An important trigger for my book Science, Cents and Stereotypes: Changing Gender Scripts, Scripting Gender Change, was an article in the journal Nature (Nature 18(7539)) which quietly explained that the idea that human chromosomal make-up was divided into XX and XY was obsolete (unlike Eve, whom she has superseded XX is always listed first); and that in fact there is a range of possible chromosomal, gonadal, & genital combinations possible in any one individual.
Many scientists now believe (& some of them state) that the binary XX/XY model of chromosomal sex simply reflected existing social stereotypes which were projected back onto the chromosomes. One critic of the XX/XY model stated that “the sex chromosome concept (is) a mistake leading to bad science, societal prejudice, and widespread misunderstanding of what sex really is”. An immediate implication of this thinking is that we should not be reaching for “Nature” as a justification for binary prejudice in any of its popular forms.
Nevertheless, the formula XX/XY retains its hold over the imagination, and underpins division and discrimination across a range of theoretical and practical domains. And epigenetics which threatens to blur the Nature/Nurture divide by demonstrating a give and take between the two, is is not popularly appreciated or much discussed.
Science, Cents & Stereotypes (SCS) has tried not to enter into arguments about who belongs in which camp, by focusing on the analysis of the narratives, or scripts, of “divide and rule” by which we are defined, controlled, and manipulated in all domains. The old medical narrative which has replaced Eve and Adam as a metaphor for difference and inequality reverberates across sectors. The Economy for example is full of references to binary differences always to be understood as inequalities: productive/reproductive, formal/informal, paid/unpaid. There are no prizes for guessing who dominates where.
What is the function of these scripts and why do they have such staying power? Labelling individuals and groups as belonging to one camp or another…or often for LGBT to no camp at all (no pun intended), enables the script-writers in different fields to retain control. As we have demonstrated this divide is nowhere more in evidence or more critical than in the health field where specialists hold our lives in their hands. Conditions specific to women as patients have traditionally been of much less interest to the medical profession; menstruation & menopause are only just coming out of the closet. Women’s conditions are often lumped with the default male in terms of common symptoms which may have different roots; and their inconvenient bodies often result in their exclusion from clinical trials. Shockingly but perhaps not surprisingly the full structure of the clitoris was only “discovered” in 1998. What other discoveries await?!
LGBT persons and particularly trans individuals continue to report suffering abuse, neglect, and ignorance at the hands of the medical profession. This has given rise to calls for a new category of “gender-affirming” health care. A further refinement perhaps of “patient-centred” same?
Gender concepts are usually explained with reference to “culture” but this often underestimates the thread of politics in the cultural mix. Even the most superficial historical analysis shows that binarism of gender and other characteristics of the population is most stressed in authoritarian regimes, that is to say in situations where it is most important to determine who is in and who is out, white or black, sheep or goats.
The bulk of the data analysed in SCS was from Western industrial societies, but there are societies which care less or care differently about sex and gender, than the societies we have examined. What combination of benign socio-economic factors, and informed individuals does it take to fade the many pointless “us vs them” debates about sex and gender.
Such societies should accommodate not only sheep and goats but also but also mules, zonkeys, geep, beefalo not to mention ligers, jaglion, grolar bear, zebroid, and wholphin? Without wishing to stretch the hybridization analogy to breaking point… it does seem that some of the same binary thinking underlines the prejudice again hybrids, as against sex and gender variety. And a preoccupation with sexual reproduction is common to both debates despite increasing evidence that we have more than enough bodies on the planet.
Until recently the scientific rule of the Biological Species Concept has dictated that if separate species mate their offspring are infertile. But not anymore. We now know that there are many examples of hybrids who can have babies through mating with another hybrid or with the same species as one of its parents. Ligers for example are fertile. Hybridization may thus just be part of the normal process of evolution and change. Could it be that escaping binary identification is in fact a power position and will more of these hybrids be “discovered” if binary thinking wanes? Perhaps Nature is way ahead of Nurture but cannot (yet)speak for itself.