Reflections on Young People and Gender Categories

Posted on July 18, 2013


Note: I posted this on What Makes Us Human; reposting it here because I would be interested in dialogue with readers who might have had related experiences– please comment, but know all comments are moderated and there may be a delay before I get to them.

The story from NPR is headlined Young People Push Back Against Gender Categories.

Not everything in it was familiar– I have not (yet) had students introduce themselves by specifying their preferred pronouns.

But in general, the article resonated with me.

I have for years taught a course in spring term called “Archaeology of Sex and Gender” to around 100 undergraduates, drawn from all over the university. I wrote a book based on this experience, trying to explain the topic simply, to both students and the general public.

My goal is to demonstrate how archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, historians, and art historians find ways to explore sex and gender in the past, when they don’t have the luxury of just talking to people or observing their behavior.

This is my area of expertise; but teaching this interdisciplinary course, that satisifies one of Berkeley’s distribution requirements, has been really challenging. Trying to explain to students, most of whom have never questioned the naturalness of a simple correspondence between two sexes and two genders, how historical scholars can understand societies that recognized more than two sexes, more than two genders, takes work.

When we take the next step beyond that, to consider how sex/gender may better be understood as a fluid spectrum, I expect to face the strongest objections.

And that was true, for the first few years. Then for a variety of reasons, I stopped teaching the course.

When I started again in 2012, I wondered if I was just not remembering how the course had gone. The students seemed to be ahead of me from day one. The opening exercise– simply listing how we recognize what gender or sex someone is– was too complicated– it was where we were supposed to end up, not begin.

This spring, the second time around after I started teaching the course again, I was certain. Things had changed– as I said to a group of students, I now anticipate that I won’t be able to teach the course– at least, as it is set up now.

Why? they asked me. I moved us off the topic, alert to the temptation of letting us get off topic. But I kept thinking about what I was noticing as the class unfolded.

Students, without my prompting, used the term “cisgender” when talking about people who understood themselves in terms of the gender they were assigned at birth. When I was introducing the concept of multiplying gender categories, before I could point out that more categories are still boxes, students proposed that gender is fluid, a spectrum. Some of them suggested that even a spectrum or continuum of gender was a problematic concept, because it presumed a single dimension of variation. From week one, there were students ahead of me, even if they lacked the precision of analysis they needed to engage their understanding with scholarly work.

Because where my endorsement of gender as fluid, multidimensional, and non-categorical came from a history of theoretical engagement, theirs came from their everyday life: who they were, who their friends were, how they imagined the world was and should be.

So when I read the NPR story, I heard echoes of my own students. Students who were as likely to talk about each other in the plural (“like they said”) or by name, as use referential pronouns that assume two genders corresponding to two sexes.

Of course, not all the students were equally adept, equally informed, equally concerned about terms of reference, not making assumptions about identity, or prepared to refer to cisgender and transgender persons.

But when I asked the group, late in the semester, to do a “one minute question” and write how they would explain to someone else how to think about sex/gender, having had this course, something unexpected happened.

Along with a group that continued to define sex as the biological ground for corresponding genders (a position I hope students will feel free to defend, even though I disagree), there was an equally large group that described gender and sex, both, as cultural conceptions that artificially enforced stable identity on a more fluid continuum or spectrum of identity. A third group said they would describe gender as a personal experience, something outside social or cultural control, an internal state that could not be assessed without the testimony of the person.

While I wasn’t teaching this material, a new generation has formed: already thinking of gender as something that should not be a categorical identity imposed on them; ready to create space for their peers, not just for their own freedom to define themselves as they feel appropriate.

And if NPR is right, the next generation may be even more challenging– and interesting.