Feminine, Masculine, and Everything In Between
One day, close to the end of my time in Papua, I was leading a gender workshop for a group of about 35 middle and high school students. Let’s just say that going into it, I was not enthused, nor particularly inspired. That however, soon changed. I presented the group with a brief and very simple definition of gender: society’s idea of what it means to be a man or a woman. I personally think it is so much more than that, but this was just an introduction. One student wanted to dig deeper, and asked an intriguing question: what about gay people?
Ah, yes. This requires a bit of an explanation. One of the more fascinating observations I made in Papua was this: people often use the word gay to describe people who cross-dress, even if the particular individual(s) in question is or are not homosexual.
The student in question clarified a bit, asking: what about a man who dresses like a woman, but is still married to a woman?
I was quite pleased to be able to share my all-time favorite gender teaching tool: the gender continuum, with this group of students. I drew a little something like this on the board:
I first encountered this gem of a diagram in a gender awareness training for resident advisors. It helped me further define and understand my own identity, and has stuck with me ever since.
In general, our culture categorizes people as either feminine or masculine, but when you think about it (are you thinking about it?), the vast majority of people are not completely one or the other, but rather possess some traits that are considered to be more masculine, and some that are considered to be more feminine. Still other traits are considered to be both….or maybe even neither.
As I explained all this to the students, I described a person who I would consider to be quite feminine, and placed her on the continuum accordingly. I then placed myself more toward the middle of the line and gave some reasons why. For example, I am more task-oriented, I tend to wear gender-neutral clothing, I’m more active than passive, and yet can be both emotional and rational depending on the situation. While I enjoy cooking, I don’t very often, and I don’t know how to sew. Basically, my personality isn’t “very feminine,” neither is the way I present myself or my lifestyle – in general.
The students seemed to be tracking with me pretty well – and that’s the great thing about the continuum – it just plain makes a lot of sense.
Finally, to answer the original question, what about gay people? – or in this case, what about people who cross-dress? – I threw out some hypotheticals. Moving from extremely masculine on the left, toward feminine on the right, I gave examples along the way of what it might mean to be über masculine, sort of masculine, pretty much in the middle, etc.
It was an excellent exercise, and challenged me to think more about these things, and I hope it challenged some of the students, too.
More thoughts on this to come…