"There’s a very broad spectrum"

10/Dec/2015

The fact that we insist on unambiguity in matters of gender is the result of historical conditioning, says the gender researcher Andrea Maihofer. But these fixed norms are starting to become more fluid. By Susanne Wenger

(From "Horizons" no. 107, December 2015) ​​​

​Professor Maihofer, one of the first questions we ask when a child is born is: ‘Is it a boy or girl?’ Why do we want to know this straightaway?

Andrea Maihofer: Because our society is still organised along the lines of a heterosexual, gender dualism. Every individual that is born has to be identified immediately as either male or female, even if it’s not so clear – as in the case of some intersexual children. Right from the start, we treat kids so that they are given a gender identity that is as clear-cut as possible, one that is easily recognisable by others. If we meet someone we can’t pigeon-hole easily as a man or a woman, it bothers us.

What’s your explanation for that?

The reasons are cultural. Bourgeois society developed the notion of a natural, hierarchically structured, heterosexual gender duality with clear differences between
women and men. But societies have also existed that were less binary in their orientation. In the 15th and 16th centuries, not so many gender differences were made when dressing small children from the upper classes. Girls and boys were dressed similarly and adopted similar physical postures. You can find a lot of pictures in museums to prove this.

Gender is regarded as a natural characteristic. What’s your opinion on this as a gender researcher?

It wasn’t so long ago that women were judged to be incapable of coping with a university education. It was said that their very nature made them unable to think rationally, and that they were too emotional for careers as doctors, judges or suchlike.
Today, women often get better academic results than men and there are more and
more female doctors and judges. This clearly refutes any claim that ‘nature’ makes
all this impossible. Nevertheless, people keep on claiming that there’s a natural difference between the genders. Gender research tries to demonstrate that this
mind-set is being constantly recreated, and that it has an impact on the socialisation
of individuals. Just look at children’s advertising, where girls and boys are addressed
in an extremely different manner. This all contributes to the perpetuation of a binary
gender system. It’s a complex circle.

Ethics commissions advise us not to operate on children whose gender is unclear. Transgender lobby groups are fighting for their rights. In the media, we see artists who have chosen their own gender identities. How does all this fit in, do you think?

In historical terms we are living at a time when more and more people are refusing
to live out the heterosexual gender dualism that has been dictated to them. It corresponds neither to their actual bodies, nor to their attitude to life nor to their sexual self-understanding. We are dealing with an increasing plurality in our modes of existence with regard to gender and sexuality. There are transgender people who want to live unambiguously, but not in the gender into which they were born. There are people who withdraw from any such unambiguity. And there are others who want to stage a very stereotypical masculinity or femininity. Today, there’s a very broad spectrum.

Is society ready to accept this development?

I think it’s important that society creates a situation that allows people to live out this plurality without discrimination. Operations on intersexual children are rightly regarded as an abuse of their human rights today. In Germany, people who wish to change their official gender are no longer required to be operated on or to take hormones. They do have to produce references proving that they will only be able to
live out their real gender if they are allowed to change it. But they don’t have to alter
their physical body at all. That’s a huge difference from how things used to be.

Susanne Wenger is a freelance journalist based in Bern.