Friday, April 25, 2014

Sex, Gender, Sexual orientation, and Chromosomes




In western societies, matters of sexuality have improved dramatically in the past 100 years. Women used to be considered property. They're now equals, at least legally. Homosexuality is now legally recognized as a normal thing and as I'll show further, we now recognize more degrees than the black and white vision of heterosexuality vs. homosexuality. But even though homosexuality is making its way towards equal rights in many countries, minds are not changed and prejudices don't disappear overnight. Transgender people also need more inclusion and their gender is the object of much curiosity, fear and rejection.

Also in France, where gay marriage was legalized but a few months ago and where conservatives are still fighting to preserve their prejudices, the economic crisis polarizes political tensions and people on the far right wing of politics are lashing out against the "gender theory" which they see as a form of left-wing propaganda which will bring society into decadence. So I thought it could be useful to dedicate an article to this complex subject (more complex than I initially thought) of sex, gender, etc.


Sex

What we generally refer to as "sex" is the set of observable organs associated to the act of copulation. For a majority of people, it's quite straightforward: a penis or a vagina. In addition to this, breasts are not a sexual organ as such but they're associated to the typical female body and contribute to the distinction between women and men.

Sex is essentially the outside appearance of an individual.


Gender

Gender is the sexual identity (not orientation) that a person identifies with. For most people, gender will match their sex: people with a penis will identify as men and people with a vagina will identify as women. But for some people, there is a mismatch.

The most familiar cases of mismatch are transgender people. Before discussing transgender, it's useful to define a few terms. Transwomen are people born with a male sex who identify as women. They are trans and they identify as women, so: transwomen! Reciprocally, transmen are people born with a female sex who identify as men. A note of vocabulary: as a contrast to transpeople, the non-transpeople are identified as cispeople, which makes me a cisman and the makes the average woman a ciswoman.

The religious taboo on all things sexual in Western societies has led to several propagandist approaches on how to discriminate against transpeople. The prejudice that still sticks today, even though it is false, is that transgender is a mental disorder. In fact transgender is predominantly an expression of a biologic determinism.

Transpeople used to describe themselves as women born in a man's body, or vice-versa, and modern science has found that it is really the case. Part of the human brain has a strong influence on our gender and it's been observed that transwomen do have brain structures and brain functioning similar to those found in ciswomen (women born with a female sex).

More complex and rare cases exist where people identify simultaneously with male and female genders, or with no gender at all, or as a different gender altogether. An example of intersex person who identifies as both male and female is Tony Briffa, a mayor in Australia who recounts his life story about gender in the following video:



Sexual orientation

For a long time, the standard of sexuality has been exclusive heterosexuality, but a surprisingly large (imho) part of the population identifies its orientation differently. The notions of homosexuality and bisexuality are rather commonplace in modern society even though they are still frowned upon by conservative and religious fringes.

But the spectrum of sexual orientation has been described with the Kinsey scale as a 7-degrees gradient + an 8th option of disinterest for sexuality.

RatingDescription
0Exclusively heterosexual
1Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
2Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
6Exclusively homosexual
XNo socio-sexual contacts or reactions

It should be noted, however, that a person's sexual orientation may evolve during the course of this person's life.

According to Kinsley's reports, 46% of males react sexually to both sexes and a surprising 37% of males (later confirmed as 36.4% by another study) had at least 1 homosexual experience.

I don't have all the statistics, so I don't feel comfortable representing them on a graph. However, the statistics listed on Wikipedia suggest, once again contrary to my intuition, that female homosexuality is only half as prevalent as male homosexuality on ranks 3 to 6 of the scale.


Chromosomes

The recurring opposition to transgender by conservatives is that whatever organs you're born with define what you are and should be in terms of gender (and potentially sexual orientation). And there's a huge presumption on the conservatives' part that whatever organs you're born with are in perfect concordance with your genes. But nature is capricious and it's not as simple as we may wish it to be.

A rather rare (estimation of 1 in 20,000 "genetically male" people) condition is called Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). It is a case of the organism being partially or completely unresponsive to male hormones. In this case, the fetus and later the individual may develop into a full female in terms of looks and sex (vagina and breast), as illustrated on the following photo which shows exclusively subjects with AIS.

Image license:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (source), author: Ksaviano


Conversely, it is possible to be born with a female XX genotype but to develop a body and sexual organs of a male, as a result of Congenital adrenal hyperplasia.


Conclusion

What I hope is clearer by this conclusion is the distinction between the observable genitalia, the genetic makeup of a person, the gender that a person recognizes for him/herself, and the sexual orientation.

A lot of us are born with a rather clear correspondence between all of these aspects, but we need to recognize that when a phenomenon represents a majority of cases, we should not fall into the trap of considering that minority cases are flaws that require a rectification, or that a person in a minority case should be considered of less value than a person of the majority case.

I also hope to have provided a concise enough coverage of the subject, even though it is clear that many of the topics covered are much deeper than what I have the space, time, or courage of covering here.


Afterword

This is probably the most difficult article I've written so far. Medical and neurological considerations are complex to apprehend and I've given up on them or simplified them to the extreme.

Also, this article covers a diversity of subjects, each of which could undoubtedly require a big blog article to be covered appropriately.

Finally, the gathering of information especially on transgender has been really time-consuming. The Wikipedia articles on this topic are numerous, long, and complex. And I've also watched a number of YouTube videos dealing with many facets of this topic: coming out, hormonal treatment, effects of hormonal treatment on personality and mood, sex reassignment surgery, sex orientation, relationships with coworkers, opinions of people who date transwomen, timing the "public" coming out with one's career, sexual harassment, religious views, etc. And I want to give a special mention of 1 YouTube user who is a transwoman and who provides a great example (herself) and a great coverage of such topics: TreasureThaDiva... but she's just had breast augmentation so don't be shocked by the thumbnails that reveal her new shape and check her list of uploads to see the diversity of her videos!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Erik Lallemand's blog by Erik Lallemand is licensed under
a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.