Up until a couple of years ago, the “I identify as an attack helicopter” meme was still making the rounds on mainstream social media. What started out as a Reddit copypasta soon became the go-to meme for whenever a conversation was veering towards the possibility that -- shock, horror! -- there may be genders other than man and woman.
The meme, since its inception, has been inherently transphobic, used to mock people’s journeys with gender and transition. As Jeff Eaton points out in the Medium article “You’re Not An Attack Helicopter, You’re Just An Asshole”, “no-one who posts that meme actually feels that they are an attack helicopter. They just think it’s hilarious because they can use the magic words that marginalized groups do, and demand people ‘play along.’” This false equivalence became a default argument because it was what many cisgender people thought of queer gender identities -- that individuals identifying differently than man and woman were simply playing pretend, disregarding fully that gender and sexual orientations are not whimsical choices that people make.
In the time that has passed since then, the late-Millennial meme has withered, but it is possible that its dwindling usage is owed less to the transient nature of memes and more to an increasing tolerance for gender diversity, particularly among Gen Z. Generation Z, succeeding Millennials, began coming into their late teens and adult years around 2015-16, in a time when online discourse and media representation surrounding queer gender identities was growing increasingly positive, and Millennials had already begun challenging and dismantling prevalent structures of cisnormativity and the gender binary.
What this positive representation has done best, perhaps, is offer safe spaces for young people to explore gender outside the limits of the binary, and often even transcend boxes previously used to label non-cis gender identities. To illustrate, a New York Times article, “The Human Experience is Infinite”, observed that “for the generation of Americans who are coming of age amid social media, marriage equality, and a growing understanding of gender fluidity, today’s descriptors are far more wide-ranging. These days, many teenagers view gender identity as existing on a spectrum.”
When thought of as a spectrum, the over-50 genders available at the end of a Google search really begin to make much more sense. Any new point you select on the spectrum can be a different identity, varying by a little or a lot from all the other points on the spectrum, and therefore amounting to a nearly infinite number of possible identities. When paired with other identity factors, such as race, religion, sexuality, and the individual human experience, the combinations available really are endless.
However, despite this general positive trend, it is not one that is uniform across the board. Even in the West, some countries embrace these concepts more easily than others. For example, in England, where attitudes towards queerness have been comparatively positive for a longer time, Gen Z are not significantly more progressive than their previous generation; in the US, however, where conservativeness about gender presentation is more widespread, Generation Z embracing the gender spectrum seems markedly more progressive. And this difference only becomes more notable as we move eastward towards the Indian subcontinent.
Modern Western constructions of gender and sexuality aren’t always, or nearly ever for that matter, translatable to our local contexts, and so the gendered experience of Gen Z in Bangladesh does not usually correspond with the West’s. There is a significant portion of Gen Z in Bangladesh who have come into teenage and adulthood surrounded by technology, and therefore are highly influenced by the prevalent Western, and particularly American media; their experiences with gender expression are more likely to mirror those of Western teenagers.
In the mostly women-dominated beauty influencer industry in Bangladesh, there has been a gradual increase of young makeup artists who identify as men, but are willing to step past gender norms and explore non-binary gender presentation. Other media trends such as the rising popularity of kPop have also contributed to young men being less willing to have their gender expression be dictated by gender roles and toxic masculinity. Even local social media discourse has more often than not identified with foreign concepts and theory surrounding this deviation from cis-normativity. Chiefly, this is a trend observable among the upper-middle class youth.
Even without these emerging global trends, however, gender non-conformity existed and was accepted in subcontinental culture, particularly in local art and fashion, long before it was condemned and subsequently normalised in the West. The subcontinent even has one of the oldest gender diverse communities in the world -- the Hijra. Despite this, a primary reason that non-cis gender expression might seem new or alien to us now is because it was greatly villified and often criminalised by the British Raj, the effects of which continue to stigmatize these communities today. Colonial baggage has ensured that a community that was once revered and given near-sacred status is, even now, greatly marginalized by people who retain colonial ideas of gender and sexuality — particularly the middle and upper classes.
Fortunately, the present has seen a greater number of young people willing to not only advocate for their own gender rights, but also work across class boundaries and engage with community work to elevate the living and working conditions of underprivileged gender minorities.
However, the young generation cannot all be lumped into a progressive cohort. There continues to be backlash on all fronts. The Gen Z middle and upper classes face social backlash against their explorations into non-conformity from both older generations and their peers: Young men venturing into makeup or androgynous fashion are pelted with comments calling them “gay” and “Hijra”, thrown around as if they are insults. For young queer and Hijra activists in the field, the situation is even direr. Death threats and the bleak, horrific precedent of fundamentalist action against these activists looms alarmingly over each step taken forward. There is still much work to be done before toxic, limiting gender roles are effectively abolished and the gender binary is dismantled.
As Phillip L Hammack writes in “Understanding Gen Z”, “It's important to remind ourselves that the revolution is underway. It's not complete. The present is a state of flux.” Gen Z advocates for greater gender diversity, to varying degrees, both here and across the globe. In Bangladesh, there is still a precarious balance between overwhelming extremist backlash and the slow, progressive work that young people are engaging in.
If history has ever served as precedent, however optimistic it may be, we move forward with the belief that rigid and oppressive social constructs will not persist, and younger generations will increasingly take the helm in the fight against them. However long it takes, we will make headway towards a future where there is collective appreciation for difference, and not conformity. However long it takes, the future will be fluid.