What Is Gender?
Gender defines us and at times defies us. Some people try to break free of gender stereotypes, while others enthusiastically embrace them. Some change their gender; others accept the gender identity they were born with, whether male, female or somewhere in between. One thing is certain: We all need to expand our understanding of this perhaps unexpectedly mystifying subject.
The first sentence of Jeffrey Eugenides’s best-seller Middlesex dispels any notion that the title refers only to Middlesex Boulevard, where the protagonist, Calliope Stephanides, grew up: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” An explanation for Callie’s lack of curves and menstrual periods emerges during a medical examination after she is injured in an accident. Her grandparents’ incestuous union created a genealogical tangle, and Callie inherited a rare genetic anomaly called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. As she puts it, “To the extent that fetal hormones affect brain chemistry and histology, I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl.” Rather than being “feminized,” as a surgeon recommends, Callie chooses to remain intersex, or third sex. Dark-eyed Callie gracefully morphs into Cal—a “severe, aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person” who eventually moves to Berlin to work as a diplomat. Being third sex has gifted Cal with the “ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both.”
In the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Middlesex, Calliope Stephanides is raised as a girl but, by genetic mutation, is chromosomally a boy. Her grandparents immigrated to Detroit from a village on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the home of the ancient Greek gods. As a child, Callie is fascinated by mythical characters, especially those that are half one thing and half something else. Her father reads her the myth of the Minotaur—half bull, half man—and in a school play she takes the role of Tiresias, the blind prophet of ancient Greece who lived as male and female.
With her genetic anomaly, Callie compares to Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes (messenger of the Greek gods) and Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty). Hermaphroditus is born male but merges with the nymph Salmacis into one male-female being when he resists her attempts to have sex with him. A popular subject in Greek sculpture, Hermaphroditus is often depicted as a voluptuous sleeping woman, although close inspection reveals a penis peeking from the folds of her gown—evoking a passage from Middlesex in which Cal confronts his own intersexuality, calling the genital mystery between his legs “a kind of crocus itself, just before flowering.”
First-century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes the mythical double-sexed Hermaphroditus as a god with a “body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman but has the masculine quality and vigor of a man.” However, he adds, “there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities.”
Modern society tends toward the attitude that having physiological characteristics of both sexes (i.e., being intersex or third sex—third implying “other”) is indeed monstrous or, at best, an abnormality in a world oriented for male-female sexuality. Conventional thinking has it that individuals born as third sex—with ambiguous genitalia, usually a result of a chromosomal anomaly or overactive adrenal glands—will be maladjusted. Intersex children are often prescribed transgender surgery that reduces an oversize clitoris or removes a penis and creates a vagina. Such procedures often lead to infertility. An alternative course is to leave nature alone and accept these children for who they are. Given that about 2,000 third-sex babies are born in the United States each year, the traditional question asked of new parents—Is it a boy or a girl?—may warrant a little rethinking.
The notion that boys should wear blue and girls pink is indeed outdated. But any kind of gender identification is a moot point for a couple in Canada and one in Sweden who have declared they will not reveal the sex of their babies—and have provoked strong reactions in doing so. Behind their refusal is a desire for the kids to grow up free of gender stereotyping and its associated expectations. Many experts wonder if that is possible. Probably not, say skeptics, who note kids soon enough discover what’s between their legs and develop a gender identity accordingly. Proponents of the approach, however, say kids raised gender neutral will eventually pick their own gender identification without societal constraint. Given that a majority of potential parents say they would prefer to know their baby’s sex before the child is born—many even have “gender-reveal” celebrations after a sonogram provides the answer—the concept of keeping gender a secret postbirth will likely not catch on anytime soon. In the meantime, perhaps the best policy is to teach kids to respect and enjoy each other no matter what sex—male, female or third—they happen to be.
Long at the forefront of progressive social change, Sweden has introduced the gender-nonspecific pronoun hen—ironically like the English word for the egg-laying bird—to stand in for Swedish words han (“he”) and hon (“she”). (English-language solutions, such as ze and hir, haven’t exactly caught on in the U.S.) Linguistic innovation is just part of the Swedish push for gender equality, which emphasizes gender-neutral child rearing. Activists want an end to gender-specific names, so a boy could be called Jill and a girl Jack. Some teachers are asked to refer to their students as buddies rather than boys and girls. A department store chain is combining boys’ and girls’ clothing departments. Toy ads show boys pushing prams and girls riding tractors, and gender-neutral children’s books are joining Snow White and other gender-ridden tales. Some male “hens” are no longer allowed to play with toy cars in school (too gender specific), and some schools are banning playtime altogether, since hens at leisure tend to revert to stereotypical gender roles. Genderless living is infiltrating the adult world, too, with a proposal to institute gender-neutral public restrooms and unisex bowling leagues. Same-sex marriage, legal in Sweden since 2009, now seems quaintly old hat.
In 1952 New Yorker Christine Jorgensen (nee George William Jorgensen) flew to Denmark for advanced hormone-replacement therapy and the first in a series of operations that reassigned Jorgensen’s sexuality from male to female. She was not the first documented recipient of gender reassignment surgery—that was Berliner Lili Elbe in 1930—but she was the first transsexual in the United States to publicly declare it. The press went wild, proclaiming, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” Comedians quipped, “Christine Jorgensen goes abroad and comes back a broad.” She adjusted to the attention, and a letter to her parents speaks to many third-sex individuals who choose reassignment: “Nature made a mistake,” she wrote, “which I have corrected, and I am now your daughter.” Until her death, from cancer, in 1989, Jorgensen gave lectures about her experiences, bringing transgender issues into the public eye. She even performed a nightclub act, in which she good-naturedly sang “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” A more recent transsexual, Chaz Bono also entered mainstream celebrity with a 2011 stint on TV’s Dancing With the Stars, one of many appearances he has made to advertise his transition and “open the hearts and minds of the public regarding this issue.”
Author, performance artist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein is used to ruffling feathers. The Church of Scientology labeled her a Suppressive Person after excommunicating Bornstein (then Al Bornstein) in 1982. And many in the transsexual community consider her a traitor, since she claimed, in her book Gender Outlaw (1994), that despite her 1986 male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, she’s still not a woman. “This was a big blow to trans people—trans women mostly—whose identity was legitimized by all those medical hoops,” Bornstein has explained. “So what I said was taken as a direct attack on the validity of their identities as real women.” Bornstein has concluded she is really neither male nor female. She has written, “I can see that most people are convinced there are two kinds of people in the world: men and women. But I hang out with people who, mostly, are neither men nor women. I would call most Neither/Nor people my tribe.” For those unsure about where they fall on the dizzying continuum of gender identity, Bornstein has written a guide, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely (1998).