Gender: How Things Have Changed Since We Were Kids
By Robert Bernstein
June is Pride Month so it was appropriate for the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara to have a talk on just what is meant by gender. From a social, psychological and biological standpoint.
Slides of this talk are available at: https://swt.org/hssb/2021-0619-gender/slides/
Human Sexuality instructor Marian Shapiro started off this talk with this two-minute Comedy Central video showing what the father-son "sex talk" looks like today.
It was supposed to be funny, but I found it quite painful and I felt bad for both father and son.
Dr Scott McCann was Director of Health Education at Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and also taught human sexuality at SBCC and Antioch. He complemented Shapiro's presentation with more details of biology.
Starting with the multiple dimensions of gender.
First is basic genetics. As we learned in high school biology, most [people who identify as] women are XX, and most people who identify as men are XY. But even this has exceptions. There can be only a single X or an extra X or an extra Y. These variations generally result in sterility and in gender that is not clearly male or female.
Second, are developmental issues. Hormones during fetal development can affect gender. Female is the default gender. A person can genetically be XY but appear to be a female if the person either lacks male hormones or is not sensitive to them. This is thought to be the case with Jamie Lee Curtis. This is called an intersex condition.
Third, are anatomical differences in body and brain. Parts of the hypothalamus are bigger in males than females. The right cerebral hemisphere is thicker in males and may affect spatial ability. The corpus callosum connecting the hemispheres is thicker in females and may affect language and multitasking. Males also tend to have more specialization in each hemisphere.
Fourth is how people see themselves, or gender identity. A person may have an outward appearance of one gender but may feel they are a different gender.
Fifth is how people express their gender in behavior. This might include how they dress or wear makeup.
Sixth is the role they play in society and social conventions of gender.
McCann noted that early in development the genitals form an undifferentiated genital bud in most people.
At seven weeks the bud differentiates into male and female organs. He notes that the differences are not as great as you might think. For example, the genital tubercle can become the head of the penis in a male or it can become a clitoris in a female.
Females have Skene's glands that are similar to a prostate with similar fluid.
In the past if a baby was born with ambiguous sex organs they would get a doctor to do surgery early. Now it is considered wise to wait until the child is old enough to have a gender identity.
Male to female gender reassignment surgery and treatment can work very well.
Female to male reassignment is difficult to make complete. It is possible to construct a penis. But inflatable tubes or a bendable rod must be implanted to create an erection. Some female to male transgender people opt for "top surgery" (mastectomy) only, and rely on testosterone to enlarge the clitoris. But both types of trans people can achieve orgasm one way or another.
Marian Shapiro took over explaining about the Genderbread Person at this point. Her presentation offered four dimensions of gender.
Biological Sex is pretty much about whether the person has a penis and about the chromosomes. Gender Expression is the way you dress, do hair and makeup, and how you behave. Gender Identity is how you identify. It is possible for a person to identify as male, female, "genderqueer" or in between.
Sexual Orientation is a completely separate dimension of gender. It is about who you are attracted to. She included a slide showing some famous people and their dimensions of gender.
Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi have been married since 2008. Elton John is married to David Furnish. Salvador Dali apparently was asexual. He tried sex just once with his wife Gala and did not like it. And he tried sex just once with a man and found it painful. This, despite sexual themes in much of his art.
Cis gender is when a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
Trans can be male to female or vice versa. A trans woman is a person who was born biologically male and transitioned to having a female body. Many trans people speak in Shapiro's class. Some have sad stories of how long it took to be OK to come out as trans. One woman waited until she was in her 60s to come out and transition.
The presentation began with asking people if they know what the letters LGBTQIA stand for. Most people know L is lesbian, G is gay, B is bisexual and T is trans.
Q is Queer and is an umbrella term for those who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender. And a gender fluid person may feel male or female at different times on different time scales.
I is Intersex and is biologically a person's sex being in between fully male or female.
A can be Asexual but it can also refer to Allies of the other cases.
Some other cases:
Agender: someone who does not identify themselves with a particular gender.
Androgenous: a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics into an ambiguous form, can be expressed with regard to biological sex, gender identity, or gender expression.
Bisexual: Being attracted to both male and female-identifying people.
Demisexual: Only being sexually attracted to someone when they have an emotional bond with the person.
Pansexual: sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity.
Polyamorous: Engaging in multiple romantic partnerships with the consent of all involved.
Some cultures recognize more than two genders. Some Native American cultures have the concept of "two spirit" which has elevated status. In contrast, Latino culture often has a strong stereotype of gender and it can be very difficult for someone to be outside of those standards.
Gender dysphoria is a mismatch between body and identity. Some trans people have described having gender dysphoria.
It is important to note that gender identity is separate from sexual orientation.
We were then shown a video of a trans girl named Jazz Jennings.
Jazz was born biologically as a boy but identifies as a girl. She was fortunate to have parents and three siblings who supported her. Jazz also has a mermaid outfit she swims in, which her mother says might be because mermaids have no genitalia.
She appeared on national television from an early age. This attracted support, but also anger and threats. Some said it was unfair for her to play soccer as a girl. But she pointed out she is smaller than others on the team. Her advantage is that she is fast. She had to fight a legal battle to have the right to play.
It was noted that boxing has weight classes and perhaps something similar could be done for sports like soccer.
We watched a second video about a trans boy named Jacob who was born as a girl named Mia. His parents hoped this would go away, but he was persistent, consistent, and insistent. A combination that makes it real.
Pediatrician Michelle Forcier said that 41% of trans people attempt suicide. It is risky to wait to transition; the biggest harm is to do nothing.
We were shown a slide of Americans' Self Identified Sexual Orientation by Generation.
It is interesting to note that for Gay, Lesbian and Transgender there is a slight increase in percentage for younger generations. But for bisexuals, it is dramatically higher at 11.5% for Generation Z born 1997-2002.
Young people also face great danger if they are trans as shown in this table.
82% feel unsafe in school and 90% have experienced harassment.
We learned that gender roles vary widely across cultures and can change over time. The Tchambuli tribe of New Guinea has roles almost exactly reversed from US norms. And US norms have evolved over time. As recently as the 1950s few women were doctors or were accepted outside strict stereotype roles.
We need to think about new understandings of gender for education, parenting, public policy and for daily living.
Shapiro noted the new law in Arkansas that prevents doctors from doing transition assistance on young people. McCann noted that hormone therapy needs to be done before puberty or the transition will be much more difficult.
Meanwhile, we are being exposed to compounds in the environment that are similar to female hormones. Sperm production has dropped 50% in the past 40 years. We see male frogs that have been made female due to plastic and pesticide pollution.
Some states have higher rates of LGBTQIA than others. In part this is due to acceptance; people migrate to where they feel accepted.
I was curious how often there is regret after making a transition. McCann sent me this helpful reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6212091/pdf/gox-6-189a.pdf
It is "A Survey Study of Surgeons’ Experience with Regret and/or Reversal of Gender Confirmation Surgeries". 46 surgeons (30% of those asked) responded to the survey. Together they had about 22,725 patients. Only 62 patients had regrets which is less than 0.3%. This would indicate that Gender Identity is a powerful and stable force.
Things are definitely more complex than when most of us were kids with regard to gender. But it is good to know that going forward the world can be more inclusive and welcoming to all who are on the various gender spectrums!
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/