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Gender: San Francisco Has The Right Idea

smigliori's picture

Registering to vote, setting up a myspace account, and walking into almost any public bathroom all have one thing in common: they each require the individual to declare their gender and/or sex identity. For most people, this may not seem to be a cause for alarm; society trains everyone to express a specific gender identity (either “masculine” or “feminine” based on whether their genitals are “male” or “female”) from their birth. These gender identities make it easy to determine whether one has male or female genitals, therefore allowing the heterosexual “norm” to easily prevail by simplifying the policing of other sexual configurations. Strictly enforced gender stereotypes position heterosexuality as the only normal sexual behavior and reinforce notions that there are only two sexes. This categorization based on genitals and socialized sex-specific behavior ultimately causes not only an erasure of all existences which do not fit into the gender binary, but also allowed for a privileging of one group over the other. The existence of transgender and intersex individuals points to the inadequacy of both the sex and gender binaries as well as the notion that one’s sex and gender should agree. Just as beliefs that racial difference, encouraged by the study of eugenics, legitimized the subjugation of one race to another, so beliefs in sex difference, encouraged by biologists and psychologists, have led to beliefs that “men” and “women” should be treated differently. In order to have true equality between all people, it is therefore necessary that the belief in gender differences be eradicated and the legal separation of people into “male” and “female” either on the basis of gender or sex be stopped accordingly.

Belief in sexual difference stems from socialization. In My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage, Susan Stryker recalls the rage ze felt at the birth of hir lover’s baby. This rage was due to the “non-consensuality of the baby’s gendering”, causing Stryker to feel “the pains of two violations, the mark of gender and the unlivability of its absence”.[1] At the moment of birth, the doctor declared the baby to be female. Hir sex was checked off as “female” on the birth certificate and any variation from everything that required would be punished severely by society. From that point forward, it was clearly expected that the child would be raised to act according to sex-stereotyped behavior, especially those behaviors which are considered biologically inherent such as the “instinctive nurturing” by women or the “aggressiveness” of men. “Girls” are taught to wear pink frilly dresses, play with dolls, and chastely await the day when their Prince Charming will sweep them off their feet. “Boys” are taught to like cars and trucks, avoid shows of emotion, and provide for women and children, both of whom are unable to take care of themselves. While it is clear that most children adopt these behaviors, just as they adopt tastes for food based on what their caregivers feed them, without a problem, at what point do they recognize these traits as belonging to a specific sex/gender (as the two categories follow each other in the minds of society)?

Anne Fausto-Sterling, in hir biologically-based renunciation of the sex/gender binary and biologic essentialism, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, cites various psychological studies on the ability of children to recognize and label gendered bodies and behaviors. Ze claims that “in America, at least, small children seem to base their initial, rudimentary gender schema on cultural markers of gender, not knowledge of genital difference.”[2] This is supported by the findings of the study by Beverly Fagot that children at about two years were incapable of labeling according to gender, as well as the study by Sandra Bem showing that only forty percent of children aged three through five years of age were able to identify sex once they knew what genitalia an individual possessed.[3] The fact that these children are concerned with a difference between “boys” and “girls” without knowing the difference between “male” and “female” genitalia points to social construction, especially as they were only able to differentiate based on “social clues—clothes and hairstyles”.[4]

Even as these children are unaware of the fundamental difference between boys and girls, it is likely that they have already heard trite phrases such as “boys are better at sports” or “boys are more skilled in math and science, girls excel in English”. Already, children will begin arguing and separating into sex-based cliques on the playground, and their teachers’ (perhaps unconscious) favoritism of “boys” in science and math courses and “girls” in writing and reading courses will begin to effect their actual abilities to excel in various subjects. Would this separation occur if children were not trained to behave according to a certain gender designation based upon their biological sex? In 1968, Jane Elliott created what would become known as the “Blue Eye/ Brown Eye Experiment,” dividing hir class based on eye color and letting first one half, then the other, oppress their fellow students merely be telling them that one group was superior to the other. The exercise is used around the country to show that racism is a socially constructed phenomenon. Judith Butler has claimed that genital differences are no more significant than eye color differences.[5] The eye color experiment, then, is important in that it demonstrates how people will react to each other if told that a physical difference matters. Society continues to believe in the gender binary because they are told that it exists, just as these students believed in some sort of eye color binary when told by their teacher that it existed. Strangely enough, eye color would seem a more realistic way to initially separate people, as this difference is visible even while fully clothed. However, eye color would not help reinforce the heterosexual norm.

What happens when an individual is born who does not easily fit into the socially-constructed two-sex system? Anne Fausto-Sterling has postulated that there are at least as many as five sexes, what ze categorizes as: herm, merm, ferm, male, and female. The first three are genitalia which combine “male” and “female” genitalia to varying degrees, with herm being an even ratio, merm being more masculine, and ferm being more feminine.[6] Since the 1960s, surgeons have assigned most intersex babies to either the “male” or “female” sex at birth, depending on which surgical “correction” would be easier to perform. Intersex activist Cheryl Chase claims that “about one in a hundred births exhibits some anomaly in sex differentiation, and about one in two thousand is different enough to render problematic the question “is it a boy or a girl?”[7] Chase goes on to question the motives of the doctors who perform such surgeries. Ze quotes Suzanne Kessler to say that “accepting genital ambiguity as a natural option would require that physicians also acknowledge that genital ambiguity is ‘corrected’ not because it is threatening to the infant’s life but because it is threatening to the infant’s culture.”[8] According to the CIA World Factbook, the Unites States has a population of 301,139,947 and a birth rate of 14.16 births/1,000 population[9] which would lead to calculations concluding that there are approximately 2,132 births a year which would “require” surgery and 150,569 people who were born intersex currently living in the country, assuming one in two thousand is a reasonable statistic.

The importance of intersex births to the move for the eradication of legal gender identity is two-fold. Firstly, the birth of intersex people demonstrates the insufficiency of the sex binary to encompass various genital configurations and throws into question the validity of a gender binary based upon a strict demarcation of “male” and “female” allegedly caused by biologically inherent characteristics. If biology at times is unable to distinguish “male” from “female” bodies, how vast can the differences between these bodies be? Also, if bodies can combine “male” and “female” characteristics to the point where it is difficult to categorize it as either one, how many times are these characteristics combined in less obvious ways such that the notion of “male” and “female” bodies is rendered absurd? Secondly, the surgery which these people are (usually involuntarily) subjected to is an example of the violence which society is willing to perform to preserve the notion of the male/female binary and heteronormativity. The procedure usually involves the removal of a penis or clitoris judged to be either too small or too large, respectively. Recalling that the clitoris is the only organ in the body whose function is solely to provide pleasure, it is unsurprising that these surgeries often remove the capability of intersex individuals to lead “normal”, sexually fulfilling lives, which is rather alarming considering that the only time their genitals would be important is for sexual intercourse. If the point of surgery is to allow intersex individuals to lead “normal” lives, and the surgery to allow this causes the removal of the ability to function “normally” as a sexual being, why does this surgery continue to be performed if not for the preservation of heterosexuality, especially since the effectiveness of gender assignation is partly evaluated based on the individual’s attraction to the gender “opposite” of hir assigned sex?

If intersex bodies complicate notions of biological essentialism, then it can be said that transgender individuals complicate notions of the effectiveness of social construction. In previous decades, “transsexuals” were negatively viewed by feminists for reinforcing notions of the gender binary by having surgery performed which allowed their gender representation to match their biological sex. As transgender scholars point out, this was partly due to the requirements of doctors that individuals conform to stereotypical gender behavior in order to qualify for surgery. Dean Spade, a transgender scholar, accepts the argument that “the invention of the category ‘transsexual’ by doctors…shores up traditional notions of gender dichotomy and compulsory heterosexuality”[10] but instead of being critical of sex-change surgery ze argues for an approach which “requires seeing the problem not as fundamentally lying in the project of gender change or body alteration, but in how the medical regime permits only the production of gender-normative altered bodies, and seeks to screen out alterations that are resistant to a dichotomized, naturalized view of gender.”[11] Spade belongs to a new movement within the transgender community, which seeks not to become either normatively “male” or “female”, but to express gender and sex identity as they prefer to present it, through surgical or other means. Each new generation is beginning to break down the boundaries between “male” and “female”, placing less and less emphasis on the importance of gender/sex. In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy quotes one individual as saying “I don’t want to try and speak for the trans[sexual] community, but I think there are a lot of trannybois who are not going all the way, who are not thinking I need to fit into this gender mold. They’re saying It’s ok if I don’t take hormones, or It’s ok if I don’t have surgery. I can still call myself a boi.”[12] It is clear from this movement that society is capable of moving to a place where less importance is placed on being a “boy” or a “girl”.

Currently, the biggest obstacle in the move towards gender equality is the legal requirement of expressing gender identity, and the constant separation of individuals into “men” and “women” beginning from the moment of birth. Every legal document, beginning with the birth certificate, which an individual fills out requires hir to check either “male” or “female”. Why? There is no real explanation for this other than the preservation (or, in some cases, the assumption) of heterosexuality. Why do “boys” and “girls” need to use separate bathrooms and locker rooms? If these areas were all declared gender-non-specific, will the (hetero)sexual attraction be so great that society will instantaneously have a sharp increase in adolescent sexual activity? If individuals did not fit into a specific gender presentation based on their biological sex, would there be a sudden increase in non-heterosexual relationships? San Francisco recently took a step in the right direction by deciding to issue municipal IDs which will include name, birthdate, and a photo, but not gender.[13] The existence of intersex and transgender individuals clearly points out the insufficiency of the binary system. Therefore, it would be a great benefit to society and the fight against oppression to remove the legal barriers which promote the idea of an inherent difference between “men” and “women.” Eventually, the lack of importance the legal system places on gender will translate into a lack of importance which society places on gender, allowing all configurations of sex, gender, and sexual identity to proliferate without fear.

[1] Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. pp. 244-256, 253.

[2] Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000. 248.

[3] Fausto-Sterling, 247, 248.

[4] Fausto-Sterling, 248.

[5] Beasley, Chris. Gender & Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc., 2005. 101.

[6] Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough.” The Sciences. (March/April 1993): 20-24. Middle Tennessee Statue University. 15 Oct. 2007 <>.

[7] Chase, Cheryl. “Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism.” The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. pp. 300-314, 300.

[8] qtd. in Chase, 313.

[9] “United States.” CIA World Factbook. 2007. Central Intelligence Agency. 18 Nov. 2007 <>.

[10] Spade, Dean. “Mutilating Gender.” The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. pp. 315-332, 318.

[11] Spade, 319.

[12] qtd. in Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York, NY: Free Press, 2005. 125.

[13] Bazar, Emily. “San Francisco approves ID cards that exclude gender.” USA 21 Nov. 2007. USA Today. 21 Nov. 2007 <>.



Anne Dalke's picture

Engaging the issues head on

You're clear and articulate in constructing this argument; it's well grounded in theory as well as a range of concrete examples. As you know, your line of thinking has also been very productive in quite a few of our class sessions; this past Thursday, for example, much of our conversation centered around the claim you had made about all the variation within the categories of "male" and "female"....

So the question now, of course, is where you can go from here. This paper seems quite nicely turned and complete as is, but you're going to need to produce 12-pp. by the end of the semester. What questions remain for you?
Are there any examples that would "push back" against the presumptions that ground this paper? Or are there other examples that would help you push further in the claims you are making?

One book that might help you (if you chose the latter option) is Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, by the transgender ecologist Joan Roughgarden. She takes your argument well beyond the human scale:

If society should embrace this narrative of genetic indeterminacy and
interdependency, the implications would be enormous....It would mean
eschewing "biological-based hierarchies" and any "forced bimodality" between two sexes and two genders. It would mean that homosexuality and
transgender could come to be understood not as "delterious traits within the
framework of Darwinian fitness," but rather as "complex social
adaptations." Roughgarden demonstrates, on the one hand, that
hermaphroditism is "more common in the world than species who maintain
separate sexes in separate bodies," suggesting that it might be viewed "as the
original norm." She argues, on the other hand, that the practice of
homosexuality is more likely to flourish as a system complexifies: "The more
. . . sophisticated a social system is, the more likely it is to have
homosexuality intermixed with heterosexuality."

Reading Roughgarden would give you more theory and a more expansive palette for exploring it. But there's also another direction you might want to go in...

Last month, you'd responded to Jessy's proposal by noting how much more "personal" it was than yours: "It challenges me to really get down to the truth of my confusion, and engage with the issues head on, instead of carefully obfuscating them behind mounds of research and meticulously selected words."

Want to rise to that challenge?

Ann Dixon's picture

playing with dolls

Your paper is shaping up to be fascinating. While there's lots to talk about, here, I just want to share an experience with one toddler girl with you that has changed some of my own ideas.

My daughter is being raised by two feminist parents who have given her a full range of toys, including trucks and trains, to encourage her imaginative play. Imagine our surprise when before the age of 2, she went right for the 
baby dolls at Smith Playhouse. So, ok, we got her a baby doll to play with, and she has played lots with it (along 
with trucks and trains and everything else). Her pleasure at playing with baby dolls has made me watch closely 
and revise my thinking about girls and dolls.

The standard story about girls playing with dolls is that they are instinctively nurturing, and/or  being encouraged by adults in behavior that will train them to be the mom homemaker, etc.

I believed that until I saw my daughter's play. She plays with a baby doll to reenact the story 
of her own life. All of her own experiences of being a baby and growing up are part of the  storytelling around this baby doll. I think she is building a formidable self-awareness through playing these imaginative games. The question for me now is not why  girls play with dolls, but why boy do *not* play with dolls, and for the most part, do  not develop stories about themselves in their own world in this way.

Hope this is some interesting food for thought for you.

Ann '83 

smigliori's picture

Sex-typed Toys

It is an interesting tidbit. However, in my own life, I absolutely refused to play with dolls, no matter how many my parents shoved in my face. Trucks and cars, and, to a lesser extent, trains, were extremely fascinating, and usually required me stealing them from the little boys around. This may have been the same story-telling experience, but simply with vehicles instead of dolls. Maybe it was the negative influence of watching too many of the movies about Herbie. I suppose what I would want is not proof that girls will play with dolls, but proof that boys won't if given to them.

Walking in to the baby section of a store, it's very clear which toys and clothes are supposed to be for boys and which for girls. They're usually labeled with things like "boy's onesies 18 months" or "girl's rattle". My mother and I nearly had a shouting match in a store once because I wanted to buy my baby cousin (a girl) a set of clothes that was labelled "boy's" (they were blue and covered in teddy bears - I still don't see what's so masculine about that). Then we got to the toys, and actually did have a loud argument in the middle of a store.

I guess my point is that children are going to play with the toys they see. Of course some girls will actually enjoy playing with dolls. However, I would like to keep in mind that some girls wouldn't, and some boys also would. Gender-typical behavior will probably always exist. The problem is with the labelling of that as "normal" and any variation from it as "unnatural", as well as the connection of gender roles to the subjugation of women.