The term catches your attention doesn’t it? Maybe it causes you to start thinking about what it could mean. Or maybe it makes you laugh or roll your eyes. I first encountered this term while reading Dr. Diane Ehrensaft’s book, “The Gender Creative Child: Pathways For Nurturing And Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes.”
Dr. Ehrensaft defines Gender Ghost as “internalized thoughts, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and experiences that draw us toward culturally defined binary gender boxes and make us anxious when we or anyone else strays from them.”
Experiencing a Haunting
The definition of Gender Ghost appears rather simple. But reading the definition and understanding the experience of it are two entirely different things. How do you think you have experienced a Gender Ghost? Most of us probably haven’t acknowledged it or even know that is has happened, but we’ve all experienced it.
I can explicitly remember a time about 4 years ago, give or take, when I was walking through a mall and a person was walking towards me in the opposite direction. I found myself looking at them without turning my head, until they passed. Then I turned and examined them one last time. I kept thinking to myself, “I can not tell if they were a man or a women.” The thought stayed with me as I shopped and sat down to eat in the food court. Finally, I thought “why is this bothering me so much?”
I sat in that food court for about 2 ½ hours. Not thinking about the person that walked by, but about myself. I sat there and had to think about myself and the notion that I had to “gender” a person, and about the anxiety that started to bubble up inside me when it couldn’t be done. This is the day I mark as the “origin” of my desire to study and become an activist for gender. It challenged my thoughts, privilege, and the societal framework that I, and everyone, was raised in.
I’m thankful for this experience because it challenged me and propelled my personal and professional life to where it is today.
We’ve all had an experience where a gender ghost has appeared. In a society like ours where strict gender binary is taught it is almost impossible not to experience it. Think back on a time when maybe you had a similar experience as mine. Maybe you were watching a movie, reading a book, watching children play. Something caught your attention and made you give a second (or third) look and a thought arose like, “a boy/girl doesn’t do that.”
You were just haunted by a Gender Ghost.
Importance of Understanding and Acknowledging our Ghosts
I’m going to break this section into 3 parts. This is simplifying an extremely complex issue, however I hope this breakdown helps you to think about Gender Ghosts critically.
Understanding our reactions to the gender identity and expressions of those around us better helps us understand ourselves. We can’t help make the world a better place for anyone around us until we look at, reevaluate, and change things about ourselves first.
This can be extremely difficult because we are challenging the very cultural system that taught us. With this comes examining and checking our own privileges in a skewed system. For those of us, like myself, who hold a large amount of cultural privilege it causes a much-needed path of critical thinking to occur and hopefully it prompts thinking in more realms than just gender.
Take my story above as an example. Up until that point I had never thought of people’s reactions to another person's gender identity or expression, because I never had to worry about it due to my abundance of cultural privilege. It wasn’t until after this experience did I truly look at myself critically and the world around me seeing the issues that exist that I was blind to.
We as adults are ones who perpetuate a cultural system to our children. We teach them, guide them, and set expectations for them. Most of the time we are doing this on automatic and just repeating the same system that was taught to us. Some of these teachings are perfectly understandable, like washing your hands and brushing your teeth.
Other systems are more suffocating, destructive, and unhealthy. Gender expectations are one of these systems. We’ve created a two-dimensional, binary, system of gender in our culture that is dangerous to keep teaching.
Dr. Ehrensaft coined another term called Gender Creative which she defines as, “children’s use of fanciful thinking, perseverance, fortitude, and finesse to incorporate the world around them into their inner psyche and their gender as they know it and want it to be.”
The terms we’ve created for our binary system of gender are incredibly small boxes that only a lucky handful can find themselves in. When we as adults challenge our own gender ghost and encourage and allow children to explore their own gender then we are lessening the number of ghosts they will carry around.
This is why I always encourage my clients to explore the gender identity and expression during our sessions and eventually in their daily lives when they feel safe and comfortable. A counseling room isn’t the only place a safe and supportive space for gender creativity can be created.
In the home and at school are critical for children. Providing them a space that allows for gender creativity is imperative to them becoming well-rounded and happy. Believe it or not, this is easy to do. Simply let it be known that the children in your home or at your school are invited to to express themselves through their gender as they see fit.
It’s time we start listening to children and allowing them to spin a gender web as beautiful as they are.
We’ve all been taught from a system that is outdated and was never appropriate. Once we challenge, reevaluate, and change the reactions and attitudes we have. We can begin to encourage and allow children to explore their gender creativity. Then we have taken the first steps in changing our cultural system.
I’m not saying that you have to go to Washington DC or be on the television. There are plenty of us who are more than willing to do those things. The best and most simple thing you can do is change your community by creating one of acceptance. And point out Gender Ghosts when you see them. Silence is a breeding ground for guilt, resentment, and eventually self-loathing.
Cultural change will be difficult because there will always be those people who don’t want to change. It is easier for them to stay the same or they simply don’t want to change. However, the changes you make will cause a ripple effect for every life you touch and every life they touch, and so on.
A small pebble can cause a massive wave.
Sorry, I knew when I wrote a blog titled, “Gender Ghost” that I would have to incorporate the Ghostbusters somewhere in the blog. I shamelessly love the original movie and the amazing new adaptation.
Staying on topic!
I hope that this post brings an extremely complex topic into new light that is easier to conceptualize and swallow. Dr. Ehrensaft has two amazing books that I highly encourage everyone to read, “Gender Born, Gender Made” and “The Gender Creative Child.”
My personal challenge for you is to take a couple of hours, days, or however long you need and bring your Gender Ghosts to light. If you’ve never thought about them, then you have them and they are lingering around just waiting to make an appearance.
I mean, come on, don’t you want to be a Ghostbuster?!
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I love providing people with information. So in my blog you will find posts on topics such as: community resources, media suggestions, parenting questions, and informational posts.