In 1969, when I was 19 and rode a motorcycle, there was a highway sign on Route 6 in North Truro alerting drivers that they could get to Provincetown by turning left and taking Route 6A or by continuing on Route 6. The sign read:
I bought a three-inch round button with a replica of that sign at Marine Specialties and proudly pinned it to my riding poncho. That someone had the idea to manufacture that button suggests that at least one person understood the possible multiple meanings of the sign, one of which was assuredly overlooked by MassDOT.
Either way! In our polarized politics, we all need to attain a broader perspective on human variation, not only in regard to race and ethnicity but also to sexuality and gender.
Consider the nature-versus-nurture debate of the last 50 years in popular psychology. Today, no reputable biologist is trapped in simplistic nature/nurture binary thinking. We know instead that human social behavior is a complex and indivisible blend of biological and social influences.
When it comes to both gender and sexuality, either-or binary thinking is similarly reductive. Nature allows for and even promotes sexual diversity. Nearly 1,500 species of insects, fish, birds, and mammals are known to practice same-sex coupling. Many fish have the ability to change from male to female or female to male in response to environmental factors, while some frog species change their sex for social reasons. Chalk bass have been identified who possess both male and female internal sexual organs. Black swans in male-to-male pairs form a threesome with a female, which ends after she has laid her eggs.
The list of sexual variations in the plant world is even more extensive, with 25 terms needed to catalogue the multiplicity of sexual variations. Depending on your way of looking at the world, my flower garden is either a lush and fertile field of play or a Babylon of sexual depravity where anything goes.
Some people automatically think of human sexual variation in terms of abnormality. But sexual diversity is as natural as the morning dew. When we choose to view heterosexuality as the norm, we should acknowledge that doing so is based on a social construct — a practical one, perhaps, but not one we should etch in stone.
Intersex individuals, born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit our typical understanding of female or male bodies, occur naturally in all animal species and, as scientists pay more attention, are being increasingly recognized as naturally occurring variations of human physiology. Thirty genes once thought to be exclusively linked with male or female biological characteristics have come to be understood to exhibit more complex nonbinary variations.
Biology also teaches us that gender is another social construct that does not fit a binary model. While for most people the anatomical indicators of sex correspond to what is typically understood as male or female, for others, sexuality and gender don’t align in a neat and tidy way. Gender identity isn’t about who one is attracted to but about who one is. For this reason, being transgender (feeling as if one’s assigned sex is different from the gender one identifies with) should not be confused with being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Our pathologies — fear of those who are different, socialization that degenerates into indoctrination, blind acceptance of group ideology — are deeply rooted in our species. In truth, most people would rather believe than know, which accounts for the political right’s manufactured brouhaha on transgenderism. It is yet another cynically calculated attack on the wokeism bogeyman.
Things will change. In the recent past, people with mental illnesses such as clinical depression were treated as outcasts. No longer. One day, gender affirmation for people who identify as transgender, gender neutral, nonbinary, genderqueer, all, none, or a combination of these, will be the norm and, along with it, gender-affirming health care. The more we pay attention and insist upon it now, the sooner it will become reality.
Andrew Hay lives in Eastham.