Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Gender + Biology

It’s more complex than the binary suggests

For many people, high school is where their study of human biology ends. Typically, you learn the basics around development and humans are described as falling within two primary categories: male and female.

When you have a trans kid, though, one of the first things you understand is the binary is inadequate, even for yourself most often.

Many anti-trans people will tell you that trans people are simply aberrations, “mistakes” that occur outside the norm (though they often use far less generous language).

In reality, that is not true. Biology is much more complex than a secondary-education understanding of human development allows for.

Julia Serano, a trans geneticist and biologist, explains how exceptional gender expressions — those that fall outside the majority experience of gender expression aligning with sex assigned at birth — exist in nearly every culture and in numbers that suggest they can’t be the result of biological errors or defects.

She tells us in her book Whipping Girl:

“However, exceptional gender expressions, subconscious sexes, and sexual orientations all occur at frequencies that are several orders of magnitude higher than one would expect if they represented genetic ‘mistakes.’”

If Not Biology, Then What?

Serano again sheds light on how exceptional gender expressions occur, and believes they can’t be explained by either biological essentialist arguments or only socialization.

In other words, exceptional gender expressions, as one example, are neither all biology nor all social construct.

Instead, the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum (as does sex) is the predominant thinking. Serano, again in Whipping Girl, describes how many more people would likely move across gender expressions more freely and easily, and the very real variation that exists amongst human beings would be more apparent:

“Acknowledging this variation is absolutely crucial in order for us to finally move beyond overly simplistic (and binary) biology-versus-socialization debates regarding gender. After all, there are very real biological differences between hormones: Testosterone will probably make any given person cry less frequently and have a higher sex drive than estrogen will. However, if one were to argue that this biological difference represents an essential gender difference — one that holds true for all women and all men — they would be incorrect. After all, there are some men who cry more than certain women, and some women who have higher sex drives than certain men. Perhaps what is most telling is that, as a society, we regulate these hormonally influenced behaviors in a way that seems to exaggerate their natural effects. We actively discourage boys from crying, even though testosterone itself should reduce the chance.”

When you’re not a biologist or geneticist, confronting people who insist sex is binary (especially when that is your experience because your gender expression largely confirms your assigned sex at birth!) is difficult.

Most often, I’ve found there is very little you can say to people who are firmly committed to the fact that sex and gender are binary. But you can invite them (and do the work yourself) to think more broadly.

Additional Resources:

Julia Serano’s “Transgender People and ‘Biological Sex’ Myths.”

Sex Redefined,” an essay in the scientific journal Nature that discusses how biologists are starting to understand sex exists on a wider spectrum than previously believed.

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