Understanding Gender

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. 

Today I am delighted to bring you a chat about understanding gender with Dr Anvita Madan- Bahel, who has been a practicing psychotherapist for the last 15 years. She’s also taught for the last ten years in universities. She holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University, and the majority of her work is around gender disparities, psychosexual and relational therapy, reducing gender violence, mental health, and diversity training. And she has worked and facilitated training at various universities and organizations in topics such as gender, ethnicity, race, religion, class, sexual violence, and she has extensive experience in understanding and conceptualizing issues based on diversity and culture. 

So, what is wellness to you in the context of the topic of understanding gender?

Dr Anvita Madan-Bahel: The ideas of gender have become so tight and so restrictive. We had put a label and we’d made a box, and we had said, if that’s the label that you’re given, those are the only things that you can do. And we know when we have worked with feminist literature and feminist work, that felt restricted to women, right? Like the fact that they couldn’t go outside, they couldn’t do things and everything, which was all gender-based in some ways. So, wellness really is that this restriction of not being complete or not actually being able to achieve everything to the fullest of your ability or wishes, the lack of that because of gender is problematic. So, when we can achieve that fullness, that completeness, that’s wellness for me.

AB: That is actually an incredible definition. Thank you for that. Now tell me, as I said earlier, not understanding this particular topic is causing a lot of distress to a lot of people. And I’ve heard from people that there’s 23 genders, there’s 100 genders. And I also heard from a lot of people I know that it’s causing a lot of friction with the children. So, people sort of over 35, over 40, and then there’s the youngsters who’ve just grownup in a different world from us. Can you give me a basic explanation of gender identity?

Dr AMB: Yeah, and I think let’s start there with some basic things, because terms that I might use cisgender, which are roles that traditional people believe in, male and female, and just the way we think of who has a hierarchy and who has power. Basically, the world works with cisgender people, right? The male and female in some ways. And so, they are at the top of the hierarchy. And people who have different gender identities are saying that they are a minority and it’s really difficult for them. But first, let me just backtrack and explain how we were taught that gender is something that’s biological, whether it is male or female. And let me introduce this idea that the problem with gender is that we’ve always been shown or it’s been seen as something that is binary. It’s one or the other. So, the first definition of gender we always start with is biological sex. So, what are the chromosomes that you’re born with? Is it XX or XY?  Right? So, people think it’s binary. If there’s anything people can take away from this talk, it is that if we can start thinking of gender on a continuum, like if you think about it on a continuum, rather than it is one or the other. What we know is that there are people who have chromosomes that could be XXY or XO and they’re called the middle sex. Middlesex is where they are given a lot of names, but there are people who might have no male or female reproductive organs or no organs or both organs. So, there are multiple ways. But the point is there are people who are born with multiple reproductive organs, not just male or female. So sometimes they have to make a choice as to which one they want to retain or which one they want to give up. Sometimes they are born with none. So, they have to decide which one they will get constructed. So, all I’m trying to explain is that this idea that it’s binary is not true. And there’s a beautiful book called Middle Sex which explains about somebody’s journey. But as you can see, this is a continuum. So, this is biological sex. Stop the myth that it’s binary. 

Second is the idea there is something known as gender identity. Okay, so gender identity is male, female, right? Once again, we see it as, oh, there can only be a male and there can only be a female. But we are introducing the idea once again that it’s on a continuum, it’s just not binary, where it’s only male and only female. So, if it’s on the continuum and then there are some people saying, I actually don’t identify as being male or female, and I want to identify as gender non-binary. And gender non-binary means they don’t want to be seen as a male or a female. They are saying that they’re gender-neutral. Maybe it is another word that people would have said. But gender non-binary is more the word that they want to identify with. And the billionaire character Taylor Mason really made it in popular culture. And she identifies as one. And they tend to use the pronoun ‘they’. So once again, they’re saying this doesn’t fit us, this male-female, like the gender identity once again on the continuum. And I will talk more about their experience, because if we can think about things on the continuum but more as a river, so it’s flowing and it’s changing rather than always on the continuum, and if you land somewhere that’s permanent, again, this permanency is problematic. What they’re saying is that one day I can wake up and I can feel very femme. Someday I can wake up feeling very male. Someday I can wake up feeling gender nonbinary. Stop putting these boxes that say if you choose this, that’s it for lifelong, this is what it is. And they’re saying, give it more fluidity, give it a continuum. 

And then the next thing that we can think about is, like, I’ve done now biological sex, which is physiological, I’ve done male, female, and then it’s gender expression. And what is gender expression? How masculine or feminine somebody is. And once again, that also is on a continuum. And maybe this is something that people can relate with more, because all of us have hated the fact that somebody has turned around and said, oh, why are you behaving like a woman? Or why are you behaving like a lady? Or why are you behaving like a man? Like men do this, women don’t do this. This idea of masculinity and femininity is something that we’re familiar with, and we don’t like it, right? And we don’t want to be constricted. So once again, a continuum on which we land wherever we feel like landing. And as most of us would know, some days we can wake up and say, oh, I’m feeling so feminine, and I want to wear a dress, and I want to wear makeup. Once again, societal norms of the feminine means, I must say that. But there are other things that we might want to do on that day, like so many people who want to say, I want to go and do construction or ride a bike in a dress. This idea that you can’t do those things. If you can take away this idea that gender is not binary, but on a continuum and something that’s fluid.

AB: Anvita tell me, are they teaching them that at schools now? I have older kids, generations that’s going through, like, learning biology and science. Are they teaching them about that?

Dr AMB: I don’t actually know the curriculum at school, but what I can say is that a lot of schools, even the youngsters, are now thinking about pronouns, and how to address them. Teachers might write at the bottom that this is how they want to be called or identified. And they’re being more open rather than sending somebody for therapy because they say, oh, I think I’m an alternate gender. They are being more welcoming about it. So, there are a lot of clubs and conversations and talks, and the PSHEE in London — through that, they’re talking about other genders and everything. So, there’s definitely a conversation. I’m not sure about the curriculum. 

AB: Yes. When I was in New York recently, I saw that even the bathrooms didn’t say male or female. It’s just a common bathroom. So, yeah, things are changing slowly now. Also, can you explain to us what is the difference between the biological body and the psychological body? So, the body that you were born with, and what happens if you feel different? 

Dr AMB: Yeah. So, if we go back to the continuum, right? In some ways what we’re saying is that, okay, I had a biological body that was born with a chromosome XX or XY. However, my gender identity or gender expression, feeling wise, I feel the opposite. So, say somebody was born with a female body, breast, and vagina, but they feel this doesn’t feel right. So, feeling wise, they feel more male. They feel more masculine. They feel more complete when they express themselves with masculinity or maleness. So, they really feel like this body is the wrong body in some ways, and they want to transition. So, the word transgender is this idea that they are transitioning from one gender to another. And once again, the complexity of gender a lot is that it all continues and everything has its own. So even in this community, how much someone wants to transition is a personal choice. Like, some people feel really happy just cross-dressing. So, they will lead their lives during the day being a woman. At night, they would cross-dress as a man. Or somebody else might say, no, I want cross-dressing, I want hormones, I want changes in the body, and I want a penis reconstruction. I want my body to completely change. So how much transition and what feels enough for somebody or helps them feel contentment or at peace is an individual choice. So, there can be a lot of diversity even within the trans community.

AB: From what I understood and tell me if I am right, where you are on the continuum gives you the different genders that people get very confused about. There are so many genders. Is that right?

Dr AMB: If I can help you understand, even that kind of thing is fixated, right? I think what they’re saying is to allow for fluidity. I learned a lot about gender non-binary through videos and TED talks and people and talking. It was just fascinating. I binge-watched those videos. One person said, I like to be addressed as her, but I identify as gender non-binary. Somebody else said, I actually don’t want to be restrictive. I can wake up one morning and I want to be identified as they/them. But other days somebody would think of me as she/her. So, they felt like there was more fluidity to their identity. Then once again being pinpointed, I know this sounds confusing, because if somebody changes their identity every day, how do you know when and what to identify? However, they then keep that openness. They understand. But I think the problem is that when somebody has transitioned or if somebody has said they want to be known as they/them or she/her or he/his, and we force other gender rules that persist in society, that’s what I think becomes problematic when people refuse to acknowledge them. 

AB: So, again, clarifying. One of the questions that I’ve had about this for the last six months is this issue about how you address somebody. The way I’ve understood it is just that I have young daughters, and they’ve taught me a lot, and that is just to ask. And I find that in my daughter’s company, they’ll write their pronouns under their names now. So, if you just ask, is that okay?

Dr AMB: Absolutely. I want to share a story because this was a few years ago, and I think people are fearful, and they feel like, oh, what is this? I don’t understand it. It’s lifelong wisdom. Why are people changing it? Yes, it is scary, but there are a lot of things that are unacceptable now which were acceptable, like, 20 years ago, right? So, yes, this is the transition period, and you will get it wrong, but people can see if you’re trying. And my favorite story is that this is something that I learned a few years ago. Obviously, I’ve worked with gender a lot, but it was mostly around transgender and gender, but the gender non-binary. And I had watched something on the Billions character Taylor Mason and gender non-binary, and I was like, oh, I need to read up about this. And the next day, when I went to teach at a college, one of the students identified as gender non-binary. And in my head, all that went around was there was something about how they wanted to be addressed. What was it? How will I do it? Will I get it wrong? Will I really make it uncomfortable for them? What would happen? And I just asked. I said, so how would you like to be identified? They said they would like to be called ‘they’. And in my head, I was sure that I would mess it up because your language is so she, you, and everything that is his. So, I just made a bit of an effort to make sure I was not addressing them as she or he. That was the main, I think, effort that I put in. And I used everything else that was present for me at the moment. But I just made sure that I didn’t call them by ‘she’ or ‘he.’ I might have called them that. I might have called them you or by their name or anything that I used. And it was tough. I’m not saying it wasn’t tough, because you have to really watch out for it. But I must have done something, and I’m sure I made mistakes. I had only met the student twice, and a few months later, of no contact, they approached me and said, oh, I’m going to another college. Can you write a reference letter? And I was touched, but at the same time, I was like, I’ve only met you twice. But in that intention, I think, or in that trying to do something that makes them feel comfortable, I obviously did something right. So, you’ll make mistakes, but they’ll teach you also. But if you keep making the same mistake, I think that’s what becomes frustrating.

AB: I love your story. So historically, why have people been then called men or women? I’m assuming genders. All these various genders have existed through the ages, whether it’s in mythology. So why was it that people were put into the other boxes?

Dr AMB: One of the things is that, yes, actually being the balance of the genders has been something that has been really ancient. Yin-Yang, Shiva, the story of Shiva, the completeness of having the male-female together. And that perfect balance. And if we go and look at traditions of American-Indian medicinal people, medicinal people who used to actually do all the healing and all, they reached those levels of spirituality because they would have the male-female in them both, and they could connect with their feminine and masculine side. It wasn’t one or the other. So, I think about ancient literature and we were having this discussion yesterday. I was having it with friends who are big into the Rig Veda and spirituality and mythology, and they were talking about how the Vedas actually don’t mention gender. So, there was ability. So based on your ability, you might be part of the hunter-gatherer or you might be home, but it wasn’t gender-based. But somewhere, I really have to get into patriarchy, because the idea of patriarchy actually changes things, because it establishes something. Somebody needs to be in power and somebody needs to be lower. And then the attributes connected to people who are in power are seen as good attributes and attributes that are meant for people who are lower are bad. So, crying, which I think is phenomenal and really gets all the feelings out, is something that is seen as a weakness. And Kamla Bhasin spoke really well about the fact that the problem is patriarchy. The problem is not gender. The fight is not against men because patriarchy is as bad for men as it is for women. If we go with gender definitions because it restricts them in those boxes as well and not give them the fluidity and everything. So, I think about the idea of patriarchy and then creating power differences and demarcations and really boxing it more and more is, I think, how it is involved.

AB: Anvita from what you’re explaining to me, are you saying that there was fluidity before patriarchy caused male and female boxing?

Dr AMB: I think there was gender neutrality. All these ideas of stereotypes. When I think of gender, what I find most problematic is that I think it’s the most stereotyped identity. We do this lovely exercise when we work with teenagers and young people, and we take two dolls, one wearing a pink dress and one wearing a blue dress, and we ask them, we give them adjectives, all adjectives like aggressive, nurturing, pilot, teacher, dancer and, things like that. Every group assigns male adjectives to the blue dress and the pink adjectives, feminine adjectives, to the pink dress. And so, in some ways, and what we process with them afterward, is: can you imagine that a child is born into this world, and within five seconds or today do you know the gender before the child is born? You already have ascribed all these identities to them. That this is how you will be. These will be your career choices. This is how you’ll behave. This is what is allowed to you. This is what is not allowed to you. Without actually allowing them to grow up as humans. And today, it’s so retail-driven that you actually can’t even go to a shop and buy clothes that wouldn’t have a flower or a train. It’s so nurturing in some ways. So, you can ask that question, was there gender neutrality? What I will say in return is that the problem today is that it is so prescribed and nurture-driven that we allow no room for how an individual feels or wants to be, because as soon as they’re born, we are told, this is what men are, this is what women are. This is how you have to behave. This is how you’re not to be. This is what you’re allowed to wear. This is what you’re not allowed to wear. We know that nature nurtures. My issue is that do we actually allow for nature? It’s also nurturing in some ways. So, where’s nature? So, we don’t know the answer. What was there thousands of years ago? Because it’s now so prescribed.

AB: Yeah, that’s so true. And thank you for suggesting that book Transgender. That was very useful for anybody who wants to explore more about it. Do you have any advice for people? Any last words of wisdom?

Dr AMB: Sexual orientation actually has nothing to do with gender, and most people get really confused with that idea. And that’s because it was always LGBTQ and the “T” was part of the community. And I first learned about it when I started studying in Minnesota. And I had somebody who identified as a lesbian, and she was going to do gender, and she said, Can I get the T from the LGBT and put it with gender? So, the T is a gender identity and sexual orientation. The LGBQ is who do we want to have sex with? Or who are we attracted to romantically or sexually? T is a gender identity. And I think it was part of the community because the politics were very similar, the rights were very similar, and the struggles were very similar. So, yes, there is a strong affinity, but I think… because what you have to understand is that somebody can be transgender or somebody can be identified as something else and still identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual or something. So, there are two identities, two separate identities. And my final thought would be the problem is the boxes. People don’t want those restrictions. They want to be able to pick and choose rather than be stuck in, this is what we are. They want to be able to do different things because a lot of times we are not able to actually make choices that feel right for us because of these gender impositions. So, breaking the boxes and allowing for the fluidity and not getting really caught up in— but they were this yesterday. But they did this yesterday. They did that yesterday. Just be respectful of where they are today and who they are today. They’re not asking you to change, they’re not asking you to become a different gender or whatever. But if that feels right to them, if that feels complete to them, think about how much pressure, mockery, ridicule, and stereotype bias they face, but they still make those choices of being gender non-binary or transgender or otherwise; it must be such an important identity for them. So, rather than questioning it, try understanding it and supporting it. 

AB: That was beautifully put. Really beautifully put. And the one thing, again, you made a very important point at the end that gender and sexual orientation are different. Empathy and respect are so important. So, thank you. And that was such an incredibly enlightening talk. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.