Default Settings

Here at the human factory, we’ve got two sets of default settings you can choose from when ordering your child.

Girl: pink, likes boys, wants children, enjoys dressing up as a princess.

Boy: blue, likes girls, enjoys dressing up as a fireman.

These might seem a little limiting, but, you know, there’s a lot of room for imagination here. For example, boys can sometimes grow up to be policemen instead of firemen. Or CEOs of major financial companies. Or lawyers, or doctors. And girls…might want two children, or maybe three. Or maybe even four! Like I say, there’s some flexibility here.

The reason that I bring up this topic is that I find it simply fascinating that even many progressives kind of assume that children are going to fit into these two default settings. This was brought home for me when I read an article in The New York Times talking about middle schoolers coming out as gay, and encountered a lot of resistance from people going “well, how do people that young know that they are gay?”

If you’re under 18 and you say that you are queer, or trans gender, or want to pursue an occupation usually closed to people who share your sex, people automatically assume that you can’t really know what you want, because you’re breaking out of the factory default. A nine year old girl who knows that he is really a boy “doesn’t know what [she] wants and may change [her] mind.” People effortlessly degender trans children all the time because, you know, they’re children, how could they possibly know?

An eleven year old girl who comes out as a lesbian “doesn’t really know” what her sexual orientation is, because, how could she? She’s never even had a sexual encounter with another girl, so how can she be so sure that she likes girls? She’s going to change her mind once she grows up and meets a nice boy.

When a boy says that he wants to grow up to a nurse, someone is going to tell him “oh no, you can grow up to be a doctor, if you want, you’re a boy. You don’t need to be just a nurse.” When a young girl announces that she wants three children, everyone nods and smiles in approval. When a young girl announces that she doesn’t want children, she is reprimanded and informed that she’s going to change her mind later.

As a society, we assume that children are cis and straight until proved otherwise, and that their characteristics are going to fit within a set of known, understood, and comfortable parameters. And, believe me, ample proof will need to be provided. Why do we make this assumption? Because we’re trained to, as a culture.

A better question might be: Why are we automatically assuming that all children are straight, since, you know, how could they know? They shouldn’t be having sexual encounters, so there’s really no way to tell how their sexuality is going to go, in the end. Why are we assuming that all children are cis, when trans people repeatedly talk about the fact that they have known that their assigned gender is wrong from an extremely young age? Why do we assume that all women want to have children, when in fact many childfree individuals have known they didn’t want children from a very young age? Why do we continue to believe that gender is a determining factor in what kind of occupation someone can/should be interested in?

Why are we falling into the factory default trap and assuming that everyone is going to fit within a socially accepted mold? Do parents have any idea of how harmful their assumptions about their children are? I realize that it’s extremely difficult to raise children in an entirely neutral world, although many parents certainly try as best they can.

And there’s something especially tragic about the children who do try to assert themselves, to speak up, because they are crushed down. I’ve known I was queer since I was eight years old, because I remember having a conversation with a friend (who coincidentally turned out to be queer as well) about it. By high school, we had drifted apart and society’s expectations had so crushed me that when she asked me about that long ago conversation, I said “oh, well, I don’t feel that way anymore,” because I knew that’s what society wanted me to say, because I was a girl, and I was supposed to like boys. She probably asked me because she was exploring her identity, and I inadvertently affirmed the factory default when I rejected my own identity, pretended that something I knew inside wasn’t true.

How does a little boy know he’s a little boy? Well, evidence seems to suggest that if he’s really a boy, he just knows. He understands, on a visceral level, that he’s a boy. But if he’s trans, he knows on a deep level that something is wrong. The little boy may actually identify as a little girl, and hate seeing herself in the mirror every morning. Or the little boy may identify as genderqueer, and be deeply confused about what is going on in ou world. Gender identity isn’t something that’s learned and acquired (although gendered behaviors are), it just is, but people only seem to accept that when it’s a cis gender identity.

For cis people who have never had to question their gender identity, this appears to be deeply confusing. The factory default clearly says that there are little girls and little boys and that’s it, so what’s the problem? What do you mean, you don’t agree with the factory default setting? You can’t disagree with the factory!

Sexual orientation is also not a learned behaviour or a choice. You just know, inside. You may struggle with it or find yourself uncertain, but I suspect that’s in large part due to the society in which we live, because a conflict with the factory default must be wrong, so you should just try harder to fix it.

Maybe if we weren’t so heavily reliant on the factory default when viewing the world, we wouldn’t have such a difficult time accepting people who are trans gendered, people who are queer, people who transcend social norms about gender identity. Maybe they wouldn’t be considered “deviants” and “abnormal.” Maybe they’d just be people.

15 Replies to “Default Settings”

  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen progressive(-ish) parents say “Well I sure didn’t expose my daughter to all that Disney princess stuff but she wants it anyway it must be innate!”

    Uh. Huh. And you keep your daughter in a box and are her sole source of societal input?

    Quality stuff as usual. Thank you for including trans folk: holy crap do we ever have to provide evidence we are what we say we are in the face of all sorts of resistance against doing that. It is seriously hard work! Not something someone decides to do on a whim ’cause it sounds like it might be fun and they’ll regret later. (Project much, gentleman gatekeeper surgeon types? Having trouble imagining that a person with a penis/breasts might find keeping it/them uncomfortable and want it/them gone?)

  2. I think Arwyn at Raising My Boychick is doing a really terrific job of trying to raise a child without leaning on the factory defaults, although I imagine it’s unbelievably hard because gender policing and norming is so embedded in our society.

    Although, in fall fairness, re:princess crap, I once received three sets of “Pretty Pretty Princess” for my birthday and was delirious with joy. Although I wasn’t a Disney watcher. As I recall, I cannibalized all three sets to create some extremely peculiar jewelry. Which may have been the reason I wanted it all along…

  3. Heuristics make it easier for you to decide things — then because common =/= absolute, they trip you right up. I think it’s about time that we learned to think more critically.

    (That seems to go for oh so many problems along these lines, not just the sex/gender aspect of egalitarianism.)

    In other news, alas, I am still failing to grasp gender identity as an innate characteristic independent from gendered behavior. I can say the words, of course, but I’m not grokking it. Augh.

  4. What gender is.

    Sex I got, it’s physical. Gendered behavior, just check societal norms. Gender… I mean, what is it? For me to say “I feel like a woman” requires that I personally have some idea of what “woman” means, apart from extrinsic things like lack-of-Y or playing with Barbies. (Maybe that’s why I never said it, heh.)

  5. Well, let me start by saying that “lack of Y” doesn’t necessarily make someone a woman. Just as presence of Y does not make someone not-a-woman.

  6. (I know. It was a clause meant to target the easy bio answer and the easy behaviorist answer as ineffective.)

  7. Er. I was saying that there are certain answers commonly given to the question “What does ‘woman’ mean?”, and that because they are not effective answers, I am still asking the question.

  8. Aoede: I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond to your comments.

    Maybe one good option would be to stop trying to work this out with your keyboard engaged, and just realise that it’s perfectly ok for you not to fully grok gender as separate from sex and behaviour on an intimate, personal, self-identity level.

    You’re cis (guessing from what you’ve said here). Are you usually read as cis? You doesn’t have to – and CAN’T – get how it feels to be trans or intersex. You can’t have that experience. It’s not yours. You just have to respect that others do, and believe them when they say it.

  9. Totally. What I think bothers me is the inequality of the scrutiny of gender identifications – cis people every day make a million choices *not* to be trans. Cis people don’t need to have a “gender identity,” because to the world you simply *are* a woman. The very invisibility of it is a sign of privilege, a lack of the denial of your existence that trans people live through daily.

    So I guess my questions for Aoede are:

    How do you do *your* gender? Do you have pronouns? Do you have to fight for them? Do you wear clothes that are culturally gendered (not merely dresses, but ? When you talk, is your voice gendered female or male? Do you refer to yourself as a woman? Do you let others do the same? Do you go to the woman’s bathroom? When you do that, do you have to think about the possibility of being arrested for being in the “wrong” bathroom? When you present a piece of identification, does the “sex” box match your presentation as that gender?

    I could go on.

    There is no one answer to what a gender identity is, I think. Gender identity is a shorthand for the countless moments where you put out signals that you are a woman, or someone calls you a woman and you assent to that. Because it doesn’t feel wrong. Or at least not wrong enough to deny it and/or find another alternative.

    I believe people when they say they don’t have a gender identity, or don’t understand it, but the point of all those questions is that they (you, I, we) nevertheless *do* a particular kind of gender all the time–a performance not merely of masculinity or femininity (or any combination thereof) but of “maleness” and “femaleness” (which is something like the interplay between a sexed body, presumed cissexed history and gender presentation).

    Whether you *feel* like a woman or not is interesting, but a bit besides the point – to me the question should be not what *is* “gender,” but what does it do, and how does it hurt people?

  10. Most of what I’d had to say has been said and very well by meloukhia, lauredhel, and queen emily (thanks, y’all!), so I won’t repeat what they said. But I will note that we use a lot of concepts that are not well-defined: gender, race, sexual orientation (when gender and sex aren’t discrete but continuous, the homosexual/heterosexual/bisexual structure rather falls apart), intelligence, courage, strength, love. And I believe they should not be well-defined.

    When intelligence was well-defined in the Army/Stanford-Binet IQ experiments, all it did was reify and reinforce extant cultural, racial, and class oppressions — poor black men weren’t just stupid, they had been scientifically proven to be stupid.[1] Probably congenitally. (Which leads us into issues of reproductive justice, because congenitally defective people shouldn’t be encouraged to breed, yes? For the betterment of the species.) When sex is well-defined children with ambiguous genitalia (even as small an ambiguity as mild clitoromegaly[2]) are surgically altered without their knowledge or consent; the parents of children so altered are strongly encouraged to lie to them.

    By leaving the concepts with which we build our identities fluid and ambiguous and amenable to self-definition, we allow for richer variation of the human experience. And we move away from oppressing those whose identities fit poorly into definitions created by privilege.

    The White Queen, believing six impossible things before breakfast each day, is portrayed in Through the Looking-Glass as senile and insane. I prefer to see her as visionary, ahead of her time. We are all impossible things, and we need to believe in ourselves and each other.

    [1] Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.
    [2] “Clitoromegaly.” Wikipedia. 2001. Wikimedia Foundation. Article last updated 18 October 2009. Note: I take issue with the article’s first sentence describing the condition as abnormal and not part of normal human variation, but it describes the condition adequately.

  11. 1) I love this post. Really. This is me, gushing.

    2) This: “I think Arwyn at Raising My Boychick is doing a really terrific job of trying to raise a child without leaning on the factory defaults” is quite probably one of the nicest things ever said about me. Thank you. This is me blushing.

    3) I started consciously playing around with gender performance, feeling attracted to girls as well as boys, and even “making out” with my best friend (a girl) when I was five. If bisexuality weren’t so invisible in our culture, even in my progressive (for the time) natal family, I would have KNOWN my sexuality as well as my gender at least that young, because other than maturing, it hasn’t fundamentally changed since. (And I had a similar moment of denying my sexuality, as well as having it denied for me: I was talking with a sort-of friend, and said that I found women attractive, but I wasn’t, y’know, attracted to them (denying my own known feelings). He replied that that wasn’t possible: finding women attractive at all meant I was a lesbian (denying the completeness of my sexuality), which I knew I wasn’t, and didn’t want to be seen as, so, I had to be straight, right? Ugh.)

    4) The idea of the factory default (I adore that imagery, by the way) is so ridiculously pervasive even among “progressives”, even among people who have intimate reason (family and friends) to know that people come in a beautiful spectrum of variations. An example: My SIL recently posted something on Facebook about her 1.5 year old (let me say that again: one and a half years old) “hitting on” the 3 year old “ballerinas” in his older sister’s class. Knowing her, she’d probably be a tolerably decent human being if she were to find out he was queer in some way, but she is very much, already, imposing the factory defaults on him, so that he would HAVE to “come out” as queer, rather than organically discover his own sexuality, whatever it may be. (There are reasons I don’t talk to her much, and spent an hour cussing when she found me on Facebook.)

    5) Did I mention I like this post? (And that I overuse parentheses?) ‘Kay, just so we’re clear on that.

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