In the academic discipline of differentiation and development, the last part concerns the embryonic formation of the reproductive system. I explain the role of the X and Y chromosomes, the way in which, depending on the circumstances, different genes are activated (SRY, SOX9, FOXL2, WNT4 …), and synthesized hormones (estradiol, testosterone) which can influence various aspects . I am talking about the Wolff and Müller canals, and show how, from structures which at the beginning are common and cannot be distinguished, the ovaries or the testes, the vagina or the penis slowly differentiate. Or, in some cases, they do not form for different reasons, or mixed structures emerge.
It’s all very scientific: genes, molecules, signaling pathways, cells. But from there, questions about sexual behavior and gender identity in humans are inevitable (as well as steadfastness against plasticity), a reality I’m not afraid of, as students ask what the biology has to offer on this subject. What he has, although biology should not be used exclusively and without criticism (or denied). While I find animal behavior fascinating, I personally avoid anthropocentrism looking for justifications for human actions in other species, as there are examples to suit everyone. But this is not an easy subject for two reasons: it has a strong cultural, social and political component, and the research that exists in this area (obviously also for this reason) requires a more critical and in-depth analysis than that involved, for example, changing the sex or behavior of laboratory animals by manipulating some of the genes or hormones mentioned above (which is possible). There is established knowledge that is taught by showing the solid scientific evidence that exists; but while it is extremely important to teach doubt correctly, let us not hide that it is more difficult in an environment which favors sure answers to an exam. So this part I discuss, I answer, I give a bibliography, I give the students the possibility to search more and to think for themselves, but I do not evaluate; and in the last school year I admit that I did not touch on this topic because I felt that outside classroom education was not an appropriate vehicle.
Examples of diversity, apart from (very rich) individual diversity, were very few in my youth, at any level. Divorces were a source of astonishment; homosexuality oscillates between occasional experimentation, easy insult and silence. At University, things have changed, but not as much as you might think, few (other than heterosexuals) have assumed identities. I remember an openly “trans” person in Coimbra, period. Today, there is another visibility, and I see in the generation of my children and in the behavior of my students a greater openness, at all levels. It’s not the ideal, discrimination and violence based on gender and gender identity remains incredible, but we have evolved something, and we know more.
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This reflection really began at the turn of the century, when the Brazilian government set up the International Diploma Program (PLI), bringing in 60 new students in my discipline each year. Naturally diverse students, but with a high percentage of people interested in gender and gender identity issues, higher than statistically seems likely. In fact, the more frontal saw themselves as being in a sort of paradise of tolerance at this level, they saw PLI and Portugal as part of a mechanism of liberation, as much as of education. Something that seemed very strange at the time, I knew (thought) my city, and had a stereotypical image of Brazil. A sociologist could have explained to me that many of these students came from ultra-conservative evangelical circles, of which I was unaware of the real characteristics, and that they would be highlighted by the rise of Jair Bolsonaro; something that seems obvious to me today. As careful as my class was, it admitted realities that were denied in other contexts. But above all: it is not because of talking about things or not that they existed, gender identity is not a virus that gets caught, unlike discrimination. And against that, it is necessary to inform, to provide an adequate bibliography for each case. And it must be compulsory, then to all those who do whatever they want with the information (search, ignore, refute).
Today, I don’t think there are, for example, more gays, lesbians or trans people (or domestic violence) than “in my day” (which is also this); I only think of the most hidden lives that could have been lived, and I constantly review the past, with different eyes. Like when I first saw the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and just saw a (bad) sci-fi pseudo-comedy, not the “camp” anthem of sexual liberation, which is also. I don’t want to have to wait for the future to regret not having said anything in the past, today. Where, as much as it costs me, I have to admit that the “easy” is always to be male, Caucasian, heterosexual. And, as I have also realized from the apocryphal textbooks of human survival in a social and professional environment (probably Darwin helps explain this), also conservative (not understood as a political position), fearful (cautious, if you prefer) and (mostly) silent. Since I have no way to stop being the first three things, I have to work on the rest.
The author writes according to the new spelling agreement