It really bothers some people that others have a sex or gender which is different than the one they were assigned at birth, or that for some of us it might not fall neatly in the “male” or “female” categories. It shouldn’t matter.
Science tells us that the idea that somebody’s biology is immutably defined at conception is deeply flawed because there are a number of overriding factors that affect the outcomes programmed in by our genetic encoding. Going further, recognizing the sex or gender of others as different than at conception has no negative consequence on anyone because that’s just not how our laws work. Finally, Canada’s Gender-Based Analysis Plus approach to feminism and inclusion reflects how everyone’s experiences are affected by intersecting parts of our identity. We are formed by the society we inhabit our lived experiences.
Sex characteristics fall on a spectrum
First, we need to ascertain some facts and correct some widely-held oversimplifications. It is a biological fact that sex characteristics are defined through processes that are triggered by the configuration of our sex-determining chromosomes. It is also a fact that their presence or absence, their overabundance, their replication errors, and external ( environmental) effects all contribute to the development or absence of sex characteristics. The Chromosome Disorders website has a fascinating article with a number of possible chromosomal errors.
Human characteristics overwhelmingly fall neatly into two groups: persons possessing two X chromosomes and persons possessing one X and one Y chromosome. The vast majority of the former appears to fit the description that we characterize as “female” and “women” and the vast majority of the latter “male” and “men”. That said, not every cell in everybody has the same chromosomal features and not everyone has only “male” or “female” sex characteristics. This is why it is now accepted in medicine that sex characteristics fall on a spectrum.
Everyone’s DNA is slowly changing
Due to replication errors and other factors, our cellular make-up changes over time, making our chromosomes slightly different at the time of our death than when the zygote and sperm that merged to create what we would become.
According to Nature magazine,
“Depending on how a particular mutation modifies an organism’s genetic makeup, it can prove harmless, helpful, or even hurtful. Sometimes, a mutation may even cause dramatic changes in the physiology of an affected organism.”Nature Magazine, “DNA Is Constantly Changing through the Process of Mutation”
Compounding this change is the impact of mitochondrial DNA which is transmitted through blood and the influence of some viruses which can change the DNA of the host it infects.
Although most DNA is packaged in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria also have a small amount of their own DNA. This genetic material is known as mitochondrial DNA and is generally inherited from the parent who gestated us until birth, and in rare cases from our other genetic parent who contributed the sperm. You can learn more about the role of mitochondrial DNA here.
Mitochrondrial DNA illustrates to us that there is more to inheritance and to human characteristics than the 46 chromosome pairs we all were introduced to in secondary school. The contribution of this DNA continues to be studied.
Viral DNA enters our genome through infection.
“Some viruses can integrate into your DNA and this changes the sequence in that area by adding the virus genes. HIV is an example of this kind of a virus. They introduce a “nick” into the DNA and then use a protein called integrase to insert themselves into the genome. Sometimes they can interrupt a gene, which would cause it to be defective, or it can make a gene that would be silent “turn on” which can cause problems. However, most of the genome does not contain genes so most of the insertions do not cause problems. Other viruses like the ones that cause colds or skin rashes do not integrate into DNA, but they live in cells and make proteins that cause you trouble.“David Bodine, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator, NIH b- NIH National Human Genome Research Institute 2006 National DNA Day Online Chatroom Transcript
As Dr Bodine illustrates above, our genetic code is far from static. It is true that very few changes to our chromosomes are known to result in organism-wide changes but there are a number of conditions that have profound impacts on organisms – from Proteus syndrome to Chimeral genetics when organisms including humans possess two sets of chromosomes
No known cases of XX mutating to XY
There is no reported case of mutation of an X or Y chromosomes to the point that it changes a cell’s sex-defining chromosomes in humans, but we do know of changes of sex determination in animals during their lifecycle. For example, the sex of some eels is determined by their environment.
In a 2014 article Sex Determination: Why So Many Ways of Doing It? the authors propose that:
” Conflicting selection on different parts of the genome and on the two sexes may drive many of these transitions, but few systems with rapid turnover of sex determination mechanisms have been rigorously studied”Bachtrog D, Mank JE, Peichel CL, et al. Sex determination: why so many ways of doing it?. PLoS Biol. 2014;12(7):e1001899. Published 2014 Jul 1. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001899
In other words, more study of sex determination is indicated as we discover more about the determination of sex and as a consequence the cause of gender identity.
We rarely know our chromosome makeup, let alone someone else’s
Although sex can be said to be determined by the influences I noted earlier, people rarely check their genetics to discover their chromosomal makeup. In under 1% of the cases, some people are of a different sex than gender and some people change their physiological sex characteristics through medical intervention.
Nonetheless, it is generally accepted in modern medicine today that although sex primarily falls in male-typical or female-typical clusters, it is on a spectrum and the best authority about a person’s sex is the individual in question. In her 2015 Nature Magazine article “Sex Redefined” Claire Ainsworth reminds us,
“If you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.”Claire Ainsworth, Sex Redefined, Nature 518, 288–291 (19 February 2015)
In her article, Ainsworth does an accessible dive into the spectrum that sex determination is and the fascinating ways sex and gender emerge in animals including humans, starting from a reminder that the idea that sex is defined as a binary characteristic is simplistic that is also long-disproven.
“My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,”Eric Vilain – director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
- It is well known that primary and secondary sex characteristics are not caused by genes themselves but by proteins and endocrine processes typically triggered by genetics.
- Genetics, proteins, and endocrine processes can be changed by environmental effects – natural or medically induced
- DNA can change over time
- Sex characteristics rather than a non-existent “biological sex” are how we classify male and female organisms
- There are precedents in nature for environmental sex characteristics
Therefore, we know that any claim that our knowledge of biology supports the idea that people who were born with XX or XY chromosomes are bound to a pre-programmed body is unsupported by biological and medical research.
So far, we have illustrated that some sex characteristics are externally controllable, that all genetically-prescribed features are mutable after conception, and that humans are far from being as dimorphic as our cultural norms and our society’s policies assume.
However, we have not taken consciousness into consideration.
Transgender and intersex persons
In rare cases, sex characteristics and chromosomal makeup are inconsistent. In less rare cases, the identity that people develop of their sexuality and gender does not match the majority of experiences and people end up either attracted to the same gender or sex or identifying as a different gender than the majority of cases in which sex and gender are matched.
In part as a result of this, someone’s “biological sex” is not synonymous with a specific list of sexual characteristics they possess since the individual sex characteristics exhibited in someone’s body is not exclusively determines by somebody’s chromosomes.
Whatever our chromosomal makeup might be, we come to identify as being of one gender or another through a combination of biological and social mechanisms.
There’s a vast difference between not agreeing with someone about the matter which is of no consequence to you and advocating against them on the matter. For example, is there any point in arguing about the validity of someone else’s religious point of view? Someone else is cultural or racial identity?
The right thing to do is to let people be themselves. Attempt to empathize with them even if their lens and their own identity doesn’t match our own worldview. How can it possibly affect any one of us who to treat someone else with dignity and address them and consider them as they prefer it?
We have no special rights but are entitled to accommodation based on vulnerability
An underlying factor in the debate about the validity of genders and sexes is the misconception that one gender or sex might be somehow specially protected whereas the other sex or gender might not be.
In Canada, this is not the situation. In this country, like in many with advanced legal systems, we don’t give special rights to people based on who they are, including whether they are men or women. In fact, our laws do the opposite. Canadian law protects people in two ways:
- We protect people against discrimination by someone acting on the basis of their being a member of a group whether or not they see themselves or are objectively part of that group (men, women, gays, racialized, transgender, foreign-born, refugee, Christian, etc.)
- As part of protection from discrimination, Canada also requires that service providers and employers accommodate people with specific needs arising from being a member of a protected class in order to protect us all from any inherent vulnerability associated with being a member of a protected group. These accommodations take the form of maternity leave, curb cuts and accessible washrooms, privacy when disrobing, prayer rooms, etc.
In other words, we prohibit specific treatment that might be imposed on individuals because of their biology or their identity or how we see them. People are not required to use their maternity leave after giving birth and Muslims are not required to use a prayer room, for example. Sadly like too many other countries, Canada’s accommodation of protected groups is of inconsistent quality.
In advanced democracies with modern legal systems, being characterized as being of any sex or gender brings no specific legal entitlement beyond protection from discrimination based on that sex or gender. Whether those persons are classified as males or females or as men, women, or anything else is not relevant in Canadian laws. What is relevant is the protection from the Discrimination that is brought about by the perception or the reality that this person is someone deserving of discrimination. For example, someone is not entitled to maternity leave because they are a woman but because they have been pregnant and are recovering from pregnancy. How that person identifies is not a factor.
There is no doubt that the majority of us identify as men or women, males or females, nonetheless we know that this is not a mutually exclusive identity and that some of us have fidget block logical characteristics of the other sex and others among us identify completely or partially as the other sex or as no sex or gender.
Our laws govern not ideas or identities but actions
In advanced democracies, lawmakers are careful to create laws which govern what people do, and not who they are. So why do some among us feel so strongly about how someone else interprets their own masculinity or femininity as an indication to them that their gender identity is more than man or woman? Should this person not be made room for in a loving society that lifts everyone up equally? What advantage does this give you or me to decide for someone else who they are?
It is nobody’s business except our own to decide who we are and how we show this to the world.
We all know that each one of our myriad sex characteristics are either male or female or somewhere in between in rare cases. We also all know that people are men, women, or somewhere in between. We also know we prefer to be considered men, women, both, or neither.
How does that harm anyone? As Claire Ainsworth noted, If you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.
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I write about inclusion and political issues while working to narrow the gap between the laws we took great pains to create and their real-world implementation.