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The Importance of Gender


By Elaine Cassel

What is sex? What is gender? What’s the difference? These questions are at the heart of the study of gender identity disorder—the disconnect between one’s assigned sex and preferred gender behaviors. In 1993, Teena Brandon, a young Nebraska woman, abandoned her female identity and lived as a boy, Brandon Teena. When two of her male friends discovered that he had the body of a woman, they killed Teena/Brandon. Boys Don’t Cry depicts what it’s like to try to live as the opposite sex, and some of society’s problems with transgender behavior.

Try as we might to discredit its significance, a person’s sex is probably the most significant socializing aspect of development. "Is it a boy or a girl?" we ask, when we hear that an acquaintance has given birth. Studies show that parents start treating boy and girl babies differently within hours after birth—describing and dressing them differently and expecting different behaviors. Children begin to understand society’s expectations of them as boys or girls as early as the age of 2. By age 5, they have a clear sense of their gender-based roles, which become important organizing schemas for self-concept and self-esteem.

A child who rejects the gender role that matches his or her biological sex may be suffering from gender identity disorder, which, according to the DSM-IV, may be diagnosed as early as 5 years of age. If as adults they cannot reconcile their gender identity with their biological sex, they may seek sex reassignment surgery or do as Teena did—hide their external identifying characteristics and live as the other sex.

As indicated by the true occurrences in Brandon’s life, a transgendered person faces huge obstacles if "found out." In a society where gays and lesbians, whose sexual orientation does not match society’s expectations, are not fully accepted, those who live as the opposite sex also risk severe discrimination. Though Teena had found a way to assuage the conflict within her, two of her male friends could not.

The movie’s timely release coincides with the trial of Aaron McKinney for the murder of Matthew Shepard (his accomplice pled guilty and received two life sentences). The 22-year-old Wyoming man sought to fashion a "gay panic" defense, arguing that he was so upset by Shepard’s flirtatious behavior towards him that he killed in an act of homophobic rage. The judge rejected this attempt to mitigate the circumstances of the murder.

Teena’s tragedy—as well as Matthew Shepard’s death—remind us how deeply ingrained social and cultural gender expectations are and how far we have yet to come to make room for those who deviate from the mainstream. Still today, intolerance and prejudice often breeds violence.


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