Monday, December 20, 2010

“Easy there pilgrim”: Exploring Gender Assignment within a Binary System

    For a number of reasons, the biggest of which is time, I have not posted any of my papers for the semester on this blog. This is a research paper that I did for my University Writing course.


Citizens of the United States of America take great pride in the numerous technological advancements and various cultural influences that allow them to convey their individuality in a myriad of ways. From New York City to Los Angeles, freedom and eccentricity reign. Liberty is seen as the sacred foundation of this country, yet within this nation, traditional views about gender limit the free expression of those not defined within the current binary system, and in restraining their uniqueness they are inadequately able to express their autonomy.

    Gender has typically been viewed in terms of man and woman; this corresponds with our concept of sex—male and female, yet according to Kristin Zeiler and Anette Wickstrom of Linkoping University, 1.7 to 4% of children born are intersex, meaning to be born with ambiguous genitalia, which is more common than children born with Down's syndrome (Zeiler and Wickstrom 359). In their article "Why do 'we' perform surgery on new born intersexed children?" they point out that parents of these kids are often frustrated when entrusted medical professionals do not know what sex the infant is. If the sex is hard to determine, then the gender will also create more difficulty. This concept of intersex is hard to understand while still holding the traditional view of a binary nature of sex and gender (Zeiler and Wickstrom 364). Parents look to doctors to give them answers which do not always fall in their realm of expertise. If the child is born with a slow heart rate or shallow breathing, a doctor could prescribe a treatment, but with the case of intersex children, there is no clear answer because there isn't a clear understanding of the situation.

    To understand the concept of gender assignment, we must first realize that there is much that we do not know. Laura Erickson-Schroth, a resident at NYU Langone Medical Center and author of many books about trans-gender issues claims that a "common assumption is that gender and sex are the same thing" (Erickson-Schroth 60). While sex is determined by the chromosomes in our DNA, gender does not have clear markers that allow for a positive identification. Many suppose that the best way to determine gender is to assign it to the corresponding sex—the gender of "man" for males and "woman" for females. In severing this traditional link between sex and gender, pathways of expression that have been closed may now open. Erickson-Schroth goes on to describe why this linkage of sex and gender persists today: "Sexuality is more complicated than we could ever imagine, and yet we use rather simple language to describe it" (Erickson-Schroth 67). In other words, we use simple terms like man and woman, male and female, gay and straight to describe the entire population while completely denying the varying levels of each group and thereby suppressing their expression. Using binary terms like man and woman to describe one's gender would be like using only the terms happy and sad to describe our moods. When a person asked you how you felt, your only options would be wither happy or sad, but what if you felt pensive or grateful? How would you express yourself with such limited terms? By restricting our vocabulary to only two words like happy and sad, we hinder our ability to express how we feel—removing the beauty of speech. This inadequacy of our speech has created the deficit of understanding gender. Gender, like our own emotions, needs more than two options in order to be expressed.

    Perhaps one reason why we maintain this binary view on gender stems from one of the most popular American icons, John Wayne. Starring in over two hundred movies as a cowboy, war hero, and athlete, John Wayne's deep voice and natural height of 6'4" captured the attention of the American public, and he still remains one of the most popular movie stars of all time over thirty years after his death. Seen as the "man's man," Wayne embodied the strength, power and masculinity that an "ideal man" ought to become. Bob McGuire, a therapist and life coach wrote about the image of John Wayne and the effort put into keeping him masculine. "John Wayne actually had shorter doors to walk through on the sets, and they made the doors the women walked through higher to give the illusion that this great man, so big and so strong, was actually bigger and stronger than he was and the women were actually smaller and weaker than they were" (McGuire 42). The "manliness" of John Wayne was in part a fabrication of set designs set up to make the hero appear stronger than those that needed rescuing. Although John Wayne was a large man without any assistance, he was still enhanced to meet some unrealistic ideal of a real man. This concept of men being strong and tough trickles down to our perception of what boys should be also—little boys should play with trucks and guns while little girls play with dolls and dresses. While John Wayne may not be the origin of gender identification for men, his image and legacy impact children today.

    Alice Dreger, a professor of bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, wrote an article entitled "Gender Identity Disorders in Childhood: Inconclusive Advice to Parents" in which she shares an example of a little boy, William, that likes to play with dolls and chooses to identify himself as a girl. William's parents placed him in therapy to cure him of his Gender Identity Disorder. The therapists prescribed a simple beginning treatment: "William will be given gender-neutral toys to replace his Barbie and My Little Pony and will, ideally, be led to develop friendships with other boys—not boys of the rough-and-tumble, army-toy-obsessed type, since William will never relate well to those boys, but boys of a calmer gentler variety" (Dreger 26). This handling already exposes the flaw of binary thinking regarding gender. The therapists feel the need to make William a "boy" despite his own desire to be a girl, yet they acknowledge that William will never be a boy that plays rough but will need to be assigned with softer boys to befriend. They recognize that even within the gender of boy, there are great differences, yet they are all given the same label. If there isn't a two-sizes-fit-all approach to gender, why do doctors, parents and cultural trends demand that everyone assimilate into one of the two accepted genders?

    William's behaviors would then be seen as natural in a different cultural environment such as Samoa where biological male children who express feminine traits from an early age are not put into therapy to remedy the behavior; they fall into a third category of gender called fa'afafine. Fa'afafine are born biological males. As these young boys grow and develop, they begin to demonstrate feminine characteristics, so their parents raise them as girls. Their gender is not seen as fixed, so they are assigned another gender that is a better fit for them. As adults, they dress as women, perform tasks traditionally reserved for women, date and have sexual intercourse with men who consider themselves straight, all with their original sexual organs. In this culture, fa'afafine are not seen as radical outcasts because "the culture has a system that accommodates their difference" (Dreger 28). Their language allows them to experience a more diverse way of life that is lacking here in the US. This open expression of a third gender allows those that do not fall into the man/women categories to claim their identity without repercussions.

     The acceptance of the fa'afafine stands in great contrast to the actions taken in Western societies. One European family was told by the doctor that their child who had XX chromosomes, female genes, would "make a very nice boy because of the child's genitals" (Zeiler and Wickstrom 366). Another family assigned their intersex child the male sex. When asked by the doctor whether they had chosen a name, the family informed the doctor that the child's name would be Johan, the doctor replied: "That is good. He must have a sterling boy's name" (Zeiler and Wickstrom 367). The doctor's implication that a boy must have a strong masculine name highlights the attempt to reinforce manly attributes further explained by McGuire, "Men are generally bigger and stronger and thus thought to be tougher, and women, generally smaller are thought to be weaker and sweeter... a deep, gruff male voice I associate with strength and roughness, and a soft female voice often sounds nurturing and innocent" (Mcguire 42). Just as John Wayne's masculinity was in part a fabrication of Hollywood set designs, families, doctors, teachers and friends continue to strengthen the elementary perception of gender. Western cultures have set up ideas and rules to maintain the two-gender system. These ideas are perpetuated by previous unfounded stereotypes.

     Many advocates, poets and social psychologists reject cultural norms and walk according to their own path, yet their language is still confined to the concept of just two genders. Harold Norse, a popular American writer who recently died in 2009 wrote a poem called "I'm Not a Man" in which he throws the traditional views of manhood aside in order to claim his own identity. He writes:
I'm not a man. I won't play the role assigned to me- the role created
by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver Cromwell,
Television does not dictate my behavior.
Norse clearly understood that there is more to being a man than what we are taught in our culture, and argues against the traditional allocation of gender roles. He asserts that these identities are "created" (Norse) and disseminated by popular media. Men, like women, escape a simple definition. Each gender is complex, and ought not to be categorized simply by sex, yet the feelings that many men experience, like tenderness and vulnerability, must be hidden in order to maintain the illusion of masculinity they are assigned.

     However, many feel that gender ought to be protected and valued within the two-gender system. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as "the Mormons," issued a statement in 1995 called "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" where they claim: "All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose" (Hinkley 1). Gender, according to the LDS church, is specifically linked to a person's sex, and ought to be a measure on which life assignments and duties should be decided. The LDS Church's simple assessment of sex and gender relates to Erickson-Schroth's previous assertion that we use "simple language" (67) in understanding the nature of human sexuality. By maintaining a binary system, religions are able to synchronize their doctrine and avoid moral ambiguities; Male and Female, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell, Salvation and Damnation all reinforce a dichotomous language. While religious groups are certainly entitled to their opinions, these opinions do not allow a significant number of people that do not fall into the male/female roles to have a voice. According to Zeiler and Wickstrom, a limited vocabulary like this leads one to associate anything outside of the male and female genders with "silence and shame" (373). The lack of religious language to describe other genders leads those who do not accept a traditional gender role to associate their feelings with something unnatural, while the indifferent attitudes of the majority push the minority further away in embracing their own doctrine of correctness.

     There is also some merit in maintaining traditional views on gender through sex assignment surgery. Zeiler and Wickstrom point out that for intersex children "Surgery is part of the identity work… if parents do not have their child undergo surgery, they contribute to the child's gender identity confusion" (369). Children are exposed to the binary gender system in every encounter with friends, classmates and family members. In not assigning them a gender, they will be even more confused about their identity than if they were assigned a wrong gender. A child who is not given an identity to explore will face the dangerous world of their peer group without peers. An early gender identity, even a wrong one, gives a child the right "look" in order to fit in. By allowing a child to determine their own sex and gender in their own time, parents set their children up for disaster. Gender identity is a critical step in developing a social identity. Making friends, going to the bathroom and even seating assignments at times require some form of gender assignment. Jr. High School is a difficult time without the added complication of not having a sex or gender identity. Dreger also agrees with this philosophy noting that "children should not have to get caught up in adult politics of sex, gender, and sexual orientation" (Dreger 27). Children are not pawns to be used as fodder in an ever-increasing battle regarding gender issues and sexual orientation, but Dreger also uses an example from Ken Zucker, a psychologist and sexologist, to elaborate on the need to avoid surgery in reference to William, the little boy who identified as a girl: "if yours were a black family and William were insisting that he is white, the right approach would not be to ask doctors to help make William white" (Dreger 27). While the surgical method will certainly "reduce parental distress and trauma" (Zeiler and Wickstrom 361), it may not be in the best interest of the child.

     Determining the best interest of the child presents its own set of problems because there is not simple solution. Just as Erickson-Schroth explained that "sexuality is more complicated than we could ever imagine…," (67) Zeiler and Wickstrom also point out that parents of intersex children discover "sex is much more fluid than they had previously thought to be the case" (368). Modern thought is now learning what Samoan culture has known for generations—there are more than two genders. The fa'afafine may not the dominant gender in Somoa, or the most popular, but at least they are given the chance to live in a way that brings them happiness. This fluidity of gender roles captures the need to open our understanding of gender beyond the current state. If we know that sex and gender do not correspond, and we know that there can be more than one gender within a culture and it will not collapse, then we should be willing in establishing new terminology in gender identity.

    Language regarding gender, sex and sexual orientation needs to be broadened. In expanding the vocabulary within these issues, Western culture and American citizens will find that there are more similarities among that which has previously been viewed as different. A more diverse lexicon will lead to a more diverse population, allowing the disenfranchised to take part in the great American experience of liberty.