The Gender Jungle Gym

What is gender? Without using gender categories like boy, girl, woman or man, the term is hard to define. Here’s my attempt:

  • Gender is a structure of social systems that teach, elicit and reward different behaviors from different people depending on a person’s sex classification, age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Historically, the systems of gender have been structured according to two boxes, one bound as boy/man and the other as girl/woman.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The idea of gender as a box, a role, a stereotype is familiar to many of us. We often feel nudged, shove, or pressured into these boxes, resulting in alienation from ourselves and from each other.

And there’s potential for something better.

Sometimes I like to think of myself as on a gender jungle gym. I use my upper body strength to pull myself out of the box, and I swing my body around in order to perch on top, pause, and view the horizon. From here, I can see all of you pull yourselves up and swing yourselves around, from sports to skirts to tears to engineering. Sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward, you are consistently courageous. You inspire me, and I want to know your stories. I want to know how you feel.

I invite you and encourage you to post in the comments section and tell some of your stories, some of your feelings about the gender boxes and the gender spectrums and the gender jungle gyms that structure our lives.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

2 thoughts on “The Gender Jungle Gym”

  1. Anonymous says:

    For me, your jungle gym image makes a point about the way that gender is just this arbitrary (well, arbitrary and power-driven) matrix that attempts to 'divvy up' human reality. If we approached people as simply persons, maybe there wouldn't be as far to swing between sports, skirts, tears, and engineering.

    I can't say I've always had a jungle gym idea of gender, but I feel like a lot of my journey can summed up by my general tendency to see the human as more important in shaping my identity than gender. I also acknowledge that being a male made it MUCH easier to have gender be more 'invisible' for me.

    That's the philosophy version of my story. The story version is:

    If a lot of gender is constructed based on having a shape, I think being a small/short male is the key to my gender experience. Being short, I wasn't expected to posture as strong/imposing/aggressive– which was fine by me. But I wasn't really seen as effeminate, just sensitive (I'm sure if I'd grown up in several others place in the country I'd've been taken as more effeminate). But it never occurred to me to think of my shortness as somehow barring me from masculinity.

    So that's how I ended up being 'atypically' masculine, but never queer.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Remembering your diagram from last week, I think my journey has been about stepping out of my gender box and making the jump to the jungle gym. When I was younger I was very stereotypically female, and I think at least some of the reason for that was the community I grew up in, which had very clearly defined gender boxes. As I've grown older, though, I've started to break out of that mold a little more. I still identify strongly as female, but I've learned to express that identity in a way that's comfortable for me, and not necessarily in accordance with what society expects of someone who's female. I've learned to be female on my own terms.

    And the other thing that's changed is that I now prefer to think of myself as a person, rather than a gender. I'm female-bodied, and I also happen to have a lot of traits stereotypically associated with females – but I don't feel like I have those traits because I'm female. I have them because that's who I am.

    So, I do tend to stick fairly close to the "female" part of the jungle gym in most situations – but I do it because I like it there, not because I feel like I have to.

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