Gender Identity

Posted: April 05, 2017

Gender identity has raised heated debate especially on whether the society perceives “gender” as a concept determined by nature or attributed to nurture. The society has developed its own way of dictating what suits and determines gender identity. In most occasions, there is usually a basic distinction between gender attributes that is assigned to males and those assigned to females. Other societies, however, insist on that thebiology should not solely be used to alter a person’s gender identity. A gender binary to which everyone adheres and shows conformance to ideals of either femininity or masculinity is largely a subject of interest. This paper analyzes the concept of gender in relation to nature versus nurture based on Colapinto’s book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl, and Jennifer Boylan’s She's NotThere: A Life in Two Genders.

In John Colapinto’s book which was written as a reaction to the belief that gender identity of a child ismainly determined by the upbringing, the way a child is treated in the process of growth, and the surrounding environment. Such idea was mainly enforced more in the 1960s when Dr. John Money published the John/Joan case, arguing that a child’s gender was mainly based on nurture and not nature. In reaction to the book, it is worth noting that gender is determined by nature and only reinforced by nurture, and not vice versa. The book shows that normal gender identity is able to develop not only in the presence of sexual organ, but also in the removal of it. For instance, Brenda’s rejection of the feminine identity continued in middle school and, although she lacked the actual genitalia, she repeatedly tried to stand to urinate while visiting washrooms as males do (Colapinto, 2000). Moreover, she was fond of using the boys’ washroom while in school despite the other girls constantly warning her against such behavior. Although she underwent a surgery to have a vagina planted on her mutilated genitalia, she constantly resisted.

By taking the name David after realizing that she was naturally born a boy, Brenda tries much later in life to assume his male status by expressing several physical and behavioral traits common to males, and even opting to marry, enjoying a fulfilling life together with his wife. As there are many transgendered children and adults across the world today, the case of David Reimer seems to beg the question of the role of nature and nurture in gender identity. For one, it seems to refute the nurture theory which is based on the premise that gender identity is purely based on social effects. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of Reimer’s case that make the rejection of the nurture theory premature. For instance, David did not begin the process of gender realignment until about two years of age. This period would have been very crucial and sufficient in the establishment of male gender identity. Again, this raises the question of whether gender re-assignment would have taken place successfully at birth had it been initiated. While the outcome of this case in isolation does not provide sufficient evidence to either accept or reject the nurture or nature theory, it is worth pointing out that the concept of gender in relation to the mentioned theory has been widely studied but there is no consensus on whether a person’s gender identity is shaped by social or biological variables. Some scholars believe that nature and nurture interact to determine the development of sexual self.

Evidence of the nature theory in relation to the sexual identity is mainly based on a number of studies that have been carried out using laboratory animals (Carol, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002), and, in consensus, the authors argue that the sexual behavior which is expressed as an adult is the result of exposure to sex hormones in the stages of fetal or early postnatal development. As a matter of fact, continuous exposure to testosterone in the early period of life promotes development of the brain of a female child in ways that makes it possible for male behavior to be noticed in adulthood, and vice versa.

The controversy in the gender identity question is reinforced by many deferring theories. For instance, the Social Learning Theory mainly inclines towards the nurture side of the debate and objects the notion that hormones and chromosomes are purely responsible for the nature/nurture concept. Social learning theorists maintain that the gender roles children assume result from the socialization process that consists of reinforcement, modeling, social customs, and punishment(Carol, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002). They also believe that a child’s gender role is influenced and encouraged by parents through dressing style and other activities that are socially considered appropriate for specific gender (McNay, 2013). Social learning theory proposes that the child mainly acquires its gender through observation, imitation of models and reinforcement of behavior which is perceived to be ideal and appropriate with the sex of the child. However, this theory fails to explain why many children usually prefer to engage in almost the same activities at around two years. 

On the other hand, the biosocial Approach takes into account both sides of nature and nurture debate in explaining gender identity. Specifically, it focuses on the interaction of social and biological factors. The theory argues that the evolution process did not take into account human psychological sex variations. However, these are the results of the allocation of women and men into various sex roles based on their physical differences. According toSchwartz, Money,& Robinson (1981), an individual’s biology has significant impact on their gender role development. In turn, therefore, one’s biology seems to have strong influence on how the society reacts and perceives them. It is these perceptions that influence the way a child assumes gender roles (Schwartz, Money, & Robinson, 1981).

Based on Colapinto’s book, As Nature Made Him, it is evident that gender identity has close link with the patterns of hormone exposure. The experiment with Brenda and John have shown that normal gender identity is able to develop at any stage not only in the absence of the genitalia, but also in the removal of key reproductive parts such as the testicles, unequivocal rearing of a child as either male or female, or castration at birth. It is interesting to notice that rather than the environment forming the gender identity of these children, they seem to have been predisposed towards specific gender identity despite being subjected to different nurtured environment. Reimer’s case has caused the scientific community to carry out a reevaluation of their gender belief that had initially argued that it is a result of the “nurture” process. Such new outlook has called for the reevaluation of sex reassignment surgeries on parents and infants.

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders mirrors the societal perception of gender identity and how individuals are influenced by the pressure to change their sexual identity. The book contrasts the common belief that gender is biologically and naturally constructed but instead can be nurtured. From early years, James Finney has never been without the knowledge that he was not comfortable with his biological gender identity. As a young person, a teenager, a college student, and, later on, a husband deeply attracted to his wife, and a professor at Colby College, Boylan was constantly disturbed by the need to embrace gender identity that he was most comfortable with. Through this memoir, James realized that he could undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to have his preferred gender placed on him (Boylan, 2003). Boylan’s case is not an exception to what happens in mundane life. Many people have gender identity that fully matches their anatomy. To be noted; those considered transgendered usually grapple with personal challenges given that the gender identity assigned to them by the society is different from their preferred gender. Moreover, as aforementioned, what society expects of males and females often affects what they feel about themselves, and, in some way, it can be argued that nurture has a role to play in perfecting the gender identity, although nature plays a fundamental role. Transgender individuals have a different sense of themselves as much as the society expects women and men to behave in a certain way. Some transgender individuals usually feel they are different with respect to “gender” at an early age (Langevin, 2014).  Others begin to sense it either at puberty stage or much later in life. In many occasions transgendered individuals feel out-of-place with their own bodies and may be emotionally confused. Understanding and appreciating the transgendered people may help them to recover psychologically and emotionally and also enable them to be able to opt for a specific gender without bowing to the pressure from the society.

Boylan’s ability to transform from James to Jennifer almost caused him an inexpressible amount of private grief. People who are transgendered undergo almost the same predicaments or even worse. As he turned from male to female, Jennifer realized that gender identity was highly complex than the usual physical attraction or cultural expectation since it involved cross dressing, change in behavior, genetics, and prolonged sessions of therapy (Boylan, 2003).

The role of nature or nurture in determining gender identity can only be understood based on the realization that gender and sex are different. Like a number of issues with respect to understanding of what pertains to societal decisions, there is usually no one clear standpoint. Where in the situation in regards to transgendered individuals, their actions mainly appear to purely focus on nature and biological decisions, both before and after, are largely dictated by society and nurture. However, in both David and Jennifer’s case, their body parts as well as clothing signaled their gender identity.

For a man who already has a wife and children, the decision Boylan makes to change his gender identity is not only painful in the sense that it affects those around him, especially the partner. Boylan makes a vivid distinction between gender orientation and sexual orientation. The ability of Boylan to change gender identity can be explained through social constructionism theory. It is one of the main theories that many sociologists employ to put gender into cultural and historical focus. Social constructionism shows that gender is neither innate norfixed; rather it varies across places and time. Based on this argument, it is sufficient to say that many gender norms are learnt from birth through childhood socialization in schools, home environment, in the media, and religious and cultural teachings. Gender experiences change throughout a person’s lifetime as can be seen in the way Boylan constantly transforms his behavior to conform to that of female. Thus, gender is flux. Like other social identities, gender identities are dialectical, implying that they involve sets of actors intertwined against one another: “masculinity” versus “femininity.” Boylan transformation into Jennifer becomes more like a forced conscription than a decision, and a mystery. Transgendered individuals may become highly susceptible to psychological and emotional instability such as anxiety and depression if they are not accepted by the society.

Some psychologists believe that a number of prenatal and biological factors, including hormones and genes, are responsible in determining gender identity (Zhou, Hofman, Gooren, & Swaab, 1995). The biochemical theory of gender identity tends to argue that individuals may acquire gender identities via factors rather socialization. In a study carried out with a sample size of 14 male children to find out what happens when they are sexually reassigned female, 8 of them identified as boys, and virtually all the subjects had some elements of male-typical interests and attitudes, thus providing support for the argument that gender identity is largely determined by genetic variables independent of socialization. Hormones, especially those responsible for determining the sex during the early stages of the development of the fetus have vital role to play in human growth and development. If there is any alteration of the prenatal hormone levels, there might be the alteration of the phenotype. As a result, there might be the natural predisposition of the human brain towards particular sex may be different from the genetic make-up of the child.

The relationship between gender identity and biological variables is that the sexually dimorphic structures located in the brain of the transgendered usually tend to determine their preferred sex (Zhou, Hofman, Gooren, & Swaab, 1995).This is seen in the initial period when Brenda changes her behavior from male to feminine after being subjected to a series of therapies.

In conclusion, the society is obsessed with the idea of sex to the extent that it determines how males and females should behave and present themselves. However, just like in David’s case, most transgendered individuals become depressed once they realize that the society does not accept them the way they are. While nature is largely considered to be a critical factor in dictating the gender identity, the role of nurture in shaping the behavior of the transgendered cannot be underestimated. Moreover, as aforementioned, genitalia alone should not be used as a lens through which gender identity is defined and confined. For families living with the transgendered, the environment and upbringing are important components of a healthy lifestyle. Parents should be urged with extreme cautions to reconsider letting their children decide on their own gender rather than imposing on them.

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