Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Not born this way, or why I think Lady Gaga is underselling the awesomeness of the human race

There’s a lot in the news at the moment about a little boy who has been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and is now living as a girl. I can’t quite decide how I feel about this. Part of me thinks it is awesome that his parents and teachers are being so supportive—god knows we could do with a bit more understanding when it comes to adults who identify with the opposite gender to the one their chromosomes dictate. But there’s another part of me that is: a) hugely disturbed about what the parents’ motives are in plastering this five-year-old all over the newspapers and internet, and b) worried that too much emphasis is put on a person being either ‘male’ or ‘female’, especially at such a young age.

Despite what certain media reports might tell you, there is no such thing as a ‘male brain’ or a ‘female brain’. The truth is, no one really knows how our minds decide to associate with one gender or the other—is it physical, or chemical, or psychological, or a mixture of all three? Our entire personality certainly isn’t a product of our genes, so why are we so fixated with this idea that we are born a certain, fixed way when it comes to gender identity? Most people would be furious to be told that their upbringing and experiences have had no effect on their personalities—of course we don’t arrive on Earth with all our views and personality quirks preformed. Yet, when it comes to complicated and controversial topics such as gender identity, many seem determined to relinquish all control over something so integral to who we are as a person. Of course there might be a biological or chemical cause(s) for Gender Identity Disorder–but can we honestly say cultural gender definitions play no role? 

I think my big problem comes down to society’s definitions of what makes a girl and what makes a boy, as if the two are set in stone. You don’t like playing with dolls? Yeah, you’re male. You like talking to people and are great at empathy? Ohhh, such a girl. It’s ridiculous. Especially when there is no evidence that traits such as these are intrinsically ‘male’ or ‘female’. Whenever there is a perfectly reasonable scientific study into the physical characteristics of the brains of men and women (some brain disorders have much higher rates in a particular sex, meaning we can’t ignore these differences), certain non-scientists insist on using the data to make sweeping generalisations about the sexes that reinforce stereotypes and are simply not backed up by the science. In reality, many of these supposed scientifically–supported gender differences are completely mythical.

Let’s start with the old favourite ‘brains develop differently in girls and boys’. A school in Florida is not unique in its support of single sex schooling, and backed up their policy with:

‘‘In girls, the language areas of the brain develop before the areas used for spatial relations and for geometry. In boys, it’s the other way around.’’ and ‘‘In girls, emotion is processed in the same area of the brain that processes language. So, it’s easy for most girls to talk about their emotions. In boys, the brain regions involved in talking are separate from the regions involved in feeling.’’

Is there any real scientific evidence for this? Nope. Turns out the early studies that led to this hypothesis have not been backed up by more detailed analyses. Yet so many people persist with the idea that ‘boys are better at maths, girls are better at emotions’ as if it is a known fact—and this ‘fact’ has made it’s way into policies that effect how kids are educated! And all that ‘girls develop faster than boys’? Yeah, that’s not backed up by the evidence either. Despite widespread beliefs, neuroscientists do not know of any distinct ‘male’ or ‘female’ circuits that can explain differences in behaviour between the sexes.

So basically studies into brain structure have yet to identify any specific difference between the brains of the two sexes that leads to a specific difference in behaviour. Yet boys and girls do behave differently if we take an average over an entire population. (And, yes, I realise averages are rubbish when it comes to making judgements on an individual level). Let’s use one of the most obvious and earliest differences as an example—appreciation of the colour pink. Was I to stick all Britain’s little girls into one blender and all the boys into another, the former mixture would average out at a pink colour with a sprinkling of hearts and ponies, and the latter would be camouflage with a shot of train fuel and maybe a gun poking out the top.

If there is no proof for the existence of a defined, biologically male or female brain at birth, how do we explain the differing colours of our average-child-smoothies? There's always the issue of what hormones we are exposed to in the womb or after birth, but could it also be that sex differences are shaped by our gender-differentiated experiences? Perhaps small differences in preferences become amplified over time as society, either deliberately or not, reinforces traditional gender stereotypes (Yay, my little boy kicked a ball—sports, sports, sports! Oh, he tried on my high heels? Yeah, let’s just ignore that). How much of our gender identity is truly hardwired into our brains from birth and how much is culturally created?

This is why I have a problem with the little boy diagnosed as ‘a girl trapped in a boy’s body’ that I mentioned at the start of this rambling monologue. By trying their best to define him as a ‘girl’ rather than as an individual, the parents and school are doing the exact same thing that they were trying to avoid—attempting to fit him into a gender-shaped box which, in reality, few people truly belong in. In the end, my own opinion does come down on the side of those trying to support this child (but not with the asshats using her to make money), but I am concerned that they are swapping one rigid set of gender rules for another. There's a lot more to being a woman than occasionally wanting to be a princess and surely a five-year-old has a long way to go before they can be accurately pigeon-holed, if at all.

In my perfect world, children would be allowed to experiment without anyone making any judgements or diagnoses (why do we need a medical term to make it acceptable for a small child to play around with wearing a dress, or growing their hair long?). That way, when they were mature enough, they would be free to make a balanced and personal decision on who they want to be and how they can best fit in with the rest of the world, including with our culturally defined ideals of gender.

Understanding how differences between the sexes emerge has the potential to tell us so much about the nature-nurture interaction, and could help us understand why some people associate so strongly with the opposite sex. But, unfortunately, it is open to careless interpretation by the media and public, who seem determined to use it to reinforce the gap between men and women rather than to tell us more about what shapes each of us a person. 

Further reading:
This is a really interesting article on neurological sex differences pulished in Cell by the author of Pink brain, blue brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It, and some feminist perspectives on Sex and gender and trans issues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oooh, I wish I'd discovered this post before! I admit it, I looked at the title and bristled, thinking that you were trying to frame sexuality/trans issues as A Choosy Choice That Foolish People Make (and can Thus Be Totally Trained Out Of) and so I read your words with increasing relief. This is a subject that I rant about frequently and at length, so thank you for this cool crystallization; I think I'll just link to it in the future, instead!

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