The Contours of Gender

He seemed to be just another blue-eyed boy, an ordinary American kid who grew up, went to MIT, got married, and had two children.

Just another blue-eyed boy-except that he wanted to be a girl. At age four, he asked his mother to buy him a frilly dress. In college, he began dosing himself illegally with estrogen. He had male lovers but never considered himself gay. Trapped inside him, he believed, was a heterosexual woman.

Today he is Lynn Conway, one of the top women in her male-dominated technology field, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan whose achievements got her appointed to the board of trustees of MIT’s Draper Laboratory and elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989. She now lives with her partner of fourteen years, Charlie, in a home near Ann Arbor.

But to become a woman, Conway had to destroy her life and marriage, reshape her body with hormones and brutal surgeries, lose her job, and suffer estrangement from her children for fourteen years. Years passed before she was able to craft a regular life with a loving partner and make amends to her two daughters.

Even then, she was still so discomfited by her masculine brow and jaw that she underwent extensive, perilous surgeries in 1999 to feminize her face. During the ten-hour procedure, doctors sawed, ground down, and reassembled with titanium wires her forehead, brow bones, and jaw; advanced her hairline; and removed some of the cartilage of her Adam’s apple.

Conway’s story — lavishly detailed on her website — is both mesmerizing and chilling. Conway’s desperation and tenacity suggest that gender is utterly primal and deep, so essential to wholeness that sane human beings will shatter their lives and their bodies and willingly lose their children to become what they believe they “really” are.

Gender is so potent that we project it onto both science and religion. And yet gender may be, in the big picture, a Möbius strip. If we begin on the inside, in biology, and walk to the outside, toward culture, somehow we end up back on the inside again, in biology. It’s almost impossible to know how nature and nurture, biology and culture, come together to create gender. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a developmental geneticist and professor of medical science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, calls gender a “vast, infinitely malleable continuum.”

Genes and genitals

The moment we enter this world, we are defined by our gender. When a baby is born, the first question asked is: “Is it a boy or a girl?” But just where does gender reside? In the genitals? In the swell of hips or the jutting angle of a jaw? In genes and hormones? In God — who often manifests as male or female — Jesus, Mary, Kali, or Buddha? “Male and female created he them,” thunders the Bible, and yet one in 2,000 children is born with ambiguous genitalia. How deep is gender, and how deep is our inability to see through gender to the human underneath?

The nature of sexual identity is a puzzle we are just beginning to piece together. We know gender begins in the genes, and even the tiniest genetic hiccup may lead to the perplexing life of someone like Lynn Conway.

One powerful gene, known as SRY, seems to jumpstart manhood and can change a genetic female into a male. French scientists discovered SRY on the Y (male) chromosome in 1990 when they tried to treat four infertile adult men and found out all were genetic females — with two normal X chromosomes. But there had been one small glitch: The crucial SRY gene was tacked onto one of the X chromosomes, turning these men into perfect anatomical males, although without the help of other genes that would allow them to produce sperm. Since then, other sex genes have been discovered — one (WNT4), if it occurs twice, can convert an embryo from male to female and lead to ambiguous genitalia.

“Speaking quite personally, I’ve wanted to believe that certain fundamental aspects of selfhood were beyond ‘tampering with,’ but that clearly is not the case,” says evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Schloss, a professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. “There is obviously no aspect of personal identity that is not open to ambiguity and, moreover, not fragilely vulnerable to perturbation by minor variability.”

Beyond physical developments, genetic alterations may also affect our perception of our own gender, Schloss says: “What seems plausible… is that a very small environmental ‘misfire’ may irreversibly impact psychobiological development.”

Biologically, SRY is clearly the first sculptor of gender: It kicks into gear at about seven weeks, when the fetus is as small as a thumbnail, triggering development of a testis and the lifelong supply of testosterone that turns the tiny embryo into a male. Without SRY, the embryo waits another six weeks, develops an ovary, and begins to pump out estrogen, leading to the cascade of events that creates a female. From these early weeks onward, hormones shape the brain and body. The first stage of puberty begins at age five or six and is characterized by an outpouring of hormones from the maturing adrenal glands. These hormones are thought to prime children for what is known as gonadal puberty, and may explain differences in the way young children play: Boys are more aggressive than girls (although girls exposed in the womb to high levels of androgens tend to play like boys).

But gender isn’t always so straightforward. As many as thirty genetic and hormonal mistakes may lead to ambiguous, or intersex, gender. Intersex people are not common, but at one in 2,000 babies born they aren’t all that rare either.

As controversial sexologist and Johns Hopkins professor emeritus John Money, who championed early surgery for intersex people, told The Washington Times last year: “It seems just fine in our society to have birth defects of any organ — as long as it isn’t the sex organs.”

Intersex people call into question just how fluid and flexible gender is. Even now the first measure of manhood is a ruler: If a baby’s stretched penis is less than an inch at birth, it doesn’t qualify as a penis. Boys born with this condition, called micropenis, are often surgically changed into girls and later given hormones, even though they’re born fertile and capable of fathering children. For girls, a clitoris larger than a centimeter is considered too large and is usually surgically reduced in early childhood.

But in the quest for this either/or approach to gender to which we’ve grown accustomed, doctors may harm something more essential — the self. “To be lied to as a child about your own body,” says Martha Coventry, a woman whose enlarged clitoris was removed when she was six, “is to have your heart and soul relentlessly undermined.” Another intersex person, Gaby Tako, was born in the Bronx in 1960 and told at age thirteen by her doctors that they were going to fix her. “But I didn’t know I was broken,” she said. “I knew I was different, but not that I was broken.”

Clearly, culture is far less flexible than biology. Research by Justine Schober, a pediatric urologist, and Christopher Woodhouse, a physician at the Institute of Urology in London, examined twenty micropenis patients who had been left intact. As adults, all patients were heterosexual, seven were married, and nine were sexually active. And William Reiner, a psychiatrist and pediatric urologist at Johns Hopkins, interviewed thirty-six boys who were castrated and reassigned as girls. Two-thirds later switched back to being boys.

Why do we need to see the world in pink and blue? Our culture insists on that dualism, even in the very moment of conception. For decades, scientists have assumed that sperm are like little males, swimming heroically and aggressively upstream to seek out and penetrate the passive, waiting, feminine egg. It’s only recently that we’ve discovered the egg itself changes its genes, in a sense, changing the lock to its key, making sperm work harder, and allowing the egg to better choose which single sperm will finally succeed, according to a Cornell University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February.

Science also assumed the male, Y chromosome was responsible for everything male, a veritable specialist. It turns out that the Y chromosome, across many species, was once a much larger X. Over time it has shrunk and shed most of its genes. And in mice and probably many other species, nearly half the genes involved in the earliest stages of sperm production are found on the female X chromosome. Gender, from the genes on up, is not the either/or proposition we’ve made it out to be.

Gender’s higher power

Our ways of understanding the world “depend heavily on the use of dualisms — pairs of opposing concepts, objects or belief systems,” says Sterling in her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Basic Books, 2000). Even God gets dualistic treatment and short shrift when it comes to gender, at least in Western culture.

“The violence of God seems permanently bound up with his maleness. Kali, with her girdle of skulls, is an Eastern phenomenon,” says Catherine Madsen, contributing editor at Cross Currents, published by the New England conference of the United Methodist Church. Many feminist theologians, Madsen points out, assume “it is a wonderful thing to resemble God… that what a woman wants in a God — and what a man automatically has — is a mirror, a gendered self writ large.” Many assume a goddess would be gentler and kinder, although, Madsen says, “nothing in our sexual identity… acquits us of human evil.”

There’s no doubt that organized religion has deified the patriarchy and gender’s dualism. In an essay, “The Death of God the Father,” originally published in Commonweal in 1971, feminist scholar Mary Daly points out that “if God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated. Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: The husband dominating his wife represents God himself.”

But religion is not responsible for this any more than the sperm and egg are responsible for our view of them as intrinsically active and passive. “What if,” Madsen asks, “from the very beginning, the one male God was not primarily an attempt by a male priesthood to consolidate its authority… but an attempt by a powerful imagination to delineate a problematic God?” Our conception of God is difficult because life, and we, are difficult. God is gendered because we give God a human form, a body.

“I suspect we have trouble even conceiving of personality apart from sexual identity,” Schloss says. “However, a robust theology of sexual embodiment could view the mystery of sexuality as a means of understanding the mystery of our union with God — not that God is a ‘male,’ but that our longing for divine intimacy reflects the way sexual beings recognize the compliment and completion in union with the other.”

If gender has any message to give us, it’s that we are complex and richly constructed whole beings. Human beings are made of a choreography of signals, from the intricacy of genes blending together, to the ebb and flow of hormones, to the fabric of culture — a choreography that we create and which creates us. From this tapestry comes a sense of self, an indivisible whole. Powerful, yes. Simple, no.

Stories like Conway’s remind us of that complexity. “Without a proper gender,” Conway writes on her website, “life itself is almost meaningless. I knew in my heart that I would be vastly more comfortable, fulfilled, and happier as a woman. In important ways, I approached my personal gender explorations like yet another area of my work as an innovative research engineer, trying to use science and innovative experimentation to solve a very fundamental problem. The difference was that here, I worked mostly in secret. I was also my own research subject, and failure would mean total personal disaster. It was a very lonely and often frightening journey. Fortunately, I succeeded.”

This article first appeared in Science & Spirit and subsequently in the Grace and Lace Letter.

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