March 8, 2011

What Is Gender “Non-Conformity”?

Although they are consistent for the majority of people (i.e., feminine women and masculine men), sex and gender are not consistent for a some individuals.

Print More

On matters of sex and sexuality, there is no avoiding discussing gender.  And, as we have indicated in other posts here at Kinsey Confidential, it is important to start by defining “gender,” and distinguishing it from “(biological) sex.”  Too often, biological sex is thought to be synonymous with the social category of gender.  Although they are consistent for the majority of the population (i.e., feminine women and masculine men), sex and gender are not consistent for a sizable number of people.  And, for some individuals, the typical categories of sex (i.e., female and male) and gender (i.e., feminine and masculine) simply do not fit.

What Is Gender Non-Conformity?

Typically, when attempting to answer such a question, we jump to focus on gender non-conformity, while taking gender conformity as a given.  Gender conformity can be defined most simply as behavior and appearance that conforms to the social expectations for one’s gender.  So, for gender conforming women, this means behaving and appearing in ways that are considered feminine.  Gender non-conformity, then, is behaving and appearing in ways that are considered atypical for one’s gender.

Confusing Gender Non-Conformity And Sexual Orientation

Similar to the way in which gender is treated as synonymous with (biological) sex, so, too, is sexual orientation with gender expression.  Gender nonconforming people are often assumed to also be lesbian, gay, or bisexual, while gender conforming people are assumed to be heterosexual.  (Some scholars call this heterocentricism, meaning that everyone is assumed to be heterosexual unless something, like gender non-conformity, makes one think otherwise.)  Indeed, gender expectations are intertwined with attitudes about sexual orientation; for example, boys who fail to live up to the societal standards of masculinity may be teased and harassed, even called a “fag” or some other pejorative term that questions his heterosexuality.

Gender Non-Conformity, Sexual Orientation, And Health

Researchers have noted that there may be real differences in terms of gender between lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (LGB) and heterosexual people.  In particular, there are higher rates of gender non-conformity in both childhood and adulthood among LGB people than among heterosexual people.  But, it is important to note that gender non-conformity is not universal among LGB people, nor is it absent among heterosexuals.

A new study by Gerulf Rieger and Ritch C. Savin-Williams suggests that different rates of gender non-conformity may actually be the reason for differences in psychological well-being and mental health between heterosexual and LGB youth.  That is, while many researchers have documented worse mental health and well-being among sexual minorities compared to heterosexuals, Rieger and Savin-Williams have found that this difference is at least partly due to differences in gender non-conformity; even among heterosexuals, gender non-conformity is associated with worse mental health, likely due to teasing and harassment from peers and family.  As other scholars have suggested, it may be the case that prejudice and discrimination against LGB people is more about enforcing strict gender norms than it is about sex and sexuality.

Putting “Gender Non-Conformity” Into Context

While it is critical that we better understand the role gender non-conformity plays in society, it is important that we understand what this concept means.  As many sociologists, like myself, emphasize, we must understand that this concept is not naturally occurring, rather, it is defined (and redefined) by society.  And, as something that is socially constructed or defined, its meaning and significance varies across time, space, and even groups.

To give an example, think about the way women were expected to dress 60 years ago compared to today.  Women are freer to wear pants, blazers, flat shoes, even ties and dress shirts.  (Of course, we must be mindful that the same loosening of gendered clothing expectations have not occurred as extensively for men.)  While it is uncommon for men to hold hands and kiss in many Western countries, including the US, it is somewhat common in other parts of the world (e.g., Egypt).  So, in recognizing the importance of understanding what gender conformity and nonconformity are, we must acknowledge that such concepts are not universally defined nor naturally occurring.