The Myth of Binary Gender

Hello, my zebras and spoonies! Thanks for coming and hanging out with me today. I’m glad you were here. Today, I’m going to be talking about the myth of binary gender.

Let’s first start by talking about the fact that biological sex is not the same as gender. What causes some confusion in the general public is the use of biological sex and gender as interchangeable terms when they’re really not. They don’t refer to the same thing. Biological sex is usually determined by your karyotype or your genetics. There are other factors that come into play and we’ll talk about that later. Gender is mostly used for cultural behaviors such as what is considered appropriate for dress, what is considered appropriate manners, signs of deference etc. that differentiate between the two sexes.

Gender itself is not entirely a social construct as there there are physical differences but there’s a lot of this that is defined through our folkways, which are behaviors that are learned and shared by a social group that we often refer to as customs in a group and they’re not really morally significant, but they can be super important for social acceptance. And these can vary quite a bit between different cultures and yet they dictate the way that humans behave. And there are a lot of folk ways that dictate the rules for gender.

It’s interesting because when you look at social norms, we break these things down into folkways, Mores taboo and laws. And the concepts of gender fall into all of these categories. So let’s kind of look that and break that down. Folkways are those behaviors that are learned and shared by a social group. Folkways are the ways that we are expected to behave and this is usually enforced with what we would call peer pressure. An example of this is the idea that certain colors are for certain genders: pink is for girls and blue is for boys. The peer pressure comes when you when you break that social custom, when you break that practice. It comes as teasing, shunning, bullying and shaming. This kind of response from our peer group makes it readily apparent that we have broken a folkway and that they are not liking it. If we want to fit in with the group and be accepted, we will have to change our behaviors.

Mores are your norms of morality and these are our concept of what is right or wrong. There’s definitely things that are wrapped up in gender and it is usually around relationships like what is ethically okay for for our relationships, like who we should be having relationships with, and who we should be dating and who we should be having sex with. Is all wrapped up in our cultural mores. And, of course, this is absolutely wrapped up in our concepts of this social definition of what gender is.

Then you have taboos. These are the things that are completely forbidden in a culture and will come with some pretty heavy social consequences. Think about the history of the way that we’ve looked at menstruation and how menstruation was a time that women were set aside and set apart. Look at the way that gay people have been treated for their relationships, people used to be killed for that. Unfortunately, they sometimes still are killed for that. There’s absolutely taboos in our culture that are wrapped around and centered on our ideas of gender.

From all of these folkways, mores and taboos we often end up with laws surrounding our ideas of gender. We have laws about who can get married. We have laws about whether or transgendered people can go into particular bathrooms. We have laws about all kinds of stuff surrounding gender, and it’s kind of fascinating when you think about gender being a social construct. It is important for us to really understand that gender is primarily a social construct and that because of that we can change those folkways, mores and taboos leading to changes in our laws. This is why it is so important to vocally challenge these ideas of binary gender.

Okay, so why am I 100% convinced that binary gender is a myth? Let’s go back to sex, the biology of a human. Our sex is primarily, but not exclusively, determined by our DNA; by our karyotypes. So we know scientifically, without question, that humans are not born just male or female. We know that the XX and XY are not the only options when we are looking at genetically viable offspring. There are six karyotypes that are really common, including the XX and XY. There’s about 1 in 2000 that have Turner Syndrome, which is they only present as a single X. Then there’s people with Klinefelter syndrome and they are XXY and they’re right around 1 in 1000. That’s pretty common. We also have XYY, which is roughly 1 and 1000 and we have a XXXY, which is roughly 1 in 18,000. XYY happens in about 1 in 1,000. There are a lot of variations. But those are the most common: XX, XY, X, XXY, XYY and XXXY.

What’s really astounding to me in all of this is that about 1 in 100 people, so about 1%, of the human population is what we call intersex. So these are people who scientifically are not the classic XX or XY, that they have some other type of genetic presentation which we define as intersex. So, if 1% of the human population is genetically intersex, that absolutely eliminates the myth that there’s only two possibilities of gender. While 1% isn’t a huge portion of the population, it is enough to add up to a lot of people. With the current world population, this 1% represents 78 million people who are intersex.

But biology is never straight forward or simple and our sex is no different. To make things even more complicated, there is androgen insensitivity syndrome where the mother’s biology will affect the development of a fetus and this is where you can end up with an individual who has the genetic XY and ends up presenting XX. This is because the of one of two factors. Either the mother is incapable of providing the fetus with the testosterone necessary to trigger the testosterone cascade to produce a male offspring or the fetus is insensitive to testosterone. If the fetus is insensitive due to a lack on it’s genetic Y then despite the presence of testosterone the fetus does not develop XY traits. There is also partial androgen insensitivity syndrome where the testosterone has some effect on sex development and the fetus develops traits that are often not what we would expect for boys or girls by the standard binary gender definitions.

The reality, is in the world of biology, sex is complicated and has a lot of variation. There isn’t this binary, one or the other option. When we think about the fact that our biology has this degree of variability, it only makes sense that our gender should also have a corresponding degree of variability because, of course, the human mind which is driven by our biology, would be as diverse as our genetics. It’s kind of ludicrous to think that our gender is binary when our genetics are not. So yeah, I think that we need to get off of this idea that it’s an either or option.

And here’s some links if you want to read more about this stuff:

The 6 Most Common Biological Sexes in Humans
SOCIAL NORMS: FOLKWAYS, MORES, TABOO, AND LAWS
Androgen insensitivity syndrome
Only two sex forms but multiple gender variants: How to explain?
Klinefelter syndrome and other sex chromosomal aneuploidies
Shifting syndromes: Sex chromosome variations and intersex classifications
Sex Chromosome Evolution: So Many Exceptions to the Rules
Differences in sex development
What’s intersex?
Intersex Support and Advocacy Groups

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