This is the third part of a series about the complex biological realities of sex. Though the posts build on one another, each can be understood alone.
I recently had the opportunity to teach about the complexities of biological sex in humans (essentially, the content of my post The Truth Behind the Biology of Sex) as a workshop for college-age kids. I was nervous as I prepared to teach this workshop, in a way that I have never felt before while teaching. I felt like I was repaying a debt to the people who taught me valuable lessons about the complex realities of sex and gender, like Kiki, the transgender woman who first opened my eyes to how arbitrary the definitions of male and female really are.
I was also nervous because it wasn’t like the other times I’ve taught STEM topics, where I can just laugh and gently correct misconceptions about evolution or chemical elements. Every ignorant comment about sex, every refusal to learn the complicated truth in favor of comforting patriarchal lies, would fall on me like a blow. When it comes to the biology of sex, it gets personal.
I set the stage with some standard gender justice practices, asking my audience for their preferred names and personal pronouns. Then I said, “In this class, we are going to say words like ‘breasts’ and ‘testes’, so if you’re going to giggle about that, get it out of your system now.” Nobody giggled. But even with that opening, it still took a lot of encouragement to get the kids to talk about sexual anatomy.
I opened with small-group discussions of what it means to be male or female, and wrote their answers on the board. They pointed out the differences between sex and gender, that gender is psychological and sociological while sex is biological. My goal for the class was to point out how psychology and society impose ideologies and categories to the biology that don’t exist naturally.
The students also gave answers like “sex chromosomes.” When I got that answer, I said, “Who here has two X chromosomes? Raise your hand.”
Most of my female students raised their hands.
“How do you know?” I said. “Have you had a karyotype? Has someone looked at your chromosomes under a microscope?”
Blank stares. I said, “Then do you really know for sure? You might change your mind by the end of this class.”