Gender, Genetics and Men Who Like Facemasks

Gender, Genetics and Men Who Like Facemasks

A man diagnosed with a genetic disorder that makes him both a man and woman spoke to The Guardian last week about his experience of living with Klinefelter's syndrome.

Pedro Juan Perez is a man with three sex chromosomes - XXY, compared with XY for a male or XX for a female. As he sums it up, "physically I'm male, but genetically I'm male and female."

There's an interesting point to be discussed here. Most people are taught that physical sex is genetically determined, so how is it possible to be physically male but genetically male and female?

In fact, it's not quite as straightforward as that. Intersexed people - so often sidelined in discussions about sex and gender - can have perfectly normal sex chromosomes but unusual physical manifestations of that. For example, they can have the male chromosome pairing XY but nonetheless be physically female.

Already, then, it is obvious that our understanding of the relationship between sex and genetics is hopelessly oversimplified - as Alice Domurat Dreger, a professor at Northwestern University, once wrote, "We live in an age of genetics and oversimplified stereotypes about the nature of males and females... What it means to be a male or a female goes far beyond the sex chromosomes."

But the problem becomes worse as it extends to the confusion between sex and gender. Simply put, 'sex' is the physical difference between males and females, with genitalia usually taken as the indicator. 'Gender' is the characteristic difference between men and women, and as the former is taken to be informed by genetics there is a widespread misunderstanding that the latter is as well.

Hence Mr Perez's comment that:

"It's not that I want a sex change and I'm not gay. I just enjoy the things other women enjoy. I love shopping and trying on clothes. If I'm going out, I'll spend ages getting ready. I loathe Top Gear; I'm not interested in cars or football. I'd rather watch Desperate Housewives with a glass of pinot and a face mask. I'm sensitive and emotional".

The suggestion being that a penchant for frivolous television shows and face masks is genetically determined. Not only is this completely absurd (I have a female friend who is, as she describes herself, "an insufferable football fan" - is there something wrong with her genes then?) but it is also a dangerous way to think. If the characteristics so often assigned to women - frivolity, vanity, emotional fragility, irrationality - are taken to be genetically determined, no wonder women have a harder time getting jobs, progressing in their careers or achieving political influence ("Calm down, dear" David Cameron recently told a female MP, clearly assuming her defective female genes were making her over-emotional, instead of accepting that he had made a factual error and she was simply correcting him.)

It is also a view that is astonishingly widespread. I've lost count of the number of times male friends have told me that women simply aren't as rational as men - "it's scientific fact" they often add - because women are controlled by their hormones, making us naturally hysterical creatures. If these are the kind of people who might interview me for jobs in the future, I don't hold out much hope for my chance of success.

Much as I sympathise with Mr Perez's experiences, he is not helping himself by perpetuating mistaken and stereotyped views of gender. He says he feels "isolated and confused" by the fact that he is a man yet has a low sex-drive, enjoys knitting and isn't good at sport. But if he didn't see this as a contradiction then it wouldn't be a problem. I imagine he would be much less likely to feel isolated and confused if, instead of seeing himself as part-man and part-woman, he simply saw himself as one of the millions of men (most with perfectly normal XY chromosomes) who aren't good at sport, prefer wine to beer and enjoy the odd spot of shopping.


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