Gender Theory + Race + Class = Transformative Philanthropy?

The following post was authored by Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of TrueChild.  Join Riki and EPIP for a fully discussion of this and other issues related to gender theory on our upcoming webinar on Wednesday, February 12th. __Riki Color

Those of us who studied Judith Butler, postmodernism and gender theory at school may wonder if it has anything to teach us about philanthropy. As one young program officer confided to me, "I studied all this stuff in college, but I've always had to keep it totally separate from my foundation day job." 

But the links between gender theory and philanthropy are there if you look, and they are deep and strong.

As an older, feminist program director asked, "My staff and grantees get race and class, but what happened to gender? What I want to know is: what happened to the gender analysis?"

What happened to it is that it got eaten by identity politics. Think for a moment about a cluster of important issues that often exist in completely separate philanthropic silos: middle-school bullying, LGBTQ rights, teen sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, low condom use and high rates of teen pregnancy, and boys who are kicked out because of "school push-out" policies, and girls who opt out of potentially lucrative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Each of these is connected to the others by gender norms.

For instance, three types of kids have always been most at risk for middle-school bullying or sexual harassment: boys who aren't considered masculine enough, girls who aren't considered feminine enough, and girls whose bodies mature ahead of their peers. Gender intolerance ties each of these together.

What about gay and transgender rights? Studies show that animus against both is often closely linked to gender. It's not so much who we sleep with – few people actually know what goes on behind closed doors. It's that men who are affectionate with men, and people who change sexes make some people profoundly uncomfortable and even outraged because they transgress our most basic ideas about what it means to be men or women.

Studies consistently show that low condom use -- among both gay and straight men -- is often closely tied to codes of manhood – the idea that risk-taking and bare-backing is manly (in the former), or pregnancy is proof of manhood and in any case preventing conceptions in the woman's problem (in the latter). Again, gender norms.

When it comes to school classrooms and hallways, how do young men demonstrate public masculinity and determine social hierarchies? Through being boisterous and loud, by defying adult authority figures, by public risk-taking and by suffering the resulting punishments silently – practically a checklist for increased friction with school disciplinary regimes and being kicked out or suspended out because of Zero Tolerance policies.

And why do girls keep saying they're not interested in STEM courses and dropping out of them? Well, actually, they don't, at least not in the early years of elementary school. Girls report liking STEM and generally do as well, or better than, their male peers.

It's not until the "gender intensification" period of late adolescence and early teens, when interest in traditional femininity accelerates and belief in it solidifies, that the so-called "leaky pipeline" starts leaking girls out of STEM classes in earnest.

Gender norms are at the core of each of these problems, and a key to their solution. Yet in philanthropy when we think about having a "gender lens," it's written down, and too often written off, as simply meaning " more money and resources for women and girls."

That is a noble, even crucial, philanthropic goal. But it is not a "gender analysis." The fact that the field continues to use the two interchangeably only muddies the waters further. I've come across more than a few briefing papers from leading philanthropic think-tanks professing to teach a "gender analysis" and mention women and girls dozens of times but completely ignore men, boys, LGBT…or masculine and feminine norms.

So gender goes into the "women and girls" silo, LGBT into another, and so forth. And we never get to gender.

But if postmodernism has taught us anything it's that identities, while powerful, are also political positions vulnerable to deconstruction. If we just drop our identity lenses temporarily, we can see the basic issues underneath, and how they tie together seemingly unrelated issues.

Gender then becomes more a necessary part of what Kimberle Crenshaw called an "intersectional analysis," one sees beyond the simplicities of separate philanthropic silos and sees the intersections of race, class and gender.

Because the truth is, most of us lack the luxury of simple, uncomplicated bodies and identities. We're HIV+ and Hispanic and female. Or we're white and gay and working-class and immigrant.

We – like so many of our grantees – must make our lives at the intersections of identity, where many different kinds of issues meet and overlap.

So it becomes important to do intersectional philanthropy that apprehends people whole, as more than the sum of identities they inhabit.

This is what I learned from Judith Butler and the "queer" theorists. When I started activism, I was doing transgender work. That was the identity I learned to play from.

But the more I used my gender theory lens, the more I saw that gays and lesbians also faced discrimination and violence for transgressing gender ideals for masculinity or femininity.

So I began doing LGBT work. But again, gender theory helped me see that conforming to gender norms was also a primary rite of passage for nearly every young person, gay or straight.

The problem wasn't just that kids who are gender non-conforming often grow up in a world of pain. But that even kids who buy into and master traditional masculine and feminine norms are consistently hurt and limited by them, and have measurably lower life and health outcomes.

And it was this insight which helped lead me to what Geeta Rao Gupta termed "gender transformative" approaches.  Work that is gender transformative highlights, challenges and ultimately try to changes rigid gender norms and inequities.

It comprehends social justice and gender justice as inseparable, parts of a more holistic way to see the problems we address and the giving we do –  one which not only can get us out of silos but can help maximize program effectiveness and the social return on philanthropic investments.

This is, to say the least, a very new approach for US philanthropy. As Loren Harris, who developed the Masculinity Portfolio for the Ford Foundation put it, " Gender impacts every issue foundations work on. But grantees and program officers are seldom challenged to do innovative work around gender [in a way that parallels their work around race or class]."

Major international donor institutional like PEPFAR, USAID, UNAIDs, WHO and World Bank have already adopted gender transformative approaches and found them effective. One can only hope that we here in the US are not far behind. Certainly in any case, doing so would please Judith Butler and the gender theorists.

Riki Wilchins is Executive Director of TrueChild, a research and action center that promotes “gender transformative” approaches to at-risk youth that reconnect race, class and gender justice. The author of three books on gender theory, Riki writes on philanthropy for the Council on Foundations and GrantCraft and has published academic studies as well as popular articles in periodicals like The Village Voice, Social Text, and GLQ. She has conducted briefings at the White House, CDC, Office on Women’s Health, and Office on Adolescent Health, and TIME magazine named her one of 100 Civic Innovators for the 21st Century.