What makes us male or female? What happens when our biological gender is out of sync with our gender identity? What about people who are born with gender ambiguity? How often in our day-to-day lives does maleness or femaleness have functional significance? Do labels really matter? When, if at all, is it important to make a distinction between sexes and genders?
I have always found these questions fascinating. So, in order to get some clarity on the subject of gender biology and sexual identity, I spoke with Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a leading expert in the field. Watch the video above and/or click on the link below to read more. And don't forget to weigh in by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria, here. I've been thinking lately about sex and gender identity, topics that are thought to be pretty straightforward. But for many Americans, the concepts of maleness and femaleness aren't completely cut and dry.
ANNE FAUSTO-STERLING: People think that they know what sex and gender is in day-to-day existence, but with some regularity, news stories come up that challenge people’s beliefs.
CSM: That's Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a leading expert on gender biology and sexual identity development. I reached out to her to discuss the science of sex and gender identity, and how our current knowledge informs public policy decisions. She also taught me a bit about the language typically used when discussing these issues.
AFS: A transgender person is somebody who has a gender identity--that is, their belief they’re either male or female--that is at odds with their physical being.
CSM: Recently, a transgender woman named Jenna Talackova was granted permission to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, even though original rules required that she be born a woman. Through her vocal efforts and communications with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, that rule was overturned, and transgender women will now be able to compete in future pageants.
AFS: My take on whether transgender women should compete in beauty contests is why not? It’s a different situation from what usually happens when they say, "well why can’t women compete in men’s sports?" There’s no indication- No one would say that a transgender woman has an advantage over XX women in a beauty contest. So if they allow them to compete and if in fact they win, well good for them.
CSM: I agree. Jenna was born male, but she transitioned four years ago and now identifies as a woman. Her gender identity is female. Some transgender people identify as male. But an intersex person may identify as male, female, or androgynous, depending on his or her life situation, because in the case of intersexuality, biological sex is ambiguous. Intersex individuals may be hermaphroditic (meaning that they have both sex organs), or they may have various congenital or developmental differences in gender. Males have XY chromosomes and females XX chromosomes, but intersex individuals may be XY females, XX males, or have other chromosomal disorders such as Klinefelter's or Turner Syndrome. And it's more common than you may think.
AFS: If you take into account all causes, or rather all disorders of sexual development that lead to genital ambiguity at birth or in the first few years of life, then mainly in the United States, most people offer the statistic of one in 2,000 to one in 3,000, which is actually pretty common.
CSM: A woman from South Africa named Caster Semenya has been subjected to a lot of media scrutiny in the past few years. Although there's little evidence to support the claim (other than her masculine features), some have argued that she may be intersex. She was raised as a girl and she identifies as a woman, so why the fuss?
AFS: I think it’s very rare that it’s functionally important to make biological distinctions between males and females. Perhaps the only place where it might be functional, and I still need some convincing, is in athletics.
CSM: And that's the rub. Caster won the gold medal in the women's 800 meter race at the 2009 World Championships. Soon after, the International Association of Athletics Federations subjected Caster to humiliating gender testing, causing a stir amongst fellow athletes, activists, and civic leaders. It was eventually decided that she could keep her medal, but the rules regarding eligibility based on gender remain unclear, as do many people's perceptions on how to make sense of this issue.
AFS: Get rid of the idea that something is biological or in the mind, because I think that distinction is a very difficult one to make.
CSM: What's your take? I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me.