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The science of sexual orientation and gender identity

This month of June, people around the world are celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Pride Month is celebrated to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots, a set of events which many consider as a tipping point in the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.

Fifty years after the Stonewall riots, many LGBTQ persons around the world still face discrimination. In a study by the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Office, 30 percent of LGBTI persons in the Philippines reported being “harassed, bullied or discriminated against by others at work due to their SOGIE and/or intersex status in their current or latest workplace.”

The ‘I’ in LGBTI stands for intersex. Another abbreviation sometimes used is LGBTQIA, where ‘A’ stands for asexual. SOGIE, meanwhile, stands for sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Due to the still rampant discrimination, advocates continue to fight for an Anti-Discrimination Bill to be passed into law in the Philippines to protect everyone from discrimination on the basis of SOGIE. In light of this, activities such as pride marches continue to be an important tool for the LGBTQ community and their allies to fight for equality.

Often, the discrimination against LGBTQ persons are expressed using supposedly scientific reasoning. A review of the basic concepts is necessary to refute pseudoscientific arguments used to justify discrimination.

According to the University of California Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center, sexual orientation is an “enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectional attraction or non-attraction to other people.” In other words, sexual orientation is about your feelings of attraction towards others. Heterosexual people are attracted to people of a gender other than their own. Gays and lesbians, meanwhile, are attracted (physically or emotionally) to people of the same gender. Bisexual people, on the other hand, can be attracted to people regardless of their gender.

Meanwhile, asexual people generally do not feel sexual attraction or have a desire for a sexual partner, which is different from emotional attraction or the desire for a romantic relationship. 

People who say that being gay or lesbian is “wrong because it is not natural” are incorrect in two ways. First, such arguments are invalid because many things that are “not natural” can be considered “good”, while many things that are “natural” can be considered “bad”. Second, same-sex behaviors have been observed in many animal species, from swans to lions.

While sexual orientation is about attraction, gender identity is a sense of one’s self as a woman, man, gender queer, or some other identity. A person who is gender queer has a gender identity or gender expression that falls outside of the norms of their society, or is beyond genders.

Gender identity is intimately connected with gender and gender expression. Gender refers to the construct used by a given society on what it means to be a man, woman, or some other identity, while gender expression is how an individual expresses their gender identity through their behavior and sense of style. 

Throughout history, many societies have traditions that recognize three or more genders. Even then, each society has a set of norms expected of each gender which any given person might not adhere to.

Gender identity, like sexual orientation, is a different matter from the sex one is assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth usually depends on the assessments of a health care provider, such as a doctor. The dominant practice is to assign a baby male or female at birth based on the doctor’s interpretation of the baby’s sex characteristics. 

Gender identity and sexual orientation, on the other hand, are matters of neurology. In other words, they have something to do with brain structure and function. It should therefore be no surprise that some people are transgender—their gender identity does not “match” with the sex they were assigned at birth. These include people who identify as a woman but who were assigned male at birth, or those who identify as a man but who were assigned female at birth.

The neurological basis of gender identity is revealed in multiple studies that show that the brains of people who identify as a certain gender have several distinctive features in common, regardless of whether they were assigned the same sex at birth or not.

All this of course barely scratches the surface of the myriad ways humans can experience or interact with the concept of gender and sexuality. And we have not even touched on intersex people, people whose physical sexual characteristics does not fit society’s definition of male or female. 

Seeing is there really is no scientific basis to discriminate, I think there is no reason not to celebrate the great variety of human experience and identity.

Topics: Sexual orientation , Gender Identity , Pride month , Science , Human
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