Gender Is Messy (And Always Has Been)

I want to start by telling you about Violet.

Just a few blocks up the road, at the billiards place where my wife and I go to play pool, the girl behind the counter who gives us our balls is transgender. Violet is quirky and fun, she works in a place full of the straightest guys and girls you’ve ever met, and… it’s no big deal. The fact that it’s no big deal is a cultural accomplishment.

We’ve come a long way in terms of gender recently. Just a few years ago, gays won the right to marry in the United States (we were late to the game; the Canadians had it well before us). America still hasn’t had a female president, but much of the world has. Even places like Pakistan have had women filling the highest echelons of traditionally male-coded gender roles. It’s an exciting time to be alive.


On the other hand, though, it’s also a terrible time to be alive. Every one of those gender rights victories I just mentioned has been wrested from the grip of those who fought tooth and nail against them. Right now in America the big fight is over public bathrooms, so that people like Violet can peacefully relieve themselves in the place that feels right for them without feeling like they’re doing something wrong. But people are protesting that, concocting nightmares like “what happens if someone whose assigned sex is male goes into a woman’s bathroom and molests the women in there?” Well, let me tell you, personally I don’t know any cis women who are afraid of trans people; it’s regular old-fashioned straight hetero guys they’re worried about! And yet, the closed-mindedness persists, and every step forward is fought tooth and nail. It’s a terrible time to be alive.

What’s happening here is this: in any culture, and in any era, norms around sex and gender tend to have a certain amount of leeway built into them. But…

When the status quo feels threatened, people become polarized, and dig their heels in.

Then gender starts to feel immutable, like there’s one right way for all time. It’s like a rock that you cling to in a turbulent river.

Well, this podcast is here to blow up that rock. Gender norms have never been solid across the sweep of history; they’ve always been fluid. They’re not the rock, they’re the river. We’re going to demonstrate that on this show by looking at all the myriad ways that peoples have done gender throughout history. And hey, we might learn something fun in the process.


Now, I want to close with a story. I’ve already told you about Violet, the trans girl at the billiards place. This time I want to tell you about Mark.

I knew Mark in college. He was from Missouri and he told me one time somebody tried to hit him with a truck… because he was gay. They literally tried to run him over with a truck. Granted, that was like 20 years ago now, but still quite recent, and it’s like, wow… look how far we’ve come, and yet how far we have yet to go.

Mark and I were both foreign exchange students studying in England at the time, and I think I must have written home about him at one point, because pretty soon my dad decided to come visit me (on a trip he originally had not wanted to take; he doesn’t do well in foreign countries – sorry, Dad!). My father said to me, “Son, it’s okay to be gay, but don’t give up on women.” In response, I was like, great! Thumbs up. Not gay, but thanks, Dad.

That’s kinda where we are in gender today. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We can begin to talk about it, but it’s still very confusing, and even threatening, for a lot of people. There’s people like Violet who can be totally out and not a big deal, there’s people like Mark who can be out and nearly get run over by a truck, and then there’s people like me who are within the so-called norm and yet who maybe don’t fulfill their masculinity or femininity the way other people think they should. It’s a mess.
This show is for people like them, people like me, and people like you. Gender is a mess, and it always has been.


If you want to see this project succeed, you can show your support by signing up as a patron on Patreon. It’s just one account for all of my podcasts, including my other history show Dead Ideas, which explores ideas once believed to be true but no longer, so go to where you can get great perks and check out my other show as well.

The History of Sex podcast is tentatively scheduled for release in fall 2019. In the meantime, subscribe to this blog to stay up to date and get more great articles. Thanks for your support.

Do you have gender-based experiences you want to share? Or thoughts for the upcoming show? I’d love to hear from you.


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