|"A queer symbol of new gender image"|
by Finnish artist Susi Waegelein
Admirably, Young and Alexander use the brain sex theory to argue for an acceptance of gender non-conforming children. They write, “so rather than seeing threat, we should embrace all shades of gender, whether snips and snails, sugar and spice, or somewhere in between.” However, there are (at least) four major problems with their argument: they essentialize gender; they uncritically embrace human brain organization theory; they uncritically embrace the double-edged sword of essentialism on behalf of transgender people; and they selectively (mis)use evidence about intersex and transgender people to support an ideological claim about the innateness of gender differences.
In their post, Young and Alexander write, “Society -- toy makers, churches, parents, fashion magazines -- does not make gender.” They go on to argue, “Such [hormonally driven brain] organization, not advertising, is why boys, as a group, are more likely to shoot a doll full of BBs, while girls, as a group, are more likely to dress dolls and "nurture" them.” They also chastise most feminists for trying to “ignore real differences between typical boys and girls.”
|Do these things really not make gender?|
Photographs by Janet McKnight
Uncritical embrace of human brain organization theory
|Image from Harvard University Press|
Uncritical embrace of the double-edged sword of essentialism
In another post for the Neuroethics Blog, Cyd Cipolla talks about the “double-edged sword of essentialism” and sexual orientation. A number of gay-rights supporters have argued that scientific evidence for the innateness of homosexuality (a gay person is “born this way”) should lead to an increase in acceptance for homosexuality. However, as Cyd points out, depending on your already formed beliefs about homosexuality, you could also use scientific evidence for the innateness of homosexuality either to develop biological/medical “treatments” for homosexuality or to conclude that homosexual people can’t be “fixed” and thus should be eradicated. At the same time, calling for gay rights on the basis of the innateness of homosexuality excludes from the conversation those gay people who do not believe their sexuality is innate (remember the furor over Cynthia Nixon’s comments?).
|Classic "born this way" argument for gay rights|
Are they also are referencing the hypothesized relationship between sexual orientation and handedness?
Picture by Photo Munki
However, as in the case of sexual orientation, this plea for acceptance on the basis of innateness is double-edged sword. The “brain sex theory” could also be used to develop biological/medical “treatments” for transgender identity/behavior. At the same time, arguing that gender is fixed before birth (even if arguing that gender may be incongruent with chromosomes and/or genitals) may exclude gender-fluid people from the conversation (to my knowledge, the brain organization theory doesn’t account well for gender fluidity, if I’m wrong, please let me know).
Selective (mis)uses of evidence about intersex and transgender people to support an ideological claim about the innateness of gender differences
Some feminist scholars and queer theorists have used intersex people or transgender people as evidence to support arguments about the social construction of gender (for a critique, see Invisible Lives by Vivian Namaste). Alternatively, a number of scientists have used intersex people as evidence to support arguments about the innateness of gender differences. Both uses are problematic if the ideological lens employed in any particular argument obscures the complexity of intersex or transgender lives.
In their post, Young and Alexander use studies of people with 5-alpha reductase deficiency (5-ARD) to provide evidence for the innateness of gender (people with 5-ARD are exposed to male-typical levels of androgens prenatally, but appear to be female until puberty, at which point their bodies become more male-typical looking). Jordan-Young extensively critiques the interpretation of studies of people with 5-ARD offered by brain-organization theorists (see pages 66-69). Of the use of any study of intersex people to support brain-organization theory, Jordan-Young writes, “the controversy recounted above highlights the difficulty in deciding whether psychosexual differences among intersex people are due to the direct effect of hormones on the brain, or to other factors like indirect effects on behavior via the development of atypical genitals, or the experience of illness and multiple surgeries” (78).
Although Young and Alexander don’t quite argue that transgender people provide evidence for the innateness of gender, some studies have made precisely this claim (e.g. Garcia-Falgueras et al. 2011). As in the case of the use of intersex people as evidence for gender-innateness, I believe the use of transgender subjects as evidence gender-innateness often obscures the complexity of transgender lives. Ironically enough, some of the gender non-conforming children described by Ruth Padawer don’t seem to be well accounted for by the “brain sex theory.” One boy, Alex, switches back and forth between feminine and masculine dress and behavior. A second boy, Jose, went through a long period during which he wanted to dress and behave in “girly” ways. By age 9, he was much less interested in wearing dresses, although he still liked to play with dolls. Understanding these complex lives requires understanding the role of ever-changing ideas about what are appropriate dress and behavior for boys and girls and the role of biology in the production of sex/gender identity and behavior.
A simple plea
In sum, while I agree with the main conclusion of Young and Alexander’s post (that we should embrace all shades of gender), the way they make their argument is problematic as it essentializes gender, uncritically accepts human brain organization theory, bases a call for transgender acceptance on biological essentialism, and (mis)uses studies of intersex people to support an ideological claim about gender essentialism.
|Image from Routledge|
I end with a simple plea: regardless of the relative contributions of genetics, prenatal hormones, parenting, environment of rearing, social expectations about gender, or personal agency in the production of any gender non-conforming child’s sex/gender identity or presentation, all gender non-conforming children deserve love and support and they deserve to be free from harassment and bullying, especially at school. Period.
Want to cite this post?
Gupta, K. (2012). Response to “Society Does Not Make Gender” by Dr. Larry Young and Brian Alexander. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2012/08/response-to-society-does-not-make.html