The Determination of Gender Identity

The great science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein (1961), once wrote, “Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea” (p. 2). The sexual revolution of the past few generations, epitomized in this quote, has come to define the question of gender identity in my generation. The static nature of gender roles has been questioned and found lacking, and a more dynamic approach to gender roles has been adopted in its place. As I read our textbook I was astonished how the authors postulate that the ideal gender role is neutral, exhibiting traits of both the masculine and female genders (Finchner-Rathus, Nevid, Rathus, 2005). I was also astonished by the admonition that there is increasing evidence that gender identity is determined by prenatal development at the hand of hormones, again not in all cases but in most. However, gender identity is determined by a complex interaction between genetics, hormones, and experience which have all worked collectively to create my masculine gender identity.

Before I explain my own masculine gender identity it might be advantageous to first explain the psychological and physiological basis for gender identity. As stated before, gender identity is determined by a complex interaction between many forces. But how do these forces interact and do some of them determine others? Gender identity starts with the Y sex chromosome. During fertilization, an X chromosome from the mother and either a Y chromosome or an X chromosome from the father join to become a genetically unique zygote. If the male transmits an X chromosome during fertilization, then the zygote will be female; conversely, if the male transmits a Y chromosome, then the zygote will be male. At 5 to 6 weeks the gonads are still undifferentiated, but the primitive external genitals have begun to develop. It is in week 7 when genetics starts to play a larger role in sexual differentiation. If the embryo has both X chromosomes, then ovaries start to develop, and if the embryo has one X and one Y chromosome, then testes begin to develop. Also at this stage, the male testes begin to produce androgens, specifically testosterone. Female embryos produce testosterone as well through other glands but in much smaller doses. Moreover, without testosterone, we would all develop external female genitals. Also of great concern to gender identity is the effect that testosterone has on a section of the brain called the hypothalamus. Testosterone causes the hypothalamus to become insensitive to estrogen, a hormone instrumental in the menstrual cycle of females. It is these hormones which determine anatomical sex and even to some extent psychological gender. I thought it rather thought-provoking that almost all of the people born one gender could not be convinced through their environment that they were another gender. This is strong evidence of the correlation between prenatal sex hormones/genetics and gender identity. Evidence to the contrary, however, such as hermaphrodites, suggests that when individuals are born with both testicles and ovaries that gender identity is established exclusively through the postnatal upbringing. Collectively, these observations seem to explain that sex hormones are the primary source of gender identity; however, in the absence of clear hormonal direction, the environment becomes the primary source of gender identity.

As aforementioned, gender identities are formed during a complex interaction of genetics, hormones, and the environment. To that end, gender traits are of great importance when trying to understand gender identity. What psychological traits make us masculine or feminine? The textbook seems to summarize the primary masculine traits like assertiveness and instrument skills and primary female traits as nurturance and cooperation. The way that the authors explain gender traits reminds me of the way that Pinel (2007) explained the nature vs. nurture debate. The analogy that this author used was quite intuitive. He explained that trying to decide how much of human behavior is due to either nurture or nature is like trying to figure out how much of the music comes from the instrument and how much of the music comes from the musician. Most of us assume that we must be either masculine or feminine, possess traits from either one or the other (mutual exclusivity). Rathus, Nevid, and Fichner-Rathus (2005) seem to postulate however that we can exhibit traits of both genders and still remain fundamentally only one gender. In fact, the authors go on to explain that this is the optimum situation; that we should try to encompass both masculine and feminine gender traits.

Now that we have covered the process by which gender identity is established and the role of gender traits in gender identity I can now address the subject of myself adequately. Anatomically, as well as psychologically, I am male and exhibit masculine gender traits. As mentioned above the central reason for me being anatomically male is the hormone testosterone. This hormone is the means by which I developed testes instead of ovaries and a penis instead of a vagina. Additionally, it is this hormone that makes me psychologically masculine. During prenatal development, my brain cells were exposed to testosterone which gives me my distinctly masculine gender traits. Secondly, I am distinctly masculine in nature because I was raised in the masculine tradition. My father raised me to be a man. My youth was filled with stories of brave men accomplishing daring feats. My environment predisposed me to the masculine persuasion. And lastly, part of the reason that I am male has to do with my genes. I am male because my father contributed a Y sex chromosome to the zygote that eventually developed into me. It is because of this chromosome that testosterone production began in the first place. Without that sex chromosome, I would have been born a female.

Furthermore, up until a few years ago I too thought it inappropriate for one gender to exhibit traits of the other gender. However, I have stayed home with my children for a couple of years now and I can see how exhibiting certain female traits in certain situations can be advantageous for both me and my children. In some weird way, I have preserved my assertive nature while at the same time exhibiting the female gender trait of nurturing when the time calls for it.

In conclusion, our gender identity is determined through a complex interaction between genetics, hormones, and our environment. Through these variables we develop gender traits consistent with our gender; however, it is not altogether impossible to exhibit traits of the opposite gender when necessary.

References

Pinel, J. P. J. (2007). Basics of biopsychology. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Rathus, S.A., Nevid, J.S., and Fichner-Rathus, L. (2005). Human sexuality in a world of diversity. (6th ed.) Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Heinlein, R.A. (1961). Retrieved June 11, 2007, from the Quoteland Web site: http://www.quoteland.com/author.asp?AUTHOR_ID=174

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