Is It a Boy or a Girl?
On the surface, people tend to look at gender as a very defineable yes or no matter and fail to see the variations that exist. Underneath the surface there exists a minority group who experience gender dysphoria: unhappiness or discomfort experienced by one whose sexual organs do not match one’s gender identity. So, unless there exists an absolute distinction between identifying male from female, then classifying a transgender female as male is a product of gender identification composed of personal and social identity.
Gender Identity is a learned self-perception, a self-identification. Learned because essentially, the person experiencing frustration with their labeled gender goes through a sort of trial-and-error process. For example, if as male, an individual feels dissatisfaction, they try out the opposite gender and may learn that as female, they live a better life. According to Anne Vitales’ article Notes On Gender Transition, these people explore in the opposite genders and find that living as the other sex gives them more satisfaction and acceptance than they have ever felt before. So there they remain-a decision consciously made by their own self through analyzing their own emotions. Thus, by evaluating their self, they alone decide their gender. However, the assumption remains that males and females must display the appropriate sexual characteristics and behaviorism that corresponds to their biology. Meaning, those who are biologically labeled female or male, must live by the rules and expectations that society has established for their appropriate gender. Leaving the categories at just male and female fails to deal with the groups of people who do not fit so nicely into these two gender boxes. So then how can one begin to define gender identity? According to Dr. Dawn R. Banks’ Master thesis entitled A Study of the Components of Gender Identity, he states that social identity, “the genders by which people wish to be accepted in the social world,” address the “need to have a public persona that is acknowledged by others to be the desired gender.” Dr. Banks investigates how society contributes to gender classification and that this social identity stems up from the personal identity. Think of gender identification as an idea, a theory or even a hypothesis stating: If I act like a man, then I will be accepted more than I would be if I were female-keyword being “accepted.” People need to feel accepted and acknowledged because according to Gayle S. Rubin, “acceptability and stigmas are rewarded accordingly as established by Western popular culture.” Once an individual achieves this acknowledgement by the social world, their identity has been established.
In the traditional mode of thinking, genetics determine gender. Thus, according to Dawn R. Banks’ A Study of the Components of Gender Identity a person with XX chromosomes will be classified as female and will be expected to be born with vagina, to identify, act and dress as female; a person born with XY chromosomes will be classified as male and will be expected to be born with a penis, to identify, act and dress as male. However, if you think of gender identification as a continuum where male and female represent the extremities of the line, the space between remains ambiguous. To begin to clarify the undefined area, you must realize that there exists a distinction between gender and sex. The term sex refers to genetics, the biological factors. Gender, a social term, refers to the psychological and social characteristics associated with the male or female classification-the masculine and feminine characteristics a person displays. Encompassed within the idea of gender, there exist culture-defined characteristics. Look at the onset of infancy-the doctor immediately classifies by marking male or female on the birth certificate. Anne Vitale points out that at childhood, colors assign gender specification-boys wear blue and girls wear pink. Adults handle girls more tenderly than boys and as they grow older, parents allow rough-housing between boys and encourage the girls to play nicely. We live in a world where, due to stereotyping, dress codes are different for women and men. Gender-dominated positions do exist-it cannot be denied that they do not. Ariadne Kane, executive Director to Outreach Institute for Gender Studies, introduces a piece that rebuts the “norms of gender.” She questions: “Who set them up? Who decided that men do this and women do that and that there is no real cross-over? When you start to investigate that, you find it’s very arbitrary and culturally bound. When you find yourself on the point of saying, “Why can’t I do that?” you then take a quantum leap and you say, ‘I can do that!’ Then you open up what I call the Pandora’s Box but also the world of gender ecstasy, exploration and perhaps peace of mind.” Kane re-emphasizes that defining female-male identification as an either/or situation provincially confines the world into two categories-rebutting an obvious gray-shaded area. Gender identification shifts from a comfortable black and white to ambiguous shades of gray. This acknowledgement may seem comforting to people knowing that this idea of identity can be free-floating making the world seem like a better place-because nothing is fixed, people are not limited to their labeled roles. John Money refers to gender as a kind of idea that “is perceived by others,” one that he calls the “gender role.” Money sees clothing and body decoration as major symbols of gender that “allow people [to] immediately identify the gender role of others.”
So, the question remains, should a female to male transition be categorized as male? Director Kimberly Peirce addresses this issue in the making of the movie “Boys Don’t Cry” where Teena Brandon, a “young adult trapped in a world that did not accept her” transformed herself into Brandon Teen, a “fun-loving heartbreaker with beautiful girlfriends” and shaped himself “into his own fantasy, [seduced] people into that fantasy and those who knew him intimately, refused to doubt it.” Was Brandon Teena male or female? Biologically, yes, she was female-she had a vagina, breasts and experienced a period. However I believe that Brandon Teena should be identified as male. To begin with, as Teena Brandon, her life meant nothing. Once transformed into Brandon Teena and moved to Falls City, he experienced a world of acknowledgement and acceptance he never felt before. Girls swooned for this perfect man and the boys recognized him as just another guy. However, if a person presents a gender different from their sex, how do you deal with the “correct” identification? Take Brandon Teena for instance; he knew he had a vagina, breasts, period, etc, so why would his change of appearance be just that, an appearance, a mask? Interestingly enough, Judith Butler addresses this issue in her book Gender Trouble arguing that “we all put on a gender performance, whether traditional or not so it is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, but what form that performance will take.” See, who is to say that biology should be the only defining characteristic between male and female. Brandon Teena overall lived a better life as a male, and would that not be the goal of human existence, to live a happy life? Essentially that is what people strive for. So by limiting gender to only two categories, limits a person’s options to happiness. As soon as Teena Brandon gave birth to Brandon Teena, she made a conscious decision to be male. Ultimately, self-perception should determine whether you are male or female.
In modern times, self-identity becomes a very intense and heated discussion topic. Questions such as “Who am I?” or “Am I happy with who I am?” come up more often than not. Decisions about identity root from clothing, appearances, relationships, beliefs or occupations. Anthony Giddens, author of the article Modernity and Self-identity, characterizes earlier societies as “a social order based firmly in tradition” that would provide individuals with more or less clearly defined roles, whereas he believes that “post-traditional societies have to work out our roles for ourselves.” There now exists a greater opportunity to decide for yourself how to live your life, and this case, to decide your own gender role. Giddens has distinguished the relationship between culture and the “self and identity.” He states:
The changes in marriage, relationships and visible sexuality are associated with the decline of religion and the rise of rationality – social changes brought about by changes in how individuals view life, which in turn stem from social influences and observations.
Giddens interprets that these social changes, like homosexuality or transgenderism, divorce and separation, came about by individuals who chose to live their life the way they wanted to and not how society expected them to. The individual determines the self-identity.
Gender dysphoric individuals typically suffer through silence most of their adult life-fighting to keep their disorder hidden from public scrutiny. Secretly, they turn to cross-dressing to help relieve the “dysphoria-based anxiety.” Gender identity becomes based on a cultural identity where the individual strives to find a place in the world where these feelings of anxiety and dissatisfaction do not exist. As a society, blindly categorizing people as male or female unfairly discounts those who remain confused as to which category they belong to. So until people concede to a universal definition, gender identification remains definable by social and personal identity.