Gender identity

What defines gender? Whether you have XX or XY chromosomes? The physical manifestation that your genitals and internal organs take? Your sexuality and who you are sexually attracted to? (And their gender!) Is it the way that your brain works? The games that you played and the toys that you played with as a child?

The concept of gender identity has been in the news this week because of a couple in Canada that are refusing to tell anyone the sex of their child. You can read the original story here: Parents keep child’s gender secret. The couple have called the baby “Storm” and announced “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).” As the baby’s mother later explained, they have a 5 year old boy called Jazz who does not fit the stereotype for his gender. “Jazz’s love of colour (especially pink) and fabric (especially dresses) continued, and he wanted to grow his hair. The older he became, the more he met with pressure from peers and adults to “act more like a boy.” (From The Star: ‘Genderless’ baby’s mother responds to media frenzy)

It seems that the baby’s parents want to keep the sex of their child secret to allow their child to make choices about gender for itself without pressure from people around it.

As you can see in the paragraph above, I have had to use the word “itself” and modify my language to refer to a child without knowing its sex. This, I think, is reason enough alone for the fact that the first question asked about every child is “Is it a boy or a girl?” The fact is, without knowing this, the English language does not allow proper conversation about the child! We feel uncomfortable using the word ‘it’ but we cannot use ‘he’ or ‘she’ without knowing sex.

In fact, a slight controversy was stirred up by FHM magazine yesterday. It seems that they have included a man in their “100 Sexiest Women in the World” this year. (Telegraph: FHM names Andrej Pejic 98th sexiest ‘woman’ in the world) Andrej Pejic is an androgynous model who appears in men’s or women’s clothing to suit what the fashion industry wants at the time. Unfortunately FHM didn’t seem particularly enlightened in dealing with this situation, refering to Andrej as a ‘thing’ in their write-up. (Styleite: Andrej Pejic Called A ‘Thing’ By FHMMagazine)

Gender identity is not a straightforward issue. As I alluded in my opening paragraph, biological sex is difficult to determine and the results of checking chromosomes might be different from checking genitals. Sex can be confused, neither one nor the other, or perhaps both.  Typically women have two X chromosomes, while men have one X and one Y chromosome. Kleinfelters syndrome may leave a person with both two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome. Swyer syndrome, or XY gonadal dysgenesis, results in a person that looks female, but has male chromosomes. de la Chapelle syndrome results in a person with female XX chromosomes but with male genitals. Chromosomes are obviously only a rough guide to sex, and even less of a guide to gender identity.

Historically, however, it is only the type of genitals that have been taken into account to determine biological sex and gender identity. This is woefully lacking as a method of working out whether someone is male, female or other. Take, for example, runner Caster Semenya. There was a controversy in 2009 because she was competing in the womens races, but she was accused of being a man because she didn’t look feminine enough. After a number of tests, she was found to have no ovaries, but she did apparently have testes, albeit small and hidden internally. (Sydney Daily Telegraph: Runner has no ovaries: report) We have not been told the results of final tests made. Semenya has lived as a woman all her life and I do not think she had any reason to think she should live otherwise.

Another well-known case is that of David Reimer. This is a tragic story of a boy who was reassigned to live and grow up as a girl following an accident during circumcision. His penis was destroyed and his parents and doctors made the decision to remove his testes too and raise him as a woman. Despite being given female hormones and made to wear girls clothing, he always identified as a man, and began living as a man at the age of fifteen. He killed himself at the age of thirty-eight.

Going back to the case of Storm, then, the child of unknown sex, are Storm’s parents doing the right thing? I personally think not. I can understand the logic that a person must be allowed to find their own gender, but I don’t think that this is the best way in our society. So many aspects of life require knowledge of sex; toilets are seperated by sex. Clothing is determined by sex. Sometimes classes at school are split by sex. Even the language we speak relies on knowledge of sex.

Certainly it is a vast never-ending problem for people to re-assign their gender later in life. Although we have positive examples such as some governments now making allowances for transgender people to travel and to have a passport with their new identity, a large chunk of the world persecute trans people and make life hell for them. From something as simple as which toilets they are allowed to use, up to problems with getting married. In Texas lawmakers are trying to overturn the rights of transgender people to marry. (Huffington Post: Texas May Strip Away Transgender Marriage Rights.) A person may also be trapped by their social group, religion or culture and unable to reassign their gender.

I think that Storm’s parents would do better to raise Storm as a boy or a girl all while making it clear that whatever Storm turns out to be, there will be parental love and support. What do you think?

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

17 thoughts on “Gender identity”

  1. What a wonderful blog.  It’s not so much the child’s gender this highlights for me, but yet again, adults are making a kid feel uncomfortable, if not miserable, for no other reason than the kid is pleasing himself as he explores the world, learns about himself and his preferences. Well done to the parents for taking a stand – though what a shame they had to in the first place!

    Adults seriously need to get a grip of themselves.  He likes pink.  I like blue.  My sister played with  little Matchbox cars.  We both climbed trees and played at ‘armies’. My brother would play with us and our teasets – pink teasets.  And?  What is the problem?  I know a little lad who wouldn’t go anywhere without this big yellow ladies purse, and another who loved his pink baby hairbrush took it to bed every night.  And?  Kid is happy so why shouldn’t the adults be?

    Adults, perhaps the world would be a far better place if you grew up and behaved like this happy, calm little boy is trying to be.

  2. When he was little, my son enjoyed dressing up.  I still have the contact book from his nursery which said how lovely he looked in his red dress.  Even after he went to school we still did things like painting his toenails blue and green. At no time did either of us consider he was anything other than a boy. He just enjoyed dressing up and painting toenails. Why shouldn’t boys do that? And why should anyone have to hide their gender – or their childrens’ gender – just so they can enjoy doing what are perfectly normal activities for children of both sexes? Storm’s parents are pandering to the ridiculous gender stereotyping that goes on in our society from increasingly early ages, and I have to say particularly affects boys. Let children be children, for goodness’ sake.

    1. The parents are not suggesting that wearing a dress makes someone a girl. They’re protecting their child from the idea that boys shouldn’t wear dresses, so that the child can feel free to wear dresses regardless of genitals. Then, one day, when Storm feels old enough, Storm can decide whether it’s okay to tell people which pronoun to use, and whether to identify as a boy or a girl. And Storm is free to tell people whatever Storm wants.

      It’s lucky that you and I have had such an understanding upbringing, and that your brother was allowed to wear a dress.

  3. I think that while the parents may not be doing the absolute best thing for baby storm, I find it really odd that people are SO concerned. The child will make the decision for themselves soon enough.  Storm will have to, when they interact more with the world.

    What i find especially interesting is that the parents have removed a way for people outside to judge HOW to act towards their baby. And people do – girls are allowed to cry more, boys are ‘big and strong’ People buy gendered toys and baby things as presents, even things which don’t need to be gendered at all, like nappies.  Right from the start, people project a gender identity on babies. Even before they are born. It runs really deep.

    I can remember playing with ‘girl’s’ lego as a child, at a friends house. I remember being a bit confused and not altogether happy that i could now play with pink and pastel coloured bricks. Until that point i hadnt known a girls version of lego existed, and i was annoyed the colours were separated! why couldnt normal lego be these colours too? The separation made me aware that lego was a ‘boys’ toy.  It isnt. in the slightest.

      1. Perhaps I should reveal which of my children desperately wanted, and got for Christmas aged 4, a doll’s house…
        I’ve always tried not to gender-stereotype my children, despite which the boys (men?) are, well, masculine and the girls are feminine (if you discount an uncanny ability to talk in burp.) But then, I think I’ve got a male brain anyway.

  4. i know a ‘guy’ – a nice, gentle, educated but shy ‘guy’, by the way – that was born with no sexual organs at all. He was brought up for many years as a girl then changed at age 11 to a boy through his own choice. He had huge hangups for years then decided one day, ‘Fuck It, I am Me!’ and has been cool about it ever since, even bringing the subject up in the company of friends. We can even joke about it.

  5. Your examples and lots of others I’ve seen tell me that people are happier when they get to choose their gender expression. Only very intimate friends get to see our genitals, after all. And if Storm decides that their gender and genitals don’t match up, they can know and seek medical help before puberty when the hormones kick in. I wish I’d been given the gift of a genderless childhood.

    Supportive parents are obviously very important, because of this unsupportive social climate. But blaming the parents (and people who chose to blur the gender boundaries) reeks of victim-blaming that’s now thankfully becoming less common in rape cases. It wasn’t because she was wearing a short skirt, and it shouldn’t be because they didn’t immediately express their reproductive organs in an obvious way when they met their abuser.

    It’s not the genderly-interesting people who should change, it’s everyone else who should stop giving them grief.

    Thanks. 🙂

  6. I think the world certainly has a problem with this – especially boys “acting like girls” – but there must be better ways of working to solve this problem than laying it all on your new born child’s shoulders and calling them “Storm”.

    Pretending that someone who clearly has a gender, doesn’t, isn’t the answer IMO. Letting girls and boys grow into or against gender stereotypes as they wish would be fine. Stereotypes may be inevitable to some extent (just a reflection of something that’s common, but not universal) – let them be incidental, not a straight jacket.

    btw, it’s interesting to talk about giving Storm “choice” – poor kid wasn’t given a choice about becoming known to most people in the world, or allowed to choose the (unwanted?) attention that may follow them for quite a while.

    I certainly don’t think we should force our children to be “normal” – all the most interesting people aren’t “normal” – but it also makes me cringe when I see children who themselves are trying to be quite normal in some respect while their parents try their best to make them “different”.

    1. As soon as Storm is old enough to speak, they’ll have the choice to tell people which pronoun to use, and whether to be seen as a boy or a girl. The parents aren’t enforcing a gender (or lack thereof) onto their child. They’re just preventing other people from doing so.

      Re: publicity, no one will recognise the kid in a couple of years, and we’ll all have forgotten about them. Well, everyone but the people who’re interested in gender as a social issue, perhaps. 🙂

        1. I don’t think so. I mean, perhaps if the parents wanted that, then yes. But provided the parents say no, everyone will just forget. There was another gender-neutral parenting story a couple of years back, I think the kid was called Pop. They lived somewhere Scandinavian, I think? Anyway, I’m tuned into gender stuff and I have no idea what Pop is up to now, or whether they kept their sex a secret, or chose to express any kind of gender stuff.

          This burst of internet attention makes it a big deal now, but it’ll have blown over soon. 🙂

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