The natural world vs Governor Youngkin

By worker-correspondent Emily Jane Dennis

Content warning: discussion of policies targeting gender-diverse people, discussion of sex and reproduction.

Virginia’s Education Department released the “2023 Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents” this week, which withdraws and replaced the “2021 Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools”

In this policy, the Department of Education dictates that a person’s parents must approve in writing any counseling, names, nicknames, and pronouns. It also states that a student’s parents can require that the student use single-person bathrooms and locker rooms.

They also define their terms, including these two that violate observations of the natural world: “The word ‘sex’ means biological sex (IV 2)” and “The phrase ‘transgender student’ shall mean a public school student whose parent has stated in writing that the student’s gender differs from the student’s sex, or an eligible student who states in writing that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.” (IV 3)

These policies are so dissociated from reality that I couldn’t take them seriously as a scientist, and I found myself unable to engage with these absurd policies intellectually. I originally sat down to write an article about the science behind trans and gender-diverse people and the common right wing arguments against their freedom and peaceful existence. Instead, I hope this summary of basic observations of the natural world convey the ridiculous and inhumane nature of these policies. 

How these definitions defy the observable universe:
What is biological sex?

There is no single variable that defines a person’s sex. There are many! Even when we restrict our discussion to only the most common examples of sex-related variables, we see that any definition of “biological sex” cannot be reduced to a binary: 

  • Genitalia – at birth most humans have either external labia (lips, or invaginations of the body which often connect to a muscular canal which leads from the outside of the body to a cervix) or an external penis (an organ that protrudes from the pubic arch and usually contains a urethra). Many of those born with an external penis also have visible testicles. However, many humans are born without clearly fitting one of these two options! For example, both can be present, or people can have closed labia, fused labia with testicular lumps, lack of testicles, undescended testicles, etc… 
  • Chromosomes – most humans have two sex chromosomes. XY is considered “male” and XX “female”. However, many humans are born without fitting these two options! For example, XXY (1/500), one X (1/2500), XYY (1/1000), XXX (1/1000). Many people do not know this until puberty or until they try to get pregnant later in life.
  • Hormones – So-called “sex hormones” are key components to one or more of these processes: as fetuses develop genitals, as young people go through puberty, or during birth, but nearly all have additional roles in the body. These include testosterone, estrogens, and progesterone, and many, many more. 

    There is no such thing as a male hormone nor a female hormone.

    Ovaries produce testosterone. Testes (and other tissues) produce estrogens. Progesterone can be produced by the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes, as well as other regions, especially during pregnancy. Progesterone is a hormone that the body uses to make other hormones like cortisol and testosterone, and it also affects the expression of other genes in your body, and can influence spermiogenesis, testosterone biosynthesis, erections, bone density, stress responses, and organ function. Many people take hormones for many reasons, like testosterone-blockers for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), or progesterone for menopause.

Examples of sexual variables not conforming to a binary, highlighting the multidimensional and contextual basis of sex. 

  • XY female syndrome, also called Swyer syndrome: People born with XY chromosomes and functional vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes, but usually lacking ovaries. These people will not go through puberty without being provided with additional estrogen or testosterone.
  • XX male syndrome, also called de la Chapelle syndrome. Most have a penis and testes, though most do not have sperm that can fertilize an egg. Often, but not always, people will go through puberty without any additional hormone treatment.

But what about gender? 

First, what is gender? This is a huge topic! In brief, gender identity generally refers to how someone views themselves in relation to other people. Gender expression is how a person expresses their gender identity to others. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, the white, wealthy Youngkins of the time would have worn makeup, tights, and high heels. Now, Youngkin verbally attacks men who do the same. What constitutes gender expression is plastic and changes over time and across societies, highlighting just how much these so-called definitions are constantly changing and dependent on the people around us, not something at all related to a person’s “biology”.

In summary

Even if Youngkin’s DOE required an MRI, chromosome analysis, and blood test for sex hormones for each child, we would never be able to classify all students’ “biological sex”. Sex is not a single variable that we can define for an individual. How can we decide if someone’s gender identity or expression matches their sex? We cannot.

I have limited the discussion to just three variables of many. Even with this limited scope, most of us can think of people we know who fit all the categories listed here and still struggle to produce a child with their partner, or have disruptions in menstruation, erections, or puberty. We know people who need additional hormones to get pregnant or during menopause, or who need pills to have an erection. We all know this, and Youngkin’s DOE, and right wingers across the country, are asking us to ignore what we can see from simple observations of the world around us.

While I focused on observations of humans and other primates, I would be remiss not to mention that sex determination is even more interesting across different species like: Tanzanian Spotted Hyenas, Brazilian smoky jungle frogs, Platypuses, Lysmata shrimp, and Moon wrasses! 

There are also countless interesting ways of making individual organisms, like ZW chromosomes! Alpha and A types! Temperature dependent sex determination! It’s a shame we have to spend any time thinking about these harmful, reactionary policies rather than talking about the diversity of life on this beautiful planet. 

But until we are all free, none of us are free.

So what can you do to help now?


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