Reality Construction, or: Alice’s Adventures in Genderland

I had a friend who owned a construction company called “Reality Construction”. Many in the property management biz mis-read it as “Realty Construction” and thought he was the contractor for them.

To what extent is reality something handed to us, just existing, and to what extent is it a social construct, an agreed-upon set of concepts? I’m not sure how deeply I want to go into that, so we’ll stick a toe in the water and see what happens.

My friend Martha posted about gender last spring. I didn’t think I had anything to say about that. I was wrong. I wrote a great post while riding to work that day. Just like when I was 12 and delivering papers, my best ideas come on a bike before dawn. What follows will be a pale imitation of that piece (and has been fermenting for six months).

We seem to be obsessed as a culture with thinking we have original thoughts and that what we are doing is revolutionary. That way one group can be in the vanguard and another can fight tooth and nail to preserve the old guard. How much original thought is really original? (Martha has written about that a few times.) So it is with gender.

In 1972 Marlo Thomas and friends released a book and record called “Free to Be…You and Me”. It was about raising children without gender stereotypes and featured writers including Carl Reiner, Shel Silverstein, Mary Rogers & Bruce Hart, and Dan Greenberg. Performers included Alan Alda, Dick Cavett, Roberta Flack, and Thomas herself. Retired professional football player Roosevelt (AKA Rosey) Grier sang “It’s All Right to Cry.” He was, by the way, 6’5″ and weighed 285 pounds, as ¼ of the Los Angeles Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line.) Another piece was about the confusion people expressed when parents would not identify their baby by gender. They had no clue how to relate to “it”.

I was naive enough that, when I first heard the term “Gender Reveal Party”, I thought it was about trans people coming out. Little did I know it was about parents blowing stuff up to show the gender stereotypes associated with their developing fetus. We had to know what color to decorate the baby’s room and the appropriate toys to buy starting before birth. Are our gender identities so fragile that we have to reinforce the binary plan beginning with a fetus?

Digital computers are, by definition, binary. Even our music is binary now (unless you listen to records). We (maybe) can be forgiven if binary is our fallback position. But it doesn’t have to be.

When we are children we learn that there are two sexes. That’s the easy way to put it. If you go on to study biology, genetics, or human development, even sex is not totally binary. We “learn” that sex and gender are the same thing (when we learn gender at all), though gender is totally a social construct.

I knew a toddler who was asked one day why he was wearing that blue dress. His simple response was “because my pink one is in the wash”. As an adult, he no longer wears dresses, he was not damaged or confused by the wearing of dresses, he wasn’t even confused by the question. It didn’t dawn on him that his identity was being challenged.

In the 1990s Lands’ End stopped genderizing toddler clothes. No more could you find pink and blue, nor could you shop in the girls or the boys section of the catalog. There was a toddler section and it featured a riot of yellow, purple, green, and orange. Alas, it did not last long.

We are back to boys t-shirts featuring dinosaurs, sports, builders, and space. Girls feature rainbows, kittens, and the message “be kind to each other” – in pink (but also the same builders and space designs – yay?). This was from the spring collection. This fall, you can buy your toddler girl a ruffled sweatshirt or your boy a Superman t-shirt. Some products for the fall are labeled “kids”, not “boys” or “girls”. Has the debate changed Lands’ End again? [Pleas note I am not picking on Lands’ End. They were one of few companies to drop gendered kids clothes and seem to be leaning that way again. Over at Target, toddler girls get Barbie, Hello Kitty, Lion King, and crop tops. The boys section is mostly listed as “Toddler Adaptive”, which I’m guessing is their nod to non-gendered toddler clothes. When you get to page 2 you get the “real” boy stuff with The Hulk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Spiderman.]

When I was in junior high and high school, the worst insult was to call a boy a fem. One kid’s favorite insult was “You’re nothing but a fem!” My best friend and I ran for class president and vice president as write-in candidates with the campaign slogan “We’re nothing but fems.” We campaigned with sport coats casually slung over our left shoulder (hanging from our index finger, like a local congressional candidate of the day), so our right hand was free to shake everyone’s hand in the hallway during passing time. We didn’t get punched all day. We were told by a vote counter that we won but were ruled ineligible to serve, as write-ins weren’t allowed.

Dress codes at that time were obsessed with how long a boy’s hair could be and whether a girl could wear pants. (And the local Catholic school didn’t allow patent leather shoes because they reflect up your dress. I wonder how hard the nuns and priests had to stare to get a good enough look to come up with that rule.)

When I was 20, we walked to the corner bar every night at midnight to watch Chuck Conners as “The Rifleman”. His character, Lucas, was a single parent. He defended the local honor with a particularly badass rifle (no wimpy handgun for him) but also cooked and cleaned and showed the appropriate balance of tenderness and a firm hand in raising his son. 150 fictional years later, we still seem to think that we can’t raise a boy without a father and we can’t raise a girl without a mother. And single dads are still cheered while single moms are told (by the likes of Sen Ron Johnson) that they should be providing child care for other moms, when they are not being ignored or blamed for the behaviors of their young adult sons.

One night I stayed home while my roommates went to the bar. When they got back, one of them told me a barfly accosted him, saying, “I can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl”. He replied, “Why don’t you suck my dick and find out?” This brings us to the second most insulting thing you could call a boy when I was in high school. Folks either don’t realize or don’t care that to say that something sucks comes from that anti-gay slur.

I knew a couple who went shopping for a car. The salesman came up from behind, asking, “How can I help you ladies?” The male answered as he turned to face the salesman. The female grinned, noticing that he had dropped his voice an octave while answering. The salesman recovered enough that he eventually made the sale. When they test drove the car it had a rattle that showed up only at a particular speed. They told the salesman that that would have to be identified and fixed before they would take delivery. He agreed and called a couple days later to say the problem was fixed. On a second test drive, nothing had changed. They tried again. Same result. The mechanic agreed to ride along to listen. Eventually, they discovered that all of the bolts holding the engine and transmission together were loose. At a particular speed they would begin to vibrate. A few nuts had already fallen off. The car was fixed. Had the couple actually been two women, would the dealership have taken the complaint seriously? Would they have investigated and fixed it, or written them off?

I know someone who took a college gender studies class. They arrived home one day and said, “Dad, I just learned that you are both my mom and my dad.” Dad made household repairs and worked full time, but also cooked and cleaned and made the kids’ lunches for school. This child had grown up thinking that was normal and only found out it was weird in college.

The latest flap, engendering new laws to prevent trans athletes from competing, was exposed brilliantly by Diane Harper (quoting Sarah Sardinia’s Twitter posts, to which I don’t have access) in the blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. She compares swimmer Lia Thomas’ swim times before and after transitioning and compares them to men’s and women’s records. Long story short, she is slower now than before transition, good but not the best both before and after. She did not dominate the national championships in the way the overwrought press feared. If you don’t trust a blog post, try the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The original question was “To what extent is reality something handed to us, just existing, and to what extent is it a social construct, an agreed-upon set of concepts?” Clearly our concepts of gender are nothing more than a social construct. They are deeply entrenched and to challenge them seems to challenge reality. “Are you a boy or a girl?” seems to be a very important question to some. The first question asked when a child is expected is “Is it a boy or a girl?” It is the first question asked after birth, if it was a secret before birth. While gender is a hot topic now, not much progress has been made since Marlo Thomas and others raised those questions 50 years ago.

As to the rest of reality, we’ll leave that to another day. Bicycling will be back soon. I took the car in for service. They said it would take a few hours. That gave me a chance to ride 50 miles in the countryside on a beautiful fall day and, when they said it wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow, a chance to ride 10 more the next day to go pick it up. Maybe I’ll even have something to say about the Trek CX Cup races this weekend. I rode out to their world HQ while the car was being serviced.