Karen B.K. Chan is a sex educator and emotional literacy trainer in Toronto, Canada.
This article is part of a Discussion addressing the question, ‘What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?’.
In Canadian social policy and human service sectors, gender equity conventionally refers to the distribution and redistribution of resources so that women and men have equal opportunities to achieve positive outcomes. The notion of gender equity recognizes that women are systemically disadvantaged vis-à-vis men, as demonstrated by the wage gap, political representation, poverty rates, representation in popular culture, perceived credibility and expertise, early sexualisation of girls, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence. Against this backdrop, gender equity seeks to level unlevel playing fields. Unlike gender equality, it does not seek sameness or equal treatment. Its emphasis is on achieving fairness in the context of unfairness.
The need for gender equity originates from the inequities that are built into the binary gender system, which dictates that there are two genders (women, men) that descend directly from two sexes (female, male), and that they are distinct and opposite. This binary is by and large assumed to be natural order, predicated by biological difference. However, the notion that male and female sexes are distinct, polar, and mutually exclusive is erroneous. While females and males make a majority of the species, one in every thousand of us do not fit into the binary by way of genetics, hormonal makeup, or physiology. The number is exponentially larger when you take into consideration the endless array of gender expressions and identities. The diversity of sex and gender among humans is vast; the binary gender system is a human-made structure of classification and simplification. Indeed, it organizes all formal and informal systems of social order: birth registries, school and hospital records, public washrooms and change rooms, clothing and shoes, athletic competitions, swim wear, salutations and honorifics, official documents including drivers’ licences and passports, hair salon pricing, homeless shelters, and children’s toys. As long as life experience remains largely determined by binary sex assigned at birth and their corresponding gender roles, working towards equity between women and men remains relevant and important.
At the same time, the binary gender system is changing: gender identity, expression, and performance; its boundaries and fluidity; its place in regular conversation; its place in school board debates and parliamentary discussions. All of these are shifting the rigidity of masculinity and femininity, as well as their polarization. The last decade has brought many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer characters to television, as well as a handful of trans characters. They are no longer only fringe eccentrics or comic relief, but primary cast and epicenters of stories worth telling. We have witnessed an American trans man become a father by getting pregnant, which was big news on his first pregnancy, and nearly unremarkable by his second and third. We have also heard powerful advocacy for Gay-Straight Alliances in high and middle schools, much of which were spearheaded by young students themselves (e.g., in Ontario and Alberta, via support organisations, and social research). There is a growing movement for all-gender bathrooms in public spaces (e.g., in Vancouver schools, their parks, Victoria, Regina, Toronto, and in many Canadian universities). We have heard numerous cases of trans students fighting for accommodation rights regarding bathrooms, change rooms, and pronouns in their schools (e.g., in Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Nova Scotia). We have witnessed countless professional athletes, celebrities, and politicians who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer. Last year, we passed a bill in Canadian parliament that makes it illegal to discriminate against transgender people. Two years ago, the UN condemned the widespread “normalization” surgery done on intersex babies with genitals that are not clearly male or female, and there is already a shift away from performing these surgeries. In January 2015, two national professional bodies that govern social workers affirmed the rights of children who are gender non-normative to be exactly as they are. Currently, seven provinces and territories explicitly protect “gender identity” or “gender identity and gender expression” in their human rights legislation. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) reframed gender identity disorder as gender dysphoria, placing the problem on the dissatisfaction felt by the person and how they are perceived in the world, and not on the person.
These movements destabilize gender. They signal tidal change in our understanding of gender itself, not only the binary. They reinforce that masculinity and femininity are behaviour and expectations, not biology. They gesture that framing makes all the difference: gender outlaws might be creative and independent as easily as deviant and dangerous. They signal that the differences among human beings, especially the uncommon differences, could be seen as biodiversity (and therefore normal) or as dysfunction, and that the choice is ours. Even when the movements are not “successful” – a debate that riles emotions but leads to no legislative change, a story that surfaces and is forgotten, a bill that doesn’t pass – they add to the collective idea that gender is neither neutral nor naturally binary. They disturb the status quo.
With gender under disruption, it should follow that gender equity work also changes. The gender injustice that early feminists wrestled with was (primarily) women’s subordination to men. The gender injustice that we must also struggle with now is the subordination of individuals who do not fit within the binary. We know that the binary gender system not only hurts women, but also men. It limits our ability to be fully human and to appreciate and relate to each other as full humans. Similarly, gender normativity limits the humanity of all people, either by imprisoning them within the binary or sanctioning them outside of it. Though your positioning within any system of oppression affords people very different privileges, no one actually wins. The “new” gender equity, therefore, must address the harm done to all people, whether as a result of the gender binary or gender normativity.
In the last few years, it is increasingly common that those in the social service and health sector talk about cisgender and cissexual as a sexual identity (the “cis” refers to sameness and is juxtaposed to “trans”. To be cis is to feel like your gender matches the sex you were assigned at birth – e.g., a woman who was pronounced female at birth). Saying cis (instead of nothing) disturbs the social order significantly. By naming what is unnamed, we not only make it a thing, we also make other things possible. When people call themselves cis they make gendered existence as real for them as it is for trans people. While the movement to name cis-ness is still small, and while the masses may never take to it, a disturbance is a disturbance.
That leads me to the original question about advancing gender equity in Canada. From my vantage point, it is happening and needs to continue to happen simultaneously both within and without the gender binary. Within it, we must continue to advocate for women’s equal pay; increase participation of girls in science and politics, boys in caregiving and service sectors; support survivors of sexual assault to report and hold perpetrators accountable; conduct medical research that does not generalize men’s results to all people; connect gender discrimination to other intersectional inequalities; and so on. Outside of it, we must continue to actively dismantle the very gender system within which we also seek equity – challenging the practice of operating and medicating the 1 in 1,000 babies that are intersex; removing the unnecessary gendering of consumer products; making single-stall change rooms a standard; inventing alternatives to “ma’am” and “sir”, “Ms.” And “Mr.” so that respect and politeness are not forcibly gendered; and continuing to evolve gender as one of the many human creative inventions; and so on.
These are two prongs of a strategy that will at times contradict each other; it will not always be clear how to do right or do what’s best. Do we advocate for women-only carpentry programs or woodworking programs for all? Do we segregate puberty classes by sex because kids ask fewer questions in mixed classes, or do we help them talk about uncomfortable things together? Do we prioritize ease and assign intersex infants one of the two sexes, or do we prioritize their freedom while knowing they will be outsiders? Do we have gender-segregated bathrooms because women feel vulnerable to male violence, or do we have all-gender spaces so we can stop equating male presence with threat and intimidation?
The tension between the two comes down to this: Gender-specific interventions sometimes reinforce binary gender systems, and disregarding binary genders sometimes erases the very real legacies of gendered injustice. However, the truth is also this: As we eradicate gender-based disparities, it will be easier to do away with binary gender systems. And as we push and poke at binary ideas, it will loosen the bounds of manhood and womanhood, masculinity and femininity. In other words, the strain between these approaches also holds them together.
“Gender equity” will not come easily or straightforwardly, in Canada or elsewhere. It may even be an impossible goal, a lighthouse in the distance. Our job, however, is not to know how to get all the way there, we have only to move toward it. As our vantage points change, we will spot other lighthouses and adjust our course. I trust that the future we will want is not a future we yet know.