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
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15 Responses

  1. Avatar Tim says:

    Good points Steve. For the most part, I don’t understand the fuss with what other people do in bed or which restroom they use. Besides, a third “non binary” category is probably more fair for athletes:

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      As I was writing the third-from-final paragraph I thought to myself, “I think Tim will like this bit.”

  2. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Allowing a third box, or more, to list gender isn’t a problem and doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when a man changes gender and competes as a woman isn’t fair. Many athletes, male and female, have been disqualified and even had awards taken from them because they used drugs to improve their performance. Having a sex change to compete against women has to be as illegal as taking steroids or other performance enhancing drugs.

    • Avatar K. Beck says:

      I understand your thinking, however:

      I lived in Santa Clara Co. for 40 years. I have known probably more trans-gender people than anyone in Shasta Co. None of them went through the medical nightmare of a sex change so they could play sports on the “other side” to gain advantage. Trust me on this.

      Over the years I have been astounded by the men who became women and then realized how discriminated against they became “overnight” in the workplace.

      Pay attention! (this comment is not aimed at you cheyenne…it is aimed at people in general)

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        This strikes me as one of those problems that exist mostly on a hypothetical plane, when there are real problems that deserve far more attention. In the case of sports, the problem isn’t men changing genders so that they can compete against women. Renée Richards underwent sex change and played professional tennis—not so that she could compete as a woman, but because she wanted to be a woman. She had some success playing doubles. Interestingly, she has changed her opinion and now believes that she and other male-to-female transgenders have an unfair advantage.

        The *real* problem has always been women and men who take performance-enhancing drugs. If you’re my age you remember when American women used to routinely get trounced in sports requiring strength and speed by Soviet block women—particularly East Germans—many of whom had protruding brow ridges and Adam’s apples. Thanks to improvements in steroid and HGH testing, it’s less prevalent now, but PEDs are still an issue. Detection and masking technologies are in a constant arms race.

        If I’m the czar of the professional tennis world, Maria Sharapova gets kicked out for life for taking meldonium, a banned drug that increases blood flow. Something like 20% of Russian athletes whose blood samples were re-tested when the test became available were on the stuff. About 3% of athletes overall were taking it—mostly eastern Europeans.

  3. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Thanks, Steve. I always enjoy your logic.

  4. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    Thanks for an informative and entertaining treatise.

  5. Avatar kirsten says:

    Thank you , thank you, thank you……….. I have needed these FACTS for a while.

    • Avatar K. Beck says:

      First I have to ask, why are those boxes necessary in the first place? It is just a way to discriminate against huge numbers of people. Female box checked? Throw out the job app.

      Secondly, you will never win an argument if you are arguing against the Bible. It is a waste of time, effort, and energy.

      Thanks for writing this, Steve. It gives hope to those of us who think outside the box, and rely on Science and Facts.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        It’s a fair question. The simplest answer is that answering big questions about issues like gender disparities requires the collection of data. If you don’t have the data, you can’t answer the questions. That said, collecting data for the sake of collecting data is always done at the risk of encouraging data rummaging. There are mixed opinions among scientists regarding whether data rummaging is good or bad.

        I wasn’t trying to paint with a broad brush. I know plenty of Christians who are neither dogmatic nor mean about these issues, and would say that the proper response to people presenting as binary (or whatever) is to love them, per Jesus’s core take-home teachings. But the Christians who were leaving comments under the USA Today article were the other kind.

        • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

          Further to K. Beck’s comment about checking boxes: why is there a Title box requiring one to state Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr. when ordering online? Why am I not just plain Beverly Stafford rather than any of those titles? I’ve tried leaving it blank but was scolded and couldn’t complete the order without choosing a title.

  6. Avatar Cathy says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s nice to read a level headed piece on a subject that some people get way too emotional and dogmatic about.

  7. Avatar Joanne Gifford says:

    Outstanding article Steve. Thank you

  8. Avatar cheyenne says:

    I think Sheridan, Wyoming had the best policy as the city council passed a resolution that it was unlawful to discriminate against anyone. It means everyone is equal.

  9. Adrienne Adrienne says:

    Thank you! Excellent excellent article . I used to tell my junior high kids , when they were being apoplectic about some musician or star they admired coming out the closet, “Has this person made a move on you ? If not , then it’s none of your business . “