Creating Gender

In this week’s episode of Taboo: Changing Gender viewers meet a wide array of people who have chosen to change their gender or even live outside of the binary gender choices. However, gender can actually be a complicated question when it applies to all aspects of a human being. There are many of variables outside of the obvious physical ones that create and encourage what gender a person feels he or she is mentally. When a person who identifies with, or expresses, a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth, they are considered transgender. Living in Western society with its very strict rules of what is male and what is female can be challenging for those who are transgender. It can be taboo.

Gender Beginnings

Biological sex and gender are different. Gender is not based in physical anatomy, but rather on whether a person identifies with being male or female and how they live or wish to live their lives. Sex on the other hand is biological, involving chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. At birth, we identify individuals as male or female based on these factors.

Whether a child will identify as male or female can be another story. Children are conscious of which gender they identify with between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Of course, most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. Sometimes however, a person’s gender doesn’t match their sex. This condition is now believed to have its origins before birth.

Today there is research indicating that in transgender children, parts of the brain may progress along a different pathway from how the child’s physical sex is developing. When this happens, a child may be born with a mismatch between gender identity and sex appearance. It seems there may be a number of factors that could contribute to altering critical moments in early development leading to gender assignment. Genetics, medication, environmental factors and stress or trauma to the mother during pregnancy may all be culprits.

 Changing Definitions

For years, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM has used the term “Gender Identity Disorder” to describe people who are transgender. The challenge with this is that this characterizes all transgender people as mentally ill. The newest addition of the DSM will replace this term with gender dysphoria, which labels it as a temporary condition displaying “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced expressed gender and assigned gender.” This may help remove some of the stigma from being transgender. Now it will be defined as a condition for which medical treatment may be appropriate. Many scientists now agree that while a person’s mental state cannot necessarily be changed, their body can.

The new definition doesn’t make it any less challenging to change genders and learn to live as the opposite sex as an adult, but many think it is worth the challenge. Watch this week’s episode of Taboo and meet several people who have changed their gender and find out how they are faring

Tune in to Taboo: Changing Gender Sunday,  September 30 at  10PM.