Is gender a social construct? Being an ally on social media

Parvati
asks:
I’m a 21 year old college student who is interested in being a better ally to my LGBTQ friends. I’ve joined the alliance at college and sometimes have discussions with the club about LGBTQ issues.I have fun, and it’s a good experience. Sometimes though, especially on social media, I feel like I need to agree with the most “progressive” side in order to be taken seriously as an ally. For example, some people say that gender does not exist or is 100% a social construct and angrily shout down anybody who politely disagrees. I have 3 questions: is gender really only a social construct? If yes, then should I not take pride in my gender as a straight woman, because its only a social construct and therefore not real? Though being a woman in society does have some pain associated with it, it has lots of pleasure and joy too (for me), and I don’t want to give that up. Thirdly, what is the best way to form my own opinions on LGBTQ topics while still being a good ally?
Siân replies:

Hi Parvati,

It's great to hear that you're trying to be a good ally, and doing some of the self-examination and learning that comes with that! Since you helpfully broke your question down into three parts, I'll go through them one by one.

1. Is gender really only a social construct?

The short answer is yes.

To understand what that means, though, we need to understand what a social construct is. "Social construct" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot without a definition. Merriam-Webster defines a social construct as:

an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society

What that means is that a social construct is a thing that has meaning because we've all agreed it means something. Money is an example of a social construct. It isn't something that exists in the natural world, it's evolved out of a system of bartering for goods into something that only has value because we say it does. Someone created money, and collectively people in our societies have accepted it. Without the meaning we give it, that cash in your wallet is just a bunch of funny coloured pieces of paper. Still, just because it's a social construct doesn't make money any less real!

2. Then should I not take pride in my gender as a straight woman, because its only a social construct and therefore not real?

So, we now know that something being a social construct doesn't mean it's not real, or take away from the fact that it's meaningful for many people. What does this mean for your identity as a straight woman? Well that's real, and it also sounds like it's important to you. Just because gender is a social construct doesn't make it any less real or important. Instead, gender has the meaning and import that we give it.

Social constructs can weave themselves right through the fabric of our lives, shaping our thoughts and behaviours. But we also shape them, together and as individuals. This is where allyship can come in. While some people would like us to abolish gender as a concept altogether, a lot more of the conversation is about how to expand our ideas of gender to be more inclusive and to make space for everyone. This can include everything from not assuming that your gender says anything about what kind of clothes you can wear or jobs you can do, to recognising that there are way more genders than the binary categories we've been leaning on, to shifting our cultural belief that a certain type of genitals always lines up with a particular gender.

Yes, you can take pride in your gender if it's important to you. You can embrace the pleasure and the joy that you find in it, and be a woman in whatever way feels right, hopefully without pushing those ideas onto other people. Personally, I'm often pretty ambivalent about being a woman but I feel most connected to my gender when embracing parts of conventional femininity whilst also actively acting against other parts of it - creating space for a much broader understanding of what "woman" means, or doesn't.

It doesn't take anything from you to support other people in their genders, too.

3. What is the best way to form my own opinions on LGBTQ topics while still being a good ally?

You've already started to do one of the things that I think makes a good ally - learning on your own time and energy. It's tempting to turn to people with lived experience of things and ask them to tell their stories, share their opinions and resources and educate us, but that can get pretty exhausting for folks just trying to go about their lives. When you can, do your own research, read up on things you don't understand, speak to people (like us!) who are here for exactly this purpose, rather than always asking the communities you're trying to support to teach you. I've popped a few more resources down at the bottom of this piece so you can keep on learning!

My other key point is to recognise when you don't have skin in the game. A lot of people fall into the trap of trying to "debate" things which may seem interesting but ultimately don't affect them very much, when the people they are "debating" are talking about their own very real lives and experiences. It might not impact you when, for example, trans healthcare is rolled back or gender-neutral options are made available on official documents, but for plenty of the people you are trying to be an ally to that is a very real change to their material circumstances.

The flip side to this is using your privilege for good.  When it's not your identity on the line, speaking up when you see others online saying misguided or outright hateful things sends a clear signal that that behaviour isn't okay, and helps to generate a groundswell of culture change that goes beyond the safe corners we have built and into the mainstream. Sometimes being an ally means getting a little bit uncomfortable, so someone else gets to live their life with fewer hurdles later. Even simple things like sharing the resources you find in your own learning can help.

Most of the time, a good guiding principle is treat people as they ask to be treated. Think of it as politeness. It doesn't cost me anything to say please and thank you if I ask for something, and it doesn't cost me anything to use the right name and pronouns for you, or not use language that you find hurtful. By modeling this for others, you're also making it normal and proactively shaping our cultural understanding of gender.

Find out more here:

...or come speak to us on the boards if you have more questions!