Gender & Sex – what do people think vs what is actually true

Once, when in Paris a few years back I happened to be in a restaurant restroom. While pointing Peter at the Porcelain, to my complete shock, one of the female staff wanders in, says “Bonjour” and heads directly to a cupboard to grab some supplies, then wanders back out. Apparently they kept cleaning supplies in a cupboard in the mens restroom.

Nobody was bothered and apparently nobody thought it was strange, so that was for me my few minutes of culture shock.

As a society we have perhaps been going through a bit of a culture shock as the social awareness that gender and sex are not the same thing sinks in. Some have come to appreciate that this is the way it is and have embraced an acceptance, but others, for what are generally the inevitable religious reasons, not so much.

In July 2022 Pew published a survey that measured public attitudes to transgender issues. What it revealed is not a surprise. White evangelicals once again demonstrated their intolerance by taking the stance that society has gone too far in accepting people who are transgender, while the non-religious are at the other end of the scale and say society has not gone far enough.

Before we get into the survey, which simply measures what people think, let’s first cover the scientific facts.

For some biological sex is not debatable. At a cellular level you are either XX or XY … end of story.

But wait, is that really the definitive universal truth?


The actual scientific truth is complicated, so we will get into this in a second. First, let me define a few words.

At birth babies are assigned a specific sex. Society then assumes that a person’s gender identity will develop according to the sex assigned. The term used for this is Cisgender. The social challenge is that there are some for whom the assigned sex and gender identity do not align. This is referred to as being transgender.

Human Biology

Human biology is complex and so sex is not always binary. “But but but“, some might exclaim and as I mentioned above “either you are XX or XY, so you can only be male or female“.

Is this factually right?

Actually no.

To be clear I’m talking about the X chromosome and also the Y chromosome. We all have X. In most cases female is XX and male is XY. That however is not the complete story.

While there are two dimensions to biological sex, male and female, there is also the reality that there is an overlapping middle. It is not just XX and XY, there are other patterns such as XXY, XYY and XXX. If you think that is confusing then you also need to be aware that some people are mosaics where some cells only have XX and others are XY. This basic genetic reality blows the entire “All Humans are either Male or Female” out of the water.

It gets even more complicated because specific chromosomes are not the entire story. Genes play a role in determining your sexual characteristics and they can vary dramatically within specific chromosome types.

As an example, if you are XY, but you also have copies of the WNT4 gene, you can develop both genitals and a uterus and Fallopian tubes.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are many other layers of complexity in play, for example there are intersex individuals who make both eggs and sperm.

Beyond basic biology people are also born with a specific sexual orientation.This also is not binary. While most may indeed be heterosexual, there are people who are also homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and much more. It really is not binary. As far back as 2008 it was clear that …

Current evidence indicates that sexual differentiation of the human brain occurs during fetal and neonatal development and programs our gender identity—our feeling of being male or female and our sexual orientation as hetero-, homo-, or bisexual. This sexual differentiation process is accompanied by many structural and functional brain differences among these groups (1)

PNAS 2008 – Sexual orientation and its basis in brain structure and function

Well, I did warn you that it gets complicated.

Beyond being born with a specific sexual orientation humans are also born with a specific gender identity. It’s really not, as some might claim, a choice.

OK, so putting all that aside, how many actually understand this human biological reality?

When Pew ran that survey last year asking about peoples thoughts on Transgender issues, what they are perhaps doing is actually measuring our degree of empathy and compassion for others.

OK, let’s get into the survey.

The Survey Details

The transgender questions were part of a larger survey conducted in May 2022. The 10,000 people, that took part were a representative sample of the US population.

Pew Insights: Is Gender determined at Birth?

This is how people answered this question in 2017, 2021, and then again in 2022 …

Reality is not something we get to vote on, it will be what it is regardless of the number of people who accept or reject the evidence, so please don’t consider the above to be a declaration of truth, it is just public opinion.

What is clear is that the more religious you are, then the more dogmatic and binary your thinking will be on this issue

What is also clear is that at both ends of the scale there will be people who do not align with what you might anticipate …

  • There really are white evangelicals who do recognise that a persons gender really can be different than the sex assigned at birth
  • There are also non-religious people who take the stance that your gender is determined by your sex at birth … period.

Dig into other questions and a pattern emerges …

Is society too accepting of transgender?

  • Religious … only White Evangelicals have a majority that say yes, everybody else … mostly “nope”, and the less religious you are the more inclined you are to lean into “Not gone far enough”.
  • Again, there are exceptions to that view on both ends of the scale

Does religion influence your views about gender/sex?

  • Religious … again only White Evangelicals have a majority that say “yes”a great deal”, everybody else … mostly “not so much”, or “not at all”.
  • A weird quirk is that only 95% of Atheists ticked “Not at all”, so who are the other 5% that have been influenced by something they don’t believe? … did they even understand the question being asked?

Where are we now?

Clearly society has come a long way, but despite that progress it has still not really come to terms with our actual biological reality … yet.

Those that adopt strict binary thinking might indeed sincerely believe that they have the scientific biological reality on their side and are justified taking this stance. However, scratch the surface and just under the binary thinking of XX or XY resides a deep degree of complexity that I previously outlined.

What is also happening is that all the old arguments that were once being deployed against the gay community are now being deployed against people with a non-traditional gender identity. For example, some might claim that the emergence of transgender people is due to “social contagion”. This is the exact same argument deployed against the gay community 40 years ago when some claimed that gay men were luring kids into coming out as gay.

This is, and no doubt will continue to be a very hot topic of contention, especially when so many are so willing to argue from a position of either religious superstition or just plain ignorance of just how messy and complicated human biology actually is.

There is however one thing we can be truly certain about. Adding more chairs at the table for other people to sit at will not in any way imply that your seat will be taken away.

Regardless of what you might believe, your best play within this arena will be tolerance, understanding, compassion, and empathy.

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