Coding in Binary: Gender and “Biological Sex”

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Folks love to ask trans people about two topics: sex and gender.  Sometimes they’re genuinely curious about the differences between these things and what those mean.  Sometimes they’re trying to catch us in an elaborate rhetorical trap wherein we either admit that gender is fake, admit we have some crazy ideas about sex, or admit that we’ll always be our assigned gender at birth. 

So let’s talk about these topics in a broad way there’s always more reading and learning to do about specifics but I think this will help you as a primer to get you in the right place to do the learning. 

Coding Sex: Do Trans People Think We're Changing Our Sex?

So here’s the deal. We can wax on forever about the nuances of sex, gender, identity and so on.

Let’s start with an acknowledgement: gender and sex are different, but they impact each other and they have some correlation with each other.

Let’s add another: gender is a social construct.

Let’s add another: sex is more complicated than you’ve been taught.

Since your question primarily revolves around sex, why don’t we start there, huh? The sex you were taught is primarily phenotypical which is to say “you have these parts and therefor you are this sex.” At birth these are identified by primary sex characteristics.

At some point you were also taught a second step: people with certain chromosomes will have certain sexual characteristics. Therefore you learned that XX == vulva, vagina and XY == penis, testes. You might have been taught that about intersex conditions at this point, loosely.

At some point during this lesson you were taught XX people have estrogen dependent systems and XY people have testosterone dependent systems. You will have been taught about the things those bodies do as a result (body hair, breast growth, etc.,) as well as their sexual mechanics (eggs, sperm, etc.,) These secondary changes are all the results of hormones giving instruction to the body about what to do.

Here’s the rub though, chromosomes aren’t reliable indicators of sex. Genitalia can be changed. Hormones can be replaced. At some point we reach a line of medical transition where a person’s “biological sex” is not necessarily a terribly useful indicator of ANYTHING. Even right now, early as I am in transition, my medical needs are not identical to cisgender men’s. So why does it matter?

Even before we get into questions about body modification through various means, sex is already a very fuzzy, loose thing with two big groupings connected by lots of variations in the middle. Well some people will make an argument to nature, but I find this weak:

Just because the body is naturally inclined to do or behave a certain way does not make it good or healthy: cancer and autoimmune disorders are both “natural” in this way, but we correct them. Allergies are “natural” but we take pills to correct them because they irritate us. When the body causes us dissatisfaction, we correct that. We have pills to aid in erections, and surgeries for breast augmentation are so common at this point you can practically window shop for them. This is standard human procedure. The corrective process is as natural as anything else: we’ve been medicating and cosmetically enhancing ourselves longer than we’ve had written language and maybe longer than we’ve had language. It is not a strong rhetorical point for a species that modifies and heals our bodies with pins, screws, plastics, electronics, dyes, artificially created medicines, and more to say that this one particular thread of that is somehow unnatural. Part of being human, part of what makes us human, is our ability to change ourselves.

So, why are we having this talk at all about biology? That part, the reason we’re having this talk at all, is where the social side of this starts to come into the equation. We’re having this talk because of fear. And if I’m honest I think that fear is that there is something innate in, for example, male-type bodies that cannot be corrected, something that persists through hormones and corrective surgeries. And what is that?

In the case of AMAB people, it’s “urge.” People are afraid that there is an urge in me that cannot be taken away. Something fixed. Something permanent. They fear that I am using hormones and surgery as part of my inclination to fulfill that urge. What might that urge be? If you ask a TERF it’s to conquer sexually, either through manipulation and illusion or power and coercion. If you ask a transphobic straight man it’s to manipulate more powerful men, more “alpha” men,” into sleeping with me. In short, in this narrative I am a “man” fulfilling some innate urge through a particularly clever means of deceit.

The funny thing about this mode of thinking, this biodeterminism, is that, well, it would have been very familiar to people in 1930s Germany and the United States (whose eugenics laws Germany’s were based on). If it didn’t make me want to cry as a student of history, I would have to laugh at the way people are so comfortable saying “this group of people was born this way with certain immutable qualities and so they are unsafe or undesirable and must be kept separate.”

Biodeterminism, the very thing that TERFs would have you hang your hat on as the reason I shouldn’t be in women’s spaces, is also what they claim to be fighting because so many gender roles come from it: “men should do physical labor and fighting,” “women should nurture and stick with the kids and the kitchen,” for instance. And racial stereotypes come from it. Debunked science like phrenology comes from it. For as long as humanity has existed we’ve tried to use physical characteristics as a proof of one’s spirit and every single time it has lead to atrocities, abuse, racism, genocide, torture, and more. Every. Time.

And it is being used that way again to justify discrimination, abuse, and violence towards transgender individuals.

So here’s the thing. When a trans person talks about sex we are talking about it from a sort of mechanical, lego-block perspective. We see the pieces because we have to. Pretty much every trans person can tell you *WAY* more about endocrinology than your average person and there’s a reason for that: we have to be experts to get treatment, by and large. We understand our genitalia and we understand what we can do with them surgically, because we have to. We understand secondary and primary sex characteristics and what is mutable and what isn’t as mutable because we have to. We are under no illusions about sex or our bodies. We are incredibly realistic about them.

But when y’all talk to us about sex, you aren’t really talking about sex. You’re talking about this sort of biodeterminism — some fixed part of us that will ALWAYS be “a man” or “a woman.” And that’s a conversation no trans person has an interest in because it’s useless: you’ve confused your beliefs with science and nobody can take that from you.

And then there’s the question of language about this. Female. Male. I have a penis (currently). I mark F on all my paperwork. Why? Because as a society we have so inextricably linked “female and woman” and “male and man” that there’s no way to decouple them. So if someone asks if I’m a female I say, “yes, yes I am.” And in all easily measurable ways but primary sex characteristics: I am. People see me as a woman because they also see me as a female because my secondary sex characteristics are far more like my cisgender sisters’ than any man’s. All of the parts of me that give my body instructions on how to build itself align with my F marker and aside from STRICTLY questions about reproductive health, those things matter more to my health care than the rest.

Do I think I’ve changed my sex? In an objective way, I absolutely have. There is no question of it and I will change more of it. If I have bottom surgery my body type would be “female” enough that I would meet most of the qualifications for you to call me a female, as you’ve been taught them. But if you treated me like a “male” medically, you could do me serious harm. Have I changed my sex to “female” in chromosomal terms? No. That is not possible but it’s also not the fixed bedrock folks believe it to be.

Re: sex. Again, do some soul searching: why do you care? Seriously, think really hard about what it is you’re trying to search for with questions of “biological sex.” Why do you care? Please think on this.

Coding Gender: Is it a Social Construct?

Here’s my answer. Yes*.

* But that doesn’t tell the whole story, now does it? Not a very satisfying answer, is it? Alright let’s talk about it.

Gender is an experience. It is a conversation that happens at the intersection of a lot of moving parts. Those parts are cultural, legal, regionally societal, religious, fashionable, biological, and linguistic.

To paraphrase David Tenant: From a simplistic point of view gender is a social construct, but from an objective subjective point of view it’s actually a big ball of wibbly-wobbly biologicy-socialy… stuff. Does it exist? Absolutely. Can you measure it? Ehhhhhhhhh. So then what part of this is biological? This is where we have to get into some faith and statistics.

It is absolutely inarguable that the bulk of people born with penises/testes will be men. This is measurable and true. The bulk of people born with vulva and vaginas will be women. Also, again, measurably true. But why?

This is where faith comes in. I think of children as like… little antennas taking in information about the world and processing it and turning it into the building blocks through which they will construct their base “I.” This is, I believe a firmly biological process. I think it is like a kind of imprinting. Through this metaphor I think of our non-binary friends as really, truly special versions of this conversation where they created something NEW out of all that information and that’s AMAZING. But that is only the base level of “I.” There are certain processes we learn as we get older:

1) We are drawn to behave similar to people who are like us.
2) We respond to things with three different reactions: rejection, clinging, and neutral.

Let’s start with 1, shall we? I believe, firmly, that we have an intuitive sense in us of “I have things in common with this other person.” We don’t even have to like them to feel this commonality. Men can seem to recognize other men through a sort of universal language without checking their genitalia; young boys seem to recognize each other as such without the benefit of secondary sex characteristics.

When I was young, I felt this intuitive connection with the other girls. I have written, documented evidence of that that I used in therapy to help confirm that transition was the right thing for me. (My therapist didn’t need this, I needed proof to feel comfortable making such a big decision). So if I were going to pattern myself it’s my natural inclination to pattern myself after people who are like me and whatever it is they’re doing.

When I was in elementary school that was bracelets and tamagotchis and the usual suspects about clothing. But I wasn’t allowed to do all those things. Why? Because I was Assigned Male at Birth. And that caused me pain, that I couldn’t partake in a perfectly natural process: being like the people I was like. That’s what I have record of — that pain that I wasn’t allowed to be that. It’s pretty screwed up for a young child to want to go ahead and die so she can be reborn in the right body next time.

But you can see this process at play in any niche and group of people, right? On Wednesdays we wear pink, ya know? Who hasn’t had the experience that they have a friend who has an annoying vocal habit and then…*gasp*… they find themselves also saying it. And. They. Can’t. Stop.

Growing towards the people we are like is the most human thing in the world and it affects marriages, fandoms, friendships, workplace culture, all of it.

Which brings me to point number 2 about gender: the three reactions. I believe biological processes plant the seeds of our gender, and then the rest is learned through other natural/biological and social processes. As you get older you get more divergence and specificity in groups. Some girls are scene girls, some girls are goth, some are high femme, and some are athletic, etc., etc., and on it goes.

At some point you try something on for the first time. Maybe it’s music or a piece of clothing or a way you inflect your voice, and then you have a reaction to that: you disliked it and want to do it less, you were ambivalent, or you enjoyed it and want to do it more. This is true of everything from food to sexual intercourse to fashion. And the stuff you like? You do more of that. And also you go find people who like the things you like. 

Through this process you build a more specific version of your gender and your identity. One man’s manhood is military service, loyalty, and chugging PBR while head banging to Metallica next to a barbecue pit. Another man’s manhood is social order, a nuclear family, and “bringing home the bacon.” Another man’s manhood is WVU football games, tossing a ball with his kids, and working hard every day. These are all manhood and these men would all recognize each other as men because of that shared commonality between them and yet they would also recognize they have different ideas of what that means.

That’s social. It’s not fake. Social in this case does not mean “made up” it means it’s a natural consequence of human beings getting together in groups. Beehives and anthills are social structures in this way. They can only exist where there is a grouping of these creatures. Likewise gender, this conversation and shared thread between people, can only exist when there are PEOPLE plural. That’s what social means. And just like in the case of ants and bees, we are stronger as a species for having these things. And even though we might build similar structures, there will be variations from place to place and culture to culture. Manhood in one country to another will be SIMILAR but not identical. Both equally true. Both equally right.

And they will change in cultures over time: womanhood today does not look exactly like womanhood of early America and certainly not like the womanhood of Ancient Athens. There are similarities, to be sure, but they are not identical. That’s natural. Humans grow and change and so do our social constructs.

But the ways we express that, the ways we decorate ourselves and the words we use and the ways we inflect our voices are all learned. They are all a performance we learn from each other and then we each put our spin on it. My womanhood is MY womanhood, and it shares characteristics with many other women but this mixture is mine and I love it. I’ve learned through those three processes that I love dresses and stuffed animals and romantic poetry and beautiful songs and bold eyeshadow and long fingernails and hair. I also love hot sauce and whisky and bourbon and I say fuck a lot. I’m also a Buddhist.

These things are all part of my womanhood and the way I express it. None of them are required to make me a woman, this is just my expression of that. The requirement to be a woman was fulfilled a long time ago, when for whatever reason, my heart and soul reached out and said, ‘ah yes, we’re like these people.’

And this is why I say gender is a performance that comes from inside of us. I tried to perform a gender that wasn’t mine and I was clumsy and bad at it. I overdid things. I hurt people. I’m still working on forgiving myself for the things I did in my role as a “man,” because I thought they were required of me because it didn’t come naturally to me. I patterned myself on books about famous men and watching TED talks and motivational speakers. None of it worked. That wasn’t my dance to dance and so I was unusually awful as a man and rightfully people did not like me because I treated them poorly.

But the steps of my womanhood? They come to me the way water flows downhill. I don’t think about it, I just explore it and enjoy it. Every day I wake up and feel like, “Ok, am I the kind of woman who does THIS?” And then I try the thing and sometimes I *hate the thing* even if it’s typical for other women. So then I don’t do it. Other times I LOVE it. And so I’m dancing my unique dance, on the right parts of the stage in the right way and it is the most natural and good thing to me in the world.

Some Additional Reading

There are some really great resources that go into more depth about some of these topics if you’re interested in a place to start learning and thinking about sex and gender. 

Biological Sex is a Spectrum

 

Who counts as a woman?

Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/

 

 

 

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