Every introductory anthropology class covers the distinction between sex and gender. Chromosomal sex (XX or XY) is biologically based, and both are necessary for human reproduction. Even this XX/XY dichotomy is more variable than we generally assume (for example, see Alice Dreger’s TED Talk “Is anatomy destiny?”). Contrary to the M or F choices available to us on standardized forms, gender is incredibly diverse and culturally constructed. Anthropologist Kenneth J. Guest defines gender as “The expectations of thought and behavior that each culture assigns to different sexes” (2014:271. Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age). In other words, within any given cultural context, what does it mean to be male, female, or other gender classification?
Every time I cover gender in cultural anthropology courses, I seek real world examples of how sex and gender differ – and how people, groups, and institutions sometimes misunderstand the distinction. This morning’s newspaper provided a gold mine of ignorance: “‘Tomboy’ transfer edict upsets family: School wanted girl, 8, to dress, act more female or leave.” The 8-year-old in question has short hair, wears “boyish” clothes, collects hunting knives, and shoots BB guns. (I’m more concerned about an 8-year-old collecting hunting knives than any other aspect of that description!). As a result, Timberlake Christian School has given her an ultimatum:
“we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education” (cited in Larry O’Dell AP article).
Considering the administration’s mindset, I suspect TCS is not the best place for anyone’s future education. It seems as if the poor girl’s options are to grow longer hair, wear dresses, and find different hobbies or find a new school. Evidently, TCS has interpreted God’s sense of gender as skewing heavily toward mid-20th Century American norms. (Doesn’t Jesus have long hair in most depictions? Would that be too “feminine” for Timberlake Christian School?).
The actions of TCS are a perfect example of taking culturally-specific gender norms, roles, and stereotypes, assuming they are universal (and, in fact, divinely ordained), and forcing people to adhere to supposedly “natural” ideas of the way males and females should be. I’d like to see TCS worry less about this kid’s fashion choices and more time clothing the needy in their community.