By Reed Shafer-Ray '18
While America prides itself on diversity, a cursory investigation reveals some depressing hypocrisies within our country. While roughly 4 percent of the US population identifies as LGBT, only one professional football player and no professional baseball players have ever come out as LGBT (the football player, Michael Sam, retired after one year due to “mental health reasons”); women comprise over 50 percent of the US population, yet they make up less than 20 percent of the US Congress; blacks make up 13 percent of the US population, but just over 5 percent of university faculty are black; Asian Americans are 5.6 percent of the US population, but not even one has won an Academy Award for acting. What is scariest of all are the harrowing stories of people from minority groups as they try to make it to the top of their field. Openly gay professional soccer player Robbie Rogers said he knew he was gay by the age of 13, but due to the macho environment where gay slurs such as “fag” and “homo” were commonplace, Rogers hid his sexual identity to all until the age of 25. A recent study showed how the presentations of black faculty are more likely to be viewed as frivolously entertaining and less rigorous, and the ways that black professors are forced to strategically converse with their colleagues in order to oppose racial stereotypes.
It is nearly impossible to escape the stereotyping and discrimination of groups of people, even when we ourselves try to break free from other’s assumptions about us. This typecasting – gays don’t play sports, Asian Americans have no personality, women can’t lead – not only threatens the diversity of representation in different sectors of our society, but also shackles individuals to a life path imposed by false and bigoted logic.
The problem, of course, cannot be solved by simply increasing representation of diverse groups within every sector of society (while this obviously would be one important step). Fundamentally, people need to begin thinking about individuals as individuals, not just as members of some larger group. Only then could people be recognized for their merits, talents, and unique expression independent of comparisons to group stereotypes.
In middle school, my friends would tell me I was “athletic for a Jew,” not simply “athletic.” Today, I hear friends admire the mathematical abilities of girls in their classes, because who knew girls could be good with numbers? Beyond the fact that I think these stereotypes almost always end up being due to a contingency of historical factors rather than due to biological differences (for example, recent research shows that the mean mathematical scores of men and women are nearly the same, and prejudices and gendered forms of competition account for much of the difference in performance by sex in math competitions), this form of labeling can pressure individuals to conform to the stereotypes that they have been given. For example, stereotype threat theory, widely supported by numerous studies, states that minority students underperform on tests due to pressures created by negative stereotypes about their identity group.
To “fit in,” one often must perform acts that clash with their individual personality. To take one example, even with the gains made by the LGBTQ+ movement in the last fifteen years, traditional gender roles remain powerful. Gay and queer people – while with more legal rights and recognitions than before – still have trouble breaking into certain jobs that have been historically dominated by straight people, such as professional sports. A recent study found that 83 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people hide their identity at work, often to avoid discrimination by employers.
Gender roles are notoriously hard to escape, even for those people who identify as neither man or woman. With a law code and institutions – from passports to Census data to bathrooms – rendering non-gender-conforming people invisible, there is much social pressure for these people to pick one gender and stick with it. Just as harmfully, there is still a stigma that non-gender-conforming people are freaks or radicals, which leads these people to shelter themselves in the safety of the few communities and friend groups that will accept them for who they are.
Of course, these societal pressures also work the other way around. For straight people, there is tremendous pressure to conform to the culture of being straight. As a straight male myself (in the sense that I have male anatomy and am attracted to females), I have been socialized to act and behave in a certain way since I was little. In elementary school, I was taught not to talk with girls and not to wear pink. My options at recess were to play basketball or play football, or risk humiliation in the eyes of other boys. In middle school, I was taught to ask for girls’ numbers in the hallways, to wear Axe body spray, and to avoid talking with “the gay kids.” In high school, I felt the pressure to take engineering and science classes (more suited for boys), flirt with girls in classes, compete with everyone in everything, and to have sex as frequently as possible to impress my “bros.” In college, I am taught that to be a proper straight male I must go to mixers with “good ratios,” to order “masculine” drinks, to treat girls with a patronizing sense of respect, to be brash and overconfident in my opinions, to pursue corporate finance or tech jobs, and to never confide in other males about my deepest personal problems and insecurities. Throughout my life, I have been funneled towards certain activities and behaviors due to my straight maleness. I have constantly had to resist the peer pressure to abuse drugs, skip classes, take easy classes, scorn the performing arts, and to objectify girls, all pressures rooted in my ascribed identity as a straight male. Without good role models and active parenting, I could have easily succumbed to the more harmful pressures of straight male masculinity.
While I cannot truly stop the way that society identifies me and the way that these pressures unconsciously shape my behavior, I can choose the way I identify myself. I want to live a life without the constraints of being a straight man. I want to listen to whatever music I feel like listening to, to have close platonic friends that are girls, to wear whatever clothes I am comfortable wearing, to pursue whatever career I want, to talk to my “bros” about my insecurities, to be able to party at my fraternity one night while curling up with friends on a sofa watching Emma Stone rom-coms and drinking white wine the next. I want a life of choice, where I can act and behave in any way I want regardless of gender stereotypes.
I cannot control how others view me, but the way I view myself is up to me. I am proud to be Jewish, to be from Oklahoma, to be a progressive, to be a soccer player, to love sports and rap music and traveling. Some of these characteristics that form my identity I didn’t originally choose, but I still have embraced them as my own. I am a biological male who is attracted to the other sex, yet I do not want to carry the gendered culture that comes with being a straight male. Thus, while anatomically I am a man, I do not identify with the norms associated with my maleness. Although others will continue to identify me as a man, I tell myself that this is of no concern; I can’t change how others will identify me, so I cannot let their perceptions affect my own self-perception.
Many people I know identify strongly with straight male culture. I do not want to disparage this culture, which I believe can provide a strong community for many. I think that the more sexist and homophobic elements of straight male culture can be removed with the necessary attention and effort. Just as I identify with Jewish culture, I know many Jewish people who do not feel connected to that particular identity. I feel similarly about my straight maleness; it simply is not for me.
But in renouncing my straight maleness, I do not want to simply be placed under another equally limiting label. In choosing a non-gender-conforming life, I hope to avoid new stigmas or societal pressures to perform like other non-gender-conforming people. Instead, I do not want gender to serve any role in my life whatsoever. I want it to be irrelevant to who I am, and ideally, to how other people view me. In this way, I view myself not only as gender non-conforming, but – more precisely – as gender indifferent. Just as some people do not identify with their given race, ethnicity, or nation, people should also be free to give up the culture of their gender and sexuality if they so choose.
My own inherent advantages as a white middle-class straight male have allowed me to so easily renounce my straight maleness without serious consequences. For others less privileged than I, embracing one’s individuality by giving up old ascribed identities may be much less straightforward. For example, to come out as gay may lead to job discrimination, harassment, an alienation of friends, and the added pressure of gay stereotypes that others will use to endlessly size one up. Some identities, such as race, may be impossible to fully shed due to prejudices based on physical characteristics. To have a world where everyone can fully embrace their individual expression, I hope that we can move away from expecting certain groups of people to act a certain way, and instead allow the individual to have the space to behave however they choose without the forced pressure of identity stereotypes to live up to.
I envision a future where everyone can come to a decision whether to embrace the identities that have been imposed on them and to choose new identities for themselves. Gender is not for everyone, and I hope for those who decide to give up the one that has been ascribed to them, they can live life free of stereotypes and full of their own individual expression. Most importantly, while no person can fully decide how others perceive them, they can always choose how they perceive themselves. In essence, this act of self-identification is an act of resistance. Maybe through this very disobedience to social labeling these prejudices will lose their luster, and our society will be able to move towards true freedom for all.