February 3, 2017

On cooties and the gender binary

Illustration: DmitryMo
This week I published a short post over at my tumblr blog called "How to avoid transgender and gay cooties". This led to a couple of questions in the line of "What on God's earth is a cootie?" 

The cootie phenomenon does actually say a lot about gender and socialization.

I'll come back to that. But first, here is what I wrote:

How to avoid transgender and gay cooties
"We are all aware of the increasing problem of transgender and homosexual cooties.

A perfectly straight white man may enter a restroom and find himself in the company of a gay man. Before you know it the straight man starts singing songs from Broadway musicals, while growing a mustache. The two of them don’t even have to touch each other!
Transgender cooties are even more devious. A transgender person enters the women’s bathroom and soon all the women in that room have got trans cooties. They start dreaming about climbing trees, having independent careers and wearing jeans and leather jackets.

Fortunately there is a way of avoiding the cooties. Don’t think about them!

The fact is that you have shared a bathroom with both homosexual and transgender people many, many, times already, but you did not know they were gay, lesbian or trans. You did not think about it, so you did not catch the LGBT cooties.
Don’t think about LGBT cooties and you will be OK!"
"Cooties" is a term used by children. The Urban dictionary defines it this way:
When children reach the age where they notice the sexes are different the children claim a member of the opposite opposite sex will give you "cooties" if they touch you. 
In Norway the terms are "jentelus" ("girls' lice") and "guttelus" ("boys' lice"). If a girl touches a boy, the rest of the kids will cry out: "She touched you! She touched you! You got  girl's lice!" Or something to that effect.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

The implicit message is, of course, that something girlish has been transferred by touch, and that these cooties threatens the boy's sense of  boyhood. He has been contaminated by all things girly. And vice versa.

I should add that not all kids take this too seriously. If they are old enough, they understand that there is no such thing as the cooties, and that this is more an excuse for exploring that exciting tension that arises when boys meet girls (in a Calvin meets Susie Derkins kind of way).

The point made in my satirical text is obviously that some  transphobes and  homophobes are still emotionally eight years old. One part of them actually believes that they might become girly or boyish  if they get close to someone queer.

People who feel this way are often suppressing their own gender variance or sexual confusion.

But there is more to the cooties narrative than this. It may serve as a good example of the social and cultural conditioning that impels young kids to deny their own nature, whether this applies to sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.

Moreover, it points to a very important side of socialization that is often ignored in the debate: Children have their own culture with its own rules, and the most effective policing of behavior and attitudes might be found there, and not in what their parents or teachers tell them. Children need to get along with other children if they want to avoid social exclusion and loneliness.

We know that as children get older they are more likely to play with kids of the same gender. In schools you will find girls' cliques and boys' gangs. It is as if children seek out playmates of their own gender in order to explore those gender roles and find out what it means to be "a proper man" and "a real woman". I guess this will help them prepare for adult life as a man or a woman.

Given that gender roles vary over time and between cultures, this is more a search for the proper roles in this specific culture, and not -- as many believe -- the expression of innate gendered behaviors. That does not mean that the drive towards joining boy and girl groups cannot be inborn. I don't know.

What I do know, however, is that this system of segregation makes it very hard for those who fall outside the gender binary to thrive. This applies to sexual orientation as well as gender identity. And that is why adults must do their best to help those kids who do not live up to the various binaries to be allowed to express themselves and explore their own sense of self.

As soon as kids understand that there is room for gender variance of this kind, most of them are extremely forgiving of such behavior. They simply include the new rules in their book of proper behavior.


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