What do you know about gender?

If you asked me this question a year ago I would have replied “Not much”. I was brought up in a binary world. Boys were boys and girls were girls. Of course, I was aware of men who wanted to be women and women who lived their lives as men. Each to his or her own, I thought.

So I was pleased to see National Geographic devote its January 2017 edition to the Gender Revolution. I recommend it to your reading but here are the takeaway points for me.

We are taught that XX means it’s a girl and XY means it’s a boy, however, today we know that nature is not always clear-cut in the determination of gender. There are many instances of XX individuals (people with female chromosomes) who are mostly male in anatomy, physiology and psychology and vice versa.

Each embryo begins with a pair of primitive organs or proto-gonads, that develop into either male or female gonads at about six to eight weeks.

Sex differentiation is usually triggered or “switched on” by a gene on the Y chromosome called the SRY gene that turns the proto-gonads into testes. The testes secrete male hormones including testosterone and the foetus develops a prostrate, scrotum and a penis.

Without the SRY gene, the proto-gonads become ovaries and secrete estrogen and the foetus develops a uterus, vagina and clitoris.

But sometimes this “switch” is not present or it is defective resulting in an XY (male) embryo that fails to develop male anatomy and is born a girl.

Or it is found on the X chromosome and an XX (female) embryo develops male anatomy and is identified as a boy at birth.

Then we have Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS), in which an XY (male) embryo responds minimally to male hormones. The proto-gonad may become testes, but male sex organs do not develop and the baby is identified as a girl because it has developed a vagina and clitoris.

With XY chromosomes and male testes in her abdomen is a CAIS baby a girl or a boy?

The NG piece includes the moving story of Georgiann Davis, 35, born with CAIS. Her parents did not tell her about her XY status which was identified when she was 13. At 17, she had surgery to remove her testes but she was told she needed the operation to deal with pre-cancerous ovaries.

Davis discovered her CAIS status at age 20 when searching through her medical records. It dawned on her that her parents preferred to lie to her about her having cancer rather than tell her the truth about her XY status!

Think about the guevedoce children of the Dominican Republic.

At about eight weeks, an enzyme in male embryos converts testosterone into the potent hormone DHT.

When DHT is present the structure called the tubercle grows into a penis, but when there is no DHT present, it grows into a clitoris. The guevedoce children lack the enzyme that produces DHT, so they are XY (male) babies born and raised as girls. Until……

When these children reach puberty, normally at age 12, their bodies produce a high level of testosterone and almost overnight, girls become boys. Their voices deepen, muscles grow and facial and body hair sprouts. Their clitoris grows into a penis.

Guevedoce means “penis at 12”. These children are identified at birth. They are raised as girls even though their families know they will become boys. At puberty their community has specific rituals to mark their passage into malehood.

There is still much work to be done by scientists but current research is focussed on what occurs within the womb.

Some believe it is a timing issue. The sexual differentiation of the genitals occurs in the first two months. However, the sexual differentiation of the brain occurs in the second half of the pregnancy.

Different hormones regulate each stage. Scientists are hopeful of identifying the factors that may cause a foetus with genitals of one gender to identify with the other gender.

It is not a binary world and for centuries many non-Western cultures have recognised, and in certain communities, embraced a third gender in their culture. In South Asia it is called hijra, in Nigeria, yan daudu, in Mexico, muxe, Samoa, fa’afafine, in Thailand, kathoey, in Tonga, fakaleiti, in Hawaii, mahu and in Albania, burrnesha.

Native Americans recognise those with “two spirits

Some terminology.

Agender is a person who does not identify with either gender identity.

Cisgender (pronounced sis-gender) describes a person whose gender matches their biological sex.

Genderfluid is someone whose gender identity shifts between masculine and feminine or something in between.

Intersex is a person whose gender cannot easily be categorised as either male or female. Previously called hermaphrodites, however this term is now viewed as offensive.

Queer is an umbrella term for a range of people who are neither heterosexual and/or cisgender. Previously thought to be an offensive term but now embraced by many. Queer is the Q in LGBTQ although it can sometimes also refer to Questioning individuals.

Transgender describes a person whose gender does not match their biological sex.

Transsexual is an older term to describe a transgender person who has engaged in interventions so that their gender identity is more aligned with their body. Not used that often today as “transgender” or “trans” has become the preferred term.

We trust that science will help us navigate these somewhat complex waters.

The learning on this issue highlights the bigotry and ignorance displayed by the likes of Margaret Court. A Christian pastor whose vilification of the trans community reveals more about her narrow-mindedness, than the people she seeks to subdue.

Gender is very much a lottery of chromosomes (X’s and Y’s), anatomy (internal sexual organs and external genitals), hormones, psychology and culture.

Our trans brothers and sisters already have several challenges to overcome in our unthinking society. It is therefore disappointing that a former sporting great chooses to use her celebrity to push such twisted thinking in the name of Christ. Has she forgotten that Christ championed the cause of the shunned and downtrodden?

Let’s NOT change the name of Margaret Court arena. Let’s leave it as is, so that every time we look upon it we are reminded that small-minded people with small-minded ideas can cause significant damage and division.

Let it remind us of the need to show kindness and compassion to each other. We need to be better than the bigots.

Let it remind us that there is strength in diversity. Let us not be afraid of difference.

Let it remind us that LGBTQ young people are six times more likely to take their own lives compared to other young people largely because of the lack of acceptance and bullying they experience in their community. Think about that!

Let it remind us of the many colours, tones and weaves within this tapestry we call humanity and let us not forget it is a beautiful tapestry.