By Gabriel Coppersan
In today’s society, the norm is not that we commonly talk about the distinction between individual gender expression and gender stereotypes. If a woman presents in a stereotypically “masculine” way (whether affect or clothing choices), others may say she “seems like a lesbian.” In other words, her gender expression and sexuality are being policed, as there are common underlying assumptions most people make about gender on a daily basis.
But the truth is that there’s no one way to “be a man” or “be a woman,” which is as relevant for cisgendered folks as it is for trans-identified people and those who are gender non-conforming / gender variant.
For instance, we expect men to play sports, be emotionally distant in relationships, and act as “the muscle” around the house—while women are expected to have children at a certain age, cook meals for everyone and be subservient. These are traditional gender roles—artificial constructs that reinforce the assumptions we make and rarely question. Though we take these assumptions for granted, they are dangerously restrictive, and and cause turmoil for many folks who don’t live up to these expectations, whether they identify as part of the gender binary or not.
There could be a whole website devoted to exploring all of the misleading and even dangerous assumptions we make around gender—and in fact, there can be a series here on trans.cafe. But to start us off, here are a few prickly assumptions we make around gender, and explanations about why we should stop.
1. Gender is only male or female.
While the majority of the human population identifies within the either/or binary—meaning male or female—there’s a good portion of people who don’t identify as such, nor do they answer to masculine pronouns (he/him/his) or feminine (she/her/hers) pronouns.
In fact, gender is a spectrum of different identities, not a binary. We may be born with a particular anatomy and assigned a gender at birth, but it is up to each of us to express that gender identity. Even for folks who are not trans-identified, gender expression is a spectrum. There is nothing inherently “feminine” about cooking and cleaning, nor is there anything “masculine” about fixing things and avoiding tears. These are constructs we’ve made up, and continue to perpetuate with these assumptions.
2. You can tell someone’s gender by their appearance.
Not true, plain and simple. As explained in the previous point, there are people who identify under the non-binary umbrella and don’t answer to masculine or feminine pronouns. Any one of us could choose to present in a more feminine way on one day, and a more masculine way on another, regardless of our gender identity. Or perhaps we mix it up on any given day. It’s better to ask what someone’s pronouns are rather than assume and guess wrong.
3. Men are not emotional.
We’re all human, aren’t we? It’s unreasonable to expect that men don’t have emotions or should not allow their emotions to be expressed because of their gender identity. There’s nothing wrong with being emotionally vulnerable; the only problem is keeping all your feelings inside until you explode.
By contrast, it’s not as though women are categorically “more emotional than men”—these stereotypes go both ways. We often hear critiques of women as being too sensitive or volatile for positions of power at the workplace and in government, for example. But all of these misconceptions are just ideas we keep repeating and passing down from generation to generation, culture to culture—it’s time to stop.
4. Women desire children on a biological level.
While some women do go on and have families with their significant others (or not), this is not always, or even often, the case by any means. It’s no surprise that children take substantial amounts of money and patience to care for—and regardless of gender, not everyone is prepared to handle such a major responsibility.
Alternatively, there are several cis men, trans-identified men and women, and gender non-conforming / variant folks who are more interested in having children than cis women. Having a uterus is a question of anatomy, not of gender, and wanting to have kids is a matter of individual preference. So with all that said, women should not be expected to have any children or be shamed for deciding not to have them. This is just a commonly held judgment that reinforces these stereotypes and assumptions.
5. Men are natural leaders.
Says who? Women can be just as effective leaders as men, if not more so. According to research done by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, women were rated higher than men in 12 out of 16 competencies that top leaders exemplify the most. Referring to anything as “natural” when it relates to gender is usually problematic, given that masculinity/femininity aren’t “natural” or universal signifiers—but qualities we can each interpret differently, or not at all, in our own gender expressions.
I’ll conclude by asking you: what are some of the other basic (but dangerous) assumptions made about gender? Feel free to create your own version of this by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Gabriel Coppersan is a transgender man who started his medical transition at the age of 22, just after graduating from Hunter College with a BA in Psychology. He started his blog, Dear Cis People, with the original intention of just voicing thoughts about issues and experience that are relevant in the transgender community. After writing just a few posts, Gabriel started blogging more seriously, as readers began reaching out. Aside from writing, Gabriel makes videos on his YouTube channel about his personal transition and life updates, along with coverage of transgender topics, and issues related to mental health.