Debunking Myth #11: Sex and Gender are Straightforward

This post is part of a series on Debunking the 10 (+1) Lies About Trans People

Myth #11:  Sex and Gender are Straightforward

free-vector-men-women-bathroom-clip-art_117201_Men_Women_Bathroom_clip_art_hightThere is one myth that seems to under-gird all the others. For most people transgenderism doesn’t make the least sense because, after all, sex and gender are obvious! You come out of the womb, the doctor pronounces you male or female, and that’s that, end of story. Easy. What’s all the fuss about?

The fuss is that sex and gender are complicated. We see this in the animal world: there are some animals that can change their sex or sexual functionality at will. The male clownfish, for example, will become female if the alpha female is removed from the group. Various snails and slugs simultaneously have both male and female reproductive capabilities. In spotted hyenas, the external genitalia of female hyenas is indistinguishable from male hyenas until a very late age.

What does this have to do with human beings? Sure, sex can be complicated, but not for homo sapiens! For Christians (like myself), God made humanity male and female. Doesn’t that settle it?

For more reflection on the meaning of Genesis 1:27 (“male and female he created them”), click here.

 Well, like the medieval debate between geocentrism and heliocentrism, at the end of the day the way we interpret the scriptural reality of gender must take into account what we know about the natural world. And what we know is this: it ain’t simple

Interesting gender/sex variances aren’t only found in the animal kingdom. Among humans, there is a huge diversity of sexual development. Sex and gender are complicated; many elements go into their making. The following pieces are all needed in the development/construction of complete femaleness or maleness:

  • Sex chromosomes – xx for a female, xy for a male
  • Primary sex characteristics – vagina, ovaries and uterus for a female, penis and testes for a male
  • Brain Sex – not masculinized for a female, masculinized for a male
  • Gender Identity – “woman” for a female, “man” for a male
  • Gender Expression – “feminine” for a female, “masculine” for a male
  • Hormones and secondary sexual characteristics – high estrogen and progesterone for a female, high testosterone for a male

At any point in the development process, one of these elements might swerve from the norm. A difference at any of these levels creates some form of “gender variance.”

Sex chromosomes

Sex differentiation begins on the genetic level, and there are countless ways it can deviate from the norm.

Most people receive an xx or xy genotype from their parents, but there are plenty of other variations. Some receive only one x chromosome (x0), others recieve an extra y chromosome (xyy).

Some people are born with Kleinfelter’s syndrome, in which they have xxy. They develop androgynously as male-bodied but feminized.  Some identify as male, while others identify as female.

Some people have a mosaic of xx and xy chromosomes throughout their body, with no set genetic sex.

Other genetic abnormalities make individuals insensitive to sex hormones or in some other way developmentally atypical.

British model and transsexual Caroline Cossey had an xxxy genotype and identified as a woman, but had to fight a legal battle to be recognized as one. A Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only, Cossey was “outed” by the press as a “boy” and majorly persecuted. She contemplated suicide, but then moved on to continue her career as a model under the name “Tula.” She is a beautiful example of someone with an ambiguity at the most basic chromosomal level, yet who retains a strong identity as a woman in the world.

Primary sexual characteristics

Helping organize the support group for the intersex community at UCSF, Jeanne Nollman, who has Swyer Syndrome,  a disorder in which a person is born without functional gonads (sex glands) and therefore never develops secondary sex characteristics (basically, going through puberty) without hormone therapy sits for a portrait in her office on Tuesday May 3, 2011 in San Leandro, Calif. Photo: Mike Kepka, The ChronicleAmong genitalia, there is also a wide variety of outcomes. Most xy persons develop male primary sex characteristics, but some fail to do so and develop partially or fully female (Swyer syndrome). The opposite can happen for xx persons who are expected to develop female.  The sex chromosomes simply provide a blueprint or ‘plan’ for physical development, but that blueprint can be easily left behind. 

Some people are aphallic – born without a clitoris or penis. Others are born with gonadal dysgenisis, where their gonads are functionless and therefore not really testes or ovaries. Some people are born with ovo-testes, which are undifferentiated gonads with ovarian and testicular features.

Jeanne Nollman is an intersexed woman with Swyer syndrome. She has xy chromosomes but never developed as a male.

Brain Sex

Even after the body has developed its primary sexual characteristics, the internal gender workings can still not line up. Between weeks 12-18 of pregnancy, a male-developing fetus ideally receives a surge of testosterone to de-feminize and then subsequently masculinize the brain. The surges have to come at the right moments, in the right doses, and while the developing brain is at peak receptivity to the hormones. A disruption of this process can lead to a mildly to severely feminized brain. In developing females, an unexpected rush of testosterone can masculinize their brain, leading to a male brain-sex.

Recent research suggests that transsexuality is a form of intersex resulting from a failure during this brain-sex development. According to the research, key parts of the hypothalamus are noticeably female in structure for transwomen and noticeably male for transmen. Anne Vitale, a psychologist and expert in transgender studies, suggests that the difference between early-onset transsexuals (those who know they are transsexual from an early age) and late-onset transsexuals (those who come to a realization of their condition later in life) is the severity of their feminized brains, with early-onset transsexuals having unambiguously female brains, and late-onset transsexuals having a feminine core but enough androgynous features to be able more or less socialize as male (albeit with eventual psychological distress).

Transgender child Coy Matthis is a great example of an early-onset transsexual. From an early age, despite having a male genotype and physical development, Coy always knew herself to be a girl. Any attempt to raise or socialize her as a boy was unsuccessful.

Gender identity & gender expression

As Coy Mathis demonstrates, gender identity and brain sex is just as essential to the formation of typical maleness and femaleness as is genetics and in-utero development of the body. If the brain isn’t male, it doesn’t matter how masculine the person’s body is.

Another interesting story that sheds light on the importance of gender identity is the tragic case of David Reimer. David was born a perfectly normal boy, but a botched circumcision left his penis horribly mutilated. A prominent sexologist John Money (who I cannot help but think of as the Dr. Death of gender issues), firmly believed that gender identity was socially and environmentally created, and that any child could have any gender identity bestowed on them by upbringing and hormones alone. He performed a sex reassignment surgery on David to transform his mutilated penis into a neo-vagina. Money was certain that David would happily live as a girl. David had a twin brother, so he was considered a perfect candidate to prove that gender identity is earned.

Unfortunately, everyone involved was too happy with the socialization theory of gender identity to bother attending to David’s needs. Money blithely wrote: “The child’s behavior is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother.” However, from ages 9-11 David clearly developed and identified with a male gender identity. The social experiment was a failure; David was a boy on the inside no matter what was impressed on him from the outside. At age 13 he became suicidal and told his parents he’d end his life if he had to see Dr. Money again.

At age 14 David began living entirely as a boy. In 1997 he told his story to sexologist Milton Diamond in the hopes that similar ignorant procedures would be discontinued on children. Sadly, David ended his own life in 2004 after a lifetime of trauma.

David’s case stands as evidence that gender identity is hard-wired and absolutely essential to a person’s sense of self and authenticity.


Click here to watch Katie on Oprah

Hormones are absolutely essential to the development of someone as male or female. It is assumed that all females produce primarily estrogen and progesterone whereas all males produce testosterone. This isn’t always the case, and when it isn’t, what does this mean for the person’s gender?

As seen on Oprah, young intersexed woman Katie was born with xy chromosomes and testes. However, she has a form of physical intersex called “androgen insensitivity syndrome.” Her body simply does not respond to androgen hormones such as testosterone. Thus, from the womb onward Katie didn’t developed as a boy. While her genetic blueprint suggested one path of development, in reality her body developed female. Although she does not have a uterus, her genitalia is female.

So is Katie male or female? From her body, it isn’t clear. Her hormonal development has been female, disregarding the male blueprint. It seems inconclusive.

How do we identify Katie? By how she identifies herself. Katie identifies as a young woman. Anyone who tells her otherwise or who doesn’t think she is a real or “full” woman is categorizing her by an arbitrary characteristic. Do we identify her by her genes, by her hormones, by her body shape? At the end of the day the conflict resolves in who she is internally. Anyone who sees Katie speak is left without a doubt in their mind regarding her status as a young and maturing woman, and this sense is produced by her own confidence in her womanhood.

Somewhat similar to Katie are people with 5α-Reductase deficiency (5-ARD), an autosomal recessive gene that causes genetic males to develop female or feminine. Unlike Katie, these individuals tend to have male gender identities. Although they have a bodily ambiguity similar to Katie’s, their identities internally resolve themselves as male.

Katie and people like her demonstrate that for intersexed people, their gender truly lies “in between the ears” (as Chaz Bono likes to say).

The Nature of Male and Female

It is clear from all the complications and variations in sexual development that the ideas of male and female are not so simple for many people. Intersexed conditions are more common than once thought, with 1/1000 people having chromosomal intersexuality, and 1/100 having atypical body development. If transsexuality is in fact an intersexed brain condition, then the fractions are even lower.

How, then, do we define male and female? Is it by chromosomes? But chromosomes are only the blueprint; the body can develop quite differently than planned. Is it by body structure? But the body’s physical development can be ambiguous, mixed, or in opposition to both chromosomes and gender identity. Is it hormones? But hormones can be unpredictable, and all they do is bring forth the already latent potential for masculinity or femininity. Is it by brain sex? For people who have transgender identities, determining their maleness or femaleness based on their brain sex or brain id makes the most sense, although others seem to think it delusional.

If intersexed people have taught us anything, it’s that determining these realities is not clear-cut.

For intersexed people, the bottom line for who they are is how they identify. If they have xxy chromosomes, do they have an extra x chromosome in a male genotype or an extra y chromosome in a female genotype? The only way to know is by how they internally identify.

Maybe transgender people are stepping out of line by putting their gender identity in higher priority than their biological sex. However, it’s not so clear. In all other cases it is the gender identity that ultimately determines a person’s status. Why should transgender people be different?

Back to Debunking the 10 (+1) Lies About Trans People.

6 thoughts on “Debunking Myth #11: Sex and Gender are Straightforward

  1. Thank you for writing this, it’s really enlighting. It’s hard to describe why this particular debunked myth makes me feel more confident about being non-binary transgender but nevertheless, it does cheer me up a bit. Maybe it’s because somedays when the dysphoria is less severe I question my own experience, most likely out of fear of rejection, and being reminded that there is physical and biological (is it the same thing?) diversity in human gender gives me a sense of not being alone.

    • Yeah, I do the same thing with the self-doubt. It’s amazing how even if I have a few hours with less dysphoria than usual, I already start wondering (hoping?) that I’m not really trans and it’s all a big mistake. But one thing I can’t really avoid is that sex and gender can be complicated, and I’m one of the complicated ones.

      I’m glad the article helped. I started following your blog just now, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. Pingback: The Reality of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique of Carlos Flores’ “Stern but Necessary Critique.” | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Pingback: The Absurdity of Non-Transgenderism: A Critique of a Critique - Ethika Politika

  4. Pingback: What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity | The Catholic Transgender

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