Caster Semenya, a young female athlete from South Africa, is making headlines due to genetic and hormonal testing that was performed when she was suspected to be male. Setting aside for a moment that she was tested without her knowledge and that the result should not have been made public, setting aside that I wish she had not dropped out and that this is a heart breaking story, I would like to take a moment to let you know that your high school biology teacher was wrong.
We were all taught that if you have two X chromosomes, XX, that you are a girl. And if you are an XY, you are a boy. For most of us, this is true.
For most. Not all. The development of genitals in the womb is a complicated, multi-step process. Many genes are involved and if anyone of them is disrupted, then genitals will form improperly. Sometimes this leads to a mixture of ovaries and testes, a smaller penis, or what is known as sex reversal.
One out of every 3000 individuals born as XY will be a girl anatomically. 1 out of 20,000 individuals born as XX will be a boy anatomically. When you think about it, this isn’t that rare. 1 out of 3000 boys is the same as 1000 out of 3 million boys. There are 300 million people in the United States. So this means there are approximately 50,000 XY individuals who are girls.
The fact that these are so different is a clue to the simple beginning of the boy or girl pathway. All fetuses start as girls. The hormonal pathway for being a boy has to be turned on. Otherwise, voila, you will be a girl.
Interestingly enough, some causes of intersex led to the girls developing male characteristics when they hit puberty. Others may experience infertility or lack of menstruation.
Ok. Enough science. If you are interested in the science, I’ve put some links to good websites for more information.
There is great debate over whether or not being gay (and I do mean that inclusively, LGBTQI, etc.) is genetic. Recently the religious right tried to twist the words of the American Psychological Association when the APA revised their statement to say that the biological origins of being gay are still unknown and probably biologically complicated. The religious right promptly and proudly announced there is no gay gene.
Let’s think about this for a minute. The research on intersexed individuals has gone on for many years and is very well documented. This is, in part, because we can SEE the result – whether it is the appearance of external genitals or looking inside using techniques like ultrasound. We can also analyze DNA very accurately and determine not only if someone is XX or XY, we can also identify what gene mutations are the cause of being intersexed. The data is irrefutable and solid.
Where does this leave sexual orientation? If a gay man appears to have completely normal looking genitals, does this argue that being gay is a choice? I don’t think so. It takes sex hormones to develop genitals. Why couldn’t smaller changes in hormones lead to a change in sexual orientation? We know so little about the brain and how it works. Just because we can’t “see” something physical that tells us someone is gay, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
We know that many personality characteristics have a genetic basis or are due to changes in the brain. Depression is linked to low serotonin levels, introverts brains look different from extroverts brains when imaged, we know there are genetic and developmental influences for autism and for our sense of personal space. We know that right brained people are left handed and tend to be more visual and artistic. We know that people who are risk takers have certain genetic traits; it runs in the Kennedy family. We know that people who can get by on six hours sleep have different genes that help them get by on less sleep (I want that gene). We haven’t completely unraveled the biology behind all of these traits.
Gender is not 100%. It’s been proven. So then doesn’t it make sense that sexual orientation isn’t 100%? It’s just still on the list of things yet to be learned through scientific research. Ask any person who is gay and they will tell you that they did not choose to be gay. I’m willing to bet there is a biological link. A complex choreography of hormones and brain development that sometimes takes the road less traveled.
I hope that if more people learn about intersex conditions as a result of Caster Semenya’s story, that it will serve as an opportunity for acceptance and understanding. But really, do we need to have science to teach us to treat everyone with respect? If it helps, I’m all for it. Shouldn’t we be understanding and compassionate toward all humans without needing science to encourage that kind of attitude? (One would think that this might be the job of religion…..)
We are all human. All races, ethnicities, cultures, age, abled or disabled or differently abled, genius or average, rich or poor, male or female or in between, gay or straight, introvert or extrovert, bisexual or transgendered. We’re all classified under Homo sapiens. When we finally “get” that, when we as humans understand there is only the human race, then our world will make progress. Imagine a world where every human is wanted, has a loving home, education, food, healthcare, opportunity, freedom and social acceptance. Think what we could accomplish. Think about how many problems would be gone.
You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
Another great website is that of Dr. Veronica Drantz, a biologist who studies sexual development. You’ll feel like you are in science class again as she even has videos to explain what happens. Last, you can check out my science blog, LGBTLatestScience.
geekgirl: Jude is a straight woman, a mom and has been married for 32 years to the same wonderful man. She believes in Buddhism and attends the United Church of Christ. She is a molecular biologist, her best friend is a lesbian, and she believes that every human deserves equal rights, respect and a life free from hate, fear and discrimination. The only thing she hates is pickles. Her science blog can be found at LGBT Latest Science.