Most parents are excited to discover the sex of their child, but some see it as a limitation. The Toronto Star recently covered a story on the now-infamous Canadian baby, Storm, whose parents won’t release his or her sex. Not surprisingly, responses weren’t very positive. How important is it really that gender remains a dichotomy? Perhaps a more realistic way of looking at femininity and masculinity are as continuous and overlapping factors. However, others including the ‘experts’ seem to be very resistant to a more flexible view of gender. Instead, some child development experts call Storm’s upbringing a “psychological experiment.” Perhaps I missed something, but how is treating gender as a personal and multifaceted issue a ‘psychological experiment’? In a recent ABC News article, a Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital is quoted as saying,
“To raise a child not as a boy or a girl is creating, in some sense, a freak. It sets them up for not knowing who they are. To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development. This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”
Really, a freak? This doctor is pointing out that anyone whose gender is not immediately obvious or culturally appropriate to his or her sex is a freak, and worse, he seems to believe that bullying, scapegoating and marginalization are expected and appropriate community responses!! Dr. Beresin, with all due respect, that sounds quite intolerant. It is this judgment, based on very little scientific findings, which is so hurtful to the child in question and any other individual whose gender identity does not entirely fit the cultural expectations associated with his or her sex.
Beresin then continues to criticize the Canadian couple’s choice as a “terrible idea.” And states that “Identity formation is really critical for every human being and part of that is gender.” It seems that this doctor is suggesting that identity formation can’t occur without a dichotomous and pre-defined template to either accept or reject. This belief of providing individuals with personality templates based on their sex is voiced by another pediatric ‘expert,’ Dr. Ari Brown,
“I think [the parents] are making a social gender statement. [Keeping the child’s gender a surprise is] not a good parenting choice because it’s their identity. Whether you later choose to reject your identity — which sex you are — or not. You are born with a set of parts, and that’s who you are.”
But we forget to look at this issue from other viewpoints. It seems that the Canadian parents are trying to give their child Storm more control and personal choice in how to incorporate the overlapping and continuous variables of femininity and masculinity in his or her gender identity. In a letter to Star, Storm’s parents say:
“In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what she (he) wants to be?! Everyone keeps asking us, ‘When will this end?’ And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?”
However, Dr. Beresin and Dr. Brown believe that pressing an inflexible sexual identity on a boy or girl would be better for their development. I agree that this is standard practice, but does that necessarily mean it is better for a child’s development?
I feel that we are at a point of change in regards to gender identity. The recent gay rights and women’s rights issues such as women in combat, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and marriage equality all suggest that femininity and masculinity are perhaps not as dichotomous as we currently collectively believe.
There is a significant amount of research, which Dr. Brown and Dr. Beresin apparently aren’t reading, indicating that gender identity is shaped by a myriad of factors, such as genetics, gestational hormone levels, gestational brain development, as well as social / cultural expectations and influences. I find it overly simplistic to divide individuals based only on one of these factors such as hormones or genetic makeup.
The implication of dichotomous gender identities is that we base traits such as language skills, math skills and sensitivity level solely on genitals. Does that even make sense? There are so many variations of influences that act on a person’s strengths, weaknesses and personal inclinations. It is impractical to assume all these differences are due to hormones or genetics alone.
Researchers keep stating that there are shown differences between boys and girls, but perhaps we are so focused on the small differences that we don’t realize how similar we actually are. A researcher named Campbell Leaper, at UCSC, focuses on this large area of common ground, and points out that when a measure shows a statistical difference between men and women, the two bell curves actually still have an overlap above 50%. This means that, even though a statistically significant difference was found between men and women on any one measure, over half of the participants still performed about the same. Instead, we choose to focus on the 30 – 40% or so who are different from one another, and then place all males and females in the two opposing categories (even though most people are somewhere in between!). The Smithsonian recently published a list on the top ten myths about the human brain, and listed gender differences as one of the myths. Meghan Casserly wrote about this too recently on her Forbes blog titled, Men are from Mars, Women are (also) from Mars.
But why are we so obsessed with placing people in different categories? Social psychology indicates that stereotyping is an unfortunate side effect of how the brain functions. The process of categorizing happens to be the way that our brains learn and remember knowledge. To save time, the brain often creates stereotypes to allow for quick judgment and decision-making. However, when judgments are made based on these compartmentalized definitions of gender, it can lead to significant consequences. Social and neuroscience psychology research, as well as current social movements, are indicating that we are finally ready to re-examine our rigid and dichotomous understanding of gender as an issue that is much more complex and multifaceted. Unfortunately, the “expert” voices I hear speaking out on this issue sound old-fashioned and outdated.