01 February 2012

Upholding The "Norms"

Writing about Kitty Genovese, and the way it was covered in the media, has made me think more about the ways in which maleness, heterosexuality and cisgenderism frame most discussions and perceptions of gender and sexuality, even among those who seem to be sympathetic toward LGBT people.

Let's revisit, for one more moment, the portrayal of Genovese.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the fact that she was a lesbian was not disclosed at the time.  Her neighbors and the media mentioned that she had a "roommate," which seems plausible for two young single women.  

Also, much was made of how she was petite, dressed well and was "always smiling."  Those are often considered desirable "feminine" qualities, which is to say that they are qualities many straight men find appealing in women.   Also, the media accounts echoed something else her neighbors said about her:  Working at night left her free to browse the stores along Austin Street, the neighborhood's main shopping strip.  A good number of those stores sell women's clothing and shoes, as they do now, while others sold "aesthetic" items like jewelry and furnishings.

In other words, at least part of the sympathy people felt for her--and the media attention her case got--resulted from the degree to which she fit, or at least seemed to fit,  gender and sexual norms for young women at that time.

Sadly, not much has changed in that regard.  Worse, from my point of view, is that heterosexism and cisgenderism pervade even the standards and procedures of care for young men and women who are transitioning into the gender of their spirit--or subconscious, if you will.  

Although the situation is changing, you have a better chance of being approved for hormones and gender reassignment surgery if you seem as though you would fit a stereotype--almost a cariacture, really--of the gender in which you want to spend the rest of your life.   And whatever approval and support you might get will depend, at least to some degree, upon how well you fit people's expectation of what someone in your "new" gender should be.  

The weird thing is that if you fit one of those stereotypes--say, if you're one of those transwomen (increasingly rare these days) who never leaves her dwelling in anything but a skirt, blouse, stockings, high heels and makeup--you will be criticized for "overdoing it," on one hand and for "overcompensating," on the other.  

Yet, until recently, if you'd shown up for your first session with a screening doctor or psychotherapist in clothing more appropriate to someone of the gender to which you were assigned at birth, there was a very good chance you wouldn't be approved, or would be told that you're "not ready."

And, if you are a transwoman who falls into the kind of submissive behavior men traditionally expected from women, you are criticized for being weak.  Yet, if you stand up to mistreatment, people say that you're "acting like a man" or are "uppity."

One thing about privilege:  Those who enjoy it seem to see it fit to change thee rules at any given moment.  That is how you get criticized for doing the very things you were expected to do, and criticized for not doing other things.   

The things I've just mentioned remind me that there won't be any real progress in the human race, let alone in gender and power relations, unless variations in gender identity, expression, sexuality--not to mention culture and value systems--are recognized and respected rather than merely seen as conditions to "tolerate" or efface from the person who holds them.