Where Did Gender Identity Come From?

The term ‘gender identity’ was coined by psychologist and researcher, Dr. John Money, founder of the first gender clinic at John Hopkins Hospital in 1966. ‘Gender identity’ first appeared in print on November 21st 1966, in the press release announcing the creation of the clinic. Money would go on to develop his theory of gender by experimenting on young children.

Money recruited the parents of David Reimer to a twin study research project at the newly-founded clinic and inextricably linked the concept of gender identity to the case. Born in 1965, David, then named Bruce, and his identical brother Brian were test cases in an experiment designed to see if a boy could be brought up successfully as a girl after surgical alteration. Money’s hypothesis was termed ‘gender neutrality’. Bruce had suffered burns to his penis during a circumcision that went wrong. Money persuaded the parents to fully alter Bruce’s genitals at the age of two, removing testes and fashioning the artificial appearance of a vulva. Bruce was then renamed ‘Brenda’. Money reassured the parents that this measure was in the best interests of Brenda and that his theory of ‘gender neutrality’ would be proven correct. Money had, according to John Hopkins Hospital, solved an ethical dilemma, and so had an ethically sound basis to study how Brenda would proceed. Twin Studies are regarded as the gold standard within psychology and psychiatry and so these children appeared to Money to be the perfect experimental subjects on which to ground his ideas. 

Money required that during childhood Brenda and her family visit John Hopkins to observe how the treatment progressed. This process of treatment included interviews to see if the parents were ‘girling’ Brenda correctly (enforcing femininity) and how the now supposedly differently sexed twins interacted. Brenda (David) and his twin brother Brian as adults reported that during part of this ‘treatment’ both were sexually abused by Money, who made the pair ‘role play’ heterosexual intercourse, inspected their genitals, and took photographs. Money denied these allegations, but also justified these coerced acts as, ‘childhood sexual rehearsal play’ which he considered important for a ‘healthy adult gender identity’, What is evidenced in transcribed interviews documenting Money’s interaction with the twins was that they were made to describe the difference between their genitals, repeat that these sexual differences made one a boy and one a girl and were encouraged to deliberate why Brenda fought less at school than Brian (“because I’m a girl”, Brenda is heard saying, to Money’s confirmation, “you’re a girl!”) It is very clear here that regressive gender roles became mixed with Money’s invention of gender identity. 

Despite Money’s sexual liberalism and unorthodoxy regarding homosexuality, he and other researchers at John Hopkins did not consider reinforcement of strict binarism in relation to the sexes as damaging or illegitimate. For years Money wrote about the case as ‘John/Joan’ (instead of real names Bruce/Brenda), depicting the apparent success of gender identity development to support arguments for the feasibility of sexual reassignment. In contrast, Reimer decades later described how he urinated through a hole in his abdomen due to botched urological interventions by doctors.  

Around the period of adolescence Brenda [David] was given oestrogen to induce breast development as part of early female puberty. Clinical notes show that shortly afterwards Brenda [David] rejected Money’s recommendations of surgery to create a vagina. From the age of thirteen Brenda began no longer to identify as a girl, reporting feelings of suicidal depression. At age fourteen, Brenda’s father told him about the sex reassignment process. Brenda shortly after took the name David and began living as a boy. In early adulthood David underwent treatment to reverse sex reassignment, including testosterone injections, a double mastectomy, and phalloplasty operations. 

Throughout this period Money continued to publish on the experiment as a success, despite it being known by him that Brenda, originally Bruce, was now living as David. Only when Reimer opened his life to academic Milton Diamond did the devastating outcome of Money’s experiment become public knowledge and his research was exposed as  fraudulent. Reimer committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 38.  Leading gender theorist Judith Butler wrote shortly after David took his own life, ‘It is unclear whether it was his gender that was the problem, or the ‘treatment’ that brought about an ‘enduring suffering for him’, as if it were a riddle or great mystery.

The scarce amount of academic literature utilising the work of Money today might seem to indicate the widespread rejection of his methods, but the impact of these grievous scientific errors, if we can term medical violence against children under the name of science, remains paramount in informing contemporary accounts of gender identity. This is most obvious in the status of the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), the largest, most renowned Gender Identity Clinic in the UK. The Charing Cross GIC from 1994 has employed Money’s colleague, Dr. Richard Green as its Director of Research. This appointment came only seven years after Green published, The ‘Sissy Boy Syndrome’ and the Development of Homosexuality. Green is important not just because of his direct link to Money, but also because he was the sole colleague to publicly defend Money. Green claimed in a BBC interview that: 

“With the benefit of hindsight, based on what we knew at the time about how you become male or female or boy or girl, with the advantage of hindsight knowing the difficulties to say the least of creating a penis surgically, the decision that John Money made at the time was the correct one. And I would have made the same one at that time.”

What the failed Reimer experiment and subsequent ‘hindsight’ amounted to was a conclusion that gender identity is not simply socially constructed, but also innate. The dominant position within psychology is that sexual difference is mapped onto the brain. For over two decades a myriad of neurological research has emerged from the Western psychological establishment arguing that male and female brains are ‘differently wired’. This research has been heavily promoted in mainstream media, but equally heavily challenged by feminist authors like Cordelia Fine.

How did we get from there to here?

Gender identity, a construct created in the United States, has crossed the pond and gone global. American cultural imperialism is hardly a new phenomenon, but how exactly did gender identity come to appear on so many campuses in the United Kingdom within the last decade? The consensus around gender identity inside the humanities, emanating primarily from U.S campuses, has been established over the last three decades mainly by Queer Theorists who sought to outflank structuralist accounts of gender, that positioned gender as part of a wider system of social relations that maintain capitalist patriarchy. That systemic approach has been sidelined in favour of concepts like ‘performativity’ and gender as an essentialist quality emanating from ‘inside’ us, something that we are born with. 

The emergence of the idea of gender as essential and internal is not a new one. The regressive belief in male and female souls has existed for centuries, often expressed through notions of the sexed male or female brain. It is this notion that feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s addressed in her 1898 book Women and Economics, stating, ‘There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. May as well speak of a female liver’. Even Freud a century ago, wrote against the arguments of the sexologists, challenging the idea of a feminine or masculine brain in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905). 

Unfortunately, these ideas continue to dominate mainstream discourse. Gender as an element existing in the brain, or as an innate essence has been taken up and promoted by youth advocacy groups like Gendered Intelligence. For example, Gendered Intelligence organised events around the ‘Trans soul’ entitled The Corpse Project. It may seem surprising that today it is still necessary to dispute the concept of sexed brains or gendered souls, or to argue against dualist claims of the mind or brain as separate from the body, but we have in our arsenal as Marxists a key theoretical tradition, namely; historical materialism.

When Marx famously wrote in 1852, ‘Men [ed: and presumably women!] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ he pointed towards a wider understanding of how the already established social world determines us as subjects within it through social conditions. This is exactly complimentary with the materialist understanding that gender is ‘socially constructed’ – that gender as a system of social relations and norms is socially contouring, creating a web in which we sit and constituting us as gendered subjects (a Marxist understanding considers ‘ideology’ as the key method of this). We, as subjects, do not determine the world around us purely as individuals. 

If gender is the system of norms that underpin the social relations and sexual politics between men and women under capitalist patriarchy i.e women’s role within the home and the associated qualities of femininity, such as passivity, the suitability to the private world of the domestic sphere, coupled with the conception of men as embodying masculine traits, such as being outgoing and suited to the public world of work. We can see why it is so important for the existing social order to naturalise and reify these codes of behavior. Women’s subordination must be secured in order to sexually and socially reproduce our societies. Men’s domination must be established to help secure women’s subservience. 

The contemporary version of gender ideology with its reliance on femininity and masculinity (women’s subordination and men’s dominance) as inescapable points of reference to understand ourselves, and society, is simply a rearrangement of the building blocks required to accept patriarchy as it exists today. 

That men who identify with feminine dress or feminine beauty practices can be considered women only re-establishes the idea women are feminine. Women, as adult human females, have no natural predisposition towards ideological gender norms and radical politics should reject any imposition of the acceptance of femininity as anything other than a social construct designed to secure women’s subjugation. Similarly, masculinity, attributed to men, constructing men, underpins male domination as the natural order. 

When women reject femininity and submissiveness, instead seeking power for ourselves, or even engaging in traditionally male activities such as sports, we are sometimes called ‘men’ or ‘mannish’ — as if only men can dominate and structure their environments. Of course, within patriarchy, that is precisely the norm; but we are meant to think of it as natural, rather than merely normative. Gender is needed in order to maintain the social order of male domination and female subjugation.

The best that we, as Marxists can do, is to be truly gender non-conforming by rejecting ‘gender’ entirely.

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