At the time of this article, I had the privilege of speaking to a person (nicknamed “C”) that identifies as nonbinary, but that asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Through my conversation with C on the subject of their identity, a few matters spoke out to me. When I asked regarding what made them realize they were nonbinary, they replied: “It was something that became clear to me much later in life, once I had allowed myself the freedom to wear clothes that made me feel comfortable, not strictly conforming to what my sex implies I should wear. Before I knew it, my closet consisted of androgynous outfits, I cut my hair, and started using they/them pronouns. It wasn’t an epic journey of self-discovery, it was simply allowing myself to be as I am.”
We also discussed what life had been like for C after coming out as nonbinary, to which they expressed that though they hadn’t come out to more than their partner and a few friends, they hoped that one day they would be able to bridge the gap between who the world saw them as, and who they understood themselves to be. “Being nonbinary was never a choice to me, and neither was my sexuality. Both were just two facts about my existence that I had to discover on my own, because the world that surrounded me never gave me a chance to think outside of a certain box. I’ve never hidden who I am from anyone, but people almost never think to ask.”
Gender identity is unique to each individual. Children as early as two years of age are usually capable of identifying their own gender. Throughout time gender has been expressed in a variety of ways, often shaped by the mandates of an intolerant society—mandates that we now recognize as gender roles. As the LGBTQ+ community has flourished around the world thanks to a larger visibility allowed by modern media, we have also observed an increase of gender identity visibility. Sentiments such as “Gender is a social construct” have become much more commonplace between younger generations. One example being that of Josie Totah, a young actress on NBC Champions that recently came out as transgender. Yet, is our sense of gender identity truly based solely on our social existence, or is there a biological basis behind the evolution of gender?
Gender in 1968 was defined as an individual’s perception of themselves as it pertains to notions of masculinity or femininity. It does not pertain to the biological sex of the individual which is assigned at birth. However, today we understand that there is more to gender than the simple binary of male and female. In the field of psychology, it is understood that gender identity is constantly evolving, and is not established at birth, but actually a by-product of our human experiences as we develop and grow. A mismatch between an individual’s biological sex and their gender identity is known as gender dysphoria, which has often been linked with emotional trauma and mental illness. Gender dysphoria is most closely associated to transgender identities due to the disconnect between the individual’s sex and gender. However, the World Health Organization has been actively working towards removing transgender identity as a mental disorder, and succeeded in May 2019. Similar to how homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 1987, each decade our society finds a way to label and stigmatize against those who ‘deviate’ from the established social norm. Just as author Ian Hacking has suggested, we often try to ‘make up’ people; that is we try to find a biological, genetic, or evolutionary reason behind their ‘deviation’. Possibly because if we determine a reason, it makes it easier to justify the criminalization and dehumanization of their behavior.
The question remains: have we determined what is the reason behind gender identity? For many years, we have known that the reason embryos turn out biologically male is due to the presence of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome, which dictates the development of the testis in the embryo and sets off a chain reaction of hormones that lead to the biologically male sex. However, there are variants of the SRY which have been shown to be ‘dormant’ and do not develop testis, therefore resulting in some individuals with Y chromosomes that are born biologically female. Yet, people born with these kinds of genetic variants have not been shown to be disproportionately transgender. These findings still brought to light the idea that gender could be linked to our genetics.
Recent findings suggest that gender may have a genetic and evolutionary root. A study in 2019 used a sample pool of 380 transgender women and 344 males in a control group in order to compare 12 variant sex genes in known hormonal pathways. They hoped to determine if there was an underlying genetic cause to their gender dysphoria. The study determined that there were four variants in their hormonal pathway genes that would have significantly impacted their sex hormone signaling during their development as embryos. Naturally, some of the next steps identified were to conduct whole genome analysis between cis-gender and transgender individuals in order to determine if there were any other discrepancies at a much larger scale. Additional epigenetic studies may help shine a light on how certain genes activate different pathways in these two populations and possibly identify further biological differences.
If you have taken a genetics course in your life, then you are surely wondering: Can transgender identities be inherited? The answer is still unclear. We know that transgender identities are not rare, yet trans people tend to have fewer children. Which begs the question of how is this identity maintained prevalent in the population if they are the product of less progeny. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to learn more regarding the genetics of transgender identities until further studies, hopefully at the genome level, are conducted.
Gender has been established as an evolutionary adaptation that humans likely created in order to organize themselves into a society. Gender— as is understood in the original binary— has been the basis for establishing roles of child-rearing, agriculture and hunting within even our earliest societies. Therefore, the capacity to self-assign gender came as an evolutionary advantage in order for humans to live and cooperate well in large groups. However, today we recognize the existence of more than just two genders (which themselves include transgender identities). These genders are known as the nonbinary identities, those that either stray away from both masculine and feminine identities, co-exist with both identities at the same time or simply reject the existence of only two genders. The mere existence of nonbinary identities brings forth thousands of intriguing questions, mainly beginning with: what is the evolutionary purpose behind them?
The existence of non-binary identities (or identities outside of the binary spectrum) has been known globally as early as the 90s. These identities have become more prevalent over the years. A Dutch population study in 2014 found that as many as 4.6% of people assigned male at birth and 3.2% people assigned female at birth felt that they were of “ambivalent gender” which the researchers defined as identifying with both the sex they were born as and the opposite sex. Is this identity based on an individual’s genetics, psychological state or is it a product of rejection of traditional gender roles? A recent study suggested that variants in gender identity may be the product of the latter. They base this notion on the historical precedent of societies as early as 700 BCE rejecting certain genders (through infanticide) due to a societal value being assigned to them according to their labor roles.
However, a highly contested evolutionary perspective on these non-binary gender identities is that they consist of an atypicality that can have a potential impact on reproductive success within individuals of our species, yet may not be associated with any mental or physical pathologies. This view comes from the evolutionary notion that gender and sex allow for differentiation that leads to courtship, mating, offspring care and territorial defense of the species. Therefore, gender identities that exist outside of what we have deemed scientifically as the way mammals (such as humans) mate are seen as a potential challenge when it comes to the production of offspring. These views are highly contested due to the possibility of them being used in a discriminatory sense against individuals that deviate from the norm. Although the science only seeks to explain, the existence of these theories may be misconstrued by those with ulterior motives. Navigating our modern world is still a struggle for many that identify within the gender non-conforming spectrum. Often times, people with the ulterior motives aforementioned go out of their way to discriminate against transgender and nonbinary people, often perpetuating acts of violence.
Gender has always been and will likely continue to be a subject of great discussion among social and scientific communities. The identification of oneself within the gender spectrum is a decision that everyone must make at some point in their life. For some, gender is something they won’t consider important to their quality of life. For others, that decision may mean facing a lifetime of hardship and reassurance that, though the body they were gifted did not coincide with their innermost feelings, they now have the opportunity to change. The understanding of gender helped us evolve into the humans we are today, yet we still have much left to learn. As Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, once said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.