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Getting Academic Up in Here

2004-01-30 - 11:53 a.m.

Hey guys! I wanted to let all of you see another side of me. Actually, the truth is that I don't really have access to my own word files, so I figured I'd write the presentation that I'm going to tomorrow for my scholarship competition online, so I can print this out anywhere. So, get ready for NotoriousRRZ through an academic lens, keeping it sophisticated and edumacational while still trying to keep it real. Wish me luck tomorrow! I'll sooooo friggin' need it.

Choosing Gender, Again and Again

The most influential professor of my Penn career, Dr. Lynda Hart, once said in class, "We all fight for our gender identity, and not all of us win." She said it very incidentally, giving us the statement like a zen koan to ruminate on, but for me it was as though she wrote the words in fire. I remembered my earliest battles for my gender, skirmishes waged in the aisles of Toys R Us where my parents insisted that dolls were not for boys to play with, that horses were only acceptable when underneath a knight or a cowboy, and that none of my clothes would ever feature the color pink. I thought back to being closer to women than men for much of my life, to not liking sports or other things that boys were supposed to like, and I wondered whether this was a battle I had won or lost.

I was reminded about this by a recent article on MSNBC and Newsweek about the growing opportunities that parents have to choose the gender of their baby. Certain clinics are now providing invitro fertilization for parents to choose the gender of their child, or, more accurately, to choose whether they will have male or female embryos implanted in order to carry them to term. Other parents, who may be squeamish about conceiving embryos only to put them in storage or donate them to science, can use a dye to determine which sperm carry X or Y chromosomes. These represent the latest scientific trends that seek to accomplish what various folk techniques have been trying to achieve for centuries: a way for parents to choose ahead of time whether they will bear a boy or a girl.

Imagine if this had been available for millenia. Among other things, the protestant reformation might have gone much differently without two women named Mary and Elizabeth.

As exciting as this technology is, parents have been choosing the gender of their children for decades. When a child is born, their genitalia is examined and one of three calls is made: "It's a boy!' "It's a girl!" or "Houston, we have a problem!" Children who fall into the latter category are examined further to determine whether it will be easier to alter their genitals to make them look more like a penis or more like a vagina, at which point they will be given a gender. The children aren't consulted in this decision.

Once that decision is made, indoctrination begins. It might begin with dressing daughters in pink and sons in blue. Boys are often encouraged to be more active and are complimented on their strength and athletic ability, while girls are often held closer and complimented on their beauty. This isn't necessarily the fault of the parents; many mothers and fathers do all they can to make sure they don't have daughters and sons who are locked into a gender identity, but the comments can come from friends, family, and even strangers. The trends continue throughout the child's adolescence. Girls and boys may both be able to play basketball and volleyball, but there are few if any women's football teams, while boys are still ostracized for taking ballet. Boys are often categorized as sexual aggressors, while women are expected to have an emotional attachment before having sex.

Pity the child who doesn't conform. When homosexuality was taken off the American Psychological Association's list of pathologies, a new disorder was born: gender dysphoric disorder. Parents who have brought in children with this "disorder" are told to chastise and withhold affection from boys who enjoy playing with dolls, or girls whose desire to be boys rests solely in a desire to be able to pee standing up. Often, when boys turn violent in class as a result of this therapy, it is considered a sign of success, evidence that boys will be boys and this boy will be the most boyish boy he can.

Fortunately, not all parents take this route, but it is still hard for transgender kids growing up. A month ago, the local paper in Austin ran a story about a girl named Tesia Samara who committed suicide after being ostracized at her local high school. She was made a laughingstock because of her hiphugger jeans, her tendency to wear glitter, her long hair, and her love of Shakira. In other words, she was made fun of for acting like the girl she knew she was, even if her parents had named her Benjamin.

Her mother had her daughter cremated, and intended to scatter her ashes as far away from the town that broke her as possible. My heart went out to her, and to Tesia, because her battle was so intense that it took her life.

I worry about parents being able to choose the gender of their children not because it is the start of the slippery slope that may lead to choosing sexuality, looks, intelligence, and athletic ability, but because I worry that the parents who are making these choices don't understand what they're getting into. The simple act of wondering about whether a son or daughter is on their way is a profound discussion of gender. Will the father be able to play baseball with a daughter? Will a mother be able to dress a son in pretty outfits? To choose the gender of a baby is to begin assigning it characteristics. If parents choose to have a son and a daughter, they might assume that the daughter will be the one to be dressed in frilly lace and given dolls, while the son will be taken to little league and given toy rifles. What happens if these children choose to define their gender in a different way? Will parents be allowed to ask for their money back?

Even in the case of health risks being a reason to choose the gender of a baby, I become a little suspicious. One of my favorite films, Lorenzo's Oil, chronicles a family's search for a cure for their son's genetic ailment, a cure that has been successful for many suffering from his ailment. It's disheartening to think that such a story will become meaningless, and that other diseases may remain uncured because there isn't a set of parents whose misfortune is matched only by their bravery.

As the article on gender-selection points out, people choose the gender of their children every day, particularly in nations where daughters are considered a liability. In India and China, many daughters are killed at birth, resulting in gender imbalances that are proving problematic for young men in search of wives and girlfriends. I do not believe this will happen here, but I worry that the children who have been conceived with gender in mind will have a much harder time claiming their gender identity for themselves. It is hard enough to fight ideas of religious and biological determinism. If the children concerned see themselves as fighting $15,000 worth of their parents wishes, they might choose to lose the battle, or sacrifice their lives to it. On behalf of everyone who remembers the fight, I hope that parents choose to let chance or fate decide their child's sex organs, in the hopes that it will make it easier for them to accept that gender is something that every child has the right to choose.

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The End - 2005-02-11
Let's Go on With the Show - 2005-01-30
The Curse, and This Bee's a Keeper - 2005-02-01
Sisters Lolita and Matronic Explain It All for You - 2005-01-31
Cowboys and Medievalists - 2005-01-30

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