Throughout our journey in this podcast (and life as a whole) we have seen just how complicated the natural, psychological, and social world truly is. Things are not simply binary; they exist somewhere in the middle. Very few concepts are truly black or white, but rather their own individual shade of gray. In this article we will be discussing the gray area of sex, intersex (Brittanica, 2021).
Individuals who are intersex have physical genitalia and hormonal patterns that are somewhere between male and female (Griffiths, 2018). Before we get into the biological origins of the intersex phenotype, I need to give a short lesson in genomics (the study of genes). Human DNA forms tightly wound structures called chromosomes. All typically developing human beings have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total) that are made of recombinant DNA from their mothers and fathers. The 23 chromosome pair are known as the sex chromosomes and exist as either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome (one at random from each parent). Individuals with 2 X chromosomes will physically develop female, whereas an XY pair will physically develop as male (Miko, 2014; National Institute of Genomic Research, 2021).
With that out of the way let’s talk about the biology of intersex. While there are many biological abnormalities that can lead to the development of an intersex fetus, I will focus on two commonly seen causes Turner’s Syndrome & Klinefelter’s Syndrome.
Turner’s Syndrome occurs in 0.05% of female births and causes growth stunting, chronic lymphedema, stalled puberty, infertility, and defects in several organ systems. This condition is caused by a deletion or loss of a whole or part of an X chromosome, leaving the individual with only a single X chromosome (Mayo Clinic, 2017; Ranke & Saenger, 2001).
Klinefelter’s syndrome occurs in 0.15% of male births and causes delayed speaking, undescended testicles at birth, altered puberty (can be absent or delayed), tall stature, weak muscles, enlarged breast tissue, and a small penis. This condition happens when boys are born with an extra X chromosome, leaving the individual as XXY (Mayo Clinic, 2019; National Health Service, 2021).
As you can see, science backs the idea that there are more than 2 sexes and more than 2 genders. By acknowledging this scientific consensus we move to validate the experiences of tens to hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide!