Gender Identification
October 29, 2013

Gender Identification Does Not Rely On Biological Factors Alone

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

An interesting study of gender identification out of Grand Valley State University in Michigan builds on previous research conducted by Dr. Laurel Westbrook, assistant professor of sociology, and Kristen Schilt of the University of Chicago. Their article, “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” published in Gender & Society, claims gender is no longer determined solely by biological factors.

In their paper, Westbrook and Schilt made this assertion after examining several different case studies that show the accepted determinant of gender based on biological factors -- e.g. genitals and chromosomes -- is slowly changing.

One such example, codified into law in Littleton v Prange, 1999, claimed a woman who had undergone a surgical sex change and had lived as a woman for more than 20 years was not legally eligible to file a malpractice suit on behalf of her deceased husband because, as the court ultimately ruled, she was, and would always be, chromosomally male, therefore making her marriage null.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Hardberger wrote, “There are some things you cannot will into being. They just are.”

However, a social shift in determining gender identity has been occurring as of late. In fact, only this past August, California enacted an historic law intended to provide rights and protections to transgender students in the state. This and other transgender-centric non-discrimination policies and laws show how attitudes toward gender have been softening and shifting from a purely biological ‘black and white’ view toward acceptance of those who simply self-identify their gender.

“We explore the criteria for determining who is a ‘man’ and who is a ‘woman’ in sex-segregated spaces,” said Westbrook. “We are at an interesting point in the history of gender, where people are torn between valuing self-identity and believing that biology determines gender. Our study explores that change in the gender system.”

And that change has not come easy. With each expansion of rights in the workplace, and more so in sex-segregated spaces like restrooms and showers, there has been a strong backlash of gender panic, which has been noted in Westbrook and Schilt's article.

Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today, and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism,” said Westbrook. “In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term ‘gender panics,’ are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: a belief that gender is determined by biology versus a belief that a person’s self-identity in terms of gender should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have access to particular rights.”

Speaking to redOrbit, Dr. Beverly Stiles, Chair of Sociology at Midwestern State University, commented on fear surrounding the acceptance of transgendered individuals in sex-segregated spaces.

“She is correct in that there seems to be fear regarding a transgendered person (biological male who identifies as a female) in a woman’s bathroom. There are fewer fears about a biological female who identifies as a male, but then there are fewer biological females who identify as a male,” said Stiles.

Stiles did cite one recent case of a small child who was biologically male but identifies as a female.

“All sorts of complications have arisen from that. She was required to use an entirely separate bathroom from the other females in her class,”she told redOrbit.

Speaking to the potential psychological damage faced by the child, Stiles continued, “This hurts because this child is being set apart and not treated like the female that she is, in terms of her identity.”

While many states are enacting laws and policies, Stiles believes nationwide adoption is not happening fast enough. The child in this example lived in a state with a non-discrimination law on its books. However, the act of setting her apart is, according to Stiles, a form of discrimination itself. This could only mean proper enforcement of non-discrimination laws also needs to occur.

“I do understand that many parents who do not have a clue about gender or sexual identity may not wish [for a transgendered child to share sex-segregated spaces with their child]. We certainly need more awareness and education to reduce the fears surrounding these issues,” Stiles concluded.

In their article, Westbrook and Schilt believe it is exactly these gender panics that ultimately reveal the criteria for who can identify as a woman and man in our society. The act of self-identifying gender is generally accepted in certain social situations. However, when entering into a sex-segregated space, people are more likely to believe gender should be determined biologically.

“In the controversies we examined, it is access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams at the center of gender panics,” said Westbrook. “Moreover, not all sex-segregated spaces are policed equally. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable, particularly to unwanted heterosexual advances, it is women’s spaces at the center of these debates. Thus, with these controversies, much of the discussion is about a fear of ‘male’ bodies in ‘women’s’ spaces.”

With the perpetuation of fear and ignorance toward transgender individuals, rights and policies that are crafted are often abandoned or watered down so much that an individual who identifies a gender that is in opposition to their biology is forced to conform to normative ideas of gendered bodies when they access public facilities and engage in activities that fit their identities.