Biological Sex is a Big Ball of Wibbly Wobbly… Sexy Wexy… Stuff.

Categories Don’t Actually Exist

Existence does not exist in neat little categories.

We humans like our little categories because they make it easier to understand our world, but these categories only exist within our own minds.

Take, for instance, speciation. We have categories for every animal that we’ve discovered so far. But there is so much overlap. We have two egg laying mammals (the platypus and the echidna), one flying mammal (bats) and yet numerous flightless birds (penguins, ostriches, emus, kiwis, domestic fowl, et cetera),  fish that can walk on land (mudskippers), and the list goes on.

Don’t get me wrong, categories are great and all. Sorting things based on perceived patterns is a beneficial human adaptation. It allows us to understand a broader range of things because we don’t have to define everything by their own physical properties.

For instance, if I wanted to explain a crocodile to someone who’s never heard of a crocodile before, I’d likely start by saying they’re kind of like alligators.  Supposing this person is familiar with alligators, they’ll probably get an image in their head and start drawing mental comparisons. Obviously there are many notable differences between the two species, but they’re close enough to give someone a decent starting point.

If it weren’t for this human ability, we would have to start at square one with every new thing and identify them by their own unique properties in relation only to itself and as you can probably imagine, that would be awfully time consuming and would leave us with more limited time to explain to our new friend why they should probably get out of the water.

My point here is, categories are incredibly useful but there are more exceptions to the categories than there are categories.

A Brief Overview of Chromosomes

We already discussed in my previous article “‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Bodies Have the Same Blueprints” that we all started out as females in the womb, lending to many more similarity between the sexes than just nipples.

And in “Is Transsexuality a Mental Disorder?” we discussed how the genetics behind gender can get really intricate. The Y chromosome, for instance, requires the SRY gene in order to activate. Some folks lack that.

Some people are born XXY, XYY, XXYY. Some are born with a malformed chromosome.

In fact, some biologists believe that the X chromosome existed first and that the Y chromosome began as a malformed X. It is about a 3rd of the size of X chromosomes and is much more limited as far as replicating and passing on useful information.

When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, we obviously didn’t always have X and Y chromosomes. Many other animals have different sets of sex chromosomes. For instance, birds and some reptiles have Z and W chromosomes, which behave contrary to our XX/XY system. Females are typically ZW and males are typically ZZ.

This gets even weirder when we consider transitional examples between the two apparently different systems. For instance, the southern platyfish has both XX/XY and ZZ/ZW sex determination systems often within the same populations.

This tells us that XY and ZW systems have common origins and transitioned at some point into two separate systems, possibly via fish. Neat!

The platypus is another oddity (I mean aside from the obvious). Instead of a pair of sex determining chromosomes, the platypus has ten. TEN! Five of these behave like the mammalian XX/XY system, while the other five behave more similarly to the avian ZZ/ZW system.

Various other sex chromosomal systems exist, and as we’ve seen, the systems sometimes overlap, and there exist numerous exceptions in any sex determining system.

Considering that our very distant ancestors were single-celled, the lineage of our XX/XY system goes back to asexual roots. It’s not rocket science.

Sex Is Non-Linear

To firmly grasp gender, it helps to think about it as the eventual result of numerous conflicting processes. Some processes contribute masculine traits, while others contribute feminine traits.

So, for instance, one could have XY chromosomes with a normal functioning SRY gene attached to the Y and produce a LOT of manly testosterone. Yet that same person could also have really long androgen receptors but shortened estrogen receptors (or simply more of them), thus decreasing androgen potency and making estrogen much more easily metabolized.

So you can see it’s not exactly straightforward. This is why gender is so obviously a spectrum. Speaking of gender in binary terms doesn’t truly make sense scientifically no matter how you try to spin it.

The fact of the matter is that biological sex is a big ball of wibbly wobbly… sexy wexy… stuff.

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“Male” and “Female” Bodies Have the Same Blueprints

In humans, we all start out as female in the womb. Hence why male-bodied individuals have nipples.

Gonads

Additionally, ovaries and testicles aren’t all that different. Both begin their lives as the same gonads in the womb.

To oversimplify the fuck out of microbiology, the SRY gene attached to the Y chromosome tells the gonads to descend and form into testicles. The absence of the SRY gene results in the gonads developing into ovaries.

Apparently it’s possible for developed ovaries to switch to testicles too. A 2009 study conducted by geneticists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany did an interesting experiment with mice. By removing the FOXL2 gene in mature mouse ovaries, the ovaries ended up producing testosterone after just 3 weeks.

Penis Vs. Vagina

Our genitals also aren’t terribly different from each other. It’s primarily the introduction of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that turns what would be a vagina into a penis.

By the sixth week of pregnancy, the genital area of the fetus develops into a genital tubercle. This tubercle is an arrangement of tissue in the genital area that is the same for both males and females until around week eleven.

The introduction of DHT molds the tubercle into the glans penis, where the absence of DHT results in the formation of the glans clitoridis.

Prior to all this, the urogenital area is just an open cavity for both males and females. This cavity ends up getting fused together, which results in a scar called a raphe line that runs from the anus to the perineum in both males and females. In biological males, however, this raphe line extends up the midline of the scrotum and sometimes continues partway up the penis.

This raphe line, then, is a cruel reminder of what I could have been. I’m going to name it Ralph. Fuck you, Ralph.

I’ve made formal complaints to this god person. I told them “I think my urogenital cavity closed up on accident during the manufacturing process, do you think I could return my penis and be refunded a gift card good for the amount of a replacement vagina?” but they said since it’s already used they can’t accept a return. Go figure: not even a year into being a woman and already I’m being slut shamed.

Fallopian Tupes

The Müllerian duct is another interesting fetal structure. This duct molds into what eventually becomes the Fallopian tubes, which eventually branch off into the uterus, and they exist in both males and females. It’s the introduction of Müllerian Inhibiting Substance (MIS) in males that causes the regress of the would-be Fallopian tubes.

Women also produce MIS, but where males produce more in infancy and gradually produce less and less until puberty, females often have no detectable traces of MIS in infancy and gain progressively more as they age.

What’s Up With Social Norms Then?

So you see, males and females aren’t terribly different from each other. Many of our differences are the result of one or two minor gene or hormone differences.

For instance, if a person with XX chromosomes has their FOXL2 gene inhibited, then their gonads will end up developing as testicles. If a person with XY chromosomes doesn’t produce enough MIS, then they’ll develop Fallopian tubes and eventually a uterus (which does happen). If a person born XY doesn’t get enough DHT, then they develop a vagina (or perhaps ambiguous genitalia).

This makes it unsurprising that intersex people make up around 2% of the population, or the same number of people as their are redheads.

It’s fascinating how such minor deviations result in such firm social norms though.

Anxiety Is…

Anxiety is driving all the way to the next town to go to an event you really wanted to attend, but not being able to get out of the car once you finally get there. Sitting in the parking lot going over all the possibilities of what might happen when you enter. Until so much time has passed that you figure you’ll be too late and may interrupt something and be THAT person. So you turn the car back on and head back home.

Anxiety is over-analyzing all the intricacies of human interaction and realizing that literally anything you do or say could be perceived poorly. As a result, you end up talking in monotone and just generally being bad at conveying any kind of emotion to anyone. Because emotion is scary. And what if you convey the “wrong” emotion at the “wrong” time? Thus, you end up coming off as nonchalant. Aloof. Like you don’t care about anyone or anything. Makes it awfully hard to convince people you’re interested in them. Or to promote yourself to a potential employer. And whenever you try to emulate human emotion the way your analytical mind perceives them from other people, you just end up sounding patronizing. Or at the very least fake.

Anxiety is writing and rewriting a blog post over and over because you’re afraid of how people will perceive it. Are these thoughts really that original? Probably everyone feels the same way so it’s likely dumb to possibly rehash it. On the contrary, what if these thoughts are completely original but are just dumb? Well gee, that might be worse than just being a hack. But at least it would be more original. Does that even matter? Does anything matter? But of course it matters, because we’re social creatures. When did multicelled organisms begin being social anyway? Wait, could even simple single celled organisms be considered “social”? How do we define “social”?

Anxiety is caring way too much about definitions and semantics and other trivial matters because you “know” every tiniest detail can add up and accumulate to something that could really affect you and if you don’t firmly understand all the intricacies and nuances on any subject, then you’re bound to miss something important that you really wish you would’ve known that could’ve prevented you from being embarrassed or hurt.

Anxiety is sending a draft of this post to a friend you trust because you’ve already overthought every little detail of it and now you’re fretting over potential responses to it – or worse, lack of response. But at least now that you’ve had it approved by a trusted source, you can put some of the blame on them when it bombs. And sometimes that’s all it boils down to is blame. Blaming yourself. For every. Little. Thing.

How I Use to Parody Masculinity

A common criticism of trans women that I hear is that we’re essentially a parody of femininity. Basically the complaint is that we go over-the-top feminine. That it seems a lot like we’re just pretending.

But I was really pretending before I came out.

I tried so hard to be a “real man”. I wore a thick beard. I consciously dropped my voice heavily. I remember being so conscious of things as seemingly nonsensical as my walk. I’d think to myself, “shit I’m shaking my hips too much” and try to “correct” myself.

I’d even feign interest in “manly” things and disinterest in “girly” things.

Basically, I was a really bad parody of a man.

I ended up being really jealous of other guys who it seemed like masculinity came so easily to. This created a lot of issues in my relationships. But of course I never felt “man enough”. Because I wasn’t one to begin with.

Everything I did before I came out was so calculated. And yeah I know this seems kind of odd to a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of people out there who claim to not see gender. Who are confused by why we can’t just be our authentic selves without the need for silly labels.

And I have to agree to a certain extent. Labels are stupid. But in a society where we’re constantly told to “man up”, it’s kind of hard not to constantly check our identities when they go against everything we’ve been taught to believe is right.

In a way, I think most of us are parodying one thing or another. We’re social animals who live in a judgmental society. Everyone is parodying something. Most cis dudes parody masculinity as poorly as I use to. Plenty of cis women parody femininity as poorly as people seem to think trans women do. Republicans are a really bad parody of conservativism, and give the rest of us a really bad name.

Really it seems like people only “notice” our hyperfemininity because they become so hyper aware of everything we do after they find out we’re trans. I mean if you pay attention to anything hard enough you’ll find all kinds of discrepancies if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

The thing is though, I’ve never felt so at ease than I do since coming out. I mean I basically just act myself. The other night a friend commented on how I was passing really well. I was a whole lot of shots and beers in (it was New Years Eve, after all) and I absolutely was not pretending to be anything. I was walking however I felt like walking. And naturally speaking softly (while carrying a big stick).

Like I wasn’t consciously altering my voice. I was just speaking however felt comfortable. But apparently that’s when I “pass” the best. When I’m not even thinking about it. When I’m just being myself. It’s so incredibly freeing to not be constantly checking myself. I always had to try so hard to be a guy. But I don’t have to try at all to be a woman. I just am.