I’d never seen a boy like him before. He was an acne-covered teenager, super skinny and nearly seven feet tall. I couldn’t help but stare at the black and white photos of him in my fifth-grade science book. Mr. Clawitter explained that the boy had an extra Y-chromosome and most likely would grow up to exhibit aggressive or criminal behavior. He seemed scary.
I hadn’t thought about that strange XYY boy since elementary school. But then recently I came across “What your science teacher told you about sex chromosomes is wrong,” an interview with Sarah S. Richardson, associate professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard.
Thinking of the X chromosome as “female” and the Y chromosome as “male” has perpetuated a strong binary way of thinking of maleness and femaleness that’s empirically wrong.
According to Richardson, who authored Sex Itself last fall, most of what I learned in the 1960s and 1970s about X and Y chromosomes was just “bad science.” The assumption that all typical masculine traits are coded on the Y chromosome, for example, is incorrect.
She says that thinking of the X chromosome as “female” and the Y chromosome as “male” has perpetuated a strong binary way of thinking of maleness and femaleness that’s empirically wrong. And it’s misled scientists a number of times, as in hypothesis of the so-called XYY male, whose extra dose of “maleness” was believed to heighten aggression. She cites that example to show how current knowledge can become hardened fact once it’s printed in textbooks.
And Richardson wants to know why science is studying sex differences without parallel studies of gender. (I want to know why, too!) Because of the way males and females are socialized, she says, what might look like a biological finding in brain research might instead be a reading of cultural training.
It was his intent to suggest there were two categories in which human beings could be sexual, and that the categories were equal.
“Bad science” popped up in another interview on my reading list, this one from 2012. In “The invention of the heterosexual” writer and historian Hanne Blank talks about Straight, her “short” history of heterosexuality, and explains how contrived our ideas are of “straightness.”
For starters, Blank says that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were coined at the same time in the mid-1800s by an Austro-Hungarian journalist. It was his intent to suggest there were two categories in which human beings could be sexual, and that the categories were equal. But then in the 1880s to 1890s, those in the then-unscientific field of psychiatry used their medical degrees to make value judgments and created specialized medical vocabulary that got passed off unquestionably as authoritative.
It was psychiatrists who decided the term heterosexual meant “normal.”
And then those same shrinks created all the various categories of “sexual deviance” that societies historically have defined themselves in opposition to. (Note to self: blog about how the term “gender dysphoria” was known officially as “gender identity disorder” until last year.)
As for the science over the last decade that’s argued there are physical differences between gay people and straight people, Blank wonders how one can assume to look for physiological differences when no one has established what a heterosexual body is. If you can’t establish one, then you can’t establish the other. And then she says it: bad science.
When the interviewer says he’s attached to his identity as a gay man, and doesn’t think he’d like having his category taken away from him, Blank’s reply resonated with something my son Harry told me.
While no one can take away his gay-man identity, it’s still an illusion to think that it’s anything more than a constructed social category.
It’s real, but it’s not organic.
And Blank agrees that categories have been helpful to the gay rights movement that may not have existed without them. But I’m with her in the frustration that comes from not being able to simply say, “Being human ought to get you human dignity.”
Can we please just teach all this in school, please?
Image credit: Beatrice the Biologist