ARMI am going to do a lazy series on gender identity, not because we need another repetition of the same old arguments, but because we keep getting it wrong and that’s a lot of the reason that there are still battles around the subject. It’s “lazy” because the following pieces to this will not come on a nice schedule, most likely, and I’d hate to mislead you into thinking otherwise; you deserve better than that. After posting this, I’ll make further edits, I’m sure, so all apologies for the fluid nature of my writing. Please feel free to point out any flaws in logic or spelling.

For most of us, gender is like the air, something we breathe and move through every day without much thought paid to it. Only when it becomes oppressive or forces itself upon us or, alternately, is particularly fresh and delightful does it break through into the conscious part of our existence. We then curse and revere it in turn, but we still don’t see it except in a haze or heat-shimmer, because the nature of gender is invisible ubiquity. Our identification with it is also ephemeral to the point that some feel there is no such thing as gender identity; we just are the way we are because we’re female or male. Easy-peasy, nothing to study or think about because it just is end of article, go back to lolcats. Except, there are those people who are cropping up all the time now discussing it, what are they going on about?

US-SexingFrom the time the ultrasound peeps into mothers’ womb to betray our development, the people in our future life treat us differently depending on what they see in those grainy images. The tech will declare “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” and they’ll draw an arrow on the screen pointing to some grainy highlights with the appropriate label, and print it out for everyone to see. Do that after birth, and they’ll bust mommy and daddy for disseminating child porn. From that moment on, we are treated differently. Parents-to-be and others speak to the foetus differently — I’ve heard people call the TV-snow images “handsome” and “pretty,” which is ridiculous considering they’re barely recognisable as anything, really— and the buying of camo or lace, dolls or trucks, and pink or blue diapers by proud aunts, uncles, and grandparents, begins in earnest. The rest we know, because we’ve all lived it. Details and intensity vary, and our reactions to the gendered socialisation are unique to each of us, but the general script is the same. I will not go over the socialisation issue, here, because the point I’m laboriously getting to is that we as John and Jane Q. Public really don’t have any idea what gender actually is, yet we base every aspect of our public presentation on it, and it is a foundational part of our personal identities. “The hell you say? I know perfectly well what gender is! It’s being a man or a woman,” you say. Well, I do say. Go ahead and define gender. Write it down. Sketch it out. Humans have been wrestling with it for thousands of years – sometimes defining and sometimes defying it, and the essential structure of it still eludes us like a ninja yeti on a foggy night. We often take it for granted, and rarely give it a day off or send a nice card.

Let’s start by fleshing the concept out by disambiguation. What gender is not is sex, though in the previous paragraph I conflated the two, as we normally do. Bet you didn’t even notice, didja? In English, gender has come to mean one’s outwardly apparent physical sex. This is because the two run so closely together and there is some overlap, so the mix up is quite understandable. We’re all about simplification, and in its service and our general prudishness around anything with the word “sex” attached to it, we have failed to develop a language around gender, making all discussion immediately arduous and bound to lead to misunderstandings and ultraviolent murder. No, it really does, but that’s for later in the programme.

While we’re looking for gender, let’s familiarise ourselves with its conjoined sibling. Sex is, basically, the body’s configuration from the chromosomal level to metabolic systems and the shape and function of our bodies, including genitalia. Ooh, sexy, right? Humans and bunches of other animals and plants are sexually dimorphic  — split into male and female variants of the species — with different average body shapes and sizes, and different sex-dependent characteristics and reproductive capabilities. Males and females do a great job of generating genetic diversity in their offspring, a process that improves the chances that the species will adapt to changing conditions and survive, while also providing something to do on a Saturday night. Also, budding would be an extremely creepy way to reproduce ourselves, so thank the Divine for inventing males! Like Oded Fehr, as a totally random, example.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????But not everyone fits into the seemingly all-natural-yet-socially-defined Male and Female boxes. No, it’s true. Some exist in the blank open spaces between and around them. Let’s think of it like the land between two forts of different nations in the olden days of genocidal competitive empire building! The forts are safe harbours of regimented life, wherein there are rules and a common culture, and sure, unpleasant things may happen, but you can be assured that there is a structure to living within its walls that is meant to keep you as well as possible (at least that’s what we’re told). Within, there is Security. Outside the forts is a scary world without protective rules and prescribed definitions and walls we’re used to. There are no borders, no rigid structure to find comfort in. Outside, it’s Unsettling. “Who are these creatures living outside the box-fort walls? What do they want?” Well, neveryoumind them right now, we’re focused on life on the inside. The cultures and ideas within are what we can call gender. See how easy that was? That’s gender! All done now. You can go home and say that you’ve found it, defined it, and had it for dinner. Except, we still don’t have a solid idea of the nature of the thing, only a nice place to look for it. Okay, come along, now.

Did you finish with your writing/sketching/interpretive dance “what I think gender is” homework, yet? You didn’t even try to do it, did you? Let’s start with this nucleus: gender is cultural, not physical. Every culture from that of our immediate family and ethnicity to national and religious groups has an input on how we should ideally be feminine women or masculine men. Mom and dad, cultural heroes, historical figures, popular culture role models, artists, movies, magazines, vloggers, anyone we come in contact with informs us how others in our culture act. Take the common qualities defined for women in the Western cultures: nurturing, passive, petty, pretty, emotional, irrational, Mercurial, child-like, sexy, manipulative, receptive, pliable. And now for the blokes: providing, active, complex, handsome, rational, stable, commanding, supportive, resolute. Most cultures also strictly forbid the mixing of the two. It’s obviously stereotypical, but culturally accurate.

We get our ideas of masculinity and femininity from these worlds we inhabit. Ladies, don’t you remember observing other women, the ways they walked and moved and spoke? Afterwards, practising all the subtle adjustments of posture, facial expression, hand movements, the way you step, sit in a chair, modifying the way you speak and the words you use? We aren’t the same between the ages of 5 and 18 because we hone our performances as women to express who we are and how we wish to be perceived by others. It’s not even always a conscious refinement, but it happens, and it continues over our lives as we discover ourselves and evolve through social circles and their conventions. Guys, I know it’s the same for you. The posturing with your friends, posing in front of the mirror, and practising the looks and the walks, trying to eliminate any semblance of weak or “girly” body language. Don’t cross your legs, take up space, look like you’re not going to take anyone’s shit.


Gender Police by Tatsuya Ishida

It’s not all self directed, people close to us and the greater society use positive and negative reinforcement to guide us in this journey. Those nagging voices we’ve internalised to keep ourselves in line reminding us to “Stop ____ing like a girl!” and “Keep your knees together!” and “Man up! Boys don’t cry.” and “Just smile some more. You’re so pretty when you smile.” Our pre-defined mannerisms are definitely cultural. There’s also how we dress. Clothing is extremely important to the roles we play. They are our costume, and the wrong wrapper is as disconcerting to the observer as a misplaced limb. We do not object so much to men wearing skirts in Scotland or from Polynesian cultures — as long as we don’t call them skirts — and there is no longer the backlash against women wearing pants that there was 60+ years ago. Different cultures, different rules. But the definitions of what it is to belong to one camp or the other extends to all aspects of life: music and language, work and play, and the words we use to define ourselves. All forms of expression are filtered through the lens of gender.

1024px-Kvinde-emancipationNon-conformity to the cultural definition of gender presents problems both within the person, and from the greater society that concerns itself, like that one nosey neighbour, with policing the way we all live. “Step out of line, the men come and take you away.” Internal conflict manifests as depression, anger, risk-taking, suicide, denial, and failed self-corrective measures. External conflict is visited upon the gender non-conformist as bullying and verbal abuse, loss of livelihood, loss of housing, desertion by family and friends, and physical violence including mutilation and murder. Gender, however, is not shared victimhood, in spite of how some have framed it. Identifying with other victims of gender-based violence or discrimination is one thing, to ascribe that to being a requirement to identify as a sex or gender is disturbing.

There are extreme disparities between the sexes and genders, where masculinity and maleness is regarded and enforced as dominant and superior to femininity and femaleness. In all aspects of this society, it is more advantageous to be male than female, which however, is a cultural bias, not a natural one. Culture evolves, and is changing to be more egalitarian, but there is so far yet to go on that path. Gender, also, is not a patriarchal construct, though the majority of the various historical cultures that have defined it for the past 4,500 years have been. The current gender definitions are based on the misogynistic societal structures developed by those patriarchal political institutions, but the concept and practise of gender need not be tied to that, and indeed exists in matriarchal societies of the past and present.

sp30406Because of how gender is culturally adhered to one’s sex, the body image of males and females are tied up into our concept of gender, as well. Here is where we understandably get the two things confused. Girls who want to play being “womanly” (as our culture defines it) try on makeup and pad their shirts to imitate breasts, and walk about in mom’s pumps, while little boys who emulate daddy might try shaving their faces or drawing a beard on, and wear on his clothes. Conversely, when son and father ask mommy for a sandwich, they’re both playing the role of child, and only one has a good excuse for it. Pantomime is practise for being the people they hope to be, basic mimicry which is responsible for much of our learning.

So, we’ve come a long way, together, and we’ve covered a lot of familiar territory, but I don’t see where exactly is everyone wrong about this gender identity thing?” you say, and I hear you. What we haven’t explored yet is how we come to understand our own invisible gender identities, how we identify with women and men, and how we express ourselves according to those identities.

Rather than go into the history of identity theory, I’m going to throw this statement out, and you can research your hearts away: gender identity is an inherent aspect of our personal identity that is, in the vast majority of people, unchangeable at any age or by any method. Put the notepad down, I’ll repeat it later. There are notable exceptions, as there are to the binary sex model, and they are as valid in their self-definition as anyone else. Genderqueer, agender , and a host of other labels including and beyond the new offerings by Facebook are used to describe how some experience their relationship to gender. Our lack of language surrounding this is a great barrier when we talk about people for whom their gender identity does not mesh with the prescribed gender paradigm assigned to them upon the first shameless presentation of their genitals to the world. The basic term people like this is transsexual, though you’ll hear it less than the more popular (because it lacks the word sex), transgender. Both mean to move across or between something, trans being the Latin for “across, over, or beyond.” But transgender is misleading because it is an umbrella term that covers a host of different sub-groups. Most transgender people are not moving between genders as their gender identity has and does not change. For crossdressers, who are predominantly straight men that wear traditionally feminine dress and their female counterparts who are now nearly indistinguishable as a group since culturally accepted clothing choices for women are relaxed, and transvestites, whose historical definition is decidedly fetishistic in nature, their gender identity matches their body’s sex. For the sake of the children, I’m going to focus on the first group mentioned, transsexuals.

Transsexuals are the people famously “born” or “trapped in the wrong body.” Most, but not all, who survive the cultural gauntlet, go on to legally and/or physically transition within their culture to be recognised as members of whichever sex they identify as far as their conscience, cultures, financial status, and local laws permit. Lord! That’s an awkward mouthful! Why can’t we just say that they change their sex or gender, or that they became the opposite sex and call it a night? Because it’s completely inaccurate, misleading, and doesn’t foster an understanding of these people and reinforces false and damaging ideas about who they are.

One argument lobbed at this group is that you cannot change your sex, and that is both true and false, based on one’s definition, which leads to some confusion and a lot of misunderstanding. If you limit your understanding of sex to genital configuration, then, yes, it’s a relative snap to change one’s sex. There are specialists all over the world that have performed and refined the various methods of reconfiguring the nether bits into somewhat reasonable facsimiles of the OPPs. Trans women (assigned male at birth, but with a feminine gender identity) have much better results than trans men, for whom the products of phalloplasty are rudimentary and only recognisable as a penis because of anatomical location. Those also require disfiguring grafts from the thigh or forearm, which, combined with poor performance and high cost, make genital confirmation surgery unrealistic for many trans men.

Now, if you only define changing sex by switching reproductive ability or chromosomal makeup, it’s quite impossible. The past few years have seen strides in uterine transplants and test-tube vaginas, but there have been no tests on trans women as yet, and gonadal swapping is not at all a reality, so reproductively, it’s still science fiction. Especially for the guys. Again. No gene therapy can change chromosomal makeup, which kills that idea. But sex is not so easy to define, and the way it develops within our bodies is not nearly as tidy and either-or as we believe.

Men are men and women are women! Men have an x and a y chromosome, women have two x chromosomes, you can’t change that, it’s Science, predetermination, biological essentialism, and just makes sense, dammit!” Consider this case: There is a family in Egypt wherein the mother has a predominant karyotype of 46xy, that’s male for the chromosomally-defined inclined, and yet she developed normally as a female, naturally conceived and gave birth, and still has to pick up her husband’s absent-mindedly discarded socks every day. Her daughter is likewise predominantly 46xy. Well, shit! There goes that theory. “But wait!” you say. “That’s only one example in billions. Surely, it doesn’t mean anything.” That’s not all, and don’t call me Shirley. Did you catch that bit where I said “predominant karyotype?” It’s because she and her daughter have two genetic karyotypes in their bodies. People, animals and plants which have this are said to have mosaicism when the different genetic lines are caused by a mutation in the organism, or chimerism when two fertilised blastocysts or zygotes merge in utero to form one organism. This happens more often than was initially expected. A test found both 46xy and 45x cells in me, in fact.

These are two examples of a group of people who are called intersex, and remember that story about the box-forts from way back at the beginning? Intersex people are the millions who live outside the forts, between and all around. About one in every hundred children is born with some form of intersex condition (formerly known as pseudo-hermaphroditism, and more recently described as DSD — disorders of sexual development), of which there are many causes. Trippy, huh? It’s one of the most common types of birth defects, and yet gets no love from What To Expect or the Dr. Sears series of books.

Why did we switch over to intersex people? What do they have to do with transsexuals?” Valid questions, so here goes: There’s not a whole lot of research into why transsexuals are the way they are, but what there is points to it correlating to the development of the brain as a possible cause as in this example. A more exhaustive collection of studies can be found here, to peruse or ignore at your leisure. My assertion is that transsexuals would also fall under the intersex canopy because it is a physical condition that blurs and crosses the line between male- and female-bodied people. The seat of our identity is in our brains, not in our crotch, no matter from where some people may seem to derive the majority of their thoughts. So it would seem there is a correlation between the brain’s development and gender identity. But why do we identify as a gender (or both or in-between or neither), at all?!?!

When we are born, we learn through observation and as we develop our coordination further, by acting on those observations, mimicry. Via observation, we also learn to discern and connect things. We can distinguish between familiar and foreign accents and faces from just a few days old. As our understanding and self-awareness increases, we learn about family and other relational qualities. Have you ever witnessed the first time a child meets a person of a different ethnic or racial group with unfamiliar features? The child recognises something new and different. How that child reacts to new things is both personal and cultural, but they soon learn that there are different groups of people.

Two of the first groups they can distinguish between are men and women, and they recognise the differences well before similarities. It may come out as the child calling all men “dada” and all women “mama” for a time until they learn that mom and dad are unique members of those groups, and most children will make the connection about which groups they, themselves, “belong” to in early toddlerdom. At one point, researchers in the ‘60s and ’70s thought gender identity was not set and could be changed, but this has long since been disproven to all but a few holdovers. Psychologists have understood for the past 30 years that our gender identities are fixed, they say, by age three, but I would argue that this number is based on the age most people can understand the differences in the sexes and genders, and not that they are mutable until then. I know some lovely people who came to the realisation that their gender identity was not cisgender much later than three. Why? I cannot say, but there is some research into the proportions of white matter in certain parts of the brain that doesn’t finish developing until people are in their 20s and that is analogous to gender identity, or it might be that their identities are nonbinary as touched on above, and they hadn’t felt compelled to express it until further along in life. Really, though, it doesn’t matter the whys and wherefores. We should walk away with the knowledge that identity, while influenced by and seen through the filter of culture, can only be understood by the self. We cannot dictate personal identity, nor can it be suppressed for too long without causing psychological trauma.

Whatever the causes and ways of recognising gender identity, it seems we have an early understanding of which tribe(s) we belong to, or identify with, and that sticks with us. Then, we look at everything that defines that group, from the associated bodies to the clothing, relationships, and behaviours. Those things we adopt or reject according to individual tastes and abilities. Our own presentations are constantly undergoing an evaluation and comparison to others of our group. Fashions, “attractive” body types, slang, popular activities, subcultural association, and grooming styles are always in a state of flux, and constant monitoring keeps our presentation in alignment with current cultural norms. Gender is the roles we play and how we play them as defined by our culture.

WomenFriendsCrossedLegsAnd gender identity is an intrinsic recognition of belonging (or not) to the male and/or female camps that has a strong correlation with brain structure, which is expressed socially through shared, culturally prescribed modes of dress, movement, language, social roles, activities, values, and body presentations. I told you that I’d repeat that, and I even threw in a couple of extra. Most of the time, there is not a conflict between the assigned sex and the gender identity of the person, these persons are called cisgender, and they make up 99% of us. The question has been asked whether transsexuals would seek physical transition if society recognised them as a member of the gender without the associated sexed body. Who can say? I think body image is so tied to our ideas about gender that it is necessary for the person to make their body fit their identity as closely as possible, and both the AMA (American Medical Association) and APA (American Psychological Association), among others, agree. Any other birth defect would be surgically corrected, when possible, so why not this one?

Gender is so basic to our understanding of what it is to be human, that any transgression of the culture-specific rules is usually met with either intensely curious fascination or swift correction and punishment. “Who are these odd creatures outside the palisades, and do they mean us harm?” They are us, and no they don’t, but they may challenge what you previously accepted as normal. Humans are beings of infinite variety, in every respect. Our challenge is to recognise and accept that, then teach it to our children so that the world they live in can be full of open doors where we are welcome to dwell wherever they may, and breathe freely the air flowing about and through us all.