Gender as a social construct: Why it’s problematic

I’ve been seeing this over and over in certain segments of the trans population and it’s starting to get on my damned nerves.  Transpeople — 100% binary identified transpeople — claiming that gender is entirely a social construct.

This is a problem.  Why?  Because if gender were entirely socialised I wouldn’t exist.  Nor would thousands of other binary identified transsexuals.  If gender were solely an issue of socialisation it would be possible to train me to be a nice little girl.  My parents tried that.  It failed.  Pretty miserably.

I don’t know if transpeople realise what they’re saying when they spout this stuff or if they’re getting gender identity confused with gender roles.  Either way, something needs to be done.  Society has tried claiming that all gender is devised by social rules and restrictions before, it was called the 1970s.  This was the peak of egalitarian feminism, a time when women were insisting that the only differences between them and men could be traced back to early childhood rearing.  If you raised your daughters to like trucks and swords instead of dolls and dresses they’d turn out just like any little boy.  If you raised all of your children to like trucks and dolls equally they’d never prefer one over the other.

They were wrong.  For the first proposal we have David Reimer.  A young boy whose penis was cut off in a botched circumcision when he was an infant.  His parents were told to raise him as a girl, that way he’d be able to have surgery and hormones as he got older and no one would be the wiser.  Even better, he had a twin brother which meant they could be a perfect test case for the nurture over nature theory.  Unfortunately for all involved, David had no desire to be a girl.  As early as age three he was exhibiting frustration very similar to what transpeople go through.  Ultimately David was told about his medical history and made the decision to live as his birth sex.

For the second idea there are so many individuals that I couldn’t begin to list them all.  Most children I grew up with were given the option to play with any toys they wanted.  Girl, boy, it didn’t matter.  I knew boys who played with dolls and girls who played with trucks.  There was no value placed on either, but each and every child still had a preference.  The majority of boys preferred trucks and the majority of girls preferred dolls.  There were exceptions and a good number of us would pick Lego over anything else, but the general rule remained.  As far as I know, I’m the only transperson from the people I grew up with — and I was a doll kid.

So, now that we’ve established that no amount of socialising is going to change a person’s gender, let’s look at where people might be getting things confused.

One explanation I hear quite often is that transpeople only exist within the framework of a gendered society.  If we were to remove all gender everyone would be at a happy medium.  I’d be willing to accept this idea if I didn’t know people who were raised in almost entirely gender neutral environments.  My elementary school, for example, didn’t have “girl” or “boy” bathrooms.  We had one single stall per classroom (two per class in kindergarten and first grades) that anyone could use.  Instead of lining up by girls and boys we’d line up by dark shoes and light shoes.  My family was the only one in the neighbourhood that cared remotely about gender.  It wasn’t until middle school that anything became separated, and even then it was only locker and bathrooms.  Yet everyone I know from that time is binary identified.

My theory is that people are confusing gender identity with gender roles.  Gender identity is an innate characteristic that cannot be changed.  It’s a far broader spectrum than Western society would have you believe, but in most people it’s pretty stable.  Gender roles, on the other hand, are how society expects people of a particular gender to behave.

For example, I am a guy.  As a guy I am expected to have “masculine” traits.  These traits are almost overwhelmingly aggressive and cold.  “Men hunt, women cook.”  “Men fight, women compromise.”  “Men bully, women nurture.”  “Men are good at maths, women are good at writing.”  I’m sure we’ve all heard these and many more.  The problem is, they’re neither true nor static.  As society evolves so do gender roles.  Fifty years ago a woman even running for President would have been unheard of.  It simply wasn’t the sort of thing women did, politics was a man’s world.  Yet today there are women leading countries around the world and no one bats an eye.

By the same token, gender roles change as you travel.  In Japan sweet foods are considered “girly”, men aren’t expected to like them.  In the US men are allowed all the sweets they want — though chocolate is generally seen as something women like more.  In my Mexican-American family dancing was seen as something all people should do, even my macho, tattoo-covered, cholo uncles.  If you couldn’t dance you were going to lose your wife to someone who could.  This meant that at least twice a year my uncles would trade in their baggy jeans and A-frame shirts for the tight, sparkly outfits most people associate with mariachi bands and escort their wives to a night of folklorico dancing.  It wasn’t considered gay or effeminate, it was part of being a “real” man.

Now, if we abolished all gender roles would there still be transpeople?  Probably.  At the very least, there’d still be transsexuals.  Why?  Because while being seen as a man is important to me, having a penis is pretty frickin’ important too.  In fact, it’s more important to me than being seen as a man.  If I had to pick between people constantly thinking I’m a woman, but having a penis and being seen as a man, but not having a penis I’d go with the penis every time.  For one thing, it’s hard for people to argue if you whip it out.  For another, it’d make me immensely more comfortable with my body.

Which is really what it all comes down to.  The difference between transitioning due to a sense of being a man and transitioning due to a desire for a male body.  It’s possible to want both (I do), but some people fall very much on one side or the other.  Those who are fine with their bodies probably would do well in a completely genderless/gender-role-less world.  Those who aren’t would still require some form of medical intervention.

11 Replies to “Gender as a social construct: Why it’s problematic”

  1. I broadly agree with you, but I think that socialisation is about more than just how your immediate community treats you. The media, for example, play a big role. Also, people may socialise kids differently without even being aware if it. I remember reading an article about a study which suggested parents treat male & female kids differently, even when they insist otherwise.

    • I think the media’s role is only as big as parents allow it to be. Keep in mind that it’s only recently that media has been allowed in children’s lives at all. I’m not sure it’s possible to shield children from all outside influences, but there are parents who certainly try. The Amish come pretty close.

      As for subconscious influence, that depends entirely on the person. Some people honestly don’t put much value in gender. It’s rare, but occasionally you’ll get the odd parent who doesn’t know any way to raise their kids other than gender neutrally.

      I think there’s also something to be said for raising a child to realise that gender roles are stupid. Or, at the very least, pointing out that they’re different for just about everyone. There’s been some research into children who are raised in several different countries that show they’re more open minded and less strict in their behaviour than their single country counterparts. I’m not sure how willing I am to believe it just because I know some pretty close minded military brats, but it does make an odd sort of sense. After all, it’s difficult to say the entire world believes one thing when you see first-hand that there are different opinions.

  2. It seems to be a gay ftm thing that we get mad at the same things. I have had endless discussions over here about the exact same question.
    While I don’t agree with you about David Reimer, and while I know about cases where this type of infant gender change has worked, I agree that it all boils down to a confusion about what is gender role and what is gender identity. I had a very hard time explaining to people that while I had a mostly female gender role and didn’t mind it, I still was ftm.
    What was it that made me male identified? I came up with some factors: while I identify with women on a social/gender level, f.e. as a member of a group who is discriminated, and also as someone who was socialized in similar ways and shares similar experiences, on a very individual basis I still identified with the boys. This is comparable to that old idea that there is a group of boys and a group of girls and you are asked: where do you want to go?
    Another thing is how I want my body to look like. This has very little to do with the society I live in. While body parts have symbolic meaning in all societies, my yearning for a large nose,beard stubble or hairy arms can’t be fully explained by that. I didn’t wish: I want to be a man (= socially powerful, strong etc). I wished: I want to have hairy arms, without even realizing that what I was wishing for were male arms.

    People who theorize about transgender without that experience have a hard time to understand that we are not talking about being unhappy with a lack of social freedom (either female or binary socialisation). They try to make sense of transgender by using their own experiences, their own gender disphoria as women or forced binary people. But very few get that we are meaning this literally, that we literally identify with men (not MEN, the social idea, but individual men), and literally want male bodies. And that we still would be trans in a matrirarchal or androgynous society.

    • Depends on what kind of FtM. I very much am transsexual in the classic sense of the word. There are gay transguys I know who are more transgender in that they want the social identification rather than the physical changes. Those guys don’t always understand why I get frustrated when they go on about gender as a social construct.

      Which cases do you know of where infant gender change has been successful? I can never find any and I think it’d be interesting to finally read of one that’s actually worked. The few that start to seem that way always end up being cases of intersex children which is a bit different and more controversial than I’m willing to really get into. I get enough crap for having opinions about issues I actually know about 😛

      • Hi Aiden delurking here. I’ve been reading your blog for some time even though I’m not a trans man, because I like to read about and learn from different life experiences .
        And I have to say that you are correct with respect to David Reimer and with the fact that no infant gender reassignment has been successful, all of them have been proven a complete failure.
        The thing is that many people seem to be stuck with the old theories proposed by Dr. John Money in the 1960’s who ironically was the 1st to state that gender identity was innate in the 1950’s, and then suddenly changed his mind.
        Now it was only until 1997 that a paper about the David Reimer case was published by Dr. Milton Diamond, and since then it has been an up hill battle trying to debunk this whole myth created by and perpetuated by Money and his follower’s.
        Now I’m not an expert but I learned this by reading John Colapinto’s book on David Reimer which you may have already read, if not I wholeheartedly recommend it, it also talks briefly about the real lab experiments done that prove that gender identity is innate and well it’s more in depth and better written than what I can explain here. And it’s also a good recommendation for any person that has no previous knowledge about gender identity and intersex people.
        Also a good educational link is this one:
        Sorry about the long post, but when people are trying to debunk decades of lies, I just feel the need to back them up because nothing irks me more than lies based on non-scientific theories that are still having such a profound effect on society.
        Keep up the good work.

  3. F.e. I remember watching a documentary about a baby boy who was brought up in a nun’s cloister some time after the second world war in some north african (?) country. That boy belonged to an influencial family, and had to be kept hidden after a massacre of his family. The nun’s cloister was the only place to go. The cloister allowed the presence of a male child under the rule that the child be raised as a girl, so as not to endanger the cloister when the murderers of the family came to power. The child could never leave the cloister and was told that she was a girl. Because she rarely saw male poeple, she believed it.
    When the film was made, the child had grown into an adult nun, and she was happy to be a woman, even though she now knew the truth. She believed that god had put her on this path for his own reasons, and compared herself to some medieval female saint who was changed into a man. She was supported by all the other nuns who saw this as some kind of a miracle.
    Sadly I saw this documentary several years ago and haven’t yet been able to find more information about the case. I’m also quoting this from mind, so take it with a grain of salt. But I distincly remember the overall story.

    There are also examples of raising kids as the opposite sex/gender when in need of a heir, or when only children of one gender/sex are born to a family. Often they don’t mind living that way all life.

    In my own rural family, only girls were born for about 40 years, and nobody seemed very suprised that one aunt of mine became the “boy” in the family, though I’m not sure if she was brought up this way, or choose it. This is not quite the same, but from this experience, I can easily imagine rural families choosing one child to live as a boy, just because someone needs to do the male work. She’s straight, by the way.

    I don’t want to go into the Reimer case in greater depth, because I feel really unconfortable about using that poor guy for theories since almost birth. I think that has caused his suicied and won’t participate in it, if I can avoid it.
    But it has been pointed out, especially by intersex communities, that the case proves or disproves nothing. The whole treatment at the hands of the doctor (who seems to have encouraged the children to have “sex play” with each other amongst other things) must have been about as traumatizing as the treatment that many intersex people have undergone. Many say that after such a childhood, your least worry is your sex/gender identity. They claim that they either don’t have one or that they don’t give a shit about the whole issue, and only want to reclaim their pre-mutilation body, whatever that was. And this makes sense to me.
    As I said, I’m not arguing about it- I just want to add some aspects.
    When it comes to sex/gender/gender roles etc I believe that we just don’t know, and I can live with that. I think it’s problematic to pretend that we (or the christian right or feminists or whoever) know something that we just don’t know.

    But that said- otherwise I agree with all you said. I realize that there are transgender guys who have a gender role thing going on, I’ve met them 😉 But by talking to them I slowly understood that I’m somehow different, though I am not a tranditional transsexual hardliner either.

    (btw. sorry for swamping you with posts, I rarely have the time to go online and when I have I seem to spill out everything at once.)

  4. This theory wouldn’t be so bad if academics didn’t drag it out in their anthropology classes, state it as fact, and then give bad marks to anyone who disagrees. “Gender is a social construct, that’s why transsexuals exist!” They fail science forever.

    • Yeah, that drives me insane. I tried arguing during one class and then just decided to pre-screen all my professors so I didn’t have to debate my own existence an extra three times a week.

      • I got a D- in my psychology of gender class years back (should this have been another clue?). The lowest the professor could give me without what she did being seriously questioned by a formal appeals process, as the only marks I ever got were achieved on the multiple choice questions on tests – I would write virtually the same points on the written answer ones as people that got full marks, when she handed back the tests and I’d compare them afterwards with the person beside me, but she’d give me a zero and some BS answer about how my wording was somehow just slightly different enough to be entirely wrong. My essay was an utter writeoff.

        Apparently, this was deserved by my having the bad form to actually *show up* to the smaller discussion classes and, well, raise my hand and discuss things, rather than smile and nod just so she wouldn’t think I was asleep, like everyone else did. And only about a third of the class *did* even show up. Who know going to class was such a bad thing? If it weren’t an entirely irrelevant elective to my major…things would have gotten ugly. I merely told everyone that would listen to avoid her classes like the plague.

  5. While I agree that the idea that everything regarding gender must be due to socialization is a problematic theory, I think there’s a slight problem with your logic. There’s a difference between arguing that gender is a social construct and that people’s gender (gender identity, expression, etc) is due solely to socialization.

    I think that gender is, largely, a social construct. Nevertheless, I most emphatically do not believe that socialization can determine a person’s gender (as I believe someone pointed out, if that were true, trans people would not exist).

    This probably isn’t the place to go into great detail, but generally, I believe that saying “gender is a social construct” means (to me, at least–other people may believe differently) that the whole concept of what it means to “be a man” or to “be a woman”–and thus how they should act, dress, think, etc–was created (constructed) by society, by people.

    Our ideas of what we’re into, what we want to wear (and feeling comfortable wearing), how we are comfortable acting, how we identify regarding social constructs like gender that have intensely real effects on our lives–I think that has something to do with us personally, not just socialization. But that doesn’t mean that gender isn’t largely a social construct.

    Incidentally, what would gender be if not a social construct? It’s not biological (gender being distinct from sex). Is it natural? Well, that leads to a question of what the word “natural” means, which philosophers, at least, recognize as being a problematic sort of word (give that it has a variety of meanings and connotations).

    Also, I think that relying on the Reimer case (or on any one case) for much of anything is problematic. I really don’t have time to get into that now, but suffice to say that I have a lot of issues with most of the conclusions people draw from his case.

    Anyway, I’ve just rambled on for far longer than I had intended, but I just thought that the distinction between gender as a social construction and gender as solely determined by socialization deserved some clarification.

  6. I’ve read a book on David Reimer (Did he write an autobiography? If he did, that may have been it, as it was more in that vein than a study *of* him, but it was so long ago I can’t remember…), and I’ve lived my life so far, and I really can’t tell which way is up in the nature vs. nurture thing, because on the surface they contradict each other. By nature, despite being raised with no push in either direction, an only child that felt expected to be both a son and a daughter to their parents, once the hormones kicked in, I should have become a normal woman to match my sex with no questions and no looking back, not a male-leaning androgyne in the head.

    The only thing I can think is that it’s a balance, nature needs to be strong enough to override socialization to tip things the opposite way than the social-body would have intended…? And possibly throwing adaptability and openness into the mix – the situation could have been different were the kid raised with a bunch of NYC socialites rather than nuns? Would I be different had I been raised as if I were a girl and only a girl, even with my seemingly androgynous brain, would it have been enough to tip me over into…standard amounts of girliness? This probably has no bearing on the presumable majority of trans people who are quite sure about their gender, but a possible theory for some of the confused…?

    Sorry for the disjointed rambling, theories do that to me.

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