Is the ultimate goal of our society 1) to secure individual rights regardless of factors such as sex, race, ethnicity, or able-bodiedness, or 2) to do away with those rights in pursuit of a society comprised of physical traits deemed “pleasing” and “acceptable”? If the latter is the choice, then who decides which traits should be maintained in the population and which ones should not? Historically, it has been whichever group is in a position of cultural and political power.
For example, renowned proponents of eugenics from the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably Adolph Hitler, favored physical traits that included white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.(1) In addition to persecuting those who did not fit his preferred physical and cultural paradigm, Hitler also victimized individuals who defied traditional gender roles and heterosexual orientation.(2)
The historical consequences of fulfilling the eugenics “dream” have been fraught with pain and misery, as evidenced by the Holocaust. Although the death smoke that emanated from concentration camps in the 1940s is an indelible example of injustice and depravity resulting from policies built on eugenics, it is by far not the only one.
Our more current history informs us that there are many who continue to espouse the value and benefit of certain traits that are visual in nature, such as skin, eye, and hair pigmentation, and also, the look of one’s external genitalia.(3)
As mentioned in Chapter 1, there are deep correlations between eugenics and the system of sex and gender classification that has been enforced, and continues to be, in the majority of nations across the globe.
Mutations: it’s in the DNA
Other than perhaps the fictional characters in the X-Men movies, for most, the word “mutation” is pejorative and conjures a negative image. It denotes change, often an unanticipated, undesirable one. However, change is a given, not just in life, but with all biological forms, as demonstrated in the acquisition of new traits that occur across a species over time. While environmental factors alone can play a role, much of the change that transpires is the result of mutation.(4)
Despite the negative connotations, without mutations all humans would share basic external traits such as brown hair and brown eyes. In essence, without mutations the diversity present within our species and across different species would not exist to the same extent that it does.
For biologists, a mutation is an alteration in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sequence. Depending on the type and location of the alteration, the impact of the mutation can range from negligible to significant. Given that DNA is the hereditary material of life, since it is passed from parents to offspring, a significant mutation could impact how living organisms look and function across generations.
Structurally, human DNA is double-stranded and helical in shape. Both DNA strands are comprised of a sequence of linked molecules called nucleotides. Each nucleotide is comprised of three smaller molecular components, a phosphate group, a 5-carbon sugar (pentose), and a base. There are four different nucleotides found in DNA, and each differs from the others depending on the base type present. The DNA bases are: A for adenine, G for guanine, C for cytosine, and T for thymine (see below).
The two strands of DNA are held together via bonds between particular bases—A bonds with T and vice versa, and C bonds with G and vice versa, to form what are called base pairs (see below).
Roughly 2 per cent of our DNA is organized into genes that possess the instructions to make a protein or a portion of one. It is estimated that humans possess approximately 20,000 of these protein-coding genes, and although there is tremendous variation, on average each of these genes is comprised of approximately 67,000 base pairs.(5) Humans have enough genes to make thousands of different types of proteins that are needed to carry out specific functions and/or provide for specific traits, such as the color of one’s hair or eyes.(6)
Unlike people with brown hair, those with red hair most often possess a change in their DNA that results in the production of an altered or mutated version of the protein melanocortin receptor 1 (MCR1).(7) MCR1 functions to regulate skin and hair color, and several variants of this protein have been shown to cause melanocytes, pigment-forming cells in the skin, to overproduce a yellow-red pigment (pheomelanin). When there is an abundant amount of yellow-red pigment in comparison to dark brown (eumelanin) that gets injected into hair, a red hue can manifest.
Red hair, found in approximately 1–2 per cent of the human population, is therefore caused by a trait variation that results from a DNA mutation in the MCR1 gene. When a mutation(s) leads to a trait change, then the individual affected is called a “mutant,” as cited in the Oxford Dictionary of English.
Mutant. Resulting from or showing the effect of mutation.(8)
Thus, by the term’s very definition, it is fair to say that all of us are mutants of one type or more, as this chapter will explore.
As is the case with redheads, people with blue eyes are considered mutants too, with the DNA mutation involved causing a reduction in the amount of melanin pigment found in the iris of the eye.(9) In fact, when it comes to eye color, all but those with brown eyes are mutants, scientifically speaking.
Traits are not restricted to what can be “seen,” such as hair or eye color. The ability to digest the lactose found in milk products into adulthood also qualifies as a trait. It appears that this particular characteristic arose in some human populations about 7500 years ago following one of several DNA mutation events.(10) In order to break down lactose one needs to make a protein enzyme called lactase, and if suitable levels of lactase are not produced, varying degrees of lactose intolerance or lactase non-persistence occur.
Genetic variation also plays out with sex. We have been conditioned to accept that there are only two sexes, male and female, and that each sex is outfitted with a prescribed list of traits needed to provide the capability, in most, to reproduce offspring.(8),(11) However, if we look at the human population as a whole we see that 1–2 per cent do not fit within the male/ female binary. These non-binary-bodied individuals are most commonly known as intersex.
Intersex people are born with internal reproductive and/or external sexual anatomy that differs from those who are typical males or females. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations or “variations of sex characteristics.”(12) Even though intersex bodies are not typically binary, many people with intersex traits grow up to be typical boys/men or girls/women.
Boys/men and girls/women are gender terms, and a person’s gender describes and defines how an individual expresses and perceives themselves within a cultural and social context.(13) Some intersex people do not grow up to be boys/men or girls/ women, but feel themselves to be a different gender/gender identity, as discussed in more depth in Chapter 7.
Independent of gender identity definitions or outcomes, from a scientific, biological perspective, intersex variations comprise a distinct, yet diverse, sexual category.(14) There are many types of intersex variances—so many that we cannot discuss them all in this book. Their natural existence provides unwavering evidence that sex is a spectrum.
Some argue that the strength of binary thinking in our society limits our ability to accept intersex people as equal to males or females, but humans have been able to break out of a strict, binary model of thinking before—for example, when it came to hair color. An estimated 98–99 per cent of humans are either blond or brunette. Despite this, we have accepted—rather than denying, hiding, or attempting to eliminate—the existence of redheads, who, interestingly, make up the same percentage of the population as intersex people (1–2 per cent).
However, it’s important to recognize that acceptance of redheads didn’t happen immediately. At one time redheads were vilified and persecuted for being different from the majority. As a 17th-century scholar delineates:
During the height of the witch trials in Europe, for example, red hair was considered evidence of witchcraft. Judas Iscariot was often depicted with red hair in Renaissance art and the Spanish Inquisition even suspected that redheads had been marked by the fires of Hell itself!(15)
Indeed, redheads were once depicted as flawed and even evil within a binary blond/brunette majority. These predominantly religious views were, for the most part, eventually discarded. Did accepting hair color as a non-binary trait usher in society’s collapse? Of course, we know the answer is no.
We suspect that the acceptance of biological sex as not exclusively and strictly binary would likewise be non-detrimental to society, despite the fact that sex characteristics convey greater social significance than hair color. Acknowledging and accepting the existence of intersex people could be a powerful step toward acceptance of all body types regardless of height, weight, skin color, etc. It seems an approach worth trying given that the alternative, as we will explore later in this book, has been harmful to so many.
1 Norrgard, K.N. (2008) “Human testing, the Eugenics movement, and IRBs.” Nature Education 1(1), 170.
2 Plant, R. (1988) The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Holt Paperbacks. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
3 Sparrow, R. (2013) “Gender eugenics? The ethics of PGD for intersex.” The American Journal of Bioethics 13(10), 29–88.
4 Alberts, B., Johnson, A., Lewis, J., Morgan, D., Raff, M., Roberts, K., and Walter, P. (2014) Molecular Biology of the Cell, 6th edn. New York: Garland Science.
5 Piovesan, A., Caracausi, M., Antonaros, F., Pelleri, M.C., and Vitale, L. (2016) “Gene Base 1.1: A tool to summarize data from NCBI gene datasets and its application to an update of human gene statistics.” The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation. Accessed on 9/9/2019 at doi:10.1093/database/baw153
6 Pearson, H. (2006) “Genetics: What is a gene?” Nature 441(7092), 398– 401.
7 Schaffer, J.V. and Bolognia, J.L. (2001) “The Melanocortin-1 receptor: Red hair and beyond.” Archives of Dermatology 137(11), 1477–1485.
8 Stevenson, A. (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
9 Elberg, H., Troelsen, J., Nielsen, M., Mikkelsen, A., From, J., Kiaer, K.W., and Hansen, L. (2008) “Blue eye color in humans may be caused by a perfectly associated founder mutation in a regulatory element located within the HERC2 gene inhibiting OCA2 expression.” Human Genetics 123(2), 177–187.
10 Burger, J., Kirchner, M., Bramanti, B., Haak, W., and Thomas, M.G. (2007) “Absence of the lactase-persistence-associated allele in early neolithic Europeans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104(10), 3736–3741.
11 Roughgarden, J. (2013) Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
12 Equality Network (no date) “The Variations of Sex Characteristics and Intersex Project.” Accessed on 9/9/2019 at www.equality-network.org/ our-work/policyandcampaign/the-variations-of-sex-characteristics- and-intersex-project/
13 Wade, L.(2015)Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. New York W.W. Norton & Co.
14 UNHCR(United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) (2015) “Intersex.” Free & Equal Campaign Fact Sheet. Accessed on 9/9/2019 at https://unfe.org/system/unfe-65-Intersex_Factsheet_ ENGLISH.pdf
15 Walker, O. (1659) Periama Epidemion: Or, Vulgar Errours in Practice Censured. London: Richard Royston Publisher.
Maria Nieto, Ph.D.,is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University, East Bay and an award-winning novelist. In 2013, she submitted the first biology-based amicus brief submitted to the United States SupremeCourt, in support of marriage equality. Herfiction novels, The Water of Life Remains in the Deadand Pig Behind the Bear, have collectively been awarded a Next Generation Indie Book Award, an Independent Publisher Award and International Latino Book Awards. Her essays have been a powerful contribution to Somos en escrito Magazine.
Hida Viloria is one of the world’s foremost non-binary and intersex educators. S/he is a frequent consultant, radio and television guest (Oprah, 20/20, NPR, BBC), and one of the most extensively published writersin the field (Washington Post, Ms., Daily Beast, OUT, Huff Post, The Advocate, New York Times). He/r groundbreaking memoir, Born Both: An Intersex Life (Hachette Books, 2017), received extensive praise and was a People Magazine’s Best New Books pick and a 2018 Lambda Literary Award nominee.