I cringe every time I see a gender reveal party. There is so much that is wrong with it, but perhaps the worst part is when someone is disappointed with the reveal outcome. Resulting in one or more parents (and other people in the baby’s life, i.e. relatives and siblings) disappointed with who that child is before they are even born.
But who is the child anyway if they are revealed as ‘male’ or ‘female’? What does that mean?
An ultrasound result of what genitals a baby has – actually tells us it’s expected physical sex, not gender. To complicate things even further the ‘sex’ options do not even include the 1.7% prevalence of the baby potentially being intersex.
So much of our world is assigned to masculine and feminine. Toys, colours, clothes, sports, occupations. We have very narrow, traditional, stereotypical definitions of male and female. For example, think about our expectations of what males and females should wear to weddings, or in sport – boxing is most often seen as a male sport and nurses are mostly female. Often, expected roles and conformity are enforced i.e. girls having skirts as the only school uniform option, no pants or shorts. In some countries females having much less human rights such as being allowed in certain places when menstruating.
Expectations around gender and expression are taught to us from the moment we are born, and communicated through every aspect of our lives, including family, culture, peers, schools, community, media, and religion. Gender roles, stereotypes and expectations are so entrenched in our culture that it’s often difficult for some people to accept things any other way.
In order to understand human gender diversity, let’s start with the difference between sex and gender – they are not the same.
Being physical female, male or intersex. Humans are born with a set of sex characteristics (hormones, anatomy, chromosomes) that are typically expected of either physical female or physical male.
Approximately 1.7 – 2.0% of humans are born with sex characteristics (including anatomy, chromosomes and hormone patterns) that do not fit typical medical notions of female or male, this is intersex. Sex is physical, it is not gender.
Sex assigned at birth:
When a baby is born the adults in the room assign male or female to them based on physical characteristics (most times this is obvious by viewing the genitals).
Usually, their gender is then assumed to match the male or female-assigned sex.
However, a percentage of people’s gender identity will not actually align with the sex that was assigned to them at birth and some will not align with either of the two options of sex that is usually assigned to humans at birth.
Gender is mostly inaccurately referred to as being either male or female.
However it is a social construct, our society defines behaviours and characteristics that are expected or associated with usually being male or female on a gender scale or spectrum of the feminine to masculine.
In reality, gender is actually as diverse as the spectrum of human diversity.
Our gender is our deeply held, internal sense of self as masculine, feminine, a blend of both, or neither, or something else. Gender identity is our internal experience and our unique naming of our gender. It is an inherent aspect of our make-up. Individuals do not choose their innate feeling of gender, they can not be made to change it. But we do get to decide language around our gender identity.
A parent once told me that their 3-year-old boy said to them: ‘…Mummy and Daddy the boy has died and there is just a girl here…’ and that child has identified their gender as a girl ever since.
There are many terms associated with gender identity, i.e. transgender, gender non conforming, non-binary, gender diverse, gender fluid etc. When a person’s gender matches the sex that was assigned to them at birth – we will often use the term cisgender they might say… “ I am a cisgender male” …if their male gender matches that male sex assigned at birth.
Understanding of our gender identity comes to most of us when we are very young. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.”
This core aspect of our identity comes from within each of us. However, the words someone uses to communicate their gender identity may change over time; naming our gender can be complex and evolving and based on the influences of our surroundings. Because we initially usually have limited language for gender, it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their internal sense of identity.
Our Gender expression is how we present our gender externally, through dress, behaviour, demeanour, i.e. hairstyles, mannerisms, clothes. Society sets an expected spectrum of femininity and masculinity. Practically everything is assigned to gender and our society, culture, family will perceive, interact with and shape our gender based on these expectations.
Little children choose activities that are associated with their assumed gender, based on social conditioning and personal preferences. Fitting neatly into these expected roles is simple for many, but for those who express their individual gender outside these rigid expectations can be a different experience. Think about how people react if a little boy wears a ‘ballerina’ tutu to preschool. Pressure to conform and mistreatment by peers (and indeed adults) can cause difficulties for those choosing to experience their individual gender expression.
Parents play a key role in the safety and wellbeing of their children and indeed other children, by being informed themselves and then teaching their children about human diversity and not just to accept the differences but to celebrate them.