Bending Gender – Until it Snaps

So a while ago I posted a link to a docco about kids growing up with “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Gender Dysphoria.” Translation: kids who are convinced they’re the wrong sex. Something about it bothered me at the time, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. And the bothering bothered me, because (as I’m sure you’ve cottoned) I’m kinda liberal.

I couldn’t grasp why it should bother me so much that kids might want to change their gender. After all, I have zero issue with transgendered adults, and I’ve always upheld that kids have a whole lot more smarts and self-awareness than we give them credit for. If anything, I think the transition into adulthood, those perilous teenage years of surging hormones, might be something akin to chemical warfare on common sense: things that seem so clear to kids can be absolutely impenetrable to their supposedly wiser elders.

So why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of a ten year old male beginning hormone therapy?

Ten is young. Really young. But by ten, I’d had more than a few crushes. Had I the vocab for it, I’d have called myself ‘straight’ by then, if it had occurred to me to differentiate myself on the grounds of whom I wanted to crash-tackle in the sand-pit, as western culture expects me to do today (Whoops, there goes another piece of The Culture Sniper’s poorly guarded identity). I think it’s important to bear this in mind in this discussion of gender identity, because our conception of sexual identity is predicated on a sociocultural understanding of gender as a) real and innate, and b) fixed. So for a male, of any age, to identify as homosexual, he must first identify as, well, male. Ditto for a females. Homosexuality is an attraction to sameness, but sameness of gender can only be determined by the fixing of gender itself.

The problem is that gender is neither real, innate, nor fixed. Thus, insofar as sexuality is understood only in relation to gender, neither is sexuality real, innate or fixed. In fact, taking the logic to the extreme, it could be argued that sexuality as defined by gendered attraction doesn’t even exist.

OK, I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Let me rewind and explain where I’m getting these whacky ideas from.

I’d like to introduce you to two women: Judith Butler and Alice Dreger.

Judith Butler kind of accidentally founded Queer Theory in the nineties. Accidentally. I’m not sure how you accidentally found an entire arm of cultural inquiry, but there you have it. The interesting thing is that she accidentally founded Queer Theory by theorising not sexuality but gender. <;- Point in case for my claim that the two are inextricably linked, and by debunking one, you necessarily debunk the other. Anyway, Butler's central claim is that gender is 'performative'. This basically means that gender is not a noun but a verb: it's not that we ARE our gender, so much as we DO our gender. So I wear my hair long and put on makeup and high heels not because there is anything innate in my body that suggests or demands that I behave in this way, but because I have learned culturally that this is what a woman is. And by doing so, I reify, perpetuate and make the gender of feminine by doing the gender of feminine.

I do it because it’s done and it’s done because I do it.

There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t shave my head, wear flat shoes, and step out with a naked face. Indeed, many women do exactly that. And what does our culture say to them? Well, in the words of spoken word artist Lacey Roop, our culture asks “Are you a dude or a dyke?” as though choosing not to adorn ourselves with the cultural accouterments of this constructed idea of femininity can mean only one thing: not that she just doesn’t like lip-gloss, but that she must be gay… because sexuality is so bound up in gender.

It’s ridiculous, of course. I could shave my head tomorrow and I’d be no more gay than I am today. My sexual orientation has zero to do with my haircut, funnily enough.

So we can see that ‘gender’ as a facet of identity is a construct, and so we make distinct gender from sex, which in this discourse and for the purposes of this discussion shall refer to anatomical sex, i.e. what bits you got. But surely, I hear you cry, surely sex is fixed! And so this discussion of gender identity, whilst very interesting, is even more arbitrary than gender; a lofty musing for academics who have nothing real to contribute!

Perhaps.

But not.

For those of you who might have done a bit of reading in the field, I am not going to talk about Julia Kristeva at this point. Mostly because that would be drifting off in the stratosphere of theoretical mumbo-jumbo that a) I barely understand myself, and b) is difficult to demonstrate real-life implications with. Instead, I turn to Kristeva’s scientific alter ego, Alice Dreger.

Dreger works with people “at the edge of anatomy” , with a particular interest in intersexed people.

Intersexed?

Intersexed.

It means people who anatomically don’t fit into our neat little male/female binary. Men with a fully functional uterus. Women with testes. And any other combination you can think of. These are naturally occurring bodies, but because they don’t fit the mould – a mould that we seem to have imposed on nature – we think of these bodies as abnormal. Dreger’s central contention is that sex is not as straight forward as we’d like to think, that in fact it exists on a spectrum and beyond, on axes of a plethora of intersecting lines, and that this division between male and female is, well, kinda made up. That’s what the science suggests (dare I say proves?) anyway.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of my argument.

Gender is a pattern of behaviours constructed in arbitrary response to sex, which is itself a far more complex thing than we have previously imagined: sex is not a neat little binary, but a complex matrix of possibilities. Thus, given our understanding of sexuality is entirely dependent on the fixity of sex and gender, it is difficult to claim that sexuality is anything but just another arbitrarily constructed sociocultural concept. (Cue usual rant about stupid anti-gay BS and fast forward to next point).

What does this have to do with transgender kids?

It comes down to this: how can gender identity every be a disorder if gender is made up? Is the child sick, or is the culture just, well, a bit screwed?

Of the kids that were old enough to be experiencing sexual attraction, all of them were attracted to the same sex. I wonder (and I really do just wonder: I don’t know or make any solid claim on this) if the real issue with these kids is a discomfort with their sexuality because the culture has told them that boys kiss girls and girls kiss boys, and ‘dykes’ are gross and ‘fags’ are some how lacking. I have to wonder if these kids would be so desperately unhappy with their anatomy that they want to cut it off or stitch it on, take drugs to stop their voices dropping, or bring out hair, and completely remodel their bodies if we lived in a culture that said, “You know what? Love whom you love. Wear what makes you comfortable. Love the face in the mirror.”

Certainly, as with transgendered adults, I assume not all kids diagnosed with “Gender Identity Disorder” have same-sex feelings. But again I ask, is the child sick, or is the culture? What exactly is wrong with a a child with female genitalia wanting to cut her hair short and wear pants and sneakers and heavy-metal band tees? If gender is arbitrary, the binarised sexed body an idea more than a scientific fact, and sexuality nothing more than a concept wrapped around other concepts, you have to conclude that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Instead we should be asking, what is wrong with a culture that trains its young to emotionally brutalise each other for something as arbitrary as a hair-cut and choice of footwear? What is wrong with a culture that essentially makes shit up, designs a game no-one can win, refuses to publish a rule-book, and then punishes the losers? What is wrong with a culture that has its kids so convinced there are right and wrong ways to be born, right and wrong ways to love, that these kids want to chemically and surgically alter their bodies, be it in pursuit of a new sex or a new nose or bigger boobs or a smaller belly?

What is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING.