Skirting the Issue: Gender as a Social Construct

In the last week, I’ve seen some variation of the story and commentary on the story about the German father who wears a skirt to support his young son, who prefers to wear skirts and dresses. Nils Pickert’s essay first appeared in the German outlet Emma; a translation was offered on a blog. It is an endearing story, but I wish it wasn’t noteworthy.

Social paradigms condition us to think of certain behaviors and outward appearances as belonging exclusively to one of two sexes. But gender is not the same as sex, and is only one part of sexuality. As a cisgendered woman, I grew up with the conviction that gender inequality was about a binary: woman/man. However, this either/or conception of gender and sexuality leaves behind the many people whose sense of selves does not conform to what the majority assigns to their physiological sex. As well, it leaves behind the people who are born intersexed. This denial can bring with it devastating consequences.

I conducted research about gender as part of an anthropology course while an undergrad. Three distinct cultural responses to intersexuality ranged from acceptance to denial. In one setting, children who presented as female at birth were raised as girls; no one knew that they possessed male sex organs until they reached puberty, however, and developed male genitalia. As they began to present externally male, they were treated as such, and accepted within their culture. In another culture, though, the same phenomenon resulted in the girls who became men being outcast. In the United States, we took to surgery and medication (“hormone therapy”), at the expense of the well-being of the children. You can read my short paper Blurring the Gender Divide_Intersexuality in Three Different Cultures (pdf file) for detailed information.

So while I am disappointed that it continues to be an international issue when a child bucks society in the area of gender, I adore that his father is supporting him and bucking the norm right along with his child to show him it’s okay to be himself. More than being a role model to his son, Nils Pickert is a role model to adults everywhere to demonstrate love and support to children and each other when we challenge assumptions.

additional resources:

How Many Sexes? How Many Genders? When Two Are Not Enough This web page of Prof. A.H. Devore offers a good overview of issues and terms related to intersex.

Intersex Society of North America This agency was an advocacy group for the children and families facing challenges within the health care system about how to care for “disorders of sexual development.” The organization closed down, but their website remains up as a legacy resource. [I don’t personally like the language “disorder,” as I believe it perpetuates the construct that the binary (male/female) is “normal.” However, it’s the language used by this site and the medical profession.]

Accord Alliance This group picked up where ISNA left off.

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