A wonderful part of working in a museum is the big-picture focus on culture: whether it’s looking at how a culture changes over time, or thinking about the similarities and differences between cultures in New Zealand and around the world. What I love about this is the reflect it leads to on my own culture, particularly in realising how many aspects of daily life, that seem immutable, are actually in flux.
Take gender, for example. From the way clothes are marketed and presented in shops, it’s clear that general Western society recognises two genders: one that can wear dresses, and one that most certainly should not.
And yet, looking in the museum collection, there’s a portrait painted in 1830 of a little English boy named William James Patterson, wearing a dress. The actual dress is also held in the collection. It’s a very cute wee number with blue-and-white striped fabric, puffed sleeves and a belt around the waist. You might find something similar in a store today, but it certainly wouldn’t be marketed as something for boys. In fact, parents who dared to publically dress their son in this would likely face confusion at best, criticism and vitriol at worst.
This illustrates how our standards of masculinity and femininity change over time. A more enduring part of the Western understanding of gender, however, is the binary model. In this model there are only two body types, fixed to two distinct gender identities. This has been considered an unquestionable fact of nature for centuries, despite the often extensive measures taken to enforce it.
For example an Evening Post newspaper of 1932 features the headline “Dressed as a woman: young man arrested – to be medically examined.” The person concerned was arrested in Auckland and charged with being an “idle and disorderly person,” due to dressing in a manner that transgressed the social rules of gender. Of course, if the binary model was a simple fact of nature, everyone would happily be in accordance and there would be no need for such arrests.
In New Zealand today, you won’t be arrested for your choices of masculine or feminine appearance, but unfortunately there is still the risk of violence from members of the public. Just last month, Blenheim man Kent Morgan was assaulted and called a homophobic insult for simply wearing a pink shirt while walking home from work. This violence can be experienced by anyone – Morgan happens to be cisgender and married to a woman – but it is most often directed at those who are gender diverse (particularly those who express themselves in a feminine way).
Tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual day held to memorialise those who have been attacked or murdered as a result of transphobia. I hope there’ll soon be no need for such a day, when people are free to exist and express themselves fully without fear of retribution.
Violence enforcing the gender binary model also comes in the guise of medicine, with cosmetic surgeries still routinely performed on intersex babies in New Zealand, and internationally. These operations are carried out to enable well-intended doctors and parents to fit babies in either the ‘male’ or ‘female’ box. Medically unnecessary, these operations have been shown to be incredibly harmful to the wellbeing of intersex people throughout their lives.
Last month the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the NZ government to protect intersex children by upholding their bodily integrity. The option of surgery is to be made available to the child only when they reach the age of 16 and can give informed consent. These protections cannot be introduced soon enough, as part of a wider movement to ensure those who, in any way, transcend the binary gender model are treated with the same respect and dignity as anyone else.
Jessica Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay
Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 19 November 2016