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Perceptions of Gender Non-Conforming Women

Perceptions of Gender Non-Conforming Women

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Susanna Millar. Originally submitted for Social Work with LGBT-S at McGill University, with lecturer Bill Ryan in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Susanna Millar. Originally submitted for Social Work with LGBT-S at McGill University, with lecturer Bill Ryan in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Perceptions of Gender Non-Conforming Women
Why is it that when one encounters a women with short hair and a man’s dress shirt, theautomatic response tends to be “lesbian”? In dealing with the connection between gender andsexual orientation, authors have used studies on the relationshipbetween gender non-conformingchildren and homosexuality in adolescence. These studies have been interpreted in differentways, so as to highlight opposing theories on the relationship between gender and sexualorientation. Through an examination and literature review of several authors’ interpretations of such studies, a clear understanding of the connection between gender non-conformity andhomosexuality will be exposed. The product of such examination may in turn have an effect onone’s perception of masculine women and lesbians. The question is raised, why might the casualpasserby continue to believe that ‘masculine’ women are in fact lesbians? Furthermore, whatdoes it mean to be a masculine female? Various authors have discussed the implications of associating gender with sexual orientation, on identity and health for both children and adults.Alternative representations of gender will be proposed so as to lead discussion into implicationsof this research for social work practice. Through acknowledgement of the complexity of identities, the social construction of gender, and the resulting perceptions of society, one maychoose to approach social work practice with gender in a subjective manner. Without discountingthe importance of education and study of gender and its implications for health and identity,social work practice must begin without assumption. It is hoped that this research andexamination will not only hold implications for social work practice, but for the understandingand perceptionof gender non-conformity for society at large.
Prior to a review of the literature that pertains to various issues of gender and sexuality, itis important to first define some of the concepts that will be discussed. The term ‘sex’ will beused to describe the “biological status of a person as either male or female” (Newman, 2002, p.353) whereas ‘gender’ or ‘gender role’ will be used to describe personality traits, behaviours,attitudes or expectations that are designated by a particular culture as being more ‘appropriate’for either male or female persons (Zucker, 2008). The term ‘butch’ is “the lesbian vernacularterm for women who are more comfortable with masculine gender codes, styles, or identitiesthan with feminine ones” (Rubin, as cited in Hiestand & Levitt, 2005, p. 119). This term will befurther examined in this paper, including the relationship between being ‘butch’ and being‘gender-non-conforming’, that is, when one exhibits behaviours, attitudes and characteristics that
are ‘sex-atypical’(Skidmore,Linsenmeier&Bailey, 2006). Feinberg (as cited in McPhail, 2004) defines the term ‘transgender’ as “an umbrella term usedto include anyone who challenges theboundaries of gender and sexuality…”(p. 8). While many of these identities will be relevant tothis paper, for simplicity sake the term gender non-conforming will be used, unless specificreference is made to other identities.
Literature ReviewCorrelation between gender and sexual orientation
The following debate over the correlation between gender non-conformity and emergenceof homosexuality in adolescence is based on studies done by Bell et al. (1981), Phillips andOver(1995), and Bem (1996). These studies were completed using retrospective reports of homosexual and sometimes heterosexual participants who recalled their gender non-conformingbehaviours in childhood. This gender non-conformity was defined as girls who like “rough andtumble” play; who are termed ‘tomboys’, versus ‘girly girls’ who prefer to play with dolls orengage in domestic role playing (Haldeman, 2000). In these studies it was shown that overall,homosexual women “report greater levels of gender non-conformity than heterosexual women”(Gottschalk, 2003, p.43). The following authors have used betweenone and all three of thestudies to argue various perspectives.Zucker (2008) and Bailey, Linsenmeier andSkidmore (2006) conclude that gender non-conformity in childhood can be linked to homosexuality in adolescence based on studies done byBell. Zucker(2008) argues: “nonconformity” analysis showed that childhood gendernonconformity was the strongest predictor of sexual orientation in men and the second strongestpredictor of sexual orientation in women (p.36). Interestingly, Zucker has been cited byBaileyetal. (2006) as having given evidence in a previous study that “many lesbians report sex-typical
behavior and interests, as well as some reporting no gender non-conforming behaviours” (p. 685)and thus, Bailey et al. (2006)conclude that perhaps the connection between gender non-conformity in childhood and homosexuality is “not yet fully understood”(p. 685). Even so,Zucker (2008) writes that although reports of gender non-conformity are more frequentlyreported by homosexual women, childhood recall is unbiased; he claims this to be true based oncross-cultural studies of childhood recall. In short, some women may have a belief thathomosexuality is biological and was present since birth (Hiestand & Levitt, 2005), whereasothers may believe it to be more of a choice; regardless, it is unknown the extent to whichwomen will skew information towards fitting with dominant stereotypes.In contrast, Rees-Turyn, Doyle, Holland andRoot (2008) and Gottschalk (2003) haveillustratedthat these studies have not accounted for the percentage of heterosexual women whoalso exhibited ‘tomboy’ behaviours as children, nor have they accounted for the percentage of homosexual women who preferred behaviours of ‘girly girls’ in childhood. Rees-Turyn et al.(2008) propose that Bell and his colleagues reported their results in a manner that supportedstereotypes. This hypothesis is supported by Gottschalk (2003),who argues that, of studiescompleted by Phillips andOver, as well as by Bem: “It issignificant also that, while 77% of lesbians and 77% of bisexual women were considered a tomboy as a child, so were 63% of theheterosexual women, and while 86% of lesbians engaged in gender non-conforming behaviour,so did 63% of the heterosexual women” (p. 45).In addition, Peplau andHuppin (2008) andGottschalk (2003) have highlighted that studies based on recall of tomboy behaviours may beflawed in that “all available studies of childhood gender nonconformity and women’s sexualorientation rely on retrospective reports, which cannot provide conclusive evidence of causalprocesses. Lesbians may tend to exaggerate their childhood gender atypicality in line with

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