Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

– Galatians 3:28
In the context of religion, Christians should be familiar with the quotation from Galatians (even if some, such as in the Catholic Church, are unwilling to take the words literally, and apply them to ordination). From the world of science though, it is becoming clear that there is a truth in the words that goes way beyond a theological concept, and is instead, a substantial measure of quite literal truth. It may well be that there really is “neither male nor female”, at least not in the absolute binary sense that modern Western culture assumes. This has major implications for Christian sexual and gender theology.”

 

Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was a seminal work in the early development of feminism and queer theory, and later of queer theology.  Butler’s central achievement was to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which she described as “performance”.  The fluidity of gender however, also extends to biology. Far from a simple binary world composed of biological males and females, with perhaps a smattering of people with indeterminate gender (once described as hermaphrodites), modern science has shown that there are a far greater range of conditions that may be loosely described as “intersex” than previously realized – and that there are a surprising number of these people, some of whom will not even know of their true sex until they meet a need for some kind of medical testing (as with the case of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, who had no idea she was not fully female until she won a medal at the Beijing Olympics, competing as a woman). The same problems beset Sally Gross, who was raised as a male and ordained a Catholic priest, until the discovery that biologically she was in fact primarily female.

What is a Male?

To illustrate some of the complexities around biological sex, I want to share with you some extracts from two books that I have found helpful in extending my own understanding, Brian McNaught’s “Sex Camp”“, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Omnigender.

“Sex Camp” is a fictionalized presentation in novel form, of a real-life program that used to be run in New York state, in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds were brought together  in a secluded rural setting each summer, for serious training and discussion of matters around sexuality, gender, and faith.

In one chapter,  ”Bill” delivers a presentation to the group on “Gender Identity & Expression”.  This is from his introduction to the topic:

“When we talk about “Biological Sex,” and ask the question, we’re asking about it chromosomally, hormonally, gonadally, as well as with reference to the internal and external genitalia, and to brain dimorphism,” he said, writing the words on the whiteboard. Chromosomally, we are talking in terms of xx equalling a girl, and xy equalling a boy. Hormonally, we’re talking about ovaries for girls, and testicles for boys. With regard to internal genitalia, we’re talking about the Mullerian Structures for girls (fallopian tubes and uterus), and the Wolfian structures for boys (prostate, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens). Externally, we’re talking about the clitoris for girls, and the penis for boys. Brain dimorphism refers to the differences in the male and female brains.” 

Let’s pause, to digest this. I count six different methods of determining  a person’s sex.

  • chromosomes
  • hormones
  • gonads
  • internal genitals
  • external genitals
  • brains

The results of applying all of these to a single person will not always coincide. If they do not, how are we to decide, is this person “male” or “female”?

Furthermore, these measures do not yield simple binary opposites.

The problem with all of this is that not all girls are XX or boys XY, we all have the same hormones but in different level, we’re all born with clear gonadal or genital differences, and brain dimorphism isn’t a reliable indicator. So the question remains, “What is a male?”

Hormones

Some of this is familiar. External genitalia can be ambiguous (as they were at birth for Sally/Selwyn Gross, whose story I presented earlier). In these cases, parents and doctors typically make a decision to impose one or other gender on the child, and raise her/him accordingly. But the assigned gender may differ sharply from the other, less easily visible determinants. But let’s consider for now, just those hormones.

The male hormone testosterone and the female hormone oestrogen are familiar, and popularly taken as markers for masculinity or femininity. (Just consider the verbal expression, “testosterone-fuelled….”) to describe actions taken to be unequivocally masculine).   Some men take testosterone hormone supplements to adjust their physical appearance to a more conventionally “masculine” model, or to excel at masculine sports. For transsexuals, hormone therapy is commonly a major part of the transitioning process. But we all know that “men” differ in their degree of testosterone – and have a modicum of oestrogen too, and “women” differ in their oestrogen levels – but have some testosterone, too. Using hormonal measurement alone as a criterion, does int make any sense at  all to even think of someone as wholly male, or wholly female?

 Chromosomes

Chromosome patterns also do not fit the simple “xx” or “xy” binary split we are familiar with. In addition to x and y chromosomes, there are “blanks”, indicated as “o” – and some people have more than the usual two.

“With chromosomes”, Bill continued, “the male sperm determines the outcome. What happens, however, if instead of adding an “x” or a “y” chromosome to the female’s “x”, the male shoots a blank sex-determining chromosome and the child is born “xo?” 

The answer is –  Turner’s syndrome. There are many other variations from the simple xx/xy of popular understanding.

One out of every 1600 live births are “xo”. You can also get “xxx,” which will be a female, but there are a significant number who may have mental retardation. You can also get an “xxy”, which will often be a tall, infertile male.  We call this Klinefelter’s Sybdrome. You can get an “xyy”, and you can get an “xxyy”, which is a pure, bilateral hermaphrodite.”

And you can get an “xyxo”, which will be a short male whose gender and orientation are up for grabs”.

“The point is”, Bill said with a satisfied look, “that nature is not neat. Biological sex is not an easy issue. Further, when we talk about “male” and “female”, we’re talking about “sex”, “sexual identity”, and “sex role”. When we ask the question, “What is a male?” we’re not just asking about chromosomes, hormones, gonads, genitals and differences of the brain. We’re asking about sexual identity and sex role. We’re asking about both the assignment and rearing, as well as gender identity differentiation. ”  

Sex Camp”” is about much more than the ambiguities of biological sex and gender identity – this topic is just one of many in a a book which is packed with helpful, reliable information about sex and sexuality, and is also (as you would expect from the title) great fun to read.

I turn now to another book, in a more conventionally serious manner, by a respected theologian – and focussed exclusively on this topic.



Continue reading Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble

How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology

So: just how does a woman become a Catholic priest in a major religious order? Sally Gross did just that: her story, with the explanation of just how it was possible, reveals some gaping holes in Catholic theology on women’s ordination and on sexuality, and problems in how governments deal with gender. It is also a moving personal story, of personal journeys, geographic, spiritual and biological, which are about as far-reaching as it is possible to go in one life-time.
The complex story is told at some length at the Natal Witness, which I have attempted to summarize below, quoting verbatim some extracts to illuminate key points. (Even in summary, it is lengthy – but stick with it. It graphically illustrates some critical deficiencies in Vatican thinking on sexuality and on ministry, which I touch on in conclusion).
The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.

Intersexed at birth, raised as a boy.

Gross is one of a small but significant, greatly misunderstood, minority of people who are loosely grouped together as “intersex”.
Biologically, hormone tests show she is clearly female, but at birth her external genitals appeared to be ambiguous, but essentially male. S/he was raised as a boy, complete with the ritual circumcision demanded by the Jewish faith of the family. However, s/he always knew that there was something “wrong”.
“Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness,” says Sally Gross. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different.”
He grew up as a Jewish boy in South Africa, but as a young man, became drawn to the Catholic Church, in part because he believed it to be more actively speaking up and acting against the evils of apartheid than his own Jewish religious leaders. He was baptised a Catholic in 1976. The following year he left the country, when his political activism against apartheid was becoming personally dangerous, going first to Botswana, then to Israel (where his parents then were).

Life as a Catholic Priest




Continue reading How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology

Combating Children’s “Confusion” on Sexual Orientation, Gender Diversity

Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars has led to substantial commentary, for and against. Some of this is leading to discussion of really important, but neglected issues. For example, one common but myopic response in opposition, and to other lesbian or gay visibility on our television screens and in our streets, is that children could be “confused” by seeing these non-conformist images, and so might grow up confused about their own identity.

The obvious problem with this assessment, is that it is only relevant to those children who happen to be born with an innate orientation, biological sex and gender identity which conform squarely with the extreme positions of the relevant sexual, biological or gender continuum. Biological and social sciences have shown conclusively that life is not so simple. If Kinsey is to be believed, most of us are not all exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We also know that a small but surprisingly significant minority of people are born who are neither wholly male nor wholly female, but one variety or another of intersexed – and for many others, their gender identity (the way their mental state sees themselves) differs from their biological sex.

There are tragic tales of babies born with intermediate external genitals being submitted to surgery to conform with male or female stereotypes, only to discover later that the imposed external condition does not conform to internal biology. In other cases, apparently “normal” genitals differ from internal sexual biology, leading to a disjunction between the gender in which the child has been raised, and the child’s biology. Many gay men and lesbians will know from bitter personal experience the problems they have endured from bullying, verbal abuse or serious physical violence, simply for not conforming to perceptions of “normality”. Even 100% heterosexual men and women are often subjected to the same kinds of bullying, if in their demeanour or interests they present as effeminate men or masculine women – in the mistaken but common belief that these traits equate with a same-sex attraction.

There is a claim made that children’s sexual identities are not formed until late adolescence or early adulthood – and so we should shield them from knowledge of any non-conformist sexualities or gender expression until they are old enough to have made up their own minds. The claim is in fact false – the findings of science are that sexual orientation is fixed remarkably early in childhood (I have seen one research report that identifies it as settled even in the womb). But even if the claim were correct, the conclusion would be dangerous. If we accept that it is wrong to confuse a child by presenting her/him with possibilities for orientation or gender identity that differ from her/his own, how much more dangerous is it to present that child exclusively with such images?

Imagine, for example, how confusing it would be to children if every character in books, on film and TV, in sitcoms, dramas, news and documentary programs, were to be a gay man or lesbian, or if every one of them were to be seen as transgendered or cross-dressers. That would most certainly be confusing to young people whose natural orientation was to the opposite sex, and whose gender identity perfectly matched internal and external genital biology. But that is precisely the effect that we create for naturally same-sex attracted or intersex children, and those whole mental and biological genders are out of sync.

The danger to our children is not in presenting them with a range of sexual or gender models, but in perpetuating the myth that we all fit neatly into a simple binary divide, of exclusively heterosexual and biologically simple males and females. To protect the mental health of children (and shield them from prejudice and physical violence), we should be encouraging more, not less, diversity on our screens, and in public life.

Diane Ehrensaft, PhD: All Kids Deserve to Reach for the Stars — and Dance With Them, Too

“For many viewers of ABC’s mega-hit series Dancing With the Stars, the announcement that this season’s roster of contestants would include Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, marked a historic decision and a milestone for transgender people. To some, it made a less than welcome addition to the fall television line-up.

One viewer comment online stood out for me, given my work with gender non-conforming and transgender children and their families: “YOUR choice to bring Chaz Bono into the mix goes too far. I am not about to risk the potential for on screen dialogue about sex changes and gender confusion while my 7 and 9 year old are watching.”

-read more at Huffington Post

Related articles: