Psychology and Gender

Amethysta
7 min readOct 13, 2022

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The most beautiful man (at least in his own eyes) - “Portrait of Louis XIV” by Hyacinthe Rigaud

Sorry About the Genetics Article

In the article “Genetics and Gender,” the title ties together the scientific study of genetics with the less obvious word gender. At the conclusion, however, I deferred discussion of gender to another article. I admit that there was a “clickbait-y” aspect to the title; I apologize for toying with your emotions like a house cat with a cricket. (That said, it could have been much worse — I could have made the subtitle “#3 will fill your pants as you quiver in semiconscious rapture.” You’re welcome.)

To summarize, the last article discussed how physical traits are passed from a parent organism to a child organism. Genetics is responsible for the biochemistry of an organism, the structure that it takes, and its continued operation and maintenance. These are extremely important aspects of an organism, and where scientists had focused their attention as the study of genetics was developed. Frankly, it made sense.

Sex in the Nuclear Age

As molecular biology ramped into a science all its own, the world was certainly different from what we see when we look around us today. It was the late 1940s and early 1950s. Humanity was still recovering from World War II, the global economy was expanding at a rapid pace, and science had taken center stage. After all, it was science that won the war: humans had split the atom, discovered how the Universe worked, and developed enormous bombs with this divine knowledge. Now humanity was turning its eyes to the heavens, building rockets, showcasing studious-looking men in white lab coats doing things the Average Joe would never understand.

It seemed natural to view the world as only science. Those studious-looking men had proved that humans could do anything, understand anything, control everything. The human organism was shown to be a bag of chemicals that — given enough time and grant money — could be mapped out and rebuilt into a Space-Age dream, complete with robotic arms and legs to help carry the groceries.

To be fair, this was also the time of the Pet Rock and the Slinky. Humanity and science — despite the exhortations — could still be fallible. It turned out that people existed who did not fall neatly into the definition of sex that genetics provided. The two clean and clear bins of XX and XY chromosomes could not explain what came to be called intersex characteristics[1] — physical traits presenting in a body from one bin that (according to genetics) should be found in the opposite bin. What was more troubling to science were people with more subtle traits, who (according to genetics) were supposed to belong in one bin but clearly did not act or feel as if they did.

Some Etymology

I want to return to a point I hinted at in the last article, namely, the etymology of the word gender. The word is believed to derive from a proto-Indo-European root *gene-[2], by far predating Latin and French words from the 14th century[3]. Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is believed to be a source for many human languages. There are word roots that appear common to languages as seemingly disparate as Hindi, Russian, and Irish Gaelic. It is believed that PIE developed into languages that span across Asia and Europe and influenced a staggering number of humans from prehistory to today.

As such, finding a root in PIE indicates an ancient concept, thought that would be found in human civilizations from the Late Neolithic Period to the Bronze Age. To reiterate, gender is believed to to derive from a proto-Indo-European root *gene-, which referred to procreation and familial or tribal identity.

This is a vital point to understand. Much of the criticism regarding the transgender experience centers around using the words sex and gender to represent identical concepts[4]. Let me restate that: the criticism of the transgender experience largely centers on the concept sex, which refers to the genetic state of an organism and its physical structure, as logically identical to the concept gender, which refers to the identity of the organism as part of a family or tribe.

To be clear, both concepts are real. Both concepts are true. Both concepts describe aspects of a human. But the two concepts are distinct from each other. Sex is real; gender is real; sex is not the same as gender. I believe that this misunderstanding stems from a common assumption today that all human characteristics may be described by science — that a studious-looking man in a lab coat can pull everything about a human out of a test tube. I go on record now to state that I disagree.

Gender as a Psychological Concept

It looks impressive to pull out etymology to make a point, but has the concept of gender as identity ever truly been expressed in scientific literature? Yes, by a psychologist named John Money as early as 1952[5]. Now, say what you will about Money — and he seems to have gone off the deep end toward the end of his turbulent life — it was important to break from a biological definition of sex to explore the idea that genetics and identity do not always match. There is a good article detailing the history of Money and his legacy by Paul John Poles; I refer you there rather than attempt to summarize.

Money found that it was possible for a person’s sense of identity to vary from the bodily structure that genetics predicts. That is, people with XY chromosomes could view themselves as women, feel like women, want to be referred to as women. This observation represented the first distinction of gender identity from biological sex, establishing gender as a psychological concept, not a biological concept.

The distinction between biological structure and psychological identity seems obvious. I am not my body alone; I am a composite of body and — for lack of a better term — soul. There is a fuzzy philosophical line regarding mind and whether my identity would change if I lose a leg that I don’t want to cross in this article, but the point is that two sets of words are necessary to describe the two sets of concepts.

I will address intersex characteristics and nonbinary gender identity at a later date, so please take the following as a simplification. Humans who possess XX chromosomes are labeled “genetically female.” Humans who possess XY chromosomes are labeled “genetically male.” Humans who express their identity with masculinity are labeled “men.” Humans who express their identity with femininity are labeled “women.”

The majority of genetically male humans express identity with masculinity. The majority of genetically female humans express identity with femininity. Some genetically male humans express identity with femininity. Some genetically female humans express identity with masculinity. The latter two types of humans are labeled “transgender.” Yes, it really is as simple as that.

Gender Roles

If gender is a psychological concept, where does identity come from? I think the best answer lies in the PIE root — it establishes membership in a group, a tribe. Where do the groups come from? From the tribes themselves. That is, gender and their roles are built by the society around them, accepted (or not) by the society around them.

I believe (and I have no hard evidence for this other than historical fiction) that before humans had built machines that reduced muscle labor and divided that labor across long distances, the roles people played in a society were based on utility. If you really understood metal and metalworking, you were the town blacksmith. If you really understood baking and the properties of food, you were the town baker. On the other hand, if you were strong and able to swing a big sword, you were a warrior.

In times of war, tribes did not take the blacksmith to fight — somebody needed to be able to fix the broken swords that night. Tribes did not take the baker to fight — somebody needed to make bread to feed the warriors. Tribes took the wise women and healers, but those people certainly were not given swords — they were necessary to make sure warriors stayed alive.

Today, there is greater luxury of time and wealth, and gender roles have grown up around fashion, jobs that people choose and train for, and some timeworn notions around procreation. But they are within the context of the society. In the Western world, for instance, it is obvious that the height of femininity entails a powdered face, ruby lips, beautiful stockings, and high heels. But we need not go far back in history to observe those “feminine” presentations as the height of masculinity.

Genders and their roles are, at base, social constructs. What a society believes a woman should look like, sound like, and do is what defines “woman” in that society. That definition can and does change over time and by location. A woman in the United States is not the same as a woman in other parts of the world.

Biological Evidence of Gender

It is worth asking at this point whether any physical evidence exists that could tie genetics, biochemistry, and physical structure to the psychological concept of gender. The quick answer is “kinda.” I intend to explore this idea further in a separate article about changes in cognition that result from biochemistry, particularly the balance of hormones created by the primary sex organs.

But before I close, I will mention a study[6] that appears to link the structure of the brain to gender. The research group studied MRI images of men, women, and transgender individuals. Briefly, the results indicated that there are structural differences in the brain between men and women. Interestingly, transgender brains matched the structure of their preferred gender. Transgender women (genetically male) had structures similar to genetically female women. Transgender men (genetically female) showed structure similar to genetically male men. Is this incontrovertible evidence for a scientific basis for gender — and therefore transgender — that can put the debate to rest? I believe the answer is more complicated than that, but I will again defer that discussion to another article.

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Amethysta

I no longer publish on Medium - please go to https://amethysta.io to follow me on social media. Then go to https://genderidentitytoday.com to read my work!