It’s no secret that our society needlessly assigns gender to certain activities and products to the point where performing an action outside of what’s expected of your own gender somehow lessens the legitimacy of you existing as said gender.
I’ve seen countless examples of men feeling emasculated because they read books with “girly” covers. In 8th grade, I told a girl in my class that I was going to start learning to play guitar and she sneered at me, saying, “That’s a boy instrument!” Trans and non-binary people are constantly filtered through the gender binary based on their actions or clothing.
It seems that we’ve allowed actions to define or validate gender, but this passive experience of gender leaves room for panicking about the validity of gender identity. It gives these actions the power to support or refute our identity.
But actions and things do not and should not have this power. Individuals are the agents of their gender identities and passive gender leaves openings for that to be invalidated. If we change our understanding of gender identity to something that defines rather than something that is defined, then we can start to ungender the numerous gendered things we encounter every day.
Take the Twilight series as an easy example. As a romance YA novel, it is strictly seen as feminine. To read Twilight is to engage in a feminine activity and if your gender identity does not coincide with femininity, the act of reading it invalidates your gender. In simpler terms, a masculine man who reads and enjoys Twilight is made to feel like less of a man for participating in something that seemingly goes against his gender. This is a passive experience of gender in which the action is affecting the individual’s identity.
Active gender, however, says this: when the man reads and enjoys Twilight, the act of reading those books becomes masculine due to his gender identity. When performing a gendered action at any time, it is the identity of the action that changes, not the identity of the person.
Say a feminine woman is also sitting in the same room as the man, reading Twilight. Individually, her act of reading the books is feminine while his act is masculine. Collectively, the act of reading Twilight becomes both a masculine and feminine thing. Add a non-binary person to the mix; reading Twilight also becomes a non-binary act. Theoretically, we can keep adding all kinds of gender identities to the same gendered act so that the act cannot be strictly defined by any gender at all.
This also goes for acts that our society has deemed masculine (playing football, fixing cars, etc.). When non-masculine people perform these acts, they don’t become masculine. A feminine quarterback is performing a feminine act while playing football. Her masculine wide receiver is performing a masculine act. Neither act is lessened in any way by the other because it is each person’s identity that holds the power, separating a non-living thing such as football from gender. The game remains the same, but it doesn’t have the power to validate or invalidate anyone’s sense of their own gender.
Is someone who appears male wearing a dress? The dress has not made them feminine if that is not part of their gender identity. Wearing the dress is an act done by the particular gender that person identifies as. Is someone who appears female building a fence? That act does not make them masculine if that is not part of their gender identity.
Thinking of our genders as things that define our actions rather than allowing actions to define our genders allows us to be more confident in who we are and to stop feeling so insecure about ordering certain kinds of drinks, playing certain sports or instruments, or wearing certain clothes. When passive gender is in play, people are boxed into certain spaces and are taught to fear stepping out of those spaces because doing so will somehow strip them of their security in their gender. We unconsciously accept that certain actions define one of two genders and that is a very narrow way of looking at things.
Practically speaking, this framework won’t make huge changes, but it can give people the agency to validate their gender identity not in what they do or don’t do, but simply in who they are. Some actions may make some people feel more in touch with their gender and that’s perfectly fine. However, that action doesn’t need to define their gender for them.
Ultimately, the idea is to understand every gendered action as being defined by so many genders that one can no longer say “x is for boys” or “x is for girls.” There is more to life than those rigid definitions.
Special thanks to Kit for helping me bounce ideas around.