I don't like privileging sex or gender as the aspect of one's identity that drives one's life more so than any other factor, like race, class, or religion; however, as a Gender Studies student, I have found myself wondering, if all these aspects of identity intersect, then why is my field called Gender Studies? What specifically am I studying?
Then, yesterday, it occurred to me in my seminar group why I study gender. Gender is not necessarily the most important way we categorize people, but in the Western World, it is the very first. The first thing a baby hers when it is born is not what race, religion, size, class, intelligence-level or degree of attractiveness it reflects; the first thing a baby hears is - it's a boy, or it's a girl. Then, its first outfit is either blue or pink swaddling. It is a gendered subject from birth - gendered in the gender binary, at that.
There is a tremendous violence done to us as the genitals that manifest themselves openly at birth (which, in the case of inter-sexed people, does not even necessarily indicate their actual sex) begin a script that determines how we will be treated for the rest of our lives. In the Western gender-binary, where girls get to take ballet and wear dresses while boys get to join cub scouts and play aggressive contact sports, one loses more than he or she will likely every lose again at the moment of birth; the chance to participate in half of the world's experiences. Our realm of opportunities is diminished simply because of our genitalia. What is worse, is that we do not even know this is happening. We aren't fully thinking human beings yet, and so by the time we are conscious of being a boy or a girl, it is too late. We can't remember that violence that was done to us when we were assigned our gender at birth just because of our genitalia.
While different cultures have different experiences of gender, it is important to note that within cultures, different genders also have different experiences from one another. Aboriginal women are more likely than both aboriginal men and white women to be victims of domestic violence in Canada, while working class black women in Canada are more likely to be single parents than both black men and upper class white women.
For most of us, however, our race is determine before we are born. It is not a surprise and so it begins to affect us in utero. For example, if our mothers are poor aboriginal women with little access to healthcare while pregnant, the act of being disadvantaged by racist society because of our race has already begun. The script that starts at birth, however, is the one where we see for sure if the child is boy or girl, and then begin to treat it as such right away. Before birth, our opportunities may have been divided or multiplied by the race and class of our parents, and now they are divided again, by the half of the gender-binary we are assigned.
There is a metaphorical severing our ourselves from a possible part of our identities that occurs at birth. The part of our identity that, if allowed to choose, may have had a vagina but liked to try to pee standing up. Our opportunities for "gender play" are restricted from the beginning, and so too are our possibilities for play and pleasure in life. Women are taught that the pleasures of nurturing children are theirs, while men are taught that a love of sex, porn and the flesh, is theirs. There is little crossing over between pleasures that is allowed. And so, unless we are somehow lucky enough to be everything our side of the gender-binary is supposed to be, our lives are less pleasurable, because our opportunities and spaces for pleasure are cut in half.
In the end, any woman who has ever considered even for a moment that she might like to have random sex while watching porn but would hate being a mother if she got impregnated by this experience, has already failed at being a woman. It does not matter if, after much introspection, she decides she really does like the idea of being a nurturer. The fact that we question whether our gender is natural and right for us is already a subversive act in a society that decided your gender before you could even speak or smile. In the end, gender makes failures of us all. In any class, any culture, or any race in most of the Western World, the deployment of gender to decrease one's opportunities for pleasure is the baby's first encounter with the world. The baby, which will invariably have at least one moment in its life where part of it wonders if this is right, is therefore set up for failure from the beginning. It's ironic, because most parents insist they want their children to succeed....