if it ain’t broke don’t fix it

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The November Atlantic has a fantastic article by Hanna Rosin about transgender kids, which I read hungrily in the hope that it would add to my understanding of the topic. Sadly, it confirmed many of my worst fears. There’s a heart-rending story about 8-year-old Brandon (pictured left) who, from the moment he could speak, has insisted he was a girl. His bewildered parents, who live in an area where “a boy’s a boy and a girl’s a girl,” eventually wind up at a transgender conference where they meet kids and parents going through the same kinds of challenges. The article outlines in broad strokes the evolution of attitudes on the subject of gender identity, though I’m not sure “evolution” is the right word. “Pendulum” seems more appropriate since we seem to swing back and forth between the two following dogmas:

Gender is hard-wired and immune to cultural influence


Gender is entirely cultural with no biological basis

Otherwise known as Nature versus Nurture.

The fact that gender could be a mix of these two things seems not to have entered into the minds of the “experts” who treat these kids. Notably absent from interviews with them is any awareness of the fact that they may not have at their disposal all the information required to form a comprehensive theory of gender. And since all of the kids (and indeed all of the psychologists, physicians, and researchers who study them) exist within a cultural framework, it’s nearly impossible to isolate non-cultured traits. In fact, the few twin studies performed on the subject have revealed that, while sexual orientation seems to have a strong biological basis, gender identity does not.

So what gives? Little Brandon’s mother only wants her son to be happy and seems willing to re-educate herself if necessary to support his decision to live as a girl. Reading their story, you can’t help but empathize with both of them. Soon Brandon’s mother will be faced with a decision far more serious than whether or not to let him wear make up and dresses. She has to decide whether to administer puberty-blocking hormones. The treatment is physically reversible, but, as many people who have taken them can attest, once you start down that road, it’s hard to stop. When your body starts looking like a girl’s and people start treating you like a girl, it creates a feedback loop that is difficult to break out of.

Eight-year-olds demand a lot of things: cookies for breakfast, twelve ponies and a castle for Christmas, the freedom to beat up their siblings without consequence. Is it possible that the desire to switch genders should be treated, at least in some cases, as one of those kinds of demands? Is an eight-year-old truly ready to make a decision as weighty as swapping gender? Does an eight-year-old even know what gender is?

I find it interesting, for example, that Brandon’s fondness for make up could be interpreted as a hard-wired feminine impulse. In many cultures, particularly in pre-industrial indigenous cultures, men wear as much make up as women. The fact that in Western society only women wear make up is, therefore, a highly specific cultural phenomenon. Seen in this light, Brandon’s desire to wear make up is an act of voluntary self-socialization not a natural feminine impulse.

But those abstract distinctions don’t really matter to Brandon and his mother. For them the choice is clear: swap genders now and live like a “normal” girl or go through life (provided it’s not just a phase that goes away on its own) as an effeminate misfit.

Is there another way? We don’t demand rigid conformity to norms in all things. Why gender? The average man is taller than the average woman, but we don’t demand that short men take human grown hormone or that tall women have their legs shortened. Is it possible that we’re demanding too much of these children and not enough from society as a whole? Shouldn’t we be better than the mother of Brandon’s former best friend who rejected him on “Christian” grounds? Perhaps if it was okay for a boy to wear make up, Brandon wouldn’t be faced with the prospect of puberty-blocking hormones. And why shouldn’t it be okay for a boy to wear make up? It doesn’t hurt anyone.

Utterly absent from this otherwise insightful article was any mention of compassion. Not once did someone suggest that Brandon might be encouraged to love his body as it is and still enjoy playing with dolls. Not once did anyone question the ethics of endorsing rigid gender boundaries despite ample evidence of the pain they cause. Perhaps when faced with a little boy like Brandon, instead of figuring out how to fix him, we should figure out how to fix ourselves.

15 responses to “If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It”

  1. Andrew Necci says:

    This entry is amazing and you rule for writing it. I have a lot of the same questions that you seem to about gender identity, and I too found that article frustrating. I wish I knew some answers, but more importantly, I wish I felt like scientists were even asking the right questions, where gender identity is concerned.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Glad you were interested in the article.

    While we don’t actually demand that tall women have their legs shortened, we do pretty much demand, as a culture, that tall women date only tall men. Things are a little better for my 5’11” daughter than they were for me (I’m 6′), but not much. She still hears that boys don’t want to ask her out because she’ll tower over them. But she does stand up straight.

    There are a good number of cross-dressing heterosexual men who say that it’s not fair that women can do Annie Hall, but they can’t do Hedwig.

  3. Lauren says:

    Glad you liked it, Andrew. I don’t have many answers to these questions either, but I think we’d all be better off if we replaced are desperate need for hard and fast answers on the subject of gender with a little humility and tolerance. There are plenty of amazing and mysterious things in nature that we have yet to deconstruct. I’m all for scientific exploration, but a big part of that endeavor is knowing the current limits of knowledge. This is something researchers in the “hard” sciences seem to have little trouble accepting, but in the so-called “soft” sciences, like psychology, you find a lot of bluster and arrogance built on very flimsy factual foundations.

    Jeanne, I remember all too well my Annie Hall phase. I also remember proudly stating that I was not a girl, and not a boy, but, rather a tomboy. To me, that was a separate and completely legitimate gender category. I didn’t want to be defined as one of those airy fairy barbie-doll-loving girls any more than I wanted to be defined as one of those smelly belching boys. But I was never ostracized for self-identifying thusly, whereas a boy would never dare embrace the term “sissy boy” for fear of being beaten up. Strange, isn’t it, that girls can absorb masculine characteristics with much less stigma than boys absorbing feminine characteristics.

    I suspect the lingering prejudice against tall women dating shorter men is a byproduct of old-fashioned patriarchy and its insistence that men dominate women. I actually know very few women who would choose to date shorter men. Despite our gains in equality, many of our sexual desires remain tediously old-fashioned.

    All in all, whenever you examine gender as either a genetic or cultural phenomenon (or a mixture of both) one thing becomes clear: there is very little logic to any of it. We teach girls to cook but we discriminate against women who want to be chefs. We terrorize “sissy boys” whereas we seem okay with tomboys. We present six foot tall female fashion models as standard-bearers of beauty, but we have trouble accepting a relationship between a tall woman and a short man. None of it makes much sense. And yet we keep insisting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that whatever our own conception of gender may be, it is the “correct,” “natural,” and “logical” one.

  4. Richard says:

    Yes, in every respect. Thank you. Anglo-American culture has been particularly narrow and binary here: I’m not convinced that adding kathoey, amazon or (Indian) Hijra helps all that much, though.

    I find it interesting, for example, that Brandon’s fondness for make up could be interpreted as a hard-wired feminine impulse.

    I used to be firmly of the “nurture, not nature” school but two things changed my mind:
    (a) I read a bit by Steven J. Gould which essentially said “we know from physics and chemistry that interactions between two ingredients or forces can have multiple, complex, unpredictable results, and that it’s not appropriate to ask what percentage of influence each ingredient has in the result, which is a new thing with its own properties” (paraphrased)
    (b) I had kids. My own kids are really, really strongly gendered (much more strongly, I think, than either my wife or I am), and in ways that surprised me exactly because of their cultural specificity. I remember my son looking at toy cars and trains from his stroller and his eyes lighting up. I remember my daughter crying when we left the shoe shop, and pointing to her mother’s shoes to indicate that she wanted to go back, at 8 months of age. They’ve both been partly cared for my daycare, so I guess they get a lot of influences from there, but still, I am baffled by how both of them have identified and clung to gender roles.

    an act of voluntary self-socialization not a natural feminine impulse

    But that’s identity, isn’t it? How can one separate (exterior) practices from (interior) inclinations, performance from essence? Is it appropriate to do so, or do we make ourselves through our actions, free-willed or not?

    On the issue of “sissy boys,” I suspect, but do not trust, that there’s some powerful influence here from ancestral memory, to do with the relative disposability of males compared with females in a troupe, that tends to reinforce narrow social norms for breeding males. We have no idea how “wild humans” live, partly I guess because they’ve lived in many different ways, so I’m not going to make any strong “naked ape” arguments, but it seems to me that there must be something there, and the current unwillingness of anthropologists and sociologists to deal with it at all seems like a mistake – a bit of willing blindness characteristic of the ‘soft sciences.’

    We teach girls to cook but we discriminate against women who want to be chefs
    Levi Strauss would tell you that that’s because everyday cooking is a domestic, family-reproducing activity, while being a chef is competitive display – a tribe-reproducing activity. I’m not sure I buy it, but I can see where he’s coming from.

    For my own attempts to grapple with all this stuff, I’ve found 3 books that really have helped, or at least have given me something to argue with: I hope you won’t mind my sharing them with you, or feel that I’m being patronising or whatever, especially if you’re already familiar with them (they all happen to be classics: I guess I agree with the crowd that they’re great) –

    Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger
    Marcel Mauss: The Gift
    Claude Levi-Strauss: The Raw and the Cooked

    No matter how much other anthro I read, I find that I keep coming back to these as primary arguments that help me make sense of everything else.

  5. Richard says:

    …I should add, I find myself referring to Purity and Danger whenever questions of intolerance come up – it gets me away from approaching the question from a standpoint of (dogmatic) right and wrong, and towards trying to understand what makes the non-tolerators tick, why they feel hostility towards a person or thing, and what kind of self-construction they’re doing/enacting through their hostility. I’ve found it a great springboard for further thinking.

  6. Lauren says:

    Thanks, Richard. Don’t ever apologize for recommending books to me. I love it. I’ve read the Levi-Strauss, but am not familiar with the others. I dropped out of an anthropology graduate program several years ago and have not read much anthropology since then. I think you’re right that we do “make ourselves through our actions.” Then, after we’ve made ourselves, we tend to insist that we are merely responding to natural impulses. I think this is partly an illusion, a way of justifying who we are to ourselves. Very intriguing stuff.

    Because gender falls into both the natural and the social sciences, I think much of the debate has less to do with actual ideas than with academic territorialism. I’ll check out Purity and Danger. Sounds interesting.

  7. Lauren, this is a great blog entry. I link to it over at Daddy Dialectic.

  8. Lauren says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. J’adore your website. Your son sounds fun. My husband is very similar. He likes ballet as much as soccer. He wears pink socks and he does very well in life.

  9. These are great thoughts about gender and society.

    As for why society is more tolerant of females stretching the boundaries of gender, and less tolerant of males doing so, it all comes down to the value that society places on masculinity and femininity. In virtually all ways, masculinity is held up as superior to femininity. Male traits are often viewed as strengths and female traits as weaknesses when applied to males and females. That’s why a tomboy is tolerated (and sometimes encouraged), while a sissy-boy is reviled. I highly recommend Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl”, which explores the concept of feminism from the perspective of someone who’s lived as both male and female.

    I agree that gender and gender identity are complex and likely the result of numerous internal and external factors. Trying to find the one factor that informs it all is insane.

    Labelling a child as transgender pre-puberty is a tricky thing and I agree could be a misdiagnosis. A loosening of gender roles in society would create the freedom for children to express themselves in the ways they feel most naturally. But the onset of puberty makes things complicated. For those of us who are truly transgendered (versus those who enjoy playing with gender roles) puberty can be a painful event, our bodies betraying the way we feel inside. I recently transitioned from male to female successfully at age 33, but if I had had the chance to slow or halt my first puberty, my second, transition-related one, would have been much easier.

    By the way, “Cycler” is a great exploration of gender roles and an overall fun read. I loved it!

  10. Lauren says:

    Thanks so much, Joey, for sharing your insights. I think you’re right about the different societal valuations of masculinity and femininity. I’d never thought of it that way before. It goes a long way toward explaining why I had such an easy time being a tomboy. Glad you liked Cycler. I’ll check out Whipping Girl. Thanks.

  11. Hi Lauren,

    I’m sorry that my comment here is not related to your post, but I’m not quite sure how else to contact you. I’ve looked around your site for contact details, and I’ve also looked for you on myspace but I couldn’t find you. I am the co-owner of a YA Lit Review blog/online community and we’ve just recently reviewed Cycler (loved it, by the way). I was hoping to have a quick chat with you about this and discuss the possibility of doing an interview with you for our site?

    please contact me at yareaders@gmail.com if you’re interested.

    Kind regards,
    Nikki Blunt

  12. sharonanne says:

    “And why shouldn’t it be okay for a boy to wear make up? It doesn’t hurt anyone.”

    I totally agree. A couple of weeks ago in my store I heard a father yelling at his 2 year old boy for wanting to play with a Barbie. It really bothered me I mean who does it hurt if he plays with a doll? It’s all so silly!

  13. Lauren says:

    I think people cling to gender stereotypes because they’re comforting, Sharonanne. They divide the world up neatly and promise a simplistic decoding of human behavior. But they’re an illusion, a set of masks we wear, that’s all. And the more tightly we cling, the more foolish we look.

  14. Sarah says:

    I just finished reading Cycler (absolutely loved it) and came looking for information regarding a sequal and found this instead. Thank you! I love the fact that you raised the question of why it’s nature VS nurture, and why it might not be a combination of both factors. I strongly recommend anyone interested in the discussion of gender and gender roles read GenderQueer (I’m afraid I can’t remember the authors names). It’s a collection of writings by a number of different people with very different backgrounds and touches on quite a number of points regarding human gender and sexuality. It can be quite heartbreaking at times, but it has some wonderfully heartwarming and question raising sections as well. This rigidity of gender roles for men while we’ve seen a loosening in most aspects for women here in North America is one thing that’s bothered me and I’m glad to see other’s commenting on it as well. We can talk about equality between the genders all we want but until we can accept that it might not be clearly divided into two camps we’ll be having problems, and until men can walk down Main St. in a skirt or dress without facing potential harasment I don’t think we women have the ability to say we’ve won equality simply because we’re now able to wear pants. (ps. Sorry if I’m ‘preaching to the converted’, I’m really quite pleased to see people engaging in this sort of diologue, it doesn’t happen often enough.)

  15. Lauren says:

    Hi Sarah. Glad you liked Cycler. I have a morbid fear of boring people. I think you’re absolutely right that we can not consider ourselves free and equal as women until men can imitate us without being derided. Joey Alison Sayers above had some interesting thoughts on the subject. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Incidentally, the sequel to Cycler is finished and will be on the shelves in August.

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