Check out the other Hump Day Hmms on walking out of stride.
“We’ll find out the sex on Tuesday,” I replied, as we stood around outside Buca de Beppo’s with a collection of J’s relatives. It was a graduation, an event made all the sweeter because the graduate in question has a child of her own in college.
“Can you say ‘gender’ instead? ‘We’ll find out the gender of the baby.’” Jane is, after all, twelve, and made somewhat uncomfortable by the word “sex,” just as the turquoise David reproduction in the restaurant had made her squirm.
“But we won’t find out the gender of the baby,” I told her. “We’ll find out the sex. Sex is biological, gender is socially constructed. You cannot know the gender of a baby before it is even born.”
As the child looked confused, her father half-joked, “Where did you learn that crap?”
“Actually, I have a Ph.D. in that crap,” I told him, smiling.
To be totally honest, my degree is in literature, but you haven’t been able to get near an English department in the last 20 years without tripping over gender theory, queer theory, and a few other types of identity theory. I believed much of what I believe before ever setting foot into the hallowed Greenlaw Hall in the fall of 1999, but my studies have given order to my beliefs and names to the abstract concepts I somehow felt were true.
I do believe that there are differences between the sexes. Our bodies are constructed differently, even down to the eyeballs. Apparently, girls see more color and texture, while boys on the whole see more motion. That, right there, sets us up for some divergence. I do not claim the sexes are the same, and I honor those differences, understanding for example that puberty comes at different times and treats the two sexes very differently.
Gender is the social construct we build up around sex. So, while a need to pee in a different position is sex-based, clothing is man-made and therefore a gendered construct. Toys, makeup, cars, earrings, trains, footballs, and tea sets are all man-made, constructed out of our imaginations. And, along with the price tag, they seem to come stamped with a gender. But, make no mistake, if we make the item, we make the gender association that comes with it.
Judith Butler proves that gender is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation. Most of the things we ascribe to sex differences are actually gender differences. In other words, “girls are just like that” is usually correct because the girl is imitating another female who learned her gender in a similar kind of imitation. Gender is nothing more than an echo in an empty room.
That is not to say I do not myself follow gender norms. Hey, I grew up in society, too, you know. But, I do not feel comfortable forcing arbitrary gender stereotypes on children. They will hear that echo soon enough.
Gender has its place and can make life interesting. I get that. What I don’t get is why we need such strict gender lines. Why can’t we accept gender as fluid? (“We” in this case refers to the straight community, because the gay community has been much better about allowing for a wide variety of gender expressions.) Why can’t a person identify as male, even macho, but still wear skirts because he finds them pretty? Why can’t a person identify as female but be a football fan? Why do these behaviors get marked as odd or deviant?
We gender our children from the moment we know their sex, and some of that is unavoidable. Language, as a social construct, has much more to do with gender than sex, so as soon as we refer to a fetus as “he” or “she,” we are gendering. The names we choose gender, as well. No one ever went to a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert and got confused about which one was Mary. Names are the first rafter over which people build their identities, and the names we choose signal a lot about what we want for our children, including their gender identities. If the sex is male, we choose a male name in hopes the child will also gender identify that way.
But we do not have to build the child’s entire gender identity before it is even born. We do not have to assume colors, clothes, toys, hobbies, and traits just because that’s the picture we have in our heads.
So, yesterday, at the ultrasound, I learned many things. I learned that this baby has all the right numbers of lobes and ventricles. I learned that it plans on being as much of a pain in the ass as its brothers when it steadfastly refused to turn its head so the technician could check for cleft lip. I learned that it is about as modest about its genitalia as are its brothers, because usually the technician cannot say for sure if it is a girl, but this time she was pretty damned sure.
What I did not learn was what the technician-in-training said, which is that I will be spending a lot of time shopping. I have no idea if my daughter will like shopping. If she takes after me, she’ll hate it. If she takes after her father, there will be no getting her out of the mall. I did not learn what she will want to play with; I did not learn how she will want to dress; I did not learn whether she will be prom queen or a quarterback; I did not learn who she will marry. And I have no idea how she will feel about pina coladas and walks in the rain.
I learned her sex. Her gender will take a few more years to figure itself out.