It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny

Time and time again, transmisogynists and transphobes go back to that old excuse that they are just standing up for the reality of “biological sex” when they spew their ignorance and hate. They say that no matter what a trans woman does, no matter what she believes, she’s still actually a man. Others cede the fact that trans women are women, but stop there and say “gender is what’s between your ears, sex is what’s between your legs” and therefore trans women are still males. Although this is a popular idea, it is based on a misunderstanding of biology, social constructs and anatomy, and it needs to stop.

via Time

via Time

A lot of this misuse of the idea of “biological sex” has, unfortunately, been centered around discussions of activist and Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox. Cox recently became the first out trans person (Chelsea Manning was on the cover before she came out) to be on the cover of Time Magazine. However, inside the magazine, Time said that an easy way to gain some understanding of trans people is to realize that gender and sex are two different things. They say that “sex is biological, determined by a baby’s birth anatomy” and then go on to call trans women “biological males” and trans men “biological females.”

They are trying to good allies, explaining what many see as a complicated issue, but what they are really doing is using a simplistic and outdated understanding of biology to perpetuate some very dangerous ideas about trans women. This type of dialogue allows people to think that they are doing trans people a service, when really they are just continuing to see them as something other than “real women.”

Another article about Cox came out at about the same time. This one, however, was very upfront about using what its author thinks is a good understanding of biology to claim that trans women are not even women at all. Written by Kevin D. Williamson for the National Review and later republished by the Chicago Sun-Times (who then removed it and issued an apology), this article is called “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman” and aggressively uses Williamson’s complete misunderstanding of “biological sex” (and yes, I’m using scare quotes on purpose) to misgender not only Cox, but all other trans people. He says that we need to pay attention to the “biological reality” of sex instead of the delusional world that trans people are living in.

princess-bride-you-keep-using-that-word

In the article, Williamson says that (get ready for some extreme ignorance and hate here) we are experiencing a new transgender phenomenon, one where we have lost grip on reality. He says that we have an “obsession with policing language (that is based) on the theory that language mystically shapes reality…” However, just because we say trans women are women, that, according to him, doesn’t change the fact that they are men.

He instead calls Cox “an effigy of a woman,” based on his belief that sex is a biological reality and “is not subordinate to subjective impressions…” He adds that “No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.” He seems to believe that sex as we describe it is a thing that just exists, that a clear, inarguable and binary definition for sex just springs forth from nature. Unfortunately, Williamson isn’t alone in this type of rhetoric. There’s actually a wide group of people, some “allies,” some lawmakers and some just outright bigots who all rally behind the idea of using the social construct of “biological sex” to misgender trans women.

The thing people like Williamson want to cling to the most is the idea that sex is an immutable, universal biological reality that is therefore easy to categorize. Although many are willing to call trans women women (or specifically “trans women” or “transwomen” or even “male women”), they say that that is just their gender. They argue that gender is cultural and that sex is an unchanging biological fact, and that therefore their sex is still male. This is used to support “Womyn born Womyn” spaces, create fear around so-called “bathroom bills,” disallow trans women from competing in women’s sports and even defend violence against trans women.

This is a nice attempt, but it's really not this simple guys. via itspronouncedmetrosexual.com

This is a nice attempt, but it’s really not this simple guys (which is something the creator of the graphic understands). via itspronouncedmetrosexual.com

Since “biological sex” is actually a social construct, those who say that it is not often have to argue about what it entails. Some say it’s based on chromosomes (of which there are many non-XX/XY combinations, as well as diversity among people with XY chromosomes), others say it’s genitals or gonads (either at birth or at the moment you’re talking about), others say it’s hormone levels (which vary widely and can be manipulated), still others say it’s secondary sex characteristics like the appearance of breasts, body hair and muscle mass (which vary even more). Some say that it’s a combination of all of them. Now, this creates a huge problem, as sex organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormone levels aren’t anywhere close to being universal to all men or women, males or females.

Those who claim that sex is determined by chromosomes must not realize that sex is assigned at birth not by chromosomes, not even by gonads, but by genitals. In fact, the vast majority of us never learn what our sex chromosomes are. Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth. So if sex is determined by genitals, they must be clearly binary and unchangable, right? Wrong. Genitals can be ambiguous at birth and many trans people get gender confirmation surgery to change them. Neither chromosomes nor genitals are binary in the way that “biological sex” defenders claim they are, and the vast majority of measures by which we judge sex are very much changable.

"Hey, sorry about that whole 'assigning sex at birth thing.'" "No problem! I know that it has no real effect on who I am as a person today!" via intimatehealthhelp.net

“Hey, sorry about that whole ‘assigning sex at birth thing.’” “No problem! I know that it has no real effect on who I am as a person today!” via intimatehealthhelp.net

It’s pretty bizarre that we place so much importance on an assumption that doctors make when we’re born. A doctor took one look at me the moment I was born and that’s supposed to determine what bathroom I use, what sports I play or really anything else about my current life? We don’t hold adults to those standards in other aspects of their lives, so why do we with this one? 

While it is true that gender and sex are different things, and that gender is indeed a social construct, sex isn’t the Ultimate Biological Reality that transphobes make it out to be. There’s nothing intrinsically male about XY chromosomes, testosterone, body hair, muscle mass or penises. If an alien civilization found earth, they wouldn’t look at a person with a penis and say “Oh, that must be a male, sex based on genitalia is the One Universal Constant.” Sex, like gender, is indeed socially constructed and can be changed.

If sex isn’t the All Mighty Binary Universal Constant that some people think it is, why do they place so much importance on it? The easy answer is that it gives them an excuse to misgender and exclude trans people, and specifically trans women. They can pretend they’re just standing up for science, but they’re really just saying that trans women aren’t fully women and that trans men aren’t fully men. People need to start learning about what sex really is and what social constructs really are. People need to stop misusing biology and spreading ignorance and misunderstanding. People need to stop looking for excuses for their anti-trans bigotry. All of this needs to stop and it needs to stop now.

Avatar of Mey

Mey is a lesbian, Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans* issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally. She's a selfie princess and Nerdy Bruja Femme.

Mey has written 142 articles for us.

115 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    A thousand times yes. You have put into words a concept I have been trying to explain to others for ages, and I have never been able to do so as eloquently as you have. I normally just get frustrated and give up.

  2. Thumb up 19

    Please log in to vote

    Mey, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree.

    I’m not going to disagree with anything you’ve said about gender. Gender is 100% a social construct and we all should have the ability to exist and be recognized as genders different from those that the majority of humans identify as based on their biological sex.

    And the people who use biological sex to fuel transphobia are bigots and should be treated as bigots. If you were born “XY” with a penis, and want to be recognized by society as a woman, that is your right.

    But I have to take issue with your statement that “biological sex is a social construct.”

    Do you know how biological sex is determined to exist as a concept, in species other than our own? Biologists take a huge swath of the population, indiscriminate of any factors other than their belonging to that species, and survey for three things: physical characteristics, chromosomes, and genes on those chromosomes.

    If the statistics of that analysis bring about two populations, the species is said to be “sexually dimorphic.” This is the case with humans. If you look at the extant 7 billion humans, 99.8% of them would have XX or XY chromosomal identities at birth, and also at birth, those XX and XY chromosomal identities would correlate with physical characteristics like genital appearance, gene expression, and so on.

    And then modern medicine uses those two groups, “Male” and “Female” to identify how humans of each class will more likely respond to certain medications, whether they can get pregnant, whether they should develop this way or that way physically over time. If they don’t develop as a typical member of their class does (physically) they might have a disease based on aberrant gene expression, that could lead to tumor growth, early death, mental illness, etc.

    But what about the other 0.2%? They have XXY, or monosomy X, or XYY, or XXX, or possible gene expression disorders, or other conditions that cause their biological sex to be more difficult to determine.

    Doctors will offer the parents of these children cosmetic surgery, hormone therapy, and other techniques to modify their physiology such that their bodies will resemble one or the other sex. This is offered because androgyny can come with health problems, including gonadal tumors and other issues. Refusing this care is fine, and its the parents choice, since the baby is not yet old enough to consent. It’s merely an attempt to create a better and more hospitable life for the child, due to our current societal shortcomings.

    But the existence of this 0.2% doesn’t negate the fact that statistically significant dimorphic sexes exist in humans.

    I don’t think YOU understand biology very well.

    • Thumb up 4

      Please log in to vote

      “While it is true that gender and sex are different things, and that gender is indeed a social construct, sex isn’t the Ultimate Biological Reality that transphobes make it out to be. There’s nothing intrinsically male about XY chromosomes, testosterone, body hair, muscle mass or penises. If an alien civilization found earth, they wouldn’t look at a person with a penis and say “Oh, that must be a male, sex based on genitalia is the One Universal Constant.” Sex, like gender, is indeed socially constructed and can be changed.”

      They probably wouldn’t say exactly that, but they would likely say “Oh look! It seems that 99.98% of all these humans have either an XX or XY chromosome, and that influences how they look physically when they’re born! Check out all the differences that highly correlate with those chromosomes!” because that’s what we do with other species, and it’s probably what we’d do with an alien species that WE discovered. We’d attempt to determine how many sexes they have, by examining how many clear sexual morphisms are present in their population. Some species have three or four sexes.

      Also, in our current technological state, it is impossible to take a biologically male human, and replace all the Y chromosomes in his body with X chromosomes. To do so would be a death sentence.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        The logical end to the author’s argument would be no biological sexes.

        But what about eye color? What about hair color? These things are ALSO determined largely by a set of interconnected genetic systems. Should we also pretend those separations don’t exist?

        Many people have eye colors outside of the typical, and some people have genetic disorders that cause them to have no eye color and be blind. But that doesn’t mean biological eye color doesn’t exist as a statistically significant way to divide the human population.

        • Thumb up 8

          Please log in to vote

          We should recognize that something like a chromosome is as entirely irrelevant to how you treat and interpret the behaviors of a person as their eye color.

          And upwards of 2% of the human species is intersex, and treating them like they don’t matter and should be entirely erased when talking about the way biologists have constructed the concept of sex for centuries is awful. You should be ashamed of yourself.

        • Thumb up 7

          Please log in to vote

          @Kay, I’m with you all the way up until the shame part. It feels icky to be telling each other we should be ashamed of ourselves, even if we strongly disagree.

      • Thumb up 9

        Please log in to vote

        The thing about sex chromosomes is they aren’t very salient after fetal development. The Y chromosome in males pretty much only carries the SRY gene that tells the gonads to differentiate into testecles, and then doesn’t do much afterwards. In females only one of the X chromosomes is used. It’s the hormones secreted by the gonads that tell other genes on other chromosomes to express in male mode or female mode, so in terms of gene expression trans women on hormones are biologically female.

        Of course if you want to get SUPER technical sex is all about whether you produce of small motile gametes(male) or large non-motile gametes(female), in which case post-op transwomen are neither.

        I think calling biological sex a social construct is not very useful. It’s better instead to think of sex as probabilistic clusters of characteristics in organisms space, and just keep in mind that not everybody’s characteristics fit entirely into one cluster or another, and try to focus on salient characteristics rather than categories for decision making. For example when trying to decide if you want to have sex with someone, current secondary sex characteristics and external genitals are more salient than chromosomes (depending on what you’re into), but when deciding if want to have a baby with someone functional reproductive organs become more salient.

        • Thumb up 3

          Please log in to vote

          I’d like to say I don’t think intersex people don’t exist, and I don’t think they should be forgotten about or “fixed” or anything like that.

          Society is imperfect because there ARE so many constructs about how we TREAT intersex people. And that’s why doctors offer assignment surgery at birth, because some parents of intersex individuals will want their kids to be assigned. Is that kind of fucked up? Yeah. It is. But just because intersex people exist doesn’t mean divisions like “male sex and female sex” don’t exist.

          And the REASON that we classicly identify male and female the way we do is because sex is based around reproduction. You MUST have functioning and genetic linkage of your genitalia in either a male or female way in order to reproduce in the human species as it exists today. And by that I mean without the assistance of IVF. For IVF you need a functioning female reproductive system.

    • Thumb up 15

      Please log in to vote

      The parts that we are born with are not socially constructed, but the way we understand them is.

      Trans women are biologically male under one system of classification, but that system is not the only viable way to classify individuals. In fact, as Mey eloquently explains, the binary system of classification in common use today leaves something to be desired.

      The brain is part of the body, so it is perfectly reasonable for a person who was assigned male at birth but who has a female gender identity not to consider themselves biologically male, since clearly part of their body differs from that of a cis male (even prior to transition). There are many ways to conceptualize the same raw scientific data.

      I don’t think anyone here disputes that fact that most people are born with either a vagina, ovaries, and XX chromosomes or a penis, testicles, and XY chromosomes. But whether all of the people in the first group should be labeled female and all in the second labeled male is a matter of opinion, not scientific fact.

      • Thumb up 16

        Please log in to vote

        I should also have added that acting like intersex people are abnormal or sick simply because they are relatively uncommon is extremely problematic. Some intersex conditions have associated health concerns, but much of the “care” provided to intersex children is simply an attempt to make them appear “normal”. These children are often subjected to medically unnecessary and sometimes actively harmful procedures without their consent, a practice widely condemned by intersex organizations.

    • Thumb up 4

      Please log in to vote

      Any reasonable conservative estimate actually puts intersex prevalence at 0.6%. That’s approaching 1 in 100, at a CONSERVATIVE estimate.

      Also 99% of doctors don’t know shit about the biology of gender.

      Honestly the idea that either parents OR doctors should be allowed to assign a “biological sex” AND/OR a “gender” to a child is sick and wrong, and sexist at its’ very root.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      If you looked at one of your named variables in such a study, for example gene prevalence, the data would be distributed bimodally, but you would by no means observe two completely distinct populations. Your decision to call the sample “sexually dimorphic”, thereby excluding the 0.2% you mention later in your comment, is entirely arbitrary- what are your grounds for excluding people from the so-called biological sex norm?

      It has been acknowledged that the idea of statistical significance involves the setting of an arbitrary cut-off for what counts as a “difference” within a population. This works fairly well in a field such as medicine, where treatments are designed to work on the average person, and population differences are reflected in how people respond differently to the same medication (e.g. people of different ethnicities or ages).

      If the idea of “biological sex” were only applied in a medical context (and even then, trans* people face huge obstacles in healthcare), maybe this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But our so-called biological sex has a massive social influence on our experiences as people, and results in the prejudices we hear about daily. If we were more flexible about the maintenance of the self-defined, arbitrary binary that is mainstream sex categorisation, maybe we’d see some progress.

      Also, your figure of 99.8% may as well have been pulled out of a hat. There’s no conclusive data on the percentage of the world population that could be considered non-binary in terms of sex, precisely due to the prejudices inflicted upon those who don’t fall under our idea of a “norm”.

    • Thumb up 3

      Please log in to vote

      The problem here is that you are using the phrase “biological sex” to mean exactly the same thing as “the physical reality of bodies”.

      Those are not the same thing.

      Remember your Butler: “Male” and “Female” are terms that are always already gendered, so if you use either to describe the physical reality of any body, you are gendering that body. The intent of your usage does not matter, those connotations are built into the terms by discourse.

      What we need to new language that can more accurately represent the physical reality of a body without relying on a reference to centuries old, dangerously inaccurate ideology.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        I created an account just to cheer on this comment, Minerva. That is probably the most elegant explanation of the situation I’ve heard. Like, seriously, you took this muddled thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while now and you just hit it right on the head. Bam. Thank you.

  3. Thumb up 19

    Please log in to vote

    Well, I certainly agree that Williamson’s is transphobic and quite insulting. In fact, his view has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Yet, saying that biological sex is just a social construct is not quite right either. I have XY chromosomes. I have male genitalia. The former I cannot change. The latter I can, but only with expensive surgery that I cannot afford. However, even with that surgery, I’d still lack the full functionality of a biological female in multiple regards. Furthermore, I don’t actually care about surgery. In fact, I fully identify as a “femme male lesbian,” proud of my status as a trans woman as opposed to just a woman. I am a woman, but I am male. I am not, however, a man, and Williamson deserves a kick in the balls for calling me one. Being male is separate from being a man. But I digress: sex is not a social construct and is determined at birth, and I think you’re missing the real issue here. The question I have is: why does any of this matter? So I’m male? So what? So I’m a woman? So what? Why does Williamson and much of the rest of society care so much? (My home state of Florida, for instance, won’t let me change the gender marker on my driver’s license without surgery, and wouldn’t let me marry a woman if I did–a catch 22, now isn’t it?) Really, the problem lies far less with social constructs and more with outright ignorance and use of that ignorance to justify violence and laws that would otherwise be unjustifiable. Neither sex nor gender is totally fixed but passing everything off as a “social construct” is just as must of an oversimplification as those made by our detractors.

    • Thumb up 6

      Please log in to vote

      Have you actually been typed for your chromosomal configuration? Like, have you had that specific test done and had a doctor tell you you have XY chromosomes? ‘Cause there’s a whole littany of other chromosomal configurations you could have without knowing it. Really. And there are people designated female at birth with XY chromosomes. And people with XX chromosomes designated male. And other arrangements too, XXY, XXYY, or just X. And I’m pretty sure there are other possibilities I’ve forgotten about, but the only way you would know is if you specifically had yourself tested to see.
      And yet, all these possibilities are discounted when we try to justify thinking of sex as binary, defining it by chromosomes. That’s more than two possibilites, yo, that can’t be a binary!
      And when we tried to define it as a binary using genitals, we completely erased intersex people, who make up nearly 2% of the population. That’s as many people as there are redheads on the entire planet! And we just pretend they don’t exist, and try to cover it up when they’re born with coercive, unwanted, almost always unnecessary and dangerous surgery as an infant!

      We have GOT to let go of this inherently flawed notion that we can divide all human beings into two inflexible sexed categories. It is an idea which is only possible to uphold if we completely erase the existence of millions of actual, real human beings.

      • Thumb up 10

        Please log in to vote

        And who are you to deny another person’s chosen labels? Yes, there exist people that, for all the Trans*-shaming in the world, take pride in the bodies that they inhabit, regardless of how they personally choose to alter them.
        Would you say the same thing to a person calling themselves as a “femme intersex lesbian”? There isn’t only one way for one to feel about their body, their gender, their gender expression, and/or their orientation.

        • Thumb up 6

          Please log in to vote

          I don’t have a problem with trans lesbians, but “male lesbian” is something I’ve heard way too much from creepy straight cis guys and trans guys who like to keep one foot in women’s spaces. By definition, a lesbian is a woman who likes other women.
          I don’t like policing other people’s labels unless, by definition, they don’t work. “White two-spirit” isn’t going to fly, either.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          @woya, you could maybe thank Ilene Chaiken for that. If you ever watched the first season of the L Word you would see the character Lisa, the male lesbian who Alice dated at one point. Chaiken said in an interview the character was based on someone she saw backstage at Lilithfair.

          On a side note Julia Serrano had an interesting point. She said something to the effect; you don’t see straight trans women hanging out with gay men, but you do see trans men, hang out lesbian/queer women. Additionally, you will also notice that trans men are allowed at MichFest.

    • Thumb up 6

      Please log in to vote

      I already know that my input will be discounted by some because non-binary trans* is not “real trans,” but I just want to say that I consider myself “Agender, female.” It boils down to two factors for me: I’m a feminist, and Biology is and has always been my passion. Sex is only a social construct insofar as hair colour, skin tones, height, and trisomies are social constructs (which I don’t believe they are.) We, as a society, associate certain biases and tropes with all of these features (eg. blonde stereotypes, Down’s Syndrome stereotypes, shadeism/racism, etc.,) but these tropes are the social constructs, not the features themselves. Chromosomes exist, genes exist, gene expression happens. Sex is not binary, but it’s also really not open to interpretation outside of medical contexts. Words and definitions for sex must exist for very basic and inoffensive reasons. I would not neglect to learn the functional differences between sexes of any other species I’d intend upon studying. It IS an objective observation to make.
      We always talk about how bodies are all different and that they’re all lovely. We talk about how fat is really just fat and that it’s not inherently an offensive term, and that we should take pride in having it. Why can’t we talk about sex in the same way? If we (Trans* people) feel that we should not be shamed for our sexes, is the best course of action simply wishing them away? Doesn’t that diminish the Trans* identity that many people are actually proud of?
      The social constructs lie with gender, and with the conflation of sex with gender. If we cut the chords that others use to connect them, the rope that bigots use to strangle our attempts to revolutionize identity… human sexes have as much social construct around them as the sexes of fruit flies. We can use them to track and classify genetic/medical information in controlled environments, but observing the different sexes of fruit flies stirs up no differentiable emotions otherwise.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        Al: “She said something to the effect; you don’t see straight trans women hanging out with gay men, but you do see trans men, hang out lesbian/queer women.” Huh? I’m a woman who is trans who is heterosexual (I’m attracted to men) and I have gay male friends I sometimes hang with. (?!) I’m not sure I get your point.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        Woya, the difference is that I’m not a man. I don’t dress like one–I don’t even look like one anymore (though that took a massive amount of effort with both hormones and laser. I simply have no interest in surgery.

        PuddingShoes, you articulate the heart of the point extremely well. The real problem is the use of classifications to harm people, socially or otherwise. Whether or not the classifications actually exist, scientifically or socially, shouldn’t actually matter.

        • Thumb up 4

          Please log in to vote

          Actually, it looks like I flubbed on my definitions. According to Urban Dictionary, a male lesbian is a man. I mean to say that I’m a “femme non-op trans lesbian,” as if that really makes things much easier to understand. I make mistakes sometimes.

  4. Thumb up 7

    Please log in to vote

    I see a lot of apologism in this comment tree. I have to wonder why there are some people who just NEED there to be some way that people are categorized into two inflexible groups. People are being forced to acknowledge that gender is not the inflexible binary they were taught, and so they take refuse in the Helms Deep of sex, ignoring and erasing the existence of chromosome configurations other than XX and XY, as well as intersex people, who make up 2% of all people everywhere, as if they somehow don’t count, or don’t call into question this notion of a binary.

    The founders of biology are not infallible. Remember all the ways that science and medicine have been bigoted in the past, and try to accept that it may yet be in ways you haven’t realized.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      My comment is not apologism. There is no need to classify based on two genetic configurations. That’s a useless social construct that ignores real exceptions, trans and intersex included. However, spending time denying that scientific differences exist is ignoring the real issue, which is the fact that any of this is an issue in the first place.

      • Thumb up 4

        Please log in to vote

        We aren’t denying that chromosomes exist, we are denying that they can be categorized into a binary. That is the social construct around sex, which tries to downplay the existance of some sexual characteristics in order to advance the idea that there are only two “normal” sex characteristics. It pathologizes them.

        And it is essential that we as transgender people resist the attempts to replace binary gender with a binary of sex which ultimately creates very similar kinds of repression and oppression.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          And the problem that we’ve been having is that, like our opponents, we’ve been focusing on the “what” as opposed to the “why.” Is something really a social construct? Is it not? Yet, regardless of the answer, why should it even matter? I think our side of the argument will be much stronger once we accept that the fact that we even have these things called “social constructs” is the real issue; only then can we move past this endless spiral of rhetoric that our detractors hope to keep us trapped in; otherwise, it’s just their words against ours.

  5. Thumb up 8

    Please log in to vote

    I feel the same way about this as I do about transit: I get really pissed off when people who don’t take the bus get to make executive decisions about how they will run.

    If it doesn’t affect you directly, you shouldn’t get to decide.

    Thank you for a great article Mey.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Also, great article as always Mey! And look at how involved everyone is with their biology know-how =) Williamson is a d-bag much like Piers Morgan. I think this article should be sent out to people so they we can at least TRY to educate them.

  6. Thumb up 16

    Please log in to vote

    I wanted to actually log in (which I never do) to thank you for this useful piece. I admit that I find the fundamental point challenging, so bear with me please. I DON’T want to be like “NO thats just a trans-opinion because CIS-SCIENCE” because I recognize science has been misused before and doesn’t necessarily answer all of our questions in this area.

    After a semester of “Psychobiology of Sex and Reproduction” in college I am obviously no expert, but pretty clear that there are biological differences between most individuals born with XX chromosomes and most individuals born with XY. (I am also pretty clear on the biology of individuals born with other variations thereof). I’m certainly way past the gender binary- I have been thinking of it as a spectrum like genderbread person up there.

    But I think I struggle with hearing that something biological is social construct, because it seems to go against the whole point of what biology means. This here in particular threw me for a loop: “There’s nothing intrinsically male about XY chromosomes, testosterone, body hair, muscle mass or penises.” I recognize that looking at a newborn’s genitals does not a foolproof sex determination make, and that secondary sex characteristics are variable. But isn’t it useful to have a scientific term for the combination of having a corresponding set of sex organs and chromosomes?

    What I can safely get behind is saying that if someone identifies as a woman, it’s because they were born that way. And I can follow the logic and agree if they were born that way, it’s biological. Thus, they are a biological female. Is that oversimplifying? And if that’s what we’re saying, I feel like that’s more an argument for adding neurological identity as a criteria for biological sex, and less an argument for biological sex being a social construct.

    I would so appreciate if someone could help me understand. I’m lost in a sea of cognitive dissonance over here.

    • Thumb up 7

      Please log in to vote

      I had some similar thoughts/questions, your comment helped me clarify them so thank you. Here’s my tentative conclusion:

      It seems unavoidable to me to me that the scientific-medical community needs terms to describe the clusters of biological characteristics that do divide most (but not all) of us into two groups.

      HOWEVER.

      People need to know that these characteristics do NOT fit neatly into a binary. Also, trans people have different brain anatomy than their similarly-assigned-at-birth cis counterparts. Shouldn’t that be considered part of their “biological sex”? It seems to me that this is where the social construct part of “biological sex” kicks in: what characteristics are included, which are prioritized above others, etc.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        I’ve never been completely comfortable with the “born that way” idea no matter what it is because people, by their very nature, vary. For some it might be all biological, for others, all social, for more, a mix. All are valid. But in terms of the brain study mentioned, I’m afraid at the current time, that is a poor argument to use. 1, the studies were very limited, 2, they exampled only a small sample from a single particular culture, 3, they showed the same thing when examining gay cis men’s brains (being more “feminized”), and 4, brain structure isn’t fixed at birth but continues to develop based on life and social experiences just as much as biological influences, at least to a point and unlike what we tend to consider “biological sex characteristics”. There is a “use it or lose it” component to the brain, especially in the early years, when the neuron pathways are being developed. It also seems like an attempt to link sex with gender again, saying that a “female brain” is the same thing as a “woman”, which has a definition that varies through time and place to begin with.

    • Thumb up 11

      Please log in to vote

      Ok, I’ll do my best!

      So humans are generally really bad at drawing the line between where the world ends and where we begin. In other words, when we look at the world we tend to impose our preconceptions onto it without even realizing we’ve done it. It’s like we’re all walking through the world wearing rose colored glasses, and usually we forget that we have them on. Thus we look at the world and assume that everything is intrinsically pink, when in fact, it’s just our eyeware.

      This happens all the time. Like, you see an object made of wood, with four legs and a flat bit on top and your brain goes “oh, that’s a chair! I know what to do with that! I can sit on it!” Your brain has imposed “chairness” on that object, so much so that it’s almost impossible to look at that object and not see it as a chair. But strictly speaking, that chair is just a collection of atoms in a particular arrangement. It’s only a chair in terms of us, in terms of our mental categorization system.

      On a certain level, the same is true of biological sex. No one is saying that bodies don’t have a measurable reality to them, we’re just pointing out the arbitrariness of the measuring stick. This may seem flippant, but it’s really not. We may call some bodies male and other bodies female but no body can be intrinsically male or intrinsically female. Those are categories that we made up to classify our world into namable things. This is extremely valuable to us; it allows us to make sense of a world that dazzles us with its variety and its impermanence.

      This fact is especially important to remember in this case, because these mental categories that people have drawn for men and for women are being contested by trans people. After all, why is it useful to have a category that groups cisgender men and transgender women together as “biological males?” What good is this category to us? And why are people fighting so hard to preserve it?

      I would argue that the primary purpose for such a category is that it allows people to continue to think of trans women as “essentially male,” thus preventing them from having to reevaluate their mental categories.

      The point many of us are making as trans activists is that those categories, even the ones we attach to our own bodies, that those categories are in our heads. And thus, that we have a huge amount of control over what those categories are and how the lines between them should be drawn. The point is that biology as a system of classification pretends to be objective, when in reality we’re choosing what measuring sticks to use and what they mean.

      • Thumb up 6

        Please log in to vote

        I know I’m probably going to get attacked for this – and if you find this questions offensive, I apologize profusely and don’t expect an answer. But if no body can be intrinsically male or female, what IS male or female? It seems that all you need to be male or female is to feel male or female, but how do you feel male or female if there are no defining characteristics of what either of those words mean?

      • Thumb up 2

        Please log in to vote

        So I totally click with what you’re saying as far as nothing being intrinsically anything, and biology as a measuring stick based on mental categories. But I do have a couple of quick follow up question though.

        You write: “After all, why is it useful to have a category that groups cisgender men and transgender women together as “biological males?” What good is this category to us?” And say that the primary purpose is to protect people from having to reevaluate the way they look at the world. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the fact that that’s how the category is sometimes – or even primarily – used. But I think what Mira said about the scientific-medical community needing to have that very distinction makes sense too. As someone else pointed out somewhere, a transwoman and a cisgender man may both need prostate exams, whereas a transman or a cisgender woman wouldn’t.

        And another thing I wonder about: I’ve always understood the term “cisgender” to mean an individual’s body matches their gender identity. So I somewhat feel like the word “cisgender” changes meaning a bit when the term “biologically male” becomes only a social construct.

        If we feel like telling the beginning of a transwoman’s story is important, then it’s always going to do with biology – i.e. “Sally was born with male sex organs, therefore the doctors determined her sex as male.” But if we accept that sex and gender are different things, we can still allow Sally to express as a girl growing up. If biological sex is NOT used by the transphobic to back up their own bigoted ideas about gender, is it still problematic?

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          Marissa, I think your last question really gets to the heart of them problem. Something is only supposedly problematic because people make it problematic.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          Medical-scientific communities (among others) do need ways to make designations, and easy ones exist by using language that specifically pinpoints whatever medical issue/organ/etc. is targeted!

          For instance, many people I know (some of whom work in the medical community and some who don’t) use language such as “people with uteruses/uteri” or “people with testes” in a way that specifically highlights the population they are looking for WITHOUT imposing specific cultural ideals of how “male”, “female”, “man” or “woman” should be defined.

          That language, perhaps, is more bulky than simply using “male” or “female” but is also far more specific and accurately defined.

  7. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve really wanted to learn more about these issues because I’m intersex myself. I never really knew what would be the term though for my sex because I had surgery at a very young age and my parents weren’t super open about any of it. And now I know I’m PAIS and it is like this amazing sort of relieving validation. Its actually not easy to figure out, and normally to do so you have to sift through problematic medical texts with graphic pictures, often including those of coercive surgeries. Seriously you’ll never know how much this meant to me. Thank you.

  8. Thumb up 7

    Please log in to vote

    This article and the comments made me think a lot, which is always a good thing!
    But also the gender vs sex issue reminds me eerily of the choice vs “born this way” discussion. Because it’s really the same thing, isn’t it? The idea that biology=destiny? It’s depressing that we need to find a biological basis for our identities in order to be accepted. Sigh. Wishing for a world where it is universally accepted that “Every person deserves respect, regardless of who they are or how they got that way“ (stealing Laura’s words from above-linked article because they’re perfect).

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I think there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding surrounding people whose chromosomes don’t fit the XX / XY binary, most of those people don’t actually identify as intersex or perceive themselves to be sex or gender variant and many feel like being told they *must* be intersex because of their chromosomes is very hurtful and invalidating.

  10. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    Hey,
    I love your writing Mey.
    However, I thought it was a little bit disrespectful to use the old version of the “Genderbread Men” and caption it “It’s not this simple.”
    The guy who made that took on a lot of community feedback, and made another version which is far better. It’s actually really useful, especially when explaining sex/gender/sexuality/expression to a person new to the concept. It is actually very clear about sex not being a binary.

    I am a little biased, because I just read his book, and think it is excellent, and I have been raving about it to everyone. But yes.

    I think that when someone learns, and publicly acknowledges their shortcomings and makes improvement, we should support that.

  11. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    I think I’ve been guilty of oversimplification sometimes just purely because the person I’m talking to is not from LGBTQIA culture. I am so grateful to be able to read this article and the comments below and learn how to be a better ally.

  12. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Thanks for this thought provoking article.

    I’ve heard that the real reason for some of the transgender misogyny revolves around the mistrust of the motive behind a person wanting to be a transgender woman. There appears to be some fear of (predatory) men using transgender as a disguise. Some will go as far as saying that anyone with more natural testosterone than estrogen cannot ever be trusted. The discussion of social constructs is merely politically correct language to express this mistrust and fear.

  13. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I try to read a lot about trans* issues and the topic overall, but it’s still not clicking. I wish I could find something that makes sense to me – I know trans* people don’t exist as a resource for cis people, but articles shed no light for me. I guess my only option is to continue being cool with trans* people and not ask too many questions.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Trans man here. *waves* Being cool with trans people and not asking too many questions is a good way forward, but there are lots of places you can find coherent information. *Some* of us are also happy to answer questions and educate – the trick is to not assume that *some* of us means *all* of us, or to assume that because Quinn is happy to answer questions, ‘Sally’ is also happy to. Does that make sense? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is hit me up, I’ll try my best to be helpful if I can. :o)

  14. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Please educate me.

    I’m wondering if the prefix “trans” in transgender makes it difficult for journalists to write about transgender people without providing a common context for defining sex at birth for their readers. Trans implies a gender identity that transcends the medical sex label one was given at birth that carries a host of cultural meanings about gender, correct? If so, is it better to ask journalists to avoid talking about sex at all as if it no longer exists for their readers or ask them to help redefine sex as a spectrum that varies for both cisgender and transgender people so its cultural meaning no longer has the symbolic power to define “womanhood” or “manhood?” With this approach, wouldn’t male woman, intersex women, and female woman be viewed culturally as equally “real woman” and male men, intersex men and female men viewed equally as “real men?”

    Also, how do people under the transgender umbrella who identify as genderqueer feel about biological sex labels assigned at birth? I would assume (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that they would not be interested in being understood as “real men” or “real women.” Do they harbor the same concerns about discussing biological sex assigned at birth or is this something specific to the transgender community that identifies at the extremes of a gender binary?

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I identify outside the gender binary. I feel that describing a genderqueer or nonbinary person as “biologically” female or male is awkward and not very respectful. It’s also not very necessary.

      I don’t like people making assumptions about me based on what they think is in my pants. My experience obviously doesn’t represent all genderqueer or nonbinary people, but most nonbinary folks i know don’t like to be defined by their genitals. Making a point of describing someone’s “biological sex” implies that it is significant or relevant to the discussion, which is arguable.

      Most people still have a lot of unconscious biases about gender and as soon as a journalist describes a genderqueer person as a “biological man” or “woman” then many readers will instantly read that person as a man or a woman.

  15. Thumb up 4

    Please log in to vote

    The prefix “trans” in “transgender” comes from Latin via Chemistry. In Chemistry a compound can have groupings on the same side of a double bond (cis) or, occasionally, across the bond (trans). Thus we get the terms cis-gender and trans-gender with the latter indicating that things have swapped from the “normal” (majority) case.

    As a transwoman I still have sex. It still exists for me. I have not lost it or misplaced it or left it under a cushion somewhere.

    Some background reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis%E2%80%93trans_isomerism

  16. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    As for the Williamson apologists i think you/likes of you and your rubbish are systemically harming my gf (who happens to be a transsexual woman) and tbh i would hands down choose your untimely demise over a single tear of hers. Have a nice day ;)

    Other than that – the reproduction capability regardless of one’s genetic makeup (as long as it’s stable) is within the limits of CURRENT technology. The political stances against neo-oogenesis, neo-spermatogenesis and human cloning do not define reality, technology otoh does – and has long proved there’s nothing ‘special’, ‘magical’ or ‘at birth’ in us, merely machinery which can be dis/reassembled at will. The circumstance that people are actively prevented by ‘birth lottery winners’ from accessing those realities is temporary, like everything else.

    Also, i find the ‘male lesbian’ concept extremely creepy and oxymoronic. it is similar to the ‘pride’ narrative that sees physical disability as an identity instead of a technological breakdown, actively fighting the reconstructive technologies that can and do help millions of people.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        Alright, I’ll rephrase it to femme non-op lesbian transwoman. Does that click with you better? Does it really matter? Also, I really don’t see any “apologists” for Williamson in this thread. Everyone pretty much hates him. Have you even been reading these comments?

        • Thumb up 4

          Please log in to vote

          Monica, not only that clicks with me better – but in fact i see absolutely nothing wrong with a femme non-op lesbian trans woman. Genitals are everyone’s private matter, they’re not my business …except when they are, and indeed there have been episodes when a femme non-op girl’s bits happened to fall under ‘my business’ :). In short, i’m very very much not your enemy.

          I just don’t see what’s so magical and special in ‘at birth’ and how would that supersede your legal identity, biochemistry, neural makeup , secondary sex characteristics and public image taken together. Moreso i despise the ideologies insisting on that – for the simple reason that they have harmed those i care about much more than benefitted them. Therefore appealing to their canon/dogma means less than zero to me.

          Let’s put it this way, if you don’t mind a hypothetical involving a spaceship: if i was a captain and my crew included a member of an ostracised caste fervently believing she is worth less than a piece of dirt – i would NOT respect her opinion or her culture even though i would pretend to do so. Instead i would on the surface be supportive but actually engineer situations to expose consistency holes in her worldview and gradually manipulate her to replace it with something closer to mine and excessively reward every instance when she does so. I do not mind being considered conniving, evil or totalitarian for that.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        I don’t think there is one trademarked view for all so called activists – and no, people are never defective. My whole point is that people AREN’T defective. Their subsystems can be defective though, and often can be replaced or fixed – and this is the Jehova’s Witness blood transfusion argument we’re engaging in now. While i don’t support coercion of a legally responsible adult, i strongly oppose parental authority in such cases – and am definitely not favouring the spread of a limiting ideology. You otoh are concerned with the survival of the ideology – about which i could not care less.

        Besides that eventually we WILL be able to replace nonfunctional parts with better-than-OEM, equal or divergent ware – do you want people to be a dogmatic cultural dead-end fighting that too?

  17. Thumb up 9

    Please log in to vote

    I’m really sorry guys, but this is flat out ridiculous. There is a very similar tumblr post floating around about various intersex conditions and how that disproved the sex binary. I am sick to fucking death of people appropriating intersex conditions to talk about trans issues. While they may overlap from time to time, they are different situations and to claim they in any way parallel eachother is at best highly intellectually dishonest.

    I am trans but I am also female. No matter what I ever do, at its core that will never change. I spent my whole life socialized as a female as a direct result of my sex. My medical care has to reflect that I am female or I’ll just flat out die. Any number of things present differently between males and females – heart attacks for example. Everyone is entitled to express their gender and have that respected, but it gets nobody anywhere to use rare conditions completely out of context to argue your point.

    Sex exists. None of us can post modern queer theory our way out of that, no matter how much we might like to.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Ouch Matt. Thank you very much, my dad nearly ended up six feet under with a mere moderate heart attack because of this here line of thought. See, the medical things tend to distribute statistically on sex axis – and it does make sense to doublecheck for abnormalities known to be statistical.

      As for trans women, i know for certain it is uniformly better to follow the formal bureaucratic procedure and NOT add/subtract things because of what you believe. Except for abdominal surgery – where the best results can be expected if one knows precisely what a transsexual woman is, a knowledge of baseline male/female will be helpful only under a strong common sense which is, counterintuitively, uncommon.

      And we’re not even going into the realm of safety from people, intentional damage or neglect, and unnecessary hoops and measures like ‘oh you won’t mind messing up your biochemistry by stopping maintenance because i would like to isolate the symptoms of the common cold’. So, overall, disagreed. Of course there are risks non-standard to her here-and-now sex, but they’re so OTT overblown (such as the risk of cancer in the prostate tissue rewired to gspot in e.g. my girlfriend – ffs that cancer is T-responsive and she has less T than an average woman nevermind a man) and can be adjusted for manually, by adding specific checks rather than blanket neglecting the everyday realities of an E-dominant biochemistry and primary implications and risks there. That latter approach is called criminal neglect.

    • Thumb up 4

      Please log in to vote

      If a person explains their medical history to their doctors when necessary (e.g. what parts they were born with, what they have now, what medications they are taking)it doesn’t matter how that person personally defines sex.

      Whether one defines female as “someone born with a vagina, ovaries, and XX chromosomes” or “anyone who identifies as a woman/girl” it really makes no difference from a medical/scientific perspective, as long as you clearly define your terms. It may, however, matter a lot to an individual, which is why I have no interest in policing the way people define either their gender or their sex.

      However you define sex, simply stating it will always provide limited medical information. For example, a person that was assigned male at birth could presently have a penis or a vagina, primarily testosterone or estrogen in their body, have developed breasts or not, etc. Similarly, a person assigned female at birth may or may not presently have a uterus and ovaries, may or may not menstruate, may have a penis or vagina, may or may not have breasts, may have primarily estrogen or testosterone in their body – knowing which of these things an individual has is critical in determining what types of healthcare they need access to, and none can be determined by simply looking at their sex assigned at birth.

  18. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    There is no such thing as ‘woman’, didn’t you know that ladies? All this oppression that men have forced on you for thousands of years is all in your pretty little heads. Because woman is what men want it to be, and even they can be one too!

    No need for feminism then.

    Remember, there is no truth.

    2+2=5

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        ‘Social constructs are real though’

        Do you not know what a social construct is? It is not ‘real’ it is by definition a nebulous concept that depends on people believing it (much like transgenderism) it is socially constructed with no basis in reality. Biology doesn’t fall into that category, sorry try again.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Men can’t be women. In a female body their proprioception (i.e. bodily self-awareness) glitches more and more over time until they break down. It’s sad that establishing this fact took some lethal experiments on human subjects (See David Reimer case) – but it is even more sad when someone wastes the knowledge acquired at such price. Willful ignorance to cover up for the outright intellectual fail that is their religious doctrine (the absence of which, among other things, indeed we would survive relatively unharmed) is an example of such waste.

  19. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Bringing up the stats for rapes commutes by males as if that’s anything to so with trans women is disgusting.

    60% of trans women are sexual assault survivors, and no matter how many transphobic lies you spread, they’re never going to be as bad as the males (and cis women) who have abused them.

  20. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Brilliant !! My heart swelled as you spoke so eloquently what I haved discovered in my own life. There is hope now with articles like this and the rapidly growing research in gender issues and gender origin. Thank you for speaking for us publicly.

  21. Thumb up 10

    Please log in to vote

    Mey, I hope you don’t mind me making this suggestion, but when it comes to linking stuff like the National Review hit piece on Laverne Cox, I think it’s important to use an unlinked version of the article, such as this service:

    http://www.donotlink.com

    Part of the reason these bottom-feeders write sensational stories about trans women is because they make money off of it when we click on the article. We shouldn’t reward them for that decision.

  22. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    But Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists who spew the “biology is destiny” BS have taught this cislesbian so much! (sarcasm)

    I think this article sums it up nicely: http://www.insufferableintolerance.com/dear-radical-feminists-dont-like-trans-people-thank/

    You have taught the world well.

    You have taught me well.

    Your ideology has taught me human beings should be allowed the ability to consent over their lives and their body. Your ideology has taught me body autonomy and the right to choose body altering surgery should only be available to the people you feel worthy. Your ideology has taught me the most important thing about being a woman is having a vagina. Your ideology has taught me the definition of rapist is “having a penis“. Your ideology has taught me policing gender and appearance is the way you protect women from themselves because we have no ability to consent to anything and we control nothing. No ability to consent to pregnancy, attraction to men is just male manipulation, and absolutely no consensual sexual encounters with men ever even if we say yes. Your ideology has taught me no consensual sexual intimacy with a trans person is truly consensual. Your ideology has taught me cisgender women will only ever be victims of the patriarchy and we cannot ever be anything more. Your ideology has taught me you cannot and will not respect the feelings and lives of those who transition – trans men will only ever be female to you and trans women will only ever be male to you because the lives of others don’t count. Your ideology has taught you feel you have the right to free access to the bodies of others when you demand to know what sex they are. Your ideology has taught me to base a persons sex and gender purely on appearance. Your ideology has taught me sexuality can and should be changed at the drop of a hat, that people can choose who they are attracted to and who they aren’t. Your ideology has taught me my rape that was perpetrated by another woman never really happened because you have taught me women cannot rape.Your ideology has taught me my chromosomes define me and biology is destiny. Your ideology has taught me you want to my sexuality as a lesbian to be used as a constellation prize for straight women to use when men don’t work out. Your ideology has taught me sexuality is defined purely by body parts and not attraction and love.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        probably my favourite comment in the entire thread and you are awesome…purely by virtue of being on the same crusade as me.

        On the topic of amusement, just waiting for someone to come up with ‘how is this relevant, Williamson isn’t a radical feminist’. if one can’t connect the dots, they never will.

  23. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    So this is about the sixth response to Williamson I’ve read from a feminist op-Ed site, in which the trans woman on staff offers a retort to the transphobe with a genetic gamut on why sex is more complicated than what our adolescent locker rooms taught us. Fine. I wrote one as well.

    But who do you think you’re convincing? Ablow? Williamson? It’s yet more proverbial preaching to a choir that’s memorized the alternative hymnal.

    Instead of these predictable remonstrations, I wish trans writers would go on the offensive. I’m not saying my piece was great, but I broken down the peculiar pagan metaphors of Williamson’s piece and it’s discursive framing of sexual theocracy. Don’t just respond — unpack the systems he depends upon. It’s not enough to keep waving around the genderbread person every time a transphobe says ‘but DNA!’

    There were dozens of responses on this issue. But few went not the offensive. Maybe that’s why I prefer indie blogging. Social media means social niceties, which can lead to rehearsed pieties about ‘gender is between your ears’. It’s hardly a critical hit against their broken theology of the body.

    Aoifeschatology.wordpress,org

  24. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I am still shocked every time I read an article like this, spotting a stunningly beautiful trans on the magazine cover and realise, “oh right I am a trans as well”. Girl on the article is effing beautiful. Look at that ass.

    I’ll never pass like that. If you are a pretty trans, sure you’ll do fine generally and you’ll have loads of support. But aside from my having great hair and killer legs, I am still 47, and I still have a face like a piece of rock, and I am still one 90.

    Will I find societal acceptance? Hell no. 40% of society (older women, muslim girls) LOVE what I do. I am breaking prejudice.

    But last day I walked the streets here in the Hague and some old muslim in a Jallaba starts howling in pain seeing me in a miniskirt, WALLAH WALLAH shielding his eyes. I was so offensive to the idiot he couldn’t bare look at my countenance without him having to shield his eyes. I mean the guy was physically in distress, with the WALL-AH, WALL-AH, he “lamented” seeing me.

    Try deal with that on a daily basis. Not in my lifetime.

  25. Thumb up 6

    Please log in to vote

    While I think you’re right to point out what’s problematic about the phrase “biological sex”, it’s obtuse to claim that “there’s nothing intrinsically male about XY chromosomes and testosterone”. Male and female chromosomes and hormones most certainly do exist, and their biochemical influence on human beings is indisputable. Sexual dimorphism is not purely a “social construct”, it is an intrinsic physiological dichotomy that plays a fundamental role in human development.

    Within weeks of fertilization, each human fetus develops undifferentiated gonads and primordial Wolffian and Mullerian ducts that are common to both male and female genotypes. If the SRY gene is active (usually, but not always, on the Y chromosone), it causes the gonads to develop into testicles, which excrete hormones that stimulate the Wolffian ducts to develop into the male reproductive tract and cause the Mullerian ducts to wither away. In the absence of the SRY gene, the gonads develop into ovaries, which excrete hormones that stimulate the Mullerian ducts to develop into the female reproductive tract and cause the Wolffian ducts to wither away. (In certain intersex cases, one or more of these developments may be delayed or interrupted.) Once these changes to the gonads, Wolffian and Mullerian ducts occur, they are permanent and irreversible. This is the physiological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, and it is fundamental to everyone’s development, transgender and intersex individuals included.

    That isn’t the end of the story, however, because much of the brain’s development may be influenced by hormones excreted by the testicles, ovaries, and other organs. While it’s unknown exactly how this may affect a person’s intrinsic sense of gender identity, there’s little doubt that it plays a significant role. In addition, the physiological developments stimulated by testicular and ovarian hormones during puberty have a major impact on a person’s psychology and self-image.

    In my view, denying the reality of human sexual dimorphism does nothing to advance understanding and compassion for transgender and intersex people. I think it’s far more effective to recognize that we were each conceived with the inherent potential to develop along either male or female physiological paths. In many cases, an individual’s development may not follow an exclusively male or female path, but may diverge in intriguingly numerous ways. Our understanding of human sexuality is far from complete, and our collective maturity in dealing with it has left much to be desired.

  26. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is a video I made about some of the biology involved in sex determination, and how many things can lead to variation in that process. Variations in hormones during development can occur, translocation of the SRY gene to a different chromosome can lead to an XX male or an XY female, etc. I hope that it is helpful.

  27. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    The notion that biological sex is simply a social construct carelessly slapped on at birth is completely absurd, and definitely not a view held by the trans community as a whole. Your article ignores the fact that the vast majority of the time (99%), the binary system is a scientifically accurate representation of biological sex among mammals. In the real world, biological sex matters when determining things like adequate healthcare. Spreading uneducated bullshit like this is problematic.

  28. Thumb up 4

    Please log in to vote

    Hey, Mey! Definitely agree that how we assign biological sex is socially constructed, as is the concept of gender. And that how we view sex & gender definitely contributes to transmisoginy. (And, for other conversations, intersexphobia, too!)

    Just wanted to poke my intersex head in here and say that that Wikipedia aritcle uses stigmatizing language that doesn’t empower intersex ppl. Instead, check out OII-USA’s Brief Guidelines for Intersex Allies for general intersex info:http://oii-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Brief-Guidelines-for-Intersex-Allies.pdf

    Additionally, my form of intersex is androgen insensitivity. (I don’t include the “sydrome” on the end because I don’t identify as being disordered or sick – I’m totes fine!) I write about my form of intersex on my blog, Full Frontal Activism. Interested folks might be interested in checking it out. http://fullfrontalactivism.blogspot.com/

    Thanks! (:

  29. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    I appreciate your article. I see your concern, and I applaud your drive to help our community. I find some of your points to be of concern though.
    I fall into the classification of transwoman. Even though I know I am technically transgender, I do not identify as transgender or a transwoman, I am just a woman. The day that realization struck me, I felt the weight of my world lift from my shoulders. Finding my place in the social construct of gender is what gave me the freedom to just be. I no longer had to struggle with figuring out who I was, fighting against society’s negative view of all things trans, or feeling like I was viewed as “less than.” I finally fit into our (changing) construct.
    The reason I say our construct is changing is BECAUSE of the work of both the medical and psychological fields. The research from these fields is proving that gender is not binary, that it is a fluid model, and their work is pushing public opinion toward accepting the fluid model, albeit slowly.
    The research about gender related issues CANNOT occur without medical intervention, and medical intervention CANNOT occur without sexual classification. Sexual classification IS based on biological constructs, not on social constructs. Is there variability in the biological, physiological, and psychological representations of sex? Of course, just as there is variability in everything. Here is the most important point I will make: VARIABILITY WITHIN A SYSTEM DOES NOT INVALIDATE SAID SYSTEM. Within the sex system, variability is accounted for by the classification of Intersex. Intersex is the presence of male and female biological characteristics, be they sex organs, chromosomes, etc. the fact that nothing falling outside of the male/female spectrum has yet been discovered proves that our current model is correct. That’s how science works. If something outside of the male/female system is discovered, it will lead to the reexamination of our model. Again, VARIABILITY WITHIN A SYSTEM DOES NOT INVALIDATE SAID SYSTEM.
    Gender IS a social construct because it is based on a society’s perspective of behavioral expectations. There is no scientific basis for gender. Gender is a person’s personal representation of roles typically assigned to their biological sex. Remember, VARIABILITY WITHIN A SYSTEM DOES NOT INVALIDATE SAID SYSTEM. As gender roles have been assigned by the society they represent, how could they be wrong? Where the “wrongness” comes into play is society’s refusal to recognize and accept variability within the system and evolution of the principles upon which the system is built. The same can be applied to the construct of marriage. Male/female marriage isn’t wrong. Refusing to recognize variability in the model of marriage is wrong. Society is on the way to correct that wrong.
    Finally, this may sting a bit, but globalizing the system of assigned sex as merely being an attempt to marginalize transgender individuals or to leave the door open for discrimination an/or persecution of transgender individuals is simply ludicrous. Do people use the system as an excuse to do those things? Absolutely. People also use “democracy” as an excuse for war. I am a woman who is technically a transwoman, and I believe democracy is inherently good with no evil intent, just as I believe that the medically, biologically, and not socially based model of sex is not evil.
    This is my one recipe for the best course of action to affect change:
    1) above all else, treat and deal with others how we would like society to treat us
    2) stand up on the foundation of our own successful life (however we each define success)
    3) positively demonstrate that we do exist outside of society’s current construct of gender
    4) teach others why it is important to analyze the current construct
    5) help the world understand that it is better to accept variability within (and hopefully change) the system than it is to hide behind the veil of security they believe their imperfect system provides.

  30. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Is there an Autostraddle article which attempts to explain or situate “social construction”? Because based on this comment thread, it seems one would be uber helpful.

    A lot of the miscommunication[s] I’ve noticed on this page stems from a misunderstanding of the meaning and implications of something being socially constructed.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Tango you are absolutely correct that misunderstanding of what a “construct” is causes widespread communication problems. A construct is “Definition: a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice.”

      Example 1) Emotions are actually constructs designed to explain physiological functions/feelings in the body. Emotions are not things that exist outside of that function. When psychologists measure emotions or emotional responses, they are actually measuringFor example, if your heart rate increases, you start to feel flush, you get shaky, and you are unable to move your thoughts away from a bothersome topic, you may say you’re “anxious” or “afraid.” If your body gets warm, you feel light-headed, your heart rate slows or speeds up, you feel like your thoughts flutter, and you just feel good, then you might say you’re in love.

      Gender is a social construct, because gender is a set of ideas or principles constructed by society to represent the roles and behaviors society expects people to adopt based on their assigned sex. Gender only exists as a phenomenon to describe expectations and principles.

  31. Thumb up 6

    Please log in to vote

    Except biological sex does exist, and saying it doesn’t is transphobic because you are denying the fact that trans people experience sex dysphoria, and you are trivializing it, which is almost equally disgusting.

    Yes, biological sex does exist. No, it isn’t an excuse to invalidate the gender of trans people.

    I am a trans man. I need the sex characteristics of my body to be altered for me to be comfortable. No matter how much you say “but if you’re male, your body is male!”, it doesn’t make the dysphoria go away. Hormones and surgery will make it go away.

    There are plenty of stories that prove it. There are several instances of men having damage to their genitals shortly after birth, and having sex reassignment. Without even being told, they begin to develop sex dysphoria shortly after puberty. It is biological, not mental.

    Basically, the argument that biological sex isn’t real is as harmful to trans people as being told that sex reassignment is cosmetic, when in reality it is life saving.

  32. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Interesting article here with many good points. I am definitely in the camp that believes in the notion of “biological sex,” but I agree with the author that it should not be used to gender/misgender anyone. Biological sex matters in the context of science and medicine, most of all when it comes to reproduction. Regardless of any cultural and social expressions, our species reproduces sexually. We are not strawberries, earthworms, or amoeba (just a few examples of organisms that reproduce differently from ourselves).

    Point being, although biological sex is relevant in certain contexts, it doesn’t bear on gender, and hopefully as society at large becomes more educated about trans issues, people will learn not to use a person’s reproductive system as an attack on their gender.

  33. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Clearly, the issue is based on the use of the words “male” and “female” to dichotomize the human population. The biological reality that I’m interested in (as a researcher in the field of evolutionary biology) is that people (and other organisms) vary in their genetic composition (e.g., number of x chromosomes, number of y chromosomes), and these genetic differences have real effects. For example, people with certain genetic compositions look different, have different susceptibilities to disease, have different rates of certain types of cancer, respond differently to certain medicines, etc. It’s totally correct, however, to say that the partitioning of all this genetic variability into two categories (male and female) is arbitrary. But it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that using external physical characters to make a prediction (with greater than 99.9% certainty, I should note) about certain fairly important things (e.g., what cancer I’m at risk of developing, what my susceptibility to heart disease is, what my early-life developmental trajectory is likely to be) makes a doctor a hateful person. In my case, when I’m teaching about genetics and evolution in a university classroom, I use gender to make a prediction about genetic make-up (either XX or XY) of students in my class in order to demonstrate patterns of genetically-based variation in height among my students (there is an effect of X and Y chromosome composition on height) – I really don’t think there’s anything hateful in that. It’s just an effective way to teach about the sources and patterns of variability that form the basis of evolutionary change.

  34. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Thanks for breaking this down so clearly and concisely. My students will be reading this. Each semester, as part of the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology university course I teach, I go over the fact that sex assignations are also culturally shaped and determined, not biologically fixed as opposed to gender identity. My students usually fall into the Time authors group – they understand the distinction between sex and gender fairly well but persist in understanding sex assignations as a straightforward binary. Hopefully this article will help them understand better!

  35. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’m confused by how many people have read this article and think that Mey is denying the existence of biological difference or that sex is a social construct in the same way gender is. She clearly differentiates between gender and sex in one of the concluding statements of the article: “While it is true that gender and sex are different things, and that gender is indeed a social construct, sex isn’t the Ultimate Biological Reality that transphobes make it out to be.” Based on earlier explanations in her article, I read this as noting that the concept of sex as popularly and commonly presented is restricted and misrepresented as a strict binary, most often assigned based on one specific phenotypical aspect (as she breaks down in the paragraph noting that people pinpoint different ways of identifying the existence of sexual dimorphism in human populations – genitalia, gonads, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, hormone levels, etc.).

    As I understand it, Mey is critiquing the popular perception of “biological sex” as an excuse for mis-gendering trans* people and as an over-simplification of the all the genotypical and phenotypical traits that go into the ways in which many industrialized societies classify people at birth. In addition, she’s drawing connections to how people use the supposed immutability of “biological sex” (what assignation you were given at birth based on what your genitals looked like to the delivering doctor) in order to enforce certain gendered standards and expectations on people and deny their identities.

    There’s a difference between questioning and probing the ways in which humans classify themselves and others and denying physicality. Mey is doing the first, not the second. Clearly there are differences within the human population in terms of reproductive organs, genital appearance, chromosomal make-up, hormone concentrations, and expression of secondary sex characteristics. Different fields of study/paradigms have distinct standards for assessing and organizing those within-population differences. What is problematic is when those standards are then taken as natural or “real” as opposed to human-constructed.

    If we’re looking for ways for medical-scientific communities, among others, to be able to directly and accurately deal with particular sub-populations, then we can look to examples that highlight specific aspects of our physicality without applying inaccurate sex or gender labels – for example, if searching for participants in a study related to testicular cancer, using “people with testes” instead of “men.”

  36. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I appreciate the education I am receiving from such gifted writers and commenters as I find here. And, my education is too close to the beginning to have formed anything approaching an opinion; for now, I can only ask questions, and hope they are received as intended.
    If we take it to be true that biological sex, or at least some significant part of it, is as much a social construct as gender, then what do we mean when we say man/woman/transman/transwoman? Or, more precisely, what do you – whomever might choose to answer this – mean when you use those words? I mean, if “woman”, “man”, “female”, “male” are all socially constructed ideas that have no concrete foundation in biological reality, then what possible meaning can the word “transwoman” have? From the perspective that “maleness” or “femaleness” are simply labels assigned to us by doctors or parents at our birth, based upon some perceived morphological marker, it seems to me that saying “I am a man” or “I am a woman” is meaningless, regardless of whether or not it jibes with our particular culture’s ideas regarding those words. Which makes my “transness” equally as meaningless. If my “sex” and my “gender” are both constructs, unconnected to objective reality, how can I possibly be “trans” anything?
    I will note again that these are not rhetorical questions, that I really want to understand this – to me at least – complicated topic. Thanks.

  37. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    You have definitely shown the lie society lives by, Mey. I had myself genotyped by 23 and Me, which reveals every gene on every chromosome. Full frontal DNA nudity, one might think of it as.

    When the results came in they asked for reconfirmation of what my sex was, instead of forcing on me the social construct of what sex someone with DNA like mine should be.

    If geneticists can take it like adults and admit to the hazards of trying to classify people by their parts instead of as a whole person, then everyone else can do it as well. Seriously, if there’s doubt as to the sex/gender of a person, whether they be clothed or not, just ask, instead of kicking them out based on idealized wo/man beliefs.

  38. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is such a thing.  Thanks for describing this.  I remember having made my own (much less clear) version of that Genderbread Man diagram and later having lamented its problematics.  ‘Biological sex’ is so… not exist… ah, what am I even repeating this for?  Your article already explained it all; I’m just singing choir backup.

  39. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Why is biological sex in quotes? Listen I have no problem calling a transgendered woman a woman but why do I have to be less for her to be more? This article makes no sense. A son who enters my family biologically or through adoption is still my son. I won’t call one biological or the other adopted. The PROCESS is either biological or through adoption. My son is my son. Period. But one was adopted and one was not. It won’t change the love, the care, the value but the identity and the stories are different. So woman/man isn’t what you wear, hormones etc so why do transgenders do wear typical woman or male clothes and take hormones?!?! Those who like me were born with a vagina are being dissected in all sorts of ways when trans go get the same vagina because they feel that they should have. I was given one and so I shouldn’t be in quotes. Period. Listen call yourself woman, I’ll call you woman, use the same bathroom as I do and all that, but don’t call me “biological woman”… in quotes! You can’t stand on top of someone else to make yourself taller. I thought we knew as a species that that’s nonsense. Apparently not.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      The clothing thing was because in the early days trans people would be denied medical care if they did not conform to gender expectations. A dear friend who is a trans woman in her 60s told me that she was shunned away from care for decades because her dressing style was more androgynous and she primarily preferred woman, which made the medical establishment suspicious about her desire to be a woman. “You’re not really trans!”

      Alice Dreger has a great talk on how the distinction between male and female biologically isn’t all that clear cut: http://www.ted.com/talks/alice_dreger_is_anatomy_destiny

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.