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One of the more pivotal shifts of culture I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is the more open discussion of the gender binary. I’m no historian, but at least in America in the last several decades, the societal opinion seemed pretty straightforward that people were either male or female with no other options. Many people today would still roll their eyes and snort at the suggestion that is there more than male or female when it comes to gender.

People decry that it isn’t natural for men to become women or women to become men (transgender folks would argue that they aren’t “becoming” anything other than what they’ve always been on the inside). That “God made male and female, and there is no in-between.” That logic really falls short though. There aren’t many, if any, true binaries in the natural world. Sure, we’ve got night and day, but also dawn and dusk. We’ve got water and land, but also shores, swamps and bayous. We’ve got black and white, and at least 50 shades of gray 😉

Not to mention that there are many examples in the natural world of hermaphoditic creatures, such as worms and slugs, some fish, and most plants. Clownfish and frogs can change their sex after birth. Butterflies, reptiles and cardinal birds can be half male/half female (scroll down in this article to see a picture – with the different coloration in male/female cardinals it’s quite obvious!) Clearly God (or science) created a lot of creatures with unique, changeable, non-binary genders.

Human understanding of science is always learning new things, and that is true when it comes to gender identity. I came across a book years ago called Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. It was an eye-opening book for me. Not only did it closely follow this one specific family’s journey as one of their identical twin boys very clearly identified as female at an early age (she was insisting she was her brother’s sister as young as 2 years old!), but it dove into the science behind gender and how a person could be born feeling different than how they look. I found my own opinions changing with this new information.

I was most astonished to learn how many different biological reasons could cause a person to feel different on the inside than how their gender seemed on the outside. I had always been vaguely aware of hermaphrodites (a term that isn’t considered polite anymore) – people born with both ovaries and testicles. I never thought much about what happened there, but oftentimes the OB physician and/or the parents make a decision then and there about which parts to remove. And if they remove the ovaries but the baby grows up feeling female, then oops!

We now refer to people born this way as intersex, and there are many different variations of non-typical genitalia that happen at birth. Intersex variations are naturally occurring in humans and happen in about 1-2 in 100 births! That’s fairly common, about as common as people born with red hair. According to those numbers, in my town of Spokane, WA, population of 217,353, that means there are between 2,173 and 4,347 intersex people. Doctors must pick one gender to write on the birth certificate, but without waiting for the child to develop an identity or go through puberty, it isn’t much more than a guess. It may or may not match how they feel when they begin to articulate their gender identity.

Another condition that rarely happens is called a micropenis, about 1.5 in 10,000 male births. Some baby boys are born with a micropenis and possible other hormonal issues and have surgery to become baby girls. Many of these people are dissatisfied with their female gender as they age and identify as male. There is an actual scale, like on a ruler, that is used to measure the baby’s penis to see if it “counts” enough for the baby to stay a boy.

Getting away from the genitalia, there are hormonal changes that happen during development of fetuses in the womb. In fact, the current understanding is that the brain is the largest sex organ, moreso than a penis or ovaries/uterus. There’s an area of the brain called the BSTc that has a different number of neurons in male vs female brains. Transgender females (people who were born male but identify as women) had the amount of neurons consistent with a typical female brain. And the opposite is also true – transgender males (people born female but identifying as male) had the number of neurons typical with a male brain’s BSTc. There are similar size differences in the INAH section of the brain that will appear male in transgender males and female in transgender females.

Genes play a role as well. There’s a specific gene, ERβ, that is associated with transgender men. And of course some folks don’t feel entirely male or female, hence the term “non-binary” or gender fluid. The terminology has exploded as people have become more open with their gender expression. I found a great “cheat sheet” to explain the many different terms in the LGBTQIA2S+ spectrum.

The terminology and pronouns matter. I see people’s shackles rise when confronted with differing pronouns, or massive eye rolls at the “PC culture” that forces us to adjust our ways of communicating about each other, but these are people’s deep, bedrock identities we’re talking about. No one chooses how they’re born. I didn’t decide to be a cisgender (my gender identity matching my external appearance), heterosexual woman. I am who and what I am, period. Same for all these folks who are born with genetic, hormonal, or gonadal differences. And they shouldn’t be forced to fit into some box that doesn’t fit them because that’s more comfortable for everyone else.

If you are interested in learning more about the science, Harvard University has a great resource page here, or you can read this article from the National Institute of Health. There are several documentaries on Netflix now – Disclosure, TransFormer, A Secret Love, Pray Away and more. I follow @mx.deran, @janaemariekroc, @queersurgeon, and @thejeffreymarsh on Instagram to learn from different perspectives. Check them out and see what you think. As George Bernard Shaw says, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

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