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Knowing the Body: Biologically Forum

Knowing the Body: Biologically Forum

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Interesting discussion
Name: Sierra
Date: //2004-11-17 12:36:35 :
Link to this Comment: 11627

I just had a very interesting discussion with a friend of mine about Wittig's "One is Not Born a Woman." Wittig argues, like we did, that woman is something that is socially specified and not natural. She was unable to understand this, so I had her read some of the postings on the forum and explained to her Professor Grobsteins lecture and had her look at the pictures of the lecture. After about an hour of talking she was able to accept that sex and gender were different. But she was hung up on the penis. She could not grasp how a person with a penis could not be a man. So, I explained the possiblity of being intersexed. As we left the conversation she was willing to admit that a person could be "biologically male, biologically female or biologically fucked" and she would also admit that a person of a certain sex could identify as a different gender but underneath it all they were still ultimately their sex. So, I guess my point is that all of us in the class seem to have very progressive thoughts about what sex and gender are and what rights that should afford us and how we should abolish those categories, but this conversation made me realize that we are such a small population. So many people do not understand an underlying difference between sex and gender and aren't even aware of the possibilities that exist within intersexed children. It also brought me back to the idea of gay marriage and abortion. Some people were saying that it is not revolutionary to allow gays to marry but that we should change the structure of the institution instead. So, relating it back to my discussion, before we can change the structure of sex and gender and possibly abolish the binary we have to make people aware that there is a socially constructed binary and people fit outside of it. Before we can change marriage, we have to let everyone do it. Before we can make a decision on abortion we have to make sure everyone understands it.

Wabbits and Varmints
Name: Jenny Boyl
Date: //2004-10-30 14:51:24 :
Link to this Comment: 11275

Greetings you all. This is Jenny Boylan here, back safely at Colby College, in Red Sox nation, a couple weeks after your generous and kind hosting of me at Bryn Mawr. I want to thank everyone who helped to make that reading possible; and i am grateful to the students who listened to my story.

I am glad if I did make it clear that I'm not the only Jenny on the Block, and that there are many different ways of being gender variant. (I am sorry but when I hear that term for some reason I immediately think of Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny, and Sam is calling Bugs a "varmint." Actually, "Gender Varmint" would probably not be a bad name for my next book.)

The way I have told my story over the last year has changed-- orginally I thought of myself as the Most Articulate Transsexual Ever, and was rather gleeful to be the Transgendered Spokesmodel, or as the Boston Globe put it, "America's Transgendered Sweetheart." It was at Wesleyan, my own alma mater, though, that I had a rather difficult exchange with a number of genderqueer activists, who pointed out to me that my own experience was just one patch in a quilt of many other stories and experiences. That exchange has truly changed the way I try to present myself-- it does put me in a bind, though, because as I noted, there are a number of folks who've never encountered this stuff before, who find my cleaned up narrative their first occasion to truly understand these issues, at least a little. ON the other hand, the much messier narrative-- with all the contradictions and disagreements in the discourse-- is much closer to the truth, and is the one I prefer.

I wish you all good luck. I"ll try to check in once in a while if I can. IN the meantime, thanks.


what is variance?
Name: Rebecca Ma
Date: //2004-10-25 20:30:29 :
Link to this Comment: 11224

I really appreciated Dr. Grobstein's explaination of the deeply ingrained misunderstanding about the purpose of sex in the biological world. To understand that sex is about the production of variance in a biological and social world is much more useful than to understand it as a reproductive force. I'm a bit confussed about how to apply the understanding of variance in terms of Middlesex. If recessive traits (many of which we categorize as disease) often result from incest, then should we still view it as variance? Since many recessive disease traits would not usually appear when people mate with others outside of the family, should we term this heterogeniety or a lack or variance because the recessive trait do not appear?

Representation: present-ing again
Name: David Litt
Date: //2004-10-24 19:32:52 :
Link to this Comment: 11201

Dr. Grobstein's use of the word "explorative" to describe sex rather than "reproductive" intrigued me. The meaning of this term began to make more sense as he explained it. However I still thing there is quite a disparity between what he was describing to be the goal of sex and the term "explorative." I saw his construction of "sex" as being more "representative" rather than "explorative." Because Dr. Grobstein blurs the line between biology and culture, biological means can produce cultural ends and vice versa thus he legitamizes non-procreative sex acts by saying they are biological actions that do not "reproduce" but do
"re-present" in cultural terms (e.g. the offspring of homosexual sex is culture). Thus, non-procreative sexual relationships are validated because they "represent" (i.e. make present again) the members of the sexual relationship outside of themselves, much like a child makes its parents present again, not only cultural (i.e. passing on of morals, language, etc.) but biologically (i.e. semiconservative process of DNA replication results in heritable phenotypic traits from both parents).

nothingness as variance
Name: Nancy
Date: //2004-10-28 13:50:26 :
Link to this Comment: 11249

I was thinking of Professor Grobstein's claim about production of variance as the reason for sex (even bacterial or microorganism "sex"). It occurred to me that, despite the problems many of us (myself included) had with that definition because it didn't seem to take into account non-reproductive sex, either sex that prevents reproduction or is nonreproductive in nature.

Otherwise, the lecture seemed very well thought-out and Professor Grobstein did a fantastic job of defending every other point, so I imagined there must be more to the sex/variance dynamic. I think I have a story that satisfies me. One has a certain amount of genenic material that one can pass on to offspring, and passing that along will change the make-up of the genetic material floating around in the world for other potential reproduction. Conversely, if you do not choose to reproduce, you are keeping your genetic material from being added to the pool of traits that will continue on, you are changing the make-up of the genetic world! That is variance producing!!! If you do not pass on anything of your own, you are still altering something! It makes me think of the election-- one can vote, and their vote will affect the outcome, but if someone doesnt vote, they arechanging the outcomes through their withholding of their vote! So interesting. I just hope it makes sense.

continuing the conversation ..,
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2004-10-28 18:31:57 :
Link to this Comment: 11259

Very pleased to have "production of variance as the reason for sex" noticed as a potentially useful "new" story for at least some of you. Needless to say, I encourage you to think/read/talk more about it, treating it as indeed a "story". In the meanwhile, your questions made me think a little more about the story I sketched, as follows ...

It is I think quite clear that "sex" in the sense of mixing of genetic information can/does occur independently of reproduction. From there it a small but I think not unreasonable stretch to the notion that sex in that sense serves a function of increasing variability, at least at the level of whole organisms. And, by so doing, sex almost certainly contributes importantly to the biological evolutionary process of exploring the space of useful genes as well as of possible organisms.

From there it is a bit of a longer stretch to "sex is about the production of variance in a biological AND social world", so let me spend a little more time on that stretch. What I basically did was to suggest that biological evolution is an exploration of possible forms of biological organization, that the production of variance by sex is important for biological evolution, that cultural evolution was (on top of biological evolution) an exploration of forms of cultural organization, and that one might regard sexual behavior as filling a role in that exploration comparable to the role that mixing of genetic information plays in biological evolution (it involves particularly intimate mixing of things from different organisms and so enhances variability).

Note that this longer stretch is by metaphorical extension. It is not in any strong sense a "summary of observations", and so it ought to be taken more as a stimulus for inquiry than as an existing scientific "story". It is not, however, wholely "out of the blue". Sex/gender variations that do not contribute directly to subsequent gene pools are common in human (and other animal populations) and have been for a very long time, and so it is a not unreasonable presumption that they are "useful" in biological (as well as cultural) terms despite not making such direct contributions. Just as culture is affected by the underlying biology so are gene pools affected by the overlying culture and so variations that impact culture may have significant indirect effects on gene pools even if they make no direct contributions to them. Ergo, both sex and sexual behavior (whether with or without reproduction) may be contributors to important mutually reinforcing variability at the levels of gene pools, organisms, and cultural assemblies.

Is sex (both genetic scrambling and sexual behavior) more "representative" than "explorative"? I'm happy to be seen as some as someone who "blurs the line between biology and culture" but here I may need some help on the culture side. The conception I offered in my story (and amplified above) emphasizes the "scrambling" that occurs with intimate exchange and, in this sense, I think is closer to "explorative" than to "representative"; what is done is to create something new rather than to "re-present" something. There is though in "biological sex" a conservative, "re-presenting" aspect as well (as you say) and there could very well be such a thing in sexual behavior as well. In both, there is presumably some balance struck between "re-presenting" and novelty generation. There has been some work done on how this balance is struck genetically and, I suspect but don't know, culturally as well. What might be quite interesting though (and is probably not as yet much looked at) is to think about how these balances are affected by (to me inevitable) interactions between the genetic and cultural realms.

A last thought (for now). It isn't true that "recessive traits ... often result from incest ...". There are recessive "genes", not recessive "traits". Humans have two copies of each gene (in most cases), one from each parent. A "recessive" gene is one that has no (apparent) effect unless one gets it from both parents (which is more likely in cases of inbreeding and hence incest). Only then are the (known) effects of the gene apparent. All the parentheses are there because the whole concept of "dominant" and "recessive" genes stems from an era when many people thought that genes "determined" traits in a fairly straight forward way. As we talked about, it is likely that a given "trait" is actually influenced by many genes and, conversely, that a given gene probably affects many traits. "Recessive" genes are variants and in that respect certainly contribute to variance. As, for that matter, does their expression when there are two of them (as in the case of Middlesex's narrator). Should we think of her/him as suffering from a "disease"? That's back to the matter of "social construction". I wouldn't, for what its worth.

Thanks for your thoughts. Hope mine helpful in turn. Happy to continue the conversation if you/others inclined.

second bio post
Name: Jessie
Date: //2004-10-29 01:00:45 :
Link to this Comment: 11266

Although I agree with and appreciate Prof Grobstein’s concluding points that we are all “variants,” I didn’t feel comfortable with the way the class arrived at those conclusions. The lectures distanced the topic we were discussing (gender identity) from the members of the class. Gender variancy was presented as something that belonged to a specific transgendered lecturer named Jenny Boylan, not something that affected any of us. For example, on a somewhat benign level, Prof Grobstien asked, “Do any of you know any identical twins?” rather than “ARE any of you a twin?” This innocuous assumption about our identities becomes more personal and more potentially offensive when it’s about politically charged identities such as transgenderism. Jenny Boylan became a signifier, a representative of “The Variant” – her name was used as a euphamism for “transgendered” (to quote Prof Grobstein, “in the Jenny sense”); her image was projected up at the introduction of the topic of transgenderism and we were asked to identify her; her name and story came up so often it was as if we were studying “Jenny Boylan’s identity” rather than studying “gender identity.” I would have felt more comfortable if we had instead examined gender identity in a way that recognized our own involvement in the topic. There is nothing inherently more problematic and to-be-investigated about a transgendered person’s gender identity than anyone else’s gender identity. Transgendered people no doubt have to examine their gender identities in ways non-trans identified people don’t, and as a result have complex stories and observations resulting from their life experiences -- but those are their own stories to tell and we should respect that and not try to speak for them or label them.

This gap between the teachers/students and the topic was increased by the assumption that we all hold “normal” biases (eg, that the first thing we’d remark about Jenny Boylan’s image is that she looks like a woman, as opposed to, that she looks happy) and non-acceptance non-normative answers. As one example, when prompted, several students volunteered that there are more than two sexes, yet Prof Grobstein wouldn’t continue the lecture until someone (apologetically) said that there were two. The leading questions forced us all to answer as a unit in a way representing mainstream systems of thought, regardless of the various backgrounds and experiences with gender variancy that I’m sure we all have. This constructed a hetero-normative, non-gender-variant atmosphere in which to conduct the discussion of a distanced transgenderism.

Setting trans-identified people apart emphasizes the deviancy, not variancy, of their gender identity. By constructing a distance between “us”/the norm/the class members and the transgenderism we’re discussing, the latter transgendered people are set apart from the former “normal” people.

This distance between subject-being-discussed and those-doing-the-discussing marks a salient point in trans theory. Those with the experience of being transgendered have typically been separated from the doctors, psychologists, and scholars who claim to have the knowledge about being transgendered. Trans people have to get permission from a doctor before they can modify their bodies – their own gender identity has to be approved by a medical authority. This same separation of experience from knowledge I think was reflected in the distancing of “Jenny Boylan” and all she represents from the supposedly non-gender-variant classroom.

I'm sorry if I sound too critical, I certain don't mean to be disparaging or judgemental. It's more that I felt uneasy after both lectures last week and after a week of thinking about it, I still feel the same way, so I’m trying to make sense of what might have caused me to have that reaction.

continuing ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2004-10-23 10:41:49 :
Link to this Comment: 11175

Very much appreciated/enjoyed chance to talk with you all last week. Was for me a useful rethinking of a lot of older ways of thinking, hope for you too. I'd love to hear what new thoughts/questions you had after meeting together, and to continue the conversation here. "Sex" and "gender", and how to think about them, are of course matters whose significance goes far beyond "General Programs 290". Since we're publicly on-line here, we can impact on the broader conversation about those issues ... so pitch in and let's see where we can get to and what kinds of effect we can have?

Pheromones and the like
Name: Claire
Date: //2004-10-21 10:55:25 :
Link to this Comment: 11166

After Tuesday's class I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what and who influences me, and in what capacity. First, in reflection on John Edward's visit, I asked myself why I have become a democrat. My answer was simple: I was brought up in a liberal household. No way did genetics creep into my answer.

Next, I thought about why I am heterosexual. Well, I was raised in a heterosexual household with happily married parents. That probably has an effect. However, for my entire junior year in high school my mom thought I was a lesbian and made it very clear that she and my father supported me in whatever sexual orientation I chose. While thankful for accepting parents, I spent most of my time being frustrated that my own parents didn't know me well enough to know that I wasn't a lesbian. Nevertheless, social repression (especially inside my home) did not seem factor into my sexual choice.

So, why am I straight? I'm sure that society has had some influence on what we might call my "self," and thus my straightness, but coming from the suburbs of one of the most gay-friendly cities in the United States, San Francisco, it doesn't seem to play a key factor. There is something about me that is just "straight." The best explanation I can see to fit this reasoning is that in some way my genes have interacted and my hormones have been produced to make me straight. There is a lot of hype about pheromones and their ability to attract other people to you. Is it perhaps that we, as humans, have been coded by our genes to have certain pheromone receptors? Do I have a receptor that gets excited when certain male pheromones are in my vicinity? (As a tangent, could this then explain our "type" preference in sexual mate? I.e. could it be that we are coded for receptors of "jocks" "artists" or "Joe Shmo" that we are then attracted to a certain type of person?) I think I have digressed...

Lastly, I have been consumed with thoughts about my hip. Bear with me here. In the past week I have misaligned my left hip three different times. This has caused the athletic trainer to raise one question "Are you pregnant?" The reason: misaligned hips are usually caused by the influx of hormones during pregnancy. While I am not pregnant, many of the girls on my volleyball team are on their periods. While I am not, it is their hormones causing my hormones to go crazy and, consequently, misalign my hips. Their biology is rubbing off on me.

Once again I have tangent-ed my way to a conclusion. Biology is not necessarily just our own genes, but how our bodies interact with the biology of other people's. Could it be these interactions (albeit with social influences as well) that cause our sexual preference? Are we, for some unknown reason, drawn to certain people? I think so.

As a side note, I'd like to respond to Arielle's comment "that scientists/biologists begin research with an already designated answer instead of a hypothesis." I have mixed feelings about this statement. As a scientist, I would never start an experiment without thinking about the possible outcomes of the experiment. Many times, based on prior knowledge, I have an answer I assume will be upheld by my results. When I get those results I am happy because the scientific background has supported itself. This could be the case with genetics studies that review behavior of different races and genders. There is a gene that is most common in the African-American society that codes for sickle-cell anemia. If genes within a certain race can code for a disease that is semi-specific to that race, why can they not then code for personality characteristics, such as aggression or passivity, within that race? Do not get me wrong, I do agree that, especially with social convention, behavioral studies based on genetics can be misinterpreted. But I also think we need to accept that genetics might have a greater hand in our preferences and characteristics than we are willing to admit.

Name: Rebecca Ma
Date: //2004-10-20 18:44:06 :
Link to this Comment: 11150

I appreciated Thuesday's class because it advocated for the interaction between biology and culture. What I'm really insterested in is: are there any studies done on the interation between gene and social behavior? Specifically, has there been any research that investigates the molecular links or chemical pathways involved in enculteration beyond the kinds of studies that reduce measurable biological data to finger lengths?

Name: Beth
Date: //2004-10-20 20:35:27 :
Link to this Comment: 11152

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that genes don't determine anything. As Claire mentioned in her post, they do determine aspects of one's self. Yes, it's true that appearance can be changed, but the individual's choice to transform is related to the self and to how he/she defines himself/herself. Since there is a specific gene pool, the process isn't entirely random. Also, there is the argument that genes can determine how one reacts to his/her environment. I'm not saying biology is everything because I don't think that is true, but I think that they play more of an independent role than the alternative model might suggest.

sex on the brain
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: //2004-10-21 00:13:21 :
Link to this Comment: 11154

Thanks, Paul, for your time and for your thinking-along-with-us in class on Tuesday. (Those who would like to refer to that session can find it linked now both from the course home page and on the syllabus for this week). I liked (=found helpful) both of your alternative "story" images: of self-inside-brain-inside-body-surrounded-by-other-things and of brains-interacting-w/-other-brains-and-other things. I'm wanting you to complexify, though, both the relationship of the two images to one another and each of them to themselves:

I think the first image, of the "material individual," needs to be clearly situated within the material world (if you want to be imperialistic about it, I'd say this is "culture surrounding biology"). Then I think the second image, of the "material world," needs to be located inside an individual brain (needs to indicate that it is the construction of an individual brain--and this is biology surrounding culture, if you want to be counter-imperialistic about it). I see that you've just tried, elsewhere, to figure this...my own imaginings had been running towards something more on the order of a retractable cup:

See this? Brain nested inside culture, culture nested inside brain. Retractable, expandable...

Speaking of which.
Enough of images.

I'm wanting a little more expansion in the form of words...would also be interested in having your reflections on how the contributions of biology to thinking about sex and gender might be located more particularly...say, in the area of the research of Simon Levay. In a February 2004 interview called "Sex on the Brain," Levay speaks (among other things) about
HUH??? Being fluid...
being bi-sexual means...
doing more THINKING???

Um: can we go back to those boxes....?? And maybe back OUT of them....?

straight economics
Name: Ar
Date: //2004-10-21 02:45:26 :
Link to this Comment: 11157

In class I mentioned that I do think that biology is very important in thinking about sex and gender issues. It provides a certain lense that can be insightful and inspire new theories and ideas. However, as I said, I am a bit apprehensive about the sciences in regards to these particular topics because in the past they have been used against people such as women, homosexuals, people of color, etc. I am also leery because often times it feels that scientists/biologists begin research with an already designated answer instead of a hypothesis. It seems that this can often lead to biased readings and interpretations of the research in order to support their claim as they intended all along. While this is something we all do (hope to find and tweak the information that best supports our argument or interest), I think that the sciences are particularly dangerous because once something has been labeled as “scientific” it is automatically put onto a certain plane of authority. Instead of a way of looking at something it becomes the “truth” about it.

Also, while I’m on the topic of biology, I’d just like to rant for a moment as it’s three in the morning and I have books to read, several in fact and reports and midterms and the like and NOT enough hours in my day. Yes it’s all very interesting to think about the possibility of being able to choose the sexual orientation of one’s children and no doubt their eye color and what not, but really what I care about is one thing: When the hell is someone going to find that gene or protein or whatever it is that makes the body tick, that enables me to function beautifully on one hour of sleep a night???? THAT is what science should dedicate itself to. Straight economics I say, time is money baby.

Humanities and transgender identity
Name: Chelsea
Date: //2004-10-21 02:56:47 :
Link to this Comment: 11158

I wanted to post something of what I tried to say in class on tuesday. I really do find biology a refreshing change from theory- that there are things like genes that code for proteins in such a way that implies these codes have reasonably predictable outcomes. Although these outcomes only go so far, it is nice to hear something that starts from a tentative assumption, rather than a definite assumption that there is no possible assumption. For anything. Ever. Biology of course has something to contribute to sex and gender, anything that contributes a new perspective to a study is valuable.

Sex and gender identity studies also have something to contribute to biology- that no matter what you might take to be a reasonable assumption, there will always be an exception. In a reading that I did for another class on transgender identity, it was interesting that the author named very specifically fields and places in which the transgendered people would be "found." This included many broad-sweeping field...and very specifically the HUMANITIES departments of academic institutions. I think it is incredibly interesting that, at least from this author's point of view, there is an absence in the scientific realm of this identity. Why is that? Is it even true? Any thoughts?

Gra/ey Matter
Name: Chelsea
Date: //2004-10-21 03:06:10 :
Link to this Comment: 11159

As I was sitting in class on Thursday I was having a little bit of deja vu-other classes I have taken seemed to seep into the conversation, moving in and through each other to form a rough conglomeration of my career at Bryn Mawr...and a single thought crystallized itself around the question I was pondering (why do we talk about this so much and why do I feel frustrated?): It matters so much that it has ceased to matter at all.

The "it" in this case is what we've been talking about: sex and gender; indentity of any kind; sexuality; partner choice; biology; all of it, some of it, none of it. This is so crucial to ourselve, yet so intrinsic, that it must always/already matter to the point of ceasing to matter. It no longer exists in something that CAN matter, because it is beyond that...as it cannot be separated from the self, it cannot be given a value except the value of the self. It matters so much that it has ceased to matter at all. Is this a destination? A starting point? Somewhere along the way? Pure exhaustion.

To Jessie ... et al
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2004-10-30 11:45:19 :
Link to this Comment: 11272

Jessie -

No offense at all taken by me. Very much to the contrary. I greatly appreciate/admire your feeling, thinking, and resulting ability/willingness to decide to speak out with your concerns where I/others can learn from them/respond to them. It is what good story telling/sharing (perhaps good education and good community as well) depends on (and is ultimately all about?).

I was a bit betwixt and between about how to write this response. Normally, I would write FOR whoever was reading ABOUT something that someone (you in this case) had said. But part of your point was "The lectures distanced the topic we were discussing ... from the members of the class". And I can see from your instances how that might have occurred, despite it being in fact the very opposite of what I hoped to accomplish. So, I'm writing to YOU, because this is very much about and in response to you. At the same time, you obviously believed (as I do) that things from and about particular people may be of use to others. So, I follow your lead in writing to you in a place and fashion where others can listen (and respond).

You raise several different but interestingly intertwined issues. I accept that by posing questions in relation to what people in the class knew of others rather than in relation to their own immediate experiences ("do you know ..." instead of "are you ...") I may have contributed to a "distancing" from the topic ("sex/gender variation"). I also recognize that I could have been heard as making Jennifer Boylan ( a particular person) a "signifier" both for an instance of the subtopic ("transgender") and for the topic itself, and, in so doing, could have contributed to a "distancing of 'Jenny Boylan' and all she represents from the supposedly non-gender-variant classroom", as well as to a violation of the important idea that individuals have "their own stories to tell and we should .. not try to speak for them or label them". Finally, I understand that in trying to elicit from the class a particular "story", I may have appeared to presume "that we all hold 'normal' biases" and so contributed to constructing (valorizing?) "a hetero-normative, non-gender-variant atmosphere".

It is of great value to me to be hear from others what they have heard from me, and particularly so when what is heard is different from what I intend to convey. I understand the concerns you expressed and will act differently in the future because of them. And I apologize to you and any others in the class who may have been made "uneasy" because you heard me in the particular way described. Most importantly, though, I appreciate the chance that your posting provides to clarify what I meant to convey with my story. This is important to me not only for those who may have been offended but also for those who may, for related reasons, have been less engaged by the story I told than I would prefer.

My intended message was very much NOT to " distance" the class or anyone in it from the topic of sex/gender identity and certainly not to contribute to a "hetero-normative, non-gender-variant atmosphere". Based on observations ("scientific" and otherwise), I strongly believe that everyone can/does/must/should wrestle with constructing for themselves a sex/gender identity, and that this wrestling can usefully be brought out of the closet and appreciated for the creative activity it is. I also believe (for the same reasons) that such wrestling results in us ALL being (as you say) "variants" (and hence, to one degree or another, "deviants"), and that this is to be celebrated rather than feared. Finally, I believe (again for the same reasons) that "cultural constructs" contribute to this wrestling being more frightening and oppressive than it needs to be/ought to be, and that "cultural constructs" can be changed to make them more supportive, more appreciative of the valuable creativity inherent in variance, by paying more attention to observations/perspectives from biology (among other places).

Let me be specific with regard to my handling of Jenny Boylan, not to defend myself but rather to further clarify my intent and, in so doing, illustrate some additional issues of significance both to ourselves and to others that I think our exchange can usefully highlight. I was very impressed by Jenny's talk and particularly by the care she took to NOT position herself as a "signifier, a representative of 'The Variant'", either with regard to being "transgendered" or more generally. Jenny was, it seemed to me, very clear (and very valuably clear) that her experiences were unique to her and should not be taken as representative of those of a class of people. At the same time, Jenny clearly felt that telling her individual story might be useful to others, both because of the ways it differed from other peoples' experiences and because it might lead to greater recognition of some commonalities of experience and hence contribute usefully to modifying collective stories ("social constructions").

The specific "commonality of experience" that struck me was Jenny's early awareness of a sex/gender identity, an experience reported not only by her (a particular "transgendered" person who is, interestingly, different in this regard from the narrator of Middlesex), but also by many gay and lesbian people (though not all), and, though not usually remarked on, by many "straight" people as well. I inferred from that commonality that there must be at least four variables that contribute to the wrestling that everybody does to come up with an indivdual sex/gender identity. And that at least one of those variables (somewhat inelegantly labelled "image pref." in the illustration I offered in our Thursday conversation) was absolutely invisible to an outside observer unless/until an individual elected to make it part of his/her public story. In short, I was not trying to make Jenny a "representative" of anything. My intent was no more (and no less) than to take Jenny's story seriously as it was offered, both in and of itself as an individual's story and as one that can challenge and hence contribute usefully to remaking wider stories ("social constructions").

I take it as a given (as a biologist) that we are ALL "variants", all distinctive, all working on our own individual stories. But we are all also participants in (both readers of and contributors to) larger story writing projects ("social constructions") as well, at a whole range of scales (family, "sex/gender identity", discipline, nation, etc). What's interesting to me is the ways that these various story writing projects interact with one another, and, in particular how individual story writing is enhanced or inhibited by various levels of social constructions (and how these in turn enhance or inhibit one another). Which, I hope, brings us back to our exchange. While you and I each have our own stories, and are engaged with different groups of people writing somewhat different collective stories, my sense is that we actually have more similarities than differences in what we would like to see as an improved social construction vis a vis "sex/gender". I hope that (perhaps with the clarifications here) you see those similarities as I do, as commonalities that allow us both to use our differences as a basis for developing still better stories (both individual and collective), stories that reduce existing systemic violence in all forms. By acknowledging that we all exist both as distinct evolving individuals and as elements in always shifting patterns of commonality?

Getting started ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2004-10-15 14:21:33 :
Link to this Comment: 11095

Looking forward to spending some time with you all this coming week, thinking together about "Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?" Where one is always the best place to start, so let's see where everyone is. We can use that to make some plans about places to go and, later, to look back and see whether we got anywhere. So, before Tuesday, how about posting a few of your initial, off the cuff thoughts on the question above?

Or if that doesn't grab/motivate you, how about a few thoughts on one of the following alternative questions:

Does it make sense to be almost half way through a course titled "Interdisciplinary Studies of Sex and Gender" before getting to biology? Why or why not?

Ought there to be a section on biology in such a course at all? Why or why not?

Does sex and gender have anything to contribute to thinking about biology? If so, what? If not, why not?

You bring what you've got, I'll bring what I've got, and we'll what new things we can make of it all. Hope you're looking forward to it, as I am.

Biology and political correctness
Name: Sara Ansel
Date: //2004-10-16 21:24:41 :
Link to this Comment: 11099

I read through the articles we need to read for class on Tuesday and found myself somewhat uncomfortable with a couple of things. Reading Simon Levay's comments on his home page left me with a gnawing feeling that what I was reading was wrong in some way. I grimissed when I read about measuring finger sizes of gay men and straight men and the idea of prenatal stress which theorized that stres of the fetus could lead to homosexuality. I couldn't help but think back to the days of phrenology when a bump on someone's head could render them worthy of humane treatment (or rather worthy of inhumane treatment already inacted on them.) I see the two related in the respect that in each case doctors or knowers sought a manifestation of some "truth" about the person that was already believed in society so that humans could now have physical proof of the sickness or subordinate status of the suject. I don't want to be misunderstood though as I do see the importance of biology's presense in the study of homosexuality and gender, yet I can't deny that my concerns, interest, and activism stems from the treatment of the "subject" in life, not in how the "subject" came to be who they are.

Biology is fate?
Name: Gilda
Date: //2004-10-18 00:50:05 :
Link to this Comment: 11109

I've always considered biology to be central to our understanding of sex and gender. After all, wasn't biology traditionally what made us create the binary oppositions of man/woman and heterosexual/homosexual?

I'm fascinated by the idea (and the opposing argument, as well) that biology is fate. This negates completely the possibility of transgendered people, because how could someone think she is a man when her body clearly dictates she is a woman? I tend to think that biology doesn't determine who we are, but certain things have made me doubt the extent to which this is true. I took the Gender CSem as a frosh, and I wrote a paper about John/Joan (as s/he was known in medical texts), a little boy who had a botched circumcision and whose parents decided to raise him as a girl. Despite hormonal and emotional therapy and not knowing that she was really a boy, Joan was a very unhappy child who was never comfortable in her own skin and exhibited "masculine" behaviors. When, as a teenager she was told that she was actually male, she decided to go back to her original sex (through surgery that gave him a penis) and gender (adapting a male name and even marrying a woman and adopting children). So even though his/her parents and doctors tried their hardest to defy biology, in the end they couldn't do anything about it.

Biology seems to be helpful in our understanding of sex as a biological reality, but a lot less us in our understanding of gender, which is to a great extent/completely a social construct.

binary opposition
Name: Rebecca Ma
Date: //2004-10-18 11:02:13 :
Link to this Comment: 11110

"Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?"
This question has been trapped within the mindset of binary opposition: nature versus nurture. We inquire by questioning the amount of influence our innate genetic code exerts versus the amount our artificially created environment exudes. Prior to the establishment of the importance of genes, psychologists favored nurture by defining the uniqueness of a human from other members of the same species, as the summation of all the individual’s life experiences. Deciphering the human genome shifts the balance in favor of nature. Now many believe we are similar to preprogrammed machines and the human genome is the manual explaining the behavior of complex automatons.
A logic system based on nature-nurture polarities misses the interactive relationship between the two that provides valuable information about the ways in which we can actively design our environment to maximize the expression of favorable traits. We already plan our communities to privilege certain behavior, many of which contribute to hierarchy, why shouldn’t we use biology to counteract the existing systemic violence?

Pas Si Simple
Name: nancy
Date: //2004-10-18 12:43:17 :
Link to this Comment: 11111

Consider this scenario:

Male twins, separated at birth, are reunited in their thirties. Having never knwon anything of each other, both turn out to be gay men who have a 'thing' for construction workers.

Strange, right? But true. I don't remember exactly where I first heard about something this, (I think it may have been "The Trouble With Normal" by Michael Warner), but it brings up so many questions-- how can this phenomenon occur if biology has little or nothing to do with sexuality? is this coincidence? if you want to account for this biologically, does it mean that we are looking for something biological that codes for a preference for construction workers???

i am only half finished with these thoughts...

biology and evolution
Name: Deborah
Date: //2004-10-18 13:25:05 :
Link to this Comment: 11112

I am a firm believer and endorser of biological and evolutionary explanations for both physical and social identities of sex and gender. Speaking from personal experience, I do have a firm knowledge of the biological imperative of sexuality and yet the fluid nature of sexual or gender identity. It seems impossible to believe in fixed gender of sex roles or identities, when every body is unique and every person's biology is individual. In terms of social constructs of identity, we've discussed extensively how useful in biological terms catagorization is for humans. It's not something that is easy to switch off when we think of sex or gender as opposed to any other characteristic. I know of more than one example of identical twins wherein one twin is strait and the other is gay. To me this is still a biological arguement because these twins were raised in the same household with the same "nurturing" elements, and yet still identify and feel in different ways, sexually. I think biology is a HUGE influence and factor in determinants of sexuality, which I guess to me is more interesting then debating ideas of biological sex vs. social gender, which we've already covered.

Name: Mo Convery
Date: //2004-10-18 13:29:08 :
Link to this Comment: 11113

A biological experimental approach is one of many methods to explain human traits or behavior. For many, biology has the ability to identify a definitive causation. However, in terms of sexuality, the answers of causation are not that black and white. The majority of sexuality studies are not based on experimentation (cause and effect), but rather a system of correlation. This trait occurred in this proportion when this other trait was present. What became strikingly clear in DeLevy’s article was that despite strong patterns, the correlations were never able to reach 1. There were too many outside influences that could have affected and seemed to affect the results at hand. When exploring a topic as socially, politically, and personally loaded as sexuality, a definitive cause and effect explanation is expected in order for it to become a strong method of explanation. In turn, sexuality forces biologists to challenge their boundaries of study and rely on other methods of study such as sociology, psychology, etc. Not only must biologists understand the various environmental and personal influences in their own trials, but also the terms in which their findings must be expressed. Biology is only part of the story of sexuality. In studying causation; an individual is forced to look beyond the mere biological terms to social and personal consequence.

Biology v. Gender
Name: Marissa Ch
Date: //2004-10-18 16:37:22 :
Link to this Comment: 11120

I think gender has a repressive effect on biology. Certain traits that are naturally occuring are considered "sex-atypical" if they do not adhere to traditional models of gender. I would argue that these characteristics are more gender-atypical, since they are based on society's expectations of each sex and not biology.

I once saw a show on Discovery Health Network about a set of identical twins, where one twin completely rejected her female identity and felt more natural living her life as a man. This was an important case, since the twins share the same biology (and similar life experiences) but each twin identified with a different sex. I thought this example shows how complicated biology is and how it is not always the determining factor.

Name: Jana McGow
Date: //2004-10-18 16:58:40 :
Link to this Comment: 11121

I don’t know very much about the biology of sexuality, but am very enthusiastic to talk more about it. I definitely agree based on my experience and things I’ve read including the reading for class that biology has a large influence on one’s sexuality, how one thinks and acts, and how one fits into (or doesn’t) the genders and sexuality stereotypes and expectations of society. From what I do know, it seems that the problem I has arrises in how we talk about it. There is a bell curve in hormone levels of the sexes, and the balance of male hormones and female hormones in a person’s body is different from person to person, so it is a fluid scale, where as we often think of biological sex as a dichotomy because of the fact that we think about the world according to there only being 2 sexes. This explanation presents a problem though in talking about the experience of many people for example those with male body parts that have more estrogen in their body than other “males”, or even some females etc. So my main issue with biology is that when people start talking about the “differences between men and women” because I wish more people talked about it as a continuum with a bell curve rather than a dichotomy.

Biology's Role
Name: Beth
Date: //2004-10-18 16:58:47 :
Link to this Comment: 11122

I guess that I tend to think about sex and gender as how they were defined in in the Introduction from the online textbook that we were assigned: sex as the biological differences between males and females, and gender as "the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex." Biology, in my opinion, cannot be removed from the discussion of sex and gender. However, I think that sometimes when biology is brought into the conversation, it becomes, as Paul Grobstein points out, a matter of superiority/inferiority instead of an acknowledgement or appreciation of differences. The argument of Nature VS. Nurture, science versus environment, is one that always seems to be in debate. I believe that biology affects how we look at sex and gender and that sex and gender can affect biology.

facts and their interpretations
Name: Jessie
Date: //2004-10-18 21:04:38 :
Link to this Comment: 11125

To answer the first question, I don’t think there’s an academic field that Doesn’t have a place in the study of sex and gender! Gender, far from being an isolated topic, is greatly influenced by concepts such as race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and many other considerations. I think that in order to truly understand gender, it is important to study it from multiple academic perspectives.

That said, I have many hesitations about how biology and other scientific disciplines could potentially be used to influence how we think about sex and gender. In science’s pursuit of facts, there’s a huge danger of confusing raw numbers, averages, or statistics with moral interpretations. Biology tells us about chromosomes and hormones and other sex characteristics, but society tells us that these characteristics indicate two distinct sexes, even though the evidence could just as easily point to something closer to a sexual continuum (as Jana pointed out earlier). I believe that science is only as objective as the minds’ behind it (both scientists and benefactors). All too often, scientific theories based on social assumptions or dependent on moralistic interpretations parade around as scientific, objective, and unchangeable facts.

With this in mind, I would have felt more comfortable with the sort of experiments described by LeVay if the scientists were aiming to find a sexuality gene, and not just that deviant homo gene that makes homosexuals different from the 'normal' heterosexuals. The experiments assumed that there was a homosexual gene that was different, rather than maybe a series of genes that control sexuality in general. It’s as if the scientists already knew what “normal” was, and therefore entered the experiment looking for the deviation from it. I was also troubled by the assumption that sexual object choice constructs a personal identity. For example, LeVay said, “the question that interests us here… [is] why specific individuals become gay, straight, or bisexual.” I would rather look at the pertinent question as “Why do individuals partake in gay, straight, or bisexual acts?” An act can be classified as homo/hetero a lot more easily and less dangerously than a person.

It’s crazy the sorts of ideas that have in the past (and even in the present) been accepted as “facts” because they were scientific. Like the Laquer article that talked about how we used to consider women as inverted men. Data can always be manipulated to fit a socially prejudiced theory. However, though I do have these hesitations about biology’s traditional uses, I really enjoyed Paul Grobstein’s article. I don’t think that science always has to be used to “prove” biological inferiority, and instead can be used, as Prof Grobstein asserts, to prove the healthiness of variety. I look forward to hearing more about this use of biology this week.

Man versus Nature
Name: LB
Date: //2004-10-18 22:19:51 :
Link to this Comment: 11126

I'd like to discuss the social implications of gender construction based on biology as a result of Jenny Boylen's talk this evening. She said that transgender identity was a result of a biological trait--specifically that a particular part of the brain (I think) is 40% larger in women and transgendered men than in men. Since there is a biological explanation for this type of identity, shouldn't this suffice as a reason why transgendered men "can't help" they way they feel about their identity. Boylen compared this to people being born with MS or a cleft chin--essentially abnormalities caused by genetics. If more people understood the logistics of transgendered people (i.e. the genes that make them different), would they be less ridiculed for their supposed "unnatural" identity? I agree with Boylen that because it is an issue of gender (which becomes an issue of sexuality which becomes an issue of lifestyles of different sexual orientations) that the general public will not for any reason be "ok" with transsexuals--ultimately because transgendered people make the choice whether or not to become transsexual.

Exploration of Gender/Sex
Name: Mar
Date: //2004-10-18 23:54:25 :
Link to this Comment: 11127

Initially startled by the first sentence of Biology of Sex and Gender, I decided to Google Search "ambiguous genitalia." I found this definition: A birth defect where the outer genitals do not have the typical appearance of either sex (Medline Plus).

With this definition in mind, I continued my reading. I think I object to the use of the term 'defect' in this setting, having finished the readings. The people who have this genetic or embryonic difference should not have to deal with the stygma of "defect." They are not 'normal' humans, apparently, but genetic/embryonic mutations are hardly rare. My Google Search on "Intersex" pulled up several Intersex Support Societies - focusing on dealing with "shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgery" (Intersex Society of North America).

Previous to tonight, I knew relatively little about biological effects on gender and sex. I thought I knew that there were males and there were females - but the readings proved me wrong, yet again. I am fairly familiar with the terms transgendered, transexual, homosexual, and heterosexual. These were terms to be learned and tossed about in my high school. However, we never factored in the idea of the biology behind the actions and emotions.

Knowing so little, I don't know if I can truly answer the intial question ("Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?"). I think that biology does have an effect: twin studies and neural studies have been shown to have an effect on gender. It has a rather obvious effect on physical sex. I don't know how far reaching these effects are. This subject, though, intrigues me - I think I will try to learn more about it on my own.

Pas Si Simple II
Name: Nancy
Date: //2004-10-19 02:21:36 :
Link to this Comment: 11129

re: Jenny Boylan's response to whether "gender dysphoria" should be considered a medical condition...

Interesting-- Boylan unwittingly moved our conversations out of the theoretical and into our (well maybe not OUR) pocketbooks. If gd is considered a 'condition' it carries the weight of that ruling-- unnatural, biologically defected, yet if recognized surgeries etc can be covered by insurance companies. Boylan herslef had no real answer as to which side is most preferable.

I rue the day (if it's even ever in our realm of possibility) in which homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality is scientifically pinned down. If we had the chance to 'prevent' the coding* for homosexuality in our offspring, would we committ genocide of the homo/bi/transsexual?

*ugh. please dont quote me on my use of "scientific" terms, i dont really have any idea.

Name: Sierra
Date: //2004-10-19 09:21:55 :
Link to this Comment: 11131

I think that it is interesting to look at the idea that females lack something that males have, a penis, in light of biology. Because gender is determined by the y chromosome females really do lack the y chromosome that males have. It is interestimg to see that some of society's opinions can actually come from science.

I also think that it ia important to look to biology when talking about gender and sexuality, but we cannot rely on it completely. We also have to consider the accuracy of tests and experiments about sexuality because we have had such a hard time defining homo/hetero/bisexuality.

Speaking from a Biology Major's perspective
Name: Claire
Date: //2004-10-19 13:38:42 :
Link to this Comment: 11133

To me, everything is initially rooted in biology. Our genes create who we are, from the color of our hair to our predisposition for aggression. Why, then, can they not be linked to our sexual orientation? I agree with Sara to some extent that measuring people's finger lengths seems a bit obscure and even antiquated. However, after studying the formation of limbs in my "Developmental Biology" class with Phil Meneeley, I can't pass off the fact that genes are directly involved with the formation of our hands. There are specific genes, called Hox genes, that are conserved over all organisms and are involved in body development. They are the basic building blocks of a body. It is the expression of certain genes that causes the length of our fingers, as well as our toes, legs, penises, etc. It is quite possible, that the over- or underexpression of these genes not only influences the length of our fingers, but also the development of our sexuality. I, in no way, am an advocate for the idea that sexual orientation is solely based in our genetics, however I do think that it has a greater influence than a lot of people might want to give credit to. Do we want our personality, our choices, to be described as ours because of something out of our control (our genes)? Most people say they have developed into who they are because of the influences on their life. Those influences must learn to include the biological influences of hormones and genes.

Name: Arielle Ab
Date: //2004-12-13 20:24:20 :
Link to this Comment: 11967

Professor Grobstein's lectures interested me. As one who has so often heard the arguments on "nurture vs. nature" his model was something rather different. He said it was more complicated than this. He said that we, humans, are a complex mix of the material world, body, brain, and self. While I can translate the material world into "nurture" and the body and brain into "nature", the self was one that took a minute to register for me...then I realized that for me, what he described as "self" can probably best be summed up in my mind as "soul". That piece that when everything else says one thing, we do another because it feels right. In the world of science things outside of molecules and genetics seem to be put onto a scorned back burner. I think some concept of "soul" or "self" is necessary to allow for the diversity, the complexity, the generosity, the cruelty, the miracles and tragedies of the human experience and the part we proactively play.

Paul Grobstein is Awesome!
Name: Bree Beery
Date: //2004-12-16 13:31:11 :
Link to this Comment: 11980

I would first like to say that Paul Grobstein's lecture was AMAZING and one of my favorite aspects of the class. To be quite honest I never really thought about the differences between sex and gender and how they pertain to one's identity, before this class. I love his stance as a biologist and his observation that scince is not about "truth" or "facts", but rather fundamentally asking questions, and forming observations and stories. However, as much as I love his lecture there was one thing with which I did not agree with, his assertion that 'biology' and 'culture' are equally important in establishing one's identity. I would like to say that I understand where he is coming from with this theory, I do not agree with it because i believe that culture is just a little bit more influential. In looking back through my notes from the first day, we were asked to describe ourselves using three words. Most people, if not all identified themselves in terms of gender (man, woman, etc...)rather than in terms of sex (male, female, etc...) In fact most of the differences recognized by society, between men and women, are gender differences that are not biologically determined. In looking at many governmental and societal structures they are almost always based on gender rather than sex. Once again to clarify I do not believe that Paul Grobstein was in any way wrong with what he was saying, I personally, however believe that societal and cultural influences are not given as much recognization in cultivating one's identity asscience and genes are.

Question about Cleft Chins
Date: //2005-01-19 13:37:13 :
Link to this Comment: 12108

Does anyone know if boys inherit cleft chins from their fathers genetics? Also, does anyone know what percentage of African American men have cleft chins?

cleft chins
Name: dean
Date: //2005-07-07 19:24:30 :
Link to this Comment: 15374

is it possible to get rid of a cleft chin without surgery