Gender identity is an inner sense of being male or female and is usually congruent with biological sex. Sex is whether a child is biologically male or female, whilst gender refers to behaviours which are associated to being one sex or the other. What makes us feel female or male? Where does this feeling come from?
There are different theories of what gives us our gender Identity. One of these is Social constructionism which considers humans learn our gender identity from the moment we are born.
“Gender role learning is the outcome of accumulating learning experiences
that the individual has in a particular environment” (Perry & Bussey, 1984)
From the moment a family member becomes pregnant we are obsessed with whether the baby will be a boy or a girl. When the baby is born expectations are placed on the child to behave in a masculine or feminine way to meet cultural norms. Males are expected to be strong and in charge whilst females are expected to be caring and homemakers. Cultures have appropriate and inappropriate boundaries and activities for each gender.
Celebratory cards have different pictures on for a boy or girl, a racing driver or footballer for a boy and perhaps a kitten or flowers for a girl. As babies the colour of the clothes we wear and even the colour bedrooms are decorated in, centers on the baby being male or female. Blue is traditionally the boys colour indicating authority and being calm and logical, whilst pink is the girls colour, a soft colour indicating fluffiness. If someone was to buy clothes as a present for a new born baby, they would never buy a boy a pink outfit.
Parents give children nicknames which reflect what is expected of males and females. Boys may have the nickname tiger or sport, whilst the female is usually given nicknames like petal and sweetheart. Books young children read will have pictures of boys playing as cowboys and Indians or constructing, whilst the books will depict girls playing with dolls or playing with flowers.
Gender role learning is a process from birth which is ongoing and is lifelong. There are different stages, firstly we observe our parents behaviour and imitate the traditional roles in the household, for example children may observe their father going to work to be the bread winner and the mother cleaning and washing up. As we grow up we would also observe friends and be influenced by the media. Another stage is imitation where we would copy our families and friends behaviour so that we fit in.
At a young age children play games such as mummies and daddies, in these games girls will do things like pour the tea and do the cleaning, whilst the boys will pretend to go to work and drive off in a car. From a young age parents reward children if they behave in ways that meet social norms and therefore they are likely to keep repeating the behaviour. However if a boy was to play with dolls he would be told by his parents that dolls are for girls, and if a girl was to play with toy guns the parents would encourage her to stop and play something more suitable.
Another theory is Biological Determinism. This is the belief that all differences between males and females are from biology. It is destiny and what we are born with is who we are and society has no impact. The theory believes as children we choose to play with certain toys because we are born masculine or feminine.
The human body contains cells. Each cell contains chromosomes which contain genes. Genes determine such things as eye colour and blood type. In each cell of the body the usual amount of chromosomes is 46, 23 matching pairs. One member of each pair is inherited from the biological father and the other from the biological mother. The first 22 pairs are called autosomes and the 23rd pair is known as the sex chromosomes. The sex chromosomes determine whether a person is born male or female. Males have one X and one Y chromosome and females 2 X’s.
Not all humans have this chromosome pattern. Klinefelters syndrome is something that affects one in 500-1000 males. They have an extra chromosome and are 47 XXY. As these males have an extra X chromosome some of the male development is suppressed, also this can lead to a feminine looking male. Another unusual chromosome pattern is known as Turner Syndrome. This is found in approximately 1 in every 25,000 females. One of the sex chromosomes is missing so they are 45X. Females with this pattern have no periods and are sterile.
Males and females are designed differently and each has a different hormone package. Androgens and estrogens are present in males and females. However males produce a lot more androgens than females, and females produce a lot more estrogens than males. The difference in the amount of these hormones produced accounts for many differences between males and females in physical appearance and emotions.
Social learning theory doesn’t take into account transsexuals. Transsexuals have a desire to live and be identified as a member of the opposite sex to the sex they were assigned at birth. The medical diagnosis is Gender Identity Disorder. Many transsexuals have a desire to change their body and will undergo sex reassignment therapy, hormone replacement therapy and sex assignment surgery. It is unclear whether gender identity disorder has its roots in psychology or biology. However no-one teaches you to be a transsexual.
A leading researcher into transsexuals and intersex was psychologist and sexologist Dr John Money. He was involved in studies on sex reassignment surgery. Dr Money believed in social constructionism.He believed there was what he termed a ‘gender gate’. This referred to a period from birth up until the age of two that parents could determine the gender of the child by the way they bought the child up regardless of the childs biological sex.
Previously some of Dr Money’s work had been with intersex people, whose genotype and phenotype don’t match. As these people were born both male and female, it was a lot easier to transform these people into females with surgery. He was however considered to an expert on gender identity.
Dr Money was presented with an unexpected chance to prove his theory that nurture was responsible for a person’s gender and not nature, when he was contacted by the parents of twin boys Brian and Bruce Reimer. The twins were taken to a local hospital in Canada at the age of 7 months to be circumcised. However the electrical equipment being used malfunctioned and tragically Bruce’s penis was burnt off.
The parents were devastated and unsure what to do next. However whilst watching television several months later they came across Dr Money talking about his work with transsexuals. After being contacted by the parents Dr Money invited the family to visit him. He had a lot of respect in his field, and his suggestion was to turn Bruce into a girl. So at 18 months Bruce was castrated and his parents were instructed to, bring him up as a girl, and never reveal his biological sex was male. His name was changed to Brenda.
Until the age of 5 the family visited Dr Money once a year, he would also receive regular updates from the family by mail. At this time he started to announce to the world his experiment was a success and he had proof that it was nurture not nature which made humans feel male or female. Even though there was mounting evidence that hormones had a big effect on a person’s inner feeling of gender.
Whilst Dr Money was publishing results of the study as a success, Brenda was back home feeling very unhappy. Brenda still enjoyed playing games associated with boys and hated the dolls she was encouraged to play with and the dresses she was made to wear. Brenda was very lonely and confused, even her twin brother didn’t want to play with her. She also hated the family visits to Dr Money.
As this study had been published as a success Dr Money became even more desperate to make it work. He would try and persuade her to have surgery and take hormones in an attempt to have a false vagina fitted and develop breasts. Finally at the age of 13 after years of trauma Brenda’s parents told her and the twin brother the truth. Rather than be angry at her parents Brenda was relieved that she had an explanation to her childhood problems. Straight away she changed herself back into a boy and changed her name to David. David took hormones to increase the male hormone testosterone, as his own production was low due to being castrated when younger. David tried to get on with his life and he paid for a new penis to be constructed. Sadly David encountered personal problems throughout his life and he tragically committed suicide aged 38.
Gender identity is a complex subject. There are conditions that are biologically understandable, whilst being statistically uncommon. It is unclear in these cases how much of a person’s inner belief of gender is psychological and how much is biological.
We now live in an ever changing world where the stereotypical roles of males and females have changed. However in humans we cannot ignore the powerful hormone package and genes given to us when we are born with regard to our inner sense of gender identity.