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.


Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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  1. Will Powers says:

    The narrow mindedness of people

  2. Mike says:

    The next time a guy calls you a lesbian, just tell him, “It’s men like you that are driving me to it.”
    Seriously, though, what is your typical response when called a lesbian? Any advice for other women who may encounter the same thing?

  3. amelia says:

    i usually resort to sarcasm in order to call attention to exactly how narrowminded the person is being. my dad would tell me that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit (however, he was my best teacher at this particular art so I don’t take him very seriously) but it usually does the trick of framing the offending party as the semi-bigot and thoughtless person they are being at the moment.

    and to be completely honest, I don’t really mind that people wonder about my sexuality. I figure those close to me know the truth and they’re the ones I care about. I kind of like that my appearance lends itself to gender bending (although that was not the purpose in cutting my hair short; I honestly just like it short and think it looks good). I think it’s a good thing to shake people out of their complacency about gender and make them stop and think a bit about what it means to be male and female.

  4. Tri Mama says:

    My background is as a feminist, but I have to say I have redefined the word feminist for myself and my family. I come from a predominately Asian background, so as a young feminist I really went to battle with my ultra conservative mother from Asia. I was in the middle of a women’s studies class and we began discussing the third wave of feminism or the fact that traditional feminism is the voice of white, middle-class women in Western Countries, which is not representative of the universal women’s experience. I began to rethink my ideals of feminism. Who am I to label my mother’s ideals for women as negative? Who am I to take away her culture? As I raise two boys I find myself again redefining my feminism and ideas about gender roles. I want my sons to see women as equals in relationships and understand that I take my divine calling as mother with gratitude. My mother came here as an immigrant and supported our family on her own, so there was very little room for her to pick and choose gender roles (she was the provider and home-maker). She had to survive. I feel so blessed that I can choose the role of mother and have the opportunity to stay at home with my children (the role of mother can never be removed). I think we try too often to search for a feminism that allows women to make more masculine choices, rather than searching for a feminism that allows us to celebrate all women.

  5. Mike says:


    I’d probably respond in a similar fashion.

    But let me play devil’s advocate for the sake of pure provocation. Jana’s earlier EXII post proves that even well-intentioned and very good people can mistakenly make incorrect first impression judgements. Does it not worry you that a really good guy might not ask you out because he mistakenly pre-judges you? Of course, you could say, “Anybody who pre-judges me is not a guy I’d want to date.” But even good guys make mistakes.

    (I’m not saying you should grow you hair out. If it looks better short, then go with it! Of course, if women start asking you out, then that’s another thing altogether…)

  6. amelia says:


    I have been picked up on by women–but that was when I was visiting a resort town in MA that has a reputation as a town that is homosexual-friendly, so I didn’t think much of it.

    I suppose your question is valid. The appearances we cultivate can send the wrong message and perhaps prevent people from interacting with us or casue them to interact with us in a certain way.

    That said, I think any meaningful interaction takes place because two people went beyond first impressions and engaged in conversation with one another. If a man really to know me as a person and a friend (which is where I think a relationship should start, rather than merely seeing someone as a potential spouse), then he’d get to know me. and discover the truth about me.

    I also think that while good people can make mistakes, part of the challenge of this life is to learn not to make that particular kind of mistake–the mistake of jumping to conclusions about someone’s entire identity based on very limited knowledge.

    and, at the end of the day, we all pay the prices of our choices. Maybe I have or will miss out on opportunities to date good men who assume I’m a lesbian (I don’t think this has happened, but then I probably wouldn’t know if it did). But I’m not willing to shape my appearance to other’s expectations. I’d prefer shaping it to my own. That feels more honest to me.


  7. amelia says:


    I appreciate your insight and thoughts. I agree with you that feminism should be expansive enough to embrace all women and their choices as to how to go about being women.

    I also agree that “mother” is not a role that can be put off. However, the *kind* of mother we are is a role that can be put off. Someone who is a working woman and a mother is still as much a mother as a woman who is a stay-home mother. The role has to do with how we go about being something we are. I see gender roles in much the same way. I cannot stop being gendered female. It is what I am. But I can make choices as to how I enact that gender. Some women choose to enact it by being stay home mothers (my mother, who I believe to be very nearly perfect, has chosen this role). Some enact it by being mothers with careers (two of my other role-models are such women). Some enact it as single women. Others as married women.

    The point I was trying to make is that if we can see gender roles as distinct from gender–as something we choose for ourselves, as opposed to gender which is determined more subconsciously–then we have more freedom to become the women we want to be, rather than the women someone else tells us we should be. And I will celebrate any role a woman chooses–when she has in fact chosen it.

    I also want to state, for the record, that I am not interested in feminism as a means of making it possible to make “masculine” choices. I am interested in feminism as a means of opening opportunity for all women to choose for themselves, according to their own situation and needs, how they will live their lives. And I want those same opportunities for men.

    I can very much appreciate the changes that you experienced in your understanding of feminism, because I’ve traveled a similar path. and it makes me happy to see women in all different places in life–as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as career women–speaking for equality and celebrating women.


  8. Mike says:

    If a man really [wants] to know me as a person and a friend … then he’d get to know me. and discover the truth about me.

    True, but this is the problem with early judgements: even a good guy might not want to get to know you if he made a mistake in his first judgement?

    …part of the challenge of this life is to learn not to make that particular kind of mistake–the mistake of jumping to conclusions about someone’s entire identity based on very limited knowledge. … I’m not willing to shape my appearance to other’s expectations. I’d prefer shaping it to my own. That feels more honest to me.

    Well said. We have to accept the fact that we are always misjudged and always misjudging. I agree with you that the basic principle is to live the life we think right and deal with whatever misjudgments occur as they occur.

  9. Starfoxy says:

    I’ve been mistaken for a man multiple times because of short hair and non-feminine interests. I’m still not sure what I think about that, but I’m much more comfortable with the idea of being mistaken for a lesbian.
    I really like the idea of gender being distinctly separate from gender roles. Though the church encourages us to follow the roles outlined for us, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a woman (or that I am a sinner) because I don’t particularly enjoy many of the things included in my ‘role.’

  10. amelia says:

    that’s precisely what I like about this idea, Starfoxy. that if I do not choose a certain role (for instance, the “stay-home” part of mother after I have children), it doesn’t mean I’m not a woman. or that I’m a failed woman. it just means that I’ve chosen a different role–one that still has me being a mother and a woman very successfully, even if not according to one prescribed role.

    I use the “stay-home” mother role only as illustration because it’s the gender role most familiar to us as mormons. I still don’t know what I’ll do about that. Part of me wants nothing more than to be a stay-home mother. and part of me wants to be like my current advisor who is a brilliant professor and an amazing mother.


  11. Caroline says:

    Love the post! Reading your discussion of gender and gender roles does bring up a question for me. I always thought that gender and gender roles were inextricably linked. That gender is by definition the gender roles we act out. This is to be distinguished from sex which refers to our biology. I guess my understanding is in line with this definition I found:

    Gender: A social construct regarding culture-bound conventions, roles and behaviors for, as well as relationships between and among, women and men and boys and girls.” (from Krieger N. A Glossary for Social Epidemiology)

    So my question is this: how is your definition of gender (which seems to exclude gender roles) different from my definition of sex?

  12. Sherpa says:

    I’ve thought of this before, gender roles and gender being separate, and I agree with this. Maybe its because I in some ways don’t fit into the stereotypical latter day woman mold. But then who really does?

  13. amelia says:


    this is still a relatively new configuration of the gender/sex divide for me. i’ve been thinking that i should go pick the brains of some of the professors i know about whether or not work has been done that postulates gender as a site between sex and gender roles. in this formulation, i would argue that sex is pure biology. it’s the organs and the hormones and the genes that we have that affect our physical sex (and remember how confused this can be for some people who are born hermaphrodites or with whatever weird genetic confusion of sex or hormonal imbalance, etc.) gender roles are purely socially constructed in my mind. they are some idea of what a person of a certain sex should be or do. they are inflected by biological sex insofar as biological sex sets some of the limits of what gender can be, but they usually branch out far beyond the realm of sex.

    I’m thinking of gender roles as something between the two. as something that cannot be quite so consciously articulated as a gender role because it has to do with how sex (biology) and gender roles (society) interact. i guess it would be similar to the id, ego, superego distinction Freud draws, with sex (biology/id) being out of the control of the individual and gender roles (superego) being largely out of the control of the individual but gender (ego) being a site where the other two meet and inform one another and are subject to a certain extent to the individual’s ability to shape it.

    i have no idea if that all makes sense. but that’s the direction i’ve been thinking in recently.


  14. Brooke says:

    Amy: Hear hear! I like the freedom you describe of choosing what role I will play as a female.

    805mama: Your comment brings to mind my own struggle with choices I have made. I sometimes wonder if I really chose to marry young, have kids, and be a stay home mother. Or was it just that it was all I had known growing up in Utah as a Mormon. The only women I knew and looked up to at that point (besides my older sister, who I wish I’d talked to more about stuff like this, but I didn’t even know there was much to talk about!…if I had asked about what was going on in her head, I think I would’ve at least thought about my choices a little more) had made those exact decisions or variations on them. Any other options had not been presented to me as desirable.

  15. Seraphine says:

    It seems to me here that you are trying to redefine the term “gender role” so that instead of using the term to refer to a role that society (or the church) expects us to adhere to, you want to use it to talk about the ways in which you hope to “perform” your own gender differently. There’s actually quite a bit of literature on gender and performance (probably the biggest name here being Judith Butler) that I could refer you to if you wanted–I don’t know that the literature is using the exact terminology that you are, but it’s definitely concerned with the ways that we form and negotiate (and perform), often in transgressive ways, our gender of choice.

    One possible response to others who call you a lesbian: tell them that they’re lesbian-baiting and they should stop. We talked a lot about this phenomenon in my Women’s Studies class last year. While I agree that I am not offended when others call me a lesbian, the phenomenon itself is a problem. When women are called “lesbians” for being strong, feminist women, it’s a way of using a term that is less-valued (and often seen as an insult) in our society in order to justify ignoring someone’s opinion. If you think about it, if someone responds to strong opinions of a woman by calling her a “lesbian,” typically they’re saying–“your opinions are threatening to me, and so I’m going to make your opinions illegitimate by calling you a derogatory term.”

    Of course, there are those occasions when you’re called a “lesbian” because that’s people’s first impression of you. I think that’s different (and it would be something unlikely to get a response from me like the one I wrote about above).

  16. Caroline says:

    Interesting discussion. So it seems, Amy, as if you believe in some sort of essential femininity if you are arguing for gender divorced from gender roles. What do you think are essential feminine traits? What in the next life, if you are totally able to choose your own role and the part you play in the universe, will make you female, other than your spirit body? These are things I wonder about all the time….

  17. amelia says:


    my sister has made similar comments. she married at 19 and is a stay-home mother of 4 (soon to be 5; they are adopting). and she wishes she had been able to go to school and have some of the experiences our other sister and I have. She doesn’t regret her decision; but i think she recognizes that she wasn’t aware of all the options.


    i appreciate your intelligent analysis of why it is some people call strong women (whether they are feminist or not) lesbians. i agree that this tendency is a very bad one indeed. the thing that bothers me about being called lesbian is not the being called that; it’s the mindsets revealed by the fact that someone 1. thinks its an insult to call a woman that; and 2. wants to shut down someone with whom they disagree–exactly as you said.

    i am trying to think of gender roles both as a role dictated by society for a woman or a man to conform to but also as an opportunity for me to enact my own version of those roles. i see them as both prescriptive and performative. which i think could open on to some interesting theoretical questions. i have read Butler–mostly _Gender Trouble_–but it’s been a while and I should really pick it up again.


    what do I see as essentiall “feminine” characteristics? I don’t know. I think that gender is not as strictly defined as sex or as gender roles because it is, in this conception of it, a point of intersection between society, biology, and subjectivity. which means that I think everyone’s gender will be unique in some way. i guess that’s not much help to you, is it? i imagine that this intersection between biology and society and self will continue to happen and to shape our gender identities in the next life, too.

  18. Seraphine says:

    I was thinking mainly of _Gender Trouble_, though she revisits the issue in subsequent writings.

    I think the questions you raise with the post (how do we have some individual control over something that is to a certain extent out of our control?) is a really interesting one. Thanks for getting me to revisit the issue in my own thoughts. 🙂

  19. amelia says:

    i’m glad it was thought provoking. it’s an issue i find myself returning to–both professionally/intellectually and personally.

  20. Jana says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read all of the follow-up comments thoroughly, but I did want to add just a bit to your discussion…

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “gender expression” (rather than gender or gender roles). For example, my spouse tends to express many behaviors that are viewed as effeminate. As a result he’s often assumed to be gay. It’s frustrating to him that a less masculine gender expression can’t be accepted without people also making assumptions about his sexuality.

    Perhaps it might be worth disentangling the concepts of gender, gender expression, sexual preference and gender roles to better understand the various forces at play when someone calls a strong-willed woman with short hair a lesbian.

    And one other thought: one reason I enjoy hanging out in ‘hipster’ areas is that the younger generation seem to be doing a much better job at experimenting with gender expression than my generation did/does. I love seeing the mashups of clothing and hairstyles that complicate gender binaries. I look forward to a world where both men and women feel unfettered by gendered expectations of personal expression.