These myths pop up whenever a news story breaks about Caitlyn Jenner, an anti-LGBT “bathroom bill,” or a young transgender child. On their face, they seem as if they are common sense, yet science, history and the real life experiences of countless people have proven every single one of them wrong.
Do you still buy into them?
Myth #1: Gender is housed in your genitals. If you have a penis, you are boy. If you have a vagina, you are a girl.
It’s understandable why people believe this. After all, we legally assign a newborn’s gender based on genitals. If a baby has a vulva and vagina, the parents hear “it’s a girl!” If the baby has a scrotum and penis, then they hear, “it’s a boy!”
And yet, it’s not that simple.
First, some babies have genitals that appear to be one sex, but internal sex organs that appear to be another. For example, they might have testes with ovaries. Or, as happens to about 1 percent of children born in a remote village in the Dominican Republic, babies may appear to have a vulva and vagina at birth, but, during puberty, a penis and testicles descend. We call these children “intersex,” which means they have one or more physical characteristics that make their bodies neither clearly male nor female.
Second, some children have masculinized brains paired with feminine bodies (or, conversely, the other way around). These children tend to revolt against stereotypical gender roles at a young age, and many of them insist that they are not the gender that appears on their birth certificates. For these transgender children, their gender identity doesn’t match their bodies.
Scientifically, we define gender identity as your attitudes, feelings and beliefs about who you are. It’s woven into the fabric of your being, along with many other traits that make you you. It’s not something that anyone else can define for you. Much like your favorite color and your most despised food, your gender identity is personal and unique and internal–and not found in your genitals.
It’s found in your brain.
Myth #2: There are only two genders.
What I mentioned earlier about intersex children may already have you questioning this myth. After all, if there are only two genders, in which box do you assign a child who is born with a vagina, but who develops a penis at puberty? What about someone whose body produces high levels of testosterone, but who has ovaries? Or someone with XXY chromosomes?
If there are only two genders, how do you classify someone who is androgynous and neither clearly male nor female? What about people who identify as men, but who are extremely feminine? Or people who identify as women, but who are extremely masculine?
Decades ago, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld document hundreds of genders that fell on a continuum between “full man” and “full woman.” If you think of gender as three-ponged–consisting of your reproductive organs between your legs, your gender identity in your brain, and the presentation of how you appear to others–you can start to see the sheer magnitude of combinations and why social media platforms like Facebook now offer as many as 58 gender options.
How many genders are there? Scientifically, we can’t pinpoint an exact number, but we can tell you this: there are definitely more than just two.
Myth #3: Young children don’t have the maturity to know their gender.
Sure, this seems logical if you don’t think about it too deeply and if you completely ignore the science.
What is true is this: Around age four or five, children can easily sort themselves and others around them into gendered categories of “boy” and “girl.” Based on surveys of transgender individuals, we also know that the majority of transgender adults were aware of a mismatch between who they felt they were and who society told them they were by age five. Fewer than 4 percent came to this realization after age 18.
But this is also common sense. Think about your own gender. Did it take you until age 18 to figure it out? Or did you know your gender as far back as you can remember? If so, doesn’t it make sense that a gender diverse child may also know their gender at a very young age, too?