In her Brace Fellow presentation “Contextualizing Trans Biology: Why XX and XY Aren’t Enough”, Nikita Harwich ’23 analyzed the intersection of gender and sex in science and how it has changed throughout history. Harwich emphasized the lack of scientific research exploring the relation between gender and sex and examined the scientific community’s suppression of sexual polymorphism in favor of a dimorphic perspective.
Harwich started by comparing the two conflicting terms in her presentation: sexual dimorphism and sexual polymorphism. According to Harwich, sexual polymorphism is a more accurate term which views sex as a spectrum instead of as a binary, but many biologists continue to view sex dimorphically.
“Sexual dimorphism is…the way biologists have used to describe unperceived binary differences in primary and secondary sex characteristics. Sexual polymorphism is a rebuttal to that, which is that sexes exist along a spectrum and that those binary differences really are just perceived. In actuality, they aren’t as binary as biologists would really like to believe,” said Harwich.
Harwich also highlighted the importance of examining the sex binary in her presentation. By doing so, we can begin to understand sexual dimorphism’s basis as a societal view on sex and sexual dimorphism’s lack of scientific foundation.
“The two-sex system of the present is based on these highly subjective constructions of sex, meaning that to further our understanding of the biology, the concept of the sex binary must be deconstructed,” said Harwich.
Afterwards, Harwich went on to explore the role scientific research has played in the public’s perspective on gender and sex. Harwich noted that the lack of research was based on societal preconceptions on transexual people and continues to promote the perspective of sexual dimorphism.
“Scientific documents inform views on trans people because the general consensus of the public moves these societal assumptions. These assumptions can influence the next generation of scientists, [which] creates a positive feedback loop of societal ignorance as the scientists conducting the studies are unaware [that] their preconceived notions on gender and sex came from a society that tells them there only must be two sexes or two genders, so they’re really unable to even imagine anything beyond that,” said Harwich during her presentation.
The inspiration for this presentation came from an essay Harwich wrote for the Biology 580 course. However, after noticing patterns in how scientific research regarding gender studies was conducted, Harwich ultimately decided to create her presentation around this topic.
“Originally, I didn’t enjoy the way science papers were written about transgender people, and I wanted to share my discomfort with it. As I dived more into it I just got more fascinated with the mechanisms and physiology of it… This creates a dangerous gap in scientific knowledge because not only has [the] gender and sex spectrum not been studied scientifically at all, but the scientific community is really under the impression that there is nothing to study and that all the relevant knowledge has been found and proven,” said Harwich.
Charlotte Esty, Administrative Assistant in CaMD, expressed her admiration for Brace Fellow presentations and highlighted the importance they hold in the Andover community. Esty elaborated on the ability of Brace and CaMD studies to provide students with an opportunity to learn about topics which are not commonly discussed.
“I do have this attraction to gender studies and [the Brace Center], they both hold a special place in my heart. I feel like it’s so important that Andover has this resource especially since it’s so rare. A lot of this is information and research that a lot of people won’t encounter until later in their lives or ever, so it’s really special that I’m able to watch my colleagues and students show their work,” said Esty.
Attendee and former Brace Fellow Dorian Park Wang ’23, expressed that more research is required to gain a better perspective of trans biology. Park Wang also mentioned that Harwich’s presentation brought awareness to this issue and expressed hope that this presentation can inspire further conversation.
“I think biology as a field is one that has caused a lot of hurt to queer and trans communities historically, therefore, it’s not a topic that a lot of gender studies scholars or queer and trans people like to approach… I think this presentation really exemplified why that research and why the lens of gender studies and biological science is necessary and how one can inform the other, and hopefully challenge preconceived notions of biology and create more productive discourse going forward,” said Park Wang.
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