By Lyn Meyerding and Jessica MacGilvray
Jun 12, 2011 - 6:31:37 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C.—When my grandmother was a child in England, most schools had separate entrances for boys and girls, and even classes and play times were separate. By the time I was in school, everyone just came in the main entrance gate; the little gate around the corner that had been the girls' entrance was blocked off. There were no separate classes (not even P.E.) or play times for boys or girls.

In the 1940s, when my mother was a girl in England, all the games were either boy games or girl games. If she wanted to play with her older brother and the boys, she could, if she could keep up and her brother let her. Her brother would not be allowed to play girl games, except as part of taking care of his little sister.

When I was a girl in England, boys and girls played all the same games. Some games got played more by the girls or more by the boys. Everyone played kickball, everyone jumped rope and everyone played jacks. The boys helped the girls learn games and the girls helped the boys learn games. We were all united against the playground supervisor.

In America, the same conditions that were true when I was a child in England are mostly true here now. The main culprit in continuing gender bias and phobias are the teachers with their "girls do this" and "boys do that" required activities. The hogwash that boys develop this way and girls develop that way does as much harm as the teaching of a puritanical fear of their own bodies.

Statistically speaking, the developmental variation is far less between boys and girls than between individual boys or girls. Of course, you can train differences in and that may be a lot of what happens.  Much of the complaint against progressive changes in education in America has come from the ultra-conservative religious minorities who object to their children not being indoctrinated in value systems such as gender roles.  

These people believe, for example, that well-adjusted, mentally healthy people should always be ashamed of their bodies, as God decreed that they should. A lack of shame is seen as perversion. They believe that there are absolute, innate and inevitable differences between men and women. The differences are ordained by God and are not open for interpretation or negotiation. They demand that all children  be trained to exhibit the correct behaviors for their gender, regardless of a person’s natural feelings or inclinations. Exhibiting incorrect gender behaviors or presentation is also seen as perversion.

And the most ridiculous and idiotic aspect of this whole controversy is that most of the differences to which the religious extremists cling to are just contemporary fashions: fashions of dress, fashions of behavior and fashions of adornment. George Washington, for example,  wore a powdered wig, rouge on his cheeks, lace collar and cuffs, rings, bracelets, brooches, lace underwear, silver buckles on his shoes and lots of perfume. His wife, in contrast, wore a plain bonnet, very little jewelry or makeup, very plain undergarments and unadorned footwear, as befitted a married woman of good character at the time.

Why do you suppose so many different religions make such a big deal about gender differences? If you are going to support a patriarchal value system, where men are in charge and women are not, there must be differences between men and women. If you eliminate the perceived differences between men and women, why shouldn’t women run things on an equal footing with men?

To me, the most unexpected aspect of this topic is that there are two groups most in favor of emphasizing the perception of differences in gender behaviors or presentation: the religious extremists and the transgender community.  Transgender people also have a vested interest in gender differences. If there are no perceived differences, how is it possible to be opposite? If men and women can make any presentation choice, it becomes just a choice, not connected to gender. In such a circumstance, you can’t cross-dress. Transvestism is not a presentation with any point if all possible clothing choices are merely ordinary. If a beard with a dress is no longer incongruous, there is no gender to queer. Some transsexual people take extraordinary pains to exemplify traditional gender stereotypes in their daily presentation. A transwoman I know would give Mrs. "Leave it to Beaver" Cleaver a run for  her money in exemplifying the 1950s woman. While several transmen I know bear a striking, and not coincidental, resemblance to Marlon Brando in the "Wild Ones.

It seems strange to me that it is the religious extremists and transpeople who most firmly adhere to the gender binary: something that the former completely embrace and the latter completely deny. Both have a hidden agenda of difference that begs for conflict and resists resolution. I wish that people who believed strongly in something were not so difficult to get along with. Certainly, there are things in this world that are worth believing in strongly, but at the same time we all need a deeper belief and understanding in the need for diversity and a recognition that all people, of whatever differences, have more in common than in difference. We’re all in the same boat in this life and we have to get together to get along if we’re going to achieve meaningful social change. Emphasizing the differences between genders, races, cultures, religions, orientations or identities is not a good way to achieve this end.

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