteristic, when in fact the blooming of your unique and amazing consciousness, which has no gender, gets short shrift.

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3 replies on “The Devil in the Anatomical Details: Putting Gender in its Place”

  1. Luke Brown says:


    Your headlines are almost always attention grabbing (kudos!) and today was no exception. I’m always interested in hearing one’s take on gender issues. It’s a topic seldom discussed and, thankfully, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

    In an ideal world, your observation of your kids’ behavior at UU camps (I went to UU camps in junior high and have many fond and several not-so-fond memories) would be more the rule than the exception. It’s important for parents to allow their children to grow, and just as important for children to be aware of and understand the behavior of those who were not raised the same as they were. That is also the job of the parents.

    If a child grows up with minimal emphasis on gender issues, they may indeed be better people for it. But if they can’t deal with people who do not share their gender ideals, adult life will be very difficult.

    There was an incident about a year ago, somewhere in Ventura Country, where a teen boy was killed by a fellow school student who didn’t like that the murder victim preferred to dress in ‘female’ clothes and wear makeup. The murder victim did not live with his parents for some reason.

    I believe the victim’s, hell, let’s call them adult ‘advisers’, who I think included at least one teacher, let this student down by encouraging him to play out his perceived gender identity at the expense of his safety. Everything has a time and a place and his advisers missed the boat on that.

    A child’s safety is the main job of a parent. Like many other things in life, it, too, sometimes requires compromise. It’s entirely possible the victim could still be alive had his advisers encouraged him to go to school as a boy and act as he wanted at home and around people with whom he was comfortable.

    If his advisers did not mention the downside to dressing in a ‘feminine’ manner at school, they were remiss. If they did and he choose to dress as he wanted anyway, at least he died being the person he truly was. How many of us can say that?

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Great comment Luke about not being naive to the cultural context you live in.

    The hierarchical conformist structure of patriarchy is maintained by coercion and violence when seen as necessary when women attempt to upset the sexual ranking by behaving in the superior “masculine” way or men in the “inferior” feminine way. To the extent we still have the lingering hold of patriarchy in our country we still have the possibility of violence.

    We need to be honest with our kids about the worst elements of our culture but also set an example for them of effectively challenging it at every opportunity. Many have died in our country in the pursuit of life and liberty, hopefully this young man knew what he was up against in pursuing his challenge against these remaining elements of these ancient principles of domination and control.

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