What is at stake in the maintenance of “the gender box”?

by Preventionista

What is at stake in the maintenance of “the gender box”?  For youth who “fail” to conform to normative gender roles, their education and sometimes their life is at stake.

A clip from the film Straightlaced.


  • How do you think a person’s race or ethnicity might be connected to expectations they face about how their gender is supposed be performed?
  • Why do you think that stepping outside of gender norms is so often associated with being gay or
  • Do you think there are certain stereotypes for males of certain races? Females? Why do you think that is?
  • What were some of the pressures students face  in relation to sex, dating and relationships, specifically in relation to their gender identity?
  • How are these pressures different for guys and for girls?

Jonathon Escobar gets kicked out of school for self expression
School District Translates as Failure to Properly Perform Masculine Gender


Jonathan Escobar says he chooses to wear clothes that express himself.  Skinny jeans, wigs, “vintage” clothing and makeup are the staples of his wardrobe.  The 16-year-old–after getting permission from the school district–says an assistant principal at North Cobb High School told him in October he needed to dress more “manly” for school, or consider being home-schooled.

WHAT? The school system refers to the dress code to reign in Jonathon Escobar’s fashion statements; however, the principal clearly indicates that it was Jonathon’s gender that was in question.  Escobar’s masculinity was “read” as a failed masculinity to the North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, GA. Jonathon Escobar may not consider himself a transgendered person, however, the principal’s comments places him squarely outside “the gender box.”

Transgender is an emergent “term” being used increasingly by organizations and institutions to provide social services for trans people of all kinds. (Valentine, David. “Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category“, Duke University Press, 2007.)  Transgender as both a category and a field of knowledge demonstrates that  gender is regulated.  Gender norms are used as mechanisms of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and violence when they are violated. Viviane Namaste, a transsexual activist and scholar, argues that transgendered people “pose a fundamental challenge to public space and how it is defined and secured through gender [norms]” (“Genderbashing:  Sexuality, Gender, and the Regulation of Public Space,” p. 589, The Transgender Studies Reader).

While, Jonathon Escobar does not claim this “identity” category, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a new report that indicates that people who are viewed as “outside of the normative” gender box often are killed because of this.  See this entry about Lawrence King a thirteen year old boy who was killed last year at school by a male classmate.   Escobar was not killed, but he was denied a public education, and that is a violence against this youth.

According to their below report:

  • Almost all transgender students had been verbally harassed (e.g.,called names or threatened) in the past year at school because of their sexual orientation (89%) and their gender expression (87%).
  • Over half of all transgender students had been physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (55%) and their gender expression (53%).
  • Many transgender students had been physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (28%) and their gender expression (26%).

Take a look at GLSEN’s report: Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.

Jonathon Escobar

Check out this entry, which will take you to a clip of a young man who lost a bet and went to his prom dressed like a woman.  This version of male femininity was not “read” as a threat, but Escboar’s feminine masculinity was–after three days and when he had permission.  What is really at stake in the school district’s dress code to prevent feminine gender expression in men?

Jonathon Escobar powerpoint

BHR teaches students that “the gender box” is foundational to power and privilege and demonstrates that “the gender box” is held in place through a variety of means, including racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.  Julia Serano, a trans biologist in Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007), breaks down sexism in a really interesting way that is helpful to unpack the heterosexual imperative of the gender box.

Serano argues that transphobia and homophobia (see entry on Lawrence King) are rooted in “oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, and desires (13).”    What is being banned in Escobar’s case is the expression of male femininity.

Traditional sexism is the “belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity (14),” according to Serano.  Finally, Serano wants to make it clear–it is her manifesto–that “misogyny is the tendancy to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity.”

Serano argues that transmisogyny explains the jokes “at the expense of trans people” (like Micah’s prom above), but she goes on to argue that the majority of violence directed at trans people is directed at trans women.  Serano argues that “men” who wear women’s clothing are pathologized, while the reverse is not true for women who wear men’s clothes: it is trans-misogyny.

More on prohibition of male femininity……………………..

Morehouse, an all male traditionally black college (also in Georgia), recently added a prohibition of “feminine attire.” The code specifically reads “no wearing of clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics,purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsoredevents.”



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