Bending Gender

Bending Gender
2-3-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I remember my psych 101 course that I took in college, the professor said a third of the students are there just to find out what’s wrong with themselves.  Obligingly, our professor occasionally offered various personality tests and such during the last ten minutes of class.  One such test that has always stood out in my memory was the Bem Sex Role Inventory which measured masculinity and femininity.  There were questions to find out if I were assertive or timid, if I liked sports or preferred taking care of others, if I were analytical or understanding.  So I filled it all out and he showed us how to score it there in our seats – one number for masculinity and a second score for femininity.  He talked about how we would probably each come up with a strong score for one characteristic and a weak score in the other, or – there was more of this happening since the sexual revolution and feminism – you could come up with a strong score in both masculine and feminine.  ‘Androgynous’ he said, making it sound like something to aspire toward, something we would all achieve in the brave new world of culture-wide psychological wholeness.

Many people stayed after class to have a word with the professor about their inventory scores.  So I hung back, waiting for a chance to ask my question.  When he finally turned his attention my way his response was, “To have a weak score in both masculinity and femininity doesn’t count as androgynous.  It probably means you’re repressing something.”

Prior to the 1970’s it was widely believed that to be psychologically healthy, a man must be masculine and a woman must be feminine.  There were only two types of normal healthy adults: men and women.  It was easy to tell them apart and what to expect from each type.  The man was the ‘father,’ the ‘breadwinner,’ the ‘protector.’  To be a woman was to be the ‘mother,’ the ‘homemaker,’ the ‘care-giver.’  A person’s gender, by which we mean their appearance, certain behaviors, and patterns of work, was predetermined by their sex, by which we mean their reproductive equipment.  Of course the feminist movement and the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s blew that all out of the water and struggled to equalize the conditions.  The old argument that said: “your societal role is set by your biology,” was attacked from any angle with significant success.  Few today would argue compellingly that a man can not take care of children lovingly or that a woman is biologically incapable of running a multi-billion dollar corporation.

Certainly there are those who went too far in the argument suggesting that biology makes no difference whatsoever and that the differences between males and females are purely cultural and educational.  Such an argument taken to this extreme led to the tragic story of the infant boy who lost his penis through a surgical accident, underwent gender reassignment therapy before the age of two, and was subsequently raised as a girl.  The theory was that learning and environment would trump biology in terms of sexual differentiation.  In other words, having been physically made to look like a baby girl, the child would grow up identifying as a girl – provided the parents went along with the ruse (which they did.)  The book, As Nature Made Him, the boy who was raised as a girl, by John Colapinto¸ (2000) reveals the patient’s perspective on the events which were markedly different from the surgeon’s perspective.  The surgeon, Dr. John Money, was of the opinion that “in the formation of gender identity, pre-birth biological influences are secondary to the power of post-birth environmental factors, which override them.” (p66)  The surgeon was convinced that biology was next to meaningless.  The case of this boy who was “successfully” raised as a girl was cited copiously as the basis for arguments against the old model the Nature determined everything by declaring boldly that it was in fact Nurture that trumped all.

However, the book, As Nature Made Him, shows that the case was not a success.  Indeed the boy raised as a girl rebelled against the label and the constraints placed on ‘her’ regularly.  While there were certainly photos of this child in dresses and accounts of ‘her’ working in the kitchen with her mother, there are also many more accounts of this child being a rowdy, assertive kid who would rather play in the dirt than sit and read a book.  This was a child who tried to organize the other girls into a game of Cowboys and Indians, who beat up the boy across the street, who regularly peed standing up!  I hardly think that qualifies as a successful gender-switch.  Clearly the raw data had been manipulated to reach the conclusion that this child was the epitome of femininity.

By the time the time the child turned 14 in 1979, ‘he’ has reverted to his biological gender; at least that is how it is worded in the book. This did not stop Dr. John Money from continuing to promote his theory which sat, in a small but critical way, at the base of the feminist movement.  Biological plumbing was not a reason to subjugate a person.  Womanhood was not a genetically inferior condition; rather it was a social construct that could be challenged. The case of the boy raised as a girl served its small part in the revolution; and when the specifics of the case turned out to not support the conclusions of the case then a new round of researchers and theorists set about establishing new conclusions.

Today’s psychology book begins a discussion about Gender Roles by admitting that “all cultures establish expectations about the general patterns of work, appearance, and behavior associated with being a man or a woman.” (Essentials of Psychology, 4th ed. Bernstein, D & Nash, P.; 2008. p369)  But it quickly moves on to say that such Gender Roles “are deeply rooted in both nature and nurture.” (Ibid)  Evolutionary psychology tells us about how “males’ greater ability to visualize the rotation of objects in space and females’ greater ability to read facial expressions… are deeply rooted reflections of gender-related hunting versus child-rearing duties that were adaptive eons ago for survival of both sexes. (Buss, 2004)” (Ibid, p371).  There are real cultural influences that shape a person’s sense of gender identity, no one refutes this today.  Also there are real biological, chemical, hormonal, and neurological differences between males and females, no one refutes this today.

This brings us back to my college Psychology class test and the new online version I took this weekend.  “Your Gender Identity” Are You More Masculine or Feminine?”  I don’t recommend free online personality quizzes for anything except entertainment.  So I haven’t taken my scores to heart.  But I was surprised to see at the end of the nearly 50 questions quiz, references to the Bem Sex Role Inventory I had taken in college.

One question, for example, is: You and a couple of friends get lost on a hike. What do you do?  a) Become upset and frustrated b) Stay calm and stay put. Someone will find us c) Discuss our options and work out a plan together d) Take charge and use the map to get us back

Another question is: After a big holiday meal with friends and family, would you rather: a) Take a nap b) Hang out c) Go for a walk or d) Play basketball or touch football?

From questions like these, the test compiles a profile of you based on 12 traits, half of which are considered masculine and half of which are considered feminine.  The outcome is not limited to only two choices.  The analyses states that “it is not uncommon” for a person to come out as a very masculine man, or a very feminine female.  In some cases a person will come out as a very feminine man or a very masculine female.  Regularly people will come out as androgynous, being strongly masculine and feminine as either males or females.  (That is six options so far.)  And finally a person could come out as “sex-role transcendent” which means they are weak on both masculine and feminine qualities.  The report casts this final option as a positive one saying these are people for whom their sense of self is not tied to gender traits.

If you remember at the beginning, for my college test I came out in this last category and my professor stated it meant I was repressing something rather than my sense of self not being tied to gender traits.  I have to say I think my professor was on to something because when I took the test this weekend, I scored rather differently.  I came out as highly feminine.  Like, very highly feminine!  So when I took the test again, the second score was a little more reasonable feminine, only 60%.  I looked over the 12 gender traits they used to create the profile and saw that indeed I score very low on “Sports Fan” and “Aggression.”  It turns out I am moderate or both “Leadership” and “Decisive,” but score quite will for “Analytical” and “Principled Individualist.”  Two masculine traits fairly low, two moderate, and two nice and high.  That seems well-rounded enough for me.  When you look at the feminine traits thought, it turns out I am very “Cheerful”, very “Compassionate”, very “Gentle”, very “Understanding”, moderately “Trusting”, and scored quite low on “Timid”.  So, four outstanding, one moderate and one low score for femininity.  I can live with that.

Clergy have often been considered feminine.  Jesus is usually portrayed as very womanly, much to the consternation of the Religious Right.  Gentle, understanding, compassionate: Jesus is not a sports fan, or analytical or aggressive.  We can give him ‘principled individualist’ and ‘leadership’, and we certainly wouldn’t call him timid.  But over all I think I scored way less feminine that Jesus would!  Seriously though, ministers and priests have, for hundreds of years, been allowed to be in both the men’s sphere and women’s sphere.  They have been allowed to talk about love and relationships and still have leadership.

In several Native American tribe rituals there is a role for a person that is now being called a two-spirit.  There used to be other words for this, but were too often corrupted European words that meant derogatory things rather than honorable things so a new term was agreed on recently.  A two-spirit person would be like the androgynous label from the gender inventories.  But it is more than that, it also carries some of the connotation that goes with clergy, but not all two-spirit people are holy people.  So it is a little confusing still.

But then, any of this can get really confusing if you stop looking at inventories and theories and quizzes and start looking at real people and real lives and real salutations.  I imagine most people don’t separate their biological sex from their gender.  I don’t.  Even though the online quiz says I’m more feminine than masculine I have no desire to declare my gender to be anything other than “male.”  Most people don’t spend much time thinking about it, which is understandable: why spend time thinking about something that just is.  Water is wet, leaves look green, 1 + 1 = 2, as a man I feel ‘male.’  There really isn’t a whole lot more to say about it.  Except when you are talking to someone, or when you are someone for whom it that is not just the way it is.

In the book I read from for this morning’s reading, She’s Not There, a life in two genders, by Jenny Finney Boylan, she cites a statistic at one point: “Professor Lynn Conway at University of Michigan estimates there are forty thousand transgendered male-to-females in this country, and that only counts the ones who have already had the surgery.” (p249)  That’s forty thousand people who have undergone surgery to change their gender from male to female.  In the book, Boylan did this because it became increasingly unbearable to identify as a female inwardly and as a male outwardly.  There can be other reasons, I suppose; medical reasons I imagine.  But I suspect the majority of people who undergo a sex change operation do so to align their body with their felt gender.  I can only imagine the pain a person would feel – No I don’t think I can in fairness say that I can imagine the pain a person would feel to have your outer body not match your inner gender.

This is where it gets really complicated and confusing: separating the idea of sex from gender, the inner from the outer as it has been described.  Which one is more real, the inner or the outer?  To the rest of the world it is the out!  Right?  No one looks at Dolly Parton or Janet Reno (as Boylan mentioned in the reading) and concludes they are not really women.  Yet some one like Jenny Boylan gets reaction from time to time: “but you are not really a woman, though.”

Quite frankly, there are times when I think about transsexuality and I just have to shrug.  I’m sorry I can’t make it make for sense to you, I told [my friend.]  But it is what it is.  Whether I “really” am a woman, or whether I “had a choice” or not, or whether anything, no longer matters.  Having an opinion about transsexuality is about as useful as having an opinion on blindness.  You can think whatever you like about it, but in the end, your friend is still blind and surely deserves to see.  Whether one thinks transsexuals are heroes or lunatics will not help to bring these people solace.  All we can do in the face of this enormous, infinite anguish is to have compassion. (She’s Not There, Boylan, Jennifer; p248)

Are there more than two genders?  Well, remembering that there is a difference between biological sex and gender identity, putting those together brings out lots of possibilities: are masculine men and feminine men the same gender or are feminine women and feminine men the same gender?  The textbooks say gender is both biological and societal, not simply a subjective internal thing like your choice of favorite color.  If I were to take a more comprehensive and reliable gender test, and my gender score again came up as feminine, would my gender be “F” rather than “M” or some other letter?  I don’t know how to talk in words beyond “him” and “her”.  New pronouns have been invented, but their application is still unclear.  Or is it subjective?  Where does the line get drawn and who gets to draw it?  I imagine there are a number of you here this morning who could take this conversation much further, but we’ve reached the limit of what I can offer.  When we step away from inventories and theories that neatly wrap it all up, the real people and real situations can be so confusing and complex.  I recommend compassion.

In a world without end,

May it be so.