For feminists, the idea that gender norms are oppressive is nothing new. But have we fully explored the ways that these norms are connected to trauma?
Trans, nonbinary, two-spirited and other gender-expansive folks are often very aware of how their experience with the gender binary is connected to personal trauma or trauma that’s passed down from generation to generation.
But for cisgender folks, these may be new topics to explore.
In their book Gender Trauma (buy the book on Amazon or find it at your local bookstore), independent scholar and therapist Alex Iantaffi connects the effects of colonization, systemic racism and misogyny to a person’s experience of gender. Within these systems, gender binary essentialism becomes its own tool of oppression that can exacerbate existing trauma or create it.
Iantaffi also explores how gender trauma can be passed down within families. Our ancestors’ and immediate family’s experiences related to gender can be passed down through stories and expectations, as well as potentially within our DNA. A theory related to epigenetics indicates that we don’t just inherit our parents’ DNA, but also that their experiences can impact the ways in which our genes express themselves. In other words, we can inherit aspects of their trauma and, of course, their resilience.
Iantaffi is quick to point out that gendered trauma impacts people with marginalized identities, such as Black, Brown, and immigrant people, more strongly than others — especially Indigenous folks that have been, and are still, most strongly affected by colonialism. But it’s important to remember that gender norms and expectations impact all of us.
Gender Trauma is written for other therapists, but the ideas presented are useful for everyone. I interviewed Iantaffi about these topics.
How do you begin to suss out what kinds of expectations around gender might’ve been passed down from generation to generation?
That is a great question. I would suggest starting from your own memories growing up. Were there phrases, beliefs, or ideas about gender that you remember your caregivers, such as parents, or grandparents, as well as aunts and uncles express? As well as those things that were said out loud, were there things you observed? For example, who did most of the cooking and cleaning in your household? Who worked inside and/or outside of the home? If you have siblings of a gender different from yours, were there different expectations for you and your siblings based on gender or not? Were you expected to wear certain clothes or not? Did you have a curfew and, if so, what is the same for you and siblings of a different gender from your own? What toys were available to you and did you enjoy them, or did you wish you could play with different toys? Did people expect you to be good at certain subjects in school, or to not be interested in some subjects or activities? Were there any expectations about what career you might choose, or whether you would marry or have children?
If you have the information, you can also make a genogram, which is a type of family tree that family therapists use, and then explore it through the lens of gender. For example, who was partnered with whom? Who had which jobs? Who immigrated? Who conformed to more traditional gendered roles within your culture and who did not?
You can also think about your own beliefs and expectations about gender and then try to trace back where they came from. For example, if you have a partner, do you believe that their choices and behaviors are a reflection of you? Are there certain clothes, hair styles, or make-up that you consider to be inappropriate? Do you consider some careers to be more suitable than others based on gender? Are there sporting activities that you wish you could partake in but did not have the opportunity to engage with? How did your family influence those beliefs and expectations?
For cisgender men and women whose gender is an important part of their identity, how might they start to work through what is serving them well and what’s not? And how their ideas of gender might be impacting others?
Sometimes cisgender people can take their gender for granted, and just accept it wholesale as it has been given to them. When I do training workshops, I often ask “how do you know what gender you are” and ‘“what do you like about your gender and what you might want to change, if anything?” Trans, non-binary and/or gender expansive people are used to these questions and might have even been traumatized by these questions at times. However, for many cis people this is a new experience. Sometimes people are deeply impacted and might even show strong emotions at being asked those questions. Even the idea that there might be choice around not just gender identity, but gender roles and expressions can be new to some people.
Once you know that gender can be more expansive, then you can start to ask yourself questions, such as ‘what does this choice open up and what does this close down’? Then you can start to consider whether you want to keep expressing your gender the ways you have always done, or if there are other choices that might be more compatible with who you truly are. Once we start questioning whether gender can be a larger landscape than we initially thought, we can also make more room for other people’s gender identities, expressions, and experiences.
At the moment it is sadly too evident how some people’s ideas of gender impact others. For example, there are over a hundred bills being introduced in 33 states in the US, in 2021 alone, that are focused on reducing the rights of trans people, especially youth. Many of the people who support those bills don’t seem to realize that they’re imposing their own ideas and experiences of gender on others. This is, of course, a larger, more systemic example, but there are more day-to-day examples too. If I go to a coffee shop and the barista assumes my gender identity based on how I look, for example, and uses their assumption to point me to a gendered bathroom, or to use a gendered greeting, such as “sir” or “madam,” then their ideas of gender are impacting me, whether they are aware of this or not.
You really delve into how men and women are taught to dissociate from their bodies or emotions in different ways and for different reasons. For example, women are encouraged to dissociate from sex when they’re uninterested. And men are taught to dissociate from their feelings. How can we start to identify ways in which we might be dissociating?
Another great question! This is a little more complex to sum up in a short answer. I would say that it is essential to start from connecting with the body. Do you know when you feel excited, anxious, sad, upset? Do you know what in your body is telling you that you are feeling these emotions? For example, do you notice your breathing getting shallow and your throat tight when you are upset? Do you get a knot in your stomach when you are anxious? Our body is constantly providing us with information but we often ignore or fight it because of societal and/or cultural expectations.
Do you know what yes, no or maybe feels like in your body? Those are good places to start. You might also want to explore how you know when you might feel disconnected from your body. Do you feel light headed? Distracted? Bored? Numb? We all know the feeling of not being there, having our heads ‘in the clouds’, or doing things on automatic pilots. Those could all be forms of dissociation, which it’s of course its own vast landscape of experiences. Once we have this level of familiarity with our bodies, or as disability justice scholars and advocates would say, our bodyminds, then we can start to recognize and explore places of disconnect. For example, do I try not to cry in front of others because I think they might perceive me as ‘weak’ if I do? Do I smile automatically when men are around because I’m scared of what might happen if I don’t? There are so many ways in which we are expected to disconnect from our bodies in service to not just gendered ideas, but also capitalism. For example, most of us know the feeling of pushing through too many hours of work, or working when sick, because that might be what is expected of us.
When it comes to intimate relationships, we might be placing expectations on ourselves or our partners based on gender roles without even realizing it. What resources do you recommend to identify and dismantle these expectations?
Yes! This is one of my favorite topics. I actually watch a lot of romantic comedies and dating shows and there are so many examples of how we place expectations on ourselves and partners, or potential partners, based on gender! One of my favorite resources is my writing partner, Meg-John Barker’s book Rewriting the rules, now in its 2nd edition. I love recommending this book because it’s not really about any specific relationship structures but rather about interrogating why we do relationships the way we do. There is also a chapter about relationships in our book, How to Understand Your Gender, and we’re about to write How To Understand Your Relationships, which I’m sure will have plenty about gendered expectations in it too.
For people who prefer podcasts, I would recommend Justin Hancock’s show, Culture Sex Relationship on SoundCloud, and past episodes of what used to be the Meg-John & Justin podcast by MJ Barker and Justin Hancock. In terms of sexual relationships, I would also suggest their book, Finally Helpful Sex Advice! A Practical Guide to Sex.
I love what you say here: “Somewhere in our lines there are ancestors who love us just as we are, no matter what our gender identities, roles, expressions or experiences might be. Somewhere in our lines, maybe not our bloodlines but our lines of activism or spirituality or culture, there are gender blessed ancestors who have maybe found ways to expand their own views and other people’s views and experiences of gender. Connecting to those ancestors can be a source of psychological, emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing for many of us.”
Do you have any tips for folks that are new to this kind of research or practices?
I think that spirituality is an essential aspect of healing from rigid, colonial, gender binaries, and it’s foundational to decolonizing work. Connecting with ancestors is something that we find in every culture and is part of most religious and spiritual traditions. For folks new to this work, I would recommend the podcast and work of my friend and colleague, Dr Pavini Moray. They host the podcast Bespoken Bones and have interviewed so many people about ancestral practices, including me! When people, often white people who are disconnected from ancestral practices, ask me where to start if they want to connect with gender blessed ancestors, I invite them to make an altar to a specific gender blessed ancestor. This could be someone well known like Leslie Feinberg, for example, or a known or unknown relative. An altar can simply be a photo, or object that belonged to this person, and a candle. You can light the candle, make a warm drink for you and your ancestor, and speak to them. Ask them questions and listen, or share your heart, out loud or within your heart.
Honoring and getting to know our ancestors does not need to be complicated. I was brought up in Italy by a Sicilian grandmother who talked to her dead every day as she did her chores. Ancestors can simply be part of our everyday life. We can also honor our ancestors by learning more about them. I remember that, as a child, I was always drawn to people who defied expectations. For example, I learned everything I could about Saint Francis of Assisi who dared defy his father. I read everything I could about Joan of Arc who challenged ideas of gender by leading armies. If there is a gender blessed ancestor you are interested in, learn more about them both through existing sources, as well as through direct relationship. Whether we believe we can talk to ancestors or not, knowing that we are not alone, that we are part of a lineage, not just through our blood, but through our identities and actions, can contribute to our wellbeing because, as humans, we have a deep need to belong.
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