From the moment we are born, we have no say in which categories we will fall under in society. I didn’t choose to be female, Mexican American or part of the middle class. Whether I like it or not, these three aspects influence the level of freedom I have in my life. I’ve always had to “act like a lady,” face inevitable discrimination for being “brown,” and worry over how many presents I could ask for before Christmas. It is obvious however, that one couldn’t possibly make these sorts of decisions in the womb. For that reason, in the United States for example, society is built so that once a person becomes of legal age, he/she is “free” to make whatever choice is deemed fit. But how much “freedom” do we really have? Our parents and society both try to mold us into who they want us to be. So we are under their influence when we make decisions, which can arguably be seen as having little freedom. Even if we claim that our decisions are made solely according to our own desires, there is another aspect in free choice to consider. Much of the time, there is negative reaction from others to some of the choices people make. Gay couples are criticized for choosing to marry. Transgender individuals are shunned for wearing clothes that don’t seem to fit their assigned gender according to society. What then is freedom and free choice? I believe the two together are making a choice—with parental or societal influences as only considerations and not determining factors—and not facing any sort of judgment for it, be it wearing a certain style of clothing or marrying someone of the same sex. With this in mind, I find that we don’t have as much freedom as we think we do.
There is such a thing as free choice—but free choice does not exist for all people.
For women in our modern society, free choice does not exist. This is true for many reasons. The first and foremost is that women, as Shulamith Firestone explains in her writing The Dialectic of Sex, are restrained by the “tyranny of their reproductive biology.” They are subject to their “biological destiny,” the family. The expectations placed on women, as well as the limitations, make free choice an impossible concept. While women’s freedom has increased over time, modern society places more expectations on women that limit their free choice. They are expected to have successful careers, maintain the household, and take care of children. These expectations are severe limitations on free choice. Almost any decision that a woman makes is guided by the fact that she is a woman and any choice can be limited by this fact—which makes it inherently unfree.
Firestone, Shulamith. “Conclusion: The Ultimate Revolution.” The Dialectic of Sex ; the Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Morrow, 1970. 233. Print.
For me, freedom as it relates to gender and sexuality is bodily autonomy: having the faculty to independently govern one’s bodily and sexual choices. Bodily autonomy, is a human rights issue pertinent to sexuality and gender, particularly in relation to personal rights and medical treatment (or denial).
Recent issues that threaten bodily autonomy, and therefore personal freedom, include abortion, compulsory sterilization, medical insurance for gender surgery, etc. In these cases, denying someone’s right to choose abortion/sterilization (or not) and denying insurance coverage for gender surgeries, autonomy is threatened by law or policy that would prevent someone from having control over their own body.
Bodily autonomy can also be denied socially rather than legally. Take for example this discussion of reactions to Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and Demetri Marchessini’s book about women wearing pants.
Denial of bodily autonomy could be innocuous-seeming as my dad’s passive aggressive comments about my “manly” hair, or as threatening as the denial of insurance coverage for gender transition. While we are used to thinking about freedom in terms of older examples of slavery or women’s legal status as property, we need to realize that these denials of bodily autonomy are the threats to freedom today.
This NYT opinion piece describes the “coming out” of slews of Republicans who have recently decided to support gay marriage, or the “freedom to marry.” Marriage equality has recently attained nothing short of momentous bipartisan support, a feat that speaks to great progressive shifts in public perception of gays and lesbians
Yet Samuel A. Chambers notes that members of the LGBTQ community are accepted only so long as they adhere to standards of heteronormativity (Chambers, 94). Such standards involve “narratives of straight romance,” and often necessitate gendered relationship roles and marriage to legitimate homosexual relationships (Chambers, 94). Additionally, such standards do not extend to public displays of homosexual desire, as they may threaten norms of sexual behavior (Chambers, 93). The freedom to marry does not indicate that one has freedom of gender and sexual desire. One must still conform.
The freedom to marry normalizes only certain lifestyles with the LGBTQ community, privileging the wants and desires of some groups over others (Wan-Hsiu, 12). The creation of norms within the community may perpetuate an internal system of stratification, marginalizing some and and curtailing their freedom to express gender and sexual desire in ways more subversive to heteronormativity (Wan-Hsiu, 12).
Because freedom operates within preexisting social structures, freedom is conditional and often comes at a price.
Bruni, Frank. “The Tumbling Boundaries of Gay Rights.” The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2013. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/opinion/sunday/bruni-the-tumbling-boundaries-of-gay-rights.html?_r=0
Chambers, Samuel A. “Heteronormativity and the L Word: From a Politics of Representation to a Politics of Norms.” Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. By Kim Akass. Ed. Janet McCabe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006. 81-98. Print.
Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai. “Assimilating the Queers: Representations of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Mainstream Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review 11, no. 1 (2010) http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed July 31, 2012).
More specifically, how free are our thoughts? In this unit we had a lot of discussions on how our society places slender, white and male bodies on the highest pedestals. These are viewed as the ideals that we must strive for on a daily basis and this is emphasized in our TV shows, advertisements and everyday interactions. Though it’s true that in class we have dissected many of these topics, just how much of an impact will this have on changing how we view the world? Yes, we may see that it’s wrong how certain bodies are mistreated and shamed by the media and maybe this will make us more aware of this and thus less judgmental. However, will this stop of us from truly desiring the bodies that are placed on the pedestal? It seems almost impossible to be able to separate ourselves from these standards that are so heavily intertwined into everything we do. This also raises the question about desire: do we desire certain things simply because we enjoy them or because they are things society has deemed desirable? Once we can distinguish between these ideas, we may be able to move closer to being “free.”
In the United States we feel we have freedom, but how much freedom do we really have? When we are born we are assigned to a sex which dictates how we are treated and what is expected of us for the rest of our lives. Our freedom is confined to our gender roles. Societal norms cast out those who want to or try to expand outside of the norms for our particular gender. Lorber states ” Gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropiate behaviour by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority should behaviour deviate to far from socially imposed standard for women and men.” If we are to be punished for trying to experience something outside of our gendered norm expectation, then how can we feel we are free? Freedom is being able to, at its most basic principle, express oneself in whichever gender one feels comfortable. Punishing one for this most basic of freedoms is not freedom at all. It confines one to boundaries placed by society. An expectation that may not be wanted by the individual. In Gloria Anzaldua’s La conciencia de la mestiza/towards a new Consciousness”The borders and walls that are supposed to keep the undesirable ideas out are entrenched habits and patterns of behavior; these habits and patterns are the enemy within. Rigidity means death.” If we accept these norms and we do not allow ourselves and others to explore fully what we are, how can we truly believe in freedom for ourselves? Freedom, in its most basic form, is allowing oneself and others to discover what and who they truly want to be without fear of punishment from society.
The basic human right of freedom, the ability to choose for oneself, is somehow forgotten in cases of intersex children. Their freedom is compromised when, at birth, they are assigned a sex (male or female). Little to no thought is given to the effect that a gender assignment will have on an intersex child. The children’s ambiguous genitals are manipulated cosmetically to conform to society’s two-sex system, despite the fact that the surgery causes scarring, pain, and insensitivity, denying them the possibility of full sexual pleasure later in life.
In the cases of Angela Moreno and Cheryl Chase, both individuals were born intersex and underwent “correctional” surgery at a young age to become female. They were lied to by parents and doctors about the truth of their birth, and both regret the fact that they were not free to remain hermaphroditic. Similarly, David also did not have the freedom to choose who he wanted to be – he was forced to live the first 14 years of his life as Brenda against his will. And, in a recent Huffington Post article, the adoptive parents of a young boy who was born intersex are filing a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina over the lack of regulation in cases of gender reassignment. The little boy’s gender was reassigned to female (without any judicial or ethical consultation) at birth, but he now identifies as a boy.
Clearly, these children have been denied their freedom. Every person deserves the freedom to control what happens to his or her own body. This freedom especially includes the right to choose their sex, as this is a decision that the child will have to live with for the rest of his or her life.
Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body. “Should There Only Be Two Sexes?” New York: Basic Books, 2000.