As a former Stillwater resident and retired OSU professor of genetics, I write today in response to your recent article titled “Nonbinary birth certificate draws fire from GOP lawmakers”. Once again, Republican leaders in Oklahoma, as elsewhere, have demonstrated an alarming lack of appreciation for and understanding of basic science – in this case genetics and reproductive biology.
In reality, there is no definitive “line in the sand” that can be used in every case to differentiate between human males and females, either at birth or later in life. Gender, like sexual orientation, is not always binary, but rather exists along a continuum.
The sanctimonious pronouncements offered by Governor Stitt (“People are created by God to be male or female”) and State Senator Bergstrom (“People are seemingly forgetting science and biology and casting common sense out the window; when babies are born they are either male or female based on their chromosomes and genitals”) are therefore misguided oversimplifications and factually incorrect.
Yes, most infants appear to be either male or female at birth. But in some cases, genetic testing later in life reveals that those initial assignments were either incorrect or an incomplete picture of a more nuanced reality. Such biological complexities often become apparent only after a couple has trouble conceiving their first child.
Other infants are born with an ambiguous assortment of physical and genetic features that make traditional gender assignment impossible. Sometimes gender is complicated by unexpected changes in appearance, physiology, and behavior at puberty. From a basic science perspective, sex determination in humans and other animals is a fascinating but complex process that often runs counter to “common sense”. Take for instance the fact that women can retain male cells derived from their unborn sons in utero that later mix with maternal cells and become incorporated into the mother’s body.
Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma will likely continue to advance misguided policies on gender and human sexuality that further marginalize those who differ from themselves. But their willful ignorance of science must not be allowed to misinform the public.