I’m on vacation this week! This post originally appeared at Skepchick.
You know what this world needs more of? Misconceptions about transsexuality.
Wait… I think I got that backwards.
Right… there is absolutely no dearth whatsoever of misconceptions people have about transsexuality. Sometimes I feel like a sort of trans-advocate Sisyphus, perpetually pushing a boulder of education up a hill of myths, stereotypes, fear, hatred, ignorance, disinterest and general laziness. And really, I could spend the rest of my life just trying to debunk a small sub-set of the mistaken beliefs about us held in the mind of the general public.
Quite often, people tell me to pick my battles. So in the interest of actually listening to my friends for a change, that’s what I’m going to try to do today. Pick a battle. In this case, something that I really need to get out the way if I’m going to keep at this whole “discussing trans issues in the skeptic community” thing, something that I’ve come to regard as by far the most common misconception about transsexuality within skepticism: the belief that transsexuals are and always shall be “objectively”, “scientifically”, “biologically” members of their assigned sex.
I’ve noticed it repeatedly. Sometimes it is explained in a very condescending fashion… being told that my little definition of gender is simply brushing aside the science. That I’m pretentious to ignore the empirical reality and ask everyone to simply go along with my version of reality. Sometimes people can get very, very worked up about it, as though I’m threatening some extremely important fundamental framework upon which they’ve built their worldview. And I am, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong to do so.
It’s probably better if I not try to think too much about what exactly makes this belief so prevalent amongst skeptics, but the basic foundation of this belief starts with the assumption that the primary or best definition of sex is genetic. On the one side we have males, who are XY, and on the other we have females, who are XX, and sometimes we have various intersex conditions. It’s a tidy and unambiguous definition that provides comfortably hard answers. One’s DNA can’t be changed by current medical science, so under this definition a man will always be a man and can only be superficially changed to resemble a woman, and vice versa.
Of course, the first issue one takes with this view is that it is treating sex as being the same thing as gender and not really paying due consideration to that distinction. To put it briefly, sex is the physical body, while gender is identity, presentation, self-expression, interpersonal relationships, sociocultural role, etc. The common phrase (which is a tad inaccurate but gets the job done) is “sex is between your legs, gender is between your ears”. An imperfect but fairly good and very readable breakdown of the basics of sex and gender can be found here.
However, we can go further with this. Even if we are looking at sex specifically, and disregarding gender with all its relative, subjective, soft-science-ness that is often so unappealing to some skeptics, we still find that the genetic definition of sex is not necessarily the best way of looking at things.
In truth, sex is a loose aggregation of a variety of variables. Chromosomes, yes, but also hormonal levels, genitals, secondary sexual characteristics, skeletal structure and so on. We consider each of these traits to be male, female, or not quite either, then collectively make some kind of rough, relatively subjective determination as to whether it is a male body, a female body or an intersexed body. This is not unlike the daily process of gendering we engage in every time we come across another human being. We make a quick, subconscious, intuitive weighing of the feminine cues against the masculine ones and make a judgment call on how we should mentally categorize that person. But even in a medical situation, where we are strictly looking at an individual’s anatomy, it can still be just as much of a subjective judgment call based on the relative weight being given to individual traits, and there’s no real reason to say the karyotype gets the final say.
If one makes the declaration that my genes are the “biological reality” that makes me “scientifically male”, it implies that things like my skin tone, my lack of body hair, my hormone levels, my breasts, my scent and all the other female or feminized aspects of my body are all somehow just in my head, figments of my imagination or “my version of reality”, or are merely cosmetic despite the fact that my breasts, for instance, are exactly as real, and developed through the exact same physical processes, as any other woman’s. Meanwhile saying that my completely invisible, anatomically irrelevant Y chromosome trumps everything else and dictates what my body really is. Pardon me if I don’t find that to be a terribly objective way of looking at things.
I’ve heard as an argument to prove how I’m really ‘scientifically’ male the hypothetical situation in which my horrifically disfigured, mutilated, unrecognizable corpse turns up in some abandoned building. A forensic pathologist, in an effort to determine my identity, conducts a DNA test and comes to the conclusion that I was male. Therefore, goes the argument, since the scientist using her scientific tests came to the conclusion that I’m male, that’s what I ‘scientifically’ am. But that’s only one particular inaccurate conclusion, made from the results of one particular test, that one particular type of scientist would make in one particular situation that has been contrived specifically to provide incomplete information. It’s easy to imagine another hypothetical: a doctor is trying to ascertain my identity based solely on a blood sample. He checks the hormone levels and comes to the conclusion that I’m a cisgender (not trans) woman at the mid-point in her cycle with a slightly low testosterone level. By that scientific test I’m ‘scientifically’ female. What makes the one inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information more scientific and correct than the other inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information?
I could stop here, since I feel I’ve made a fairly good case for why it doesn’t really make much sense to privilege genetic sex as being more objective and real than the other variables involved in sex, but I believe I can actually go further and make the case that chromosomes are actually less relevant for defining sex than other characteristics.
The truth is chromosomes don’t really play all that much of a role in human sexual differentiation. That work is done by hormones. Basically, all of our cells (and tissues) carry the genetic potential to express themselves in either female or male ways. Hormones come along and send a little message to activate certain genes or deactivate other ones. Estrogen comes in and says, “Okay, ladies! Time to do girl stuff!”… or testosterone struts on in and says “Listen, dudes. It’s time to man up. Hoo-hah!”.
I’ve also come across the misconception that there are such things as “male cells” and “female cells”. It doesn’t work like that. The Y chromosome doesn’t really do much. Basically, it only has one real function, and that’s to transform the embryonic ovaries into testes, which then triggers the cascade of hormones that signal the necessary mutations and cellular functions that create a male body. The rest of the Y chromosome is mostly just deteriorating junk DNA. And in the case of XX cells, one of those X chromosomes is deactivated. This means there is pretty much no functional difference between an XX cell and an XY cell at all.
We all start out as a sort of proto-female fetus. While an XY fetus is in utero, prenatal hormones trigger a series of changes that cause the developing fetus to acquire male characteristics. The proto-clitoris/proto-penis grows and fuses with the urethra. The testes descend. The vaginal canal closes. What would have been labia becomes a scrotum. The fact that male genitals are created out of the same tissues that would have been female genitals is precisely why MtF sexual reassignment surgery, vaginoplasty, is able to produce the highly functional, virtually indistinguishable results it does.
The only thing having “normal” XX or XY chromosomes is truly essential for is fertility, having functional ovaries or testes, and being able to have or produce ova and sperm. But we don’t go around claiming infertile men aren’t really men, or that if a man loses his testicles to cancer that he suddenly ceases being a man. Nor do we claim that a woman who has a hysterectomy or goes through menopause suddenly ceases being a woman. So fertility seems like a silly thing to suddenly consider all that important in determining the sex of a human being.
There’s an interesting intersex condition called CAIS, or Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The cells in someone with this condition are completely unresponsive to androgenic hormones. Therefore, despite having an XY karyotype, the aforementioned sequence of physical changes that causes the fetus to become male never occur, and the infant is born being phenotypically indistinguishable from any other girl. They are assigned female, socialized as female, and pretty much lead completely normal female lives, with the only differences being that they are infertile, do not menstruate, have a slightly shallower vaginal canal, and may actually be somewhat more physically feminine than other women, given that almost all women do have a small amount of testosterone in their bodies.
As a contrast to this condition, I’d like to describe one of my all-time favourite biological weirdnesses: bilaterally gynandromorphic chickens. These are chickens that are, quite literally, split right down the middle of their bodies, being a rooster on one half and a hen on the other. Cool, yeah? This could never happen in humans.
This is caused by chimerism. Chimerism is when two embryos with unique DNA will fuse together and develop as a single fetus, resulting in an individual with two sets of DNA in a single body. This can occur in humans as well as chickens.
Sometimes a chimera will have one set of DNA be male and the other female. This is what happens in the case of our avian gynandromorphs. Since chickens don’t have as efficient a system of sexual differentiation as we do, and don’t work from a blank template that can express as either male or female depending on hormonal signals, their sexual differentiation actually is all about the genes. So the female DNA will express as hen and the male DNA will express as rooster.
Back to this not happening in humans: yes, intersexual chimerism can happen in humans. You can even end up with human beings who have one ovary and one testicle. But given that almost all sexual differentiation is a result of hormones, which are more or less evenly distributed throughout the body, you would never see any kind of stark split down the middle of a human with, say, a breast on one side and a flat chest on the other. Soft, hairless skin on one side and hairy, oily skin on the other. Instead, whatever secondary sexual characteristics were expressed would be expressed throughout the body. Some interesting patterns may develop, but that would be simply due to the difference in other genes between the two strands, not the difference in sexual chromosomes.
So please, I would ask all skeptically minded people everywhere: please educate yourselves about the science of sex and gender before making claims about it. And especially try to make sure you know the actual science involved before assuming that trans people are ignorant of it, or that we’re brushing it aside in favour of a purely relativistic, subjective, sociological approach. And please don’t tell us what aspects of our bodies are and are not a biological, objective reality. Thank you!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the mood for some KFC.