I am a prisoner of my age, a hostage to my generation; I never thought I’d say that, but I suppose none of us do… We are as contemporary as our minds and experience will allow.
My own epiphany came, as I recall, when a patient engaged me in a discussion of gender. I had not intended to be controversial; neutrality -or at least impartiality- had been my intent in our exploration of her problem. I am, after all, a male meddling in female affairs so I must needs approach it as a visitor to a foreign land: respectful of its customs and willing to learn. I even used those words, I think, but it seemed they were the points of contention, however. Unbeknownst to me, I had innocently strayed into a minefield.
“Why do you have to feel as if you are a stranger?” she asked, eyes ablaze.
I thought about it for a moment, but I have to admit my response was weak. “I suppose because I am a man and was brought up as one…” I left the end of my sentence open, hoping she would not ask for further clarification. I was mistaken.
“But that’s just my point,” she said, rising briefly off her chair in her enthusiasm. “We’re both human, and despite the difference in our ages, both equally entitled.”
I could have wished she hadn’t felt the need to comment on our age difference, but entering into the spirit of the discussion, I put down my pen. “Entitled to..?”
Her face crinkled for a split second before she could rein it in. “Well, entitled was probably the wrong word; entitled implies that there is someone who is allowing, permitting, something. What I’m suggesting is that there should be no gender split…” My eyebrows must have moved, because the wrinkles reappeared on her face and stayed put. “No gender discrimination,” she added, as if that would clarify her meaning and win me over.
I don’t need to be convinced there is egregious gender discrimination throughout the world, but I suppose I assumed that the worst of it took place somewhere else: developing countries, or places still troubled by malaria -naive in the extreme, I must confess, but a topic not often front-and-center in my everyday life. I believe in equality of opportunity for everybody, gender included, but I recognize that the platform from which I regard this is that of a white male in a position of relative authority and privilege -something so taken for granted that I no longer see it. Or don’t want to…
“I don’t see why the absence of a Y chromosome should relegate me to a particular role in society.”
She said it with such vehemence I couldn’t think of a suitable response at first. There are some things about our dealings with the world that are hard to express, much less analyse dispassionately. “How would you change things,” I asked finally, hoping she would understand my quandary.
She crossed her arms defiantly. “The very fact that you had to ask, is part of the problem,” she said, trying her best to smile politely. “How do you change things when the very institutions that you want to change, don’t think there is anything wrong?” She pinned me to the wall with eyes like spotlights. “Why should I have to behave a certain way, just because I happen to be female? Why is there an expectation that is constrained by gender? Limited by gender? Imprisoned by gender?”
She was becoming very excited and agitated across the desk from me, but all I could do was smile in what I hoped was a sympathetic way and show I was open to her indignation.
“I mean washrooms, for god’s sake!” She rolled her eyes; I remained silent, not knowing what she meant. “Why is there still washroom discrimination?”
I have to admit I hadn’t thought that was even a problem. I just go into the one with the little man sign; there is usually a woman sign right beside it, so it’s not like we have more of them. And if there’s no sign, no indication of sexual preference, I assume it doesn’t matter. End of story. “Is…” -my tongue floundered about, looking for the right question- “Is that usually a problem?” I couldn’t think of anything else to ask.
Her arms folded even more tightly across her chest. “Not usually!” she snorted, eyes locked on mine as if we were wrestling. For once I was glad my desk was so wide. “But there’s no need for two types of washrooms.” I watched her as passively as I could manage, given the tight hold she had on my face. “But washrooms are only the part of the iceberg that’s showing. Society discriminates: it assigns roles; Language discriminates -you know: chairman, fisherman, fireman…
“I thought we’d changed those,” I said, feeling suddenly compelled to defend Society, or something. “You know: it’s Chair, and Flight Attendant… That sort of thing…”
“Yeah, but inside, you’re thinking chairman, or stewardess aren’t you?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I am, but that’s because those were the words I grew up with; younger people probably don’t even know we used to call female flight attendants stewardesses.” I decided to cross my own arms to make the point. “And besides, language evolves alongside Societal trends -Societal demands, if you will. It means a shift is occurring, however slowly, don’t you think?”
Her face softened and a twinkle appeared in her otherwise steady gaze. She had, after all, come to me with another problem for which she sought help and guidance. Perhaps coming to a male for her gynaecological issue meant that she saw me as gender neutral after all. “Would you mind if I asked you a rather personal question, doctor?”
I shook my head -affably, I hope- but with a sinking feeling in my chest; I could feel it coming.
“Would you go to a female doctor for your prostate?” I suspect I blushed, because she suddenly smiled and visibly relaxed in her seat. “It’s a very slow shift…”