GENDER AND GENDER IDENTITY

Sex gets elaborated and amplified in every society, so what we think of as femininity combines biological facts and cultural ones. In the 1950s a woman was fully feminine only if she was kittenish, a little helpless, and highly focused on finding a mate and then having children. The very feminine woman could do certain things well, like serve drinks on an airplane and type reports, but couldn’t do others, like present the news on TV or function competently as a lawyer or accountant. What we learn as we grow up is a complicated set of norms, not just the rudimentary facts about sex differences.

Children start thinking of other people in male/female terms early on—they start to notice biological sex and learn to deploy the socially enriched, culture-specific gender system. Gradually, they also start to think of themselves as having a gender. This is different from simply finding out their biological sex; in fact, kids who are biologically “other” usually come to identify comfortably as boys or as girls. And kids who are biologically one sex can identify as the opposite sex.

In the first year of life, kids start to distinguish between males and females in their world (psychologists can tell based on their reactions to various cleverly arranged stimuli). Later, children start thinking about their own gender identity. A girl usually has plenty of cues that she’s a girl, based on self-examination, looking at her clothes, toys, and environment, or absorbing the way people interact with her, which is distinctive from day one. Her inner sense of herself may play some role too, and this inner sense may have some basis in the brain (you can’t write honestly about this subject without using the word “may” a lot). That would be one way of explaining why some kids are fully cued that they are one sex, but nevertheless see themselves as another. The fact is, we don’t fully understand how gender identity formation works—so says Fausto- Sterling, with admirable candor. It’s usually, but not always, stable by around the age of three.

Having a gender identity consists of much more than merely believing something about yourself. A belief about yourself becomes an identity once it has gained a certain amount of centrality, persistence, and pervasiveness. An identity is something that comes to mind frequently and colors a fair amount of what you do. As an example of an identity, take being a hippie. As a teenager I dressed like a hippie, congregated with hippies, listened to hippie music, and decorated my bedroom in a hippie fashion. I would have wanted my hippiedom to be recognized by others; without others seeing that about me, I would have felt misunderstood. Then again, being a hippie wasn’t literally a matter of numerical identity—I wasn’t a different person back when I was a hippie, and I didn’t become a second person when I stopped being a hippie. Identities do less than mark the boundaries between numerically different persons, but do more than reflect mere beliefs about our attributes, like (in my case) being hazel-eyed, or liking Beethoven, or living in Texas.

Having a sex, in every human society, and for most people, goes a long way toward creating an identity. We do a lot of what we do as boys or girls and then as men or women. Our gender plays some role in our lives, every day, as much as the role is hard to define. It may not be a matter of enormous conscious effort or attention, but our sex and our gender are very often a part of our experience. Does it have to be that way? Philosopher Georgia Warnke argues that it doesn’t, in a passage from her book After Identity, which is worth quoting at length:

[U]nderstandings and self-understandings as men and women ... are incidental and recreational in the way that our understandings of one another as sports fans are; they are ceremonial in the way that our understandings of one another as Irish Americans are, and they are restricted in the way that our understandings of one another as siblings are. Just as one might understand oneself or others as Red Sox fans during the World Series, one might understand one’s infant child as a girl in giving her a name, for example, or painting her room. And just as one might wear green on St. Patrick’s Day to indicate that one is Irish, one might wear a dress or a skirt on certain occasions to indicate that one is a woman.

Is it incidental, recreational, and restricted for me to think of myself as female—a minor and optional part of who I am? As things stand now, that’s how most of us experience our gender in some respects (perhaps getting a manicure is “ceremonial” in some sense) but not in every respect. With consciousness raising, we could move in that direction, but it seems to me it would involve considerable retraining to get all the way to this sort of minimalism and the retraining would go against the grain for many. When it comes to gender, most of us want to be recognized as the gender we are all or most of the time, and not just on special occasions. Gender is a much more central part of our identity than being a Red Sox fan or being Irish.

Most people put themselves in a gender category because all the data point in that direction—a person’s body is male, they get lots of environmental cues that they are male, they are addressed using male pronouns, and so on. Occasionally, though, the data is mixed. Many intersex kids start off objectively “other,” if all facts are taken into account, but nevertheless come to have stable identities as boys/ men or girls/women, particularly if a sensitive choice is made at the outset. Other children are not intersex, but come to think they would rather be the other sex, or already are (inside) the other sex, often starting at a very young age. By an estimate cited by Fausto- Sterling, .9 to 1.7 percent of North American children feel this way. Some “desist” and some “persist,” the persisters declaring themselves transgender at puberty or in adulthood.

A very common theme in transgender memoirs is feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or a man trapped in a woman’s body. Some “brain-ify” the description: a woman’s brain is trapped in a man’s body, or a man’s brain in a woman’s body. That characterization remains to be confirmed (or disconfirmed) by brain science, but at least this much is true: the authors feel themselves to be one sex on the inside and another on the outside, and they are disturbed by the mismatch. They want their gender identity to be recognized by others, possibly with the help of clothing, make-up, hormones, surgery, voice lessons, and so on.

And then there are people who have a mixed gender identity, happily presenting themselves as male and female, man and woman. This may or may not be a stable, happy state for most people to be in, but there’s no reason to think nobody can be happy with a hybrid gender identity.

 
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