The world used to be so simple. There were two genders, male and female, and everyone belonged to one or the other. Only, it never was that simple, and at this moment in history, we are becoming conscious of and (to some extent) accepting of this fact. However, there are still many misconceptions about transgenderism and intersexuality. That’s where Gender Revolution comes in.
Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric is a National Geographic documentary directed and hosted by American journalist and author Katie Couric. A free public screening of the film was held at Chilliwack Cultural Centre on Tuesday, Feb. 19, hosted by the Chilliwack Gender Support Network (CGSN). Couric was motivated to make the film after she asked an inappropriate question of a transgender person, according to the event hosts. Seeing the need to gain better understanding of the matter, she created Gender Revolution to help educate others, according to one of the CGSN hosts at the screening. This is a goal shared by the CGSN, which aims to create “a safe and welcoming place for gender questioning, transgender, non-binary, and two-spirit community members,” according to their flyer.
Gender Revolution unpacks the differences between sex, gender, sexuality, intersexuality, and transgenderism. Many of us are aware of the distinction between sex and gender. Sex is biological, as in what reproductive organs one has, while gender is a psychological and social construct that codifies what is normal and accepted behaviour for each sex. Sex and gender do not always match, which is the crux of the issue. Intersex and transgender represent a similar dichotomy. An intersex person has both male and female physical characteristics, while a transgender person’s conception of their own gender differs from their biological sex.
According to the film, it is estimated that one in 1,500 to one in 2,000 births are intersex to some degree, which is to say that the childs reproductive organs are somewhere between male and female. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, it was standard procedure to give intersex babies gender reassignment surgery. The litmus test for whether the child would be assigned as male or female was the relative size of the penis/clitoris. Unfortunately, not all of these children were able to accept their assigned gender, and some, like David Reimer who was featured in the film, were so distressed by what had been done to them that they committed suicide. Nowadays, families like the Lohmanns, who were also featured in the film, who have an intersex child are more inclined to wait until the child can choose for themselves.
The most prevalent theory about what causes intersexuality is hormone exposure in the womb. A developing female fetus, if it is exposed to too much testosterone, may develop male characteristics, and vice-versa. Hormone exposure could also affect brain chemistry. An otherwise male child exposed to insufficient testosterone in utero may become hardwired to think of themselves as female, and vice-versa.
Regardless of the cause, life is not easy for those who are transgender. They can be the victim of hate crimes, and are more likely to be unemployed or commit suicide, according statistics cited in the film. Fortunately, society is becoming more tolerant, especially among younger generations. Those wishing to make a physical transition have various options in the form of puberty blockers (which buy youth time to make a decision), hormone treatments, and surgery. It may seem like there has been a sudden surge of gender atypical individuals, but this is mostly due to transgender and intersex people being able and willing to be open about the subject. “We just now have the voice and the guts to speak out,” said Christina, a transgender youth.
This is of course simplifying, and still rather dualistic. There is more to be said about those who feel themselves to be both genders, or neither, or something else entirely. Also, not all cultures at all times in history have subscribed to the strict binary concept of gender that we are familiar with. Even among transgendered people, there are differences between people of different generations in how tied they are to traditional gender norms. Suffice to say, sex and gender are complicated, and our ideas about them will likely be different in the future.
Image: Aleister Gwynne/The Cascade