Christine Flowers’ latest column (Daily News, Jan. 5) about people who identify as trans was a classic demonstration of small-minded thinking. Flowers argued that biological sex is real and that trans people can’t “ignore the biological realities” of sex categories, and that she is under no obligation to think beyond the concept of biological sex. She also expressed her weariness from being attacked on social media for expressing her insightful opinions that are informed by her “years of training” in logic and critical thinking.

It’s too bad that her years of training did not include how to find basic facts. I’m sure that trans people have thought far more about biological sex than Flowers could ever imagine, not to mention the concept of “gender” that is completely absent from her column. The term “sex” is a convenient label that identifies people (primarily as female or male) according to differences in anatomy, physiology, genetics, etc. No one denies that biological sex is a real thing.

But the term sex is not the same as gender. Gender is a much broader social construct that encompasses both socially constructed roles and norms (expectations about how people behave), and the way people view their personal identity. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation defines gender identity as “one’s internal, personal sense” of belonging along some point on a gender spectrum.

Gender is how people identify themselves and it does not always align with biological sex. Multiple studies have found that about 3-5% of people identify as “nonbinary,” meaning that they do not identify themselves the same as their biological sex. This incongruity comes from biological differences that will not be obvious to a person who only thinks in terms of the presence or absence of genitals. That is, it turns out that biology is more complex than simple dichotomies.

If Flowers is a big fan of the idea of biological sex, then hopefully she is a fan of other ideas that come from biology. It turns out that multiple biological factors impact sex identity including how hormones impact the developing fetus and influence the brain structure in ways that make it more “feminine” or “masculine.” Activities of the maternal immune system during pregnancy have also been linked to sexual identity. There is a possibility that epigenetic modifiers might be involved, and thanks to advances in large-scale sequence, there has been an explosion of knowledge about genetic determinants of sexual orientation.

There are two primary take-home messages from this rapidly growing body of scientific literature. The first is a reminder that variance is very real in biology. No two people are alike, and there are literally millions of combinations of factors that can influence who we are and how we see ourselves. Variance means that not everyone will conform to cookie-cutter dichotomies that people like Flowers consider important.

The second message is that sexual orientation has biological roots. This isn’t something that people choose as a way of annoying Flowers and others like her. The discordance between biological sex and gender identity is biological in origin and it is very real implications for trans and other nonbinary people.

Flowers fusses about the criticism that she receives for voicing her ideas, but her newspaper column is a public voice that, by definition, will not be accepted by all. If it hurts her feelings to be criticized, she can always stop publishing. Nonbinary people, on the other hand, have no choice when they are singled out for public ridicule. And if you think that is unimportant, consider a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Toomey et al.) who found that 50.8% of biological females who identified as male have attempted suicide during their adolescence (other categories were shockingly high as well).

The authors concluded that people who identify as nonbinary are at continuing risk of victimization, marginalization, and discrimination that contribute to a high risk of suicide. This is a very genuine consequence of our broader society insisting that every human being align their gender to their biological sex … and while the cost is huge to nonbinary people. Flowers only has to think about keeping her pronouns in order. What a snowflake.

Call (he/him) is a microbiologist and father of three. He first discovered the Palouse 38 years ago.

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