I learned in this morning’s New York Times that Dr. John Money died on Friday.
Dr. Money was a well-known medical psychologist, most famous for his involvement in the sex-reassignment case of a toddler in the late 1960s. If you’ve taken an Intro Psych or Intro Sociology or Sociology of Gender course you’ve probably read about the case. (It’s been mentioned in the Gender chapter of just about every Intro Soc text book I’ve ever used) This was the case where an 8 month old boy, one of a pair of twins, had his penis burned off during a circumcision. After many consultations, one of them with Dr. Money, the parents decided to go ahead and raise this child as a girl and began a long series of surgeries and treatments aimed at doing so. The story was variously hailed as a success and a failure, and in late adolescence the young girl requested reassignment back to male status. Living then as David Reimer, he married, adopted a child, and then a few years ago, tragically, committed suicide. (See this Slate piece about David Reimer’s suicide by John Colapinto (author of a book about David’s complicated life).
I wholeheartedly support people’s right to have their bodies reassigned to a gender that fits them, and for the work Dr. Money did that helped advance our capability to think about and perform such work I am grateful. But I am deeply troubled, and always have been, by the assumption that physical genitalia and gender identity have to match.
There was no reason to suspect, in the case of the infant who ultimately became David Reimer, that his gender identity was at all in question. There was only the assumption that since he no longer had a penis he could never be happy as a boy or a man. He would not even, necessarily, have been sterile (in that his testicles were not affected) though certainly he would not have been able to have ordinary heterosexual intercourse. By making him a girl, the ultimate cultural message being sent was this: an other-than-biologically-perfect penis disqualifies a person from being a good boy/man, but an other-than-biologically-perfect uterus, vagina, clitoris, etc. is just fine for a woman. It was, really, yet another sign that women are understood to be secondary, inferior, not as important. That as a woman this child would never be able to bear a child apparently troubled Dr. Money and others less than that as a man this child would not be able to easily father a child. That as a woman this child would probably have difficulty with orgasm and intercourse troubled them less than that as a man the child would not have had a normal penis.
We have advanced our technology to the point where people who are incapable of reproducing on their own can do so with the assistance of sperm donors, egg donors, in vitro fertilization, surrogates, etc. We have advanced our notions of family and sexuality to include single parent families, same sex parents, and so on (though, granted, not with the full legal status of the hetero-married family). I wish we would advance our understanding of gender so that it becomes, for once and for all, distinct from our physical bodies. Imagine the freedom in that. Even if many people still fell into gender categories that matched their physical bodies, the rest of us would be free to identify as we like. Instead of focusing on man/male and woman/female we could expand our categories to include the kinds of sex we like, whether or not we are willing/able/interested in reproducing, and the kinds of social roles that fit us.
I don’t mean to dismiss the ways that our hormonal, physical and genetic makeups influence us. But they don’t determine us and to the (possibly large) degree that they do influence us, there is a great deal of variety — much more than our two-gender dichotomy allows for. In fact, I recently took a “brain sex” quiz that indicated in my own case that I outperform men on some “male brain” tasks, outperform women on some “female brain” tasks, and don’t perform as well as the average man or average woman on other tasks. My ultimate score put me at 0, the exact center of the score distribution (apparently men cluster around 50 in one direction and women around 50 in the other direction). On many variables where there is a gender difference the variability within a gender category is greater than the difference between the average man and the average woman.
So lets let people choose their gender and lets let them decide whether or not their bodies and their genders need to match. And let’s not assume what a child’s gender is going to be as soon as we see whether or not it has a penis. I don’t have children, myself, and probably won’t, but if I did, I wish I’d have the courage to do what Lois Gould imagines in X: A fabulous child’s story and not determine the child’s gender. If asked on the street whether my child was a boy or a girl I wish I’d have the courage to say, “I don’t know. Possibly neither. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Fantasy? Perhaps. But these are my thoughts on the morning I read of the death of Dr. Money.