Human Beings, Being Gendered: Understanding personhood in light of stereotypes

By Jo Kroeker and Colin Wilson

A truncated version of this piece appeared in the Hillsdale Collegian, 17 March 2016.

Fol­lowing a botched cir­cum­cision at seven months, David Reimer, born “Bruce” Reimer, underwent two sex reas­signment surgeries. The first occurred at 22 months, when “Bruce” became “Brenda” because doctors thought he would be more likely to succeed as a woman than as a man with a dis­figured penis. The second reassignment took place at 15 years old, when “Brenda” became David after the shocking revelation that his female identity had been cul­tivated by psy­chol­ogists, hormones, and dresses.

Throughout his life, doctors and psy­chol­ogists cut David Reimer to fit their def­i­n­itions of both mas­culinity and fem­i­ninity. Our society upholds these categories as mutually exclusive, unconditional truths, and uses the manifest differences in behavior, attributes, and roles to obscure our uni­versal personhood.

But what happens when these gender constructions break down in the face of an individual, like David, who does not fit the mold? A proper understanding of the biological facts of gender, sex, and of cultural path dependency demand that we reevaluate the arbitrary, behaviorist lines drawn around differing expressions of personhood.

Gender sits at the crossroads of nature and nurture—a girl is identified as much by her physical characteristics as she is by her toys, clothing, and interests. Biologically speaking, humans are (typically) identifiable as either a male or a female by their chromosomes, and in most cases, this distinction comes with a certain spectrum of behavior. However, the set of behaviors associated with one sex or the other is not entirely inborn—it is cultivated. It is not natural in the way biological sex is natural. Certainly, while estrogen and testosterone can account for some of the differences typically associated with masculine or feminine behavior, in reality, the two overlap as much as they differ. Exalting a product of nurture by equivocating it with biological sex has the effect of bundling the two into transcendent ideals of male and female. However prevalent this belief may be, it is, to a certain extent, nonsensical. Behavior isn’t static. It may be predictable, but in the moment we begin predicting behavior based on abstract ideals, we cease to understand people as individuals. The moment we convert such an abstraction into a normative set of acceptable behaviors, we do injustice to those who may fall outside of the norm.

The behaviors outside the traditional realm of a person’s biological sex are encouraged or discouraged to varying degrees depending on the cultural setting in which the individual finds themself. But even in the strictest of settings, there is natural overlap programmed into our very DNA. This is revealed clearly during fatherhood, where men have evolved a mechanism which strategically lowers their testosterone levels. It is believed that this mechanism exists in order to limit aggressive behaviors, promote nurturing instincts, limit the male’s libido, and allow for a more stable environment for the new child, according to a 2014 study by the University of Michigan in the American Journal of Human Biology.

On the biological level, becoming a father means that men must exhibit less what our culture deems “manly” behaviors. This seems counterintuitive, given that, on a cultural level, becoming a father is considered by many to be a rite of passage into manhood. In order to be protectors and nurturers, the male body has adapted to be more sensitive and nurturing, and less aggressive and independent. In fact, what is required both by every man’s male DNA and his perfection as a father is at odds with a simplistic understanding of static gender roles. In light of these findings, the idea of “traditional masculinity” as a static concept is not even biologically accurate, much less suitable to the normal development of human life in reproduction and caring for young. This demonstrated variability in sexually “typical” behaviors, even within the same individuals over time, comes into focus when turned to the question of intersexuality that David Reimer experienced so dramatically.

The term ‘intersexual’ encompasses people who biologically express the internal and external genitalia of both sexes in varying degrees. According to the Intersex Society of North America, medical experts report that about 1 child in 1500 to 2000 births is noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia. Chromosomally, they have a more complex expression than XX or XY. Because our society emphasizes perfection and idolizes the expression of traditional masculinity and femininity, it has the potential to marginalize intersex children as biological and social failures. The primacy of the biological failure predicts children’s inability to flourish as they are in the social setting, and instead must be cut to fit social standards. Certainly, biological deformities represent an aberration from the ideal dichotomy required for reproduction. However, it is important to draw lines between what is a safe and necessary medical procedure, and what is a fundamental reconstitution of an already complete person for our own benefit and for our own mistaken assumptions about what we need to be happy.

In her essay “Undoing Gender”, theorist Judith Butler points out that both the psy­chol­ogists and surgeons involved in the Reimer case imple­mented means that con­tra­dicted their own purported beliefs about gender. The psy­chol­ogists claimed to believe in gender mal­leability, but they imposed their ideas of fem­i­ninity on “Brenda” so vio­lently that she almost com­mitted suicide at the age of 13. Later, when the surgeons transformed “Brenda” back to David—to an inner, natural truth about his gender—they had to use unnatural methods to do so. In each instance, the medical professionals, and even David’s own family, were so con­cerned about cutting him to fit their ideas of what gender norms he should conform to that they neglected to approach him as a human being with unique personhood. In the end, the strain of conforming to an arbitrary standard proved to be too much, and David took his own life at age 38.

David’s story embodies the debate between malleability and an inner truth of gender: however, both assume that there are more differences between men and women then there are similarities. Malleability uses the differences, manifested in toys, clothing, and activities, to bring out girlhood or boyhood. The inner truth of gender takes up a dualistic, separated understanding of body and identity. Indeed, these archetypes seem to fit, for the most part.

To make these archetypes fit, we use labels to categorize people in order to understand them within the context of normalcy. We try to put people into boxes based on average behavioral traits and genitalia so that we can make sense of and evaluate the behavior of others. However, when our social standards don’t fit our children, especially our intersex children, we automatically assume something must be done, physically or socially, to make them fit, in order for them to succeed. Judith Butler’s characterization of the intersex movement opposing coercive surgery on sexually indeterminate children as one that “calls for an understanding that infants with intersexed conditions are part of the continuum of human morphology and ought to be treated with the presumption that their lives are and will be not only livable, but also occasions for flourishing. The norms that govern idealized human anatomy thus work to produce a differential sense of who is human and who is not, which lives are livable, and which are not.”

Our behavioral categories cut the human psyche even more deeply than the surgical tools cut the human body because they cut universally and indiscriminately, harming society in the process. Cutting away a partially formed penis is an injustice to the infant, but nurturing an aggressive generation of boys with the phrase “boys will be boys” exalts one particular expression of male behavior while excluding the more passive boys from participating in “masculinity,” despite the right guaranteed by their biological identity to be universally valid members of their sex. Social conditioning robs boys of the freedom for individual expression, and society loses opportunities for growth when it demands homogeneity.

However, there is a Christian response to the cutting, one that exalts heterogeneity and promotes loving the personhood of every person. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul attributes wholeness in the church body to the unique gifts every member pos­sesses. This def­i­nition of wholeness is applicable in our dis­cussion of per­sonhood: “If the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? . . . But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. . . . If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (NIV).

Fol­lowing the botched cir­cum­cision, doctors may have used logic similar to that of the ear, saying that “because David does not have a func­tioning penis, he won’t want to belong to manhood.” People mis­un­derstood David his whole life because they pri­or­itized the alignment of his behaviors, hormones, and gen­italia to manhood or wom­anhood, instead of pri­or­i­tizing his whole and perfect per­sonhood as greater than his gender. When we tell men or women that their attributes and roles do not fit our society’s narrow understanding of masculinity or femininity and that they must act differently, we cut them, psychologically. In doing so, we do a great injustice to the fringes of masculinity and femininity, all for the sake of creating aggressive, independent, manly men, and passive, dependent, womanly women.

Just as the church body only functions when all members uses their distinct talents, and every member rejoices in the variety of abilities, so too does society excel when all members appreciate each other for their unrepeatable instantiations of personhood. In Galatians 3, Paul claims that all believers are children of Christ, who inherit the promises of Abraham through their faith alone: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we uphold mas­culinity and fem­i­ninity as tran­scendent truths that separate men from women, we divide and oppose people, when our faith in God should unite us.

God created each of us with unique gifts, passions, and personalities. We are called to love one another as Christ loved us, which applies just as much to those who are different from us. Abandoning strict gender stereotypes may inhibit our ability to classify people we don’t know into boxes that don’t fully capture their complexity as God’s creations, but perhaps this is what we were supposed to be avoiding all along.

Colin Wilson is a senior studying economics. JoAnna Kroeker is a sophomore studying French and philosophy.

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