The Inbetweenies

The local fish-wrap recently ran an article about a bill signed into law by Governor Brown that provides Californians the option of choosing “non-binary” gender identity when filling out state forms—a third option to accompany “female” and “male.” The story was distributed by the USA Today network, which owns the local printed news rag, so it elicited online comments from locals and from afar.

To summarize those comments: Freaks! Perverts! Mutants! It’s the end of civilization! What’s next—male, female, non-binary, goat, and Swiss cheese? This goes against every biology textbook—everyone knows that there are only two sexes! Liberals are the anti-science kooks, not us! California can’t sink into the Pacific fast enough! Cleanse us, O Lord, with fire and brimstone! Etc.

As with most things, the biology of sex and gender identity are nowhere near as simple as the numerous flabbergasted commenters would like it to be.

First, there is the repeated claim by the commenters that in all of biology—plants and animals—there are males and females of each species, and that’s it. To deny this is to be truly anti-science, they say.

Not true. There are numerous reproductive strategies in biology, including the familiar male-female strategy. But there is also haplodiploidy (bees, wasps, ants) in which males develop from unfertilized eggs (X), and females develop from fertilized eggs (XX). Only the few female larvae deprived of all food other than royal jelly become reproductive queens—the developing females also fed honey and pollen become sterile workers. There are hermaphroditic plant and animal species that fertilize themselves, or can mate with others. There are eusocial termites and naked mole rats that achieve high genetic relatedness through cycles of inbreeding. There are species of coral and fish that are capable of changing sex as opportunity demands. There are clonal and parthenogenetic plant and animal species that don’t reproduce sexually at all. The evolution of living things is an ongoing experiment, and nature is rich in solutions to reproduction.

As for humans: sure, there are multitudes of XX- and XY-chromosome people who develop into what some see as the proper norms for women and men, respectively. (As the Creator of Everything solely intended, according to many of those USA Today commenters.)

But there are chromosomal irregularities such as Klinefelter’s syndrome—people who have XXY sex chromosomes. This genetic condition typically results in small testes that don’t produce normal levels of testosterone. That shortage of testosterone can result in late puberty, incomplete puberty, development of breasts, reduced facial and body hair, and infertility. There may be genital differences, including undescended testes, the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis, or an unusually small penis.

Then are smaller genetic anomalies that result in conditions such as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). Depending on the mutation, a person with AIS can have either a male or female phenotype, or may have genitalia that are only partially masculinized, with characteristics of both male and female.

Kleinfelter’s and AIS are just a couple examples of the many sex chromosome-linked and hormone-linked variants from the “binary” male and female sexual development norms. There are also not-well-understood hormonal and external influences on the brain and body during development that in turn probably influence gender identification. (I said influence, not determine.) Fetuses, kids, and adolescents subject to these influences don’t often get to choose them.

And then, of course, there is just plain old choice. Under ideal circumstances humans are agents of free will and choice, unless compelled by others. Some people—for reasons that they don’t need to explain to me or anyone else—may choose to identify as neither male nor female, but rather as intermediates somewhere on the spectrum between the two, or as asexual. Who does that hurt? What skin is it off my nose? Why should I freak out about it?

People who are “in the middle” exist in significant numbers, and always have. It’s biological reality. Largely because of self-righteousness and ignorance, life isn’t easy for them. Suicide is an issue for people who are treated as freaks—particularly when they’re young.

To all those apoplectic USA Today commenters: First, you’re dead wrong on the facts. Second, try not to be such a pack of cruel, flaming rectal orifices. Show a little compassion instead—it won’t kill you.

Steve Towers

Steve Towers is co-owner of a local environmental consultancy. After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Davis and dabbling as a UCD lecturer, he took a salary job with a Sacramento environmental firm. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 50 one afternoon, he reckoned that he was receiving 80 hours of paid vacation per year and spending 520 hours per year commuting to and from work. He and his wife Elise sold their house and moved to Redding three months later, and have been here for more than 20 years. His hobbies include travel, racquet sports, taking the dogs on hikes, and stirring pots. He can be reached at towers.steven@gmail.com

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