Understanding sex and gender

JULY 1 ― Growing up, we were indirectly taught to see the world as black and white. Whether we know it or not, we actually have a very dualistic conceptualisation of human beings. You are either boy or girl, man or woman, masculine or feminine.

As I ventured into the grey areas, I realised that this extremely simplistic dichotomy served to be nothing but troublesome. The reason being that our myopic mentality towards sex and gender creates a discriminating, oppressive and intolerant environment for those who do not fit into either one of these binaries.

When a person lives within the grey areas, they are seen as testing the status quo and are labeled as mistakes of Nature or nurture.

Firstly, it is important for us to understand that the words “sex” and “gender”, though often used interchangeably, have distinct differences in their meanings.

In a working definition used by the World Health Organisation (WHO), sex refers to the biological characteristics that define men and women.

A book written by David Knox and Caroline Schacht, Choices in Relationships: An Introduction to Marriage and the Family, they state that the biological sex in humans are determined by five factors: chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs and external genitals.

There also exists intersexed people and hermaphrodites, whose anatomy involves genital ambiguity and possess chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than just the usual XY-males and XX-females.

In an article by Anne Fausto-Sterling titled How Many Sexes Are There?, she mentions that along the female-male spectrum lies at least five different sexes, or maybe even more.

Gender, on the other hand, is defined by WHO as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

Gender identity is a personal, innate, psychological identification as a male or female, which may or may not match the person’s biological sex or designated sex at birth, making the person transgender.

Even under the term “transgender” exists a wider range of genders, ranging from transsexuals to cross-dressers to genderqueer people.

According to M. Gopi Shankar, a student of American College in Madurai and author of a book regarding gender variants, there are more than 25 genders that are biologically identified through medical research. Some researches have even gone up to 63 different genders.

There are also androgynous people, whose personality traits and attributes are neither predominantly male or female.

There are two case studies that I would like to bring up here; one on Riley Grant and another on David Reimer.

Riley Grant was born male with a fully functional male reproductive system. As early as age two, Riley kept insisting that he was a girl and was even caught in the shower with a clipper in his hands about to remove his genitalia.

After undergoing a lot of medical tests, doctors discovered that even though Riley was born with a biologically male body with typical XY chromosomes, his brain is wired as a female.

This condition is often caused when a male foetus is immune to testosterone. When this happens, the testosterone released by the mother’s body does not trigger the signal to map the brain as a male, thus a female mind is created, even though the genetic instructions succeed in making the physical body a male.

Riley Grant has since had sexual reassignment surgery and is now living her life as a woman.

Next is David Reimer. He was born a boy with a fully functional male reproductive system. After a botched circumcision, the doctor and his parents made the decision to transform his body into a female through the use of oestrogen injections.

His parents tried their best to raise him as a girl and even changed his name to “Brenda." However, David kept insisting that he is a boy as his brain is wired to think so. He wasn't attracted to men, even though he was continuously told that, as a woman, he should be.

By 13, he grew suicidal, and at age 14, David made the decision to live his life as a male and took testosterone injections and underwent cosmetic surgery. Later in life, he married a woman and became a stepfather to her kids, and only then did his parents confess the truth.

Both David Reimer and Riley Grant’s case debunks the “blank slate” theory in which people are entirely a product of their environment and will adapt to anything. Despite efforts by their parents to raise them as a specific gender, the genetic wiring of their brains just told them otherwise.

These people are not mentally disturbed. They were born like this from the womb. We have to accept the fact that some males are born feminine, and some females are born masculine, while some are born in between.

Our dualistic approach towards these people has caused a lot of transsexed or transgendered individuals to feel pressured and suicidal at a young age. They are not depressed because they are mentally ill. They are depressed because of society and our constant insistence that the world should only consist of black and white, no greys.

Whether we like it or not, we have to swallow the truth that mankind is diverse. Instead of fixing what we deem as different, we have to first fix our mentalities and attitudes.

Discrimination and violence has never solved anything. Hate crimes and verbal abuse only contribute to the oppression that sexual minorities endure every single day of their lives. It might even drive them to suicide.

On an end note, transsexed or transgendered individuals are not necessarily homosexual, but sexuality is a topic I shall discuss another day.

If the diversity of our world is too much for you to take in, the least you could do is be kind to everyone, regardless of who they may be. The world could use a little less violence and hate.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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