In recent years, sexuality and gender have become hot-button issues in the United States. We’ve seen homosexual marriage become “the law of the land” (see here for more about that misnomer). We’ve seen various states and townships pass a variety of regulations about where transgender people can go to the bathroom or change clothes, and we’ve even had President Obama direct the Department of Education to issue directives in regard to transgender student accommodation in public schools.
Lost in all the various issues has been any attempt to stop and do a gut-check on how much of all of this is genuine concern for human rights, how much is not very important, and how much is collective madness in our society.
A lot of the discussions around these topics begin with someone stating how they feel. The problem with starting at feelings, is feelings are never the true start. Feelings are the result of thinking. As you think, so shall you eventually feel.
Instead, let’s think about biology. If we take away everything else, all life on this planet needs to reproduce in some manner or other. We don’t find very many mechanisms in nature. Bacteria reproduce through cellular division. Some multi-cellular organisms reproduce by budding, breaking off small “child” bodies. Most animals reproduce sexually, with a female producing eggs and a male producing sperm that fertilize those eggs.
The above is fairly basic information from any high school biology class (with many of these ideas introduced in elementary school), yet it has a profound implication. The biological basis for gender is sexual reproduction. It is embedded in our very nature as sexual chromosomes (XX for female, XY for male). While there can be genetic or biological defects that arise, these should no more impact our concept of gender than the existence of people with Down’s Syndrome should impact our concept of average intelligence.
To support reproduction, mammals exhibit several distinct characteristics as part of their mechanism for reproduction. Females have a uterus and vagina and go through limited periods of fertility. Males have a penis which is inserted into the female during intercourse. Females gestate their young internally for most (marsupials) or all (non-marsupials) of the initial development of their young. Females have two or more breasts with mammaries that produce milk for their young after birth.
The point of all this is that males and females are distinctly different, at least in regards to their sexual organs and their roles in producing and caring for their young. This is particularly true of mammals, and distinctly so for humans. While some mammals have males and females that appear basically the same, in humans we have a number of secondary sexual characteristics that make us easier to distinguish. Women tend to be shorter, weaker, and have broader hips. Men tend to be taller, be more muscular, and have narrower hips. Men tend to have facial hair and are more likely to have obvious body hair. Women tend to have less body hair and little or no facial hair.
From all of the above, it should be clear that, from a biological perspective, men and women are quite different. We have different roles in reproduction, we have different secondary sexual characteristics, and the only way we can produce children is for a man to have sex with a woman.
From a biological perspective, homosexuality is a deviant behavioral pattern or sexual attraction. If you accept the primary role of sex to be reproduction, then homosexual sex, whether male-male or female-female is useless. It could be argued that the primary purpose of sex is pleasure, but it seems more likely that the pleasure is a designed (theist) or evolutionary (non-theist) mechanism to keep intelligent beings interested in having sex, given our remarkable ability to violate the few instincts we seem to have.
This leaves homosexuality as either a genetic/birth defect (not supported by science), or as a behavioral trait that develops mentally through mechanisms that don’t appear to be well understood yet. Since the proportion of the population that professes to be homosexual is relatively small (3.8% in the US according to a 2013 Census Bureau report), it doesn’t pose a biological threat to humanity’s continued existence. With that said, it seems to be a stretch to call it “normal” behavior. What, if anything, should be done to reduce the amount of homosexuality in any society can be hotly debated, ranging from “nothing at all” in the US to “kill them” in some Middle Eastern countries.
Transgender (traditional meaning)
Traditionally, a transgender person is one who believes that they should be the opposite of their biological sex. There have been a variety of treatments over the years, with current treatment options including transitional surgery and hormone replacement therapy. Ignoring the concerns some people have about the wisdom of transitioning, or what the true issues around this disorder (Gender Dysphoria) are, some observations can be made.
From a reproductive perspective, gender reassignment surgery is not possible with current technology. Further, even with organ transplants, producing your own biological children after a theoretical full reproductive system transplant is not possible, as the ovaries or testes would have to come from a donor. This means what is actually done is a combination of hormone therapy, which will encourage the development of secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite gender, and plastic surgery, which gives the artificial appearance of the opposite gender to one degree or another.
We do not have the ability to turn a man into a woman or vice versa. Depending on the build of the individual, we only have the ability to give a man the appearance of a woman or give a woman the appearance of a man, and then only to a degree.
Transgender (multi-gender/non-binary meaning)
Recently, a new concept of transgender has arisen around the idea of more than two genders. The exact count seems to vary depending on who you talk to and how hyperbolic the speaker is being. In searching for a list of all possible genders, I found lists ranging from around 50 to one with over 110 genders.
From a biological perspective, the only genders that can exist are male, female, and (perhaps) birth defect-based “neither.” Arguments can be made about various genetic or birth defects that can arise, such as hermaphrodites or chromosomal variations (the XXY of Klinefelter Syndrome), but all of those are biological defects and most are sterile.
This suggests that transgenders who argue against a male/female binary are talking about something that is not biological in nature. Whether these various genders represent specific types of Gender Dysphoria, or any of a variety of potential mental illnesses remains to be seen. What does seem to be clear is that the claims of additional genders can only be understood in a psychological, not a biological, sense.