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How we dress, how we act and what we enjoy can all be affected by how the world sees us —specifically, how it sees us in terms of gender. What does gender mean, though? Why did everyone care so much when Harry Styles wore a dress on the cover of Vogue? Why don't we talk more about the LGBT+ people or the BIPOC behind gender non-conforming fashion?
Press play to hear from the co-chair of the Transgender Studies Research Cluster at the University of Arizona and an ASU student who has personal experience with straying from the binary.
(For trans-specific resources at ASU, click here.)
She said it, not me. The way we change our hair and change our clothes can say a lot about the way we want to present ourselves to the world. These things are also big factors in the larger conversation about sex, gender and what it all means. Headlines about bills deciding how cis women will participate in sports and whether trans women can at all; professors writing that they feel the “gender identity movement” is canceling people's free speech; and movements against gender-based violence are not uncommon for us to read.
One recent story about gender that you might remember seeing is when Harry Styles appeared on the December cover of Vogue. The fact that he was the first man to grace the magazine's cover solo in its 128 years of existence wasn't what made headlines, though — it was the Gucci dress he modeled.
Styles, a cis man, has been expressing himself in a way that doesn't necessarily conform to gender norms for years, though — one notable example being the ensemble he wore to the 2019 Met Gala, which included a black see-through blouse, Cuban heels and a single pearl earring.
So, what was the big deal? Many criticisms levied at Styles accused him of not acting enough like a “manly man.” Others have pushed back on those criticisms by saying that not only should he do what he wants with his appearance, but also by questioning just how boundary pushing a celebrity wearing an expensive gown on a high-profile magazine cover is.
Some have even critiqued Styles for becoming the face of androgynous fashion despite Black male artists, like Prince and Billy Porter, having done it decades ago. Styles has also been criticized for benefiting from ambiguity, thus alienating LGBT+ artists of color, but we’ll get more into that later on.
What ties this and all of the aforementioned stories that have been floating across our timelines together is gender.
What does this all mean? How do some commonly held beliefs about gender stack up with what we know about it and what people's experiences look like?
Please note: If and when it's used here, the word “queer” is used in a reclaimed sense and is not being said as a slur. Nevertheless, listener discretion is advised.
As always, the basics come first. I sat down with Eric Plemons, the co-chair of the Transgender Studies Research (Cluster) at the University of Arizona to get some more insight and to establish some working definitions of sex and gender.
So, my name's Eric Plemons. I'm an associate professor in the school of anthropology at the University of Arizona.
And I'm also the co-chair of the transgender studies research cluster at the U of A, which is the first ever program of its kind anywhere in the world. We have the largest number of transgender scholars working on transgender issues of any institution in the world.
As the Canadian Institutes of Health Research points out, sex and gender are terms we often use interchangeably.
Can you give our listeners a better idea of what these terms mean?
I think that it's important to begin with that whatever definitions you and I come up with, or you and I agree on today, there will always be people who disagree with us. And that's one of the reasons why this is really interesting to study.
Generally speaking, when we talk about the distinction between sex and gender, when we say sex, we're talking about those bodily characteristics that can be used to group people into a sex category.
When I speak about those general terms, it's because there's been lots of different bodily characteristics over time used to make those distinctions. They change all the time. And one of the things that we know is that there is no single bodily characteristic that can be used to characterize every single human person into a sex category.
You could say external genitalia. Well, there are people whose bodies don't fit easily into male or female. We could say chromosomes. Well, there are people with lots of different chromosomes, so you don't just have X, X, and X, Y. We have double X, Y. We have X, Y, Y. We have all these variations. You can't use gonads. There's some people with one of each, a testi and ovary or an ovo-testi, which is a new thing in the middle. Can't use hormones, hormones change amongst people.
So rather than saying, “This is what the sexes are, and here's how you define them,” we want to look at how different characteristics have been used over time to put people in those categories. When we talk about sex we’re talking about bodies.
So, then, what's behind us having this distinction between sex and gender?
Psychologists and clinicians in the middle of the 20th century, and then a lot of feminist activists in the '70s started to make this distinction between sex and gender, because they want to say, ok, we have one set of things that we can use to describe your physical body, and that has to do with your reproductive capacities. Oftentimes that's why people care about it.
And then we have the other set of things that's about social expectations about how you will be, what you'll enjoy, how you'll be oriented in the world that gets projected onto you as a result of that sexual difference.
What about the idea of gender as a binary?
It’s interesting when folks say that gender is a binary. So, these social expectations are binary because every single one of us can think about a person in our life who doesn't fit well into those binaries.
I have an aunt who really loves fly fishing. If we believe that femininity and masculinity were binary and oppositional, then my feminine female aunt would only like feminine things. But, of course, that's not true.
So how, how is it that we can somehow maintain this popular idea that gender is binary, even though every one of us in our individual lives knows examples where that's not true?
I also spoke with Samuel Potter, a transgender ASU student studying English linguistics to get some insight on what it's like, at least for him, to be someone who doesn't necessarily conform to what's expected in terms of gender. Potter has previously worked with Rainbow Coalition, a student-led coalition that advocates for the LGBT+ community at ASU, as their financial director.
I also was involved with — there used to be something called the name change document, or like something like that. We were trying to make it easier for students to change their name with ASU. And this would help a lot of people, in addition to trans students.
We tried to work with ASU in order to try to figure out how we can do that, because back then we had Blackboard. Blackboard was something that was not very manageable. And once we, as ASU, changed over to Canvas, you can actually change your name on there and you can also add your pronouns, which also assists the normalizing of pronouns being used within the classroom.
Pronouns typically come up a lot in conversations about trans individuals, as well as in conversations about non-binary individuals.
What can you tell me about that? And why does it matter to some of us so much?
Non-binary as a category of identification is very new in the scheme of things for people to make that claim of identity on themselves. And then what's very different, as well, that a lot of people have a reaction to, is that the distinction in pronoun usage that often accompanies the claiming of a non-binary identity.
And so when you are asked to react to my identity by changing your language, people have a big and bold and strong reaction to that. The sense that “you can't make me call you something I don't want to call you” has made the existence of non-binary people and that claim into a much bigger deal than it might otherwise be around this question of language.
The controversy around that helps us understand the high stakes of gender. When you can't even speak to or about someone, then you can understand that the stakes become quite high.
Do you think putting our pronouns in more visible places like in our Twitter bios or on our name tags and making it more normal to ask for them could help people be out more about their gender identity, safely?
I do think so. Then we get into the semantics of asking for “preferred,” as opposed to your pronouns.
I would prefer people to either call me “he” or “they,” but they are also my pronouns. Some people prefer to just ask what their pronouns are just outright instead of going the roundabout way of like, “What are your preferred pronouns?”
It's very important to a lot of people, their pronouns, because it is their identity.
There have been some conversations online that I've seen, at least, about whether people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth and people who are heterosexual participating in gender expression in ways normally associated with the LGBT+ community is appropriative.
Some people have pushed back on that idea, saying that for these groups to express themselves this way is a sign that non-traditional expression is actually becoming more acceptable, and that their expression helps to normalize it further for those who may not be out of the closet yet to safely express themselves.
What are your thoughts on this?
I don't participate, or don't want to participate in policing anyone's gender expression. I don't care why anybody does what they do. And I think the less we care why anybody does what they do, then the safer everyone is to do whatever they want to do.
So, I don't think it's appropriation for straight dudes to wear nail polish. The fact that they don't get beaten up for it is privilege, but it doesn't make it appropriation from drag queens, for example, or trans women or cis women, or whatever kind. So, I – to me, I'm trying to narrow in on: Who has a right to do what kind of thing about gender is just as bad when we're talking about queer people or gender non-normativity, as when we're talking about gender normativity.
This is something that I've always lived by: Clothing does not have gender.
It's just a piece of cloth, but society's interpretation of these pieces of cloth is very important for a lot of people, namely trans people, because of the way that, yeah, we can say “’F’ gender norms,” and like, “’F’ gender roles and stuff like that.”
But as somebody who half and half identifies within the binary and not in the binary, I prefer to have those – not gender roles, but at least the expression of masculinity. It makes things a little bit hard for trans people, too, because if we don't adhere to these gender roles, then we don't look the part.
The idea of looking the part does kind of bring up the idea of passing, right? What does that look like for you?
I’ve had plenty of these conversations with a lot of people who don't quite understand but respect me. So, I want to give them that same respect of, “What does that mean? Are you going to be taking testosterone for the rest of your life? Like, where are your breasts going?”
It's like, I know that they mean well, but also you don't ask somebody that. It's very interesting because you don't ask people, “Are you going to get a surgery?” just on random terms.
I mean, most of these people I’ve talked to on a regular basis, but I also have had random people ask me that and it's – I'm not too sure if you understand how deeply personal that is, because that's going to take me years of trying to figure out.
A lot of people, sometimes it takes longer and that's ok. For these people, it's very hard to pass. And passing is looking cis. Cis gender is somebody who identifies with the sex that they were assigned at birth.
But there are also people who fall in between the binary, who sometimes identifies as a guy and sometimes identifies as a woman, or somebody who just doesn't identify as either. They're also a non-binary or just gender nonconforming. Society as a whole does not – does not accept people who do not pass.
So if you do not look cis, you are an “other,” you are an anomaly. That's when we get the frankly disgusting preconceived notion of men in dresses.
I feel really bad about trans women getting that backlash because as a trans man it’s so much easier for me to go in stealth. What that means is that I can disappear. I can look cis – sort of, but either way, most of the time I'm not the one who's going to get harassed. It's going to be the trans women, it's going to be the women of color and trans men of color because of the way that society treats them. Trans men receive this discrimination, but they do not receive as much of it because they do not have as high expectations as trans women do.
There seems to be a kind of difference in reaction, depending on what kind of gender expression is happening.
Even outside of the trans community, we've seen such a strong reaction and a kind of fixation on emerging trends like men wearing skirts or the “femboy” trend on TikTok, as opposed to women who express themselves in more masculine or androgynous ways not seeming to receive the same volume of attention.
Why might that be?
I think it's interesting. You know, we tend to set up masculinity and femininity as though they are these polar opposites, but in fact, masculinity and femininity are not equally valued and equally policed in our society.
When we say, “Well, one, one group does this, but the other group does that, are these equal?” Well, no. They're not equal because the gender expressions are not equally valued. So, in fact, through most of history, if we look at forms of violence and existence of institutional penalties like imprisonment and psychological counseling or psychological commitment around gender, most of that has been focused on male bodies doing femininity, right?
So, we think about the, the “sissy boys” were one area of focus for mid-century practitioners who were trying to figure out why, why boys were ending up gay and really trying to pathologize femininity in maleness but celebrate it in femaleness.
So, most of the attention and the punishment around gender deviance has focused on males and the improper masculinity or the existence of femininity in male bodies. So, I don't know exactly what different attention on various forms of gender transgression are mostly about the people themselves, rather than the forms of gender transgression. Whether you're more paying attention to tomboys and butch lesbians, or whether you're more paying attention to feminine boys and whatever, but they're not equally valued. So, they're not just two different versions of the same thing. They're different. They're treated differently.
Circling back to something that I mentioned a little earlier. Back in December of 2020, Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue wearing a Gucci dress.
It sparked a lot of conversations about gender, what it’s supposed to look like and gender identity.
Some of those conversations included members of the LGBT+ community pointing out that Styles sort of being the face of the gender-nonconforming movement in this instance may result in the sidelining, or even the erasure, of contributions of people of color and of people who are not cis.
Some have pointed out that Styles and other celebrities like him who push the boundaries of gender norms do not face nearly the same amount of backlash as trans or nonbinary people do – even when those people are also celebrities.
Writing for gal–dem, Zoya Raza-Sheikh notes that: “A quick glance between Harry Styles’ and Lil Nas X’s Twitter page speaks volumes. Sure, Styles has been around longer, but the treatment and reception to both are massively diverse.”
Lil Nas X has publicly confirmed his sexuality many times, whereas Styles has not.
“The whitewashing of the LGBTQI+ community is not uncommon,” Raza-Sheikh writes, “but the presumption of its normative state being white is.”
For years, many in LGBT+ spaces have pointed out that the role of people of color – particularly, Black people – in the community is often overlooked. As described by Elena Kiesling in “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance,” published in the European Journal of American Studies: “The historical erasure of black queerness from memory feeds well into the current moment of colorblindness, or what Jared Sexton almost ironically describes as people-of-color-blindness.”
For example, Lil Nas X, also cis man, has also continually expressed himself in gender non-conforming ways in public appearances, music videos and social media. Criticisms directed toward him and his work, though, are seemingly more consistent and easy to identify; many have pointed out his Blackness and gayness as being major factors behind the increased amount of criticism he receives, especially in contrast with someone like Styles.
Aside from answering questions on social media about his identity, being out of the closet has transformed X’s public image and, arguably, his career. Some reactions to the music video for his song "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" have made this especially apparent.
Writing for Grazia, Isabelle Truman points out that some have also “raised the valid question of whether or not Styles is ‘queerbaiting’ – giving clues that he is queer, without ever confirming it.”
It’s also important to note that while Styles has not made his sexuality clear, coming out is different for everyone, can be more difficult or not possible for some depending on their circumstances and is not owed.
For a time, X said he considered taking his sexuality to the grave because it “wasn’t really accepted” in the country or hip-hop communities.
DJ Adam Bainbridge, or Kindness, spoke to Raza-Sheikh on the subject, saying, “We can see there is no significant homophobia experienced by white male superstars at this point. It’s not going to affect his career, it’s not going to affect his fan base – if anything, it’ll probably improve all of that, but it would take away a huge amount of the desired tension within his sort of long-term marketing just to say: ‘I’m bisexual.’”
With what’s publicly known about his identity in mind, many have said that for Styles to represent a movement of people who are gender non-conforming in their expression and identity – and who have strugged and suffered because of it – isn’t right.
What can we take away from the situation with Styles in terms of expression, specifically, though?
ERIC PLEMONS: Well, I think for the one hand, it's, it's always important to be wary of holding up pop stars and performers as examples, only because Harry Styles’ job is to cultivate his image and his whole job is to be provocative and to be the topic of conversation.
That's what makes him rich and famous, and he's doing a very good job of it. So, we shouldn't hold him up and say, things are changing, Harry Styles wears pearls, you know?
Men have been wearing dresses for so long. French aristocrats, they wore dresses and high heels and they looked so pretty. Everybody would wear so much makeup, and it was expected of them.
And it doesn't make sense because you can wear a kilt and be very rugged, and that's still a skirt. A lot of punk rockers wear nail polish. A lot of actors and actresses wear makeup.
It's very, very interesting, the way that people are disagreeing with the fact that people can identify as cis male and still wear makeup.
The one thing as an anthropologist and as social scientists we wanted to do is notice the way that gender expression and standards of what counts as masculine and feminine have always changed. There is no single moment where we could point to that moment and say, “See, here is what masculinity is. It is this person,” because it changes over time. It changes over place. It changes in relation to class and it changes in relation to race and it changes in relationship to a lot of different things.
Can you elaborate a little on the historical aspect of this?
If we want to take a long view of gender expression changing — If we want to say, for example, 60 years ago, the idea that women would wear jeans to work was not a thing. We can say, “What are the situations in our environment, in our cultural contexts that make certain types of behavior ok, and certain types of behavior not ok?”
I think it's important to remember that there’s never been a stable idea of what masculinity and femininity are as much as we'd like to fool ourselves into thinking that's true.
We see changes happening around us and we go, “This must be new because it didn't used to be this way.”
And we often times say, or I'd say to my students: The great sin of history is imagining that when you just found out about something is when it first started. So, we fool ourselves and we say, “Oh, it used to be that America used to be a place where we had this kind of family values.” Well, no. It was never that kind of place where we had this kind of family values. Those values are the stability of the past we use to imagine the, or think about the dynamism of the present, but that simply isn't true.
It simply isn't true that we can point to a moment and say, “This is when families were stable," or "This is when men were men and women were women.”
As much as we've gotten to cover in this episode alone, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There's still so much more to gender, gender expression and how we interact with those things that we'd be here forever just talking about it.
Because I couldn't keep Professor Plemons or Samuel Potter here long enough to do so, instead I'd like to thank them for all of the time they were able to spend with me, as well as for their insight on this complex set of topics.
For The State Press, I'm Kirsten Dorman.
(For trans-specific resources at ASU, click here.)
Editor's Note: This transcript was updated at 5:25 p.m. on April 8, 2021, to reflect contextual additions in a newer version of the podcast audio.
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