Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Sex Role Stereotyping, Part II

This is the second Info page on the topic of sex role stereotyping in response to a reader’s question to this site. This edition will continue that general topic focusing on the GLBTQ community (communities).

As human beings we take comfort in our ability to understand the world around us and we come to this understanding by the use of language, with all its cultural relativity. Responding to the need to identify and label we can “believe” that the subject of this process is then categorized and understood and by “knowing” the subject in this way then we know how to proceed, how to behave. The simpler the label the clearer our understanding and hence the reaction or behavior that is to be our response. To bring this notion home: We all have had the occasion to be the subject of stereotyping, of labeling; queer, sissy, femme or fem, butch, fag, top, bottom, masculine acting, fairy, smooth, hairy, fudge-packer, corn-holler, dominant, submissive, bi, homo, daughter of Sapho, limp wrist, fatty, buff, etc. The adjectives when applied to a person can become a label and represent the sum total of the person once applied. Or can they?

What if a baby is born and upon physical exam it is not clear whether it is a boy or a girl? Who decides and then what? What if a baby is born with male genitalia but as the person develops “he” feels more like a she? What if a girl grows up and acts “more like a guy” or “looks more like a guy”? What if a guy or a girl feels sexual attraction toward both sexes? Are they bi or just in some phase of coming out or afraid to settle on one or the other? Why must everything eventually be boiled down to one or the other?! The simple answer is because it makes us feel secure in the belief that we KNOW and because we know we know WHAT TO EXPECT and HOW TO ACT. But what about when we can’t divide the world in two; into black/white, good/bad, hot /cold, butch/ femme, etc? What if the dichotomized stereotyping language is applied to the same person? A look at recent personal ads was illustrative: Wanted: SLIM, FEM TOP WHO TALKS DIRTY or SOFT BUTCH TO FEMME LESBIAN OR BI. So apparently butch and femme have many degrees and fem does not just mean passive or bottom. Fortunately for us all, a “masculine acting man” is just that, or at least until he squeals.

We are communities who have banded together for comfort, safety, political power and other reasons in response to very real threats from the society at large. In doing so we have pushed forward the concepts of diversity, tolerance and acceptance and have worked to translate these ideas into laws and cultural/societal reality. But within our own communities we are not always so kind as we pressure our members to fit our notions of in versus out, OK versus Not OK. When I was growing up in my female dominated, middle class, Irish Catholic home in the north end of Niagara Falls, NY during Camelot and the Vietnam War Era being the nerd yet hippie brainiac sissy that I most certainly was, contemplating whether I was a top, bottom or the best of both: versatile (thought I would throw in a few labels so I could be known), a phrase was often heard, “Charity begins at home.”

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