When a baby is born the first question people usually ask is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Yet many babies are not so easily classified. Some babies have genitals that have both male and female features. Others may appear to be girls only to discover as teenagers that the reason that they are not menstruating is because the have testicles instead of ovaries. Similarly apparent boys may have ovaries and there are others who have a mixture of both.
Some people’s brains do not match their bodies; there are numerous accounts of children and adults who feel this way. Although the American Psychiatric Association (APA) labels these people with the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID), it is the only “mental disorder” that is treated medically (with hormones and surgery) instead of with psychiatric medications. And evidence continues to mount that the brains of these individuals are both structurally and functionally similar to the brains of the gender they claim to be. In Westernized countries we label these people “transsexual” or “transgender”. Other cultures make room for a third sex and use other labels: “Hijra” (India), “Fa’afafine” (Polynesia), “Kathoeys” (Thailand) and “Two-Spirit” (Native American Tribes) are well-known examples.
In the distant past rigid gender roles may have been useful to delineate the expectations and responsibilities of individuals and to maintain order within their collective communities. On the other hand these gendered roles also created power differentials that have been used to disempower, subjugate and abuse women for millenia.
The roles of women in American society have undergone radical changes. During WWII, a shortage of male factory workers gave women an opportunity to leave the home and made Rosie the Riveter a cultural icon. When the men returned from war women were encouraged to return to the home by the promotion of the idealized homemaker exemplified by June Cleaver of the TV show “Leave It to Beaver”. While many women did return home many did not. Given that women continue to make less money than men for similar work and that they remain outnumbered in leadership roles today it is clear that inequality of the sexes is alive and well in modern society.
But what about all the individuals who do not neatly fit into these cultural boxes? A video interview with Norrie of Sidney, Australia by abc NEWS shows that Norrie is one such person who defies definitions and prefers the box “sex not specified”. The interview subtly suggests that if gender is really a continuum then perhaps we should reconsider the purpose that gender identification serves and consider its worth in context of the inequality that it propagates.