Cisnormativity, the Gender Binary, and Cultural Expectations of Gender
The discipline of the gendered body begins as early as childhood and infiltrates both the home and school – institutions that heavily influence development. In Karin A. Martin’s investigation of gendered body discipline in the classroom, “the effects of dressing-up or bodily adornment, the gendered nature of formal and relaxed behaviors, how the teachers instruct girls’ and boys’ bodies, and the gendering of physical interactions” were registered (Martin 1998:497). Paying particular attention to the effects of dressing-up, each day, about 61% of the girls wore pink clothing while 24% wore dresses. Knowledge of dress etiquette was also observed in many of the girls that they may have gained from observing their loved ones. When they played dressed-up, the five-year-old children were more likely to dress in accordance with gender roles in contrast to the three-year-old children who preferred to remain exploratory (Martin 1998:499). With a simple two-year difference and at such a young age, adherence to gender expectations increasingly occurred among the five-year-old children. What Martin suggests being at play is a hidden curriculum that encourages the normalization of the gendered body (Martin 1998:496). This subconscious teaching of what should be considered natural as it pertains to gender is extremely dangerous and may contribute to peer and personal victimization.
The consequences of gender as a teaching instrument are seen in Tyler Hatchel et al.’s study of minority stress in transgender youth. Respondents were asked to assess perceived victimization, mental health issues, and sense of belonging within their school. To reiterate, 1 in 3 transgender adolescents experienced personal victimization (Hatchel et. al 2018: 2473.). In an environment that protects and advocates a cisnormative ideal of gender, it is understandable that trans youth would feel a sense of loss and ostracization and internalize the sentiment that they do not adhere to what is portrayed as normalcy.
Charles Wright Mill’s theory of the sociological imagination states that “underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide societies” (Mills 2000:3). This colonized construction of gender, although something that does not exist in objective reality, has very real consequences for the youth who face dissonance of their gender identity and what they feel they must conform to. Mill’s notes, “What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators.” Limited to school and, as will be discussed, family conceptualizations of gender, it can be difficult to find acceptance of oneself. Eventually, one begins to feel like Georg Simmel’s “The Stranger”: a person present and nearby, but at the same time withdrawn and out-of-place (Simmel 1908:1). Conformity of gender expression, identity, and expectations remains the link that connects the group, but because the trans person of color experiences a different relationship with gender, the only structure that keeps them intact is the spatial boundaries of their environment. Unfortunately, the trans person may not receive the same openness or sense of freedom. This cannot occur as long as oppressive structures remain in effect.
Family Structures and Friendly Spaces
Revisiting the study on minority stressors and transgender youth, the implications of the results should raise some doubts. Recall that, trans-YNOC were found to experience more distress. This was said to be because of a greater sensitivity to peer victimization. However, the reason suggested for the desensitization of trans-YOC to the same process was intersectional invisibility (Hatchel et. al 2018: 2473). To suggest that facing other struggles facilitates other forms of discrimination because acquired resilience minimizes the impact these hostilities have on trans-YOC. Additionally, there is no elaboration of what minority stressors are being considered in this generalization. This simplification of what the data shows fails to consider the family dynamics and racialized conceptions of gender that distress trans-YOC. The insinuated narrative that they are likely to face less distress because they would have developed resilience would only invalidate the concerns of trans-YOC even more.
Coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality describes the interconnected nature of the different aspects of identity and the resulting overlap of disadvantages (Coaston 2019). Following Dr. Crenshaw’s model of intersectionality, the confrontation of multiple stressors would not ease the confrontation of another. Rather, the experiences of the marginalized identities would intersect, creating a form of discrimination unique of the discrimination faced by cisgender YOC or trans-YNOC. Like Dr. Crenshaw seeks to achieve with intersectionality, the purpose is not to encourage hierarchies of power, but to eliminate power dynamics that are potentially contributing to the distress of both trans-POC and trans-PNOC.
The concept of intersectionality is also observed in the survey of the 41 LGBTQ+ Latinx adults who expressed their frustration with familiar and religious anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric (Shmitz 2020:832). Alejandra’s story shows her father having an outspoken concern that her sexual identity would further marginalize her family. This overlap of stressors did not reduce the distress that Alejandra felt, contrary to the framework of intersectional invisibility (Shmitz 2020:839). Nor did it alleviate Kevin’s, a heteroflexible transgender man, frustrations from the constant invalidation of his gender identity (Shmitz 2020:839). Marcus was not any more resilient when he was condemned to Hell by his own parts, despite being a Latinx, bisexual transgender man (Shmitz 2020:840). Lastly, Emma did not have the “resilience” to be out to their uncles, facing the risk of losing their shelter. (Shmitz 2020:842).
An effective alternative to building “resilience” from the hostilities of other minority stressors is the attention to the creation of community spaces where a person can actually be supported and especially understood. The majority of transgender and non-binary (TNB)people surveyed for research on TNB community development were enrolled in support networks. The shared experience of being born in the wrong body was something that a few of them saw as important (Stone et. al 2019:237). Black and/or American Indian TNB respondents regarded LGBTQ+ POC spaces as their community, attesting that the overlap of minority stressors should be used to build solidarity rather than be seen as a tool of resilience that somehow desensitizes transPOC to victimization (Stone et. al 2019:236). However, it is not enough to create safe spaces. Gender identity must be decolonized and gender expression liberated to secure safety for trans-POC.
Decolonizing Gender and Deconstructing the Double Conscience
Gloria Anzaldúa examines the consciousness of the Borderlands: a theory that embraces inclusivity and opposes the “policy of racial purity that white America practices,” (Anzaldúa 2007:99). She shares of an occurrence, like that of Dub Bois’s double consciousness (Itzigsohn and Brown 2020:27), reflected in la conciencia de la mestiza, “The ambivalence from the clash of voices results in mental and emotional states of perplexity. Internal strife results in insecurity and indecisiveness. The mestiza’s dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness. In a constant state of mental infantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another,” (Anzaldúa 2007:100). Subjectivity to the Eurocentric conceptualizations of gender under the perceived need to do so introduces tension with one’s actual gender identity. With racial perceptions of gender – which in western societies are likely an extension of Eurocentric ideals – the racialized self and the gendered self are in conflict (Du Bois 2004:145). A struggle of reclaiming identity and pressure to conform to conflicting expectations may cause a person to wear themselves and feel an incomplete connection with all characterizations of their person. Challenging the expectations that pressure her to choose one part of herself over another, “She adopts new perspectives toward the dark-skinned, women, and queers. She strengthens her tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct,” (Anzaldúa 2007:104), a process Mills emphasizes as necessary to expand our vision and potential (Mills 2000:2). In more explicit support of the idea that identities are affected by colonial ties, Anzaldúa continues, “The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance: By taking away our self-determination, it has made us weak and empty. As a people we have resisted and we have taken expedient positions, but we have never been allowed to develop unencumbered – we have never been allowed to be fully ourselves… A misinformed people is a subjugated people,” (Anzaldúa 2007:108). The double consciousness and the colonialist ideals challenged by la conciencia de la mestiza are consequences of a racialized modernity and the invasiveness of a cisnormative, heteropatriarchy. Acknowledgment of the pervasive ways of Eurocentric ideals is the first step to self-acceptance and self-liberation. Dismantling the construction of gender as a colonial tool is the key to unshackling the oppressive states that make gender expression suffocating, rather than liberating.