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Worlds of opportunity beyond 'he' and 'she'

Sensemaking / Worlds of opportunity beyond 'he' and 'she'

As countries across the world recognise LGBT rights, the power of gender to prescribe our roles is fading. What new potential is there for transformation?

By D H Kelly / 16 Mar 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Women Beyond Gender. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

In 2015, Mozambique became the 21st African country to decriminalise same-sex relationships. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Luxembourg, Slovenia, Ireland and the US, as well as a collection of sub-jurisdictions. Austria lifted a ban on adoption by same-sex couples. Vietnam recognised transgender identities for the first time, and Nepal added a gender-neutral option to its passports. In Ireland and Malta, it became possible to change the gender on one’s passport and birth certificate by filling in a form.

In response to the US Supreme Court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage, 26 million Facebook users overlaid their profile pictures with rainbow flags, while social media throughout the world erupted with debate about gay rights. In culture, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst was one of the hosts of the Eurovision Song Contest, watched by 197 million people across 40 countries. Having quickly gained popularity and now being used in some legal contexts, the new gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ appeared in the 2015 issue of the Svenska Akademiens ordlista, the official dictionary of the Swedish language. Jamaica, under mounting pressure from the UN to repeal its homophobic laws, saw the country’s first LGBT pride celebration.

History is haunted by the lost potential of millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who have had to hide away or live a half-life of denial and repression, to say nothing of those who have been imprisoned and killed for who they are or whom they love. As a bisexual woman, I feel I am watching a snowball roll down a mountainside: the cause of LGBT rights is sometimes knocked or snagged along the way, but it continues to grow larger and to move faster in its course towards the future, to the benefit of us all.

A huge part of social status comes from our fulfilment of heteronormative gender roles. Heteronormativity isn’t just the assumption that everyone is heterosexual but the idea that men and women have distinct roles, with men leading, hunting or fighting, and women serving, and doing domestic or manual labour, care and childcare. These roles are reflected in everything from the masculine matador and feminine cape roles in a paso doble dance to the hierarchies of the Catholic Church, with men as priests and almost twice as many female nuns, teaching, ministering to the poor and caring for the sick.

Heteronormativity can confine human relationships to a transactional essence, by dictating various roles; typically, a man must provide a certain lifestyle, and thus a certain level of consumption, in exchange for a woman’s beauty, fertility and domestic labour. Where we see ourselves in the social pecking order – a disempowering construct in itself – can hinge on how adequately we feel we fulfil these roles, as well as how much wealth we accumulate. And so these roles contribute to status anxiety: Do I have as much as those around me? Am I rich or beautiful enough to be worthy of security, economic stability, family and love?

These are worries that capitalism invites us to address through consumption: a smarter phone, a more beautiful face. These same insecurities make us resistant to change, to experiment with alternative – and potentially more sustainable – ways of living and working. When having a car with a large, fuel-guzzling engine is a symbol of success and sexual attractiveness, a more economical car, let alone public transport, isn’t merely unappealing but somehow threatening to how we see ourselves.

Visible diversity has the power to reveal the limitations of dominant constructs for both intimate and economic relationships. LGBT people are not necessarily less concerned with money and goods, but when one sees one’s partner or potential partner as one’s equal – something where same-sex couples have much less cultural conditioning against them – one is less likely to see the accumulation of wealth and possessions as a fundamental part of one’s role.

When same-sex couples are allowed to marry, marriage is less likely to be seen as a contract between two people as economic units. Despite fears that marriage would be undermined, a 2012 report by Policy Exchange found divorce rates have dropped in Holland, Belgium, South Africa and Canada since same-sex marriage was introduced.

Changing attitudes to gender identity also promise to challenge ideas about who we have to be. Currently, in most countries that recognise the rights of transgender people, the process of changing one’s gender is a very slow, expensive and highly medicalised one, sometimes requiring sterilisation, psychiatric diagnoses and evidence that a person is living a sufficiently masculine or feminine life.

In 2015, Ireland and Malta passed laws so that anyone over the age of 18 can change their legal gender by filling in a short form. Such systems frame gender as a deeply personal aspect of one’s identity that requires recognition and respect. Incountries where men and women have enjoyed equal rights under the law for some decades, it could one day seem surprising that individuals were so rarely considered qualified to define their own gender.

Yet even such progressive legislation usually excludes the option of having no gender, identifying as intersex or non-binary; there are increasing calls to make this happen. In some countries – including Australia, Denmark, Bangladesh and, most recently, Nepal – people can choose to have ‘X’ or ‘other’ recorded as their gender on their passports. After Swedish Minister Maria Arnholm used the new gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ for the first time in parliament in 2013, she said, “There is an exciting debate in progress … and we hope there can be a new, fresh approach to achieve gender equality.”

More gender-neutral language and better rights for transgender people, including intersex and gender non-binary people, steers us away from a deterministic view of human nature, where superficial physical attributes are seen to seal our destiny, undermining other axes of oppression such as race, caste and disability. It is a further victory over the power of gender, or anything else, to prescribe a specific role for each of us.

One place where we can already see the benefit of greater equality, gender neutrality and visibility of LGBT people is the online realm. Since the 1990s, protected by pseudonymity and geographical distance, the internet has provided a space for people to explore aspects of identity that may be fraught or impossible offline.

Despite research by Pew in 2013 suggesting that only 21% of the Chinese population supports the acceptance of homosexuality, this year’s US Supreme Court ruling legalising same-sex marriage was followed by a flood of rainbow flags on Chinese social media and an 8,000-comment Weibo thread in which mostly young gay and lesbian Chinese discussed coming out to their parents.

“In this internet age, any progress made in the West will no doubt also put wind in the sails of the Chinese LGBT communities and their supporters”, said Li Yinhe, a Chinese academic and advocate for LGBT rights, while visiting the US in 2015.

Throughout the world, greater gender equality can unleash resources that might otherwise be used to police ourselves and other people, empowering us to stand together and face universal challenges, such as poverty and climate change. In 2014, an online video of Indian transgender women encouraging drivers to use a seat belt received over four million views. In 2015, India saw its first transgender police officer and college principal, as well its first transgender mayor, Madhu, whose focus is on improving local hygiene and sanitation. Only when people can be themselves will we fulfil our true potential.

D H Kelly is a writer and also a features editor for The F Word, an online feminist magazine.

Art by Bogdan Aleksandrov.

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