Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gender Segregation Has Its Drawbacks, Too

Feminist writer Ann Friedman published a recent column in New York Magazine she entitled "Why It’s Worth Banishing Men Once in a While.” Over the years, Friedman has pushed strongly for gender parity in the workplace and especially an increased representation of women in publication. In her latest piece, she discusses the virtues of exclusively female gatherings.

Unlike the male friends and acquaintances she cites, I am not intimidated. Should a group of women decide to meet separately, with no men present, it matters little to me. I understand the importance of spaces designated specifically for women and the great good that can result from them. There is value to be found when societal pressure to impress, compete, and conform is lessened. These behaviors can be directly expressed or so automatic that they are very nearly subliminal.

For my part, I’ve participated in Quaker LGBT conferences where everyone was welcome, regardless of sexual orientation. Inclusivity was strongly stressed, especially towards straight allies. Almost everyone who turned up, however, was at least one shade of queer or the other. We were instructed to never make assumptions about anyone's sexual orientation. Asking point blank would have been considered rude. A few people here and there self-disclosed, but there seemed to be few reasons to do so.

The gathering had been originally set up in the 1970's for gay and lesbian Friends who had been shunned by their local Meetings. Including bisexual and transgender attenders had been a controversial move that was initially opposed fiercely by some. With time, this distinction ceased to be offensive. By the time I attended, no one seemed to care one way or the other.

It was a peculiar space, for sure, one where conventional demographics were flipped upside down. Those who usually made up 10% of the population were suddenly in the majority. Being present felt, to me, simultaneously euphoric and strange. What added to the surreal quality were the number of young Asian girls present who had been adopted, usually by lesbian couples.

I have only one pressing, outstanding personal issue that gives me reason to question the thrust of Friedman's argument. Men-only spaces have never felt especially comfortable to me. Years ago, I found an online advocacy group for men who had, like me, been sexually abused as children. Eager to participate in their annual conference, the sticker shock was profound.

I found the cost extremely prohibitive, no doubt eliminating many worthwhile participants. No scholarships were offered, but if you asked nicely enough, their website implied that a few dollars might be provided here and there. My financial need was more than could be provided, which ended that discussion. I asked for a scholarship, provided the amount of money I requested, and was never contacted again.

I remain a touch annoyed at being excluded and passed over. The implication, whether by design or by accident, was that only wealthy survivors were capable of achieving increased emotional and social health. Financial discrimination is sometimes much worse than any other injustice. Those who schedule conferences like these may merely be guilty of not thinking beyond face value. These kinds of oversights, I have learned, affect everyone equally.

In a religious context, I’ve taken part in gender-segregated groups. Though they always filled me with great unease, I managed to keep my wits about me as we broke down into smaller groups separated by gender. Six to eight of us formed each team. We were actively encouraged to consider profound topics with each other. Guided discussion led everyone in the room towards often-uncomfortable honesty, though we always felt gratified afterwards.

Conferences and gatherings are only one dynamic present here. While they are intense and powerful, they are ephemeral, though they tend to produce persistently strong and lasting memories. We cannot capture lightning in a bottle. Day to day life, as we know, is something very different. This is where the real work begins.

The statistical breakdown of Washington, DC, where I live, skews heavily female. Where I Worship reflects this discrepancy. Should the idea of a men-only worship group be proposed, I can safely surmise that there wouldn't be many male members around who would be able to commit to forming it. A women-only group, by contrast, would be large enough to need to be broken down into two or three separate smaller gatherings.

Religious groups are one of the few consistently female-dominated spaces in our culture. Having been a church attender my entire life, I am very familiar with those dynamics. It has been my experience that women-only gatherings are usually established in similar ways. In the beginning, a particularly motivated woman or pair of motivated women working in tandem take it upon themselves to put everything together. Justifying their need, they express forcefully and passionately their desire for gender-segregated spaces. Formal planning begins shortly afterward. The rest is history.

Despite my squeamishness, I have observed great tenderness and comfort in the words and attitudes of men, more than I would have ever expected. I’ve introduced vulnerability and sensitivity into intimate settings and been affirmed for it, not discounted or insulted as not sufficiently masculine. But even with those breakthroughs, I must say I was always glad when time was up. When I returned an environment in which men and women resumed their interaction with each other, rather than apart, I was most content there. True comfort for me, for my own reasons, involves both the participation of both sexes.

Friedman writes,

Any feminist will tell you that the movement has to include men in order to succeed. We also live in a gender-fluid age when many, many people don’t identify with either “man” or “woman,” and in order to segregate by gender, you need to force people to choose one. (For the record, my rule is that no matter how you were born or how you like to dress, if you consider yourself a woman, you’re eligible to attend.)

I don’t always feel masculine or male. I've dressed to reflect this sense of gender confusion and outright contradiction for a long time. According to her definition, do I consider myself a woman? That’s tricky. Most of my friends and acquaintances are women, assuming that single fact taken in isolation makes me somehow less than male. What I will say is that I might feel more comfortable with myself had I been born a woman.

But at the same instant I recognize that I often act like a man. I’ve absorbed particular lessons since childhood. These have taught me how I am to verbally respond in particular situations and how I ought to form and present my thoughts. That's the template upon which I communicate to the world around me. Over time, I've noticed that I copy my father’s mannerisms and turns of phrase without meaning to do it. None of that can be undone.

Mostly, I feel like a gender hermaphrodite. Being around men makes me aware of the places where I am not male, and being around women produces the same effect in a different way. This is a difficult concept to explain to skeptical people, and I would much rather have to wrestle with either male or female, but not both at the same time. That is not, however, my fate. I’ve never been one for self-pity and I won't start here. Maybe the trick is to not focus on the inevitable differences and to try to find comfort where one can.

Friedman’s conclusion shows not much in the way of love towards her critics.

When everyone’s a woman, your actions aren’t even remotely associated with your gender, but rather, with you as a person. That, I think, is a feeling even men could benefit from once in awhile. Which is why I encourage my male friends who feel left out to start their own annual holiday. They’ll never be invited to mine.

With the blanketing anxiety that has been a constant throughout my life, I’m not sure I could ever escape myself or benefit from any gender-segregated experience. My self-scrutiny is intense enough that even the most uplifting, comforting group would not grant me the ability to purge my insecurities, or at least leave them at the door. This might not be exactly what it’s like to be a woman in American society, but, based on what I’ve read and observed, it surely sounds close.

Ann Friedman's exercise in gender purity is complicated. Knowing how to interpret anecdotal evidence with any satisfaction may never provide more than interesting analysis. Our conclusions may be as different as we are.

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