Sex Around the World

Oh, Jerry Coyne. I’m amused with his defense of a sex binary

In Drosophila and humans, the two species with which I’m most familiar, the behavior, appearance, and primary and secondary sex characteristics are determined almost completely by whether the chromosomal constitution is male (XY) or female (XX).

… since, like most such “scientific” defenses, he immediately turns around and shoots it in the foot.

Yes, there are a few exceptions, like AIS, but the various forms of that syndrome occur between 1 in every 20,000 to 1 in only 130,000 births.  Is that “too many examples” to all0w us to say that biological sex is not connected with chromosomes? If you look at all cases of intersexuality that occur in people with XX or XY chromosomes (we’re not counting XOs or XXYs or other cases of abnormal chromosomal number), the frequency of exceptions is far less than 1%. That means that, in humans as in flies, there is almost a complete correlation between primary/secondary sex characteristics and chromosome constitution.

Ah yes, chromosomes determine human sex except in the 0.05% to 1.7% of cases where they don’t. Brilliant logic, that.

But it’s easy to get trapped by your filter bubble. The internet is a lot bigger than North America, after all, and other places have their own view of sex. Take Sweden, for instance, where it’s  government policy to avoid teaching gender stereotypes. One kindergarten made headlines not too long ago by declaring itself “gender-neutral.” As the founder put it,

00:10:10,909 –> 00:11:03,329
I’m going to show you what we call the “whole life spectra.” We tend to divide this life spectra into two pieces, one for boys and one for girls. More often pink is for girls, and blue is for boys. When we call a boy “cool” and “strong,” and to girls we more often say that they should be “helpful,” “nice,” “cute,” we have different expectations [for how they behave]. We take away this border, and we don’t separate into “boyish” and “girlish,”  we give the whole life spectra to everyone. So we are not limiting, we are just adding. We are not changing the children, we are changing our own thoughts.

That video is worth watching, as it follows around two gender non-conforming kids with an intersex “ma-pa.” The few bigots on screen seem right out of 1984, claiming that expanding or eliminating gender stereotypes somehow constrains kids in some mysterious fashion. Every kid, in contrast, is either at ease with gender role fluidity or made uncomfortable when asked to label their gender.

But even Sweden appears behind the curve when contrasted with the Khawaja Sira of South Asia.

For centuries, South Asia has had its own Khawaja Sira or third gender culture. The community, identifying as neither male nor female, are believed by many to be “God’s chosen people,” with special powers to bless and curse anyone they choose. The acceptance of Khawaja Sira people in Pakistan has been held up internationally as a symbol of tolerance, established long before Europe and America had even the slightest semblance of a transgender rights movement.

But the acceptance of people defining their own gender in Pakistan is much more complicated. The term transgender refers to someone whose gender identify differs from their birth sex. This notion is yet to take root in Pakistan and the transgender rights movement is only beginning to assert itself formally. Now, some third gender people in Pakistan say the modern transgender identity is threatening their ancient third gender culture.

The problem is that the Khawaja Sira are allowed to exist within South Asian culture because they renounce both male and female gender roles, thus don’t challenge either. Trans* people, on the other hand, reject the role assigned to the Khawaja Sira and invoke the male or female one instead. This upsets every gender’s apple cart. It doesn’t help either that the Khawaja Sira in Pakistan have recently fallen onto hard times, facing increasing bigotry and hate; the increasing number of trans* people feels like an invasion of “Western” ideals, at a time when their community is ill-equipped to cope.

But do you remember hearing about Oyasiqur Rhaman, the atheist blogger murdered in Bangladesh? His murderers were outed by a courageous “hijra,” which is similar in meaning to “Khawaja Sira” but not quite the same.

Transgender people occupy an unusual social stratum in South Asia, where conservative societies still consider same-sex intercourse to be a crime but also allow the existence of a third gender — a well-established category that dates back to the age of the “Kama Sutra.” Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have all legally recognized the existence of a third gender, including on passports and other official documents.

In India, in fact, “kinnar” freely mixes gender identity with non-binary sex. Compare and contrast this with Mexico’s “muxes,” who are called a third gender but in practice act more like trans* women, and Balkan sworn virgins who are more like trans* men. There’s no intersex component to the latter two, so lumping everybody under the banner of “third gender” or “transgender” is quite misleading.

Our binary view of sex and gender seem terribly archaic (which is ironic, as it may be a recent invention). It should not be controversial in North America to have a non-conforming parent or be raised in a genderless environment, yet it is. We could learn a thing or two from the rest of the world, especially when it comes to sex.