Sex and gender | Blue is for Girls, Pink is for Boys

Sex and gender | Blue is for Girls, Pink is for Boys

August 22, 2019 4 By Joana
Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Is it a boy or a girl?” The first question we ask about a new baby. But can we honestly answer it? Or is this distinction between male and female sex or gender trickier than we think?

In our society, we accept that genitalia determines our sex and gender: if you are born with a vagina you are a woman, and if you are born with a penis you are a man. But life is never that simple, and in the case of sex and gender, many definitions are possible and they can change with time.

Scientists still don’t know all the factors that determine sex, but we do agree on one thing, namely that all of us exist within a spectrum of sexual identity and that sex and gender actually are fluid.

[wait, what? Sex and gender? Are they not the same?] Well, I’m here to claim that they are not (based on the research of course). Follow me through sex lane and you’ll find that while tightly interconnected and complementary, the two terms differ and may affect your identity.

Biological Sex

When we talk about sex, we refer to a set of characteristics that determine if we are considered biologically male or female. These characteristics include genes, internal and external sex organs, hormones, and secondary sex features (such as breasts for women or beards for men).

However, each of these characteristics can fluctuate into different directions, which means that in some cases they will not be all aligned with a typical female or male development [I guess that explains my typical Portuguese female mustache]. We can have traits from both sexes, leading to what is known as disorder of sex development, or intersex (check out this cool infographic to see how many different outcomes we can have).

Interestingly enough, I’d say there are probably way more intersex people than you might think. In fact, according to some reports, 1 in 50 newborns are intersex. But intersex features can also manifest themselves throughout life (not only during pregnancy) and there are still many unknown sexual factors. In other words, it is fair to say that the number of intersex people is actually higher.

So why do we keep insisting on a binary classification when it comes to sex? And how much do we know about its determinants?

X&Y? More like A to Z

Let´s go back in time. Just a bit over a century ago, doctors would tell you that your sex depended on the food your mother ate or on the shape of the moon during the night your parents decided to bang. It was all up to the environment and external circumstances.

But in came Gregor Mendel (the father of genetics) and suddenly we entered a new phase of thinking. We learned that our chromosomes were the ones deciding our fate. XX, you are a female. XY, you are a male. Pretty simple, right?

Well, it seems that things are a bit more complicated than that. Here are some numbers that will probably surprise you: almost 100,000 individuals develop as a typical female despite having a Y chromosome, and there are nearly 400,000 men who have two X chromosomes. To make things even more confusing, almost 4 million people are born with one single sex-chromosome, while more than 10 million have three.

But what does this mean? Is genetics irrelevant when it comes to sex? Was this Mendel dude wrong all along?

Not really, but the idea that a simple set of chromosomes is enough to determine your sex appears to be overly simplistic. To better understand this concept, imagine chromosomes as huge chunks of DNA. Each chromosome has hundreds to thousands of genes. And each gene contains specific information that assigns them a specific role.

Now, when it comes to sex, it seems that a tiny specific region on the Y chromosome contains one gene that gives the first signal telling your cells to become male. This tiny region is lost in women with the XY combination. So, although they have a Y chromosome, they do not have this pioneer gene “telling” their cells to become male.

On the other hand, this tiny region can also exist separated from the rest of the chromosome, and that’s how some men can be XX, because they also have the tiny region floating around, and that’s enough for their cells to become male.

It seems that genetics have an important role after all. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not only one single gene that decides your fate. In fact, this “tiny-region-gene” is only active for one day during your development in the womb. So how do your cells know whether to stay female or male after the gene is off?

It’s all about communication. When the gene is active, it makes sure that its neighbors know it. It activates a cascade of different genes, that in turn activate other cascades, hence spreading the information. So even after the first gene is turned off, your cells still remember the information and follow the given directions. But just like the whispering game, sometimes the message gets lost, and you may end up with what we call mosaicism, where some of your cells have different genetic information than others. Indeed, there are cases of individuals who have cells with features linked to the opposite sex.  

Behind every great man, there is a great woman

As you learned here before (and if you didn’t read it, check it out because it’s an awesome post), our genes are controlled in different ways making their expression (for example protein production) dynamic. You can imagine that the more genes that are involved in sex determination, the more things can fluctuate. Almost all the genes involved in sex determination are constantly tuned in different harmonies. But there is one unique gene that stays ON throughout your entire life once it’s activated.

Scientists recently found that this single gene makes sure we stay male or female. Yes, you read it right. If this gene gets shut down, you reverse to the opposite sex. At least in theory. So, does that mean that you have another “person” living inside of you? Is the quote “behind every great man, there is a great woman” more literal than you think? Do you have more than one sex? Is this new girl (or boy) writing for Ivory Embassy crazy?

If you think about it, there are many cases of hermaphrodites in nature. Many animals are both female and male. Some of them have both sexes at the same time, such as slugs and snails. Others, like sponges and even cute little clownfishes like Nemo (that btw means “the man” in Oromo and “nobody” in Latin. Yeah, let that sink in for a while), are sequential. Some days male, other days female, often depending on what the environment around tells them.

Although this seems weird, it might be a good thing. In case of a catastrophe, these species can assure their continuity and make sure that the different sexes survive. This ability to change sex is not only true for sea creatures. Even chickens have it. The question is: do we? Some scientists suggest that the Y chromosome is on the verge of extinction. So, what does that mean? Will we be able to rescue the male sex by turning women into men? Still, we don’t know if this is possible.

Studies in mice have shown that if we take out that one gene I mentioned before, the one that is always active, we can transform male testes into ovaries, and female ovaries into testes. Doing that, we also change hormones and other sexual characteristics and voilà, what once was a Mickey becomes a Minnie, and vice-versa. Still, we need more research studies.

Gender is not another word for sex

We know now that sex is more complicated than we initially thought, and that there is no such thing as 100% female or male. So what about gender? How does that work?

First things first: sex and gender are two different concepts. While biology defines your sex, your internal sense of “being” defines your gender. Another thing is your gender expression, which has to do with the way you choose to present yourself. Dresses, makeup, shaved head, you choose it. Your gender expression does not have to match your gender identity.

Just like sex, gender is also a spectrum. Gender emerges from a combination of both biological and cultural factors and develops independently of your sex. Still, our society has evolved in a way that assigns gender based on biological sex (or what we believe might be). While that assignment might be ok for cisgenders (same gender identity as sex), others might suffer from it, like for example transgenders (opposite gender identity to the sex) or intersex.

Humans feel the need to classify people into men and women. But why is that? Well, one of the reasons might be that we’re used to it. From passports to bathrooms, we always saw the Adam and Eve symbols. But yet another not so obvious reason might be that we like to know how we should treat people. Yes, even at an unconscious level, most of the times we treat men and women differently (check out The Pink and Blue Projects if you don’t believe it).

Luckily, the idea of gender as non-binary and fluid is slowly becoming more accepted. Hopefully, we are looking into a more colorful future that doesn’t include only pink or blue.

That’s it, people! My very first post for the Ivory Embassy. I hope that besides raising some eyebrows we were also able to raise some awareness. Understanding that both sex and gender are fluid will have a massive impact on our society and will help us understand that we don’t have to define things as just Pink or Blue. Instead, we can just accept that everyone is different and unique. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to feel special?

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