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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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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):
- 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