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The Scientific Problem With Sex Dichotomies
Recently, I wrote a piece on Mike Ensley’s take on gender fluidity. He responded in his personal blog with an article entitled What do I know about gender? In the article he states:
…I can see how in a different circumstance (different city, family, influences) I might have gone down the road of transgenderism. A lot of people have backgrounds similar to mine, but didn’t end up struggling with same-sex attractions like I have. We’re all different and broken in different ways–but we can still understand one another.
Furthermore, transgenderism represents to me one of the biggest loopholes in the new sexual ethic of our society. We’re told gays can’t and/or shouldn’t change because people are supposedly born gay, but then the T segment of the LGBT community is encouraged to do everything–therapy, drugs, surgery–to change the way they truly were born.
Anywho; I could get into the whole why-I-believe-in-male-and-female thing, but that’s a whole new post.
The piece as a whole is an outpouring of how he believes he could of ended up transgender — it reads as anotherArgument from Spurious Similarity. But beyond that, he seems to indicate a belief in sex dichotomy determined by biological forces.
Ensley’s faith in a two-sex dichotomy is shared with other religious conservatives. As a recent example, Sonja Dalton on the Americans For Truth about Homosexuals website responded to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Shaking up transgender assumptions with her piece Shaking Up Gender Assumptions — Destroying Teenagers.
Dalton makes a statement in her short commentary that appears to verify what appears to be her conservative Christian model — there is only one way to be female and one way to be male:
“Real women” have two X chromosomes, and they do not have a male sex organ.
My personal goals don’t include tearing down male and female social constructs. Being a transsexual, I put faith in the differences of gender — I buy into the female construct because I identify as female.
However, I can believe — and should believe based on the evidence — that there more ways to be biologically sexed than XX - male and XY - female. Eric Vilain, (Ph.D., chief of medical genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA) seems to agree in a piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times:
Sex should be easily definable, but it’s not. Our gender identity our profound sense of being male or female is independent from our anatomy.
When thinking about the belief systems of religious conservatives like Ensley and Dalton, we need to ask what exactly makes a man a man and a woman a woman. Is it genitalia? Is it genetics? Or can it be arbitrary — is a person’s sex what the gender marker says it is on a person’s birth certificate? The vast majority of people fit into the standard biological dichotomy of male and female, but defining all people as either biologically male or female is equivalent to saying all people are heterosexual. While it’s true that the vast majority of people are heterosexual, it’s not true that all are heterosexual.
Dr. Vilain, in the previously referenced Los Angeles Times article, gives a history of the difficultly one can experience trying to rigidly define male and female based on biology:
Let’s take testicles as a defining characteristic of a man. Are individuals with only one testis “real” men? The “two-testicles rule” would disqualify about 3% of male newborns a year about 4.5 million Americans total……If conventional wisdom cannot easily define men and women by just a simple look at the private parts, science should help us distinguish between the sexes. Since 1921, we have known that women have two X chromosomes and men an X and a Y chromosome. This is the fundamental genetic distinction between men and women.
But still, it’s been difficult to find clear-cut answers. Olympic Games officials have struggled with the science of “sexing” individuals for many years often after high-profile cases of gender confusion. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, U.S. runner Helen Stephens beat Polish runner Stella Walsh in the 100-meter sprint, winning a gold medal and breaking Walsh’s 1932 record. The Polish press falsely accused Stephens of being a man. Ironically, after Walsh was killed during a 1980 robbery, her autopsy revealed male genitals. Decades later, Erica Schinegger, who won the women’s downhill skiing world title for Austria in 1966, was two years later found to be chromosomally male and, as such, disqualified for the Olympics. Her case forced the International Olympic Committee to require all athletes to take a test counting the number of X chromosomes.
In 1990, scientists learned that a gene called SRY on the Y chromosome is what makes fetuses become boys and not girls. In 1992, the Olympic test was perfected to detect the presence of the SRY gene.
But even that was insufficient. Any genetics expert knows that there are exceptions to the chromosome rules. There are females with a Y chromosome; there are males with no SRY gene. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the IOC decided to “refrain from performing gender tests,” conceding that no single test provided a complete answer.
Obviously, not all of us are either “classically” male or female either by either genetics or genitalia shape. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births are of intersex people. As a comparison, the earliest per capita estimate of transsexuals in the general population was that 1 in 37,000 natal males and 1 in 107,000 natal females. The most recent World Professional Association For Transgender Health (WPATH) per capita estimation of transsexuals was from the Netherlands: 1 in 11,900 natal males (male-to-female transsexuals) and 1 in 30,400 natal females (female-to-male transsexuals).
But what is intersex? The Intersex Society of North America addresses what being intersex means:
Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation. To better explain this, we can liken the sex spectrum to the color spectrum. There’s no question that in nature there are different wavelengths that translate into colors most of us see as red, blue, orange, yellow. But the decision to distinguish, say, between orange and red-orange is made only when we need it—like when we’re asking for a particular paint color.
Sometimes social necessity leads us to make color distinctions that otherwise would seem incorrect or irrational, as, for instance, when we call certain people “black” or “white” when they’re not especially black or white as we would otherwise use the terms.In the same way, nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums. Breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, gonads—all of these vary in size and shape and morphology. So-called “sex” chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.
So nature doesn’t decide where the category of “male” ends and the category of “intersex” begins, or where the category of “intersex” ends and the category of “female” begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex. Humans decide whether a person with XXY chromosomes or XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity will count as intersex.
There are many types of intersex conditions. Throughout history, the sex of children was determined by the shape of their genitalia, and the term “hermaphrodite” (now considered a stigmatizing term by most intersexed people) was used to describe people with ambiguous genitalia. With the study of genetics, we now understand many intersex conditions have genetic components. And, along with this scientific understanding and the slow fading of taboos, intersexuals have begun to advocate for systemic changes — changes to end the secrecy around intersex conditions, and work for ending the unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.
I’ve had ongoing email communications with two intersexuals who have MosaicTurnerSyndrome. Intersex people with mosaic genetic patterns may have cells that have XX chromosomes and others that have XY chromosomes –or have cell patterns such as XO/XX, XX/XY, XXX/XX, XO/XX/XXX and XY/XO.
And, though I haven’t talked to anyone with KlinefelterSyndrome, there are people that have chromosomal patterns of XYY, XXX, XXXY, XXYY, XXXXY and XXXYY.
So, going back to gender identity as defined by Dalton, how would one determine the God-given gender identity of people who don’t fit into the XX and XY sex dichotomy — such as those with Turner’s or Klinefelter’s syndrome?
Whereas transsexuals are perhaps an esoteric indication mind and body don’t always match, intersexuals are a tangible indication bodies don’t always align with the classic, dichotomized sex schema.
What we’re left with when sex and gender isn’t easily determined is arbitrary determinations. This isn’t something religious conservatives who embrace rigid sex and gender roles acknowledge. As an example of how an arbitrarily sex can be assigned, Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell’s spokesperson (Tucker Martin), during debate of the recently approved marriage initiative in Virginia, discussed infant sexing and sex markers on birth certificates with the Daily Press:
Whatever sex is recorded on a child’s birth certificate is that person’s legal sex for the rest of his or her life, under state law, Martin said.
If the sex is ambiguous or indeterminate, the parents - in consultation with the doctor - decides what sex is recorded on the birth certificate. “The state has no say there,” Martin said.
What we read of what Ensley and Dalton have to say on the subject of sex and gender leaves unanswered the question of what they believe the God-given sex or identity of intersexuals are. If one is going to evaluate sex and gender from a Christian perspective, perhaps what they should be considering is Christ’s statement in Matthew 19:12:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
As a transgender person, I have wondered about sex and gender in relationship to God. If God created intersexuals that aren’t physically or chromosomally male or female in the traditional sense, could he have also created individuals whose brains are cross-gender identified from their bodies? I tend to think so.
But, I wouldn’t call that scientificly and scripturally-based opinion of mine gospel. It’s not an opinion that others should readily embrace just because I embrace it. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a theologian — what I am though is well-read enough on the subject to drawn a reasonable conclusion for myself, based on currently available information.
I do know that from a scientific perspective; however, believing in a rigid sex and gender dichotomy is illogical. All one needs to do is look at the scientific documentation — observations of genitalia and sex genes — to know belief in a rigid sex and gender dichotomy isn’t tenable. Intersexuals are rare; per capita they are perhaps significantly more rare than gays and lesbians, but perhaps less significantly rare than transsexuals — but intersexuals are tangible people in the real world. One can’t deny or ignore the existance of intersexuals when forming belief systems on sex and gender.
Frankly, I’m looking forward to reading what Ensley may say in the future about “the whole why-I-believe-in-male-and-female thing” — I’m wondering how he’s going to incorporate intersexuals and the scriptural references to eunuchs into his belief system.
Here’s some thoughts for Ensley and others: Historically, the Catholic Church had teaching on intersexuals indicating that those with two sets of fully functional genitalia could have relations with either sex, but those with less than fully functioning genitalia were required to be celibate.* Is this the current view of Ensley and his peers? Or, does Ensley’s belief in the “male-and-female thing” mean intersexuals should just go with their personally selected or arbitrarily determined gender identity when picking their opposite sex sexual partners? Or, does he just believe all intersexuals should just remain celibate because God didn’t give them clearly defined male or female sex physicality or the standard genetic XX or XY structures?
And beyond intersexuals themselves would be broader questions for Ensley and Dalton (and perhaps others in ex-gay or ex-gay affirming organizations): Are intersexuals the only exceptions to God’s standard sex and gender schema — the Ensley “male-and-female thing”? Could God also embrace that the gender identities of transsexuals aren’t sinful? Could God also embrace that the same-sex relationships of gays and lesbians aren’t sinful?
Who gets to define for the body of Christ God’s sex and gender schema and its exceptions, and the rules associated with the sex and gender schema and its exceptions? Coral Ridge Ministries? Exodus International? Focus On The Family? NARTH? Americans For Truth About Homosexuality?
These questions would all seem to me to be interesting questions for all LGBTQI and ex-gay Christians.
*John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Appendix Two) has a translation of Peter Cantor’s De vitio sodomitico — or On Sodomy (d. 1192 AD). Here’s the excerpt on hermaphrodites (or as we’d call them now, intersexuals):
The Lord formed man from the slime of the earth on the plan of Damascus, later fashioning woman from his rib in Eden. Thus in considering the formation of woman, lest any should believe they would be hermaphrodites, he stated, “Male and female created he them,” as if to say, “There will not be intercourse of men with men or women with women, but only of men with women and vice versa.” For this reason the church allows a hermaphrodite — that is, someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions — to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused or the one which (s)he is more susceptible.
If (s)he is more active [literally, “lustful], (s)he may wed as a man, but if (s)he is more passive, (s)he may marry as a woman. If; however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God.
- Genetics for Theologians, Roberta M. Meehan, Ph.D.
- Gender Blender: Intersexual? Transsexual? Male, female aren’t so easy to define by Eric Vilain, Ph.D.
- Who defines ‘man’ and ‘woman’? by John M.R. Bull