by JoAnn Loulan; in the book: "Our Right To Love"
"The title of this article comes from an old friend. We have known each other forty years, ever since first grade. She wrote me that she was looking for my books, 'I'd like to say because I know you, but really the books are for me--I feel like I am in gender jail.' The words jumped out as a concise way to explain what the concept of gender does to us. I want to show you the laws, the judge and jury, the sentence, and the rehabilitation of the prisoner of gender. I have worked from an essentialist's (one who believes in the true or essential nature of peo- ple) point of view to deconstruct anything in my path that relates to gender as we have known it. This article is the short version of that investigation. The longer version is my book in progress, 'Gender Jail.'
It is crucial to question all assumptions about gender, especially for lesbians, because in many ways, being a lesbian requires breaking out of gen- der jail. But because we have been socialized within the dominant culture, we are still profoundly influenced by what we know to be its rules governing gender. We have been brought up to be heterosexual women, but, because we are not, we question whether we belong in our gender. As a result, our sense of self, the way others see us, and the way we relate to each other is compromised by this socially imposed vision of gender that does not apply to us, or perhaps to anyone. The impact of gender identity is all-pervasive and expressed in behaviors as wide- ranging as dress, demeanor, occupation, and rela- tionships.
Within the lesbian community, there are many gender identifications, although we lack the vocabulary to communicate them. As a result, we fall into the trap of describing ourselves as feminine or mas- culine. This always sends me reeling. I do not think of women as masculine. The current masculine/fem- inine paradigm literally stops us from being able to explain who we are.
Lesbians' self-perception is also influenced by the dominant culture. Lesbianism is perceived as a threat to mainstream society and it is because we break gender rules. Therefore, the mainstream scrambles to explain lesbian existence, most often by projecting stereotypical heterosexual male and female behavior and attitudes onto lesbians, insisting on characterizing lesbians as either passive (as heterosexual males fancy heterosexual females) or as aggressive (as het- erosexual males fancy themselves).
In this fantasy world, lesbians are divided into women who cannot get men and women who try to act like men. While this view is unrecognizable to or even denied by most lesbians on an individual basis, the lesbian community does recognize and react to the existence of that stereotypical, fantasy world. As a result of this, lesbians waste a lot of their energy fighting the taunt that we are trying to be men. We are sentenced to defend why it is that we have broken out of gender jail. Our love relationships are constantly being compared to heterosexual models. We sometimes argue even among ourselves about what makes us lesbians. We demand that our partnerships be recognized in the same ways as heterosexual relationships. Queers could take that energy and spark an uprising and challenge the explicit and implicit gender laws on which society is based.
My own vision is that instead of two genders there are thousands, maybe millions. I ask you to suspend the belief that there are only two genders and to continue reading this with the belief that there are endless ways of being female and that all lesbian expressions of gender are represented within that set.
Over the years, many lesbians have told me that they identified as boys when they were growing up. They wanted to do what the boys did, dress as the boys dressed, and did not want to do what the girls did. In about the fifth or sixth grade, these girls were thrown out of or plucked from the boys' group by the boys, by other girls, by grown-ups, or by the girl herself out of shame, confusion, and humiliation.
I don't believe these girls actually identified themselves as boys. But faced with only two rigidly defined alternatives, they might have said to themselves, 'If I don't feel like a girl, then I must be or feel like a boy.' They wanted to kiss the girls and to throw a basketball, so by mainstream society's definition they could not really have been girls.
Then there are the lesbian girls who appear to good heterosxual girls. They dress according to proper gender rules, and they seem to like straight girls are supposed to like. They may go through the motions of dating boys. But if they end up being lesbians, they too have broken the gender laws because they want to kiss the girls and to watch the other lesbians on and off the court at the basketball game. Another gender heard from.
Other girls float back and forth between the two mainstream genders. They are able to dress in either gender camp as the situation dictates. They are able to play at the games of boys or girls. They may cause others some consternation about their gender affliation, but they can conform in either situation and foil the naysayers. These girls are not part of the traditional female gender either. As lesbians these girls/women are left to figure out yet another gender identification, once again, without the language to express it.
Many self-identified lesbians grew up not feeling that we were girls in the traditional sense. Whenever I ask in a lecture to lesbians, 'Who here did not identify as a girl growing up?' about 70 percent of the audience raises their hands. The question in itself is provocative. What is a girl? Who is perceived by others to be a girl? How does a girl see herself? Does not identifying as a girl automatically make you a tomboy? Does this mean you are unabable to do what other girls do? Does it mean that you being a girl/woman? Or hate girls/women? Not necessarily. Not identifying with your gender means not seeing yourself performing the gender role prescribed by society.
Growing up in a culture that did not even allow the idea of lesbianism as a sexual identity cut off many avenues of expression for young lesbians. We were either sexually experimenting with boys because we thought we had to, or were totally celibate because the alternative would have been unbearable. Some of the bravest of us were actually experimenting sexually with girls, but, for those of us born before 1965, this was extemely risky business. It is not necessarily easier for girls to have sex together now, but the taboo of breaking gender laws is weakening in modern times. However, this is truer in the areas of dress, occupation, and reproductive choice than in the area of sexuality. It is still quite taboo for girls to kiss girls.
Exploring the role of gender is critical to the lesbian community. Since we have been set up to defend ourselves against the accusation that we are men, or at least not 'real' women, we often miss the opportunity to claim our true gender identities There are few words to describe this spectrum of gender. To bc clear, this is not a discussion of transsgendered people, although I am concerned that the 'transgender' itself implies having a foot in both genders. I believe that our brothers and sisters in the transgender culture have their own genders. They are not 'men' or 'women' by our culture's definition, but have their own powerful and unique gender identities.
A weapon the dominant culture and the lesbian culture have used against various lesbian expressions of gender is to describe some lesbian experience as 'role'. This is especially true in reference to butch/femme. None of true gender identity is a role; there are simply different realities of gender identification. The lack of language to explain it doesn't mean it isn't real.
It is important to note here that the current trend psychology is away from believing in an essential (fundamental, inherent) nature, and toward believing in a socially constructed one (that is, one that is shaped by the interpretation of the dominant culture.) Deconstructionism, a method of systematically dismantling societal preconceptions, has been used to examine the social construction of gender. Alternatively, the concept of essentialism has been combined with the concept of social construction to conclude that we have an essential gender nature that is shaped by social constuction. I believe that the aim of both theories is toward returning us to our essential or true selves, in addition to ridding ourselves of the construction of our cultural mandates. In an objective effort to free ourselves, I hope we can create a new way of looking at gender...The problem is that the social construction of lesbian identity continually puts us in the position of needing to defend who we are. We spend too much time trying to convince society that we are not straight women who have had to settle for second best. Dealing with this prattle has taken our attention away from the real task at hand, which is to talk about our own expression of gender. If we are not actually women (in the traditional heterosexual sense) and we are not men, then who are we, after all? And how do we create a language to describe what we are?
...The lack of available words does not mean that there are no codes for lesbian gender behavior. One friend of mine who identifies as butch bemoans not having a butch summer camp when she was growing up. I asked her what butches would do at camp and she said, 'you know, shove each other around.' I know that there are many butches who do not relate to this. There are perhaps femmes who want to shove, androgynous women who want to be shoved. We can always find the exceptions. I am trying to find the rules.
We are confronted by the social construction of heterosexual culture every day, but we have yet to discover the subtleties of the construction of lesbian gender culture. Even though the three most common gender identities in the lesbian world are discussed here,[butch, femme, androgynous], there are many more. We need to create more categories that lesbians would be proud to identify with. As lesbians we cannot wait for it to be safe to have our own gender categories. We need to claim them and then present them to the dominant culture. We need to move out of the discussion of male/ female altogether. There is no such paradigm in the lesbian world. How do we break out of gender jail and claim the truth?
What imprisions us is our silence. What makes us feel shame is becoming accomplices with our jailers. We plea-bargain and point fingers at the bull dykes ... as the ones who made it bad for the rest of us. What hurts us is becoming judge and jury and punishing other lesbians. We are kept in maximum security so that we will not alert the other inmates that the laws are the problem, not the people.
We must bust loose of gender jail. Alert everyone to the change. Allow each of us to find our own way to our own center. Create endless opportunity to tell the truth. No longer accuse each other but encourage one another to be alive."