Debunking “Biological Sex”

So this is probably an unpopular opinion but I think the term “biological sex” is meaningless, as is the distinction between sex and gender. While I continue to hear trans people use it and share it in various forms such as the problematic genderbread person, it is primarily used by cisgender people as a way of convincing themselves that the binary does exist in some form even if they support diverse gender identities. But as a biologist (by training) and a real life trans person™, I am here to tell you that it is just as much of a shared illusion as binary gender.

Hopefully by now you are aware of the existence of intersex people. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Without going into excruciating detail because you should hear it from intersex people themselves , both chromosomal sex and reproductive organ configuration exist in more than two options. There are 6 different ways that chromosomes can combine (X, XX, XXY, XY, XYY, and XXXY) that create various different kinds of humans and most people never have their chromosomes tested so using this as the basis for your gender is ridiculous. And various other changes in development mean that regardless of genetics, genital variation is nearly infinite.

But even putting intersex people aside for a moment, let’s talk about how useless the term biological sex is when you are dealing with reality. Many trans people such as myself have known from an early age that our brains are different. Long before I ever knew the term transgender or nonbinary, I thought that I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have a boys brain. And more and more evidence suggests that the brain can develop in utero in ways that more closely match the gender identity that child eventually expresses than the gender they are assumed to be based on external signs (although even that research is hopelessly binary). Though huge disclaimer here because there is no one way to be trans. Not everyone knew they were different from birth and not all trans people experience things like dysphoria.

Ok, so say you put aside natural variation in genitals AND you ignore differences in brains. Well I hate to break it to you folks, but the differences continue to be useless. Trans people do not all experience socialization the same way or come out at the same age so there is no point at which you can make a valid argument that we are somehow “essentially male” or some such bullshit. And there are MANY different kinds of gender confirmation surgeries that make trans bodies infinitely variable and often indistinguishable from their gender.

So what’s the point of this? It means that you should stop using terms like “female bodied” or lumping people together based on binary genital arrangements. And you should stop saying things like “all women are” and reducing your research to binary sex results. Yes, statistically there are vast swatches of people who never have cause to question their gender or assumed sex. And you could do your research based on those people and ignore the tails of those statistical curves. But you are missing out on some of the most amazing parts of human experience when you do so. I am here to tell you that the conversations that happen among trans and nonbinary people behind closed doors that cis people rarely get to experience would blow your mind! And because of constructs like “biological sex”, many of these people intentionally avoid revealing that complexity to cis people and often rule out dating or interacting with you altogether.

So if you want to benefit from what we could bring to the conversation, think deeply about how you can be more inclusive and the assumptions you make on a daily basis. We are here and we are so much more queer than you could possibly imagine.

On Male Privilege

Hopefully we all know by now that male privilege is a very real and dangerous thing that happens and has a lot of real world consequences. And I’m not arguing that I haven’t been granted many of the benefits of that privilege by presenting and identifying as cisgender for the first 25ish years of my life (partly for lack of knowledge and terminology), especially because of my beard and size. Take for example the time I was able to help a friend move out of her abusive and armed ex-boyfriend’s house by simply standing there looking intimidating. But the idea that male privilege is something that every person assigned male at birth is granted in its entirety is pervasive within feminism, especially the trans exclusionary kind, and something that I want to address.

Based on my experience and the discussions I have had within more nuanced feminist circles and with men looking to change toxic masculinity, I would posit that male privilege is granted on a sliding scale based on how well you conform to American, white, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, masculinity standards. The more you fit the molds, the more authority, power, and respect you are granted. There are a few molds of course – the athlete, the businessman, the lumberjack/blue collar worker, etc – but for the most part the boundaries of masculinity are so narrow that they are unachievable for anyone on the margins due to race, body type, ability level, sexuality (perceived or real), parenting style, or even religion. Feminism has made amazing progress in the last century+ in broadening the acceptable boundaries of femininity for the most part but the same work hasn’t been done in masculinity.

As a result, a gender non-conforming kid like I was never really has a change to gain all those privileges. As I’ve written about before, the idea of being socialized male as a uniform experience is incredibly flawed because it is based on what you get out of it, not what is put in. And many of us never got the full benefits of male privilege. Take Asian men for example; a lot has been written about how some of them feel excluded from American masculinity and discriminated against in dating because of flawed stereotypes and tropes.

So next time your instinct is to say “but you have/had male privilege” to a trans person (or a person of color or different ability or…), think more carefully about the intersectionality of gender and all those other identities. It’s not that they don’t necessarily have it, but that privilege is more complex than a yes or no checkbox. This quote from Julia Serano’s excellent article this week, Debunking “Trans Women are not Women” Arguments, sums it up well:

Male privilege is a very real thing. In my booking Whipping Girl, I talk at length about my own personal experiences of having it, and subsequently losing it post-transition. However, not every trans woman experiences male privilege (e.g., younger transitioners). Furthermore, the whole purpose of talking about privilege (whether it be male, white, middle/upper-class, able-bodied, or straight privilege, to name a few) is to raise awareness about the advantages that members of the dominant/majority group experience due to the fact that they do not face a particular type of sexism or marginalization. And the fact that the trans-women-aren’t-women crowd constantly harp about trans women’s real or imagined male privilege, yet refuse to acknowledge or examine their own cisgender privilege, demonstrates that their concerns about privilege are disingenuous, and that they are merely using the concept in order to delegitimize trans women’s identities and lived experiences as women.

“Socialized male”

In my mind this is one of the most transphobic things you can say. Right up there with “so you were born male?”

I found this great quote in an article talking about hormonal cycles that really resonates (though it is from a binary perspective).

Trans women are not men who decided to become women, we are women who were forced to live as men until we could find a way to express the truth of who we are.

I don’t understand men, or know what it’s like to really be one.
Because I always knew I wasn’t.

Not everyone has always known that they were trans; I certainly didn’t. But neither was I “socialized as a man” in the same sense that a cisgender boy is. Yes, I have some insight on what kinds of things are said to boys to enforce masculinity. But my experience of them is uniquely shaped by my nonbinary gender.

When I was taught about what I was supposed to be, I didn’t hear them as things that I could actually achieve. Masculinity was this unachievable standard that I never felt like I could reach, even in the times when I thought I wanted to. But more importantly, masculinity wasn’t something I really wanted. Even the “sensitive men” in my life who didn’t display toxic masculinity had some indescribable maleness that I admired but more like in the way that I hear cis women describe attraction to men.

I’ve tried many times to write down what I think masculinity is outside of the hegemonic hypermasculinity. But for each quality that I name, I can think of a woman who displays it just as well or better without compromising her femininity. So I don’t have an easy way to tell you what I felt like I was missing that made me not fit as a boy/man. But I always knew I didn’t fit, couldn’t fit, and deep down didn’t want to fit.