(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)
Last Sunday, Pastor Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina gave a sermon on gender:
So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is 4 years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.
Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’
Harris used the sermon to voice support for an upcoming proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriage. The constitutional amendment would simply make it ever more so, as well as ban same-sex civil unions. Update on 9 May: The amendment passed.
The hostility Harris invoked is one of the absolute best arguments for the opposition. Play his sermon on a loop next to the 2010 study finding American children of lesbian parents report the lowest rate of abuse and repeat: Who’s advocating happy, loving families here? But it should concern not only those who believe in same-sex marriage or non-violent childcare, but anyone who believes in equality and a non-threatening approach to character development. Because, unfortunately, Harris was merely saying directly what children, teens and adults are told stealthily almost every day.
In the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, religious scholars and sociologists conclude that the reason socially conservative religious groups target same-sex marriage so passionately is because it disrupts patriarchy. Indeed, Harris’s rant embodies the two most arbitrary, constricting rules for heterosexual women and men in dating that endure today. That is, nothing is worse for a guy than seeming effeminate, and nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.
Most readers may agree that these rules exist but certainly not to the extreme that Harris advocates. Rarely does Western society openly invoke the violent, threatening imagery he did. But these rules take various forms, often masquerading as indisputable facts about innate gender differences, and are reinforced in films and magazines, and as mantras in everyday conversation. Many of the following probably sound familiar to you:
1) Women constantly want to constantly shop the way guys constantly want to get laid.
2) A woman should ultimately let the guy pursue her lest she emasculate him and, in any case, she should want to be pursued. Because every woman is a princess and every guy is a hunter.
3) Guys can’t be sexually assaulted by women. They can only be grossed out by the advances of ugly women.
4) She can play sports or join the army, but she needs some makeup to be attractive and should always take care of her looks more than a guy should.
5) But she shouldn’t wear heels if it makes her taller than her man.
6) While many men can expect conventionally attractive women to overlook their gray hair, baldness, wrinkles, and/or chubbiness for their success or sense of humor, a woman cannot expect a conventionally attractive man to do the same for her. Beauty and the Beast was about the woman seeing past her lover’s looks, not the guy!
7) Guys don’t cry, but women do. A lot. Because guys use assertiveness to get what they want, while women show their vulnerability to get what they want.
8) Guys don’t cuddle with each other. That’s gay. But women cuddling is either sweet or hot.
9) He’s castrated if she asked him out, she’s physically stronger than he is, he earns less than she does, he takes her surname, or she talks more than he does at parties.
10) And he’s gay if he’s interested in dresses, skirts or makeup.
11) Or if he enjoys books or films about women’s experiences.
What silliness. Exiling the very real horrors of LGBT persecution to the peripheries for just a split second, how many of you nearly choked yourself laughing at Harris’s order to “get outside and dig a ditch because that’s what boys do”?
Nothing should be off-limits to anyone unless they honestly, independently have no interest in it. Most of us are probably disinterested in or uncomfortable with some of the aforementioned behaviors, but the disinterest should arise from self-awareness, not authoritative training. And I’ve met enough self-aware, self-confident individuals to know that these behaviors do not fall along gender lines, but personalities.
My neighbor loves ponies as much as she loves repairing cars. My husband’s buddy plays rugby and knits. My guyfriend loves arranging flowers and wearing skirts as much as he loves target-shooting and watching Formula One. I love arguing politics and watching figure skating with my mom and dad as much as I cringe at discussing shoes or watching football. All of us are encouraged by our partners, demonstrating that our fears of persecution for such gender-bender are usually reinforced not by the opposite sex but, as Ashely Judd so eloquently pointed out last month, by our peers.
Many men try to talk their girlfriends out of wearing makeup, while many women are supportive of—and often intrigued to the point of being attracted to—men who adopt traditionally feminine activities. (If it weren’t the case, “Too bad he’s gay!” wouldn’t be the famous expression it is.) Despite this, women thrust ludicrous beauty standards upon themselves, making catty comments about each other’s supposed failures, while men police one another with gay slurs. That these cultural rules bear so much repeating signifies that they are indeed rules, not facts. A glance at history and across cultures demonstrates that they are fashions. That enforcing them requires scare tactics—“You’ll never get laid!” “You’ll never land a man!”—should land the final blow to their credibility.