Back in the early 1960’s, I found out real quick that acting the least bit girly made me a big disappointment. And often, subject to violence. So I tried, and failed, to be as masculine as I was expected to be. Hold that thought, and I’ll circle back around to it in a minute. I want to talk about this magazine issue first.
Y’all saw the National Geographic gender issue, right? The one with a teenaged transgender girl on the cover? Or, if you bought it on the newsstand, with a group portrait representing several gender identities.*
From it’s founding in 1888, the National Geographic has always been about human culture, including an understanding of gender. If you read issues going back to the beginning, there is no shortage of photos and prose describing how other cultures handle the differences between men and women. This was just fine as long as it didn’t hold up too big of a mirror to us.
But in the January 2017 issue, they focused on changes in the Western understanding of sex and gender, pointedly comparing to other cultures around the world. And hoo-boy did that raise a ruckus. I mean, people wrote in, and they were not happy.** “Cancel my subscription!” they said. “Stick to geography!” they said. “You’re promoting child abuse!” they said.
Well, calm down, angry National Geographic readers. People keep finding different ways to be human. Go read your back issues – every subscriber has them – and you see this is nothing new. Maybe it’s the first time a whole issue has been devoted to it, is all.
The issue compares gender norms and variations all around the world. There’s a brutal article about manhood rituals. The issue examines the risks of nonconformity, and those of simply being female. There’s a glossary. And a whole bunch of 9-year-old kids speak about their experiences.
But most importantly, the issue grapples with gender as a social construct. That one takes a while to sink in: Your gender is an artifact of your culture. It means meeting a whole lot of social expectations. It is by no means set in stone. Or in your genes.
Being a man, or a woman, is a very different thing in different societies. For some, the distinction is not so sharp, or even necessarily binary. In other cultures, including our own, the line between Venus and Mars is marked by trench warfare. You are either male or female, and that is defined by what your doctor saw when you were born, and that’s it.
You know how men constantly accuse women of being hormonal and irrational? Our civilization is about to die from testosterone poisoning. Aggression is mistaken for ‘leadership’, and the ability to deny facts is some kind of strength. That binary, “man _or_ woman” with no variation, is killing our country and our planet. And it all starts when we are children.
Most of the anger at National Geographic seems to be generated by the issue’s portrayal of transgender kids. The gender binary would suggest that all kids are born either male or female, and that if a boy puts on a dress or paints his nails, his parents must have put him up to it.
In our culture, the opposite is true. For example: you can say “she’s a bit of a tomboy” about a girl, and for the most part people won’t think much about it. But if a boy is accused of being a bit girly, well… stand back. And, I’m speaking from experience here. As a kid I didn’t know there were non-toxic ways to be a boy; I just thought I was a failed boy. A disappointment to everyone. I’ll tell that story sometime, in another post.
Most distinguishing human characteristics fall on a spectrum. The train from “He’s all boy!” to “She’s such a girly-girl!” has a lot of stops along the way. And kids of “both” sexes are on it.
You know what happens to kids who don’t fit their assigned gender identity? It depends on whether their family and friends accept them.
One of the parents in the magazine took their child to a doctor, and the doctor asked her: “Would you rather have a happy little girl, or a dead little boy?”
So I’m saying; by all means read the special issue of National Geographic. It probably isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. Above all, if you have kids, just think about it, OK? Give yourself time to make sense out of it, and really listen to your kids.
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- *Subscribers got the cover on the left. The cover on the right was put on the news stand edition. They forgot to include a CIS female, and then flubbed the answer when somebody asked them about it. Just once I’d like to see someone say; “We forgot! It probably means what you think it means, and we’re incredibly embarrassed about it!”
- **Anybody else think some people protest a bit too much? Arguing in favor of our chains. Who knows what we might realize if we start thinking about it! Dangerous.