I had the honor of being asked to give another TEDx talk, and they let me do it all about gender.
You can watch the video below, and see as I try to condense hundreds of pages of my book into 16 minutes of comprehensible, enjoyable, and sometimes-rhyming words.
What’s your favorite part? Any feedback? Let me know in the comments on this page!
Here’s a transcript (kinda — I just copy/pasted from my notes):
I’m not gay. I’m not. But I find myself saying that a lot. In fact, you could go so far as to say that I’m professionally “not gay.” My life revolves around a social justice comedy show I perform called “It’s Pronounced Metrosexual.” Here’s the funny thing: what led to me performing that show, and what constantly leads people to assume I’m gay, really has nothing to do with my sexuality. Instead, it has everything to do with the way that I express my gender.
Gender and sexuality are two different concepts. It’s like comparing apples and gay oranges. That’s not to say that there isn’t any relationship between the two — there is, but it’s important to realize they develop independent of one another. And today, I’m going to talk to you about gender, not sexuality. We all learn about gender as kids, but what we learn is an extremely limited concept of a concept that’s truly unlimited.
Gender as We’re Taught it
Take all people and divide them into two. Boys line up on the left. Girls line up on the right. Boys, let’s start with you.
Boys are aggressive, impetuous, good at math, love the color blue. They get dirty, rough house, play sports, not house. Trucks and soldiers and legos are their toys, but they break them all, ‘cuz boys will be boys. Boys can grow up and be whatever they want. The world is their oyster, and whether or not they realize it’s their choice to capitalize on this privilege that’s limited just to guys, it’s there for them, the y-chromosome prize. There is no bar too high, or goal too far away, unless they want to be a nurse, ‘cuz that’s just gay.
Girls are passive, docile, natural caretakers, love the color pink, born to be good bakers. They hate bugs, love hugs, and are better at vacuuming rugs. Dolls and purses and makeup make their day, where boys play with video games girls would rather play with hair spray. Girls grow up to be moms, leave the other jobs to dads. Unless they want to be a teacher, a nurse, a receptionist, or a clerk.
Now what I just described certainly applies to a few of you. Yeah there are people for which these descriptions end up being true. The problem here is options, and if you counted we have only two.
Two options to describe every person in this room, each and every one of you
Two options to describe every person in this world, 7 billion individual identities, simplified into two.
As you’ve probably guessed, gender really isn’t that simple. It’s true. In fact, there’s as many versions of gender as there are number of you.
What I’m talking about is a lot to wrap your mind around. But don’t panic, I’m here to break it down.
Your gender is not a decision. In most cases it’s not even an observation. It’s like having eyes. If you have eyes, you know you have eyes. You likely can’t pinpoint the specific moment you realized. If asked, you might say you’ve always known you had eyes, but that’d be a lie. You don’t often think about your eyes, but they are always there, making a huge impact on your days. It’s through your eyes that you see the world, and, in many ways, your eyes affect how the world sees you. Blue eyes are true. Brown eyes are plain. Green eyes are special. But we dismiss that as silly. That because someone happens to have been born with blue eyes, they’ll be honest. And that’s where this analogy breaks down. Because we assign a gender based on a few traits someone is born with. And based on that assigned identity, we expect someone to grow up to behave a certain way, to be a certain type of person.
Gender is much more about what’s between your ears than what’s between your thighs. It’s more about what’s outside of our bodies and the way that we’ve been socialized. Gender is a social construction that’s been disguised as a biological imperative, a genetic law we live by. The more we learn about gender, the more we learn that’s a lie — to think that because this person’s born with a penis, he’ll grow up and act like a “guy.”
The easiest way to understand gender is to dissect it into three distinct pieces:
1, Gender identity, which is how you, in your head, define your gender, more on this in a minute.
2, Gender expression, which is the ways that you present gender, through your actions, dress, and demeanor.
And 3, And biological sex, which is the physical sex characteristics that make up your body. I promise, this will all get clearer.
Biological Sex (Penises and Vaginas)
Let’s start with biological sex, the physical characteristics we’re born with and develop, that, in many people’s eyes, equal gender.
A lot of things make up what we understand as biological sex: Chromosomes, hormones, Body hair, hip to shoulder ratio, breast size, voice pitch, just to name a few. But the main thing we think about: reproductive organs. AKA penises and vaginas. We equate gender to penises and vaginas.
But here’s the thing.
Gender is not universal. Gender is not cross-cultural. Gender changes over time.
You know what is universal? Penises and vaginas.
You know what is cross-cultural? Penises and vaginas.
You know what hasn’t changed over time? Well actually, evolution… but for the past few thousand years penises and vaginas!
While biological sex is something that exists in a uniform and predictable way, something that can be measured objectively in humans around the world, without much debate, you can’t say the same thing about gender.
Gender is relative. Gender is cultural. And what gender means, and how it’s expressed, does change over time.
If someone is born with a penis and testicles, he’s a male, he’s a he, and we’ll raise him to be a him.
If someone is born with a vagina, she’s a female, she’s a she, and we’ll raise her to be a her.
And when we’re not sure, when someone is born intersex, born with ambiguous genitalia, we guess if he’s a he or she’s a she, and based on that guess raise him to be a him or her to be a her.
Which, as you can guess, is often problematic. But assigning a gender to a person based on sex isn’t only problematic when someone is born intersex. Let me tell you about gender identity, and this will all start to make sense.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Shakespeare said this 200 years before we had a word for sociology but Will knew his stuff, in every way he was a prodigy, and what he said here it rings true in my ears all these years later as I’m thinking about norms and folkways and what Durkheim called mores, and the scripted roles we play in our day to day without even realizing it — but hey! I’m getting ahead of myself. This talk is about gender. What am I trying to say?
What Shakespeare said about the stage? He hit the nail on the head. At birth you’re cast in a role, given a script, and told to play that part ’til your dead. The director of your play follows you around every day of your life. The director is your parents, your teachers, your peers, your preachers, your news broadcasters, book writers, TV producers, fire fighters… every person in your life who has an impact on you, knows the script you’ve been given, and knows when you’re missing your cues.
As we grow up we become directors in other people’s plays. We notice when boys aren’t playing the boy part right, or when girls are running astray.
Now all of that’s sociology, but it’s important to have a grasp on it if you’re going to grasp gender identity. Because gender identity is rooted in sociology. It’s rooted in gender roles and norms, and the way we perpetuate and reinforce those ideas in society.
Gender identity is who you, in your head, know you are, based on how much you align or don’t align with what you understand to be the options for gender. Those options, and your understanding of what they are, are based on how you were socialized to understand what gender is. Now that’ll be different from continent to continent, country to country, state to state, even person to person, but for the most part, members of a society have a shared idea of what it means to be man, woman, or other.
Gender identity is, at its root, a way of classifying personality. But we know that we have more than two options for personalities, so why do we settle for gender options that are binary? Well, we don’t. Some of us don’t, anyway. Let me give you a run-down on the gender identities I know of, and I’ll do it alphabetically:
Agender, Bigender, Genderfluid, Genderless, Genderqueer, Man, Non-Binary, Non-Gendered, Third Gender, Trans, Trans Man, Trans Woman, Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite, Two-Spirit, Woman
Now I don’t have time to define all of those terms, but they’re easy to look up, that’s what the internet is for (in addition to porn). One thing you do need to know is that all of those terms were created to make sense of groups whose gender identities are so not “man” or “woman” that they needed a completely new label to apply to them.
These are people who, historically, have been labeled as having a psychological condition, gender dysphoria or “Gender Identity Disorder,” they’re called confused, troubled, and sick, dangerous to themselves and our moral fabric. But in reality it’s society that is confused. Our understanding of gender as binary is sick. And forcing people to confine to one of two options when in their minds they know that box isn’t for them, take the script away, mark it up with a pen, this isn’t the role I was born to play, I know myself better than you could ever know me, and who are you to say what’s healthy when your idea of health is destroying me.
A binary understanding of gender isn’t just incomplete, it’s dangerous. In a recent study, 84% of trans* people in the UK had considered suicide. Half of them attempted it.
Don’t get me wrong: gender identity, or non-binary gender identity, isn’t a dark thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. We just need to shed some light on it.
I’ve talked about biological sex, how it differs from gender identity. Now let’s talk about gender expression, a different thing entirely.
I’m a man.
That’s probably not a surprise to most of you to hear that. Because I’m so manly.
Why do people laugh when I say that? When no one doubts my male identity.
The answer to that question, is the difference between gender identity and gender expression.
Gender expression is the reason people laugh when I call myself manly, because even though they don’t question man-ness, they question my masculinity. I’m a man who wears pants too tight, colors too bright, voice is too high, hair is just right, to be forthright I cry during Lion King, and if you don’t you’re dead inside, I clean up well and and I smell delightful, and I use words like cute and, well, delightful.
Gender expression is all that and more. It’s the ways we present ourselves, and what those things stand for. The interpretations of gender expression vary from culture to culture, because what gender means in ours means something completely different in another. We often think of gender expression as being on a scale from masculine to feminine, but really it’s two scales, and a measurement on each of them.
On one scale we can measure how much we express femininity. All those things I told you about myself would increase this exponentially.
But on a separate scale we measure masculinity. Does me having a beard make my salmon pants less girly? No, not really, but it does increase my masculinity. Slightly.
Gender expression changes quite readily. In some cases, it changes from activity to activity. Think of an average day, here’s how one starts for me.
I wake up, hair matted to the side, drool on my face, wearing boxer briefs, grumbling obscenities. It’s at this point in the day that I express most masculinely. But it passes quickly, because step one in my day is going to the bathroom and getting full-on pretty. I hop in the shower, shampoo my hair, awapuhi ginger, leave in conditioner, facial scrub, full body wash, hop out the tub, smell like a flower. Then I pluck my eyebrows. I style my hair, try on outfits in front of my mirror, which is something I’m sure all the guys do in here. Amiright, bros? Then I hop on the bus. I’ll do phone call meetings for my non-profit and work in bro-y phrases like “dude” and “bullshit” because in that part of my life, and I hate to admit it, expressing masculinity is a pretty big benefit. Then I head to a cafe, order a black coffee, and work quietly, keeping to myself throughout the day.
So as you can see, in just a few hours I express both masculinity and femininity. In just the few minutes I’ve been on this stage I’ve done the same thing, and it’s something you’ve been noticing, even if just subconsciously.
For some people, their gender expression aligns with their gender identity. For some people, their gender expression does not align, whether it’s for comfort, pleasure, or personal creativity. And for some people, gender expression is a performance, a display of hyper masulin- or femininity. You’ve probably heard of these people, we call ’em drag kings and drag queens.
So let’s put this all together.
I’ve just talked about a lot, in a very short amount of time. And I tried to make it understandable, even if it was super condensed, and I made it rhyme. But gender isn’t something you’re going to get in fifteen minutes. If I were to write a book about gender, it would be very hard to do it in even 200 pages. And I know that, because I wrote a book about gender and it was very hard to do it in even 200 pages.
But let’s do a quick recap.
1. Let’s all agree that gender is more complex than what we learned as kids.
2. While biological sex is a component of gender, it is not a determinant. That is, being born with certain sex characteristics (penises or vaginas) does not biologically have any bearing on who you’ll grow up to be. Instead, we know that people born with penises are taught to be boys. And people born with vaginas are taught to be girls. Not biology. Sociology.
3. Your gender identity is how you make sense of your inner self, and what you understand gender to be. Sometimes this aligns with your biological sex, or fits into the gender binary. Sometimes it doesn’t.
4. Gender expression is a separate thing altogether. For a lot of people it lines up with their gender identity and biological sex. For a lot of people it doesn’t.
5. Let’s all agree that gender is more complex than what we learned as kids. Yes, that was number 1. But it’s also number 5. Because it’s very important.
Socrates said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I hope this talk will serve as a catalyst in helping you realize how little we all actually know about gender, and a motivation to learn more.
Eventually, in my dreams, we’ll have a society that isn’t gender-blind, but is gender creative. Where people will feel comfortable being themselves, and exploring what that means, and in that they’ll be supported. Where questioning one’s gender won’t be shunned, but an expectation. And where realizing you don’t fit a mold won’t lead to isolation and depression, but instead celebration. And, above all, a society where people will be safe, regardless of their gender formation.
In the meantime, can we at least get some gender neutral bathrooms up in this piece.