Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Letting Go Series, #1: Gender

I begin a series of posts on letting go today. A colleague looked me straight in the eye today and spoke with great conviction: Let it go, Victoria. Let it go. I have decided to take him at his word, and reflect on issues with which I struggle to let go. And being a part of the human community means that it's usually not just me that has something to let go. 

Here goes nothin'.

Letting go of my internalized sexism- giving the pink slip to the gender police

A dear friend and mentor told me about Ken Corbett yesterday, as I sat and struggled with her about my gender and the work I do in the world.   I find, with my beloved and my child, that the heaviness of my gender as a woman falls away. There is no doubt that I am Mama, partner, woman particularly in my family-- and yet it rests well with me most of the time. My body has a function that is life-giving. My heart is open and (mostly) unafraid. 

She said, Gender can be a lightning rod for pain.

I feel pain most often about my gender in my work in the world. As a person who is working on being a farmer and educator-- and as a woman who is working with young people-- I feel pain when I am reminded that my expression of myself as a woman does not fit with the dominant culture, and can be alienating to many young people obsessed with fitting in, anxious about doing things right, and living in a developmental moment of conservatism. As a person who wrestles with the spiritual gifts that have been given to me-- through accident, family, experience, Spirit-- my gender feels like an albatross around my neck. Attempts to embrace the feminine divine feel marginal and heretical to many in my current community, and I feel the risk of being out in this way. As a bisexual in a committed relationship with a man, I feel the invisibility of my gendered desire in a heterosexist landscape. 

I also feel pain and confusion about gender as my son interacts with the world. As we continue to not cut his hair, I feel concern for him being judged as not a boy, or perhaps we being judged as deviant parents. We dress our boo in clothes we mostly get donated, so much is gender ascribed. When we pull out the pink onesie or he wears his pink and purple rainboots, I cringe as I imagine more conservative people looking askance at his blessed frolic in the puddles. Gender is a trap in the world. It is a cage. There is a cost to any transgression, and rampant fear of that transgression. 

As I looked for more on Corbett online, I came across this news piece from a year ago (how did I miss it?) about a JCrew ad where a 5 year old boy is painting his nails pink. The controversy itself is affirmation of these feelings

The well reasoned speakers are trying to stem a tide that is larger than this boy and his painted toes. I often get information from progressive religious sites and feeds about this overwhelming tide of gender policing from religious and secular groups. I am reminded of my seminary work looking at Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw as I write this. As a transsexual activist and intellectual, Kate's writing about our role and responsibility to tear down the gender policed state was inspiring to me as I explored liberation theologies and what I could be. Though there are voices to listen to, places to live (yes I mean you, West Philly), the tide of the gender policed state is overwhelming, and just a click away.  

So I ask myself, in the spirit of letting go, what would letting go of this struggle look like? Would it look like courage? Pride? Calm? Would it look like moving outside of the fear of confrontation with those who might judge me as not fitting?

As I look at the current debate over public and extended breastfeeding, I feel a fierce clarity that this nurturing of children should be encouraged, not codified or policed, and this struggle is apparent, between permission to be and expectations of performance. Does being a good mother require specific behaviors? Does being a good woman require specific roles? These questions are maddening! -- and the questions that play in my mind as I butt up against those who cry out-- yes! yes indeed they do! 

Maybe the challenge, for me, is to let go of this idea of good. I will perform my gender in my wiley ways. I will be a woman until and unless that changes. Why do I hold up my being and performance against others? Why do I listen to the gender police in my mind as often, if not more, than the voices of diverse and amazing folx across the gender spectrum in my actual life? Why do I worry if I am the only adult woman in my community who does not shave? 

Last night at dinner, my beloved N relayed a story about how he was an object lesson for the Pre-Kindergarten class on exploding gender norms. As a man with long hair, one of our young neighbors stood up in class and said-- I know a man who has long hair! N! Others around the table shared that N's ponytail had been discussed with their little ones, as well. I was pleased, and a little shocked to realize that N is the only man in this community with long hair. And he smiled and was glad. I love that man. 

And so I give the pink slip to the gender police, or at least notice. Each step I take to stand without shame, with my family, friends and neighbors willing to let this policing go, is a step to showing the internal police the door. I don't know if these struggles will lessen, but I do know that I am committed to making a free gender play space for my son and the young people I meet, modeling who I can be and inviting the bigness of who they can be, outside of  fear of reprisal. I only hope that as I and others let this struggle go, the death throes of this policing will be heard, and then silence will follow-- and who knows what will fill up the space, when we say good-bye to the police within and without. 


  1. I love this. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. i am glad you love it. i feel good about it, too. i am trying to write honestly. i think i am succeeding so far.

  2. Dear Victoria,

    Great blog. You are willing to be so open in this rather public forum. Your use of the term Gender Police reminded me of my first year of teaching when I introduced the mythic cycle of Innana to my tenth grade ancient history students. Tom Woodward got wind of their reaction to this earthy and powerful female goddess and stopped me in the hall and called me the "sex lady". Since I hardly knew him, I hardly knew what to think. But these kids were so intrigued to think that gender was fluid and a social construct and therefore as one of my first ever students said --chooseable.

    I am a big believer in kids your son's age choosing what they want to wear (or not wear). Pink is a great and soothing color.

    Letting go takes faith.