Why Gender Equality Matters

July 11, 2009 at 7:15 pm Leave a comment

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” as part of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. This phrase has reverberated through Western culture as perhaps one of the most influential political statements in democratic history. While “men” is today interpreted as meaning “men” and “women” it clearly was not always so. And the Declaration does nothing to include the many who do not comfortably fit in either box.

Women have many more rights in the public sphere today than they had, say, in the middle ages, but men still earn more, rise higher up the corporate ladder and inhabit the majority of political posts. Change, it seems, is slow, even when the group in question consists of close to 50% of the overall population. Imagine, then, how slow change is for those who are in a much smaller minority. Some estimates place transgender people as 1 in 30,000. That’s significantly less than 1% of the overall population.

To some experts, gender is a purely social construct that needs to be abolished altogether for real equality to be established. Others claim that anyone who has ever been in a heterosexual relationship knows that women and men do not think in the same way. Harry Summers, former president of Harvard University, created a furor for claiming that men were inherently more capable at math and science than women. Is gender a social construct that has run its course and now needs to be dismantled? Are differing gender behaviours hard-wired into the brain? Are men and women born or made?

There are many wide-ranging opinions on this question. Ultimately, though, the question becomes irrelevant. While there is as of yet no conclusive scientific explanation for how gender identity is formed, every individual should have the right to determine their own destiny; to realize their own dreams of who they are and want to be — even if that requires breaking open the gender mould. Surely individual happiness should trump established social patterns? Surely we do not all have to be or act the same to be recognized as equal? Difference need not be a curse.

It’s time to update Jefferson’s declaration to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal.” And, I would add, we are equal regardless of how we choose to dress, who we mingle with, or which label we claim as our own. Equality means having equal access to health care, having equal opportunities for education, employment and housing, and for being recognized as valuable contributors to society regardless of our gender status. For those of us who inhabit the transgender community, as well as those in the queer community at large, equality means being able to wake up in the morning and not fear discovery, rejection or worse.

A community is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable members. What kind of community do we want to live in? And what glory is there in ridiculing or humiliating those who have no real power to fight back? Surely we are better than this.

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Entry filed under: Gender.

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