This week I was called a lesbian. By a perfect stranger. And for the very apparent (and substantial) reasons that I’m well-educated, I’m outspoken, I’m a feminist, and (are you ready for this) I have very short hair. This has happened to me before. And sometimes, just after cutting all my hair off again, I see people look at me and then look again and it seems that maybe they’re wondering about my sexuality.
Two days later, I received an email from a friend. He and I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion of sex and gender and how those things define who we are. In his most recent message, my friend argued that sex, gender, and gender roles are three distinct things. I found this very interesting. It’s not an altogether foreign idea to me, as I have for a long time argued that gender can be eternal but our current understandings of gender may not be. However, I had never articulated the distinction between gender and gender roles in so many words. I like this distinction. The idea that a gender role is something to be taken on or put off, to be used how we see fit, to be valued according to our own understanding of ourselves and our world.
A role is something performed, rather than something inherent. It is not who you are, but what you enact. Like someone performing a character on stage. Not being able to play a role you want to play leaves you waiting in the wings, hurting that you can’t be part of that big beautiful spectacle taking shape on stage. As a single woman in the church, I felt like that for a while. But I got impatient and forged my own way. Maybe too aggressively—after all, my own way makes people snap to judgments about me that are ill-founded (that I’m a lesbian; that I hate men; that I willfully chose a career over marriage; that I obviously don’t want to be married because if I did, I would be; that I am evil [yes—I’ve actually been told that; long live internet communication with strangers]).
Now I’m looking at this idea of gender vs. gender roles, and it feels right to me. Another friend told me, when I discussed it with her, that she associates gender with gender roles—that they feel like the same thing. I understand why that is—it’s nearly impossible to get away from that idea in Mormonism. But I gender myself female. I am most definitely not only a woman biologically, but very much a woman in my own gender identity. But I’m also very much not a perfect match to traditional Mormon gender roles. I think this understanding of gender being separate from gender roles brings some freedom with it—freedom to define our own particular ways of (en)gendering ourselves as women; freedom to shape our own identities, which may or may not include playing a certain role. Maybe then, our differences will be strengths rather than catalysts for undeserved and petty insults.
Amy (aka amelia) lives in Southern California where she works diligently (and sometimes less than diligently) on her PhD in English. She loves books and gardens and wishes her meager student budget could accommodate more international travel. In addition to trying to write papers and her orals lists, she is currently teaching herself to play the organ—and forcing her ward to endure her efforts. She’s excited to be a contributor to the Exponent II blog.