Somehow the vacation conversation yesterday turned to the concept of gender roles, gender confusion and androgyny. We started talking about kids and play and debated the age old question of nature versus nurture: to what degree humans are born with certain inclinations and instincts toward gender based on biology and to what degree we socialize those notions into them through how we direct play and otherwise give life instructions. Most obvious examples of socializing gender include giving girls baby dolls and fake cleaning supplies to play with and boys footballs and toy guns.
Not sure how we got there, or if the margaritas were responsible, but It made me remember a sociological dilemma that I had experienced in my recent past. And although profoundly sociological in nature, it involved not a human, but a cat. My former cat – named Dexter until it became CoCo.
Curious are we? Then read on.
The story unfolds like this:
Dexter was adopted from the ASPCA in Manhattan. He was a rough and tumble cat whose information stated that he was a male kitten whose name at the time was something unsuitable to his character – like spot or mittens. When my partner at the time and I took him home to our apartment as a brother to our other cat – Henry ,he was immediately accepted into the fold.
Our apartment was constantly full of friends and neighbors and Dexter was always the life of the party; hopping from lap to lap, demonstrating his ability to fearlessly ride my skateboard from one end of the shotgun-style apartment to the other (which, incidentally, is the most action that piece of decorative sports equipment ever saw), and engaging in unending wrestling matches with humans and felines alike.
He was a rambunctious, rugged and fearless little “man” with long fluffy black fur and the brightest green eyes I ever laid eyes on. But he was also killing me – as was his brother.
You see, I am allergic to cats. I am allergic to a lot of things but cats in particular. I didn’t realize this, of course, until I had already had cats for years and wasn’t ready to give them up. Dexter ended up moving with me from the big apple to my current city of residence, where he got to reside with another cat named Ava who would end up being his long-term roommate until then were both eventually separated for the better of everyone involved.
When my wife and I moved in together she began the slow, steady and important work of separation. For starters, both cats had to stay in the lower level of the house where I work because many of her students are allergic to cats and she couldn’t be sending tweenagers home with runny noses and itchy eyes every day. She began pleading with me to take a hard look at my inability to breathe without medication and the illogical nature of the situation and find good homes for both cats with folks who could allow them to be a more fully integrated (and not sequestered) part of the family.
So, after a couple of months of scrutinizing candidates, Dexter found a home not too far away in a neighboring state with an elderly but energetic woman in need of a companion. Her daughter drove Dexter down with the entire family on a visit. After a few days, the vet was on the agenda. Upon conferring with the doctor, Grandma came running out to her waiting family and said: “all this time I thought I was sleeping with a man, but as it turns out – I’m a lesbian!”. Apparently – Dexter was indeed not a male cat, but an 8-year-old female – who henceforth would be known as Coco.
I don’t even want to start with the fact that I never noticed “Coco’s” lack of boy parts. The part that troubles me most is that I intentionally treated this animal differently believing it was a male. My tomboy tendencies went full tilt in my engagement with this animal, whom I wrestled with, rough and tumbled with and definitely treated with more aggressive and masculine overtones. Whereas the female cat in my life was pampered, cuddled and treated in a far more delicate manner.
So what does that say about me as a sociologist? I daresay I was unable to practice what I preach and became victim to the same gender-role rules that I so closely studies and would educate others against. It just so that even a narcissist can admit they are wrong. And I am happy to say that my female dog Ava gets to wear as many boy-dog clothes as she wants and that I expect her to pull just as hard on the other end of the tug-of-war rope as anyone else.