Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Effects Of Moving Down the Gender Scale

I was reading a very enjoyable post over at LesbianDad when I found her link to this great editorial by George Saunders called "My Amendment" that was published in The New Yorker (2004).

I think that this is, to date, my favorite comment on the whole gay marriage debate.

The story was not only a hilarious comment on the ridiculous that is our current debate on gay marriage, it also resonated with me as BioMom and I navigate our ever-morphing gender roles, especially since I have become a rarely-seen-in-the-wild, Stay-At-Home-Baba (SAHB).

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Saunders' essay: In the town where I live, I have frequently observed a phenomenon I have come to think of as Samish-Sex Marriage. Take, for example, K, a male friend of mine, of slight build, with a ponytail. K is married to S, a tall, stocky female with extremely short hair, almost a crewcut. Often, while watching K play with his own ponytail as S towers over him, I have wondered, Isn’t it odd that this somewhat effeminate man should be married to this somewhat masculine woman? Is K not, on some level, imperfectly expressing a slight latent desire to be married to a man? And is not S, on some level, imimperfectly expressing a slight latent desire to be married to a woman? . . . Then I ask myself, Is this truly what God had in mind? . . . Because my feeling is, when God made man and woman He had something very specific in mind. It goes without saying that He did not want men marrying men, or women marrying women, but also what He did not want, in my view, was feminine men marrying masculine women.

He goes on to say that this is why he developed his "Manly Scale of Absolute Gender."

Using my Scale, which assigns numerical values according to a set of masculine and feminine characteristics, it is now easy to determine how Manly a man is and how Fem a woman is, and therefore how close to a Samish-Sex Marriage a given marriage is. . .

Here’s how it works. Say we determine that a man is an 8 on the Manly Scale, with 10 being the most Manly of all and 0 basically a Neuter. And say we determine that his fiancĂ©e is a -6 on the Manly Scale, with a -10 being the most Fem of all. Calculating the difference between the man’s rating and the woman’s rating–the Gender Differential–we see that this proposed union is not, in fact, a Samish-Sex Marriage, which I have defined as any marriage for which the Gender Differential is less than or equal to 10 points.

I LOVE this.

In fact, BioMom and I have our own 'butch-femme' scale with 10 being "highly feminine" and 1 being "highly butchy" and we will rank each other's actions or outfits based on a) our subjective determination and b) our desires for any particular event! On average though, I'd say i'm about a 4 and she's about a 6. We have speculated that sustainable relationships usually aggregate to a 10 on this scale. In other words, if the individual's butch/femme scale is much below 10 (say, two "3" butches) or much higher than 10 (say two "7" femmes) would not engender a sustainable gender-balance and would, therefore, be doomed to failure.

You can imagine how we analyze the couples in "L-word" where the only real butch has decided to become a transsexual!*

It turns out that this shift in our professional and personal lives (me halting work temporarily, she gearing back up in a heretofore unprecedented manner) has resulted in many unexpected consequences. I, for example, have unexpecedly fallen in love with being a SAHB. But, this has had some repercussions on our household's delicate gender balance. How does one, for example feel butchy, or masculine (an identity one has carried throughout life and that permeates all of their socio-pscychological persona) after spending a day changing diapers, attending all-female baby classes and singing songs like "the wheels on the bus" and "bumpin' up and down in my little red wagon?" And, in the reverse, how are one's partner's feelings altered by this shift? Especially when she has kicked her career into high gear?

In the spirit of "genderology" (a term I learned from LesbianDad) combined with a little economic theory (see Gary Becker and Heidi Hartmann and each of their 1980s articles on the gender division of labor) does not what one does influence who one is?

All of this has made me increasingly interested in stay-at-home dads and the issues they face both personally and professionally. One stay-at-home dad in my 'progressive playgroup' regularly seems to come to the group a bit disgruntled and on more than one occasion he has mentioned needing to get a regular babysitter to make sure that he and his wife have more time alone to connect. He obviously loves his son, and I know that he feels that staying home with him is important and a worthwhile sacrifice, but something is missing none-the-less. I doubt that he misses the identity of his profession (although I am sure this is an issue for many if not most people who shift from work-for-pay to work-for-domestic-gratification, regardless of gender. I suspect though, that this phenomenon may hit men more sharply). I think maybe he's become a 2 wherease he used to be a 4 or even a 5, while his wife may have remained a -7 (on Saunders' scale).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that even if one recognizes and understands that a) gender is on a continuum and that b) it is fluid, changing over the course of our life and c) relative to the things around us including our occupations, that doesn't make it any easier.

*Note, please take all of this with a grain of salt. We're not serious.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you enjoy George Saunders as much as I do. I feel like this essay ought to be required reading as a precursor to anyone arguing against same-sex marriage.

In a delightful stroke of serendipity, yesterday evening I heard a Patricia Neighmond piece on NPR about testosterone supplements. You ain't kidding about gender being " fluid, changing over the course of our life": I learned in Neighmond's piece that "a 65-year-old man could easily have about one-third less testosterone than he did when he was younger." Yowza!

Of course, what's hard about the fluidity of gender identification is the rigid social attitudes about it, who's supposed to be what; what's okay; what's conferred power & respect, etc. Just like for kids of LGBT parents: it's not that being kids of LGBT parents that's hard, it's being subject to homophobia and hatred that's hard. Alas.

But the times they are a-changin', sister!