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Science & Environment

'National Geographic' Tackles Changing Gender Norms Worldwide


The latest National Geographic magazine tackles one subject in depth. The issue is called The Gender Revolution. True to the magazine's form, it explores what cultures around the world think about being male, female or something in between and what science has to say about it. The journalist Robin Marantz Henig wrote one of these articles called "Rethinking Gender." Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: So the issue was about the gender revolution. And I think some listeners might be asking, what gender revolution?

HENIG: (Laughter) Well, don't you get a feeling that we are aware of it kind of? I mean, there's suddenly headlines everywhere about, you know, Caitlyn Jenner coming out as transgender, about bathroom issues. We're reading much more than we did even five years ago about transgender rights and all sorts of things about being a non-binary gender identity.

SHAPIRO: I want to get into that word non-binary because your article explores specifically whether gender is categorical - you're male, or you're female - or whether gender is a spectrum with points in between male and female. Is the answer to that question a cultural answer or a scientific answer?

HENIG: (Laughter) Well, it's a little bit of both because it's more complicated than just feeling like a male when you're identified at birth as a female. There's a lot of people who somehow identify at different points along that spectrum. And it's not one identity or the other.

SHAPIRO: Right. So I think many people are familiar with, for example, Caitlyn Jenner, who publicly said, I was born with the anatomy of a male, but I have always felt myself to be female. But what you're exploring here is something in between there, not - I was born with this biology, but I feel myself to be a different gender. Can you give us an example of what non-binary gender identity looks like?

HENIG: The teenager who I follow all the way through is somebody I call E, who was identified at birth as a girl and was still calling herself female and using female pronouns when I met her when she was 14. And over the course of just a few months, she managed to transform what was feeling right. You know, when I first met her, she still pictured herself as an adult with a beard and who didn't menstruate and who didn't have breasts and who looked kind of like a guy. And she looked like a guy but a childish kind of guy.

By the time I was finished talking to E, it turned out that E was now using the pronoun they. And they were pretty sure that they were going to start taking testosterone and actually continue a transition into a male, even though, when I first met E, they were feeling like male wasn't exactly right, either.

SHAPIRO: You do write about cultures where people who are neither male nor female have long been accepted. Generally, it's not a huge spectrum that is accepted but a specific category that is neither male nor female. Can you give me one example?

HENIG: Right. Well, I went out to Samoa, where there is this third gender category known as fa'afafine. These are people who are born with male anatomy. And yet pretty early on, generally, they are identified as something that's not really exactly male or exactly female. And so they're allowed this third gender where they grow up to continue to have their male anatomy. And yet they behave socially, culturally and sexually as females. It's this interesting intermediate category that does seem to exist in pockets around the world.

SHAPIRO: What did you learn about the scientific basis for understanding gender as a spectrum?

HENIG: That was tricky. They don't actually know why it is that some people end up having a gender identity that doesn't conform with their physiology and their anatomy or their chromosomes.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine somebody listening to this conversation saying, oh, that's just somebody's whims, their feelings on any given day. They don't actually have any biological, scientific difference. They just are impetuous and impulsive and decide one day they want to be a boy and one day they want to be a girl. Having spent so much time with people who don't identify strictly as one gender or the other, did you have that sense at all?

HENIG: Well, I did talk to some people who had that criticism and who thought that if you didn't sort of allow children who say, I feel like a girl - if you didn't like them to live like a girl, they would turn out to just be boys who were variant in their gender expression. But there are also people who are very careful about who they say really is gender variant in one way or another.

And these are people who are consistent and persistent and insistent - those are the three words they use - in saying that, yes, I really am not the gender you have identified me as. I mean, this is a really essential part of who they are. And if you fight them, you'll end up with a great deal of damage to that child.

SHAPIRO: Robin Marantz Henig, thanks so much.

HENIG: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Robin Marantz Henig wrote the article "Rethinking Gender" for the special issue of National Geographic that explores the gender revolution.