SCIENCE BEHIND THE NEWS: Zooey Zephyr, Montana Republicans, and the shifting sands of sex and gender.

Gender has once again become a volatile touchstone for culture wars around the world, particularly in the United States where confrontations have increasingly violent. Most recently, Montana Republicans barred transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from speaking on the House floor for the rest of the 2023 session as a form of retribution for protests against a decision to silence her for telling colleagues they would have blood on their hands for voting to ban gender-affirming medical care for children.

Although she will still be able to vote remotely, she will be unable to discuss proposals and amendments with the other members of the Montana House. This punishment was the result of a weeklong standoff between House Republican leaders and Zephyr, during which the Monday protest that disrupted House proceedings was also held. Zephyr’s punishment has sparked a debate about governance and democracy.

In a speech before her colleagues voted, Zephyr addressed House leaders directly and said she was taking a stand for the LGBTQ+ community, her constituents in Missoula, and “democracy itself.”

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Speaking in support of barring Zephyr from the floor for the remainder of the legislative session, House Majority Leader Sue Vinton accused her of placing lawmakers and staff at risk of harm for her actions during protests in the chamber on Monday.

The Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of at least 21 right-wing lawmakers, has spearheaded the charge to discipline Zephyr, and they have demanded that she apologize. However, Zephyr has refused to apologize and argued that her “blood on your hands” remark accurately reflected the stakes of such bans for transgender kids.

In 2021, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill that banned transgender athletes from participating in school and university sports according to the gender with which they identify, making Montana the one of several Republican-controlled states to approve such measures.

Supporters of the bill claimed that it would ensure a fair playing field in girls’ sports, but opponents argued that it further harmed already marginalized transgender youth. Lawmakers in more than 20 states considered such bans, and they became law in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia. However, Idaho’s law was blocked by a court ruling last year, while governors in North Dakota and Kansas vetoed similar measures.

Quite often, people involved in the debate use the words “sex” and “gender” as if they mean the same thing. They do not and should be used according to their proper definition.

The concepts of sex and gender, while often used interchangeably, denote distinct aspects of human identity and behavior. Sex typically refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that differentiate males from females, while gender encompasses the roles, behaviors, activities, and expectations that society considers appropriate for men and women. Understanding these two concepts involves examining their differences from various perspectives, including biological, sociological, and psychological viewpoints.

Biologically, sex is determined by an individual’s chromosomal, gonadal, and anatomical characteristics. Chromosomes, specifically the XX or XY pairing, traditionally indicate female and male sex respectively. Gonadal and anatomical differences further differentiate the two sexes, including the presence of ovaries or testes, and physical characteristics such as secondary sexual traits that emerge during puberty. However, it’s worth noting that biological sex isn’t always binary, as evidenced by intersex conditions where an individual may have biological characteristics of both sexes.

It’s worth noting that biological sex isn’t always binary, as evidenced by intersex conditions where an individual may have biological characteristics of both sexes.

In nature, the concept of sex is more diverse and complex than the traditional binary understanding of male and female. While most species, including humans, are categorized into these two primary sexes, there are instances of organisms that exhibit variations, additional sexes, or unique reproductive strategies.

  • Intersex individuals: In humans and other animals, some individuals may be born with a combination of male and female biological characteristics. These intersex individuals can possess chromosomal, gonadal, or genital variations that do not fit the typical binary definitions of male or female. While relatively rare, intersex conditions challenge the binary understanding of sex in nature.
  • Hermaphroditism: Some species, like certain plants, snails, and fish, are hermaphroditic, meaning they possess both male and female reproductive organs. Hermaphrodites can be further divided into simultaneous hermaphrodites, which possess both male and female reproductive organs at the same time, and sequential hermaphrodites, which change sex during their life cycle.
  • Fungi: In some fungi species, there are more than two mating types (sexes) that are not strictly male or female. For example, the fungus Schizophyllum commune has more than 23,000 distinct mating types. These types regulate sexual compatibility and play a role in the fusion of compatible cells for reproduction.
  • Parthenogenesis: Certain species, like some insects, reptiles, and fish, can reproduce through parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction where an organism develops from an unfertilized egg. In these cases, the organism might not have a traditional sex, as they do not require sexual reproduction.
  • Social insects: In some social insects, like ants, bees, and wasps, there is a reproductive division of labor that goes beyond the binary understanding of sex. These insects live in colonies with a reproductive queen, fertile males (drones), and sterile female workers. While the drones and queens are considered male and female, the worker ants, bees, or wasps, while female, do not fit neatly into the traditional sex binary due to their lack of reproductive capacity.

According to classical definitions, gender is a complex interplay of societal norms, individual identities, and cultural expectations. Gender roles, being socially constructed, can vary significantly across different cultures and historical periods. They are not biologically ingrained, but rather learned through socialization processes. For instance, society often expects men to be assertive and women to be nurturing, which are gender norms rather than biological mandates. (There are, of course, arguments that this definition is now dated and more nuanced explanations have entered the discourse.)

Gender identity, another key aspect of gender, refers to an individual’s deeply-felt sense of being male, female, a blend of both, or neither, which may or may not correspond to their sex assigned at birth. The recognition of non-binary, genderqueer, and other identities in contemporary discourse further underscores the fluidity and spectrum of gender, which contrasts sharply with the binary nature of biological sex.

Psychologically, the distinction between sex and gender is particularly evident in theories of gender development and identity formation. Psychologists suggest that while sex is a biological constant, gender is largely a psychological construct shaped by individual, societal, and cultural factors.

Sex, as determined by biological and physiological characteristics, is often perceived as a binary variable—male or female. However, this biological aspect does not inherently drive the psychological characteristics often associated with masculinity and femininity. For instance, the biological sex of being male doesn’t automatically imply aggression or stoicism, nor does the biological sex of being female inherently imply nurturing or emotional expressiveness. These are gender roles and characteristics, not determined biologically, but shaped by societal expectations and norms.

The Theory of Gender Schema, for example, suggests that from a young age, children learn to categorize themselves and others into male and female groups, forming a cognitive framework that guides their understanding of what it means to be male or female—their gender identity. This process is heavily influenced by societal and cultural norms, parental modeling, media, and peer interaction.

Further, the psychological difference between sex and gender is highlighted in the experiences of transgender and non-binary individuals. Transgender individuals often experience a disconnect between their biological sex and their gender identity, leading to gender dysphoria. This distinction underscores that gender identity, a deeply personal and psychological aspect of self, can diverge from one’s biological sex.

Non-binary individuals further illustrate the psychological complexity of gender. Rejecting the traditional male-female binary, non-binary individuals may identify as both, neither, or a fluid combination of male and female genders, further emphasizing that gender is not solely tied to one’s biological sex, but is a psychological and social construct that exists on a spectrum.

While sex is a biological categorization, gender is a psychological construct encompassing personal identity, social roles, and societal expectations. It is fluid and complex, shaped by a multitude of factors beyond biology. Understanding this distinction is fundamental to recognizing and respecting individual identities and experiences.

WORDS: The Biology Guy (@thebiologyguy)

IMAGE CREDIT: Montana State Goverment.

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