tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[personal profile] tim
This is not an April Fool's joke, it's just a question that's been on my mind a lot lately.

Why do we assign genders to infants at birth? The historical reasons are obvious: until recently, in the culture that I live in, there was a belief that externally visible genitalia determine the gender role that an infant will eventually feel most comfortable in. There was also a belief that sex is binary and all humans have a consistent set of sexed biological attributes---chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, and internal neurological maps of the body, to name a few---such that, for each person, all of those attributes correspond to the same sex category. We now know that those beliefs are false, but the practice of assigning genders to newborns based on what's no more than a guess---albeit a guess that's likely to be right---persists.

I really like the vocabulary of "assigned male/female at birth" and "coercively assigned male/female at birth" because it emphasizes the subjectivity of sex assignment. The existence of an individual body is real and objective, to be sure, but the placement of that individual into a category created by humans as a model for understanding the world is subjective and requires an observer to be meaningful. In contrast, saying "born male"/"born female" reifies subjective judgments of maleness or femaleness in a way that serves to reinforce coercion. It's a sly use of language to surreptitiously remove the observer (the one who decides, about this person who hasn't had a chance to assert their own identity yet, whether the person is male or female) from the picture. The "born male"/"born female" usage implicitly blesses the observer's subjectivity as "real" and "objective", and marks the observed's subjectivity as "subjective" and "imaginary". But the belief that everyone has a real, objective biological sex that is just waiting to be observed and that may conflict with their internal, subjectively experienced sex is predicated on confusion between the map and the territory. So adding the word "coercively" helps us remember that rarely if ever do the parents of a newborn get to opt out of sex assignment---most of the time, they don't even know it's possible to opt out. And the child themself certainly does not have the option of protesting the gender arbitrarily assigned to them.

So, why assign gender? Other than historical reasons and the fact that most cis people would likely see it as awkward or socially disruptive to have a child about whom they would choose not to answer the question "Is it a boy or a girl?", I'm not sure. Neither history nor the comfort zones of adults are particularly relevant to the welfare of a particular child.

I think about what I would have preferred to have done for me when I was born. What if, instead of saying "it's a girl," no one had labeled me as a boy or a girl, instead waiting until I was old enough to speak for myself and proclaim that I felt more of an affinity with the girls over there, or the boys over there, or maybe neither? I think it would probably have been easier for me to say that I was a boy if I'd grown up in a milieu where I hadn't been getting told that I was something I was not---a girl---for as long as I could remember. I spent at least seven years of my life, from age 11 to 18, both severely depressed as a result of having the wrong hormone balance in my body, and unable to describe what might be wrong because I wasn't familiar with the concept of being a boy who everyone else thought was a girl. It's easier to assert yourself and speak for what you need when you haven't spent a great deal of your life being told something you are not.

I can't really blame my mother for thinking I was a girl because I happened to be born with external genitals that looked like female external genitals, because in 1980 not a lot of people knew that not all babies born with vulvas were girls and not all babies born with penises were boys. But now, in 2011, a lot of people do know that, at least within the circle of people I know. And yet even people with a good understanding of all the ways in which humans are not sexually dimorphic, and who find themselves parents of an infant, assume that their particular infant's gender follows from the infant's genitals, even though they know that in general this is not true. They say that their child is probably cissexual and so they will treat them as such until they have evidence otherwise.

There are, of course, a number of problems with this approach. First, the way that statistics work is that any particular individual, like your baby, is either 100% likely to be transsexual, or 0% likely. If you pick a random individual from the population, you have a 9 in 10 chance of picking a cissexual person. But if you fix one specific individual, any particular statement about them is true or false. In the case of a child who's too young to communicate about who they are, you just don't have any way of knowing which it is. But the point "they're probably cissexual" is moot.

More importantly, to me, I don't think any kid should have to go through what I went through, so if you say that every child should be treated as if they are cissexual until proven otherwise, you're saying that you approve of some kids having to make a choice between contradicting what every authority in their life tells them is true, or being non-functional for many years. You're saying that the minority (trans kids) should have to pay the cost of making life convenient and comfortable and non-socially-awkward for the majority (cis kids). I think of Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" here. Should even one person be condemned to suffer if that suffering directly results in happiness for every single other human being? I don't believe so, because I believe that every individual has worth that can't be destroyed just to accrue benefit to somebody else, and that doesn't change even if it's a lot of somebody else's.

Moreover, if you assign gender coercively, you're saying, if you're a parent, that you don't want what's best for your kid. You want what's best for an idealized version of your kid who's perfectly conformant to any social norms you happen to value. You only want what's best for your kid to the extent that they happen to conform to that ideal.

Even if you don't agree with me, I hope you can excuse me for not advocating a position predicated on me being less than a person. If I am a person whose self-determination is just as important as anyone else's, then the same is true of other people like me, and so a systematic course of behavior that makes it much more difficult for such people to achieve self-determination---for no particularly good reason---cannot be justified. For me to approve of coercive gender assignment would be for me to say that I believe that if I got another chance to be born, I should once again have to spend the majority of my adolescence and young adulthood fighting to show that I am not who I'd been told I was, taking up much energy that my peers got to use on more externally rewarding pursuits. For me to approve of coercive gender assignment would be for me to deny my worth as a person.

I do not feel comfortable co-signing an ideology that threw me under the bus and would do so again unrepentantly if it could.

Finally, if the idea of waiting until a child can speak for themself before assigning gender -- just in the same way that you wouldn't decide, the instant a child was born, that they were a Democrat, were extroverted, were left-handed, or were Buddhist -- seems weird, I would ask what you think is harmful about it. I've already argued that assigning gender coercively is harmful to a minority of children. Is failure to coercively assign gender harmful? I don't think it is. Any discomfort involved is endured by adults, who can well afford to endure it, not by very young children, who generally don't think much of propriety. The instant a child expresses a preference as to whether he would like to be addressed with "he" and "him" or she would like to be addressed with "she" and "her", you can start doing that. And if they never express a preference, there's no harm in that either.

To be clear, I'm not advocating treating one's kid a certain way to advance a political agenda or to better the lot of anyone other than your kid. I'm advocating treating your kid in a way that's neutral about 9 times out of 10, and that spares them from psychic and/or literal death 1 time out of 10. "What if by addressing my child as 'he', I was actually gradually eroding their sense of self?" is probably not a question that many parents lie awake worrying about at night, but it's relevant to a hell of a lot more lives than "What if my kid got into some stranger's car to help look for their lost puppy?" So, considering that a lot of parents expend quite a bit of effort into preventing some much, much less likely occurrences (like their child being kidnapped by strangers), I can't see why a parent wouldn't want to decline to assign.

(As with many questions, Questioning Transphobia covered this one before me and better than me, with "Raising (Potentially) Trans Children".)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-01 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] calculus_of_destructions
You're probably not surprised to know I agree with you pretty solidly on this. :-p

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-01 10:12 pm (UTC)
juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] juli
So much agree.

What are your thoughts on delaying puberty? I mean, should it only be done for kids who know they're trans and are comfortable saying so? Growing up being wrongly-pronouned and suffering a lot of wrong gender markers on various permanent records is clearly undesirable, gratuitous and purely-social, but clearly there are also physiological issues. Is there a valid medical/social interest in ever not allowing a child to refuse puberty?

I think I've told you my story about a therapist I spoke to once who specialized in gender identity stuff (though, in retrospect, I think he mostly worked with crossdressers and didn't understand transitioning very well) who said that although he could see the merit of arresting puberty in teenagers who knew they were trans, he thought it was probably better for trans women to at least try the full experience of living as men, including getting married and having kids and a career, before transitioning. I sorely hope that there aren't many new people coming in to practice with ideas like that.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-01 11:36 pm (UTC)
juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] juli
Oh, I don't think the only option kids should have should be arresting or delaying puberty; they should certainly be allowed to start gender-appropriate puberty whenever they want it, and should be allowed to change their minds at any point they want (no "you made your bed now lie in it" bullshit, which people seem to adore pulling with kids.) I don't think universally-delaying puberty is right, but I do think that kids that age can be uncertain. It is easy for me to look back as an adult and construct a cohesive narrative around my gender and sexual identity from early childhood on, but I remember points of profound uncertainty and ambiguity. And I suppose in a culture where we let kids make those sorts of decisions and where their choices were generally not laden with value by the authority figures in their lives, they might come more readily and rapidly to an understanding of their identities than I might have. So I think arresting puberty is an important option for kids who aren't quite sure, for any reason.

Maybe we shouldn't ever let people close off their options and throw their lives away by going with any single gender identity. We could, like, mandate that people switch every few years. Makes about as much sense as mandating that trans people wait through puberty until transitioning or that cis people should not have to have genital surgery to have documentation that reflects their gender identity.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-02 12:39 am (UTC)
juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] juli
assuming an uncertain child is probably cis is a better thing to do

Thanks, that sure was implicit in what I was asking. Even without that, I guess it comes down to something like: if an uncertain child wants to delay their puberty, we should not let them, because they may not be trans; even ignoring that they may well also be trans and shouldn't project a probability on them, if you define trans people for whom puberty should be arrested or delayed as those for whom it is desirable to do so, then it's difficult to argue that there is some magical trans bit set somewhere that matters more than the desire to not go through puberty. To do so would require that there could not be trans people whose sole need is to not go through any puberty at all. A kid who has trans-like needs to be comfortable with their body is effectively trans.

And yeah, I remember that people used to say that one needed to be very careful about transitioning, because if one were wrong then one would have the experience of being trans, which would be so awful, and one would have to transition again, which would clearly have an unsatisfactory result. Because, you know, transitioning is good enough for trans people, but not something cis people should have to endure. (Obviously that could be a really awful experience, but the valuing of the trans experience and cis comfort seems pretty hideous.)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-02 12:08 am (UTC)
cxcvi: Red cubes, sitting on a reflective surface, with a white background (Default)
From: [personal profile] cxcvi
Is there a valid medical/social interest in ever not allowing a child to refuse puberty?

I'm having problems parsing that question correctly. Is there any chance you can re-word it for me?

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-02 12:15 am (UTC)
cxcvi: Red cubes, sitting on a reflective surface, with a white background (Default)
From: [personal profile] cxcvi
Thank you. That makes a bit more sense now.

I think I agree with you on the answer. That said, it's not common practice over here (the UK) for puberty to be prevented in children.

There's a slightly longer comment to this post forming in my head, but it will have to wait until after I come back from a 22 hour day that I need to be up for in 2 hours time...

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-02 02:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
Moreover, if you assign gender coercively, you're saying, if you're a parent, that you don't want what's best for your kid. You want what's best for an idealized version of your kid who's perfectly conformant to any social norms you happen to value.

I don't think this is right. I'd like to decline to assign, but there doesn't seem to be an easy way to do that. Moreover, in order to do so, you have to take a marked public stand.

I do plan to try to be open to the possibility that one or both of my kids are trans, and as they get older to explain that it's not really boys have penises and girls have vulvas. (At this point, it's a little tricky, since my eldest regularly says thing that show she doesn't get the gendered language thing, eg "Lamby's sister is a boy")

Anyway, if you want to stop assigning gender at birth, I'd be happy to join in the second wave, but I'm not going to be among the pioneers.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-04-04 02:54 am (UTC)
lindseykuper: Photo of me outside. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lindseykuper
Do you think there's a middle ground here? For instance, the blogger at Raising My Boychick (which I found from following links from Questioning Transphobia -- thanks for linking to that) assigned her kid male and uses male gender pronouns for him, but it sounds like she's trying to make it clear to the kid from the start that trans is an option. Do you think this is okay? Is it worse than not assigning gender in the first place?

Also, it occurs to me that if we didn't assign gender to babies at birth, no one would be "trans" as we know it now, except for those people who assign the wrong gender to themselves and transition to a different one later. Unless I'm misunderstanding the meaning of "trans".
luinied: The prince has fallen down. (determined)
From: [personal profile] luinied
I obviously don't have experience raising children, but some friends of mine in Pennsylvania have a three-year-old. They aren't trying to raise said child, who was assigned female at birth, without gender, but they have asked their parents and other relatives not to inundate the kid with only dolls in pink boxes at Christmas, or only princess costumes at Halloween, and so on. Which sounds like a pretty simple request to me, but many of their family members have completely ignored it, along with requests to provide healthier snacks, to occasionally turn the TV off when my friends and their kid are visiting, etc..

And my friends are awfully conflicted about this, because there's no middle ground here. Like a lot of grandparents, aunts, and uncles, telling these family members "we're not visiting you for Christmas anymore", "you can't give things to our child", or "you can't be with our child without supervision" would lead to long-lasting estrangement. Which my friends don't want not only because they love their families, frustrating as they might be, but also because raising a kid is hard work, and family can be awfully helpful. Yes, they have more progressive and wish-respecting friends, but people like me can't help with child-raising the way a large extended family living in Long Island can, even if that extended family is, well, comprised of people who think living in Long Island is a good idea.

And it's probably obvious what I'm getting at, but refraining from assigning gender to a child until they can decide on one for themselves is going much farther in this direction than what my friends are asking for. Unless such parents are extremely lucky, sticking to this and not letting their families gender their kid(s) for them is probably going to leave them not on speaking terms with said families. (I'm saying this based on the friends of mine whose parents' I know, and I unfortunately can't say it would go well with my parents, even.) If they didn't have the foresight to build up networks of friends who were all extremely progressive about gender, they're going to be lacking support there as well. And support from friends and family is awfully crucial for a lot of parents.

Further, the difficulty with the "is it a boy or a girl?" question isn't just about the parents' comfort levels. If a kid grows up seeing that every attempt of smalltalk by strangers leads to an angry confrontation, it's going to impact them. This might be less of a big deal in a place where people tend to mind their own business, but, say, anywhere in the Midwest this would be a huge problem. And if the child hasn't strongly committed to a gender by age six, the parents had better be prepared for home schooling. And they'd better not live in a state where the home schooling laws require inspection by bureaucrats who could declare the parents unfit to teach - or perhaps unfit to raise children at all - if a child declares himself to be a boy one year and herself to be a girl the next.

None of this is to say that parents definitely should assign their children genders at birth. If parents are in a position where they think they can manage this, I think that's awesome and they should go for it, and if some of those parents are people I know, I will totally support them (which admittedly does not translate to all that much practical assistance in this case). What I'm getting at, though, is that I am absolutely not going to question why any parent might not take this route. Parents are unfortunately tasked with raising new humans in a world that is appallingly committed to assigning people to non-overlapping gender boxes as soon as possible and keeping them in their assigned boxes forever, and I'm not up for declaring one optimal way for them to pick the battles against this that they'll fight on behalf of their children, given how very different the circumstances facing different parents can be.

(For what it's worth, I'm thinking here of the experience of one trans friend who grew up in sort of similar circumstances to me - and had a pretty shitty time of it - and trying to imagine a combination of her experiences and mine, while comparing that to what I hypothesize it would have been like if my parents - who are admittedly rather privileged but also awfully isolated - had been committed enough to raising my sister and me as gender neutral that they'd accept the consequences I hypothesized above. And, you know, I think I'd rather take being trans, because the friend I'm thinking of is, even after serious depression in high school, currently a functional adult, whereas I would not be if my hypothesizing about that second alternative is anywhere near correct. Although obviously my mileage varies significantly from yours, and I may still not know what I'm talking about. Also, Christ, I do not want to think about what it would have done to my mom to not be on good terms with her family in the first half of last decade, when they kind of all started dying.)

(Additionally, I do realize that all the things I've described are at least analogous to things some people already have to face. I'd imagine that, for example, there are more grandparents who would be dismissive and angry at the idea of not assigning gender at (or before) birth who would nevertheless come to accept and be supportive of a trans grandchild, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Even if I'm wrong, though, it doesn't really impact what I said two paragraphs above.) (Also, this should go without saying, but the fact that I'm not in favor of declaring a One True Way of when it comes to parenting and the genders of children does not at all mean that I think it's totally cool to just assume your child is cis and do nothing to oppose the world's obsession with gender policing.)

you don't want what's best for your kid. You want what's best for an idealized version of your kid who's perfectly conformant to any social norms you happen to value. You only want what's best for your kid to the extent that they happen to conform to that ideal.

Of course, plenty of parents do this an awful lot on matters other than gender, too. (You know, to conclude my super long comment inspired by parents who are trying hard to be decent people with a cynical remark on the parents out there who I like much less. Actually, wait, I have another cynical remark.)

you wouldn't decide, the instant a child was born, that they were a Democrat, were extroverted, were left-handed, or were Buddhist

These wouldn't exist if people didn't actually do this, baptisms come pretty soon after birth in a lot of Christian denominations (and people think of their babies as / declare them to be Christian before they're baptized), people do ascribe personality traits to babies and small children based on the smallest random actions or facial expressions (never mind the assumption that everyone's really an extrovert at heart and introverts just need to "get over it"), and, I wish I were kidding, but my mom's parents and teachers would not accept that she was left-handed growing up.
luinied: Wakaba is doing science! (focused)
From: [personal profile] luinied
I think I mostly wanted to bring this up because I know how easy it is for me to forget how important the support of other adults is in raising children. I think of my parents as having raised my sister and I basically on their own, as they are pretty solitary people, we didn't see relatives that often, and they were privileged enough that (to my knowledge) we always had savings or insurance to cover unexpected and expensive events. But I know, when I really think about it, that this isn't true - they still relied on my mom's family and friends (who tended to live closer) quite a bit, and I'm really glad they had that support. Similarly, I'd have no idea that these friends of mine depend on family members the way they do if I weren't good friends with them. And this isn't even getting into people who are financially dependent on and/or still living with parents or other family members.

I guess I have no idea how it could effect a child to have their parents treat them as absolutely gender-neutral but to have other people gender them, to see other people give their parents shit for not gendering them, and to have other people - especially other children - give them shit for their parents not gendering them. I know some kids, when they become aware of societal expectations that their parents aren't meeting, both get resentful and take it upon themselves to meet the hell out of those expectations - I'm pretty sure my sister did this, for example, on the subject of being "Midwestern-normal" in ways that my parents so are not. Then again, I didn't try to meet those expectations at all and only later developed a little bit of resentment, and gender is a much bigger deal than knowing pop culture and wearing clothes that people don't laugh at, so I really don't know.

And hmm... maybe I am being prickly about this because poor planning in how parents are protecting their child from something and how/when the child will eventually be forced to encounter it and deal with it on their own characterizes a lot of the things I think my parents did wrong? Again, on subjects much less fundamental than gender. But I suppose it's unlikely that anyone will read this post, decide to raise their kid without assigning a gender, later realize that it's getting to be a lot of work keeping their still-undecided preteen out of environments where they'd be harassed, and decide that the right way to solve this is to tell them to choose now and have fun in the world of gender policing. Or anything similarly ill-advised.
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
[personal profile] luinied gets at what I was trying to get at.

They aren't trying to raise said child, who was assigned female at birth, without gender, but they have asked their parents and other relatives not to inundate the kid with only dolls in pink boxes at Christmas, or only princess costumes at Halloween, and so on. Which sounds like a pretty simple request to me, but many of their family members have completely ignored it, along with requests to provide healthier snacks, to occasionally turn the TV off when my friends and their kid are visiting, etc..

The wide-spread use of gender-based toy selection annoys me. My daughter recently went to a party where the favors were either pink princess themed stuff or blue stuff (probably either Cars or Toy Story). This sort of thing is common--as if boys have one set of toys and girls have another. Leaving aside the fact that the Disney princesses terrible role models, why do people feel the need to do this?

There's plenty of un-gendered toys (blocks, playdough, noise making devices, etc), and most kids swing both ways even in toys usually associated with a particular gender (girls play with trucks and boys play with dolls). Why do people go out of their way to give kids gendered toys?
luinied: And someday, together, we'll shine. (Default)
From: [personal profile] luinied
Yeah... yeah. Toy stores are just awful, gendering-wise, although what I've seen are more pink aisles for the princesses-and-babies toys aimed at girls and red aisles with the action figures and play-fighting gear aimed at boys. (In an amazing coincidence, I just today saw a link to this.)

I'm glad that my parents didn't push gendering in toys (or in a lot of other things) on me or my sister. I guess my mom did encourage my sister to be into dolls in order to re-experience her own childhood doll-fascination, but we both played with the Legos, My Little Ponies, and Transformers, and I don't remember seeing anything weird about this.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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