A wave of anxiety crashed over me. I was overcome with the sense I had made an embarrassing mistake, like walking into the wrong bathroom. Looking around, I first saw only female faces. But I wasn’t in the women’s restroom. I was in the first day of Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Me, a male professor, another male student, and our ten or so classmates–all women.
I just started my second semester of grad school in mental health counseling. My program, like the field as a whole, is heavily skewed towards female. (The faculty, on the other hand, includes plenty of men–interesting bit of sexism, that.) I knew this when I applied and didn’t give it a second thought. I am comfortable around people of all genders. I reject the sexist forces that push more women and fewer men into this profession. And I think it’s important that more men get involved.
Counseling is a pink collar perfect storm. Caring for people–check. Low paid (relatively speaking)–check. Under appreciated–check. Warm and fuzzy–double check. I think most men just can’t picture themselves doing it. Those who are interested in mental health might opt for a different track, perhaps one more associated with authority, science, and a big paycheck.
I think that’s a loss. Men are less likely to seek counseling, but there are many who do, and some might be better served by a male clinician. Men are also much more likely than women to be in court mandated counseling. Some women and non-binary folks might prefer to work with a man. Many boys could benefit uniquely from working with a male counselor.
I’ve seen a handful of counselors myself, and the counselor’s identity has made a huge difference to me. I was in counseling as a child and adolescent, during transition to get a letter for surgery, and in the last few months as I process my grandmother’s death. My most recent counselor is a gay man of color, while all previous counselors were older white women (at least one was definitely straight, not sure about the others). I really wanted to see a male counselor when I needed my surgery letter–I had a lot of male-specific stuff on my mind at the time–but I couldn’t find one. While working with my most recent counselor, I found that I was much more comfortable speaking frankly with him. The fact that he is gay and Latino also really helped. I could see myself in him.
So both my politics and my experience tell me that pursuing counseling as a man, and particularly as a Sephardic Jewish trans man, is a great idea. But that didn’t prepare for how it actually felt to walk into a classroom that was almost all women.
I felt embarrassed, anxious and confused. I kept wondering how being transgender played a role in my decision. Would I have thought of this path I weren’t trans? Would I have entered this program? I felt like there was some unspoken guy signal I hadn’t heard, an open secret that only I missed.
Of course, there are a bunch of other men in my program, and as far as I know they are cisgender. But that didn’t stop me feeling like I’d made an unbecoming mistake.
I guess I wanted to think that being transgender didn’t have anything to do with it, with any choice I make or thing I do. Maybe part of me wants to think being transgender doesn’t have anything to do with me. It bothers me to think I might do something a cis guy wouldn’t–even though it’s a point of pride that I do certain things (being a feminist, for example) that most cis dudes don’t.
But being transgender has everything to do with it. Not because I missed some male socialization signal that would have turned me away from the helping professions. Not because I shouldn’t be there or because a cis guy wouldn’t want to be there. Being transgender has to do with it because I have years of firsthand experience with depression, anxiety, and mental health professionals. Being transgender has to do with it because I know it’s possible to make changes that make a difference in your wellbeing. Being transgender has to do with it because it’s given me more empathy for others. And being transgender has to do with it because I know I don’t need to live my life according to stereotypes. I did not transition just to trade one suffocating box for another.
I’m feeling much better about it this semester. It would be nice to see more guys around, but it does make it easy to become friends with the dudes who are there. We have a certain solidarity.
I still dread walking into a class to realize I’m the only male student. You can imagine my relief when I sat down in Human Development Across the Lifespan yesterday. I counted eighteen students, eight of them guys.
Skye83 expresses frustration as a genderless person in the trans* community, which is often dominated by trans men and women. (The way they explain this might be bothersome for some trans folks.) They also describe themself as nonbeliever in gender who would like to see gender eradicated. They ask,
What do femininity and masculinity mean? I wish someone would give me an answer to that question… but no one does!!
I have actually said this myself, numerous times, verbatim. Reading it in skye83’s words made me realize I now have an answer. Below is an improved and expanded version of the answer I gave in the linked thread.
Femininity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with women in a given cultural and historical context. Masculinity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with men in a given cultural and historical context. Androgyny refers to a blending of these culturally specific feminine and masculine behaviors and attributes. It is also possible for behaviors and attributes to be neutral or associated with some other gender.
Masculinity and femininity are social constructs that vary across place and time. The categories of “men” and “women”–and any other genders recognized in a given society–are also social constructs that vary a great deal. Looking at the historical and anthropological records, I notice that the vast majority of human communities (all, as far as I know) make use of these constructs in some way.
The content of the constructs varies widely. What is considered “feminine” or “masculine” may be very different, even opposite, from one society to another. We can also see changes in gender norms and roles in the same society across generations.
What doesn’t vary so much is that gender exists in some form. People make meanings from the human body, sexuality, personality, reproduction, work, and related social roles. I would call this combination gender.
I see gender as similar to language. It’s a tool for meaning, communication and social organization that is part of the expressive repertoire of our species. Just like languages vary tremendously among groups, so does gender. People from different communities may be as confused by one another’s gender norms as they are by one another’s speech. Nonetheless, each is likely to have and use an idiom. Perhaps we are born prepared to learn gender norms, just like we’re born prepared to acquire language. The fact that it is so widespread suggest that, like language, gender is probably doing something pretty important for us. People seem to have strong intrinsic inclinations that pull them toward particular ways of being in the world, which they express through these culturally specific channels.
This view of gender has several implications. One is that gender is probably not going anywhere. Another is that, while we may be stuck with gender, we’re not stuck with the status quo. It follows that we are obliged to seek a gender system that is as egalitarian and nonviolent as possible.
If gender is part of how we communicate as humans, I think this suggests that everyone has a right to use this language. Therefore, we should seek a gender system that maximizes expressive opportunity. A good gender system doesn’t just avoid singling out some people for oppression, marginalization and punishment. Violence is a huge, terrifying problem with most gender systems, and it’s still the most pressing issue we face. But it’s not the only one. A good gender system gives as many people as possible the chance to truly express ourselves–to inhabit our bodies, relationships, and communities in an authentic way, to live in alignment with our deepest selves.
What do femininity and masculinity mean to you?