Gender Vs. Sexuality:
The Biochemistry Behind the Orientation
Our eye color, our height, the shape of our ears-even artistic inability that causes every water-color painting we’ve made since preschool to look more like regurgitated clam chowder on a page- all of this is hereditary. As human beings, our genetic programming is made from a combination of parents’ traits, and the baby is the mixed product of this combination. Genes are the blueprint for human life, defining everything from skin color to stomach lining. So, how much of who we are is nature over nurture? The physical aspects of hereditary inheritance are concrete. But what about things like phobias? Or personality? What is it inside of each us, physically, that influences these seemingly psychological things? This is a subject that’s being heatedly debated in the world of science, as it becomes more and more applicable in an area previously untouched. The battle: Gender vs. Sexuality.
The issue of gender confusion seems to be more of a social crisis than a scientific one. There is, however, a relatively technical approach to all this sociology. Gender Identity, for instance, is a self-label. It’s defined as a personal conception of yourself as being male, female, or (more rarely) both. Gender Role is very different: it’s the visual manifestations reflecting gender identity, such as girls wear dresses’ or boys have crew-cuts’,things that society tells us are “boy” or “girl”. Just as these two terms differ, so too do sex’ and gender’. Scientifically speaking, sex’ is purely physical (boy and girl parts), and it’s assigned at birth, whereas gender is based on legality, social and personal experiences, and is more cognitive than anything else. Basically, sex is to biology as gender is to culture.
Politics aside, science just might be able to explain the biochemical processes at work during this gender/sex struggle. It all starts when a human looks, as Juno McGuff (2007) would say, “like a sea monkey”: an embryo in the womb. A child’s gender development begins in the intrauterine stage. Boys, this might sound crazy, but all fetuses start out as female. Each little baby is only two X’ chromosomes full at this point. It’s later that the male’s sperm has the potential to switch the configuration to a masculine XY and determine the certainty of testicular development. From there, either testosterone or estrogen takes over and-bam!you’ve got to start painting with pink or blue.
What of the fetal brain? The now-defined sex affects this, too. For instance, the Corpus callosum, amygdale, cerebellum, and in some cases, the pereoptic areas are larger in testosterone-drenched brains than in those with only estrogen. The baby brain has receptors that will determine future hormone use, and the nature of altering hormone surges in the earliest days is still unknown. In the case of transgendered people (those whose gender identity differs from their sex), the developed brain’s hormone levels were found to be the same as straight patients. Male and female brains, due to structure, react differently to the same hormones. This could be that very same concept in application. According to Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist at Brown University (currently studying the effects of parental behavior on child gender identity), “The brain doubles in size in the first five years after birth, and the connectivity between the cells goes up hundreds of orders of magnitude.” It’s obvious that these early stages are crucial in determining the state that the baby will grow up in.
Gender Identity is often discussed in terms of dysfunction, disease, and disorder. These really aren’t meant to be demeaning. In fact, they go a long way in potentially explaining the mysterious biochemical processes of gender. Endogenous or exeogenous factor variation might occur when hormone levels are abnormal, and don’t follow a genetically determined path. As discussed previously, FSH, a hormone causing female genital and ovary development is present in male fetuses. It’s usually “canceled out” when the testosterone kicks in, but what if it’s not completely neutralized? There would definitely be some gender confusion there. Mullerian and Wolffian duct dysfunction, and unregulated hormone surges, and dimorphism of the brain could all have lasting effects, contributing to diseases like Gender Identity Disorder. Even hormonal exposure secondary to genetic sex has the potential to cause a gender bias in all newborns.
Five times as many boys as girls feel their gender doesn’t match their biological sex (Children’s National Medical Center). Then 15% of these kids continue to show signs of gender identity problems in adulthood (Ken Zucker, head of Gender Identity Service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto). Why is that? The answer may lie in purely physical genetic disorders. An XXX, OX, OY, or XXY pattern of chromosomes may link directly to “psychological” gender issues (the last configuration suggesting homosexuality).
To gain a better understanding of these phenomena, we must go all the way down to the fundamentals of the human body: cells. Regardless of race, height, gender, or anything else, every human being has 46 chromosomes, each of which consists of one tightly coiled molecule of DNA. DNA, strictly speaking, is a polymer of four different kinds of nucleotides. That’s the technicality of the situation: DNA determines every aspect of who we are. The hereditary traits we inherit are passed down through the specific sequences in strands of DNA, literally defining inheritance as the process of copying genes to be translated into the offspring. The genes inside of us are combined when the sperm comes in contact with the ovum (egg), mixing the DNA of our parents to create us. Since chromosome behavior determines which genes the baby is made up of, this process also is the cause for genetic variance, or, in other words, genetic mutation.
Fragile X Syndrome is one of the most common genetic disorders resulting in mental retardation. It’s caused by the physical abnormality of one of the person’s X chromosomes, and can occur in either males or females. Triplet Repeats are often the cause, meaning that the tip of the chromosome has multiple nucleotide bases attached to it. Though this syndrome is found in both genders, about one in fifteen hundred males is affected, while only one in twenty-five hundred females is. The fact that the disease seems to be gender-biased, and that Fragile X Syndrome may not noticeably appear in an affected family until a later generation, can be explained by the process of conception. As previously discussed, sex is and inherited characteristic, determined by the presence or absence of certain chromosomes. The male’s sperm can contain either an X or a Y chromosome, while the one in the ovum is always an X. The baby’s sex is determined when the sperm and the egg meet, and genetic disorder depends upon which chromosomes (if it’s an affected X or not, and from Mom or Dad) he or she is given.
When examining sex and gender, physical development of the fetus applies to the psychology of it all, too. The human brain is developing, just like all the other organs, and emotions are really just hormonal impulses, scientifically. The Cerebrum occupies 80% of the human brain’s total mass. This may seem strange, seeing as it’s only the outer layer of the organ, but the surface area is more important than volume. Convolutions that increase surface area (think all the dips and wrinkles we’ve got on our brains) are what determine cognitive capability. The brain is responsible for why we fall asleep more easily in warm classrooms during long lectures, for physical activities like running and walking, and, yes, for our touchy-feelings.
The forebrain is the section that controls emotion. It does so by means of hormone distribution and intake, and by conglomerating sensory input from other parts of the brain. It’s very complex, and therefore, very subdivided. The Thalamus is a sub-region of the forebrain that influences sexual response and behaviors. This is where our so-called “Hypothalamic Pleasure Centers” can be found, satisfying every meaning of the word. The Limbic System defines our learning, reasoning, and the basics of our personalities. Finally, it’s the Prefrontal Cortex that makes sense of the uniquely human qualities by deciphering the messages sent by the Limbic System.
Understanding the roles of the sections of the brain demystifies the biochemistry of who we are, but it just seems like a human being is so much more than that. Scientists today feel that while human emotion is a series of complex electrical impulses, outside factors are definitely at work as well. Sex is chromosomes lining up in different ways. Gender is a melting pot of hereditary, life experience, and personal insight. How are the two even comparable? The human brain, gender, sex, and child development are unexplored frontiers. The surge in sexual diversity in our modern era is raising lots of questions, forcing us to think about the depth of human existence. Induced hormones, sex-reassignment surgery, counselingthese are the ways in which transgender and sexual minorities across the country are coming to terms with who they are. I’m sure it’s a hard issue: making peace with a body that doesn’t fit with your mind.
The science, as well as the psychology, behind gender and sexuality will continue to be investigated. But, until a concrete answer is found, I think the only conclusion anyone can really make is that gender itself is fluid. A lot is dependent upon the strict biochemistry of our bodies, but the human mind cannot be so easily defined. That combination of cells, genes, aspirations, and thought we are is precisely what makes us human, which no chemical equation alone can explain.