Critique of Gender Identity Essentialism

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William J. Malone, Colin M. Wright, and Julia D. Robertson:

"The idea that all people have an innate “gender identity” recently has been endorsed by many health-care professionals and mainstream medical organizations. This term commonly is defined to mean the “internal, deeply held” sense of whether one is a man or a woman (or, in the case of children, a boy or a girl), both, or neither. It also has become common to claim that this sense of identity may be reliably articulated by children as young as three years old.

While these claims about gender identity did not attract systematic scrutiny at first, they now have become the subject of criticism from a growing number of scientists, philosophers and health workers. Developmental studies show that young children have only a superficial understanding of sex and gender (at best). For instance, up until age seven, many children often believe that if a boy puts on a dress, he becomes a girl. This gives us reason to doubt whether a coherent concept of gender identity exists at all in young children. To such extent as any such identity may exist, the concept relies on stereotypes that encourage the conflation of gender with sex.

However, starting at a young age, children do tend to exhibit preferences and behaviors that we associate with sex (as distinct from gender). For example, male children display more aggressive behavior than female children. In addition, “cross-sex” behavior—or, more accurately, cross-sex stereotypical behavior—often is predictive of later same-sex attraction.

Can all of these findings be integrated? To start, just as sex influences the development of bodies, it also influences brains. There are in-utero differences in hormone exposures (male testosterone surges at eight weeks gestation, for example), and distinct developmental pathways are triggered based on the XX (typically female) or XY (typically male) chromosomal make-up of neurons. The integration of these sex-related and other developmental processes with environmental pressures gives rise to an individual’s unique personality and preferences.

It comes as no surprise then that population-based studies have demonstrated sex-related differences in personality and preferences that are independent of social influences. When social influences are weakened (in more egalitarian societies such as the Nordic countries of Europe), the sex-related differences in personality and preferences actually increase (the opposite of what one would expect if men and women were wired in an identical fashion). This suggests that as environmental pressures become relaxed, innate sex-specific preferences surface."