Gender Identity

Gender identity is an individual's experience of identification with his or her own gender, a private sense of being either male or female and acceptance of that gender category.

An individual's sense of gender identity emerges between ages two and three; it is influenced by a combination of biological and sociological factors. Gender identity is formed as children search for cues within their family and society and discover that they identify with certain characteristics viewed as socialized aspects of gender. By ages four to six, formation of gender identity is usually complete, and identity then becomes more rigid until about age seven, when gender roles are more relaxed. Gender identity as either male or female is typically reinforced at puberty and, once established, is generally fixed for life.

A major step in the formation of gender identity occurs at about age three when children first become aware of anatomical differences between the sexes, usually through observation of siblings or peers. The awareness of physical differences is followed by awareness of cultural differences between males and females and identification with the parent of the same sex, whose behavior the child begins to imitate.

David Reimer.

David Reimer.
(© Reuters/Landov)


The story of David Reimer (referred to in the 60's and 70's as the John/Joan case) was a tragic case of a boy who was raised as a girl for the first 14 years of his life, in an effort to prove a theory known as gender neutrality.

In 1965 identical twin boys Bruce and Brian Reimer were born in Winnipeg, Canada to parents Janet and Ron. Due to a botched circumcision, Bruce's penis was completely burnt off beyond repair. About a year following the incident, David's parents saw a psychologist named Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University on television, discussing transsexual and intersexual reassignment surgery. The Reimers wrote to him and he agreed to see Bruce.

Money saw the Reimer twins as the perfect opportunity to test his theory of gender neutrality, which claimed that all human beings are gender neutral for about the first two years of life. During this window, he hypothesized, any boy could be raised as a girl and vice versa. He had done studies on intersex children, however he wanted to test his theory on someone who was not intersex.

Bruce was castrated at age 2 so that he would no longer produce male hormones, and the surgeons constructed a vulva (but waited to construct a vagina). The Reimers changed his name to Brenda, and attempted to socialize him as a girl. Money instructed them never to tell either of their sons about the surgery.

The Reimers made yearly visits to Money at his Gender Identity Institute. Money was declaring his experiment a success, however, the Reimer family said that it was clear early on that something was wrong. Bruce was resistant to the gender being forced on him and behaved in stereotypically masculine ways, even preferring to stand to pee. Bruce was described as a “tomboy,” preferring his brother's toys rather than the dolls his mother bought him. Some argued that Money skewed his reports to support his theory rather than acknowledging the problems Bruce was having. Bruce was described as having a sad childhood with almost no friends, fitting in with neither boys nor girls, and being bullied at school.

At age 13, Money made an attempt to convince Bruce to get surgery to construct a vagina. Bruce allededly told his parents he would kill himself if he had to see Money again, at which point they finally told the twins the truth. Shortly thereafter, Bruce began living as a boy. He chose the name David, had a double mastectomy to remove his breasts, started taking male hormone injections and underwent surgery to construct a penis (phalloplasty).

Allegations of improper and unprofessional behavior were lodged against Money, while many condemn his actions, some colleagues dispute the scope of allegations, claiming some were the product of faulty or false memories. Moneywas continuing to publish the results of the socalled John/Joan case as a success.

David's brother Brian was very disturbed by learning the truth about David and Money. Soon after this was revealed, Brian was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he died from an overdose of antidepressants in 2002. David later married and became a stepfather to three children. In 2004, following the death of his brother and separation from his wife, he committed suicide at age 38.

The Reimer's tragic story brings up important conversations about gender. The case has been held up as an argument against performing surgeries on infants born with so-called mixed genital attributes. Some advocates in the intersex community believe that while parents may choose a gender presentation for their child, children shouldn't be subjected to surgeries without their consent. If the intersex individual chooses, later in life they may elect for hormone treatment and/or surgery of their own accord. As philosopher Judith Butler writes, “Such efforts at ‘correction’ not only violate the child but lend support to the idea that gender has to be borne out in singular and normative ways at the level of anatomy. Gender is a different sort of identity, and its relation to anatomy is complex.” The case of David Reimer shows the complexity of gender and its relationship to the argument for nature vs. nurture.


Gender constancy—
A gender identity stage in which a child realizes that he or she is a boy or girl permanently.
An intermediate gender status between male and female; hermaphroditism.
Adoption of the surrounding culture and adapting behavior to meet the norms of a culture or society.
The state of identifying with the sex and behavior characteristics of the gender opposite one's biological gender.

In 1966 Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) advanced a staged concept of gender constancy in which children pass through an initial phase of gender identity as they become aware at about age three of their own gender and the gender of others. Children then move to a stage of gender stability at ages four to five as they recognize that gender is stable over time but not necessarily stable in situations. Finally, gender constancy is achieved when children at about age seven understand that gender is permanent, and they cannot change it the way they can change their clothes or their behavior. At gender constancy, children begin assuming appropriate gender-based behavior, imitating the behavior of members of their own sex systematically.

Biological contrasts between males and females are evident in childhood. Girls mature faster than boys, are physically healthier, and are more advanced in developing oral and written linguistic skills. Boys are generally more advanced at envisioning and manipulating objects in space. They are more aggressive and more physically active, preferring noisy, boisterous forms of play that require larger groups and more space than the play of girls the same age. In spite of conscious attempts to reduce sex role stereotyping in recent decades, boys and girls are still treated differently by adults from the time they are born. The way adults play with infants has been found to differ based on gender: Girls are treated more gently and approached more verbally than boys. As children grow older, many parents, teachers, and other authority figures tend to encourage independence, competition, and exploration more in boys and expressivity, nurturance, and obedience in girls.

While most people follow a predictable pattern in the acquisition of gender identity, some develop a gender identity inconsistent with their biological sex, a condition variously known as gender confusion, gender identity disorder, or transgender. This is believed to affect about 1 in 20,000 males and 1 in 50,000 females. Researchers suspect that both early socialization and hormonal factors may play a role in the development of gender dysphoria. People with gender dysphoria usually feel from their earliest years that they are trapped in the wrong body and begin to show signs of gender confusion between the ages of two and four. They prefer playmates of the opposite sex at an age when most children prefer to spend time in the company of same-sex peers. They also show a preference for the clothing and typical activities of the opposite sex; transsexual males may show interest in dresses and makeup. Females with gender dysphoria are bored by ordinary female pastimes and prefer rougher types of activity typically associated with males, such as contact sports.

Both male and female transsexuals believe and repeatedly insist that they actually are members of the opposite sex. They desire to live as members of the opposite sex, sometimes manifesting this desire by cross-dressing, either privately or in public. In some cases, adult transsexuals (both male and female) have their primary and secondary sexual characteristics altered through sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatments. In this way, an individual's sexual identity can be matched with their gender identity.

See also Gender constancy ; Gender dysphoria disorder ; Transgender.



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Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

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