Friday, November 28, 2008

Gender We Can Believe In

Writer Lauren McLaughlin blogs:

The November Atlantic has a fantastic article by Hanna Rosin about transgender kids, which I read hungrily in the hope that it would add to my understanding of the topic. Sadly, it confirmed many of my worst fears. There’s a heart-rending story about 8-year-old Brandon who, from the moment he could speak, has insisted he was a girl. His bewildered parents, who live in an area where “a boy’s a boy and a girl’s a girl,” eventually wind up at a transgender conference where they meet kids and parents going through the same kinds of challenges. The article outlines in broad strokes the evolution of attitudes on the subject of gender identity, though I’m not sure “evolution” is the right word. “Pendulum” seems more appropriate since we seem to swing back and forth between the two following dogmas:

Gender is hard-wired and immune to cultural influence


Gender is entirely cultural with no biological basis

Otherwise known as Nature versus Nurture.

The fact that gender could be a mix of these two things seems not to have entered into the minds of the “experts” who treat these kids. Notably absent from interviews with them is any awareness of the fact that they may not have at their disposal all the information required to form a comprehensive theory of gender. And since all of the kids (and indeed all of the psychologists, physicians, and researchers who study them) exist within a cultural framework, it’s nearly impossible to isolate non-cultured traits. In fact, the few twin studies performed on the subject have revealed that, while sexual orientation seems to have a strong biological basis, gender identity does not.

Lauren concludes:

Is there another way? We don’t demand rigid conformity to norms in all things. Why gender? The average man is taller than the average woman, but we don’t demand that short men take human grown hormone or that tall women have their legs shortened. Is it possible that we’re demanding too much of these children and not enough from society as a whole? Shouldn’t we be better than the mother of Brandon’s former best friend who rejected him on “Christian” grounds? Perhaps if it was okay for a boy to wear make up, Brandon wouldn’t be faced with the prospect of puberty-blocking hormones. And why shouldn’t it be okay for a boy to wear make up? It doesn’t hurt anyone.

Utterly absent from this otherwise insightful article was any mention of compassion. Not once did someone suggest that Brandon might be encouraged to love his body as it is and still enjoy playing with dolls. Not once did anyone question the ethics of endorsing rigid gender boundaries despite ample evidence of the pain they cause. Perhaps when faced with a little boy like Brandon, instead of figuring out how to fix him, we should figure out how to fix ourselves.

Right on. I can only add my experience: My son likes to wear dresses once in a while (mainly at birthday parties; he thinks that dresses are more festive) and has shown more interests in ballet and figure skating than sports and hockey, but at no point has he indicated that he wants to be a girl, and he still rough houses and does the whole playing-with-trucks thing. Recently, he's started to show a bit more self-consciousness about gender roles--he actually did not request a dress for our last birthday party--which I'm pretty sure is one outcome of socialization at school. We're not pushing either way. These are his decisions, as far as we're concerned.

The rest of Lauren's entry is well worth a read. She's the author of the young adult novel, Cycler, which is about a girl named Jill who turns into a boy named Jack for four days out of the month. I'll definitely be checking that one out.


Anonymous said...

I've always thought boys were slightly cheated in the clothing department. You can only get so excited about jeans and tee shirts. I bet a lot more boys would play dress up if it were socially acceptable, for the simple fact that it's fun.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

There's plenty of dress-up in the Castro in San Francisco. At its best, the guys play off of gendered images. At root, of course, they all just want to look good.

For myself, I'm a T-shirt and jeans guy--something that definitely marks me as "straight" in the context of the Castro. Am I poorer for it? I often wonder, but I don't have the energy to push my personal boundaries in this area.

Dawn said...

I've known lots of little boys who loved to wear dresses including my younger brother, who DID say he wanted to be a girl but was expressly wishing for the ability to wear said dresses out in the world and get the same fussing over that his big sisters did. (Boys DO get cheated in the clothes department.) My brother is a very traditionally masculine straight guy now albeit with more sensitivity then you'd assume from looking at him.

There was another little boy I knew who strongly identified with the princesses in his Disney movies and liked to pretend to be them. His dad was in a panic. (This was when I taught preschool.) But it made sense to me -- the movies were centered on a very stereotypical feminine experience that was very romantic. Timmy was an extremely sensitive, extremely empathetic kid and I think he saw more room for that in the highly stylized gender roles of the movies. Being able to talk to mice and sing to birds? He loved those ideas. Just like I watched those same movies when I was a kid and thought, "But I don't want to wait around for some prince!" Me, I had a feminist mom who encouraged us to think outside our gender roles but I think Timmy just got his Disney movies taken away.