From impeding track stars like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand to laws restricting bathroom access and a proposal in the US for genetic determination of sex, the issue of gender identity remains mired in controversy.
Can there be a sensible and humane resolution to this debate? Or does this debate represent an unwarranted imposition of societal perception of gender on the scientific determinants of sex? If that is the case, the resolution definitely does not lie in force-fitting science to societal concepts. In a landmark decree, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was shifting gender incongruence (i.e., being transgender, when your gender identity is different from the one assigned at birth) from its mental disorders chapter to the sexual health chapter. It basically means that the WHO recognises that being transgender is not a mental health problem as was initially thought, but is probably normal biology.
What is the issue at hand? Society has customarily identified two genders—male and female—based on presence of certain physical characteristics. The global acceptance of anyone who falls outside the realm of this binary segmentation has been lukewarm at best. This castigation does not even involve sexual orientation—the casting down of members of the lesbian and gay community is another problem altogether. In the former case, we are talking of people who may not identify with the male or female identity; in the latter, we are talking of people who may identify with being male or female but are sexually attracted to members of the same sex. But competitive sport has been bringing gender divisions into even more focus.
The importance of gender in competitive sport originates in the gender segregation of sports: women compete with women, men compete with men. As the Cold War concluded, there were concerns that countries could surreptitiously send men to women’s competitions to usurp more medals. In the mid-1900s, physical examination of genitalia was performed to ascertain the gender of the athlete. However, rules were changed in the face of significant backlash from sportspersons for what was clearly an invasive and violating practice.
Simultaneously, geneticists were racing to figure out the genetic basis for gender. Till then, theories such as sperm from right testicle produced male child and the left produced female child were popular. But then scientific research co-related the presence of XX chromosomes with femaleness and XY chromosomes with maleness. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)adopted this chromosomal testing as a measure of a person’s gender.
However, subsequent research also showed that this XX and XY segregation was not universal. In 1955, endocrinologist Gerald Swyer discovered a syndrome that resulted in anatomically female bodies but chromosomally had XY genotype.
Further study suggested that a stretch of DNA on the Y chromosome acts as a master regulator and controls the development of male features. As with any gene sequence, this DNA stretch has to be translated into protein, which would then activate or repress other genes on different parts of the chromosomes culminating in male features. Thus, it is not the mere presence of the gene but its translation, which is also important. This makes biological sense —unlike other paired chromosomes, Y is always present as a single copy in the cell. Pairing is important to carry over information; for example, if genes on one chromosome were damaged, proteins could still be made from the other chromosome. Alternatively, the other chromosome could act as a template to repair the damaged chromosome. So, over time life-critical genes have been relocated from Y to other chromosomes where they can always have a partner gene.
As more research confirmed, this coupled with the discovery of an array of XY combinations in humans, the IAAF dropped the chromosome-based gender determination exercise and, for a brief while, there was no gender determination being carried out at competitive sporting events. But biology is not as simple as XX or XY. When DNA forms protein, there are many layers of regulation that ensure that a certain amount of protein is made. Too much or too little of a particular protein can create havoc in a person’s body.
Proteins shape our physical form; they interact with DNA to create more proteins; they interact with each other to control body processes and contribute to all major actions that our bodies take. But with such nuanced interactions at work, the final outcome is not always an exact number. Thus, if you consider skin tone, people are not all black or all white. There is a range of skin tones governed by genetic as well as environmental factors. In a similar way, features that we use to define masculinity or femininity also range on a scale and categorising them as male or female is scientifically inadequate. Take testosterone, for example, a hormone which is present in both males and females in different amounts. A few years ago, the IAAF decided to use testosterone levels as a parameter to approve women athletes identifying an acceptable range based on tests done on a cohort.
That research has been criticised for its flaws, but even if the study design had been correct, its paradigm of defining normality in nature is wrong. This study and classification is, instead, an attempt to force-fit a social construct of gender onto a randomly chosen biological measurement. The various tricks of human biology mean that some women are born with naturally higher testosterone. That many of the athletes who have been reprimanded over the testosterone levels are of African and Asian origin may not be a coincidence but a legacy of their genetic heritage. To socially admonish them because some test disqualifies them as female is not correct.
The question of sex is something science is still grappling with and is yet to understand comprehensively. But to naively impose a social construct and find its biological meaning would be unscientific. Genes have made us more than just male or just female. Only our tunnel vision limits us from thinking beyond it.
(Shambhavi Naik is a research fellow with Takshashila’s Technology and Policy programme)