Is he a girl? Thoughts on a case of gender dysphoria.

A ruling by the Colorado Division of Civil Rights has gotten a lot of press over the past week. The ruling gave a child by the name of Coy the right to use the girl’s bathroom at school, even though Coy is biologically male. Coy is 6 years old and, according to his family (and now according to the Colorado Division of Civil Rights), should be treated as a girl and allowed to identify as a girl. His family says that this is actually how Coy thinks of himself. He is reported to have once cried to his parents: “Not even my teacher knows I’m a girl.”

Coy was previously found to suffer from gender identity disorder, though in the DSM-5 (2013) this disorder was replaced with the category of gender dysphoria. This change was made to reduce stigma and because the American Psychiatric Association does not believe it is a mental disorder when a person identifies with the “other” gender.

In reading this Associated Press story, one aspect of it struck me. The report, which has been picked up by other news outlets, offers the following: “At 5 months, [Coy] took a pink blanket meant for her sister Lily. Later, she showed little interest in toy cars and boy clothes with pictures of sports, monsters and dinosaurs on them. She refused to leave the house if she had to wear boy clothes.”

IMG_2169The reporter adds the following (apparently significant) description of Coy on the day the decision came down: “On Monday, the [child’s] family and its lawyers celebrated the ruling on the steps of the state capitol. Coy, dressed in a glittering tank top, jeans and pink canvas sneakers, ran around a towering blue spruce tree…”

Based on this, it seems that Coy’s (self-) identification as a girl relates to his adoption of stereotypically female clothing, colours, and playthings – his preference for these things constitutes his (self-) identification as a girl. Further, since his interest in feminine things was observed as early as age five months it seems that his interest in feminine things has led to his self-identification as a girl, rather than his self-identification as a girl leading to an interest in feminine things.

In either case, however, the social context in which this case has played out is apparently one in which a fundamental correlation is assumed between girlhood and femininity. A kind of gender orthodoxy is on display here. Coy likes feminine things, so Coy is a girl. Because that’s what girls are and do, right? Girls like pink and dresses and dolls.

Over the past decades there has been a massive debate about whether gender identity (the typically feminine and the typically masculine) is essential to women and men or is merely a social construct. I’m inclined to think that while some aspects of gender identity may be hard wired, most of it is social construct. In that case, girls like ‘girly’ things only because they are informed (unconsciously, subtly, and consciously) that this is what defines girlhood.

Back to Coy. Would there be any inclination to think of Coy as a girl if girls didn’t inevitably or usually identify with the things he identifies with – namely, with pink and dresses and dolls? Otherwise put: If girls don’t naturally or necessarily like pink or dresses or dolls, why is Coy thought of as a girl? Why isn’t he simply thought of a male child (a boy) who has an affinity for these particular things?

All of this makes me wonder whether there isn’t something deeper going on in this civil rights case. Is it possible that the underlying logic in this case could be expressed as follows: “Phew, this isn’t a boy who like’s girly things. No, it’s a girl! Because the last thing we want is a boy who plays with girly things.”

In other words, calling Coy a girl and treating him as a girl (turning him into a girl!) means not having to deal with the uncomfortable possibility of a boy who doesn’t like typically masculine things. In a social context where gender is lived/performed in such clearly defined (binary) ways, such a conclusion seems possible.

The Associated Press report also indicates that Coy’s father is an ex-marine. While that piece of information is offered as an explanation as to where the family lives and which school the kids go to (near an army base), I get the impression that this information is also offered in order to demonstrate that this is an open-and-shut case. “See, even a solid, masculine, ex-marine says that Coy is a girl.” Who can argue with that?

But I’m left to wonder whether perhaps it is easier for contemporary American culture to turn a boy into a girl than to accept a boy who doesn’t act like a boy. Would there be anything surprising in the possibility that Coy had internalized the idea that boys shall not (!) identify with pink, dresses, or feminine toys? And just to be clear, I’m not commenting on the role of Coy’s immediate family in this (I do not doubt their love for Coy or their desire to do right by him) – rather, I am reflecting on the nature of a society that functions with very clear and strict gender scripts.

So in the end maybe this isn’t the remarkable and progressive ruling everyone seems to think it is. Perhaps it is, in fact, a rather conservative ruling. Through this ruling of the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, society is saying: “Boys must be boys. And girls must be girls.”

(As always, constructive comments and feedback welcome…)

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