Science, gender, Trump, and cruelty

When it comes to the latest Trump administration announcement on defining gender, I think Jamelle Bouie (borrowing from Adam Serwer) is exactly right, “the cruelty is the point.”

That said, James Hamblin with a really, really good piece on the complexities of biological sex that the Trump administration can only pretend to take into account.  And you gotta love the headline, “Against a Federal Registry of Genitals: A report that the Trump administration plans to define gender based on the appearance of infants runs counter to developmental biology and individual privacy.”

Life might be more orderly and easy to understand if biology worked just like this:

People come in one of two sexes, male or female. This is determined by chromosomes, and XX means female, and XY means male. Males have penises and testicles—which are all similar in appearance and curvature and size—that secrete testosterone in similar proportions. This testosterone is metabolized and functions similarly in all men and causes them to have similar amounts of musculature and deep voices and certain amounts of facial and back hair, and to act in particular ways due to this hormone. It causes their brains to develop and make them behave in ways that are “manly.”

These men are attracted to women, specifically women who look normal, which is a result of the fact that they definitionally have exactly and only two XX chromosomes that cause them to develop clitori and uteri and breasts and ovaries that produce estrogen and other hormones that cause cycles of growth and shedding of the uterine lining, and who predictably bear children when sperm meets egg. All of these features develop and function the same way in all women who are normal—whose amounts of hormones make their bodies look and feel more or less the same, and whose brains develop and function in a way that is female, and which consigns them to certain roles in social hierarchies.

This is the middle-school health class version. Like any simplistic model, this one is presented as an introduction. Most 11-year-olds do not yet know about enzymes and cell biology, and have barely begun to consider the complex differences between humans, and aren’t ready to grapple with the social implications of the simplistic dichotomy. Plus it would be impossible to go into greater depth without the class snickering every time the teacher said “ambiguous genitalia” or “micropenis.”

The paradigm is somewhat similar to saying that automobiles come in two forms: cars and trucks. This is a worldview that is easily challenged by the existence of SUVs and station wagons—neither of which would suddenly disappear, even if government officials tried to make up a definition that excluded them.

Yet this is the paradigm that the Department of Health and Human Services is preparing to use to define gender, ]emphases mine] according to a memo reported in The New York Timestoday: “The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with … Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.”…

The agency proposes to define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” Which would indeed be ideal at a bureaucratic level. Even looking no further than the maternity ward or doula’s chambers, though, human biology does not abide by the rules laid out for us in sixth grade.

Though they have long been anathema to talk about, there are many thousands of variables that affect gestation and fetal development—some influenced by epigenetic factors generations before conception—that lead to a spectrum of outcomes for any given infant. This can include sex-chromosomal anomalies (XXY or XYY, for example), as well as irregular functioning of enzymes that activate or metabolize hormones, or the blocking of binding sites where hormones typically act, which effectively could lead an XY person to develop female genitalia (known as Swyer syndrome), or an XX person to develop male genitalia, and for thousands of infants each year who are born with “ambiguous genitalia” that can look something like a penis and a clitoris (which are fundamentally structurally analogous, spongy tissue consisting of a crus and glans that become engorged and hyper-sensitive during sex).

There are two statistical peaks in the distribution of infant outcomes that roughly accord with the states described in middle school, but there is also everything in between and on other sides. Entire textbooks are written on the wide variety of ways sex hormones can manifest during fetal development and throughout life. The exact number of infants born in the domain known as “intersex”—who, for any number of reasons, do not clearly fit into one of the two sexes based on genitalia or chromosomes or both—is difficult to know because for many years, such people were “normalized” at birth by default.

The obvious questions, of course, is, what’s the point?!  The cruelty.  And pandering the the cruel.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Science, gender, Trump, and cruelty

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    That’s what going with your gut instincts get you. Especially if your gut produces political results.

  2. Nicole K. says:

    It’s easy to pick on 1.2% of the population without facing any major blowback. And people become bullies because they can and because they enjoy it. That’s basically what is happening. The social conservatives lost on L&G rights, so they have shifted their focus onto transgender people instead. And there’s probably not enough of us to prevent them from doing it.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    I believe our big Dem tent will have your back. We need to win at least the House to have a big clout.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: