Transforming gender norms, one story at a time

Q. What is “the G word”?

A. The G word is GENDER.

Q. What is gender/gender identity?

A. Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity. [Source]

An individual’s internal sense of gender, which may or may not be the same as one’s gender assigned at birth.  Some gender identities are “woman,” “transman,” and “agender,” but there are many more. Since gender identity is internal, it isn’t necessarily visible to others. Additionally, gender identity is often conflated with sex, but they are separate concepts. [Source]

Q. What is biological sex? (As in, “the sex of a person.”)

A. A medical term designating a certain combination of gonads, chromosomes, external gender organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormonal balances. Common terms are “male,” “female” and “intersex.” [Source

Q. What is a gender norm?

A. Gender Norms refer to social attitudes about what behaviors, preferences, products, professions, or knowledge are appropriate for women and men. Gender norms influence the development of products and technologies:

  • Gender norms draw upon and reinforce gender stereotypes, which are widely held, idealized beliefs about women and men, femininities and masculinities.
  • Gender norms and behaviors are produced through social institutions (such as families, schools, workplaces, laboratories, universities, or boardrooms) and wider cultural products (such as textbooks, literature, film, and video games).
  • Cultural rules and expectations–norms–for how to act, dress, talk, behave, what to do, where to go, etc. are based on actual or perceived gender/sex. In and of themselves, they are not necessarily harmful, but in practice they can be. Norms do play a large role in gender-based violence, and often have a limiting effect on individuals and society.

Q. What is sexual orientation?

A. The type of sexual, romantic, and/or physical attraction someone feels toward others. Often labeled based on the gender identity/expression of the person and who they are attracted to. Common labels: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. [Source]. 

Q. What is transgender/genderqueer/gender fluid/etc.?

A. Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans or TG) people are those whose psychological self (“gender identity”) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. To understand this, one must understand the difference between biological sex, which is one’s body (genitals, chromosomes, etc.), and social gender, which refers to levels of masculinity and femininity. Often, society conflates sex and gender, viewing them as the same thing. But gender and sex are not the same thing. For example, a person could be assigned female as birth, based on their body, but have a masculine gender identity or identify as a man. Transgender is not a sexual orientation; transgender people may have any sexual orientation. It is important to acknowledge that while some people may fit under this definition of transgender, they may not identify as such.

Gender fluid is an umbrella term for transsexuals, cross-dressers (transvestites), transgenderists, gender queers, and people who identify as neither female nor male and/or as neither a man or as a woman. 

Genderqueer refers to a person whose gender identity is neither man nor woman, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders. This identity is usually related to or in reaction to the social construction of gender, gender stereotypes and the gender binary system. Some genderqueer people identify under the transgender umbrella while others do not. [Source] 

Q. Why gender?

A. Gender is a key component of our culture. It often plays a role in discrimination and violence, and in how people respond when discrimination and violence occur. It may also play a role in how people feel about themselves and others and the choices they make—often in a limiting way. We believe that if we expand the way we think about gender, we can expand our own perspectives and freedoms. Gender norms are often a key factor in people deciding to commit or not commit violence, and in how violence is committed, what kind, by who against who, how other people react or do not react, and more.

Q. Why stories?

A. Stories connect us. Stories make the private public. Stories help us make sense of ourselves and our choices. Stories show how some challenges are not just personal, but societal. In telling stories, we have the power to envision the world we want to live in. Stories—including yours—can change culture, and the world.

Q. How will this help change anything?

A. Stories show how our challenges are often not personal, but societal. Stories poke holes in and provide alternatives to accepted wisdom and mainstream narratives. Stories cause the friction that sparks change. Stories inspire us to expand or change our point of view. Stories enable us to see one another as fully human.

Storytelling allows the storyteller to be seen and for her/his/their voice to matter. Transforming belief systems require us to move beyond the traditional storytelling triangle of victim, perpetrator, and rescuer because that locks us into disempowering strategies for culture change. In the creation of stories, it’s important to stop “othering” and move beyond binaries in a way that allows everyone to go through a process of transformation. In this context, the role of empathy/compassion is critical because it allows us to step into one another’s shoes and experiences.

Q. I think I/a friend of mine needs help with their relationships. I think it might be violent. Can you help me?

If you know or suspect that a family member, friend or work colleague is experiencing violence – physical, emotional, financial, etc– , it may be difficult to know what to do. Your first instinct may be to want to protect your friend or family member but intervening can be dangerous for both you and for your friend. Of course, this does not mean you should ignore it. There are ways to help. Breakthrough has a list of resources available here, and we hope you’ll find something that helps.