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Gender and societal norms

Growing up in Mexico was hard for me. Unlike my cousins and friends, I wasn’t really interested in the boyish things that boys do with boys. Climbing trees and hunting game with slingshots was something I did because I had to, not because I liked to. Sure, I got some enjoyment from the camaraderie that these things provided, but I got more enjoyment and more entertainment from other things.

My paternal grandfather had a domino set. He taught me how to play. I found it very interesting because it required you to think a few steps ahead of your opponent based on the probabilities the game provided. It was the same with chess, which I took up in middle school. A friend there taught me how to play it, and it was much mor fascinating because it didn’t depend on probabilities. Chess was all about the other person’s mind, which I’ve always seen as a computer doing thousands of calculations per second. Trying to determine the probabilities of the next action by a brain is almost impossible.

One of my dad’s brothers acquired an Atari console that I could borrow from time to time when I was a kid. My love for electronics, computers and all those things started then. I’d stare in awe of my uncles as they fixed radios and televisions with ease. Dad could take apart a complex machine in his head, fix it, then put it back together… And then do it in real life. I inherited some of that. Complex systems and puzzles pop out into a three dimensional world for me to work on.

My mother taught me all about compassion and empathy. She showed me that there was nothing wrong with feeling what I felt. It was much more damaging to conceal and repress my feelings than to show them to the world. Sure, there were times when one had to be strong because the situation required it. But feelings of sadness, guilt, love, anger, and especially happiness were to be shared and let out for one not to carry them. Feelings can be a huge burden if you decide that they’re to be with you for a prolonged time, even the “good” feelings.

All of these things came together in middle school and high school. It was then that crying because I was sad, not wanting to play rough with the boys, and burying my face in a book or my notebook was unacceptable. Some of my cousins complained that I was acting like a girl if I cried because I was physically or emotionally hurt. Some of my friends teased me for not being able to catch a football. A couple of my uncles — the ones who didn’t fix things, the other ones — complained to mom that I should leave school and get a job to help support her. (And I mean “complained”, their raised their voices and argued that an education was meaningless if it meant mom working to support my brother and I and me, a healthy young man, not working so as to just “learn stuff.”)

Teenage girls didn’t give me the time of day because I wasn’t tall enough, fast enough, or tended to be too “intellectual.” One girl in high school actually told me that she wasn’t comfortable with me being smarter than her, so she wouldn’t date me. Go figure.

I started college at age 16, and it offered me an opportunity to “remake” myself. I wasn’t going to be the “sissy” that I was accused of being. I drove a car without a license, and I drove it fast. I got a job with my cousin at the mall. I started snapping back at people and cursing. I lifted weights and played soccer and basketball. I disrespected young women because I was acting like the man that I thought I should be.

Well, that all didn’t work out too well. I got lower grades than I should and wasted my time in relationships that brought forth nothing but drama. I got nothing out of acting like that, trying to be something I wasn’t. I could have spent more time focusing on my abilities, using them to get ahead in life. Who knows? I probably missed out on going to medical school at age 20, instead ending up in a small lab in Pennsylvania at age 21.

I’m not complaining, though. The opportunity for medical school came and went, and I was not interested in it anymore. My educational ambition became public health. Also, my life has turned out to be incredibly blessed. Everything worked out for the best.

Last night, my wife and I went to the movies to watch “The Imitation Game”, a movie about the life and work of Alan Turing. While the movie took a lot of creative license with historical facts, several things came to my attention that I experienced myself or see happening today. First, there was Turing’s autism-like behavior. (He wasn’t diagnosed, so I can’t say for certain that he was autistic.) His behavior, interests, and mannerisms made him stand out in school. That drew the wrath of the bullies and the friendship of only the one kid who understood him.

That same behavior, according to the movie, carried on into his adult life and his work for the British military during World War II. He pushed people away whom he saw as less intelligent or boring. He dove into his work and blocked out the world. People expected different things from him, but he delivered other things; things that would be much more valuable in the long run than whether or not he joined his coworkers for lunch.

There was also a discussion of Turing’s homosexuality. On top of his social awkwardness and disinterest in “boring” things, Turing had to live in a society that criminalized his sexual preference. His first love, the one boy who befriended him in school, died at a young age before Turing could profess his love for his best friend. Later in the movie, his sexual preference is used to blackmail him. At the end of the movie, Turing is convicted of “indecent acts” and sentenced to probation under the condition that he undergo chemical castration, something with messes with his abilities.

I identified in some ways with this depiction of Turing’s life, and I identified things that I have seen happen to other people who didn’t fit in neatly with social and gender norms in the cultures that I’ve lived in. When the military was ready to give up on Turing’s computer and tear it down, I saw how some of my bosses would give up on my projects and want to pull the plug. So I felt his joy when his computer came to life and won the war by decoding German messages.

This morning, on my way to the lab, I stopped at a gas station to grab a coffee and orange juice. As I waited in line to pay, I heard a man yelling from the area where the restrooms were located. He was yelling at his son, a boy about six years old. The son had gone into the women’s restroom because the men’s restroom was occupied. Well, the dad lost his mind about this. He yelled at his son that he, the son, was not a girl. “You have a dick,” the dad said. “Act like it.”

My heart broke a little for the kid because the dad’s words and his anger signaled to me that this wasn’t the first time his son had acted less than manly in his father’s eyes. Instead of being reasonable and understanding that there is nothing at all different between the two restrooms (except for the sign on the door), the dad decided to make a spectacle of himself. The kid walked out of the station and back to their car with a red face and tears eyes.

My father was never that way toward me. He never tried to “harden me up” in any way. He and mom always encouraged my love of learning. While he bough his muscle car and motorcycle magazines for himself, he’d buy me science and technology magazines for me to read. Mom would buy me books and encyclopedias. Neither of them shamed me for being who I am, ever. Their discipline came from me acting irresponsibly or hurting others, not from being the way that my “hard wiring” instructed me to be.

There was a time when I thought that societal and gender norms were set in stone. I was embarrassed to like studies more than physical sports, so I pretended to like to be shoved around while playing football. (American football, mind you. I love to play soccer. I like to go out to a lonely trail and run.) I wasted my time chasing girls because I thought that I should be involved in “the game”. I wasted a lot of time because of those “norms.”

It’s not that norms are not needed. There has to be some order in the world either by tradition or by law. But those traditions and those laws, and the norms that come from them have got to be flexible. We cannot look at people who are different and treat them like lesser people because they don’t conform to how we view “normal.”

Just look at all the anger that some parents of autistic children display over their children’s abilities and disabilities. Too many of them — while blaming vaccines or other things — classify their children as lost or even “dead” because the children are not “normal.” The parents seem to write off their children’s lives altogether because the children focus like laser beams on toys, ignoring the rest of the world, or because the children do not communicate like the rest of us… Or because the children are cut off from a world that doesn’t yet understand them.

I wish more parents, and more of us in general, were willing to see people with different ways of being as human beings. All the evidence and science is pointing to a spectrum of everything when it comes to behavior. None of us is “normal,” really. Some of us are to either end of the spectrums of sexuality, cognitive abilities, physical abilities, etc. To label something that is not in the center of the curve as a sin, a crime, a disappointment, and to make people who are hard wired one way or another that is odd to the majority feel ashamed of who they are… All that shows us exactly how flawed we are as humans. (That’s why I don’t think God really judges us like we judge one another. It’s below an omniscient being to do so.)

If you ever get the urge to be disrespectful of someone because they are odd, remind yourself that you are odd to someone else as well. Remember that nothing good comes from shaming anyone or treating them without respect because of who they are. It is far better to respect even your enemies and show them the due respect that all human beings should have toward one another. It’s the path to peace and prosperity, and it doesn’t compromise any of the good values that will help you advance.

But, most of all, stand up to the bullies. The next bullied person you help may be the one who’ll do something unimaginable in order to save the world.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

1 reply

  1. As you said, there is no such thing as normal. There is only a wide, multi-dimensional spectrum of behavioral traits that can show a mean, an average within what a society considers “normal”. How the society treats that which is further in spectrum from what it considers normal tends to be variable, depending upon the culture of that society, but it typically tends to be poorly treating of that which is divergent from its accepted mean.
    That makes sense in an evolutionary standpoint, as humans are amongst the weakest animals in the animal kingdom. Nearly every other animal has sharper teeth, claws, runs faster and longer, is stronger. Only in cooperative groups does humanity find an edge, so knowing how one’s peer will behave in a given situation was rather reinforced in surviving to procreate. Given that weakness, that which is different also tended to be potentially lethal, which doubles down an inbred dislike for that which is different.
    Hence, people tend to attack that which is different. In the past, the attack may have resulted in loss of life, but in our current culture, such attacks are punished severely. Consider albino humans in parts of Africa, still actively being hunted for use of their body parts in “magic”. Consider that homeless person acting in a bizarre manner, how many actively avoid that person, never considering mental illness likely caused their homeless position and some do indeed attack them and cause harm.
    Our culture took a very, very long time to begin to value that which is different. Turing was one who helped change that viewpoint, though regrettably, not within his lifetime. There were many others that also helped change the way our culture views those who are different, Hawking and Einstein come to mind, as in previous eras would have ignored them and their contributions that made our technologies of today possible.
    Today, rather than shuttering in an Asperger’s person, we continue their education and do all that we can to help them contribute to society. Quite a few go into STEM fields, many into IT. There, they’re like the proverbial mad scientist in their brilliance and with their short attention span frustrating those who are coworkers or supervisors. Until one learns what each member’s attention span, distraction tendencies and interests, supervising a team is like trying to herd flies.
    But, once one learns each member’s tendencies, one can guide them with that understanding and keep the team reasonably on track.
    Reasonably, only due to complexities of many projects, which inevitably end up being victims to that complexity and on occasion, from the law of unintended results. But then, a brilliant team can turn those unintended results into something positive, so vive la differance!


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