Sex, gender and gender dysphoria

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In a large proportion of the population, the words gender and sex are seemingly interchangeable – a boy will both have male reproductive organs and believe himself to be male. However, there is an important distinction between the two that applies to every human being, but unfortunately is only acknowledged and understood by a limited number of people. The definitions of these words are important.

Sex refers to the biological make up of an individual’s reproductive anatomy and secondary sex characteristics (features which appear during puberty).

Gender is the category (male/female) that individuals privately assign themselves to, based on a variety of factors.

It is thought that gender is normally determined by sex, which is in turn determined by the 23rd chromosome – either XX for a female, or XY for a male. Without hormonal intervention, the brain of an unborn baby will develop into a ‘female brain’. However, a gene on the Y chromosome in males (the SRY gene) causes the gonads (organs which produce sperm/eggs) to secrete a high level of testosterone. Testosterone acts on a specific area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, influencing the brain to develop into a ‘male brain’.

A US team at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 men, women, boys and girls and found striking differences. Male brains appeared to be wired front to back, with few connections bridging the two hemispheres. In female brains, the pathways criss-crossed between left and right. According to researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), these differences “might explain why men, in general, tend to be better at learning and performing a single task, like cycling or navigating, whereas women are more equipped for multitasking” Happily, this distinction isn’t observed as vividly in reality.

Unfortunately, gender is not quite as simple to define. There are plenty of scientific women and multitasking men. In the extremes, there are people with female sex organs who define themselves as male, and vice versa, who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria – a condition where an individual is uncomfortable with the mismatch between their biological sex, and their gender identity.

It is largely unknown how many individuals live with gender dysphoria, as the condition is still heavily stigmatised, meaning that not all those with the condition seek help. However, a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2012 concluded that roughly 1% of the population has the condition, and it’s thought that this figure will rise over next few years as the condition is increasingly understood and publicised.

In lesser extreme cases, transgender is defined as the state of one’s gender identity or gender expression not matching one’s assigned sex; they identify outside the gender binary, they are neither strictly male or female. Currently, there are several high profile transgender individuals in the media, including Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox, who also plays a transgender character in the series. Cox gave an interview with The Times recently, when she described the difficulty she faced growing up as an effeminate boy within a Christian family in the US: “I learned in church that [being gay] was a sin, I just imagined that I was disappointing [my grandmother in heaven] and it just was devastating for me. So I went to the medicine cabinet and got a bottle of pills. And took them.  And swallowed them. And went to sleep, hoping not to wake up. And I did wake up, with a really bad stomach ache. I don’t remember what the pills were. Whatever it was, I thought that they would kill me but they didn’t.”

Luckily, Cox has stated how much happier she is, since ‘transforming’ into a woman (many would argue that she always was a woman, not transforming). She currently raises awareness for transgendered individuals on her ‘Ain’t I A Woman? My Journey to Womanhood’ university tour.

Another example of the struggle that individuals with gender dysphoria experience is shown by Isaac – a 17 year old, born with the biological sex of a girl, but the gender identity of a boy. Isaac is the first child in Australia to be given the right to access puberty suppressants, testosterone replacement therapy and any surgery related to his gender, without the permission of his parents. He stated, “I am not suffering from gender dysphoria. I am suffering from social stigma, prejudice and discrimination against trans and gender-diverse people.” As the sotries of Isaac and Cox show, it is vital that the stigma surrounding gender dysphoria is quelled.


Hilary Robinson


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