When pop culture icons like Caitlyn Jenner and RuPaul’s Drag Race entered the public eye, there were a lot of conservative people who argued against transgender people and people who wore drag, and a day wouldn’t pass where you’d see comments about gender and sexuality online. When Bruce Jenner came out as a trans woman named Caitlyn Marie Jenner in 2015, you had people from both sides arguing for and against Caitlyn.
It was also around this time that I studied the difference between gender and sex in college. And, contrary to what many conservatives or homophobes may say, there is proof that there are more than two genders that exist according to science.
Sex vs. Gender
The biggest argument for those who claim that there are only two gender (man and woman) is that the meaning behind sex and gender and two very different things. To explain why there is more than one gender, let’s dig deeper into the meaning behind those two terms.
The term “sex” refers to biological sex, which is basically determined by the sex organs and other sex differences between a man and a woman when a baby is born. A baby with a penis will eventually have larger amounts of testosterone compared to a baby born with a vagina that will eventually develop breasts and have larger amounts of estrogen in her system.
This is not a social construct because it is based on biology, genetics, anatomy, and several other related fields in science. A baby in the womb will begin developing sex organs at around the second or third month of development, but will not show signs of its sex prior to this. However, fetuses that will become male babies have a genotype of XY, while a female baby will have XX.
Around 99% of babies will fall into either the male or female sex, assuming that there is no deformity in their development that changes this. But around 1 to 2 percent of babies will develop intersex conditions, which means that their genitalia upon birth is ambiguous. They may eventually develop male or female traits, but it’s possible that they remain sexually ambiguous.
Your biological sex can determine a lot about how your body develops. For example, while going through puberty, both sexes will grow taller, gain weight, and develop body hair in several places, but men’s hair will be thicker and include facial hair such as beards and mustaches (women can get this as well, but it’s rare for a woman to grow facial hair as thick as those of a man’s). A boy’s voice will deepen, but a girl’s voice gets higher. Girls get wider hips and narrower waists, while boys’ penis and testicles grow while their scrotums darken.
A person’s sex may also affect their health. For example, the statistics of men developing coronary heart disease (one in six) is higher than that of women (one in ten), so men who live unhealthy lifestyles are, statistically, more likely to develop heart disease compared to their female counterpart.
These changes and effects are biological and are a work of nature. While men and women can shave their body hair and have procedures done to change their looks, this is what their body is biologically meant to do. But how they present themselves to everyone else is where sex ends and gender begins.
Before We Explain “Gender”…
First, let’s explain what a “social construct” is. A social construct is an idea or practice created and accepted by a certain society. For example, let’s say you’re driving and you see a traffic light and the red light is on; what does that mean? If you know it means “stop,” then you and all other drivers in the world are thinking the same thing. Humanity has come to accept that a red traffic light means that you should stop your vehicle and let other vehicles and pedestrians pass. And we continue upholding this idea because the consequence of ignoring this idea is either a fine from a traffic enforcer or total chaos on the streets from drivers who refuse to acknowledge the meaning of a red light.
But when you were one or two years old, did you automatically know that a red traffic light means vehicles should stop? You learned that eventually when you were taught this idea in school or through your parents, but the idea that a red traffic light means stop wasn’t hardwired into your basic instincts until you were old enough to accept it. So, the idea of a red traffic light signaling drivers to stop is a social construct because everyone agrees on the idea and follows it even if it’s not a natural part of our instinct.
So, now, let’s go to another social construct: gender. Earlier, I said that sex can affect the way a man or woman physically looks. This has established certain expectations of how men and women are supposed to look like. Women are supposed to have small waists, wide hips, and bigger breasts while men should be hairy, more muscular, and have larger penises. This is common for most men and women, but what about those who don’t follow these standards? Let’s say a woman grows up with smaller breasts and hairier arms. Or a man matures but his voice is still high-pitched. These aren’t accidents because they were determined by biology and they aren’t harmful to the person in any way, but it merely goes against the expectations people have on how men or women should look like.
And going against these expectations is not only biological – a person can choose to go against societal norms. Try to think of a few social norms that separates boys and girls. For example, girls have long hair while boys have short hair. Girls have pink while boys get blue. Girls are supposed to be dainty and feminine while boys are muscular and brash. Girls like flowers while boys like monster trucks.
In the examples I’ve mentioned, you might have heard a few of these and think it to be true, but think again. When a baby girl is born, does it know immediately that it should prefer the color pink and tea parties? Or does a baby girl only recognize that once it has been subjected to these norms by her parents and the society who have imposed those social norms and constructs on her?
And if you want science behind it, look no further than the most basic topic everyone who took a psychology class in college knows: Freud’s theory of the Id, ego, and superego.
Freud’s Personality Theory
According to Freud’s personality theory published in 1923, a human mind has three parts: the id, ego, and superego, all of which develop in different states of your life. The id is the primitive and most basic part of the human mind with your survival instinct at heart. This part of your mind is considered infantile, meaning it will not develop or be affected by your experience, your environment, or the everyday world. This is because this part of your mind is based off your primal instinct, desires, and drive, so you can’t really change this part of your mind.
The other two, however, depend on what you learn. The superego develops around the ages of 3 to 5 years old. It’s the foil to the id and controls its impulses by assessing the values and morals upheld by a certain society. If the id is the little devil on your shoulder telling you to steal your classmate’s food to sate your hunger, your superego will tell you to give your food to those who need it even if it means you go hungry, otherwise, you’ll feel guilt. The ego, on the other hand, balances out your primal instincts with societal expectations.
This shows that some things you perceive to be true (like gender norms) are only true because you’ve been raised to think that that is correct. But in reality, it has very little bearing to your survival and only remains true because you were conditioned into thinking that this is the right way of acting a certain method. I’m not saying that this is a wrong way of acting, though. Rather, it’s not the only way of thinking.
Let’s go back to the concept of sex. Your sex at birth will affect how you turn out physically and mentally. And the way your society structures you will also affect the way you turn out and the beliefs you hold. But what if the way you identify yourself does not match the way your sex traditionally identifies as?
Biologically, your body can only do so much to affect how your body turns out. But how you express your body is up to you. What if a man is born a man and has all the biological aspects of a man, but the way he wants to express himself with traits that are traditionally placed on women such as long hair and feminine clothes? Or, what if someone born a woman does not adhere to the body standards placed on women (e.g. thicker body hair, small breasts, narrow hips) and prefers to express themselves in a way that isn’t feminine?
In most cases, a person biologically a woman will adhere to the standards of society about what her gender will be. This person is a “cisgender” because her biological composition is female and her identity falls under her being female and feminine. A biological man is also a cisgender person if their social identity falls in line with their biological composition.
However, gender is not black and white the way biological sex is (and with evidence of intersex persons who never develop genitals, gonads, or chromosomes of one specific sex, it’s possible that sex isn’t black or white either), and is more of a spectrum. Most people identify themselves as either completely masculine or completely feminine, but some express their gender as either more masculine than feminine (butch) or more feminine than masculine (femme).
Take note that gender is still different from sexuality (which is not the same thing as sex). Sexuality defines what a person is attracted to. You can be born a man, identify as genderqueer (someone who neither identifies as totally male nor as female and expresses themselves as such) but can be sexually attracted to women, which makes them heterosexual. Or you can be born a woman, identify as a transgendered man, and be attracted to all genders (which makes you bisexual) or are not concerned with gender when you show your attraction to another person (pansexual).
The Science Behind Genders
It’s very frustrating when people arguing against gender mask their homophobia in the name of science. They like to proudly state that “there are only two genders” and then expect everyone to believe them when, in reality, it only takes them one Google search to find out that this isn’t the case. If they took the time to check the rest of the internet before spewing out homophobic claims, they would have realized that science is indeed against them.
Don’t believe me? Check out these resources:
- An editorial piece from Nature (a highly-acclaimed international science journal) explaining why the US government trying to define all genders is impossible and has no scientific basis. Here’s another article from The New York Times citing a medical doctor and executive director for a medical institution in New York about the same issue if you think that’s fake news.
- A scientific article posted on Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences explaining the science of transgender identities. The article, published by an esteemed American university, is very thorough and provides even more resources if you still think this is left-wing propaganda to confuse children.
- A piece from AP News (an esteemed news agency that serves as an unbiased source of news not only for the US but for other agencies around the world) citing the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical professionals. And no, the likelihood that a conspiracy theory is brewing because all these reliable sources are saying the same thing about gender is highly unlikely. The likelihood of having cognitive dissonance is just as likely, however.
To answer the question how many genders exist scientifically: scientific evidence itself proves that gender is a spectrum, so it is impossible to put a number on the type of genders that exist. Sex can be counted into three (male, female, and the rare intersex), but in terms of gender and sexuality (which is another whole can of worms), it is impossible to count when there are so many possible options – and there is the science to explain and prove it.