Gender And Sexuality Labels Don't Break Stereotypes, They Reinforce Them

One of the goals of the LGBTQ community was to break boundaries — a man could be interested in feminine things, but still be a man, a woman could be a tomboy, but still be a woman. Over time, it seems those boundaries have returned, making the new “progressive,” regressive.

By Luna Salinas5 min read
Pexels/cottonbro studio

In her essay detailing her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues, J.K. Rowling describes the solidarity she felt from female writers and artists of her time, and she describes what “woman” isn’t:

“In spite of everything a sexist world tries to throw at the female-bodied, it’s fine not to feel pink, frilly, and compliant inside your own head; it’s OK to feel confused, dark, both sexual and non-sexual, unsure of what or who you are…as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume. ‘Woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head. ‘Woman’ is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos, or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive.”

Some activists want to force the opposite upon others: the idea that “woman” is subjective (I still haven’t heard a “progressive” definition of woman that isn’t circular, or doesn’t include the word itself in the definition). This has led to one of two lines of thinking that — at least within “progressive” circles — are true at the same time: one, anyone can claim to be a woman, and two, if a woman doesn’t act like a conventional straight woman (i.e. one who enjoys stereotypically feminine things), then they must be a man, or nonbinary. This hurts women, particularly young girls who are barely hitting puberty.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes Should Have Broadened Definitions, Not Narrowed Them

When I was growing up, progressives and particularly LGBTQ rights activists were championing the idea that gender didn’t entail a finite list of what you can like, do, and wear. A woman could love a woman, and she wouldn’t be less of a woman. A man could love working with makeup, and he was still a man.

But over time, the opposite idea has seemed to come back as part of the new “progressive” narrative. You can see evidence of this with the existence of “nonbinary.”

It’s not just about this rejection of lesbianism, it’s about a rejection of being a woman.

One of the hosts of the Blocked and Reported podcast, Katie Herzog, details her experience talking with nonbinary individuals in an interview with The Femsplainers:

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who call themselves nonbinary because at this point all of my former lesbian friends are now all nonbinary. It’s not just about this rejection of lesbianism, it’s about a rejection of being a woman…If I talk to the former females in my life and say ‘well what does it mean to be nonbinary?’ what they often say is ‘well I don’t feel like a man and I don’t feel like a woman…sometimes I like to wear masculine things and sometimes I like to wear feminine things.’ And to me, I find this deeply regressive, because the whole point to me of women’s liberation and lesbian liberation is to decouple us from these gender roles. So the fact that I wear pants and I have short hair and I like to do masculine things does not make me less of a woman.”

Nonbinary exists with the understanding that there’s a binary; the language alone lends itself to that understanding, and if that’s not the case, then these words don’t mean anything in the first place. If the binary is “man” or “woman,” then under the “progressive” ideology you fall into one or the other. If you’re out of your category, then you either fall in the other or you’re nonbinary, which means you’re outside of either gender stereotype. Thus, we’re right back to having regressive definitions and ideas of what gender is and what it should be.

Furthermore, it would seem when it comes to gender, the focus is more on aesthetics than it is on the struggle people face in feeling that they’re in the wrong body. When Caitlyn Jenner transitioned, most journalists’ focus was around her clothing and shoes. As if this is the most important thing about being a woman, or as if that’s what affirms someone’s womanhood. In the words of journalist Jennifer Finney Boylan, “focusing only on [Jenner’s] appearance, or her celebrity, or her improbably famous family, misses the point.” Rather than highlighting any internal struggle, or what it meant for Jenner to live as a woman (because surely it’s more than just changing your clothes), the focus was greater on aesthetics.

Gender Activists Reinforce Regressive Ideas on Social Media

In the late 2010s, I spent a lot of time online, particularly on Tumblr. I followed a lot of art blogs and blogs about hobbies I was into, but without searching for social justice content, I came across a lot of it. While on the site, I was indoctrinated as a teenager into accepting many third-wave feminist ideas that I’ve since grown out of (you can’t be happy when blaming your problems on an entire group of people), but if for me, as a teenager, it was easy to fall into believing things that don’t line up with my values now, how easy would it be for more teenagers and children to believe what these activists say, and act on it?

Some tweets have been published claiming that someone is trans, just because they liked x as a child, or just because they questioned their gender once. Other people publish blatantly false information that contradicts the trans narrative as well. While some of these tweets haven’t gone viral, it’s alarming to see that they’re accepted (or at least not blatantly rejected) by the tweet author’s circle of influence. In a perfect world, these people can say whatever they want and not hurt anyone, but some parents are easily influenced, and the reality is about 10% of Twitter users are made up of 13 to 17 year-olds (let’s not forget, it’s not like zero children under the age of 13 aren’t on Twitter).

Children Aren’t Trans Just Because They’re into Gender-Nonconforming Toys and Activities

Recent news stories indicate an increasing number of parents who believe their children are trans just because they’re not interested in toys and activities that traditionally go with their gender. 

Children don’t see the world in the same way adults do, much less gender and sexuality.

The issue is that children don’t see the world in the same way adults do, much less gender and sexuality. Research indicates that “before the age of five, children don’t seem to think that gender has any permanence at all.” In the study that draws this conclusion, a group of 3 to 5-year-olds were shown pictures of toddlers, and their perception of the toddler’s gender changed depending on the kinds of clothes they were wearing in the pictures. It’s not until they learn about biological differences between sexes (i.e. genitalia) that children understand that clothes don’t define a gender. So while they may want to play a simple dress-up game, or imitate a character they saw in a movie, some people seem to think this means more than it does; that they want to change their gender entirely, and are willing to accept the bodily changes that come with that.

It Puts Pressure on Confused Girls To Conform to These New Rules

The pressures to conform to a certain label based on your personality, or what you like, seems to especially affect young girls. Two, in particular, Keira Bell and Elle Palmer, were not challenged when it came to their decision to transition, and they came to change their minds about their transition some years after they began.

Bell was a tomboy growing up, and when she became a teen, her own mother asked her if she was a lesbian or if she wanted to be a boy. Her answers were both initially “no”; however, changing circumstances in her life (one of which was becoming truant at school) led her to change her mind. She attributed not feeling heard at school to being a girl. When she shared this sentiment with a therapist she was referred to for her truancy, there was little done to stop her. The therapist didn’t question her decision, and Bell was able to medically transition, going so far as to take testosterone and get breast removal surgery (referred to as “top surgery”).

When you’re so immersed in internet culture, it can make you lose sight of yourself and reality.

In the case of Palmer, after experiencing a traumatic event online, she no longer wanted to be perceived as a girl and thought that being seen as a man would help.

Joining trans subreddits and looking at trans pages on social media (not unlike the tweets mentioned above) prompted her to begin her own journey. When Palmer started to transition, she met with a therapist who challenged the decision, but Palmer soon quit seeing her. After she began to see a lesbian therapist, she was given the green light for her transition, with little to no questioning on anybody else’s part. After some time of being on testosterone, and living and being accepted as a man, Palmer realized she was still unhappy and unsure of what her next steps in life would be. After adopting healthier habits like eating better and exercising, she no longer felt the dysmorphia that triggered her feelings of wanting to transition.

Palmer correlated having little connection to other people in the real world with feeling compelled to transition. In the case of Bell, maybe if she had felt heard and seen at school, or otherwise had a close support system that accepted her as a tomboy, she wouldn’t have transitioned.

When you’re so immersed in internet culture, it can make you lose sight of yourself, and of reality; it also doesn’t help that growing up and puberty alone can cause a lot of discomfort.

Closing Thoughts

A portion of the LGBTQ community seems to affirm that you’re trans if you like things that don’t conform to the typical interests of your gender. Some would surely say that if you’re a girl, you can’t like traditionally masculine things. Instead of letting a child like what it likes, and allow them to explore and grow into either a healthy, well-adjusted cisgender/straight, or cisgender/gay individual, some would insist the child must be trans if they don’t conform to gender expectations. Are women not allowed to be interested in traditionally masculine things, without being labeled nonbinary or trans?