Monday, April 22, 2013

Gender and Sex 101: There's No Such Thing as Male and Female

Gender is constructed
The single biggest idea that blew my mind in college was the notion that not just gender, but sex, too, is socially constructed.  I had been previously well-versed in the now familiar idea that sex is biological and gender is social.  This idea is simple.  People are born with a biological sex, male or female.  They are then socially conditioned in ways that reflect cultural expectations about how male people (men) and female people (women) should act.  Certain behaviors and characteristics are associated with masculinity, and some with femininity.  These behaviors are not necessarily biological or the same across cultures, but are absorbed by virtue of growing up in the place we're from and around the people in our communities.  I was developing a clear sense that gender was quite fluid, possibly existing on a spectrum and that anyone who said there could only be two genders was either lying or didn't know any better.  Still, I believed there were only two biological sexes.  I had no reason not to.

Sex is constructed, too
During my senior year of college, I took Sociology of Gender and learned that biology is just as complicated and confounding as all the expressions of gender and self that the human mind can produce.  I learned that while we may interpret our bodies as representing a biological binary, nature has other ideas.  Science has associated certain physical traits with biological maleness and femaleness.  When babies are born with penises, we call them male.  When they're born with vaginas, we call them female.  But that doesn't mean that everyone comes ready-made with the exact "right" set of those physical features that places them squarely in one category or the other.    What floored me most was what happens when science, or medicine - which is stuck like a stick in the mud on the notion that binary sex is a biological fact - is confronted by people whose bodies defy the sex binary.  The idea that all people are either male or female, and that these categories are strictly defined by specific body parts, is so ingrained that even when the medical field is faced with a newborn infant whose penis is "too small" or whose clitoris is "too big," doctors will surgically alter those infants to make them fit in one or the other category.  There's no room for a third (or fourth or fifth or sixth...) option.  There's no waiting for the infant to grow up enough to state its own preferences.  These are medical doctors presented with what appears to be a medical problem - a child that is not clearly male or female.  Instead of responding by considering whether we were wrong about there being only male and female sexes, we make those children become male or female.

I recently read a news article about small children, gender, and play in which a psychologist was quoted as saying that boys are "born with stronger connections in the area of the brain where visual spacial abilities are centered, and girls have stronger connections in areas where language and fine-motor skills are centered."  That statement struck me as both problematic and just plain wrong.  I happen to have spent a fair amount of time looking at studies on early childhood brain development and actually felt pretty confident that babies are born with most of their brains' neurons in place, but not the synapses - which are in fact the connections between neurons that form as we grow and allow us to engage in complex human behaviors.  My understanding was that while tons (actually, most) of a child's synapses, or connections, are formed very rapidly in the first few years of life, they're not really on the radar pre-birth or even at the moment of birth.  In other words, I wondered what the eff this psychology woman was talking about.  What did she mean that boys were born with more of certain connections and girls with others?  I started to doubt myself, since after all, this was a trained psychologist being cited in a major national newspaper, so I looked up some of the newborn brain stuff again, and not to toot my own horn, but from all I can tell, I was right.  Some synapses are in fact formed at birth, but very few - mainly the ones dealing with basic new baby functions - breathe, eat, sleep, poop.  I'd say it's a stretch to say all boys are "born with" more brain connections related to spacial abilities and all girls are "born with" synapses related to language and fine motor skills.  Maybe the psychologist means that baby boys' brains and baby girls' brains have different measurable capacities for certain skills, but I'm pretty skeptical about that.   But this idea persists - that boys and certain "natural" tendencies and girls have others.

"You know it's all around you, but it's hard to point and say, there"
Around the time they begin preschool, many - though not all - girls start demanding head-to-toe pink outfits, princess Barbies, and all things related to kittens and unicorns, while many - though not all - boys demand trucks, blocks, sports gear, whatever...  Even the most gender-conscious parents sometimes throw up their arms at this stage and wonder if biology really does play a role here.  They see all of the things they've done to challenge gender stereotypes and can't understand why their children haven't followed suit.  Gender is socially constructed, but it is a powerful construct and it permeates our every interaction and relationship.  Children don't just interact with their parents - they are exposed to gender norms everywhere they go and everywhere they look.  They absorb all of this.  Sex and gender norms are pervasive, but nearly invisible to most folks most of the time.  The point is that people witness the phenomenon of young children acting these norms out and chalk it up to biology.  That psychologist from the news article is probably right that there's evidence that later on, young boys do have more synapses related to spacial awareness and girls more synapses related to language, etc... but since synapses are formed (or not) as a direct result of infant and early childhood experiences, couldn't we also conclude that boys have greater spatial skills because we encourage boys to play with a lot of blocks and balls?  Couldn't we conclude that girls' greater language and fine-motor skills are the result of encouraging them to play with dolls and arts and crafts rather than some biologically-determined capacity they were born with?  

"Natural" Facts
Facts are not the only things that shape science.  Social pressures and norms shape science, too.  The subtitle of this post is misleading because there is such a thing as "male" and "female" - but these categories exist because we have named them so, not because they are biologically undeniable categories.  All throughout history, we have believed things that we now dismiss as awful - things that  were once accepted by the medical community as scientific "facts" - that women are less intelligent than men, that removing the uterus cures "hysteria," that people of color have smaller brains than caucasian people, and that African-descended people are "naturally" better athletes than people of other ethnicities.  For our generation, and maybe another few generations left to come, perhaps it's the idea that there are only two biological sexes, male and female, that one day our great-great-grandchildren will remember with shock and disbelief.        


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Busting 5 Myths About Co-ed and Trans-friendly Bathrooms

I post a lot about bathrooms on this blog - mostly pictures of gender neutral bathroom signs, or my own often stressful experiences in public restrooms.  I cannot stress enough what an issue this is for gender non-conforming folks.  Finding and using a public restroom should be simple and easy, and it's just not.  The Arizona state legislature has been considering a bathroom use bill that would make a lot of trans and gender queer folks' lives even more challenging.  The original version of the bill would have made it a misdemeanor for trans folks to use bathrooms designated for the gender they identify with, rather than the one marked on their original birth certificate (how anyone goes about enforcing this, I haven't got a clue...).  It also seems that it would call into question any people using a restroom that appeared not to match their gender - such as butch lesbians using the women's room or boys with long hair using the men's room, as one author has pointed out.  After an uproar in opposition to the original bill, it was re-worked so that using the "wrong" bathroom would no longer be a crime, but so that it would also be legal for business owners to discriminate against trans folks (or any others perceived as using the "wrong" restroom) using bathrooms in their stores, restaurants, etc...

I think the simplest solution to a lot of public restroom problems would be to make them all co-ed or gender neutral.  Then everybody fits in every bathroom.  There's a lot of transphobia in general associated with public restroom use.  The original proposed bathroom bill in Arizona takes such phobia to the extreme, but I'm astonished at the number of ordinary people who are uncomfortable at the thought of co-ed public restrooms.  At home, male and female-identified people use the same bathrooms all the time.  Of course, folks tend to be more comfortable and familiar with members of their own household, but even when most people have a party, or host a big group of folks who don't know each other, they don't post signs on their home restrooms (if they even have more than one) designating one for women and one for men.  So why do this in public?  For multi-stall bathrooms, I understand people's hesitation a little more, though I don't necessarily agree (see below...), but designating single-occupancy bathrooms for men or women has never made any sense to me.  If I'm at the gas station and there's a line 5 deep for the one-hole "women's room" and no line for the one-hole men's, I'm going in the men's. Still, I've found that people come up with all kinds of bizarre reasons that men and women should pee in separate spaces in public or that trans people shouldn't be able to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in.  Most of these reasons are based on myths that I'd like to go ahead and bust.

1. Allowing trans folks to use women's restrooms, or instituting co-ed restrooms will be unsafe for women.
When people say this, they really mean they think it will be unsafe for cis women (see the blog glossary at the bottom of the page if you need a definition).  But not ensuring that people can use the restroom that matches their gender identity is also unsafe for women - it's at worst fatally unsafe, or at the best, extremely uncomfortable, for trans women.  Furthermore, just because a bathroom is labeled "Women" doesn't mean there's some magical barrier that will prevent male people from entering if they really want to.  If someone really wants to make a random attack in a bathroom, a sign on the door probably won't prevent it.  Gendered bathrooms create the illusion of safety, not actual safety.  Just watch the first few minutes of Copycat.  

2. Children will be exposed to naked people.
This issue relates to locker rooms more so than bathrooms and seems to be a main concern of some of the Arizona lawmakers who fear allowing trans folks to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity will lead to "naked men" in the locker rooms.  This is, frankly, ridiculous.  First of all, there's nothing inherently wrong with nudity in a locker room - when you go to the pool, people change in and out of swimsuits in the locker room, rendering them momentarily naked.  That's how swimming works.  Not everyone gets naked in the locker room anyway - plenty of people use the private changing stalls usually provided.  If locker rooms are a problem for you or your children, change at home and enter the pool deck another way.  Or use the family changing room - many pools have one.  Our favorite neighborhood pool actually requires that children of a certain age be taken through the family changing rooms to the pool deck rather than through the adult locker rooms (that's not why it's our favorite pool, but it's not a bad thing either).  I also imagine that very few of us are planning to leave our young children unattended in the locker room.  Though I have to say, of all the things I worry about related to my potential future children, saving them from random naked people chasing them around a locker room full of elderly water aerobics ladies and adolescent lifeguards is not among them.

3. Children will be molested.
This is not a concern to be taken lightly but in this context it infuriates me for several reasons.  One, it implies that trans folks are all creepy child molesters just waiting for their chance to put on dresses and get into the women's room to kidnap little girls.  Such fears are both bizarre and extremely transphobic.  Second, this concern feeds into our hyped-up fear of strangers sexually abusing children when in reality, most kids who are abused are abused by people they know.  That kind of abuse is harder to see and easier to ignore, but it's unfortunately not rare and we do kids a disservice by freaking ourselves out about strangers more so than empowering children to have control over their bodies and to recognize and speak up about abuse when it happens - no matter who is doing it.  Third, like I said above, if people want to walk into the "wrong" bathroom with the express intent to harm a child, just having the "Men's" or "Women's" signs up on the doors will not stop them. They are signs, not magic.  If a stranger wants to kidnap a child, they'll find a way.  More and more "family" restrooms are popping up all over the place, which are great, but a co-ed public restroom means that a parent of any gender can accompany a child of any age or gender to the bathroom, which feels a lot safer to me. 

4. Men are gross.
I hate to burst this bubble, but the truth is that everyone is pretty gross.  Yeah, stand-to-pee people sometimes miss and pee on the floor.  That's gross.  Make sure your shoelaces are tied tight.  Squat-to-pee people also sometimes miss and pee all the fuck over the seat.  Also gross.  Learn to hover.  Some people don't understand that garbage cans are for putting paper towels in, not next to.  Some people have problems with flushing (I'm all for letting it mellow at home, but friends, no matter where you're at, if it's brown, flush it down).  Some people who menstruate leave their used tampons and pads in the toilet, on the toilet seat, on the floor, even next to the sink (um, hello?).  I've used a lot of public restrooms - men's, women's, co-ed - and I've found that disgusting-ness is pretty equal opportunity.  Public restrooms?  Not clean places.  I'd follow the advice on the signs for the employees and wash your hands.  Maybe a couple of times.

5.  Transgender people want "special" rights.
Some people seem to think a law allowing businesses to discriminate against trans people using the "wrong" bathroom will only affect trans people, but in truth, few of us fit neatly into the categories "male" and "female."  Few of us are wholly masculine or wholly feminine.  There are days when someone could say any one of us doesn't "belong" in one restroom or the other.  Who gets to decide?  And how will this make us happier or safer?  Trans folk don't want anything more special than the right to pee when they need to, in a place that won't get them yelled at, stared at, beat up, or kicked out.