Pink and blue: It’s more complicated

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Even if you don’t have children, you undoubtedly have very distinct ideas about the appropriate behaviors for boys and girls. Questions about names, sexual behavior, sex roles for boys and girls, and certainly sexual orientation permeate our culture and often lead to heated debates.

Gender is based on a complex interaction of genetics, culture and subculture. The question of gender is laden with cultural expectations, religious beliefs, personal drives, and changing pressures from micro culture to macro culture as well as biological truths that are sometimes hard to juxtapose with one’s beliefs.

We begin socializing our children to be boys or girls from the moment we know what they are. Ultrasound images give us a clue to the child’s sex. We then eliminate from the pool of names all of those names that are perceived as names associated with the other gender. We paint the baby’s room gender appropriate colors and we buy gender-based toys and clothes.

We teach our little girls to act “lady-like” and yet the same behaviors when enacted by boys are acceptable. We accept that girls can be emotional, but “big boys don’t cry.”

There are boy and girl careers. As a college student, one of my jobs was to work as a telephone operator. I left a job as a boat builder (a man’s job) to do this work. I was the only man who had ever worked in that telephone office – a “woman’s” job.

Our ideas of masculinity and femininity not only are culture bound, but they change over time. For example, did you know that up until the 1950s pink was considered a masculine color and blue was a girl color? In just 50 years American culture has completely reversed its course from “blue is a girl color” to “real men don’t wear pink.”

We even play word games with ourselves to reconcile our ideas of gender appropriate behaviors. For example, both boys and girls play with dolls. The difference is semantic. Girls play with dolls, but boy dolls are called “action figures.”

Did you know all babies would be girls if not for one amazing event that happens about eight weeks into gestation? Babies that are genetically male respond to this event by developing as boys and babies that are genetically female do not respond and continue on the default developmental path and become girls.

The complexity of sexual orientation is a part of this equation. There is no question that at least some of what we think of as sexual orientation is genetically based. Approximately 90 percent of the population identifies as heterosexual. There was no choice in this. There was no point where these 90 percent “decided” to be heterosexual. It was written into their genetic code.

Of those remaining 10 percent that identify as homosexual, some have chosen that lifestyle and at some point will “unchoose” it. However, there is little doubt that at least a portion of this 10 percent are as genetically homosexual as the heterosexual community.

In my practice I’ve seen children as young as 2 or 3 years who are already showing signs of sexual identification with the same gender.

Interestingly, in other parts of the world, there are not only two genders. In India, for example, there is a “third gender” called Hijras. These individuals could most closely be related to transgendered individuals, and they are a recognized gender in India and other parts of southern Asia. A Google search on “types of gender” will reveal over 100 ways to describe sexual identity and orientation.

The religious and cultural questions regarding “normality” and “normal” are separate questions. Few people doubt the potential genetic source of addiction, for example. That doesn’t mean that it is normal or desirable.

I’ll leave the theological discussion regarding homosexuality to theologians, but it would be naive to deny the potential genetic connection.

Gender identity is complex under the very best conditions. It becomes even more complicated when childhood abuse, sexual maltreatment, or sexual role disruptions occur. To oversimplify it based on anecdotes, personal opinion, or folklore is hurtful and potentially cruel.

We live in culture that supposes that anything goes. That isn’t my point. My point is that we are sexual creatures at our very core. We cannot see the world in any way other than through the lenses of our sexual selves. A recognition of how we develop as sexual beings is an important part of healthy adjustment.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., a regular columnist for the Healthwise section of this newspaper, is also a college professor, a licensed counselor and a public speaker. In addition to wearing those hats, he has served as a regular lecturer at the FBI Academy, as a profiler with the Atlanta Cold Case Squad and is also author of “Survivors: What We Can Learn From How They Cope With Horrific Tragedy.” His website is gregmoffatt.com.]