Some helpful definitions to start:
Cisheteronormativity: the concept that being straight and cisgender (the gender you are assigned at birth) is the norm or the preferred mode of sexual orientation and identity.
Binarism: the concept of a pair of opposites, in this case the male/female dichotomy.
Genderism: the societal belief that people should conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Gender Interrogation is for Everyone
When we think about gender interrogation we usually reserve the practice for transgender, genderqueer and gender-diverse persons. Exploring gender is frequently associated with queering oneself or their identity, but there are many benefits to everyone, including cisgender persons.
We can say that many trans and gender-diverse persons explore gender as a means of survival, self-understanding and the creation of an alternative “blueprint” to the cisheteronormative one that exists. But, that’s the thing, a lot of cisgender people believe that gender interrogation does not apply to them because they have the “original blueprint.” To be cisgender is to belong to the gender you were assigned at birth therefore, there is no need to look beyond the binary in which you already comfortably exist in.
However, it is important to note that what we know about gender as an absolute truth, is actually not really true to begin with. Gender is a colonial, social construct with many harmful elements that hinder how we engage with each other in platonic, romantic and professional relationships. Gender as a construct creates an absolute binary in which you can only exist as either/or — and within that binary there are power structures and hierarchies that affect everyone on the gender spectrum, including cispeople.
Exploring Gender Interrogation
In interrogating binary gender as a social construct, questions arise: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What are the structures put in place that are influenced by gender and how do they affect us as a collective and individuals?
We have seen the detrimental effects of some elements of binary gender in seemingly inescapable power dynamics such as rape culture and sexual and gender-based violence. We see high rates of men dying by suicide due to the teachings of toxic masculinity: that men aren’t allowed to experience certain emotions, and even “worse,” express them. There are hierarchies that prevent women and gender-diverse folks from thriving in the workplace. There exists an unequal distribution of emotional and domestic labour in relationships and marriages.
This is not an exhaustive list, especially when we take into account various intersections such as race, class and sexuality. Within binarism it is not only trans and gender-diverse persons suffocating within those structures, but cispeople too. The “original blueprint” that is cisheteronormativity essentially does not benefit anyone of any gender in the way that we would hope and that is why it is imperative to interrogate what gender means to you and how you negotiate that position in various spaces and relationships.
Questions To Explore
Gender interrogation is to ask oneself some of the following questions:
- As X-gender what does that mean to me?
- How do I perform X-gender and how does that impact how I am perceived?
- What are the ways in which I am excluded from (and included in) participating in social, economic and political spaces because I am X?
- How do I navigate my platonic, romantic and professional relationships because of my understanding of my X-gender?
- How do I benefit from these interactions and how do I navigate them knowing I am X-gender? How am I disadvantaged by being X-gender?
As someone who has spent the last 10 years interrogating gender, I can unequivocally say that once the questions start coming, they seldom stop — and that’s a good thing. You don’t have to have all the answers; I certainly don’t.
But what I can say, especially to people who feel they do not need to interrogate gender or find the idea uncomfortable, is that the world opens up in such an incredible way once you are able to explore what gender is to you. It enables you to reimagine your relationships and interactions with others, it encourages us all to treat each other equitably and gently and invites us to receive people exactly as they are.
From the editor:
This is a post from featured guest writer Thokozani Mbwana. You can read more of Thokozani’s work here at Floratry.com, including poetry, short stories, commentary and their debut chapbook The Sunflower Faces East At Dawn.
▶️ You can also witness him sharing wisdom for our panel on Unlearning the Binary, here on YouTube.