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?