Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Gender: Looking beyond socially-constructed binary

Boys are “supposed to” play with toy trucks, wrestle, never cry, get a high-paying job and marry a beautiful woman. Girls are “supposed to” have boyfriends, be emotional, marry a handsome man and cook meals for the family.

These expectations are the product of the gender binary, the social construction by which gender is established as a rigid dichotomy: male or female. The gender binary perpetuates roles and expectations for men and women–but the truth of the matter is that many do not live up to society’s standards of what they are “supposed to” be. Some boys play with Barbie. Some girls wrestle. However, these stereotypes still define how a person is viewed, and often contribute to the way that they are treated.

Photos by Ben Lerchin; Design by Ted Hendershot

“That’s why discrimination occurs, because most people don’t fit into the stereotypes,” said junior Mehera Nori.

Those that are GLBTQ face many challenges since they don’t fit into the gender binary. Some see them as challenging society’s gender norms and thereby threatening an institution that has become comfortable and familiar.

“One of the things GLBTQ people face is heterosexism, which is the conception that being heterosexual is better,” said Melissa Wilcox, associate professor of religion and director of the gender studies department. “The gender binary is especially difficult for those who identify as trans or gender queer, in that there is such a strong expectation that people will not only be one gender or the other, but will be the gender that society expects.”

Individuals in our society are classified by gender and certain expectations are thus imposed on them.

“Our understanding socially in the United States of gender actually includes sexual attraction, so that what it is to be a woman in our society is in part to be attracted to a man, stereotypically of course, and likewise what it is to be a man stereotypically in our society is to be attracted to women. What that means is that our society still assumes that gay men are feminine and lesbians are masculine,” Wilcox said.

“The stereotype of gay and lesbian people is that they don’t conform to gender stereotypes,” senior said Liam Mina.

“Or that we have to make them fit into a stereotype. If they are lesbian you are like, ‘They are fat or butch.’ There’s no in-between,” Nori added.

These perceptions can accumulate into a general sense of homophobia often have devastating consequences.

“In terms of emotional effects, I do know that there is a higher rate of mental illness and substance abuse in LGBTQ communities that has directly to do not with being LGBTQ, [but rather with] homophobia and transphobia. When we are talking about mental illness we are especially talking about anxiety and depression. We do have higher suicide rates in the [LGBTQ] community than we do in the average community in the U.S.,” Wilcox said.

Although students at Whitman College are typically accepting and liberal-minded, there is still a certain amount of wrongful assumptions, insensitivities and lack of awareness towards gender diversity due to the gender binary.

“I think I feel this way about a lot of communities, like Whitman, that are like, ‘Yeah, we’re accepting!’ You still get a lot of that [gender] binary language,” Nori said.

“I think that even with Dragfest and the accepting culture here, a lot of Whitman students would never consider anything outside of the gender binary. I don’t think it’s talked about in most circles, and I feel like to many people I’ve talked to it’s a completely new idea to them,” Mina said.

Historically, the treatment of GLBTQ people has fluctuated dramatically. While the general trend is one of improvement, times of economic hardship can cause a backslide.

“During economic recession we seem to see a shift towards social conservatism, so with the huge depression things kind of backpedaled [for LGBTQ mobilization],” said Wilcox.

We are now in a period of economic recession, and this trend may shed some light on instances of resistance to GLBTQ people in the present day. Although in general acceptance and rights have increased, discrimination is still very much an issue that the GLBTQ community deals with. Currently, attacks tend to be more covert.

“There is less overt discrimination in society, but I would say also that the challenges are different not necessarily that everything has gotten perfect. Various aspects of the community face different challenges,” Mina said.

“There are also struggles within the GLBTQ community itself. One of the big debates within the community itself is the gay marriage debate, the question of should we even be arguing for this. However, there are more legal protections for the gay community and they can’t be overtly discriminated against as much,” Nori said.

“I think the attacks we get now are a lot more anonymous and you don’t even know who is attacking you. Last year, my section had a large number of GLBTQ students. We never experienced any problems with our section-mates that we could see, but there was a quote board in the bathroom and in the spring semester someone started writing some really hateful remarks, which got some people saying ‘that’s not okay,’ but then other people adding on to the remarks. We had no idea who it was and no one would have said any of that to our face, but it was there,”  sophomore Brian van Oppen said.

These quiet attacks could especially be prevalent on Whitman’s campus. Because of the vibe of acceptance that Whitman expresses, people experiencing homophobia and related prejudices feel that they can only express it anonymously.

“I think that it’s not cool to be homophobic at Whitman, but I think the sentiment still exists amongst some people,” Mina said.

On the other hand, compared to how GLBTQ people were treated in the past, there has been obvious progress.

“Last semester we had a meal with some GLBTQ alums. We were talking about how some people will yell out of the car ‘Fag!’ or something terrible. One of the alums was saying 20 years ago they wouldn’t have yelled it out of the car but they would have gotten out of the car and punched you. I think that’s a specific example of things changing, not entirely getting better but people at least not getting beat up,” said junior Emma O’Rourke-Powell.

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  • C

    CFeb 25, 2011 at 1:05 am

    I really appreciate what this article is doing and I think that it’s generally quite well-written and researched. However, I take a bit of issue with this sentence:

    “Those that are GLBTQ face many challenges since they don’t fit into the gender binary.”

    I’m not sure this is necessarily true. Sure, there are some individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, queer, or questioning who don’t fit into the gender binary, but there are also some who do.

    Just because one doesn’t fit into the gender binary for a single reason – such as being attracted to the same gender – doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fit into it in other ways. There are also plenty of straight people who don’t fit into the gender binary, too. Yes, I think that people who are gender-nonconformative do face challenges and discrimination… but not every GLBTQ person is gender-nonconformative. Just saying.