“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” An obvious question these days to most people who are curious about the child I am incubating. The curiosity is appreciated on my part, in fact. I like to talk about being pregnant and generally enjoy talking about human experiences, mine or yours! But the question itself is somewhat flawed with the belief that I would in anyway be able to tell what the gender of our baby is without having even met the child first.
Gender and sex is often confused. “Boy”, “girl”, “man”, and “woman” are some of the gender terms we use for humans whereas “male” and “female” are biological sex terms. I first learned about this difference back in early undergrad when I was studying sex differences in spatial skills… mostly in rats. When working with rats it was most appropriate to refer to them by their sex. When the rats were born we would sex-typed as either male or female based on their genitalia, or rather based on the distance between their anus and their urethral opening, which is larger for males to allow the descent of the testes. Based on that simple distinction, we grouped our animals into males and females.
These studies with rats were of “sex differences” but when working with humans our studies were of “gender differences”. And there was a good rationale for that distinction: gender and sex are not equivalent terms. In a 2011review on the history and future of gender, published in the academic journal Sex Roles, researchers Zosuls, Miller, Ruble, Martin, Fabes remind us that:
“The 1970s marked a turning point in terms of how scholars thought about the concepts of sex and gender. Unger’s (1979) influential paper, Toward a Redefinition of Sex and Gender, asserted that the use of the term gender “serves to reduce assumed parallels between biological and psychological sex or at least to make explicit any assumptions of such parallels” (p. 1,086). Her ideas led scholars to become more selective in their use of the terms sex and gender”.
Gender, pertains to the sex the person identifies with and represents a cognitive construct or “what I feel to be”. Gender is something people get to claim for themselves, regardless of what they look like. As a result we can have a gender identity that misaligns with the external genitalia of a penis or vagina. When I teach about gender and sex in my Biological Psychology university course, I ask students to look around the room and then at themselves and consider how they know if any of us are males or females? At first they begin to state the obvious gender stereotypes. Then, we continue on through the class and I explain to them all the ways that sex is not obvious to anyone, including ourselves. Genes and chromosomes (i.e., XX vs XY) are one factor, response to sex hormones is another, and even our brain can be sex-typed. In fact, biological sex comes with a whole host of nuances that makes external sexual characteristics themselves only ONE way to sex-type an individual, rat or human. Most important, these don’t always align to create a clear picture of whether someone should be classified as male or female, never mind man or woman. Below are two readings that go into this further, but in essence, few people in the class actually know for sure whether they are properly categorized as male or female because those categories simple are not good ways of viewing a phenomenon that is truly a continuum. Furthermore, what they had listed for characteristics that differentiate males and females were largely based on gender roles not biological sex.
In some ways, biological sex is more difficult to discern than gender. Even within our laboratory rat studies it became difficult. Some of what we were doing involved manipulating hormone levels as further ways to assess the role of “sex” on spatial skills. Half of our female rats were given injections of testosterone very early after birth. Half of the males underwent surgery to remove their testes, effectively reducing much of their testosterone exposure thereafter. What did we observe? A nice gradient of spatial skills, obviously dependent upon sex and testosterone. But more relevant to this particular discussion was a very clear observation in the anatomy of our rats. The females tended to have significantly enlarged tissue in their anogenital region that resembled bulging testes. The males that lacked testosterone had shrunken testes in a way that resembled the female’s anatomy. It’s too bad I couldn’t have asked my rats if they identified as a boy rat or a girl rat, but because I could not, I was not entitled to assign a gender to them, only a sex.
Gender is whatever the person wants to claim and does not require the external validation by someone else. That doesn’t make the claim any less difficult for someone who falls more within the middle of the continuum, wishing to claim both, or neither, but it is up for that person to make the decision and the rest of us to take that as their truth. We aren’t entitled to strip someone down and check their anatomy, but even if we did what is beneath their clothes may not be definitive of what there gender is. It isn’t even definitive of what their genetics, hormones, or brain has to say about their sex (further readings below).
Gender should not be confused with sex, even though it often is. A small pet peeve I inherited from my research supervisor, Dr. Katherine Schultz, was seeing the title of scientific studies using laboratory animals (like rats) mistakenly denote “gender” in place of sex. I would challenge those researchers (and I have) to effectively argue that they knew the gender of their rats. You can imagine my mind when I read on our ultrasound report which stated “the gender appears to be…”, falsely presuming that the technician involved could actually claim the gender of our baby, even if they did get the anatomy correct. The ultrasound can no more define the gender of our baby than can any of the other biological sex indicators we have at present. That’s not to say that gender escapes any sort of biological basis but I am fairly certain the technician reading the ultrasound is not privy to it.
We have chosen not to reveal the sex of our baby (the rest of that line on our report was scratched out, at our request) so in fact, we do not know the gender or the sex of our baby. The sex will likely be revealed to us at birth and from that moment on our baby will begin to have a gender imposed upon them. Everything from tone of voice, language, clothes, toys, and expectations directed at them will be gendered and will be geared toward a presumed gender based on their sex. Our baby will be engendered long before they have a chance to claim it for them self. We will do our best to avoid these stereotypes and provide a safe an open space for our baby to adopt the gender role they prefer. We have already acquired an array of clothes and toys that span from boy to girl and hopefully everything in between. We will happily dress our child in pinks and blues and greens and purples and yellows no matter WHICH sex they emerge as, showing from the start that this child has a whole spectrum to choose from. We aim to offer this same spectrum of choice for all sorts of gendered activities, thoughts, emotions, relationships, career choices… Others, including good friends of our, choose to neutralize gender. Others have even chosen to conceal the sex of the child to protect them from the premature engendering. There are many ways of offering up space for children to choose their own gender. Ultimately, being supportive of what the child chooses is key, particularly if a child chooses one very different from the one assigned the them based on their sex (see FACT SHEET on Transgendered Children and Youth below).
But as aware of gender as we might pride ourselves to be, we still harbour stereotypes that will influence our baby’s gender. And likely so do you. I catch myself saying things like, I’m worried about having a girl because… or If it’s a boy, I won’t know how to deal with X, Y, or Z. Or when people ask about the gender, I sometimes say, I think it’s a “boy”. Maybe I know. Maybe I can feel the gender, energetically. But we really won’t know for quite some time. In the meantime, I hope we can provide the space for our child to lead the way toward their own gender identification. In many ways, coming to know our child’s gender is something to be curious about just the same as we wonder “what will our baby be when they grow up?”. A doctor… an artistic… a social activist… a nun… a musician… a parent… an entrepreneur… an athlete… a man… a woman… neither… both… Gender is just another one of those identities yet to be determined.
FACT SHEET from IWK Hospital in Halifax on Transgendered Children and Youth: Information for Parents and Caregivers: http://www.iwk.nshealth.ca/sites/default/files/TRANSGENDER%20FACT%20SHEET.pdf
“They” is a pronoun gaining greater popularity as a gender neutral term to replace “he/she”: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/he-or-she-versus-they
The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. Article in Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews
Zay, a young girl felt trapped in a boy’s body: http://www.cincinnati.com/longform/news/2015/02/21/transgender-cincinnati-childrenshospital-hormone-therapy-enquirer/23697339/
Toronto parents hide child’s gender in bed for neutral treatment: http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/05/25/toronto-parents-hide-childs-gender-in-bid-to-for-neutral-treatment/
Olympics struggle with ‘policing femininity’: http://www.thestar.com/sports/olympics/2012/06/08/olympics_struggle_with_policing_femininity.html
Invisibilia NPR Podcast on The Power of Categories (Feb 5th) with a story of a man who flips between man and woman: http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia