Gender Trouble

The other night we stayed up late(ish) with our friend Paula drinking whiskey and talking about Foucault and Judy Butler and that splendid Argentinian movie XXY about a child born between genders (Marta had non-alcholic whiskey, of course).

It all started with the question we’ve been hearing most often recently: “So…do you know the sex?”

It’s a funny sort of question. Funny in that people in this liberal town will ask it with a sort of hesitated excitement, as if to let us know that it’s not really that important to know, but that they really, really want to know–if we’ve decided we want to know, of course.

I tell them we don’t know, but that we’ll be finding out soon. Today in fact. At 1:30 this afternoon (I’ll report back, promise).

I know I “should” be less excited about finding out the sex. Gender is, after all, a social construction. Biological sex is one component of this–and a messy one at that.

As a Gender Studies major in college, I wrote a term paper on those born intersexual, their bodies falling somewhere between male and female. Sometimes this is due to a hormone resistance–a genetical male baby might be resistant to testosterone and so appears to be and is often labeled female–other times it is caused by a chromosomal abnormality. Between one and two of every 1,000 babies is born with some form of intersexuality, which makes it much less common than we think.

While working as a journalist in Texas several years ago, in fact, I wrote a series of articles about an intersexual teenager. She had been born genetically male, but her body was resistant to testosterone. She would never have developed, without surgery, into a typical male-bodied person. On so, on their doctor’s recommendations, her parents decided to raise her female; with hormone therapy, she developed into a beautiful young woman, stunningly beautiful in fact. But her darkest secret was that her body didn’t quite conform to her face. When I met her in 2007, she was seeking out a final set of surgeries to make her body look more “normal” according to our standards of femininity.

Writing her story was heartbreaking. Even more so was when we finally published it (only using her first name and no pictures, of course) and then reading some particularly cruel reader comments (I just went back and checked on the article now and the comments seem to have been removed, which is consoling). But then I got an email from someone else who had read the story, another person born intersexual, and he told me it was the first time he had ever seen the issue discussed in the newspaper. He said that seeing it there, in the public, was freeing in some way. I could understand why. We live in a world where there are only every two options when it comes to gender, and those clubs are tightly policed. Fall outside the “definitions” of either male or female and you will face–social–repercussions.

I mention all this as a way of saying that I am not a big believer in gender–or at least not in biological sex as a determiner of gender. Not to say that I don’t think gender is important. I think it drives who we are and how we interact. But I think the far more important thing is how parents treat their child and what we teach them, in all the subtle ways we teach people, about what it means to be a gendered person, male, female or somewhere in-between.

And yet, even knowing and believing all this, even being the Gender Studies graduate that I am, I am still dying to know Balduino/a’s sex. I am dying to know in a Christmas-Eve-staring-at-the-wrapped-presents-under-the-tree sort of way, in a I’ve-got-a-new-crush-and-am-aching-to-know-if-she-likes-me-as-much-as-I-like-her kind of way, in a shit!-I-just-want-some-concrete-details-about-this-little-kumquat kind of way.

And therein lies the rub. I say gender is unimportant, that I will raise this child the same be she a boy or girl. But the mere fact that I am dying so badly to define him/her one way or the other-and ASAP!-speaks volumes to the importance, unconscious though it may be, that gender plays in my mind. We can’t escape it. It is our world.

And I am an admittedly impatient woman, not matter how well-read in Butler I may be.

4 thoughts on “Gender Trouble

  1. Interesting blog, Reminds me of a famous Charles Addams cartoon; delighted new father says to a friend: “It’s a baby!” So I hope I’m officially back as a blogee. Life was getting pretty empty there for a while.


  2. I have your follow up post open in another tab but had to say I whole-heartedly agree that there is a big difference between gender and sex. One is biological and one is ……. not. I don’t know the right word. Just the way you feel, I guess. I’m so excited for you! I also wish people could see the difference and be more knowledgeable about it and how they treat these ‘differences.’


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