Conforming to the gender binary restricts everybody
We are writing to claim responsibility for the bathroom signs around campus yesterday. Hopefully you all noticed them. As a group project for the Anthropology of Social Movements course taught by Professor Melissa Rosario, we chose to confront the restrictions of the gender binary in an effort designed to start a campus-wide conversation about gender. It was meant to be unexpected. It was meant to get you thinking.
There are groups on campus dedicated to educating students about the spectrums of gender, sex and sexuality. But these messages do not reach everyone on campus. This is in part because the participants in these conversations are self-selecting. For many students it may never occur to them to seek out conversations about gender. Maybe your gender identity fits in with the binary options that society gives us. Maybe you have been privileged enough to have never felt excluded because of your gender expression. Many might see these issues as primarily concerning trans and gender non-conforming people. However, we believe that the gender binary restricts everyone.
There seems to be a growing dialogue at Bowdoin about how our social codes of masculinity and femininity limit our range of self-expression and use of space. Last year an anonymous first-year student wrote in the Orient about the dubious “pretty test” for girls at the doors of male-dominated off-campus houses. In a recent conversation started by the op-ed entitled, “Why we need a Men’s Resource Center,” two male students recognized how men have felt alienated when it comes to discussing issues of masculinity. Both of these articles raised the sometimes tacit, and sometimes explicit ways in which we enforce gender standards within ourselves and among each other every day. They illustrate how every person’s gender identity is held hostage by society’s norms.
By papering doors across campus with bathroom signs yesterday, we hope that everyone was confronted with the fact that gender affects us all in almost every aspect of our lives. We want everyone to recognize their stake in the struggle for society to accept a more diverse range of gender expressions.
Trans and gender non-conforming people showcase the potential for greater freedom of expression beyond traditional maleness and femaleness. In our society, however, these groups have been systemically marginalized for daring to challenge the norms. The lengths to which many people will go to enforce the gender binary has resulted in bullying, harassment and violence towards those who are perceived as its transgressors. In the case of gendered public bathrooms, we see not marginalization, but rather a lack of recognition of their legitimate identities. On campus, for instance, students living in many dorms cannot find gender-neutral bathrooms in their buildings.
Gender issues are everyone’s concern, and there are only gains to be made by engaging in dialogue with one another. Whether or not you came to the discussion last night, we hope this action will inspire you to have a conversation with a friend, a professor, a coach, a family member. Engage with people who do not share your gender identity. Women, ask a man how he experiences expectations of masculinity. Men, ask a woman how her gender influences the way she is treated on campus. Everyone, do not be afraid to ask people what their preferred gender pronouns are and what gender means to them specifically. Think about what gender means to you and ask yourself, when does gender limit you? When does it empower you? As Bowdoin students, we want to challenge ourselves to creatively undo gender oppression on our campus and in our lives.