Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Does It Really Mean to Be "Genetically (Fe)male?"

Hi, there! I have been thinking more about the fact that a lot of articles, books, etc. on intersex people seem really fond of the phrase "genetically male" and "genetically female" when discussing the chromosomes that intersex people have. I have always conditionally accepted the assertion that people with my intersex variation (androgen insensitivity, or AIS) - with both our XY chromosomes and bodies that are read as female by others - that I was "genetically male." I never felt totally comfortable with this, because I don't identify as male, and never have. It felt strange to identify as intersex, or as female, depending on the day (and depending on how confused (pre-)teen and early-twenty-something Claudia was about this whole intersex thing), and then see in black and white on a printed page or computer screen that I was somehow still male by virtue of my chromosomes. I became more interested in this paradox between who I say I am and who my chromosomes say I am as a biological scientist. Did having XY chromosomes really make me genetically male? If I was actually genetically male, then did that somehow challenge or negate my female identity? Did it just complicate it? What?

I've spent some time wondering whether I was overreacting somehow to being called a "genetic male." I have visceral reactions when I read this; something between a pang and a slight sucker-punch to the gut, followed by a swell of fear and guilt - I felt like it just was wrong, couldn't be true that I was somehow male anything, and yet I wondered if my distaste of this phrase was my own problem. What if I somehow really need to embrace (at least in part) some male identity by virtue of my big, burly, manly chromosomes? Or maybe I needed to just calm down, it was just a phrase, a convenient way of saying I had XY chromosomes, no need to get all upset.

But I don't think I have been overreacting. I think that the phrases "genetically male" and "genetically female" aren't very meaningful. I think that they're kinda problematic.

So, one science thing I'm used to thinking about is trait complexity, and the origins of that complexity. All of the bumps and grooves and characteristics our bodies have, no matter how simple and self-evident they seem, may be the result of a whole mess of factors - genetic, developmental, and/or environmental. Biological sex seems like it should be a simple game as far a chromosomes go. XX = girl, XY = boy. But when you consider ALL of the ways that genes influence sex development, it's clear that X and Y simply don't cut it.

In my form of intersex, I have XY chromosomes. I also have a particular gene called the AR gene, or androgen receptor gene, that plays a large role in why I am intersex. The AR gene codes for androgen receptors. Receptors are basically little molecular hands on the outside and inside of cells, that grab onto some molecules it's made to grab onto (or, in other words, is "specific" to). Typically, androgen receptors will grab onto androgens (here, testosterone); once these receptors grab onto the testosterone, it can be used by the body for a variety of reasons, some of them including virilization. The genetic sequence that gives rise to my androgen receptors resulted in my receptors being a little differently-shaped. For receptors to effectively grab onto its molecule, it's important that they have complementary shapes. My receptors didn't have the right shape to grab onto testosterone, so my body couldn't use it. Thus, even though I have XY chromosomes, my body developed on a female trajectory, responding to the only sex hormone it could (= estrogen).

So, what bugs me about this whole "genetically male" thing is that this phrase belies a lazy understanding of genetics. Okay, XY is associated with typical males. But what about my AR gene sequence? This is not associated with typical males. This is just as much genetic as my XY chromosomes are. How come I'm genetically male by virtue of my X and my Y, but I'm not genetically not-male by virtue of my AR gene?

I'm not genetically male. I'm genetically myself, and I happen to have XY chromosomes and an AR gene sequence that results in me being perceived as a lady. That's it.

Chromosomal sex might seem obvious and straightforward, but it's actually pretty complex. Asserting that you're genetically male having XY chromosomes or genetically male having XX chromosomes requires broad-stroke science that doesn't account for many relevant details (like, genes I have that prevented me from developing in a male trajectory) when considering biological sex. Understanding this makes me feel some validation for my younger (and no-so-young-&-fairly-recent) self that inwardly cringed at the implication that my chromosomes were pointing and shouting that I was a dude when I knew that I wasn't. I was not, and am not, being betrayed by my chromosomes. I'm just taking a more accurate view of what it means to be genetically anything.

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