March 9th, 2021


What does it *mean* to say something is socially constructed or that it gets its meaning from a social context?

When I selected a panel to discuss my book GenderQueer, one of the panelists I picked was Ann Menasche, who at one point said

... I think it's better to challenge directly the hierarchical social construction of gender roles... that put both sexes into boxes... rather than create a new minority that we call genderqueer.

The main character Derek doesn't deny his sex... he does distinguish between sex and gender which I think is important.

...and I also picked Rachel Lange, who argued that

social construct doesn't just mean society created it, it's a social thing... to pick and choose how one walks in the world

I want to go back and unpack some of the important differences between the notion that "socially constructed" means "it is artificial, not real" and the viewpoint that "socially constructed" means "it could be constructed differently". I think it's an important distinction.

Both viewpoints are opposed to the idea that the thing in question is built in, that it is inevitable and unchangeable and permanently the way that we see it today. This is also an important thing to understand, because sometimes the folks who think of "socially constructed" as the same thing as "artificial" seem to think that anyone who doesn't dismiss it as an artificial fake belief must believe it is permanent and forever.

We have a long history of seeing a commonly believed idea or attitude and deciding that the only reason most folks ascribe to it is because they're surrounded by other folks who ascribe to it, and there's pressure to go along with it. People used to believe that it was evil to be left-handed, that sex was sinful unless you got married, that royalty and nobility was made up of people with a different built-in character than the impoverished masses, that there were witches amongst us who did evil on behalf of the devil, that women were less intelligent and had less character than men, that there is a God who will judge us when we die, that having a window open at night put your health at risk from the miasmas of noctural air, that homosexuality is sinful and wrong, that if you have a vulva and clitoris you are a girl or woman and will exhibit feminine traits, that you are motivated by women's priorities and will ascribe to women's value systems and exhibit womanly nuances, virtues, and tastes. Or that if you don't, you're doing things all wrong because you're supposed to.

You can still find people who believe any one of these things but it is no longer socially unacceptable to not believe them all, and we recognize that there is truth in the notion that at least most of the people in the past who believed all these things did so for social reasons. They believed them because they were surrounded by other people who believed them. They believed them because everyone around them expected them to believe them. They believed them because they rarely if ever encountered anyone who believed something different. They believed them because to believe otherwise would make a person behave differently and think differently and such a person would not fit in.

It is easy from our 21st century 2021 vantage point to roll our eyes a bit at these beliefs. But perhaps we embrace and use social constructs of our own day with the same nearly-automatic compliance that folks back then gave to these old concepts. And if we can see through some of them intellectually, we still have to interact socially. To walk in the world, as Rachel Lange put it.

We use language; presumably you read, speak, and do much of your conscious thinking in English, since you're reading this. We know that these sounds and syllables don't have any intrinsic meaning, that they only have meaning that is socially constructed. We know this because we have encountered folks who speak other languages instead, folks to whom the sounds and sentences of English don't convey any meaning. But consider for a moment how difficult it would be to wrap your head around that awareness if there were only one surviving human language. I remember exactly that experience from early childhood, in fact: the first time I encountered the idea of a different language, I couldn't grasp it. (Our words mean what they mean, why would someone use something else?)

Heterosexuality is a social construct. There is a set of courting and flirting behaviors, a set of ways to signal sexual-romantic interest. Like the syllables of the English language, they don't simply "mean what they mean" and they vary between cultures and eras. We learn them from being surrounded by people who engage in them; in our era we learn them from movies, books, theatre, and popular songs. Heterosexuality as we know it is gender-polarized. What a person does means something different depending on whether they do it as a man or do it as a woman. Gendered behaviors become eroticized for us: high heels and stockings and red lipstick are feminine mostly because we have learned them to be feminine. And so it is with femininity and masculinity in their entirety. They are social constructs.

But while that does mean that they could be configured differently, that doesn't mean that the aware and cognizant person realizes that they are artificial and dismisses them successfully with a wave of the hand and can easily go forth and interact with all those unfounded ungrounded notions dismissed from their thoughts and feelings. The English language is a social construct but you need a language to function. And we tend to need a gender language because that's the world into which we were born.

Not everyone is heterosexual. Meaning (since hetersexuality is a social construct, as you'll recall) that some people situate their identities outside instead of inside that particular dance. That doesn't mean they aren't largely defined by it. Gay people interact with gendered expectations too, sometimes embracing sometimes negating, but affected by those notions and roles and how behaviors are interpreted. Gay and lesbian identities are also socially constructed. Sexuality, in the complete sense of what we know to be sexual, what we know to be sexy, what behaviors are marked off as sexual behaviors, not to mention all the notions of love, being in love, romantic love, sex with love, sex without love, all that is a set of social constructs. Stuff that could be set up very differently. Did you know that there were once no gay people? I don't mean people of a given sex never got it on with other folks of that same sex — they did, of course — but they weren't conceived of as "being gay". You could not have come out as gay in that era regardless of how brave you are, because no one would have been able to comprehend what you were talking about. Or if you were really determined to do so, you would have to invent your own terms and spend a lot of time and energy explaining their meaning to people who had never encountered such concepts. And most of them would dismiss you as crazy: because most of us are resistant to new ideas until we hear them put into words by a critical mass of other people.

I get to call myself "genderqueer" because there's a word for it now. If you recognize me as male of body but think of me as one of the women, with assumptions and expectations and interpretations applied accordingly, you would be stereotyping me, oversimplifying who I am, but you'd be on the right track. If instead I said you should not harbor any sexist expectations of me and expect anything based on me being male that you wouldn't expect if I'd been female, you're less likely to suspend expectations and beliefs you're probably not fully aware that you have.

Social reality interacts with physical reality (biological and otherwise) in sort of the same way that a computer's operating system and programs interact with the hardware. The software can't do absolutely anything — the hardware really does exist and it imposes some limits; and for any given part of the hardware to be used, we can assume that there has to be some software ("drivers") that deal with it somehow. But most of the experience we associate with "using my computer" is about the specifics of the software that runs on it. That's an analogy, of course, and like all analogies has its own limitations, but I think it's a good one. I consider my body to have a physical sex. Gender is the driver. Mine is queer.


You're secluded in quarantine, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!

My book, GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet, has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook only from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.

Links to published reviews and comments are listed on my Home Page


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