Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Medicine looks at realities of sex and gender

Our HMO was bringing its records up to date and asked for some basic data.

I think they asked the right question, though not one that would have turned up on a form in the past. Doctors need to know accurately the sex of their patients in order to practice their science. But sex and gender are not simple or binary.

An Australian medical school, Monash Universtiy, concisely explains where the question as phrased by Kaiser Permanente is coming from:

Sex = male and female

Gender = masculine and feminine

So in essence:

Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs.

Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.

The Kaiser questionnaire also asks for "other." Some people are "other," born with some variation of the biological characteristics of both sexes. These folks are frequently termed intersex. Since societies have usually enforced pretty rigid gender dichotomies between what we assume are binary sexes, many intersex people have been altered, as babies, to appear more "normal." Medicine needs to know our actual biological characteristics, to the extent we can provide the answers.

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