W is for Woman

This is my husband Jo. I call this picture of him ‘Gameface’ because when I took it we were in the lab and he was doing all sorts of science-y stuff with like test tubes and pipettes and stuff. I think Jo is pretty freaking awesome, (so much so that I commissioned a theme song for him a couple years ago for Christmas. Much of it won’t make sense unless you played WoW with us, but it’s still worth a listen :)). We’ve been married for about 7 years now and together for closer to 11.

We talk about a lot of things around our house but a theme that recurs again and again in our conversations is gender. The perceptions of gender, the portrayals of it in fiction and popular media, that sort of thing.

When I asked Jo to do a guest blog this month he said he had just the thing, and that it had something to do with chickens. Turns out, we don’t get to hear about chickens, but his post does include turkeys, which are almost as awesome, so that’s okay 🙂

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I was asked to do a guest column focusing on the letter W, and I wasn’t sure where to settle. I am a scientist, a biochemist specifically, but my interests extend beyond that. The first thing that comes to mind (that is science related) with this letter is tryptophan. This is an amino acid—an essential amino acid famously mentioned on Seinfeld!(1)—but the relationship to the letter “W” comes from the shorthand notation we use to refer to it. As I often point out to student in my classes, biochemists are lazy and would rather write three letters—or maybe just one, if they can get away with it—instead of the full name for something. Tryptophan is typically written as either Trp or W (T was already taken by threonine)—and you can remember this if you pronounce the word “twyptophan”, as if you have some kind of speech impediment. Ha ha, such laughs we have in science! That said, the extent of my dialogue is only as long as a Kilgore Trout novel.

So that got me thinking about W in other ways. W is for “Woman”, both as the straight up letter thing, but also in a more obscure way. Tryptophan, as Seinfeld implies, is abundant in turkey, which leads me to the other way that W and Women come together. In humans, at the genetic level, women are homogametic (XX) for the sex chromosomes while males are heterogametic (XY); the Y chromosome is a degenerate version of the X chromosome and that of course leads to a wealth of joke material regarding remote controls and sexual relations in general. But in turkeys (also other birds, insects and other species) the males are homogametic (ZZ) while females are heterogametic (WZ). This has an immediate repercussion—particularly if someone makes a joke about roosters having inferior chromosomes based on them having an X/Y chromosome system instead of the W/Z. Not that I think hens are inferior to roosters because they have degenerate chromosomes!

Variations on this occur, which leads to one of my other interests regarding sexual ambiguity. It is never as simple as having two options—and in moths and butterflies the difference between females and males may extend from WZ/ZZ to Z/ZZ or WZZ/ZZZZ or further, Jo's Tattoomaking the situation much more interesting. The lines between woman and men are never as clear as we like to think, not even at the genetic level.

Kate Bornstein is one of my heroes, and if you have never read the book “Gender Outlaw” I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have loathed gender-based generalizations for as long as I can remember; awareness of the genetic spectrum as well as the phenotypic spectrum of gender/orientation is a huge eye-opener for tolerance and awareness. When I was a grad student I wore skirts regularly; I have never minded being mistaken for a woman; and although I have never identified as female I was always a little jealous of the clothing options (especially formal wear!). One of my tattoos revolves around gender ambiguity and combines male and female symbology as a core part of the design. I do not considered myself “straight” but as slightly bent.

So what is the end message here? “W” is for women—no matter what their chromosome composition—and I love them all.

References:
(1) Seinfeld script for episode 162 “The Merv Griffin Show” http://www.seinology.com/scripts/script-162.shtml
Kate Bornstein’sWeblog: http://katebornstein.typepad.com/

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In case you didn’t catch the mouse over, that picture up there? That’s one of Jo’s tattoos.

Did you see how he ended his post with ‘I love them all’? He did that to drive me bonkers. Anytime someone says they love/hate/whatever all of anything (including groups of people) that I’m like ‘Argh! You do not! You don’t know them all! Rawr! Rage!’ Well, okay, not so much the rage, but definitely the rawr ;0)

Anyway, I love Jo’s point about how there is a spectrum of gender identities (and sexuality) even at the genetic level. You can’t just put people into box #1 or box #2 and expect them to fit. I feel like that idea is beginning to creep more and more into my work. For example, I had a lot of fun when I was working on See The Sky Again (an Aphanasian novel that is still very much a WIP) in taking the usual gender roles, standing them on their heads and then turning them inside out.

If you haven’t quite heard enough from Jo, you’re in lucky. Last night we went to the premiere of the documentary ‘Always Forward‘ by PhotonMotion. The documentary is about the Biochemistry department at the University of Alberta, which happens to be where Jo works and teaches. He’s featured in the movie (mostly near the beginning) with his super awesome 3d models making appearances throughout. I thought he looked a little un-used to being in front of the camera, but the footage of him lecturing his class really shows the Jo I know.

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This blog post is part of the Blogging from A to Z challenge over the month of April and was brought to you by Jo Parrish and the letter W. I can’t believe the month is almost over (though I’m pretty thankful LOL). Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the letter X.

 

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6 thoughts on “W is for Woman

  1. I’m glad you refer to gender identity as being on a spectrum. Gender/sexuality truths are not black and white. Great message. Love all the science in your post as well. Fascinating. Science and Seinfeld – does it get any better?

    • Thank you for stopping by again Leslie. I always enjoy my trips to your blog and your comments on mine 🙂

  2. I’m learning a lot about science and chromosomes today. I read somewhere that trytophan doesn’t make people sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the overeating of everything that forces the body to focus on digestion.

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