Articles

Bigger than Boxes: An Introduction to Gender

Bigger Than Boxes presented by GAD (Gender and Development Committee)
Natalie Garro, 129 TESS

Content Warning: Some sensitive and offensive language is used.

Introduction

The purpose of this month’s BTB article is simple: to introduce gender and gender theory in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way, with the ultimate goal of enabling PCVs to critically explore innovative ways they can incorporate gender-equitable practices into their work at site, service at large, and daily lives. In the spirit of this goal, I will provide definitions, introduce concepts, and ask some guiding questions that will serve as a foundation to invoke a heightened awareness of the ways that gender – in all the ways society understands and misunderstands it – impacts our choices, our interactions, and our individual and cultural identities.

We will begin by viewing Sex and Gender through our own – American – cultural lens.

But what is Big-G, Gender?

Before we can delve into gender theory or its practical application in our service, we must address an important distinction, namely, the distinction between Sex and Gender. For the purpose of this article, we will be using the topic-focused definitions displayed in the glossary of the GAD Thailand website. We may define each, respectively, as:

sex

noun  \ ˈseks \
biological assignment based on reproductive organs
e.g. female, male, intersex (includes all variations between female and male).

gender

noun  gen·der  \ ˈjen-dər \
performed social identity based on a set of socially constructed roles, responsibilities, behaviors, and opportunities. Gender roles and expectations are learned, change over time, and vary within and among cultures.

An easy way of understanding the difference between sex and gender is: sex corresponds with the biological organs an individual was born with; gender corresponds with individual outward expression, as will relate to gender norms set forth by the society in which one lives.

So what?

While these definitions may initially seem negligible, it is worth noting the myriad ways in which one’s biological sex impacts every aspect of one’s life – from the earliest moments of childhood until our hair turns grey – when one’s gender is assumed to coincide with one’s biological sex.

Consider:

  • The verbiage used to describe babies from even the first moments of birth; i.e. “strong” and “healthy” for boys, “sweet” and “dainty” for girls.image2
  • The verbiage used to describe children as they grow and begin to display a penchant for dominance; i.e. “assertive” for boys, “bossy” for girls.[1]
  • The physical limitations of particular clothing choices; i.e. dresses and skirts.
  • The ways in which we are conditioned to adopt traditional roles of “masculinity” and “femininity” – as correspond to our biological sex – and the ways in which we are confronted when we do not adequately conform to these archetypes.
  • The prevailing cultural understanding of “masculinity” and “femininity.”
  • The corresponding beauty ideals both men and women are conditioned to strive for.
  • The role media plays in enforcing and promoting these ideals.
  • The various occupations men and women are, respectively, expected to pursue; the behaviors men and women are, respectively, expected to display in the workplace.
  • The prevalence of gendered slurs – i.e. b*tch, p*ssy, etc. – and the impact of desensitization to and normalization of these slurs on our collective subconscious.[2]

Gender performance may be described as the outward expression of gender produced through culturally socialized expectations of gender. Gender performance is not itself innate, but is rather the result of a lifetime of social conditioning, as exemplified above.

When we talk about “Gender Equality Initiatives,” many automatically assume we are only discussing feminism and equality between two polarized genders. On the contrary, gender work involves pursuing awareness and understanding of gender as a broader, cultural concept with consequences impacting men, women, and everyone in between.

Applying Gender in a Broader Sense

So how do we apply this?

Women’s empowerment is, of course, a major tenant of the gender initiatives Peace Corps pursues in Thailand; however, at many of our trainings that are gender-focused or involve gender-inclusive sessions, you will find we work with both sides of the coin, so to speak.

Once we have begun to consider the influence our own biological sex has had in our personal story, we begin to identify socialized aspects of our own gender performance. Indeed, this is what Peace Corps often asks of its volunteers, our counterparts, and our students.

In my own experience working with gender in the Peace Corps, I have found that one of the more poignant strategies PC often adopts is not the aggressive introduction of theory or the furious deconstruction of the patriarchal systems that govern most of the world, but rather the gentle offerance of simple definitions and the invitation to reflect on what these definitions mean to each individual. It is the simple act of holding space for each other, without judgement, that allows PCVs, our counterparts, and our students to consider the nuances of cultural systems we’ve blindly accepted and the ways in which we’ve unconsciously abandoned our authentic selves to find a place within these systems.

Working with Gender in Thailand

In Western cultures – such as the U.S. – gender and sexuality are evolving notions, which are gaining space in public discourse. While we’ve established distinct categories of sex and gender within this Western perspective, we must concede that, “the applicability of distinct categories of gender and sexuality and of identities based upon this differentiation need to be questioned in Thailand.” It must be noted that linguistic evidence suggests, within Thai discourses, sex and gender – and, more broadly still, gender and sexuality – must be considered, “as aspects of a single complex, rather than separate categories.”[3]

A more direct way to put this would be, within the framework of Thai culture, the notions of capital-S-Sex and capital-G-Gender as distinct entities is largely unconsidered.

It is also worth mentioning that sex and sexuality has only gained ground within public discourse in Thailand over the last 20 years, and it is still largely unresearched, either from a Nationalist or Western perspective.

Bearing this in mind, it is important we, as Westerners – as Americans – do our best to consider the difference in cultural dynamics when we approach gender-focused discourse.

While it is unrealistic to expect every PCV to dive into the literature on Gender in Thailand, it is certainly an attainable goal for every PCV serving here to take the time to reflect on the role their sex and gender has played in shaping their identity. It is certainly attainable for every PCV to create the space for their counterparts and students to do the same.

It isn’t necessary for a volunteer to have a degree in Gender Theory for them to initiate these conversations; in fact, this is where GAD comes in. If you’re still hazy on terminology, concept, or application, please reach out to us at pcth.gadgig@gmail.com, or to any of our members – Olivia Dawson, Rae Richards, or myself (Natalie Garro) – directly via Line or Facebook.

Please also take the time to peruse our website, which has numerous resources, including step-by-step Toolkits for initiating Gender and Leadership activities written in both Thai and English.

While Gender Theory is intricate and complex, I hope this article has provided you with a bit more understanding of the topic and a bit more courage to take the step forward towards Gender Education, if only for yourself. Susu!

Additional Resources

  1. GAD Thailand Website
  2. GAD Thailand Toolkits
  3. World Health Organization: Gender, equity and human rights
  4. Genders & Sexualities in Modern Thailand by Peter A. Jackson & Nerida M. Cook
  5. The Lioness in Bloom by Susan Fulop Kepner

Appendix of Basic Terminology[4]

→ Also available here in Thai.

sex n. biological assignment based on reproductive organs

e.g. female, male, intersex (includes all variations between female and male)

gender n. performed social identity based on a set of socially constructed roles, responsibilities, behaviors, and opportunities. Gender roles and expectations are learned, change over time, and vary within and among cultures.
e.g. man/boy, woman/girl, neither, somewhere in between. A person’s gender may or may not match with a person’s sex assignment.
​cisgender adj. classification for a person who’s gender identity conforms to the expected gender of their sex assignment

e.g. a male who identifies as a man, a female who identifies as a woman

transgender adj. classification for a person who’s gender identity does not conform to the expected gender of their sex assignment

e.g. a male who identifies as a woman, a female who identifies as a man, an intersex person who identifies as either a man or woman and many other variations  

gender equity n. process or state in which men and women receive comparable opportunities and accommodating treatment to ensure fair outcomes
gender stereotype n. a simplified conception of a group of people based on their perceived gender identity
​​gender bias n. preconceived conceptions, feelings or opinions based on another’s perceived gender, usually without other reason
​gender-based violence n. Any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering against a person based on gender expectations and stereotypes.
​inequality n. not equal, disparity
discrimination n. he act of treatment of distinction based on group, class or other category
sexism n. discrimination based on one’s sex or perceived gender identity.

Click here to find a classroom activity pertaining to this topic.

[1] Shankar Vedantam. NPR. Hidden Brain. “Be the Change.” October 2017.

[2] Image courtesy of Penn State LGBTQ+ Website

[3] Jackson & Cook. Genders & Sexualities in Modern Thailand. 1999. p.3-4

[4] GAD Weebly. Glossary. 2018.

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