A Question of Gender

This is an unedited, stream-of-consciousness brain dump type of post with a dash of organic chemistry and a pinch of biology thrown in. The opinions in here are mine. The facts belong to everyone. 

What exactly does it feel like to feel “female”?

Or for that matter, what exactly does it feel like to feel “male”?

I pose these questions because in the current debate about transgender individuals and bathrooms and what gender is, those who oppose the right of a transgender person to use the restroom of the gender of which he or she identifies bring up this concept.

I am a heterosexual cisgender female. I’ve been a heterosexual cisgender female for forty-six years–my entire life. There is no doubt in my mind as to my gender identity and my sexual orientation and there never has been.

But I can’t answer the above question. I can’t tell you what it feels like to be female.

I can’t tell you this because I don’t know what it feels like to not feel female.

What does it mean to feel female?

Is it wearing dresses, make-up, doing your hair and getting your nails done?

If this is what it feels like to be female, then what about those women who don’t like to wear make-up, dresses, get manicures, and do the whole glam thing? Does that mean they don’t feel female?

How can someone who is female not feel female?

Does feeling female have to do with body parts, specifically breasts?

Then what about those men who have man boobs? I bet they don’t feel female. Or what about women who have had mastectomies? Or women who are not particularly well-endowed in the chest area?

Or what about women who have had hysterectomies? Do you have to have a uterus in order to feel female?

“Feeling female” is more than body parts.

Hormones. Hormones make you feel female.

Yes, but women have both male and female hormones–progesterone and androgen. Estrogen and testosterone.  Men have both male and female sex hormones, too.

How do we really know that hormones make you feel one gender or the other? Is there a balanced chemical equation out there that gives the proper proportions of each to yield a “feeling”?

How can you quantify a feeling? What elements or chemical compounds make up feeling female? Or male? I can Google the line structure drawing for the chemical compounds of both progesterone and testosterone, but all this tells me is the elements, functional groups, and bonds that make up the chemical structure of the molecule. It doesn’t tell me what the feeling looks like or what comprises it.

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Progesterone molecule. Progesterone is a female sex hormone.
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Testosterone molecule.

 

 

 

 

 

Or maybe it’s the functional groups on the D-ring that determines what feels female or male?  Ketones with an attached methyl group make you feel female and alcohols make you feel male.

By the way, both hormones are steroids. The more you know.

Is it behavior? Do you have to behave a certain way in order to feel female? If so, then what behavior constitutes feeling female?

Is it having children? What about women who are infertile?

Is it knitting? Crocheting? Sewing? What about women who have no interest in any of these crafts? Does their disinterest mean they can’t feel “female”? What about the men who sew, knit, or crochet (and their are plenty. In fact, historically, knitting was considered a man’s domain.)? If you asked them if their craft makes them feel female, I bet they’d say no it doesn’t. I knit and crochet, but I can’t say that either of these make me feel female. I can say that doing both gives me a feeling of accomplishment that I created something with my hands and pride in my ability to do both.

What about women who like to go hunting? Or shoot guns? Does this interest of theirs mean that they are incapable of feeling female?

Wow. I’m no more closer to an answer to this than I was before I started writing this post.

If someone like me, who is so sure of her gender identity, can’t tell you what it means to feel “female”, then how can you?

I see where this is going. It’s coming back to body parts again. And chromosomes.

Except that is not so cut and dried.

XY=male. XX=female. World without end, amen. Amen.

Except there are always exceptions.

Did you know that the Y chromosome only has one purpose?

It does. That purpose is that it serves as a “switch”. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Did you know that from conception until 8 weeks, an unborn baby possesses the rudimentary beginnings of both male and female sex organs?

They do. Humans are female by default. At 8 weeks in utero, the “switch” (Y chromosome), if present, is flipped. This is when physical gender is determined. The unneeded organs dissolve away while the needed ones develop.

That’s all that this Y chromosome does. That is its only function. Males, genetically, tend to inherit more of their mother’s traits than their father’s because the mother supplies the X chromosome, while the father supplies the Y. This is why there are so many genetic traits and diseases that afflict men that are only passed on from mothers to sons.

Except sometimes, the switch is faulty. It happens. A person who is born with both sets of sex organs is called intersexed

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.(ISNA 2016)

So is gender more than parts? What about the parts you can’t see? What about hormones? What about the changes that someone goes through during puberty?

If you’re still not convinced, please watch this video about Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Eden Atwood was assigned the female gender at birth (based upon her external body parts). At puberty, it was discovered that she has male DNA and that her ovaries were actually testicles.

What bathroom is Eden Atwood supposed to use? The ladies room? But genetically, she’s male. She has XY chromosomes.

Except I probably shouldn’t call her a “she” since technically she’s a male. But she looks female and her birth certificate says she’s female, so she’s female, right? She has more female hormones (and the secondary sex characteristics associated with them) because her body cannot tolerate androgen, the hormone that is responsible for secondary sex characteristics associated with males.

Since Eden Atwood is biologically male, but dresses female and uses the ladies room, then shouldn’t we be vigilant every time she enters a bathroom to pee and hide our daughters in case this biological male decides to molest them?

After all, isn’t that the whole argument in favor of these bathroom laws?

There are always exceptions. Always. 

Should Eden Atwood be punished because the “switch” that was supposed to make her either all male or all female didn’t work? Hasn’t this woman been through enough already?

And another thing about hormones–research has shown, several times over, that hormonal surges a woman experiences while pregnant can affect her unborn child. Research has shown a link between these hormonal surges and the sexual orientation of the child later in life. These prenatal hormone surges affect the brains of unborn children. At certain, critical periods of prenatal development, heightened levels of testosterone might masculinize a female fetus while heightened levels of estrogen might feminize a male fetus (Barlow & Durand, 2015 p. 388).

Still think gender is all about biology?

Gender is also a social construct. Who determines what constitutes gender roles?

Society.

If gender roles are rigid and set in stone, then how can they change?

Again, society redefines them.

If gender roles are rigid and immutable, then why do different cultures have different definitions of gender roles than our society does?

Because society defines gender roles.

So gender is not as cut and dried, as black and white, as set in stone as some people argue.

If that’s the case, then how can we define what it feels like to feel “female” or “male”?

How can we define something when we don’t know what its like to not feel that way?

Change is a part of life. How we handle change is a test of our character. We cannot grow as people if we refuse to face change. Change is not fun. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. We’re forced to confront the fact that what we always knew to be certain really isn’t certain at all.

There are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who have the courage to face the uncomfortable and the unknown. Then there are those who would rather hide because they can’t deal with the fact that change is part of life.

When you peel the layers away from this issue, it boils down to one thing. It’s not about who is using what bathroom. It’s not about who can marry whom or who can use this entrance or that water fountain.

This comes down to a group of people who are so terrified of facing the notion that the world is deviating from what they’ve been told it is supposed to be, they feel they have to fight.

Except they’re fighting a losing battle because change will happen whether we like it or not. But what sets these people apart from the rest of us, or even other people who are merely hesitant about facing change, is that the idea of “different” so terrifies them, they have to force the rest of the world to bend to their view. It’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. You can force it in for as much as you want or as long as you want, but it’s not going to go in that hole. And when you’ve come to admit that this square peg won’t go into that round hole, the peg itself is battered and damaged.

There will always be people who insist that not only all the pegs are round (when they aren’t), but those pegs are damned well going to go into that hole even though they don’t fit and will never fit. While you might argue that you could take that peg and whittle it down until it fits that hole, we’re also talking about human beings. Wooden pegs are inanimate objects. Human beings have feelings. You could take a metaphorical knife and whittle away at that square peg/human being, but in doing so, you’re doing damage to that human being.

And this is another difference in viewpoints–humanity. Those who try to put gender into absolute terms often use the argument that a “gun” can self-identify as a female.

No. It can’t. A gun is an inanimate object. It concerns me that people would strip away the humanity of someone who doesn’t fit their definition of gender, but then assign human attributes to an inanimate object. And then these people fail to see the irony in giving human attributes to an object that, in certain hands, can take away human life.

This isn’t about who uses what bathroom. This issue boils down to bravery or cowardice. You either suck it up and face the unpleasant notion that the world doesn’t work in terms of absolutes or you can be a coward and try to force something that is bigger than you and beyond you to fit into a space that is far too small to contain even one-one hundredth of the whole. And then you can be arrogant enough to believe that something that is bigger than you and beyond you will bend to your wishes.

In the meantime, I have more important things to worry about than who is using what bathroom. I have my own life to live, my own journey to take, and my own fears and discomfort in the face of change that I intend to stare down.

I intend to win the battle with myself and my fears and my discomfort. I can’t do that when I’m trying to control things beyond my control. I can’t do that when I am so attached to being right.

That’s another thing about courage. It takes courage to admit that you’re wrong. And I’m not ashamed to say that there have been plenty of times in my life where I was wrong.

Wrong about race.

Wrong about sexual orientation.

Wrong about nationality

Wrong about spirituality.

Wrong about gender.

Wrong about lots of things.

Life goes on. You learn from your mistakes and move forward.

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References

  • Barlow, D. H., & Durand, V. M. (2015). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach (7th ed.). Toronto: Cengage.
  • Intersex Society of North America. (n.d.). What is intersex? Retrieved May 11, 2016, from http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex

Edited to add references and sources for some information. 

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