It Has a Penis!
I have two follow up thoughts to the discussions raised in my previous post on my young son’s attempt to make sense of the people in the world around him and my attempts to guide him with this specifically in regards to sex/gender. I’m going to explore them separately because they go in pretty different directions.
The first has to do with gender identity. As I understand it (and I’m not particularly well-versed on the topic, so please bear with me and feel free to correct any and all misconceptions), gender is an internal understanding of who one is. It is not defined by — but tends to correlate with — sex, which is genetic. That is to say, sex is about what your genes are and gender is about what your mind is. As such, sex and gender do not always align. I also understand that there has been some attempt to separate out terms when discussing each (including attempts to not use ‘sex’ when we mean ‘gender’ and vice versa, attempts I do my best to follow through on), such that man/woman are terms to apply to someone’s sex but male/female are terms to apply to someone’s gender. It should be noted that I am less confident in my understanding of that than I am of my understanding of the difference between sex and gender.
So… if we recognize and accept all of this (which I largely do!), then I wonder why we even bother making note of the sex or presumed gender of babies and young children in the first place, before they are yet at a point wherein they can identify a gender or, even if they can, are very unlikely to be able to communicate this. That is to say, when the doctor delivered little Mayo, why was his first comment, “It’s a boy!” I mean, he didn’t say, “It’s white!” Or, “It’s bald!” Or, “It has blue eyes!” Or, “It’s skinny!” despite all of those being true. In fact, some of those are even truer than the doctor’s actual statement as the presence of a penis and testicles does no guarantee an XY genetic makeup! (Note: With Little Marcus Allen, we found out his sex ahead of time through a DNA test that can confirm the genes, so in his case we knew definitively.)
So, really, all we knew at the time of Mayo’s birth with regards to his sex and gender was that the baby was born with a penis and testicles. This isn’t useful information, mind you. If parents want their child to have a circumcised penis, they’d need to know if the child has a penis to begin with. And probably more importantly, the care required when tending to the diapering and toileting needs of a baby with a vagina are different from that of a baby with a penis in all sorts of different ways solely as a function of physical anatomy (e.g., vaginas are at greatest risk for infection from cross contamination with fecal matter while penis are more likely to shower you with urine). But, really, beyond that, the presence of a penis or vagina or some other anatomical way of being doesn’t really matter at all for a child. And yet… here we are… often discussing a baby’s sex and gender extensively even before it is born!
Why? Why does it matter so much? Yes, I understand there may be some general trends in brain differences between the sexes but as an early childhood educator these are but one of many factors in determining who a child is AND young children’s minds are so plastic that this isn’t particularly useful knowledge when looking at any one child. I mean, factors like birth order or whether the child was full term or not or when ze hit developmental milestones all matter FAR more to me as a teacher than what the child has between zis legs… and yet I am ALWAYS told that the child is a boy or a girl while getting that other information is sometimes much harder to come by.
So, yea, why do we do that? I mean, I understand historically why that was the case. But why do we continue to do that? What benefit is gained from calling Mayo and Little Marcus Allen boys? Or Will and Vikram’s daughter girls? How do we benefit from that? And how does that contrast with the downsides, which can be massive especially for folks whose gender identity does not comport with the sex/gender assigned to them at (or before!) birth? Looking at it as objectively as possible and stripping away as many social lenses as I can, it would seem to me to be high risk, low reward.
Before I go, I want to talk briefly about language on a few fronts. First, the ongoing conflation of sex and gender is often a result of our conflation of those terms, which itself (I believe) is the result of the conflation of the various meanings of sex. Sex can refer to genetic/physical make up. It can also refer to fucking. That makes it weird to talk about babies’ sex. So maybe we need some new terms there. Maybe we shouldn’t use the same word to describe, “What is this person’s genetic makeup with regard to this specific set of chromosomes and how that manifests itself physically,” and, “What people do for pleasure with their penises and vaginas and mouths and breasts and hands and anuses and whathaveyou.” Further — and as noted in the first piece — the highly gendered nature of our language, such that we don’t really have common, sex/gender-neutral terms to discuss people and CERTAINLY don’t have sex/gender-neutral pronouns that most people are familiar with, both contributes to and reflects what I see as an increasingly weird quirk of our society.