How science is helping us understand gender

Freed from the binary of boy and girl, gender identity is a shifting landscape. Can science help us navigate?

She has always felt more boyish than girlish.

From an early age, E, as she prefers to be called for this story, hated wearing dresses, liked basketball, skateboarding, video games. When we met in May in New York City at an end-of-the-year show for her high school speech team, E was wearing a tailored Brooks Brothers suit and a bow tie from her vast collection. With supershort red hair, a creamy complexion, and delicate features, the 14-year-old looked like a formally dressed, earthbound Peter Pan.

Later that evening E searched for the right label for her gender identity. “Transgender” didn’t quite fit, she told me. For one thing she was still using her birth name and still preferred being referred to as “she.” And while other trans kids often talk about how they’ve always known they were born in the “wrong” body, she said, “I just think I need to make alterations in the body I have, to make it feel like the body I need it to be.” By which she meant a body that doesn’t menstruate and has no breasts, with more defined facial contours and “a ginger beard.” Does that make E a trans guy? A girl who is, as she put it, “insanely androgynous”? Or just someone who rejects the trappings of traditional gender roles altogether?

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