Gender Can Be Complicated But Respecting People Isn't

"It’s easier to dehumanize someone when you can blame it on tradition."

When it comes to the topic of gender, some folks have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact than more than two boxes can be checked.

But the reality is that while we can't control the biological sex we were assigned at birth, gender is very much a social construct, which can vary across cultures.

So for those who are cisgender (meaning their sex at birth matches the gender with which they currently identify), how exactly can one go about navigating the concept of gender identity without judging others for being who they are, and most importantly, remaining kind without overstepping boundaries?

It's simple — be respectful.

According to The National Center For Transgender Equality, a U.S.-based social justice advocacy organization, having trouble understanding gender ideals (or lack thereof) from another person's perspective is fine, so long as you can maintain benevolence.

The group suggests avoiding making assumptions about someone's gender, advocating for non-binary friendly policies (i.e. being supportive of someone using whichever washroom they feel most comfortable in), and calling them by the name they currently use.

But when it comes to actually asking about preferred gender pronouns, writer and poet Jayy Dodd, who doesn't identity with any gender, tells HuffPost Canada that it's probably a good idea to skip that question altogether.

remembering the time the universe held me down? ✨👌🏿

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"They are how people claim and identify themselves through language," they share. "Seeing them as a preference reduces people’s agency. It’s a human decency."

"The hardest thing for me is seeing how gender polite language is [using ma’am, sir, Mr., Mrs., Ms.]," they add. "It’s just disheartening how formal codes of respect are limiting and erase those living beyond or between gender."

If you're still wondering what to say, the 25-year-old suggests to just say "them." They explain that's what many members of the LGBTQ+ community are already using to refer to those who don't conform to a specific gender.

"It’s just disheartening how formal codes of respect are limiting and erase those living beyond or between gender."

Despite the fact that as a society, changing our vocabulary to use more inclusive language in an effort to make others feel comfortable arguably isn't that strenuous, some people just refuse to comply.

Back in October 2016, University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson made it clear he wouldn't adhere to using gender-neutral pronouns, despite the action violating an Ontario Human Rights Code.

"I don't believe that people have the right for that kind of special treatment," Peterson, who also works as a clinical psychologist, said at the time.

Professor Jordan Peterson at University of Toronto.

But U of T spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans had other thoughts.

"He's required to follow the law," she told Mississauga News reporters. "He's required to ensure that he's contributing to an environment that's free from discrimination."

So why are some cis people so hard-headed when it comes to respecting gender when it typically will not have any negative impact on their lives?

"It’s easier to dehumanize someone when you can blame it on tradition, [maybe]?" Dodd says contemplatively.

Thankfully, it seems as though younger generations are far more open to non-binary views of gender and sexuality in comparison to their older counterparts.

"It’s easier to dehumanize someone when you can blame it on tradition."

According to Broadly, a survey published in 2016 suggested that 81 per cent of those belonging to Generation Z, people aged 13 to 20, believe that "gender doesn't define a person as much as it used to."

"That was an intriguing statistic that got a lot of attention in the media, but we weren't sure quite what it meant: Were they just saying, for example, that men or women could pursue any career they wanted to?" pondered Shepherd Laughlin, director of trendspotting at marketing communications company J. Walter Thompson. "Or did this reflect the more radical idea that gender itself isn't as important to personal identity as it used to be, or that gender shouldn't be seen as a binary? This new research shows that the latter idea is gaining significant traction among Gen Zers."

But what we all can do, regardless of whatever societal boxes we fit or don't fit into, is to simply have compassion for our fellow human beings.

Writer and trans activist Janet Mock in Brooklyn, New York.

"We exist in a culture where trans people are constantly delegitimized," activist Janet Mock said during a Rainbow Alliance panel discussion in April, speaking on her experiences as a trans woman. "So seeing a trans person’s journey as a part of your own in some way and seeing how deeply linked our liberations are to one another, though we may not see or view the same kind of people, is understanding."

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