When a new child makes the hard and wearing journey through its mother's vagina into the world, the question family members ask first if there is no unusual trauma is often times, 'Is it a boy or a girl?' The question, which is more important to family members than the size or other features of outward appearance, will also do more to affect the child's life than any other factor except perhaps poverty or race. Even as a newborn, psychologists have discovered the child will be treated very differently depending on the child's gender.
If a newborn is determined to be female, it will be fussed over and cooed at, touched gently and smiled at for being inert, quiet and complacent.
If the newborn is determined to be male, it will be handled more vigorously and any loud sounds or thrashing of the child's limbs will be perceived as signs of masculine vigor.
As the child develops they will be presented with a doll or toy truck. They will be fussed over and cuddled after a minor injury, or told to shake it off. The child's determined gender will determine whether they are scolded or praised for rambunctious behaviors. By the time the same child reaches the options and choices of adulthood, personality has already been molded into distinctly female or male modalities.
In the meantime, these differing reactions are only a small part of an entire system of social relationships that are underpinned by issues related to gender, or on the idea that women and men should and do look different, behave differently and contribute in different ways in society.
While gender roles are probably more relaxed today than they have been at any point in Western history, issues of living up to cultural gender stereotypes cause repression, insecurity and even lethal acts of violence. How a person speaks, dresses, walks and with whom they have sex are all determined by gender; or at least so our social traditions dictate.
From a historical perspective, issues related to gender roles have taken unusual twists such as prohibiting women to wear pants or even underpants as any article of clothing which parted the legs of women was perceived as being an obscene reminder of the leg parting that accompanied sexual intercourse. Yet a more basic and enduring example of gender obsession happens within the English language, one of several languages that a person can barely approach or refer to another person without knowing the person's gender. In a grocery store; for example, mothers are regularly asked if their child is a girl or a boy before the person asking can then state things such as, 'She is so pretty!', or, 'He is so handsome!' Notice that the pronoun and appropriate adjective depend on gender. Just imagine the speaker's reaction if the child's mother stated, 'My child is both genders!'
The notion that gender comes in only one of two varieties is one that is so incredibly entrenched in society that even medical personnel hardly bother to consider it. Yet in fact - since time without memory, the human race itself has been giving birth to children whose gender is not so plainly identifiable. Children may indeed have aspects of one gender and some aspects of another.
Modern society barely acknowledges this fact is an artifact of culture instead of physiology.
What this means is that while nature has decided to grow breasts on bodies that also have penises and vaginas on bodies that will grow chest hair and testicles, social culture has decided to turn its back on this fact and treat intersexed persons as defective males or defective females. To justify this stance, medical professionals have sought to establish a single and clear-cut criteria for the determination of a person's gender. The 19th century doctors happily declared that female or male has nothing to do with a person's external appearance, or whether a person menstruates or not. Instead, these doctors said gender was determined by the person's gonads.
Even though all infants start life as an androgynous being with no vagina or penis, they soon develop gonads.
These gonads, by birth, will have developed into ovaries in females and testes in males. The though of these doctors is that any person with testes could be referred to as being male. The main issue, of course, was that unless a person could find their testicles, they did not know if the ambiguously gendered person was female, or just a male whose testicles were still hidden somewhere inside their body. The one answer doctors has was surgery, which was a highly risky procedure in the time frame.
Complicating matters further is that it turns out that some females actually manage to be born without ovaries and without a womb, vagina, or Fallopian tubes and develop into somewhat androgynous people.
Some males are born with bodies entirely unable to respond to their own testosterone, developing into particularly womanly people.
Confusions such as these have long been a source of concern and consternation for doctors who view themselves as being charged with accurately declaring a person's, 'true,' gender. Failure to spot a male clad in apparently female flesh would, they believedc, lead to the horror of unchecked lust in the convent and the boarding school. The doctors believed that male gonads would lead the person to seduce unwary, 'true females,' they were surrounded by. Even worse, these doctors believed that confusions over a person's gender could lead to all kinds of homosexual perversions.
Just imagine the relief and excitement among medical personnel when scientific advancement presented the world with a genetically-based definition of female and male.
Males bore the tell tale XY chromosomes, while females bore the XX. If the person's gonads were not clearly detectable, or if they were missing entirely, a simple tissue sample would present the person's gender. The fact is – individuals do not always conform to this rule. Some people are born XXY, while others are born simply X. It appears that medical science and gender have reached an impasse.
Yet because society has tried long and hard to pretend that people only come in two genders, anyone that falls outside of the gender template has been forced to conform and mimic one gender or the other. Rarely, such persons have sought to turn the tables on the gender game and exhibit themselves for fame or wealth. Some are forced to hide themselves as if they were rebels or perverts. From society's perspective this was far less than surprising considering that women who acted or dressed like men were a threat to male property inheritance and different other male perks. In addition, men who composed themselves as women were viewed as instigators of homosexuality and were therefore a threat to social norms.
In modern western society the goal has often been to transform anyone whose gender is ambiguous, either physically or psychologically, into a person who will pass as either female or male. The argument goes something like this; everyone is born either female or male and those who do not clearly belong to one gender or the other need to be surgically altered. The philosophy is so ingrained in western societies that no newborn can leave the hospital until their paperwork states whether the newborn is female or male.
Due to this perception, if a person's genitals are ambiguous, if there seems to be both a vagina or penis or neither, doctors will have to determine through rectal examination or ultrasound if the child does or does not have a uterus. If the child has no uterus to be found then its on the child's gonads, in particular their later months in utero, the question of whether the child has testicles is asked. Yet as straightforward as this might appear to be; testes equals boy and ovaries equals girl, the reality is far more complicated.
Hormones, genetics and various, 'accidents,' of birth all work together to affect a child's gender. Even though many medical professionals feel that the ultimate test of femaleness or maleness may be determined by the child's gonads or chromosomes, there are in actuality a number of conditions that confuse the situation. These conditions may include the following:
The medical establishment itself continues to regard sexual ambiguity as it does any other birth defect - as an unfortunate condition to be remedied as quickly as possible.
The idea of leaving well enough alone until the person themselves can decide what identity and outward appearance fits best just has not caught on yet. The gauntlet of all of those years of childhood, in which the choices usually determined by gender would simply be set aside, is too appalling for the conventional mind to even consider.
How would the child act, dress, or refer to themselves?
Which bathroom would the child use at their school?
Even if cultural conditioning and homophobia could be set aside, could any child pass through the social obsession with gender unscathed?
Would the experience be less traumatizing than the early gender reassignment of the past?
Surgery could be set aside until a later time, or even abandoned entirely.
For now, evens as they hide behind the masks of conventional identities, they remain a reminder of what the ancient Greek philosophers claimed was the original state of all people; a genderless wholeness of completeness, wholeness and potential within the person.