Gender Nonconformity

Sex is a group of biological features associated with reproduction. However, this is different from gender. Gender is the set of expectations, roles and scripts (referred to generally as “norms”) that we assign to different sexes.

Gender is socially structured—that is, gender roles spring up when humans live in groups—and can differ between cultures. However, every culture has its unique gender concepts and gender roles.

In North America and Africa, there are two genders; women and men. Without thinking too much, we can sum up many sentences that stereotypically describe women and men in those cultures:

  • Men are strong
  • Men are stoic
  • Men are protectors
  • Men are hard workers
  • Women are passive
  • Women are gentle
  • Women are motherly
  • Women are emotional

The notion of “gender conformity” is founded on these norms. The idea contends that women with vaginas should feel emotional, motherly, passive and gentle.

The issue with gender roles

Gender Nonconformity
Photo: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME

Despite its existence wherever humans live together, gender roles can be oppressive and in some cases harmful. A man can possess motherly and gentle character but will be unable to express it as it is too “feminine.”

A woman can be stoic and athletic, and people will see her as a “tomboy.” Often, women who dress in masculine ways are thrown out of women’s bathrooms. Also, men who dress in a feminine way are bullied, laughed at, or even worse.

Upholding gender conformity can result in violence and death when taken to an extreme. Trans women are mugged and killed for merely being trans. Lesbians and gay men are also victims of abuse and assaults since they do not feel affections for the gender they are “supposed” to feel for.

There are many institutions, structures, and beliefs that try to keep women and men in neat, separate boxes. People who break out of the box are met with, violence, disdain, and ridicule, with the ultimate aim of forcing them to conform.

Gender roles restrict what any individual can do, and reduce an individual’s life to what he or she “should” do. It compels people to what is expected of them, as opposed to living authentically as who they believe they are.

In the simplest term, gender nonconformity is defying to gender roles. In practice, it can imply things as mild as a lady wearing a tie, or something as intricate and life-changing as changing from one gender to another.

There are evident problems with using “nonconformity” as a means of describing individuals who don’t follow gender customs. It means that conformity is a desirable and good thing, rather than something that negatively affects everyone.

Majority of us have something nonconforming about how we live and express our gender. Some men prefer to be stay-at-home fathers. Some women dress feminine but don’t like wearing makeup.

It’s an impossible task to live out all the gender norms in our culture. However, researchers of gender norms and gender have realised for a long time that witnessing transgression of gender norms makes people uncomfortable.

Individuals who transgress gender norms are also viewed as not being straight, being lower in social status, and having values that are totally different from our own.

This discomfort emanates from an embedded human need to group people. And gender is the most significant group for categorising humans: is this individual man or woman?

This classification allows a myriad of other judgments to be made: if this person is a potential mate, if this person is dangerous, what this individual possibly does for a living, and more. We generally react with confusion and discomfort when we meet someone who can’t classify easily.

Transgender individuals

When it comes to gender conformity, a significant concern is how it applies to transgender persons. Keep in mind that “transgender” means merely identifying with a gender other than the gender assigned to him/her at birth.

Transgender men are men who were defined as females at birth, and transgender women are women who were identified as males at birth.

Individuals who identify with birth-assigned gender are called cisgender. (Cis meaning “this side” while trans means “across” or “that side.”) frequently, transgender individuals are required to present their gender in an extreme way so as to be accepted.

Transgender women, for instance, have to exceptionally feminine in ways that their cisgender counterparts don’t have to be.

Notwithstanding the natural gender nonconformity of being transgender, there is even more pressure on transgender persons to perform their gender identity in very obvious and visible ways in order to be acceptably linked with the gender identity they identify with. Doing otherwise implies risking their acceptance as a woman or a man.

Privilege of cisgender

Looking at the transgender performance of gender and gender nonconformity puts the privilege of cisgender into stark contrast.

While merely being transgender already exposes transgender people to the risk of violence, they are further oppressed and ostracised if they don’t perform their gender identity flawlessly and visibly.

Conversely, cisgender people have more freedom in their presenting their gender. A cisgender woman who doesn’t put on makeup may be seen as lacking pride in her appearance or unkempt, but she is not likely to be referred to as “not a real woman.”

However, a transgender woman who doesn’t wear high heels or wear makeup faces many inconsiderate penalties. She might be met with anything from exclusion, misgendering or even physical violence.

Also, a cisgender man who sporadically breaks gender norms is viewed as a positive role model and a socially aware person, but a transgender man who occasionally wears makeup is sometimes automatically tagged as “fake.”

Non-binary people

Another issue worth addressing when speaking about gender nonconformity is individuals who fall under the category of non-binary or agender (those who don’t recognize with any gender), bi+gender (who possess more than one gender), genderfluid (whose gender transit across time), and other-gendered( those whose gender is not among the woman/man category).

A lot of cultures have identified-and still identify- some form of third gender or of non-binary gender identities. These individuals often hold sacred or special positions in their societies.

Being gender non-binary does not imply not ever performing gender in usual ways. Majority of non-binary people have more masculine or feminine presentations, while others prefer an appearance that depicts gender neutrality. However, appearing masculine or feminine does not overrule their identity as non-binary.

Again we notice cisgender privilege at play—a cisgender individual can make more opt for neutral appearances without witnessing dismissal of their gender, but a non-binary person is often met with comments such as “if you prefer masculine clothing, why not identify as a man?”

Gender is flexible

Gender is fluid and not necessarily linked to biology. While the greater part of the population has a cisgender identity, there are a lot of folks who do not. The unwinding of gender roles since the ’60s has ushered in a variety of different gender identities.

Due to social and cultural conditions, it has been difficult and dangerous to express these identities, but they have always existed. Oppression and violence associated with gender nonconformity is the most pressing problem linked to this issue.

We need to realise that gender is not a life prescription, but rather a platform where individuals can express and experiment with their authentic self.