Brain Sex: Gender, Sexuality and Cultural Roles

This article first appeared in The Good Men Project March, 29, 2015

Brain SexNeuroscience teaches us what it means to be human.

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Growing up in a staunchly conservative Christian home, I was taught very defined gender roles. Years later, when I came out as a gay man, it was nearly as difficult to reconcile my view of gender roles as it was my religion. I describe a little of this in my book, as I was getting acquainted with other gay men:

Simon caught [my friend] Joseph’s eye at a local pub where we were meeting…Simon embodied all of the gay stereotypes that movies portray and reality TV adores. If I thought I’d conquered my own homophobia, Simon was about to reveal the raging Evangelical Republican that dwelt inside.

“Hey, cutie,” he said to Joseph while clutching his gold lamé coin purse.

“Hi.” Joseph smiled. I was watching what looked like a bad b-movie unfolding in front of my eyes.

“My friends and I are going to a bar down the street to hang out some more. Do you want to come with us?” Simon asked. I was certain Joseph would say no.

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he said and looked at me, “You wanna go?” Simon disgusted me. I wasn’t sure what this half-man-mostly-girl was up to, but my suspicions ran high. I reluctantly went with Joseph and his new friends to the bar, mostly because I felt Joseph was going to need an alibi.

Simon carried most of the conversation, waving his thin little arms around like a junior high girl, sauntering back and forth to the bar to refill his drink. My disgust must have been written all over my face.

Going Gay, My Journey From Evangelical Minister to Self-acceptance, Love, Life, and Meaning (CK Publishing, 2014)

I’m ashamed to admit that I held on to that discomfort for years, looking down my nose on any man who didn’t act like the narrowly defined, Christian bred idea of masculinity I so firmly believed to be true.

♦◊♦

As I studied and researched gender and sexuality, however, I first learned that the two were not the same.

As I studied and researched gender and sexuality, however, I first learned that the two were not the same. Sexuality is about attraction to another person, not about how masculine or feminine the sexually attracted person acts. My friend, Joseph, for example, spent 10 years in construction work. Most people never knew, or suspected he was gay. Simon, the person to whom he was attracted, could pass as a girl if he wanted to dress the part, though he was also sexually attracted to men.

Gender roles are also not as clearly defined. One reason for this is that we are not purely binary, only male and only female. Neurology Professor Jeanette Norden breaks down the differences in her lectures on Understanding the Brain (a must-have series for neuropsychology nerds).

Genotypic sex
This is our gene, or chromosome type sex. Most of the time, females are XX and males are XY. However, there are instances where someone can appear to be one gender on the outside and have the opposite sex chromosomes. There are also individuals who have XXY Chromosomes. A majority of those are male and some are born with female genetilia.

Phenotypic sex
This is the genitalia with which we are born, and is determined by the development of internal and/or external genitalia. Generally, genotypic and phenotypic sex are related, though that is not always the case. As noted above, there are instances where someone can have the chromosomes of one gender and outwardly display the genitalia of the opposite gender.

   Gender identification

Those who feel they were born with the wrong body are often diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a disconnect between the gender they feel they are the body they have.

This is the subjective perception of one’s gender and is a construct created by the brain that relates them to their gender identity. Those who feel they were born with the wrong body are often diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a disconnect between the gender they feel they are the body they have.

Brain sex
Brain sex is the structural difference between male and female brains. The clinical term is “sexual dimorphism,” meaning brain structure size, number or density of neurons, etc. that separates male brains from female brains. There are particular areas of neurons that may be more or less dense in female vs. male brains and vice versa. Brain sex also contributes to how a person relates to his or her environment, as well as gender identification and expression.

Brain sex is determined in humans before birth, while brain sex in a rat is postnatal, or after they are born. There is a critical period of time when brain sex can be manipulated. Studies show that when testosterone is given to a female rat during that critical period, she will sexually act like a male. Similarly, when young male rats are castrated, stopping the induction of testosterone that masculinizes their brains, they exhibit nesting behavior, typically found in female rats.

People are born with a combination genotypic, phenotypic and brain sex types, meaning there is a combination of gender expressions and sexuality.

People are born with a combination of genotypic, phenotypic and brain sex types, meaning there is a combination of gender expressions and sexuality. Gay men, in one study, were found to have the nucleus of a female brain, though it is difficult to definitively tell whether or not this plays into sexual behavior.

Similarly, a study of females with adrenal hyperplasia, showed that the adrenal gland appeared to have masculinized the brain. This study found these women were more likely to behave as tomboys, show aggressive behaviors, and identify with males, even when they were younger. They also showed an increased preference of other females as sexual partners.

Most cultures tend to exaggerate the differences between males and females. Much of this has to do with who establishes the rules and what is considered culturally acceptable for each gender. In American culture, highly influenced by religion, we tend to keep gender roles more clearly separated and defined.

However, as cultures become more open about sexuality, sexual orientation and a blending of roles, people feel more open to express themselves more authentically. We see this play out in younger celebrities such as Alex Newell, who played Glee’s transgender student, Unique Adams, and EJ Johnson, Magic Johnson’s son. Both blend traditionally male and female clothing options into their own styles. We call this gender fluidity, or the gender expression of a person who may feel male one day, female a different day, a combination of both, or neither.

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It’s important to point out that expression of sexuality and gender can be changed, as well as behavior, however brain gender and sexuality cannot be altered by experience, therapy, or shaming or embarrassing anyone. These are variations found in humans and animals, and noted in science throughout history.

I have to admit that learning the science behind what has become such a political issue was eye-opening. It’s where knowledge meets compassion and subjects become people.

Following my friend Joseph’s month-long tryst with Simon, I asked, “How you can you so easily accept people like him?”

In his wisdom he said, “There is a reason people do what they do. Who am I to judge them when I don’t know their stories?” Come to find out, people’s journeys are really only part of their stories.

For more information, watch this Buzzfeed video, What It’s Like To Be Intersex.

#BornPerfect

Photo – Flickr/ djneight

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