Our Social Norms Around Gender are Too Rigid

Our Social Norms Around Gender are Too Rigid

Rigid ideas around gender have served as an excuse to oppress large groups of people throughout history.

As a sociologist I have spent a lot of time studying something called social norms. These are practices we have been taught that help us function in our society and our culture. They serve a purpose – helping people understand informal rules of interaction between people. However, they can become rigid and oppressive when taken to the extreme.

We have incredibly strong social norms around gender, but the whole idea that gender is static and rigid is flawed. In fact, ideas around gender and what is appropriate for women to do versus what is appropriate for men to do varies from one culture to another and from one time period to another.

Unfortunately these rigid ideas around gender have served as an excuse to oppress large groups of people throughout history. Women have long had to fight for basic rights, like the right to vote, to have control over their bodies and to stay safe from violence. But the impact of rigid gender norms don’t just affect people because they are female. Some of the worst oppression has happened to people who have fluid gender identities. They have been killed, tortured, burned to death, had the sex organs mutilated and experienced less shocking but just as harmful acts such as work, marriage, housing and healthcare discrimination.

Whenever someone doesn’t fit the rigid norms we have invented around gender, our society discriminates against them.  Let’s say you are a strong, independent woman who likes to drive trucks – you are seen as gender deviant. Let’s say you are a caring man who likes to work with children – you are seen as gender deviant.  Notice how the words strong, independent and caring all imply our gender norms. 

These norms get even more complicated for individuals who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Intersectional. Indeed there are so many ways that people differ from gender norms, we have taken to using a complex acronym that doesn’t cover everything – LGBTQ+ because we can’t include all the varying ways people differ. 

It is really important to understand that being different is not bad! In fact, we need diversity or our communities don’t thrive.  Differing from our gender norms is also not bad! It is healthy for humans to have complex gender identities and for there to be a wide variety of ways people identify.

Quick Primer on How Gender Works

When we are born most of us are born with clear male or female reproductive organs. This is what we call our sex. However, even here there are differences! Some people are born intersexual – they don’t have clear reproductive systems. As is the norm for our society we have treated these individuals as defective and flawed. We’ve tried to make them fit our gender norms, rather than embrace their diversity and welcome them as they have been created.

Tied to our biological sex is our sexual orientation – who we are attracted to and love. Most people focus on this characteristic and assume that everyone who is LGBTQ+ is attracted to someone of the same biological sex. This is just not true. In fact, human sex, sexuality and gender are way more complex. 

We all have a biological sex, we also all have a gender. At first glance gender and sex can seem the same because our norms say they are the same. This is not true. Gender, how feminine or masculine a person feels, is not automatically tied to sex. We all know people who are born with female reproductive organs but tend to have very masculine personalities and visa versa. Gender is harder to understand for people because it is about how we feel inside and it is less visible. 

Even more difficult for many people to understand is gender identity. It is how we present ourselves to others. This means that someone who is female may choose to present themselves as male or visa versa.

People who conform to gender norms sometimes have a hard time understanding why another person may not conform. They think of it as a choice. And while people who are fluid in the gender identities may choose to hide their differences, they are not choosing to be different. For them it is not a choice, it is how they were born. It is a part of who they are.

It is really important to understand this, because when we try to make people conform to rigid gender norms, we create oppressive systems that stop people from thriving. This creates harm and pain and it doesn’t benefit our society. Gender and sex difference are a normal part of human differences, and people who are LGBTQI+ deserve to be treated with respect just as all people deserve respect.

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