Friday, 15 February 2013

Gender: a question of perception

Kai Wooder, Education Lead for the North was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship in 2012/3 in order to learn about how sex and relationships services are delivered in Toronto and New York City. Here she guest blogs and provides a snap shot of some of her learning.

Having worked specifically in the sexual health field for 7 years and more generally with young people for much longer I felt it was time for me to challenge my own practice, values and actions by visiting, understanding and learning from both professionals and young people in North America. I’ve always been clear that the work we do at Brook is exceptional and that we are a pioneering, effective and brave organisation. From my fellowship experience I wanted to ascertain if my own knowledge, skills and experience were still a good match for Brook and also to explore ways that we could improve future practice.  I also instinctively believe that educators all over the world will find fresh, creative and unique ways to engage and work with young people and I wanted to see innovative practice first hand.  I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt more than I can write about here and my full report can be found at  if you’d like to read more.

One of the key learning points for me was in being challenged to really think about gender. In the UK gender is still in the main viewed as a binary concept which serves to define people as Male or Female. With this label comes strict codes of conduct in terms of how you should and shouldn’t behave; careers, fashion, media and even the deodorants we use are gendered which when you really think about it is quite bizarre. Anyone who strays from what is socially expected are often viewed with suspicion and treated with disrespect. Your gender identity and your gender expression are supposed to match and so if you are a woman, you should act like one! This experience is magnified when you add sexuality into the mix. How does gender impact on you if you are lesbian? Well, young women who attend our LGBT group at Brook tell us that if you’re feminine (in the expected sense) then you may be accused of being unauthentic in your gayness and if you’re masculine (in the expected sense) then you may well be asked ‘why do you want to look like a man’? both of these judgements can be harmful and are powered by a socially constructed concept. If something is socially constructed surely it can be socially deconstructed? I was part of a conversation with a group of young gay men recently who were talking about their weight and build. One of the group referred to himself as ‘straight thin but gay fat’ highlighting the expectation that gay men need to be slimmer than straight men; finding ways to segregate rather than consolidate is seemingly rife.

We are so obsessed by wanting to put people in neat little boxes and for them to stay there; conformingly, that we don’t often see the damage it causes. Toronto was so forward thinking in terms of gender; their approach, understanding, legislation, publications and policies were inclusive and embracing.  This manifested in how people lived their lives and went about their business. I met many people and at times I didn't know who was male or female because they didn’t conform to my own perceived social norms, this confused me at first and I had to really challenge and question my own perceptions and judgements. In the end I realised that it didn't matter that I couldn’t define someone as male or female and removing the barrier of gender left me to get on with building relationships with people.

This makes me question why we need to try and name something before we can try to understand it? We create our own social cultures and maybe it’s time for all of us to challenge our own ideas about gender, even just for today.
Brook has a new resource: Learn your LGBT ABC, to find out how to order copies visit

1 comment:

Annie Vanbeck said...

This TED talk on a similar subject reminded me of the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality that most people want to "put in a box" or label as one specific thing or another - an interesting 18 minute talk (starts automatically):