The gender spectrum is an understanding that gender is not binary (female/male), but rather a spectrum of biological, mental and emotional traits that exist along a continuum.
In contrast, the gender binary, also called gender binarism or genderism, is the belief that gender is composed of two distinct and opposite genders (female and male) in which there is not overlap.
Unfortunately for those who believe in a gender binary, it is not scientifically or medically correct.
Today, numerous scientific fields, including biology, endocrinology, physiology, genetics, neuroscience, and reproductive science, have confirmed that sex and gender exist as a spectrum, both for humans and across the animal kingdom.
Sex (and Gender) are Bimodal, Not Binary
For all too long, the government, the medical system, and even our parents have assumed that sex (and gender) are binary. Based on science, this is not biologically or medically accurate.
What is true is that sex characteristics tend to be bimodal, meaning there are clusters of characteristics that tend to be associated with people that we call “female” or “male.”
On average, men do have penises, and on average, women do have vaginas, which is what allows for reproduction. However, there are many examples where this is not the case, such as intersex people. External genitals (a biological marker of sex) present across a spectrum from full-size penis to small penis to micro-penis to clitoromegaly to enlarged clitoris to standard-sized clitoris.
On average, men tend to have XY chromosomes and women tend to have XX chromosomes. However, sex chromosomes come in a wide variety as well, with at least 16 different naturally occurring variations (see details below). This means that chromosomal presentation is not binary either.
On average, men also tend to have more facial and body hair than women (a secondary sex characteristic), but there are also women with coarse and dense body hair and men who can’t grow a full beard.
On average, men tend to be taller than women, but there are most certainly women that are taller than some men. If skeletal structure (a biological marker of sex) was binary, then all men would have to be taller than all women, which of course, they are not.
As explained by these examples, gender is not binary, because it cannot be grouped into two separate, non-overlapping groups.
However, bimodal sex characteristics are not uncommon. Bimodel means the presence of two (“bi”) statistical modes, which can be seen as peaks in a graph. The two modes represent probability clusters.
With regard to human sex, this means that for some sex characteristics, there may be common norms among people whom we tend to assign as “male” and “female,” but there are also clearly overlaps present between the peaks. This is what makes sex (and gender) bimodal, and not binary.
Finally, at risk of getting too mathematical, a bimodal distribution is by definition, a continuous probability distribution with two different modes. In other words, it is a spectrum that has clusters.
The Difference Between Sex and Gender
In describing the terms sex and gender, it’s important to note that within Western culture the word “sex” describes biological differences between people (male, female, intersex, etc.), while the term “gender” is a broader term that reflects how a person lives within society (that is, gender identity).
Despite the binary options on most state and federal IDs, your biological sex can be variable.
This is true for people who are intersex and likely for others as well. Intersex means that a person was born with variations in their sex characteristics, including but not limited to internal and external genitalia, gonads, chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, and more.
Current research estimates that intersex people compose 1.7% of the population, which makes being intersex about as common as having red hair.
However, this metric is understated for the following reasons:
- Not all doctors, parents, or individuals release this medical information.
- There are subtle forms of sex variations that do not show up until later in life which go undocumented.
- Definitions of what intersex is have not reached consensus. The Intersex Society of North America uses the following examples: “How small does a penis have to be before it counts as intersex? Do you count sex chromosome variations if there’s no external sexual ambiguity?”
In short, it’s unfortunate that federal and state-issued documents often use external genitalia to make a binary sex (male/female) assignment, because for many people this is an inaccurate or incomplete description.
Sex and Gender
Even sex and gender are not fully separate from each other. Across many cultures, they are intertwined.
Examples of this include:
- Two-Spirited People for Native American/First Nations people
- Hijra for South Asian people (also known as Kinnar or Kinner)
- Māhū for Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) and Maohi (Tahitian) cultures
- Fakaleiti for Tongans
- Ffa’afafine for Samoans
- And many others
One of the people who has done a phenomenal job of deconstructing the concept that sex and gender are separate is Alok Vaid-Menon.
Alok describes the prevailing idea that gender is “cultural” and exterior and sex is “biological” as neglectful of the fact that biological sex is also cultural. Alok explains that in contrast to Western beliefs, many other cultures do not perceive clothing or adornment as a supplement to the body, but as foundational to its constitution.
Why a Sex and Gender Spectrum?
As a nonbinary person, I have heard people say things like, “Gender is determined by what is in your pants. If you have a penis you are a man. If you have a vagina, you are a woman.”
However, as a scientist, I can tell you that both sex and gender are complex, and across all species, exist as a spectrum.
Currently, sex gets assigned at birth based on external genitalia, but there are at least 10 medically accurate markers of sex (and likely more).
Biological markers of sex include:
- Chromosomes – Types of chromosomal expression.
- Gonads – Organs that produce gametes (testis or ovaries).
- Hormones –Types and level of hormone secretion, which vary within and across the sexes.
- Secondary Sex Characteristics – Features that appear during puberty, but are not involved with reproduction.
- External Genitalia – Genitals visible outside the body.
- Internal Genitalia – Genitals present within the body.
- Skeletal Structure – Sex differences may be seen in the pelvis, jaw bone, brow, and limb length and thickness.
- Gene Expression –Levels and types of gene expression. Genes dictate the proteins made by the body. Known genes that impact sex include DMRT1, SRY (produces Testis-Determining Factor), and Foxl 2.
- Brain Structure – Both brain structure characteristics (including the ratio of white matter to grey matter) and brain activation patterns vary by sex.
- Personal Identity – How a person self-identifies. It is often a result of the other factors interacting, making it a valuable marker.
Why Genitals Do Not Determine Sex
With regard to assigning sex to people by their external genitalia, it is an inaccurate system at best. There are several reasons for this, as described below.
1) External Genitalia Are Diverse
In newborn humans, genitals are extremely diverse in size and shape. Until about week 7 to week 8 of pregnancy, all fetuses have what’s known as a “genital ridge.”
This genital ridge is the tissue that eventually becomes the sex organs.
At the time of birth, a newborn’s genitals are usually labeled by a physician as male or female, even if the newborn presents with sex organs or characteristics that are intersex, ambiguous, or undefined. In a few places, such as Ontario (Canada), 11 U.S. states, and Washington, DC, “nonbinary” or “gender unspecified” options now exist, but this is not yet the norm.
All sex organs come from the same genital ridge, with the testes in men being equivalent to labia and ovaries in women and the penis being equivalent to the clitoris.
This is why the penis and vagina do not exist as a binary, but rather, as a spectrum that includes the following:
- Full-size penis
- Small penis
- Clitoromegaly, also called a “Pseudopenis”
- Enlarged clitoris
- Standard-sized clitoris
2) Existence of Intersex People
Intersex means that a person was born with variations in their sex characteristics, such as the biological markers described above, including but not limited to internal and external genitalia, gonads, chromosomes, hormone levels, and brain structure.
Intersex people are biological proof that sex is not binary.
What about Chromosomes?
While chromosomes are another biological trait that some people try to use to explain the gender binary, chromosomes are also varied and diverse across the human species. On average, most people assigned male at birth have XY chromosomes, while most people assigned female at birth have XX chromosomes.
However, other sex chromosomal variations frequently exist as a result of the loss, damage, or addition of one or both of the sex chromosomes.
In humans, the following sex chromosome variations are naturally occurring:
- 45, X, also called Turner syndrome
- 45,X/46, also called XY mosaicism
- 46, XX/XY
- 47, XXX, also called Trisomy X
- 47, XXY, also called Klinefelter syndrome
- 47, XYY with normal phenotype
- 48, XXXX
- 48, XXXY
- 48, XXYY
- 49, XXXXY
- 49, XXXXX
- XX Male Syndrome
- XX Gonadal Dysgenesis
- XY Gonadal Dysgenesis
Where Gonadal Dysgenesis is listed above, it refers to reproductive tissue (gonads) being replaced by non-reproductive fibrous tissue during prenatal development.
Gender and the Brain
The brain is another biological marker of sex that presents with great diversity, further supporting the concept of a gender spectrum.
In a fascinating study published May 2018 by the European Society of Endocrinology researchers discovered, “Brain activity and structure in transgender adolescents more closely resembles the typical activation patterns of their desired gender.”
When MRI scans of 160 transgender youths were analyzed using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, the brains of transgender boys’ resembled that of cisgender boys’, while the brains of transgender girls’ brains resembled the brains of cisgender girls’.
Put simply, transgender kids’brains resemble their gender identity and not their biological sex.
Cisgender means that a person’s gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth, while transgender means a person’s gender identity does not align with the sex assigned to them at birth.
As stated by Julie Bakker, lead researcher from the University of Liege, “We now have evidence that sexual differentiation of the brain differs in young people with [gender dysphoria], as they show functional brain characteristics that are typical of their desired gender.”
This study explored the brains of cis girls, cis boys, trans girls and trans boys. The next step is for more sexes and genders to become integrated within this neuroscience research.
The Role of the Mind vs. the Brain
Of course, the brain and the mind are also two different things.
The brain is the physical structure in your head that is composed of grey and white matter, has neurons firing within it, and uses neurotransmitters as chemicals messengers.
The brain can be thought of as your central processor, because it integrates and facilitates all of the functions within your body.
As noted by Julie Bakker (lead reseacher in the MRI study above) and others, brain structure and activation patterns present along a spectrum.
The mind, on the other hand, is the conscious product of that biological activity that creates emotions, ideas, memories, interpretations, and creative thought.
It determines your personality, plays a role in how you prefer to present, and impacts how you interact with the world. The mind plays a central role in your gender identity.
Sex Identification at Birth
As described above, external genitals are not an accurate marker of sex to use at birth, because they are one of at least 10 different biological markers of sex.
External genitals are also highly variable across our species, may be ambiguous, and can potentially have both male and female sex organs present.
Furthermore, performing sex assignment at birth based on external genitals does allow an Ob/Gyn to integrate information about the child’s internal genitals, gonads, chromosomes, gene expression, brain structure, or importantly, how the child will grow up and express themselves within society.
While I am not opposed to the option to note sex on a child’s birth certificate, I am opposed to:
- The requirement that parents select a sex for their child. Parents should be allowed not to indicate a sex for their child if this is their preference.
- Binary options for sex, when it is clear that sex exists along a spectrum. At the very least, there should be the option to choose Female (F), Male (M), or (X) for all other genders.
- That sex being glued to a child for the rest of their life, unless they present medical papers to prove otherwise.
Gender Diversity Across the Animal Kingdom
Finally, gender diversity is widely present across the animal kingdom. For example, seahorses, pipefish, and sea dragons all have pregnancy as a male reproductive process. In these species, the male fertilizes eggs that are deposited within a pouch in his belly and then he carries his developing embryos until they are ready to be birthed.
In another example, female spotted hyenas have a pseudo-penis that is capable of erection and can be as much as 90% the size of a male hyena’s penis.
They have two fleshy masses at the base of their pseudopenis that contain fat and connective tissue which appear analogous to a scrotum. Where you’d expect there to be a vagina, spotted hyena females have fused labia. Female spotted hyenas also dominate males behaviorally.
Chickens can also naturally undergo gender changes. This is because female chickens only use one functional ovary on their left side. However, they have two sex organs that are present from their embryonic stage onward through their lifespan. If the left ovary shrinks within a hen, then its right gonad may start secreting androgens, turning the hen into a rooster.
In short, sex and gender exist as a spectrum for humans and animals (and in fact, plants too). We might as well embrace it, because after all, natural variation has caused the rise of our species to 7.7 billion strong!
AUTHOR BIO: Cade Hildreth attended Dartmouth College & Smith College for Undergraduate Studies in Biology and then acquired a Master’s Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with Specialization in Biotechnology from Georgetown University, where they were Valedictorian. Cade is the Founder/President of BioInformant.com, the world’s largest stem cell industry news site that attracts nearly one million views per year and serves all-star clients that include GE Healthcare, Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, PerkinElmer, and Merck. Cade has authored over one-thousand articles about the stem cell industry and interviewed hundreds of executives from across the industry. As a media expert on stem cells, Cade has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Business Journal, Xconomy, & Vogue Magazine. As a professional real estate investor, Cade owns a portfolio of residential and commercial properties.
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