Monday 26 September 2016

Katie Byrne: 'Gender fluidity needs to be clearly defined and vigorously discussed'

Gender fluidity needs to be clearly defined and vigorously discussed

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Eliot Paulina Sumner posed at the Lowlands Festival in Biddinghuizen doesn't identify with either gender.
Eliot Paulina Sumner posed at the Lowlands Festival in Biddinghuizen doesn't identify with either gender.
Features writer Katie Byrne

Labels are a double-edged sword. They break down boundaries just as they create them. They emancipate us just as they imprison us.

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Eliot Sumner, the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler, may agree with this sentiment.

The 25-year-old musician has become the current poster girl/boy for the gender fluid movement after telling a journalist that she doesn't identify with either gender.

However, Sumner didn't describe herself as gender fluid during the interview. Nor did she use any of the other terms - non-binary, genderqueer, agender - in the lexicon that describes genders other than male and female.

News organisations that picked up on the story gave her the 'gender fluid' label, despite her obvious desire not to be labelled at all.

Sumner now joins the new wave of gender fluid celebrity ambassadors that includes Orange Is the New Black star Ruby Rose; Will Smith's son Jaden Smith and fashion model Andrej Pejic (who I suspect was the inspiration for the gender fluid character played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the much anticipated Zoolander 2).

The dictionary.com definition of gender fluid is "a person whose gender identity or gender expression is not fixed and shifts over time or depending on the situation".

Yet expressions of gender fluidity vary greatly. On one hand, we have RTÉ journalist Jonathan Rachel Clynch whose declaration to his employers was profoundly brave.

On the other hand, we have Miley Cyrus who, in her rush to embrace the liberal zeitgeist, seems to me to have confused gender fluidity and bisexuality. Yes, they are often linked, but they are not one and the same thing. We should also note the difference between raising awareness and raising one's profile.

On one hand, there are hard-working gender fluidity support groups that help guide people through the darker areas of their identity struggle.

On the other hand, we have designers like John Galliano using gender fluid male models in his SS16 catwalk show for Maison Margiela.

I'm all for creatives that want to blur boundaries and challenge stereotypes. However, it fundamentally undermines the movement when designers decide to demarcate the genders a season later. Remember the lipstick lesbianism craze? Exactly. One could argue that it's all progress, but it's important that we differentiate between gender fluidity as a concept and gender fluidity as an identity.

This isn't a trend, nor should it be heralded as a redefinition of cultural norms or freedom from enforced gender roles.

The unofficial slogan of this movement tells us to "break free from gender", but in case you missed the memo, we've been integrating our masculine and feminine sides long before people tried to put a name on it.

I once heard a psychotherapist - a man who thought of biology as only an aspect of gender - describe personality types as male-male; female-female; female-male and male-female. Male-males are the type of men that claim they don't know if another man is attractive. How would I know? I'm not gay!

Female-females are the type of women that iron their husbands' boxer shorts.

A male-female can be a man in touch with his feminine side or a woman more in touch with her masculine side, and vice versa.

As with everything, it's a balancing act, which leads me to wonder if butch/femme roles in gay relationships and submissive/dominant roles in the bedroom are part and parcel of the yin and yang of male/female expression. Polarities create magnetism, after all.

Of course, the way we integrate our male and female sides vacillates over time. Most women can identify with sometimes wearing baggy boyfriend jeans and trainers and sometimes wearing silk and high heels.

Is this gender fluidity? Absolutely not. It's called being human and we must be careful not to label it as anything else.

We should also be mindful that this phenomenon may be partly culture-bound too. Ladettism. Unisex toilets. Man bags.

The butterfly flapped its wings a long time ago.

Millennials were born into a world where gender is less defined, just as gender fluidity has been born into a period of hyper-liberalism.

It's another double-edged sword. In one sense it's wonderful that society has progressed to this point. In another sense, our relentlessly open-minded disposition has closed down vigorous debate.

As the Eliot Sumner interview illustrates, we need to clearly define gender fluidity or, at the very least, understand that it's more than a fashion statement, a state of mind or a go-to label.

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