What is biological sex? What is gender?

Stop shaming transgender kids

Yes, to many people this sounds like a ridiculous question. In 1990 when Arnold Schwarzenegger played “Kindergarten cop”, he was famously told by a five year old that “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina”. Duh, Arnold. 

People who understand what a karyotype is will go a step further and say that it’s related to your X and Y chromosomes. 

And when Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked by Senator Marsha Blackburn to “provide a definition for the word ‘woman’”, and she answered “I’m not a biologist”, everyone thought “What a stupid answer”. 

Coming to terms with something new is hard!

Even as late as a year ago, I admit that I did not understand the gravity of a person being transgender. I always felt that gender was a made up social construct (which most people agree that, by and large, it is) so I have always encouraged my kids to just be themselves. If that meant that my boy wanted to wear dresses to express his true style, I was not about to tell him not to do that (not that I wouldn’t be fearful for him if that were the case). I started to ask “Why can’t we just identify by our sex organs? It’s so much more clear and clinical…’Person with vagina or person with penis’”. Past that, who cares what you do?

What started to change my mind about this was a group chat on Facebook messenger that included some moms whom I had never met before…moms who actually have trans children in their family. They quickly put me into my place explaining that “Gender is a Spectrum” and “their insides don’t match their outsides and that can be very upsetting for them”. I still didn’t get it, because this is not a mindset that shifts easily, but it planted a seed and I wanted to know more. Especially since they were living it with their kids, the last thing I wanted to be was disrespectful of someone else’s reality. Then someone shared a Twitter thread from a scientist that Blew. My. Mind. This science was solid and demonstrated how real it is.

Was my mind totally wrapped around it at this point? 

Not exactly. There are varying degrees and conditions even within the condition of gender nonconformity, and some are far easier to grasp than others. 

For example, gender fluidity could include a girl being a tomboy, enjoying playing sports and wearing athletic gear, and we don’t think to ourselves “what a weirdo”. A boy wanting to wear a dress is definitely more unusual, but not nearly as strange for us as “I don’t want a penis anymore and I never did, and I’d rather die than have to live life in a boy’s body”.

That’s as hard to understand as someone being bipolar or schizophrenic…so usually we start trying to categorize it as a mental health disorder, or body dismorphic disorder, etc… which it is not, but it’s at least a start down the road toward acceptance and most importantly, you are attempting to acknowledge their feelings. Even if you still don’t fully get it, when a person feels validated, it helps them to feel better about themselves and their situation.

More Science!

Then came another blog, this time by a queer scientist, and it all kind of fell into place for me. I did some more reading and everything suddenly made sense. I have prepared some graphics for you based on what I’ve learned and I hope they help. Here are some of the highlights:

  • While gender may seem like a binary condition (either female or male, nothing else), it is actually a bimodal spectrum, where the majority of people are either female or male, with a small percentage of people falling somewhere in between.
  • There are at least ten biological factors that contribute to a person’s biological sex, including: genetics (chromosomes, specific genes, mutations, gene expression levels); hormone expression; hormone receptor sensitivity; brain structure; internal and external genitalia; skeletal structure; and more…
  • A person’s karyotype reveals how many chromosomes they have and what their sizes are. Most humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. 
  • There are various chromosomal disorders that can lead to a person having more or less than 46 chromosomes. Some of those disorders are incompatible with life; many are not. Some of those disorders have obvious external symptoms from birth; many do not.
  • The SRY gene is the primary gene involved with male biological sex and is normally located on the Y chromosome; however, it does have the ability to translocate (“jump”) from the Y to the X chromosome. SRY mutations can also occur. Both events lead to biological sex disorders in which a person is born with female sex organs even though their karyotype will reveal an X and a Y chromosome.
  • Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome occurs when testosterone receptors are incapable of binding testosterone as they need to in order for a person with XY chromosomes to fully develop as a male. This is another instance in which a person is born with female sex organs in spite of having a karyotype indicating an X and a Y chromosome.
  • MRI scans have shown that the brain structure of trans boys and trans girls more closely align with the gender with which they identify, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth.

Stop attacking Gender Affirmative Practices…They are Literally Saving Lives

If you still don’t believe us…well, you don’t have to. Lots of people also don’t believe in evolution, vaccines, and COVID (this doesn’t make them right, it just makes them clinging to scientifically invalid opinions). What you DO need to do is stop calling parents, educators, and medical professionals evil “groomers” when they support or administer gender-affirmative practices

“Gender-affirmative practices recognize and support an individual’s unique gender self-identification and expression. Gender-affirmative practices have been adopted by medical/mental health practitioners in response to research showing that clinical practices that force individuals to accept a certain gender identity can cause psychological harm.[38] 

In 2015, the American Psychological Association published gender-affirmative practice guidelines for clinicians working with transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Preliminary research on youth who receive gender-affirming treatments has shown primarily positive outcomes[39] and support from their parents have better mental health outcomes than their peers who do not. [40] 

Gender-affirmative practices emphasize gender health: an individual’s ability to identify as and express the gender(s) that feels most comfortable without fear of rejection.[41] Gender-affirmative practices are informed by the following premises:[41]

  1. gender variance is not a psychological disorder or mental illness
  2. gender expressions vary across cultures
  3. gender expressions are diverse and may not be binary
  4. gender development is affected by biological, developmental, and cultural factors
  5. if pathology occurs (ie mental health disorders), it is more often from cultural reactions rather than from within the individual

Bottom Line 

Remember that the transgender people who you are yelling about are just that…PEOPLE. Let them live their life as they want and let their PARENTS parent them as they see fit. And if you don’t want your children to be around them…then we suggest you keep your children home. 

Because It is not the responsibility of a harassed and marginalized community, one that has been clearly defined by medical experts, to make your family feel less uncomfortable.

2 thoughts on “What is biological sex? What is gender?

  1. Great post!! The science behind gender identity & expression is far more complicated than most of us realize, and you really summarized it well.

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