Boys Will Be Boys...or Not? Straight Talk About Gender
Most people don't know it, but there are more than two sexes, and way more than two genders. One scientist, Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, says that there are five commonly occurring genetic sexes (meaning that they are indicated by DNA) that can happen naturally due to biology. There are also many people who do not feel like our culture's options for gender, male and female, fit who they feel themselves to be. In short, while most people are raised either as a boy or as a girl, there are plenty of people for whom "boy" or "girl" is not the most accurate description, in some cases for their biology, in other cases for what they feel themselves to be inside.
The primary author of this article is Malcolm Gin, a 31-year old intergendered person - a person whose genetic sex is neither male nor female. Malcolm is a successful professional in the computer industry who lives in Boston with a couple of cats and a long-time girlfriend who helped to edit this article. In this article, Malcolm explains a great deal about sex, gender, gender identity, and what you can do if you find out (or worry) that you might not be "normal" in terms of your own gender identity. Read on, and find out what it's like to be a "boy" who isn't actually a boy, and what life is like for people with non-standard gender identity. (Here's a hint - it's not as weird as you think!)
My name's Malcolm. I'm 31 years old and have been interested in issues about gender and sex for about 12 years now.
I was born with a penis like other baby boys, so I was given a boy's name was raised as a boy. When I was 19, I was diagnosed as having Klinefelter's Syndrome. Klinefelter's Syndrome makes me intersex, which means my own body is neither male nor female, genetically. Some people would find this sad or unfortunate - I found it interesting and liberating.
What is Klinefelter's Syndrome? How does it make me different from normal guys?What's the difference between sex and gender?
A lot of people use the terms "sex" and "gender" to mean the same things, but they shouldn't. Why? They're not the same!
Sex is what your genes and your body express physically, from a biological standpoint. Biologists can determine the sex of any living thing they've seen before by looking at that animal's body and how it mates with other living thing of the same species. One of the ways they do this is by looking at genitals -- penises, vaginas, stamen, pistils, cloaca, etc. are all examples of types of genitals. This is why even though frog genitals don't look like human genitals, a frog expert can still pick up a frog, examine it, and tell us whether it's a male or a female frog. Biologically, that frog is going to have certain physical characteristics which will identify it as male or female.
Often, we say that sex is "male" or "female" - or "other," since there are biological sexes that are not male or female.
Gender, on the other hand, is a collection of socially useful information that is related to a person's sex or apparent sex. A lot of the time, we think of gender as being the same thing as sex, but it's not, really. Gender actually describes all the ways we use to figure out whether a person we're talking to is male, female, or something else entirely. Gender is built up through a collection of social cues, or things we perceive about people when we see them, hear their voices, talk to them, or see pictures of them.
Some of these cues are biological in nature. When we see a person we've never seen before, we look for some obvious physical signs - secondary sexual characteristics - to see if they're male or female: do they have facial hair? Do they have breasts? These signs are MOSTLY accurate ways to determine someone's sex, but not always! Males can have breasts, and females can not have them. Females can have facial hair, and males can have no facial hair at all. Many Native American males don't have much or any facial hair, for instance, and Asian men often have very little.
This is true with other biological differences, too, like the pitch of a person's voice. Though it is true that generally, women's voices are higher than men's, men can sing soprano (usually in falsetto) and women can have low, gravelly speaking voices that make people think they're male when they're on the phone.
Other gender cues are completely social. Clothing is the most prominent example. Think of someone wearing a tuxedo, then think of someone wearing an evening gown. Did you think of a man wearing the tux, and a woman wearing the evening gown? Most people do, because those clothes have associations with wearers of a particular sex. But a man could wear an evening gown (Dennis Rodman has!), and a woman could wear a tuxedo, and it wouldn't turn the man into a woman or the woman into a man.
Another frequent type of social gender cue is the kinds of associations we make with what someone does professionally or as a hobby. What sex is a construction worker? What sex is a hairdresser? What sex is a nurse? What sex of person really enjoys watching football? What sex of person really loves to cook gourmet meals?
Think about it, then ask yourself if it's really true. If you think that a construction worker must be a male, think again. Can't a woman be a construction worker? Can't a man be a nurse? Sure they can, and they do it every day. But we still tend to think "construction worker=male" and "nurse=female," proving that those occupations are used as gender cues.
I mentioned above that "sex" corresponds to "male, female, or other" biological sex. Gender, on the other hand, corresponds to "masculine," "feminine," "androgynous," and is the way we identify people as "man," "woman," or "androgyne."
Why make a distinction between sex and gender?
If you've ever made fun of a boy by calling him a girl, you're playing with the application of gender. There are a lot of people who play with gender. People often decide that they don't really like all the things that society tells them they're supposed to do, and all the ways they're supposed to be, just because they happen to be of one sex or another. So people re-invent the way they "do gender"!
Some people cross-dress or do drag. This means they wear clothes common for the gender opposite their habitual or most obvious gender: men wearing "women's" clothes, women wearing "men's." People who cross-dress are sometimes called transvestites.
Some people decide that they are more comfortable living as the "opposite sex" and become transsexuals, making a physical and emotional journey from one gender to another. Transsexuals usually not only wear clothes of the gender to which they wish to belong, but also pursue hormone treatments and sometimes also surgery so that they physically look like a member of the sex with which they identify.
Some people like to play with other people's expectations of what gender is all about, often by the way they dress -- say a boy wearing lipstick, fishnet hose under a pair of cutoffs, and combat boots with a Slayer T-shirt on top, or a girl who cuts her hair really short, wears high-top tennis shoes, false eyelashes, lipstick, and a tuxedo shirt open far enough to show off her lacy bra. They might call this mix and match cross-dressing genderfuck.
There are lots more kinds and varieties of people who play with gender in their lives. Some performers cross-dress when they perform. Some people like to cross-dress because it turns them on sexually.
People also play with gender for other serious reasons. Some people who are born intersexed - neither male or female biologically - end up having to learn to play with gender because they don't feel comfortable living with the gender to which they have been assigned by the way they were raised.
Sometimes a baby's genitals will be "ambiguous" or "underdeveloped." This usually means a doctor looked at them and thought "Hey, that doesn't look totally normal, let's fix that," and so many babies born with genitals that look different from "normal" have surgery done on their genitals to make them look normal before they even go home from the hospital. Sometimes those babies grow up into teenagers or grownups who feel like they "don't fit" in the male/female scheme of things. Something inside them tells them that they are different, and the process of searching out a comfortable gender identity begins.
In other cultures, being between genders or intersexed, not being either male or female, or just doing genderfuck can actually be a job! In some cultures, people who are not identified as either male or female are seen as having special powers and abilities, and they become shamans or priests, or take on special roles in their communities that normal males and females are not allowed to perform.
What's the difference between intergendered and transsexual?
Transsexuals are normally people who start out with one gender (man/woman or girl/boy) and decide they are or should be the other gender. Most transsexuals take a long time to get from one gender to the other (anywhere from 6 months to several years) and you can get to know them while they're in between. Transsexuals also usually get a lot of professional counseling before, during and after the transformation. Many countries in the world require very vigorous and strict medical examinations and therapy before allowing a transsexual to get the therapy and surgery they might want to complete their transformations.
Even though they can spend a lot of time in transition, most transsexuals who are interested in getting to the other side will identify themselves as transsexuals or by their goal gender, and usually be known by their goal gender, no matter what their stage of transformation. The thing to know and remember about gender reassignment surgery (the kinds of cosmetic surgery that can "remodel" genitals and breasts so that a transsexual physically looks more like his or her desired gender) is that even in this day and age the procedures are far from perfect.
An intergendered person is another way of referring to an androgyne (someone who looks like or acts like both a man and woman - or like neither one!). Some intergendered people are biologically intergendered - not male or female in terms of their bodies and biology. Some intergendered people choose to become intergendered because it is the way they feel most comfortable. Most intergendered people I know don't fit into the boy/girl thing and never really wanted to.
I'm an intergendered person. I don't want to be just a boy or just a girl, I want to be the person I was made to be. I'm not interested in distorting my body or my biology with hormones or surgery. At the same time, I feel a lot of sympathy for my transsexual brothers and sisters and my intergendered siblings who elect corrective treatments that try to fix what they feel is 'wrong' or out of place with them. It can be really hard not to fit in, particularly when so few people really understand or sympathize with you.
I have decided not to have any medical treatment for my Klinefelter's Syndrome, although doctors often recommend that I do so, mostly so that I will look more like a "normal" man. The usual treatment for Klinefelter's Syndrome is regular hormone shots (called "testosterone replacement therapy"), and sometimes cosmetic surgery.
Oddly enough, this is precisely the same treatment transsexuals get! The only difference is that transsexuals routinely get therapy and counseling too, to help figure out if 'gender reassignment' is really for them. Sadly, Klinefelter's patients are rarely offered the same kind of gender counseling that transsexual patients get. Doctors automatically treat Klinefelter's patients mostly as abnormal males. In reality, Klinefelter's patients are simply not biological males, and nothing any doctor can do will change a Klinefelter's patient's chromosomes to turn him into a biological male.
The reality of the situation is this: there are more than two sexes out there, and more than two genders. Just because a person isn't one of the two most common sexes or genders doesn't mean they can't be both different and healthy.
What do I do if I think I might be (or know I am) intergendered or transsexual?
The answer here depends on a lot of things. It can be really hard to come out as a transsexual or intergendered person. The most important thing you can do is to find supportive people in your life to talk to. If you have a supportive and loving community, so much the better, but even if you don't, you can almost always find someone with whom to talk about your situations, your needs, your anxieties and what you can do about it all.
If your community has a hotline, a 1-800 number, or a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other sexual minorities, they'll probably be able to talk to you about gender issues too. Check the Yellow Pages. Some cities even have centers specifically for teenagers to talk about issues of sexual difference, like Boston's BAGLY or A Slice of Rice (for Asian gay teenagers).
Colleges almost always have gay/lesbian/bisexual student groups which are also good places to go if you are dealing with gender issues in your life. Find people who will talk with you about how it is to be you and what kinds of challenges you face day to day.
High school and college can be difficult, especially if you're different. You need to find places where you can be comfortable, and people you can trust not to abuse your trust, so that you can talk about your life, perspectives, and needs. Be sure to support and listen to those who listen to you, too. You can learn a lot from each other. Mutual support is one of the best tools you have for self-acceptance and getting through the world, no matter what sex or gender you are.
Sometimes, young intergendered or transsexual people run away from home because they feel trapped. It's not a good idea in general to run away from home, ESPECIALLY if you don't have anywhere to go where you can really trust people to take care of you and not abuse the power they could have over you once you get there. There are almost always other ways to negotiate your life until you can leave home by going somewhere that will be safe and productive for you like college, or getting a job and your own apartment. Being a runaway is very dangerous and risky, and not in good ways.
Even if it is hard to speak with friends or family, it's better than cutting them off and cutting yourself off from their help. You may need that help later. Don't burn your bridges if you can help it. If you do need to leave home, look into alternative ways to do it: becoming an emancipated minor, working it out so that you can live with a friend's family, or living with relatives somewhere where the community provides more support to sexual minorities are all better options than running away.