The Humanist Dilemma: Who Knew Sexuality Was So Complicated?

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There Used to Be Only Two Sexes: As a fairly new humanist, I’m glad to have traded in my former “faith” and “feeling” for more logical science. I thank authors like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris for helping with this. However, one issue still gives me pause, and that is the area of human sexuality. It seems like there is very little science used in determining the sex of people nowadays. When I was young, I was taught—first by bathing with my sisters—that basic observation was all that was needed to determine whether someone was a male or a female. High school biology class brought in aspects of genetics, but I was still taught that each human was either a male or a female. As I grew up, I noticed that there were “tomboys” and effeminate men, but this only described their behavior; they were still only either male or female.

Today, it seems that the claims of homosexual and transgender people are based only on their preferences for a particular sex, and there is really no genetic or other scientific basis for it.

I get it that homosexuals and transgendered individuals have the same basic human rights as the rest of us, but I can’t help feeling that they are in the same category as those who suffer from a mental aberration of some kind, like an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Where is the science in today’s discussion of human sexuality?

–Why Don’t the Parts Define Gender Anymore?


Dear Gender,

This is a question for which I do not have the requisite expertise and cannot summon the scientific arguments you say you are looking for, but I’ll give you my lay observations. First of all, sex, sexuality, and gender are not all one thing, nor are they simple, but an advice column isn’t the place to get into a deep discussion of distinctions in terminology or to summarize the scholarship on these topics. But let’s start with the fact that gender is not and never was as binary male/female penis/vagina as we have generally been led to believe (especially if we are older). Sometimes—more often than we are aware, because it has typically been a private or secret matter—children are born with indeterminate gender, and the parents may be advised to pick one and treat the child accordingly, or to observe the child and follow their lead to whichever gender they seem to lean toward. People can also be born with chromosome variations that are neither the typical XX female or XY male. That’s not something that’s obvious in the bathtub.

In recent decades we’ve become aware that there are, and have always been, far more homosexuals than we ever realized because it was critical for their survival to stay in the closet. Solid scientific research discredits conversion therapy, which is based on the premise that homosexuality is a choice that can (and should) be reversed. We are also increasingly recognizing that there are additional variations, such as many types of transexuality and gender identification. People using the restrooms that most closely match their identity rather than their birth certificate or genitals have probably been in the next stall for as long as there have been stalls, we just didn’t notice.

As society is coming to appreciate that gender and sexuality are more nuanced and dynamic than a simple either/or, our attitudes are also changing. In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) list of mental disorders. The apparent explosion since then of people identifying beyond the two standard orientations is probably due to the increasing recognition and acceptance of a spectrum of gender and sexual expression. Anyone who isn’t traditionally male or female is no longer labeled as deviant or defective in a psychological or criminal sense.

So rather than claim that “the claims of homosexual and transgender people are based only on their preferences for a particular sex, and there are really no genetic or other scientific bases for it,” you need to familiarize yourself with what the scientific community actually says. Google is a start, as are LGBT, medical, and psychological organizations. There are myriad scientific factors that underlie what you discount as preferences (implying choice). But there are also huge gaps in the research because, until recently, this was not a topic deemed worthy of serious scientific study. Hopefully, that’s changing, along with uninformed perceptions and assumptions.