PART 1: What Makes Gender? How Science and History Collide with Evolving Ideas of Gender Identity

A discussion of How Science and History Collide with Evolving Ideas of Gender IdentityBY STEPHANIE HALL

The social networking website Facebook recently made headlines with their announcement that they will provide the option for users to select from over 50 different gender identifiers, as well as select their preferred pronoun. This action is being heralded by the LGBT Community, while being ridiculed by others. Though laudably inclusive and perhaps to the extreme, such an effort begs the question… what exactly is gender?

After identification by species, all flora and fauna are then identified by sex (or gender) making it arguably the secondary characteristic of a lifeform. When we then speak of gender, the most people would argue that there are two, male and female, categories into which all biological life forms fall. A notable challenge to this norm might introduce the phenomenon seen in nature where plants and animals are able to change gender — either at will or upon biological or environmental necessity — which arguably adds a third category. However, it seems that these lifeforms are still constrained by the gender binary — distinct only in their ability to change from one to the other and back.

More and more these days, some human beings choose to reject gender, or gender identification entirely. While such a position is scientific fantasy, one may certainly refuse to be acknowledged in such terms, preferring instead to stand outside of the gender normative descriptions imposed by science and society.

Regardless of one’s gender identity or sexual orientation, everyone makes a personal decision as to how to present oneself to the world around them. These variations in gender norms are rooted in primary sexual characteristics. There are masculine women and feminine men — and thousands of subtle variations in between the opposite ends of the gender spectrum.

Regardless of where on the gender continuum one chooses to identify, to adopt what is widely recognized as a predominantly masculine or feminine trait in the quest for self-expression speaks to what society has defined as gender as it is related to the function of procreation. It’s like society has a built-in imperative to identify and categorize in terms of gender.

In our first educational experiences, we are taught to evaluate, distinguish, classify, categorize and group things exhibiting the same or similar characteristics using prima facie cues. Such rudimentary reasoning and logic skills are essential to the development of children, and come to serve us well throughout life. This basic skill of life is so ingrained in our society that children’s board games, video games, and even adult television game shows operate on the same premise.

Despite our predisposition to categorize as we always have, it’s become increasingly apparent these days that everyone must soon ask: what makes gender? What makes one a man or a woman? What makes one male or female? Additionally, is there another state of being for humankind? Is it simply biology and physiology, genitalia and reproductive organs, chromosomes, the sum of all these, or is something deeper and more mysterious involved – unknown to modern day science and medicine? For those who are Transgender, the answer to the last question is clearly no – gender is not necessarily determined solely by manifest physiological or biological characteristics present at birth.

The a priori thoughts and feelings present from the earliest memories of a person who is Transgender would seem to indicate otherwise. There exists compelling evidence in support of the distinction between primary sex and gender characteristics, more notable and visible in modern times, based upon the experiences, statements and behavior of Transgender children. Today, some of the youngest among us provide a window into the true meaning of gender — before they have had much exposure to gender differences among their peers, very young children make unequivocal declarative statements about their true gender.

Clearly then, something else is at play; but what? Science today seems to point to chemistry. Exposure to hormones in the womb during gestation, as well as certain pregnancy-related drugs have been shown to have an effect on fetal development into male or female babies, in addition to effecting brain type and sex-typical (post-natal) behavior. Because the default position of the fetus in the womb is female; being that the womb and pregnant female are overwhelmingly dominated by female hormones, the controlling factor has been determined to be the extent to which the fetus is exposed to Testosterone — at what point, for how long and how much. It is not difficult to imagine, then, that during the trillions of times this metamorphosis has taken during mankind’s evolution, the process has had an almost infinite number of variations in terms of its influence on the brain-gender instincts and gender-based behavior of a newborn child and, ultimately, the adult. A newborn is brought into this world closer to female or closer to male, in terms of brain function and behavioral characteristics, sometimes without the correspondingly ‘correct’ genetic and genital components.

With the mystery of human chemistry during gestation responsible for what society calls gender and sex-specific brain function and behavior, it is little wonder that there exists so much variation in the LGBT Community with respect to gender expression. The fight for societal recognition by those struggling with gender identity and expression within the LGBT Community has been somewhat successful. At times, this tests the patience and charity of those in opposition. Naturally, proponents have difficulty understanding the resistance on the part of those outside the community, and seek to dismiss any challenges as nothing more than bigotry. As always, there are some in opposition whose opinions are religion-based, or borne out of ignorance and a lack of understanding. Then, there are others who approach the issue from a secular/scientific perspective and consider the demands by the LGBT Community to be fantasy and, likewise, consider those who indulge such fantasies to be illogically pandering, on the slippery slope to social order anarchy.

Although the majority of those in the LGBT Community struggling with gender identity are M-to-F or F-to-M Transgender persons, there exists a growing minority who seek to reject gender identity entirely, or prefer to express gender interchangeably. These individuals ask why gender classification is necessary at all?

As the Transgender community, activists and advocates work to expand the collective consciousness of the nation to accept gender — at least in terms of expression — as unrestricted by the conventional binary via birth, advocates must come to realize that opposition to such drastic societal changes is far deeper than just the opinions or prejudices of individuals. The fight is really against the societal model that has been in existence for hundreds or even thousands of years. The more established a society becomes, and the longer in existence, the more difficult it is to conceive of such changes, let alone implement them on a worldwide or even nationwide basis.

Societies live, work, play, and function in almost every respect based upon the gender binary. The order of the system upon which our modern society is built depends on gender identification, and more specifically, a classification within the gender binary. Beyond the semantics of alternative gender identifiers, the inclusion of additional genders upon our social model of societal functionality would create myriad problems and leave much of our statutes, case law, regulations, governmental operation, policies and procedures, as well as social mores, personal and professional interaction and conduct, as well as leisure time activity without guidance as to how to make accommodation and successfully integrate such an idea.

Similar to the machine language of computer programming being based upon a numeric binary, wherein all instructions to task the computer are expressed as a series of ones and zeros, our society is based upon an ingrained binary system. To demand universal and instantaneous compliance with a rejection of the restrictions of the binary system would create havoc without carefully thought out and planned integration. Liken this change to attempting to add a third, fourth, fifth, etc. digit to the binary language of computer programming. Without a wholesale rewrite of coding principles, a successful integration of additional numerals would be unsuccessful and serve only to paralyze the functionality of the system. In modern society, due to the inherent flexibility and adaptable nature of human beings, such integration could be accomplished much more successfully over time with careful planning and thorough analysis of the potential pitfalls, complications, and necessary accommodations throughout our societal model.

However, seeking to implement wholesale changes within our society and asking for immediate recognition is irrational. Effective and permanent changes take time and understanding on the part of an often reluctant populace naturally resistant to change. Therefore, small steps are the best and most reasonable course of action to initiate lasting societal change.

By attempting to change such a major foundational aspect of society overnight, the unfortunate result would be further alienation of those whom we hope to convince of the righteousness of our position. To make sudden and seemingly drastic demands for societal change on an extremely slow-moving nation is doomed to fail. Newton’s Third Law of Motion; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, sums up the likely outcome. Changing the hearts and minds of those who are open to the change we seek must be done carefully and slowly, with a methodical and measured approach ensuring success. The LGBT Community, emboldened by many recent successes would be unwise to become greedy and attempt to take more than society at the time is willing to give. Overreaching will almost certainly fail, and in the worst case scenario, result in a backlash at exactly the time we need additional allies and continued small victories. Society in America is open to change, and change it does. However, substantial changes occur at a glacial pace and require the patience of a continued fight by generations of advocates.

STEPHANIE LYNN HALL is a California Attorney whose practice is focused on representing Transgender individuals in the legal issues uniquely related to transition and other matters of non-conforming gender identity.

One thought on “PART 1: What Makes Gender? How Science and History Collide with Evolving Ideas of Gender Identity

  1. Dear Stephanie:
    I would like to know if i could discover and develop more of my feminine side. I would like to have a coach but I only speak Spanish.
    I have left my phone number if you can be of service. Thank you.

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