It’s one o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday and my sister, mom, and I have just walked into the hair salon. My sister is four and I’m six. As we walk into the salon, I quickly realize that something is out of place. Something is wrong. I soon understand that the “something” is me.
That morning, I asked my mom if I could wear my favorite article of clothing to get my haircut: my pink frilly tutu. Of course she said yes, knowing the blossoming queer that I would become.
When we walked into the salon, one of the stylists looked at me and said, “Sweetheart, don’t you know that little boys can’t wear tutus?” Quicker than I could even register what had happened, my mom retorted, “excuse me, they can wear whatever they want, whenever they want to.” It was in that moment that I registered the concept of gender. Boys have to act one way and girls another. In that same moment, I realized the potential to transgress this category I had been placed into. To resist the performance of binaried gender roles.
Seminal gender theorists of the past few decades, including the radical queer Judith Butler and gender-outlaw Kate Bornstein, see through the myth of gender that is forced onto the lives of the public. Although gender seems to be a natural way of classifying people, places, things (even pets), Butler and Bornstein recognize that gender is a performance. A performance that has the effect of stratifying and creating a hierarchy out of gendered bodies.
When I say gender is performative, I mean that gender is an artificial grouping of actions and characteristics that we reinforce through embodiment. In her book, Gender Trouble, Butler strongly asserts that, “because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.” In other words, the only things that make gender real—or part of our reality—are the actions that we perform on a daily basis to uphold gender distinctions.
Now many imaginary things are quite harmless. For instance, my best friend throughout elementary school was an imaginary moose that went to class with me, ate at the dinner table, and slept next to my bed. And I turned out just fine! Gender, on the other hand, is an imaginary category that has negative effects on individual development and mental health, as well as society on the whole.
On the surface, gender seems to refer to visible aspects of a person. However, binaried performances of gender are associated with mental and emotional characteristics that often fail to represent the complexity of gendered individuals. Men are associated with strength, intellect, and ambition while women are perceived to be emotional, passive, and weak. The creation of these gender stereotypes isn’t based in anything other than the public’s performance of these tropes. The repeated performance of these gendered expectations, however, concretizes gender as a fact of our biological identities and forces individuals to conform, or be labeled as “other.”
Gender has come to categorize more than just clothing and societal roles. Gender is used to assign value to certain bodies over others, require people to behave in specific ways, force people into jobs or positions that they don’t desire, and limit the potential that every person has to grow as a human, rather than a gender. We as a society have the ability to progress beyond gender to the point of valuing the preferences and abilities of each individual and supporting these from birth.
Imagine what a society could look like in which boys aren’t afraid to wear tutus, like dolls, enjoy baking, and write poetry. Think about the potential that we have to raise girls knowing that their voices are valuable and that they can grow up to be whatever or whomever they want to. And beyond that, envision a future in which people are just people, not boys or girls, men or women. Contemplate the effect that removing this phony mode of categorizing children from birth would have on how we interact with one another, and how humans value each other in general.
This performance of gender that we live everyday is just that: a performance. And we have the option to push back. To refute this fake mode of categorization. To live our lives as we want to rather than how others expect us to. Listen to your heart, not your gender, and always wear a tutu to get your haircut.