Biology Doesn’t Support Gay Marriage Bans

Gay marriage bans don’t make sense for a lot of reasons, but I’ll just focus on one for now. The notion of defining marriage as a union between “one man and one woman” doesn’t work unless you define “man” and “woman,” and we actually don’t have airtight definitions for those states. I know. You think biology has all the labels and definitions you could possibly want. But sex is complicated.

Ah, so is anatomy the answer? You have a penis and testes, and you’re a boy. You have a vagina, uterus, and ovaries, and you’re a girl. Ah, if only it were that simple.
Consider the story of a boy who accidentally had his penis cut off due to a freak accident during circumcision. The parents and doctor decided to just go with it and raise this child as a girl, complete with surgeries to make girl-ish anatomy and hormone replacement therapy. It wasn’t until puberty that this biological boy and socially constructed girl found out the truth about him-her-self. He went off the hormones and resumed life as the boy he was genetically destined to be, but he did not have a penis or testes. So who does he get to marry?
Okay, then. Now you probably think that the answer simply lies in our sex chromosomes. Those two letters that determine so much of our identity, X and Y. XX is a girly whirly, and XY is a boy toy. Right?
Not always.
For starters, not everyone gets 2 sex chromosomes. Some people wind up with extra ones, or are missing one. You can have XXY, XYY, XXX, or just X.
So what about them? They don’t match your cute definition of XX-female and XY-male. Some states define a man as someone with a Y chromosome, so someone without a Y is then a woman. That sounds relatively simple.
Now let’s get really complicated. Even if you are XX or XY, sex doesn’t always manifest based on which 2 chromosomes you have. It’s about hormones, a complicated balance of hormones. And this can get tricky.
A person can be XY and appear female or be XX and appear male.
A person with XY chromosomes can appear female with a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome. The Y chromosome has the gene for testosterone, which gets produced just like in many other guys, but the receptors for testosterone don’t work. So even though testosterone is present, it can’t do what it normally does: make a penis, put hair on the chest, etc. So someone who has this condition grows up appearing female, and often only finds out at puberty when no menstruation happens that she actually doesn’t have a uterus or ovaries.
A person can be XX but appear to be a male because of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, where hormones in overdrive during development masculinize the body even though there is no Y chromosome. In an extreme case, a baby boy could be born and mature normally, having a fully functioning penis (and sex life), only to find later that not only does he have a penis and testes, but internally, a uterus and ovaries as well.
And finally, there is an issue of gene cross over. A female, XX, can still have a gene from the Y chromosome, such as the one to produce testosterone, because during meiosis in sperm formation, the X and Y chromosomes are near each other, and genes can be swapped. Does this make the woman who is XX and has female body parts less of a woman just because she has a gene to produce testosterone? The Olympics thinks so.
Sex is not the binary system we think it is, and we can’t go around making rules about what people can and can’t do based on what anatomy happens to be between their legs. So on top of the fact that gay marriage bans are unconstitutional, unnecessary, and downright petty, they are also terribly unscientific. And Beatrice will have none of that.

Edit: I continue this discussion with a follow-up post: Clarification, Sex Determination, and Cheesecake

(For more about anatomy and identity, watch this great TED talk by Alice Dreger, “Is Anatomy Destiny?”
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58 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    All the XY chormosomal genetic abnormalities that you cited have a low prevalence (less than 1 in 1000) and the numbers are going down even more due to increased abortion rates of these. Furthermore XYY results in mental retardation. Funny how you argue that gay marriage isn’t as simple as XY chromosomes yet you oversimplify this information(i.e. omit key features of the disorders) to get your point across.

    Also, cutting off the penis during circumcision? Really? Do you even know how the procedure is done? I’m an Internal Medicine resident who recently rotated in neonatal, so I’ve done a few circumcisions. Pretty hard to screw up.

  2. Beatrice
    Beatrice says:

    Oh, I know how rare some of these things are. But the point is still that sex isn’t binary, and making rules based on sex aren’t great, because they do have to apply to EVERYONE. So even if something happens 1 in 1,000–that’s a lot of people.

    Also, the penis being cut off was a case study I read 10 years ago, and even then, it happened far before that. I believe it happened in the 80s, so calm down, sir.

  3. Kristofor
    Kristofor says:

    Not to say that Google knows everything, but….

    The current population of the planet is roughly 6,840,507,000. If the odds are 1/1000 that means we are still talking about roughly 6,840,507 people. That’s a lot of people.

    Signed – Kristofor Barnes

  4. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    Yeah, the circumcision was a while ago, and it was done using a kind of hot knife. Not a regular… circumcision tool.

  5. GBear
    GBear says:

    There is even a documentary about David Reimer you can watch. Not sure where you can get it but I saw it on Canadian tv several years ago.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I’m Social Pansexual, I don’t care gender nor sex, I care a person and pleasure ;), Interesting Article!!!

  7. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    There is a brief Youtube video about David Reimer here:

    I’d also recommend reading “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl” by John Colapinto– it’s an entire book about David’s story, for much more in-depth information. It’s a very well-written, enlightening read.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    When you do the math, consider that not everyone is XY. Yes, I do know that 3,420,254 is still a lot of people. I was about to say 1 in 1,000 males are XYY, but after reading the post, that didn’t sound right.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Biology doesn’t support any kind of marriage. It’s a social institution that doesn’t exist anywhere outside of humanity. Yes, some animals mate for life, but this is hardly the binding legal arrangement that it is with people.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I would agree with all of these cases, however in the end there was simply a misidentification of gender. The simple ‘man and woman’ definition of marriage can be syntactically used to prove your point. But, gay marriage most often does not occur between a genetically malformed couple on one or both sides. My problem with the gay marriage movement in this country is that it glamorizes being gay or different, not because you were born that way, but because you can. Biologically, people are meant to procreate. Our civilization would not be in a position right now to have gay marriage if those humans, or apes or whatever you believe we came from didnt procreate

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    That’s right! Nothing you can do or say is going to change my mind on Homosexual marriage. It is wrong no matter who does it. Now stop tryimng to rationalise it to make you feel better about yours or someone elses decisions. By the way, God called and he says he wants his rainbow back!

  12. Beatrice
    Beatrice says:

    I agree that we are all here because of procreation, but marriage and procreation aren’t the same. You can’t make it illegal for 2 people to marry because they can’t procreate.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    By the way, Jesus called and he says he wants the whole “love your neighbor” concept back, since you’re not using it anyway.

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hey guess what the bible its self (I’m sure you are familiar with it) was not written by god it was put together by Constantine and his people to unify the romans under one religion. Now the gospels claim to be from the word of god but do you know how many were omitted from the bible and further more how human nature is to change small details of a story to fit ones needs. Second do you think that people who have mental disabilities (which are abnormalities in the body) should not be able to marry? Because being gay is an abnormality but does not mean it is wrong. Second the constitution states separation of church and state so sorry even if “God” beleives its wrong to be gay that doesnt matter to the american people and law makers because we dont make decisions for the nation based on what god wants because it is illegal to do so.

  15. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    “We don’t make decisions for the nation based on what God wants because it is illegal to do so.” This.

    “My problem with the gay marriage movement in this country is that it glamorizes being gay or different, not because you were born that way, but because you can.”

    This is a common strategy used in civil rights movements. You have to stop believing that you’re a villain to make others believe you aren’t. Instead of apologizing to the world for being black, which is what Booker T. Washington wanted them to do, they took pride in the color of their skin. Because they could. Because they were born that way. The gay rights movement is very similar.

    We intelligent homosexuals aren’t so very different from you intelligent heterosexuals. Unfortunately, we both have ignorance in our midst.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Gay marriage doesn’t mean that straight people won’t still be procreating. Not to even mention that some gay couples will adopt children who would not otherwise have loving homes, or use artificial insemination or other methods to bring new babies into the world and keep the population chugging along. Also, are you saying marriage is only worthwhile for procreation’s sake? So a straight woman or man with fertility issues should not be allowed to marry? Do you think straight married couples who choose to never have children should have their marriage rights stripped away?

    It boggles the mind that you somehow think gay marriage glamorizes “being different just because you can.” It doesn’t glamorize anything. It allows people who love each other to enjoy basic legal human rights.

  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I find it horrible that circumcision is allowed, even merely mentioned like in passing. Gay marriage is two humans tying up bonds in a ceremonial (and legally binding) way. Circumcision is a child molestion act. Does the kid get to choose? no! is it reversible? no! is it based upon medical evidence that ppl would otherwise suffer? no!
    I think adult ppl should be left to decide what is good for them, and infants should be left slone! ban circumsision!

  18. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Legal and human rights are two completely separate things. Being married is neither a biological imperative, nor a basic human right. The idea of marriage is a wholistically religious notion. Society as a whole has now adopted marriage as the natural and legal order of things, and in today’s day and age it does make sense that people may want to change that legal definition. It does not however change the substance of the matter, and I believe that being gay intrinsically goes against biology and nature. In an extreme carricature of the system, think of if all the drug addicts in america finally ganged up and said it was their human right to be happy doing what they want to do. It is the government’s job to protect society from itself, and if that includes not allowing gay marriage because it may one day lead to something undesirable, thats what should happen.

    And I am not saying every gay person is pretending or is “being different because you can” however, some people may fall victim to that way of thinking. I am a fraternal twin, and spent 9 months in the womb being bombarded with the same amount of estrogen as my sister. It would not be surprising then to think that I should exhibit more feminine traits in my lifetime. But that in no way would mean I was gay. And maybe another child out there who exhibits those traits but is not strong willed and is made fun of it for them, turns to the gay community for acceptance rather than because thats what they truly are.

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    That’s right – Being legally allowed to do the same thing everyone else does (marriage) glamorizes being different… somehow. Not really sure how, but I’m sure it does. And I just won’t stand for it.

    Nor will I stand for people who don’t procreate. Biologically, we are meant to procreate, including those one in seven couples that are biologically incapable of doing so, and the one in ten people who are born with no biological desire to procreate with the opposite sex, and an indeterminate number of people who just don’t desire having babies. These people are all meant to get straight married and procreate. And if they didn’t, we’d all be apes. Some people believe in evolution, but I think I’ve just proven that we are still apes. I don’t know how.

    But, what I do know is that if it weren’t for gay marriage campaigns then all these people would be having babies until our population collapsed, just like nature intended. And if they actually allow gay marriage then everyone will have no babies.

    PS If you didn’t notice, I was being sarcastic. We are not ‘biologically’ meant to do anything. Some things survive, some don’t – and somehow the genetics for ‘gayness’ have survived, well, since the dawn of humanity, as they survive in many other species. And, BTW, gay people are actually capable of procreating, just not with each other, and they will do so if you leave them alone, just as they have throughout time.

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Genetics for gayness? There may be genetics that say you are different, that you are more feminine or masculine than what society labels you as. This does not mean that you will have sex with the same gender as you! You dont have to procreate, there are plenty of people who dont. You dont have to have sex with people of the opposite sex, plenty of people dont. But dont say that a man and man, or a woman and a woman having ‘sex’ is natural.

    Be happy, be who you are. If you want to be with someone for the rest of your life do. Half of marriages now end in divorce anyway, marriage in our society is a farce. You arent asking to be married, you are asking for the government to legitimize your deviant behavior from society and biology.

    And its good to know instead of rational cogent discussion, we can rely on sarcasm to improve communication

  21. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I will be happy and be who I am, thank you, whether I get married or not. However my marriage won’t be seeking to legitimize any “deviant” behavior. My marriage will be to show that my whole heart is committed to whoever my wife may be for my whole life. As someone who actually has the option to legally be married and clearly takes that for granted since to you it is a “farce” you could not possibly understand that.

  22. S.A. Spolar
    S.A. Spolar says:

    You created your own problem by taking the stance that “the gay marriage movement in this country glamorizes being gay or different”. That is simply your closed-minded opinion based upon your ignorance of gays and of those with “different” lifestyles than your own. I’m gay, but I have no desire to marry my partner, nor would I if I were straight. I don’t need a ceremony or a certificate to validate my commitment to anybody – male or female. Now, if I were closed-minded like you, I would conclude that any kind of marriage is wrong because my opinions should apply to all of society. I can only imagine how lonely life must be for a selfish and misguided person, with an over-inflated ego, such as you. I suppose that is why you are hiding behind an “anonymous” post.

  23. Goeff Thomas
    Goeff Thomas says:

    It boggles my mind how disconnected we are from nature. All these people claiming that certain behavior is an unnatural abomination. In actuality, homosexuality occurs in nature, in other species of animals. It’s QUITE natural. Not until we developed “sophisticated” human thought did this become an issue.

    It also seems like there’s an underlying fear that people aren’t quite expressing. There’s a pretty well-spoken ‘Anonymous’ that’s been making posts about his fear of deviant behavior being rewarded. I appreciate your perspective, especially your ability to reason without throwing around words from an antiquated Book, but you aren’t getting to the heart of the matter. You fear more than that. You fear that it’s contagious or something. That it will bring about the downfall of the human race. Don’t you think that sounds a bit much? Cataclysmic even? Look, here’s what comes out of gay parenting:

    Wouldn’t you be proud of a son like that? Doesn’t he seem like someone who wants to contribute value to the world, society, etc.? You think THAT kid is the sign of the end of days?

    I just can’t buy that society accepting homosexuals and homosexuality is the slippery slope to ruin. It’s a fallacy to assume that something as simple as legalizing gay marriage is opening a door to society’s downfall. BTW, equating drug addicts with homosexuals is EXTREMELY offensive. It’s ignorant and hateful. Drugs ARE a detriment to society, creating disempowered, addicted, unproductive wastes. Homosexuality leads to love, the freedom to be honest with one’s self, and (as evidenced above) cultivation of morally upstanding citizens.

    Go watch “Footloose” again. See how easy it is to call some behavior “deviant”, conjure up a fear campaign, and end up doing more harm than good.

  24. S.A. Spolar
    S.A. Spolar says:

    Well said, Goeff. It’s refreshing to read intelligent responses based on facts and logic instead of fear. It is fear itself, combined with ignorance, that contributes to the fall of a Nation – so simple, yet so few get it. Cheers!

  25. Fud_dud_fud
    Fud_dud_fud says:

    Hey Beatrice, thanks for this lovely post – it’s great. Although as a lesbian biologist interested in mating systems (I study a “mostly” selfing plant) I get kind of hung up on the definition of sex vs. gender. In fact, there IS a biological definition for sex (and there is also for gender – although it’s not the same as gender for humans). The definition of sex is: the individuals in the population that have the bigger (in size) gametes are female, and those that are smaller (in size) are male – basically any system where reproduction involves sexual union with anisogamy has two or (potentially more than two) sexes. Of course, there can be diverse mixtures of this – especially with plants. In humans, we do have males and females, but we also have a lot in between. For instance anyone that is sterile (menopause or older males) have no sex, but they have a gender. This may sound odd but think of neutered cats and dogs – I always referred to my pets after the procedure as “it” unless of course they had obvious gendered preferences for sunny spots and ways of prancing. Those humans that are XXY or X or XYY may have a sex too (unless they are sterile in which case, they have a gender), but it isn’t really to do with the chromosomes – like you said it’s a complex mix of hormones and a whole lot of other things, but ultimately comes down to the gametes and size of the gametes. You are still right to say that sex is still not binary, for like gendered traits it’s probably continuously varying, natural selection can do weird things when selecting for size of gametes. There are definitely species out there that have varying levels of isogamy and anisogamy, selfing (sex with self because of both gametes), clonal, and regular old sexual outcrossing. Don’t even get me started on Ambystomatidae unisexual females (this is a weird system) Phew. Nature is complicated.

  26. Mabel Louise
    Mabel Louise says:

    Beatrice- I really enjoyed this. I love all of your posts! :) But this one in particular made me love all of your posts even more. Thank you for your entertaining, factual, funny, and down right badass blog- and have a wonderful weekend! <3

  27. lacie
    lacie says:

    I believe I read someone said something on the lines of..
    “gays shouldn’t get married because they cannot reproduce, and that male and female couples should because they can”

    Um, excuse me “anonymous” but I am a completely straight female, and let me tell you something. I have NO INTENTION of ever having fucking babies…

    Does that mean I should not have the right to get married because I will not reproduce?

    That statement is incredibly demeaning to women. Just because someone gets married doesn’t mean, the women has to squeeze out his babies. Your overall idea of marriage is fucked up.

    Most people get married for the “celebration” of love, not for having babies.

    Stop trolling you piece of shit.
    It doesn’t affect you if gay people get married.
    I hope while you marry for “babies” that you’re kid ends up gay. So you realize, that gay people are still people. Maybe you should treat them as such!

  28. Vladimir Kelman
    Vladimir Kelman says:

    I thought that common logic taught us, edgy cases just support common rules. Now author of this questionable article is saying that edgy cases means no rules exist. I suppose, a course of logic education is needed.

  29. Goeff Thomas
    Goeff Thomas says:

    It seemed to me that Beatrice was arguing for the support of common rules (i.e. marriage for all) because of edgy cases (i.e. lack of definitive sex/gender).

    Your understanding of logic may be sound, but I believe you may have missed something in the comprehension, Vladimir.

  30. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    The biological definitions of “male” and “female” are as follows: If an organism produces sperm, it is male, and if it produces eggs, it is female. Eggs are further defined as the large gamete that is produced in fewer numbers while sperm is defined as the larger gamete that is produced in larger numbers.

    Now the only catch with these definitions is that it is possible for one person to be both male and female or neither (i.e. they produce both egg and sperm, or don’t produce either).

    This biological definition is good because it works for almost all sexually reproducing species — even though that don’t have penises, don’t copulate, don’t have Y chromosomes, don’t have hormones analogous to “testosterone”, or whatever. Lots of species like flowering plants actually go into the “both male and female” category — that is to say, they are hermaphrodites — and many can self-fertilize, though that is obviously disadvantageous from a genetic diversity point of view.

    This definition doesn’t work for absolutely everything — bacteria, for example, exchange genes rather promiscuously and don’t neatly sort out into male and female. But it works for animals like us.

    I’m trying to remember the name of the genetics book I got this from… if I think of it I’ll tell you.

  31. ChickInAVL
    ChickInAVL says:

    I wonder how many anti-gay marriage folks would flip their wig if they knew that people with matching XX or XY chromosomes were marrying legally now, as husband and wife. For folks who are transgendered, their chromosomes stay exactly the same as they did at birth, but their “sex” is changed on all documents, and in some cases, in their physical appearance. Just one more reason that biology alone doesn’t support gay marriage…which in this case isn’t “gay marriage” at all. I don’t know why we can’t just all agree that consenting adults should be able to “marry”, regardless of their chromosomal make up.

  32. Aaronram
    Aaronram says:

    Beatrice, I very much enjoyed your article. Thank you for the info. Even though I suppose that you must have expected it, I am sorry that these discussions invariably deteriorate into banter of someone quoting from the lineage of Abraham. Unfortunately not everyone descended from this same lineage and don’t believe that our family laws need to be imposed on everyone else. I say unfortunately only because that would make life so much simpler. It is also unfortunate that the definition of marry: “To combine or blend agreeably” has fallen from the top of the meaning list to last. Another act of the aforementioned family line, I am sure. Just as a note; I believe that everyone should have equal rights. Marry who you want. For the person who believes that socially acceptable gay marriage will make non-gay people want to do it; maybe you should look deep inside and find out why you have this ‘fear’. Was it something you wanted to do but weren’t brave enough to fight the close-minded, limiting social norms? Do you think that enforcing your norms will save someone else from hell? They are still going to be who they are; law or not. I think it is due time that we step out of the ignorance of our past. But I sometimes forget that it was less than 50 years ago that blacks obtained their right to vote and less than 100 years ago for women. After 1,000’s of years of not questioning their positions. Hopefully it won’t take 1,000’s more for the light to go on this time.

  33. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    I would leave defining man and woman to metaphysics, not biology. The title of the article should be “Biology cannot define ‘man'”…no mystery there.

  34. beelzedug
    beelzedug says:

    I’d like to make a rather radical point that has been put out there by quite a few smart people: there would be no culture without the gays. the fact is that human children take so much time and effort to raise that those doing it may have little time for anything else; architecture, literature, medicine, science, government. in fact we may live as long as we do to produce a generation of grandparents to help in child rearing. many social animals could not have their complex social structure without NON-procreating individuals; ants, bees, termites and wolves. no need to cite the great apes because homosexuality is rampant with most of them. you think san francisco is wild you should hang with a troupe of bonobos. as A gay i have to say that the two things that i was happy NOT to have to deal with in my adult life were the military and marriage. in the end i wish this issue were to have gone a different direction. that marriage is a private or religious issue outside the need for legislation. forming a legal partnership is probably just as good, legally binding and partnership laws all have a clause regarding fiduciary duty. Fiduciary Duty Between Partners:
    If you are involved in a partnership, your fiduciary duty will include a duty of loyalty to the other partners, duty to fully disclose any information regarding the partnership and its affairs, and a duty to operate in good faith and fair dealing. You must also avoid engaging in any transactions outside of the company that might conflict with the interests of the partnership. screw the “to have and to hold blah blah blah” i do duty.

  35. beelzedug
    beelzedug says:

    if you’re a christian then i’m sure you do not condone divorce. christ was not the least bit vague on that issue. he talked about that a lot, unlike homosexuality of which he said nothing.

  36. Amelia Ingrao
    Amelia Ingrao says:

    Beatrice, I LOVED this article, but I have a tiny issue with the title. You called it “Biology Doesn’t Support Gay Marriage Bans”, but a more appropriate title would be “Biology Doesn’t Support Same-Sex Marriage Bans” because you are refuting bans based on the fluidity of sex. Also, gays and lesbians are not the only ones who wish to marry people of the same sex. Bisexuals, pansexuals, queers, etc. (like myself) also wish to have the ability to marry whomever they choose, whether they be male, female, transgender, gender queer, intersex, etc.

  37. Phoenix
    Phoenix says:

    Gender studies is a field of interdisciplinary study and academic field devoted to gender identity and gendered representation as central categories of Analysis. If you have studied a bit of these then you should know that in several cases gender is very fluid like, can change depending upon situations, personality and mentality. Stop generalizing genders when there are clearly so many ‘freaking’ anomalies :)

  38. Phoenix
    Phoenix says:

    Gender studies is a field of interdisciplinary study and academic field devoted to gender identity and gendered representation as central categories of Analysis. If you have studied a bit of these then you should know that in several cases gender is very fluid like, can change depending upon situations, personality and mentality. Stop generalizing genders when there are clearly so many ‘freaking’ anomalies :)

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