Updated: Jul 22
Gender is a social construct.
I don't consider that statement to be political in nature. It is rooted in empirical research and observable fact. However, as I move into my new role as a father, I have been surprised how conversations about the "gender" of Baby Aspinwilkey, who will arrive on or around March 2, tend to take a political turn.
Perhaps it's a symptom of our inability to have meaningful conversations about sexual assault and other gender issues, as seems clear from the controversy surrounding Brett Kavanaugh's recent appointment to the Supreme Court. However, when it comes to the world into which our little one will be born, I can't pretend that sex and gender won't be major determinants of the opportunities that will or won't be available to our little bean or how they will interpret and understand the world around them.
This morning, Betsy and I arrived excited and more than a little nervous for our twenty-week ultrasound. Betsy is having a relatively flawless pregnancy, but since this is the first time either of us has experienced the miracle of creating a little human from scratch, we are both a bit anxious every time we have an appointment.
We decided almost immediately after our first positive pregnancy test that we did not want to know the sex of the baby until they are born. That decision was intentional, and most all the members of our family fully support it. We see waiting until birth as, first, one of the last true remaining surprises in life, and, second, an exercise of our rather strongly-held beliefs about gender.
When we got to the ultrasound room this morning, I noticed a little sign on the wall that read: "Q: What is the most reliable method to determine a baby's gender?? A: Childbirth!" I didn't think twice before pulling my pen out of my shirt pocket, scratching out "gender," and writing in "sex." That question, though, and the conflation of sex and gender, are at the root of why we decided to wait until Baby Aspinwilkey is born to learn their sex.
As I said at the outset, gender is a social construct, and I do not believe this to be a political statement, or even a radical one. I realize that there are some who associate this statement with the political left, but to consider it a political statement rather than sound science and observable fact is in fact the political act. The way we talk about gender and sex is, for me, an example of how those on the right and on the left have made social science a political battleground.
Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo articulate the importance of this concept - the politicization of the social sciences - about as clearly as anyone else I've ever read. In their book Is Everyone Really Equal?: Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, they include a wonderfully useful analysis of the ways some people define social sciences as opinion-based when they would never do the same for the so-called hard sciences. They use, as an example, the fact that there is now scientific consensus that there are only eight planets even though Pluto was once considered a planet before astronomers learned more about its properties and decided it should no longer be classified as a planet. While a student might argue with this assertion - that there are only 8 planets, they cannot do so with fact but only with opinion. Scientists get to define what counts as a planet no matter how attached you or I might be to poor ol' Pluto.
Sensoy and DiAngelo note, however, that experts in the social sciences are often not given the same respect. I have seen it myself both in classrooms where I have been a student and in classrooms where I am the professor. The professor (which is sometimes me) will throw out an observable fact rooted in widely-accepted social sciences scholarship, and students will reply "well, that's just your opinion." Gender as a social construct is, for me at least, the statement most likely to draw this scorn from students and, as I have learned, from people to whom I am connected via social media. However, if the scientific community, who are undisputed experts in astronomy, are able to define what counts as a planet, why, similarly, aren't social scientists, whose work is based in empirical research and not in opinion, given similar latitude on questions of race, class, and gender? This question strikes at the heart of how ridiculous it is to call my statement about gender as a social construct an opinion or a political statement. It is not. It is a fact, whether one likes it or not.
There exists reams and reams of important scholarship examining the social construction of gender and the differences between sex and gender. Much of this research is rooted in the discipline of sociology, though historians, anthropologists, and even theologians also work on questions of gender. What is most important to understand, at least when it comes to why I marked out "gender" and replaced it with "sex" in the ultrasound room this morning, is that the two terms are not interchangeable.
Think of it this way. Sex is determined, generally, by chromosomes. One has XX chromosomes or XY chromosomes most of the time, though there are exceptions to this, too. Sex isn't a binary, even if it manifests this way in most circumstances. Anyway, sex is the biological part. It isn't even necessarily about genitals as genitalia do not always correspond with chromosomes. Bodies are complicated like that. However, generally, whether one is male or female, as is the case in the large majority of cases, is determined by chromosomes. It's science.
Gender, however, is the socially- and culturally-constructed trappings that humans attach to males and to females. Many facets of gender are stereotypical, and sometimes offensively so. Girls like pink, boy like blue, girls play with dolls, boys like cars, girls aren't good at math...see how quickly they get offensive? The thing is - and here's why I don't think it's controversial to say it's a social construct - most of these gender stereotypes are just bullshit. There's a long history of gender construction designed to preserve patriarchy and limit the opportunities available to women. That's one of the reasons I refuse to assign Baby Aspinwilkey a gender when they are still in utero.
As soon as we publicly announced that we were expecting a baby, people began asking us about the baby's sex, though as often as not, they used the word "gender." We generally politely explain that we do not plan to learn the baby's sex before they are born. Some people have taken this better than others. Some have asked how they will know what color of stuff to buy for the baby. Others have asked how we will pick out paint schemes for the nursery. I will admit that Betsy, being the saint she is, is substantially more gracious than I at answering these inquiries. Somewhere around about Week 12, when we made our big announcement via social media, I got really grumpy about gender questions. Especially in our reality television culture, people make a big deal out of "gender reveal" parties, and I suppose some expected the same from us. Those who know us best, however, should know better. I gave brief thought to the idea of staging one of those gender reveal parties and having the balloon or cake or whatever be green or purple or yellow and screaming "GENDER IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT," but Betsy, ever the gracious one, talked me out of it.
However, my standard answer has become this: I don't care about the baby's sex, and they can figure their gender out later. I have learned, though, that this response baffles most folks. I suppose that those who understand gender ask about the baby's sex, and those who ask about the gender aren't aware that I'm inclined to give a grumpy sociology lesson.
Why am I so grumpy about this? Well, as I said, the ways we construct gender in our society tend to create false binaries and bind people up in harmful gender systems that entrench established hierarchies of power. That's the jargon-laden answer. The simple answer is this: I want Baby Aspinwilkey to be who they want to be, and set and accomplish any goals they want. Their sex is irrelevant to this, and I want gender to be irrelevant, too. I realize that gender construction can impede or facilitate this process, and I realize that gender is not binary. It will be hard enough for Baby A to navigate as it is. I don't see any need to begin pre-constructing the baby's gender before they take their first breath.
The reality is that, regardless of our own beliefs about gender, we will nonetheless have to parent with social constructions of gender in mind. If our child is a girl, we will have to teach her to be strong and independent and fierce in a world that is still largely controlled by those who seek to make women second-class citizens and limit their opportunities. We will have to teach her to protect herself because so many of the boys and men around her are taught to be hyper-masculine. Similarly, if our child is a boy, we will have to teach him to embrace his emotions and express them in a healthy way in a world that tells him that he is a lesser man if he cries. We will have to teach him to honor his female counterparts in the face of a culture that tells him he has to be hyper-masculine and dominant, and we will have to teach him not just to be a leader, but to be willing to be led by women, too.
Conversations about gender, for some reason, tend naturally to gravitate toward the issue of transgender identity, particularly among those who find the concept of transgender identity to be socially unacceptable. One of the strongest arguments I have encountered in favor of continuing to link gender and sex is from those who believe that traditional gender roles are for some reason necessary for society to continue to function. Aren't we worried, some might ask, that by breaking down concepts of gender identity, we might encourage our child to reject culturally-acceptable gender roles? What if that makes our kid gay? Or trans??
My response is that no, I am not worried about this, because I want to raise a child that knows who they are even if it doesn't fit what many in society say is "normal." Just today, Betsy and I were having this conversation. She noted that even as a cisgender woman (that is, someone whose gender identity matches their sex), social constructs of gender have shaped, or attempted to shape, her life in so many ways. We're not wishing for a transgender child, we're wishing for a child who knows they can be whomever they are. Our love for this little bean is unconditional even if they are someone whom others might find to be unacceptable.
Unfortunately, it continues, apparently, to be interpreted through a political lens when one expresses support for breaking down gender binaries and unlinking gender and sex. To recognize that gender and sex are not the same thing does not mean that I am promoting some sort of "gay agenda," whatever that means. It means that I recognize the myriad ways gender construction is flawed and I hope to continue breaking down those false binaries. It means that I don't ever want my child to worry that she isn't feminine enough or that he isn't manly enough.
Oddly enough, my own father has articulated this idea in a way that is incredibly pragmatic and quite touching. Dad and I don't talk politics, but I think it's safe to say that he and I don't usually vote the same way these days. I'm not certain that he has given much thought to gender identity in any systematic way. However, the day we told him we were expecting, he said something that I think might help even the most ardent trans-phobic conservative understand the fallacy of gender binaries and recognize the difference between gender and sex.
As Dad was checking out the really cool camouflage onesie we wrapped up to reveal our secret, he said he was going to buy the baby a lifetime hunting and fishing license and teach the baby to hunt and raise hounds whether it was a boy or a girl. This made me beam with pride, because it's exactly the philosophy with which Betsy and I plan to approach raising our child. Girls can hunt too. Just like they can do math and pursue careers in science. It turns out, just as Dad recognizes, one's sex does not mean one can or cannot pursue any dream they might have or any hobby they might love. Baby Aspinwilkey is gonna wear that camouflage onesie regardless of their sex. Dad made us promise him that. Dad gets it, even if he doesn't realize he gets it.
If you believe that girls can hunt for bears or be "tomboys," then you already know there's a difference between sex and gender. It isn't a political statement. It's a commitment to allowing our children to be who they are, even if it doesn't fit some false gender binary. When children can grow up to pursue any dream they can dream, they'll be happier and healthier. Who are we to impose gender norms on them before they are even born? It isn't about politics. It's about loving our children exactly as they are.