The reality of sex and gender is not clear-cut

In a memo leaked to  The New York Times, the Trump administration revealed its intent to define ‘transgender’ out of existence. Under new rules, a person’s sex would be forever defined by “biological traits identifiable by birth”, removing the legal path to self-identifying and denying them protection under discrimination laws.

The Department of Health and Human Sciences justifies this proposal with the need to define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” But here lies the problem: there is no scientific grounding for an inflexible definition of gender, based on only anatomy or genetics.

This idea was abandoned by researchers and healthcare providers decades ago. “I can tell you this is ludicrous,” writes Jack Turban, a resident psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, “There is no scientific definition of gender.” The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasises a “gender-affirming approach” to children struggling with dysmorphia, which encourages respect for their preferred gender identity. Furthermore, over 1,600 scientists have signed a letter opposing the U.S. government’s proposal, labelling it “fundamentally inconsistent [with] science”.

Gender is a complicated concept – a combination of sociocultural conventions and personal identity, as well as biology. Sex hormones, which bring about sex-specific changes at puberty, have been suggested to affect gender identity and expression of gender-stereotypic traits. But girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a genetic disease which results in unusually high exposure to male hormones like testosterone, are less likely to show stereotypical female traits *.

Why the gender of some people gender does not align with their physiological characteristics is not clear. What is, however, is that it is neither a choice nor a trend. About 1.4 million individuals identify as transgender or gender non-conforming in the USA, and records of gender-diverse individuals go back centuries.

Even within more progressive circles, however, there is often a prevailing assumption that while gender identity can be fluid, biological sex is binary and unchangeable. The reality is not so simple. Some estimates put the number of individuals born with ‘differences of sex development’, aka ambiguous external genitalia, as high as 1 in 1,500. Genetics can also leave room for contention. Some people with XY chromosomes can develop female traits due to an inability to respond to testosterone.

Others with XX chromosomes can develop male traits as a result of accidental transferral of some Y chromosome genes onto an X chromosome. Furthermore, some individuals have XX chromosomes in some cells and XY chromosomes in others, a condition known as chromosomal mosaicism. For these reasons, no genetic test currently exists that can unambiguously define a person’s sex or gender anyway.

Evidently, the idea that penis equals male and vagina equals female, while generally true, is an oversimplification of current scientific knowledge that ignores a not insignificant proportion of the population.  It seems clear that, here, the U.S government is using false assertions about biology to push an agenda – an all too familiar tale.  Fascists have historically used skull measurements to make erroneous claims about the relative intelligence of different ethnic groups – termed ‘scientific racism’.

Drafting legislation that will only increase discrimination towards an already vulnerable group, under the pretence of ‘scientific fact’ is a devastating, if unsurprising, step backwards. History tells us we need to oppose attempts to force people into strict dichotomies with no scientific justification and remain sceptical of the motivations of those who endeavour to do so.

* It should be noted that they may still identify as female.

Photograph: torbakhopper via Flickr Creative Commons

One thought on “The reality of sex and gender is not clear-cut

  • I’m not sure the distinction between sex and gender is clear cut in this article (nor in the original NY Times article).

    You state that “Under new rules, a person’s SEX would be forever defined by ‘biological traits identifiable by birth’” and that this proposal is justified by DHHS “with the need to define gender ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.””

    The leaked memo in question states “the SEX listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s SEX unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.” This in itself is not denying people of the right to identify with whatever gender/s they feel themselves to be.

    Gender is a complicated, multi-faceted concept that combines, as you say, sociocultural conventions and personal identity. Sex is also a complicated concept, as the report you cite on disorders of sex development (DSD) shows.

    But these seem to be two distinct issues that may have bearing on one another, but are not fundamentally linked. One does not need to justify their identification as transgender on the basis of “ambiguous external genitalia”; nor does “ambiguous external genitalia” entail that one identifies as transgender. The report on DSD you cite emphasises the genetic aetiology (causation) of DSDs, given this emphasis it seems conflating DSDs and transgenderism does a disservice to both groups.

    This should in no way be taken as support for Trump’s policies towards LGBTQ+, many of his policies are indeed discriminatory and have no place in contemporary society. The point I am trying to make is that when articles such as these talk as though sex and gender are synonymous, they do so at the risk of confusing the conceptual landscape. I don’t think it is clear that the US government is using false biological assertions in this case, but rather attempting to more clearly define and distinguish the concepts of sex and gender. If one takes issue with the way the US government are choosing to define those concepts then they should voice their concerns and argue their case, but do so in a way that does not treat sex and gender as synonymous. For progress to be made, a shared nomenclature is required to foster a greater understanding of the positions held by people on either side of the debate.

    … Also, phrenology (skull measuring) predates fascism by almost a century. Whilst I understand the temptation to engage in this kind of rhetoric when discussing Trump’s administration, doing so dilutes the concept of fascism, trivialising a truly vicious ideology and falsely magnifies the gulf between political right and left.


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