Knowing Your Gender

I just raced through John Colapinto's fascinating book As Nature Made Him and now I'm reading Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body, so my head is filled with intersex states and genital accidents. But also with some curious questions about how we know our own gender.  Colapinto's book is about David Reimer, a man who started life as one of identical twin boys and then lost his penis in a botched circumcision.  John Money, the famed sexologist at Johns Hopkins University, convinced Reimer's parents to have him reassigned as a female.  His testicles were removed, and over the next 12 years Reimer's parents dressed him like a girl and demanded feminine behavior.  Throughout her childhood "Brenda" was unhappy and rebellious, constantly insisting "she" was a boy, not a girl.   When Money tells her it's time for vaginoplasty when she's about 12, she won't submit.  When she's 14 her history is finally revealed to her and Brenda reverts to her natal gender (with many surgeries required), becoming David Reimer. 

One way to read this history is to say David Reimer "knew he was a boy" all along.  It's a little odd to put it that way, because for him to know it, it's got to be a fact (assuming we can only know what is true).   Is there really a fact of the matter about what gender a person is, independent of their choices and perceptions? But setting that aside, what I find intriguing is how we know our own gender.  How does it work? What is it like? One possibility is that we know it introspectively.  We peer inward and there it is--we sense boyness or girlness directly. So "Brenda" knew she was really a boy by finding boyness within her consciousness. 

Another possibility is that we know our own traits, both physical and mental, more or less directly, and then we draw conclusions about our gender using a learned "theory" of gender.  Brenda observed that she was feisty and aggressive, loved all the same activities her twin brother did, felt attracted to girls, but on the other hand, lacked a penis.  Reasoning from that set of facts, plus her understanding of gender, she was confused, yet often inferred that she was really a boy. 

Do we apprehend gender itself, or just traits from which we infer our gender, using learned premises like"boys have penises" and "girls like to play with dolls" and "boys like to fight"?   If you know about your own gender in the second way, then you can be wrong about it.  Can you be?  No answers today...just some interesting questions.

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

For some people, their gender may be a bureucratic formality, a box they check on forms.

I don't think of myself as male nor as female nor as something inbetween.

My identity is being Jewish, a critical intellectual, on the left, introverted, but it has nothing to do with gender.

As a child, I detested sports and fights and cars, but I wasn't into dolls either.

I liked to read as a child.

As an adult, I have no specifically male interests. I cook, but it's a chore for me.
I have no conventional female interests either.

I wear male clothes, but it's a uniform. On the other hand, I've never wanted to wear a dress or high heels, but clothes in general don't matter to me or make up much of my identity, as I perceive myself.

I feel more comfortable around women than around men, and my friends are about 50-50 of both genders.

I'm attracted to both men and women, but in very different ways and I couldn't see forming an intimate relationship with another man, simply because, as I said, I feel more comfortable around women.

My lack of "solid" gender identity does not bother me at all nor do I think about it much.

I long ago got used to not being "like everyone else", but I suspect that a great deal of others also don't incorporate gender into their basic sense of identity.

I don't see myself as "really" male or "really" anthing in gender terms since it seems that gender identity is about how one sees oneself and how one sees that others see one. I see that others see me as male, and I have no problem with that, but if they're interested in getting to know me better, they'll see that I'm more complicated than that.