gender

Close shave

It’s something of a gender marker body hair and I’ve written about it a number of times. Facial hair and grooming is part of that with some services exclusively catering for men. I say men rather than male as in order to pass as a man publicly requires a whole body performance not just what combination of nuts and bolts make up your ‘hardware’. In such places masculinity finds a haven in being shaven. I imagine they enable a sense of relaxation and comfort and comradery. The branding and marketing and product sold is based around a gendered performance of masculinity. Being female and feminine does not fit.

So I suppose what I am wondering is why any woman would claim discrimination for being told she is not able to be employed due to her disrupting the space that is on offer. What if that female employee was previously male as in the case of Dakota Hemmingson? I’m thinking this is not so cut and dry. Transitioning from male to female comes with more than just material changes in morphology or embodied expression of gender, becoming female means to enter a new position in the social order (not withstanding other layers such as race, class, functioning). My reading of this scenario leaves me with a sense of disquiet about the polarising nature of rights and discrimination accusations and the defensive position it invites for employers. Rather than opening discussion on the complexities the standard ‘no comment’ lines or bland dismissive rhetoric passes over what could be a valuable dialogue around diversity.

But being reasonably cis gendered myself I don’t feel well qualified to speak about experiences of ‘being-becoming’ trans. There are plenty of trans men and women writers talking about the changes in social status and ways others relate to them that reveal much more of the ways society affords privilege or denies and excludes people on the basis of gender. In many ways I wish New Zealand had a version of Huffington Post rather than the cut and paste journalism of The New Zealand Herald as some of these stories might gain a bit more traction to tease out the nuances of gender and sexuality, rights and entitlements.

Of course LGBTQI people experience prejudice, harassment, bullying, and feeling accepted, respected and valued are absolutely vital for all young people on any journey on the rainbow spectrum. But while binary gendered roles exist these protected, gender defined, spaces will as well and not meeting the criteria is sometimes simply that. I hope Dakota finds her way into new employment as she clearly has valuable skills that people need not split hairs over.

Can’t handle the Jandal

A couple of weeks back, I left a meeting and was called back to be politely told ‘you can’t wear jandals anymore at work under the new health and safety regulations – have you got sandals’? The irony of the meeting being about uniform mingled with confusion but I answered in the affirmative. Flip flopping my way back to my office in my very flash, Havaianas that I had especially brought to go with my new summer wardrobe I wondered about these new Health and Safety Regulations.

So I searched, and I put in the word jandals, I searched under footwear, I scoured documents for any reference to the hazards of sitting in my office with my toenails painted chrome to match the metallic look of my straps. A counsellors office doesn’t usually have hazardous chemicals, chisels, or hot glue guns. I understand there are some work environments where open toed footwear doesn’t cut it. I worked in a foundry for 4 summers as a student and accepted the need to wear steel capped boots in February. But I’m very happy for someone to point me in the right direction with the new legislation.

Then it dawned on me. The jandal is one of the few forms of gender neutral footwear out there. The idea that somehow my equally flimsy sandals might offer more ‘protection’ doesn’t wash. But they do look more ‘feminine’. Looking around at the large array of high heels worn hiking up and down stairs, in wet slippery corridors, I have to wonder how much safer they are. I know I am not safe to drive heels but they are apparently safe. They safely define feminine and give a clear coded sense of ‘professional dress’.

I am quietly cynical about this latest attempt to manage my footwear in the name of my health and well-being but quite frankly it seems like a back handed way of bringing in a professional standard of dress and one that pushes for a more coded form of gender. It will be interesting to see what happens on school camps. I know how painful it is kicking a tent peg in jandals. I hope there can be some transparency about it if indeed it is the case, up front and honest rather than half buried in rhetoric trip over.

Tuesday I will be at the first health and safety meeting of the year so will pitch some of these questions to the committee. Maybe I’ll wear knee high doc martins to be on the safe side.

Our-dentity

And so tomorrow morning I will wake to my alarm for the first time in 5 weeks. My body will remember how to get to work and I hope my legs are ready for pumping pedals so early. I’ll shower and for the first time in 20 years I will not put my hair up. I will reach for my product and hope for the messiest look, one that will cause eyebrows to raise wondering if I intend it to look that way or maybe I am just off to the bathroom to fix it.

I’m now not sure what to wear. It would seem natural now I can almost pass for gender indifferent to go with my boyish (although I’m not sure at 43 that fits) short hair look and go all shorts and shirts. But I have found myself drawn to skirts and all things considered feminine including…a dress.

So I’m going to enjoy this week of reintroducing my-selves, in all genders and ages of expression. I’m struggling with this 40’s decade because I am way too old to be young and definitely too young to be considered old. In fact it is a strange way of locating people and putting them in a particular place this chronologically appropriate thing.

So maybe I need a skate board to go with the skirt and short hair and really mess things up. Think an orange skate board would look great beside my bike, with my plant and other more serious mature counsellor things like….ummmm…I’ll get back to you on that.

Back to the hair. It still interests me just how powerful hair length represents identity. But where is the ‘I’? Who is the ‘I’. So I’m ditching identity for ourdentity. Who’s with us?

Parental advisory

Warning – this blog will intentionally question the concept of parent. Some language will be unfamiliar and offense could be taken if you subscribe to narrowly prescribed notions of family. Viewing may lead to questions that may not have simple answers.

There is nothing more grating than the question ‘do you have children?’ I fall into some sort of suspended animation or alternative dimension when I hear it, where all possibilities are present for the correct answer but I have to pick the one that will satisfy the person asking because everyone has a different formula for the ‘right’ ratio of parents to children ranging from 0 to…. probably not an extremely high number perhaps the teens? I’m never sure how they will respond but EVERYONE has an opinion about it and they usually feel entitled to tell me, even if they know nothing else about who I am. This is because the universal experience of life is to have a family – however it is put together, what we ‘know’ about it from experience has more than likely influenced a default sense of ‘what works’.

Once you get to a particular age the question becomes more earnest or takes on different meaning depending on the context and probably gender and other intersections of time and space. I am able to take up the social position recognised as parent although I’m not sure that I’d say I fit the expected ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ role – that in itself will invite some consternation from people determined to make the one ‘giving birth’ mum and the complementary ‘Donator of DNA’ Dad. Parenting has become a bit like career planning, with plenty of guidelines, willing coaches, experts, advice, and shoulders to cry on if it doesn’t go well. The other alternative is parenting is like reality TV, where we get edited versions and scripts that appear natural but really aren’t. Either way it seems to be a little weird.

There are many people parenting children who are not recognised for this. I meet many ‘mumsters’ in my job, young women in their teens with many siblings who take on a significant parent role but have to navigate the delicate power dynamics with parents and maintaining a sense of themselves. Rather than talking about ‘half’ and ‘step’ I think it’s important to name the quality of the role and the unique positions they afford people. Kiwis love to use the words Cuz (cousin) and Bro (anyone of either gender for whom you feel affection) so it shouldn’t be so hard to spread that openness to parenting.

Today marked 8 years of sharing life with this amazing and beautiful young being and what I appreciate about that is the young person who allows me to take up this role has an opportunity to see that regardless of the body parts I may or may not have I am genuinely interested in their life and how I can support them to feel confident, open, and curious about the world. If I can do that well and keep a sense of perspective on my role and how important I am/not while allowing for mistakes, falls, upsets and apologies (me included), then I might consider I’m doing an ok job.

Blood is thicker than water, it dries up, cracks, gets diseases and stains if you get it on your clothes. Water is part of everything and can exist in many forms – I’ll take water over blood any time.

Can I be prank?

Riding into work I was greeted by the sight of our park like grounds draped in toilet paper. Windows painted and classrooms set up outside. A grin spontaneously erupted onto my face as a bunch of students scooted towards me in ‘boys’ uniforms. A BMX lay beside the hall (Redline…very nice) and bodies ran and moved freely. But this wasn’t the norm, far from it and yet it was so natural and joyous. The energy and vitality was a welcome contrast to the digital zombies I often see in the morning.

It’s now known as ‘prank day’ but for some reason it seemed more like an ordinary school day, or perhaps what could easily pass for ordinary in other places (minus the tree decorations and occasional water gun). The gender blurring of seeing bodies in shorts and racing around on wheels toyed with the ‘girls school’ image, it enabled freedom of movement to express physicality. The pranking gave gender a well deserved spanking.

Here’s the thing, school uniforms can police gender. If there are no other options other than skirts or culottes then femininity is enforced. I’m occasionally tempted (in my dark sardonic moments – of which there are many) to ask the question ‘why not go the extra step and mandate long hair’. If masculinity in some schools is regulated by hair length, then surely in keeping with ‘uniformity’ of gender girls must maintain long hair.

Its wheels day again tomorrow and I might just have to bust out some moves on a unicycle or borrow a skate board. Gotta make ‘hey-watch out’ while the shun shines on gender-correctness.

Inside Out and Upside Down

Although I retired from the classroom years ago, I still dabble in teaching the occasional health class. It is an honour and a privilege to have conversations with 16-17 year olds about sexuality and there are new resources to go with more language to describe the wide spectrum of identity. One of the newest is Inside Out and if anything people’s vocabulary will broaden when it comes to diversity. For any health teacher needing a solid start in coming to grips with some of more hidden aspects of sex, gender and sexuality – intersex and transgender in particular it would be good to take a look at. For those who feel more settled or stuck in a rut it might just freshen things up.

My hesitation is not with resource so much. I agree with the intention of the need to create more awareness or acceptance of ‘difference’. My narrative counselling lens is finely tuned so I’m a little sensitive to language, power and discourse. As such, I’m a bit irritating to those who hold more traditional humanistic ideas about ‘self’. This is pretty much the underpinning philosophy of all education. So back to my nagging uncertainty, it’s about the ability of teachers to facilitate conversations, questions and hold an open ethical space for ideas to be shared. I do not doubt the depth of knowledge and skill some teachers have, but I’ve heard enough students comment about their shock and disbelief, confusion and unease. One recent example was a class who were asked to stand and to sit down if they had talked to one gay person that day (or week?), and gradually it was the last person standing. I’m not sure how accurate this is to what actually happened, but if it is even partially true it is disconcerting. Sort of wondering if you get extra points for gay people of different cultures, ages, disabilities (yes people with disabilities experience sexuality!)…

I’d ask one thing of teachers using this resource – do not disclose your sexuality (particularly if you identify as heterosexual) if asked and especially if you are a cisgendered male. These resources will have the greatest influence if teachers are aware of the privilege/power of heteronormativity and how every interaction, utterance, expression, hesitation, avoidance or inability to comfortably facilitate complex notions of identity will determine what young people ‘learn’.

Schools simply need more PD on LGBTQIA….and not just rainbow scrabble.

 

 

a-fend-did

I’m fortunate to be living with a seven year old. She gives me a great insight to the realities of the role schools play in shaping ideas about what is normal and expected of boys and girls. It stretches my capacity to listen without commenting or launching into a modified feminist deconstruction. Figuring out what is helpful and practical in the playground is perhaps the biggest challenge. So tonight the conversation at the dinner table was about the boys saying she couldn’t play rugby because she was a girl. Now in my head I was working through hegemonic power and wondering what does she really want? Answer – she wants to play! To have access to sport and physicality without it feeling like a requirement to challenge stereotypes. Yip – she just wants to play!! It wasn’t my fight, she isn’t me because I would be just playing – I grew up thinking I was a boy most of the time anyway.

So it needed to be something short and simple. Something she could say that fitted with her personality that could both challenge and accept the situation for what it was. Knowing her wicked sense of humour and brilliant acting ability as well as a profound intelligence (far beyond what I had at the same age) it boiled down to pointing out the facts in response to the statement “but you’re a girl”. It seemed so obvious but the simplicity of saying ‘really? I hadn’t noticed, thanks for pointing that out’ and getting on with playing was the approach that she wanted to take.

I don’t know if it will work but the conversation was important for exploring the determined ways genderedness enters consciousness and becomes reinforced. It woke me up to the daily normalising minefield children and young people negotiate at school. I hope teachers doing duty in playgrounds can see the important role they can play in gently challenging ideas and creating inclusion on the basis of interest and enthusiasm. Then we need to work on the media showing more women’s sport including rugby. Visibility defines acceptability.

She also has quite a good fend on her so I reckon she’ll be right mate.

Got you by the gubernaculum

I’m fascinated by the complexity of everything and it baffles me that we want to keep simplifying, generalising and categorising life into the most basic compartments. I know most people believe that there are two sexes. There are definitely two, but there are more. My brush with embryology at uni many years ago was an eye opener and a mind opener. The amazing interplay of chromosomes and cell-division revealed the wide range of variations leading to more than just a possible boy or girl baby.

The curious thing is that all humans begin the same with their reproductive and sexual organs looking the same. Then differentiation happens leading to gene expression, much like any other aspect of biology. But we’ve filtered out these variations for so long they appear invisible, unrepresented in our consciousness of the spectrum of diversity. The polarity of sexual organs most visibly represented in text books is not the full story. We’ve been ripped off! At a certain point in our embryonic development the structures that will later go on to develop into sex organs are pulled downward by a chord like structure and as they do they continue to develop into specific roles, testes or ovaries. It’s kind of cool because it explains the ways we can end up with other combinations of sexual organs, that it is actually not uncommon or unexpected. More to the point is not ‘un-natural’.

So I think we need more conversations about gubernaculums, and other great reproductive scrabble words to baffle your mates with. We need to see more diagrams with a range of possible outward and inward arrangements of organs without the word normal anywhere. Education could do more looking at some of the queer ways nature has got around binary genders or even the senses as we know them – such as the amazing brittlestar, it senses light with no eyes and ingests and egests through the same orifice…yip kind of glad we got a different deal there (although it might explain why some people talk excrement). There is also the whiptail lizard who don’t seem to need males to reproduce. And there are those sea horse dudes who look great being pregnant.

If the distribution and arrangement of organs is like part a branching expanding unfolding phenomenon it makes sense that some will stop at various points and form in unique ways much like a fractal, repeating the same familiar patterns with slight variations. Beautiful and perfect as they are.

Actually, looking more closely at the most famous of fractals, the Mandelbrot set  it makes me wonder what Freud might see. Shouldn’t be too hard.

Same sport, different game

Two teams opposing sides playing the same sport, same rules but not the same game. It’s a beautiful game football, a simple game with speed strength power and agility utilising Newtons laws. Bodies in motion with the crowds devotion. But this is not a level playing field. It’s the perfect game to demonstrate gender equality on the world stage with a world cup where the winner takes all. But players in this cup are the fairer sex. Here in lies the flaw and cloaked misogyny, the winners earned less than their male conterparts who were knocked out of the first round it simply does not add up.

They got a parade, yes they were shown off, objectified and used like tokens of national pride and patriotism. There you go girls wave and smile and enjoy the blatant sexism. Be grateful for the opportunity to play and suck up the unfairness with grace and humility, stay silent when the media suggest you’d earn more if you wore less. Your femininity contested and questioned incessantly. It will take a lot to kick the habit of patriarchal hegemony. The athletic woman challenges the gender rule book so penalties are given. You’ve crossed the line, offside with your expectations of equality. Success and victory mean your body is still someones property.

The beautiful game is indeed an ugly reminder that sexism is alive and kicking balls.

 

Teaching no lessen

There are some interesting intersections brought about by my journey in education. Going from a teacher to a counsellor has seen my perspective and values shift and move and from time to time come together. But I generally only get to teach two kinds of lessons these days. I either teach juggling and unicycling to year 11 sport science classes or a one off health class on consent and negotiation for year 12’s. Never both at the same time although some of the themes of risk, fear, going one step at a time and moving at your own pace do line up.

So on Friday I will be in front of a class I have no relationship with about to launch into the realm of sex and the complexity of desire mixed with cultural and social norms, family values and gendered assumptions without any real sense of what these young people might have already experienced. Actually, that is not entirely true. Because in my privileged position as a counsellor I will know some of them, and they will know what I know. So there will be a level of extra vulnerability attached to this conversation. It is a juggling act of sensitivities to confidentiality, privacy and accepting that within the space all sorts of beliefs, values, experiences and needs will be present. I know I am there in my capacity as a counsellor but what does that actually mean to these 16-17 year old young women that a counsellor is coming in to talk with them? It really is the definition of ‘awkward’.

Talking about consent invites the polarity of coercion. Society in general still needs to grapple with gendered assumptions of power and consent. I recently stumbled on a great cartoon likening consent to having ‘a cup of tea’. There are some limits to this as an analogy but I kind of like it for its simplici-tea, it’s also gender neutral , stick figures are good for that. But it’ll be me in the hot seat Friday. So…what can I bring? I can bring a non-judgemental stance, but is that enough? I can bring an openness about the competing needs and feelings, physical, emotional responses that might all happen at once when it comes to sex. I can bring a level of ‘unshockability’ while ensuring questions and statements do not position people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My hope is that I can use some of my performance skills from juggling that are about setting a safe tone for exploring, renaming or relocating a sense of failure or loss of worth into something more respectful and takes into account the realities of diverse sexual experiences.

Leaving the door open for conversations at another time for those who might have more to process will be an ideal outcome. I intend not to leave a trail of guilt, self-doubt and fear. I intend to acknowledge the range of tensions and embodied realities of desire, pleasure and the contexts that can enable and disable actions or decisions. I will be intentional not to assume these young women will all be having sexual experiences or indeed be heterosexual. That to me is one way all teachers can support the well-being of LGBTIQ young people.

But perhaps more than anything to give them and experience of an adult who will not reject or shame them because they are young women talking about being/becoming sexually active – not just passive. I think that is enough things in the air for one lesson.