Him, Her, Them: How Westernised Gender Norms Create a Framework for Misgendering


Rigid Western distinction between only the male and the female have formed the basis of a culture of thoughtless misgendering of human beings who fall outside of those norms


By Lerato Botha

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 11 of VARSITY News.



Many of us have been told from early on in our lives that girls and boys are on opposite sides of the spectrum, and that the two should not intersect; you either act like a lady or act like a man. This gender definition, however, works to exclude everyone who identifies as existing in between or outside of (or any other complex orientation with) those binaries. Although attitudes towards gender non-conformity have grown slightly more nuanced over recent years (thereby influencing a new generation of openly gender non-conforming and genderqueer communities), old-fashioned Westernized gender norms are still largely prevalent today.


Gender freedom, however, is not unique to the 21st Century, as many indigenous cultures in history have lived on a policy of gender fluidity. For instance, the 20th Century Nadleehi of the Navajo nation identified as neither male nor female but rather a third, non-binary conforming gender. There are even more examples that can be traced back to Africa, like the Northern Nigerian Yan Daudu community who merged Islamic concepts of both femininity and masculinity in their genderqueer lifestyles. So, if history proves prior existence of genderfluidity, then the question poses as to why there is such a need to box people into one or the other in our modern times?


Since the rigid distinction between male and female is a largely Western ideal, modern people have become greatly accustomed to simply assuming that people with naturally ‘boyish’ or ‘masculine’ presentations should be classified as male, and the same is done with femme-presenting individuals, therefore, displaying a lack of respect for someone’s personal choice of self-identification. Social media is riddled with these such examples, with people often berating others when they display behaviour that is out of their socially constructed gender norms. The gender constructs of the male and female have been consolidated in such a way so that people have felt it their place to call someone by ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, even in the event that they may want to be referred to otherwise.


However, the use of they/them pronouns can also be damaging if someone clearly states that they would like to be acknowledged as something other than that. For instance, when some transgender people make open requests to be identified in a particular way, referring to that person as they/them can be extremely dismissive to their choice of identity. In many ways, it erases their identity in order to relinquish others of the responsibility of learning their pronouns or understanding their identity.


It is therefore of great importance that instead of avoiding the responsibility of political and theoretical gender education, we should rather relinquish ourselves of the Westernized understanding of gender that has taught us to ignorantly assume others people’s genders. We should rather see gender as a spectrum on which many identifiers can be found and used to identify oneself. In short, it’s time to take the initiative in learning each other’s pronouns and what they mean.


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