Another Sex/Gender Controversy
In a recent blog post, Gia Milinovich responds to some of the heat she’s received for a panel she chaired for SohoSkeptics on gender. Though I don’t doubt Gia is well intentioned, her post is unfortunately filled to the brim with many misconceptions about gender stemming from what appears to be an adherence to a biological essentialist understanding of sex/gender.
This post is meant to bring attention to the ways that essentialism creeps into discourses of gender. I will not spend much time addressing the harm that this kind of thinking does to trans* and intersex people because they do a fine job speaking for themselves (for example, see Zinnia Jones’ Twitter feed for October 22). Rather, I am going to take a more pedagogical approach to Gia’s post in an effort to dispel some common essentialist misconceptions about sex/gender and biology/culture.
Let’s start with definitions, which is as good of a place to start as any in this discussion. Gia wrote:
One of the big problems, as I see it, is the conflation of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Technically and non-controversially, they mean two different things.
Right off the bat, here is a major problem. These definitions of sex and gender are not “non-controversial” at all. Both terms are contested and have various meanings depending upon context. This pretense of scientific objectivity (read: unbiased and uninfluenced by culture) serves as a linchpin for the essentialist position.
The definition Gia chose for sex is a genetic essentialist binary definition, categorizing female as “XX and [having] ovaries” and male as “XY and [having] testes.” She goes on to elaborate this definition to bring in secondary sex characteristics, and the definition she cites correctly states that “secondary sex characteristics are usually determined by hormones secreted from the gonads.” This is an important part of the definition that Gia ignores for the rest of her post (every time she comes back to defining sex, it is always a definition from chromosomes). The second part of this definition makes it pretty obvious that there is more to being “male” or “female” than just XX or XY chromosomes (not to mention that not all sexually differentiated species are sexed due to XX and XY chromosomes—in some species, genes don’t even play a role); hormones play a large role in shaping sex traits in humans. In fact, there are multiple criteria when determining a person’s sex, including chromosomes, genital morphology, gonads, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. And sometimes these criteria don’t all line up with Euroamerican understandings of binary sex.
The “non-controversial” definition of gender Gia cites from the World Health Organization is a circular definition based on the idea of gender as a social construction. It is circular because it essentially reads as “we know what men/women are because they take on the roles and attributes of men/women.” This definition is highly problematic in that it requires us to know what man/woman means in order to define gender, which is what tells us what man/woman means.
So, right from the start, there are issues with the definitions that Gia completely overlooks (and later in the post dismisses). By taking these definitions at face value—by not being skeptical of how they’re constructed and where they come from (for example, it is no coincidence that we are seeing biological essentialism in Gia’s post when her definitions are from biological and biomedical sources), Gia is unfortunately reproducing essentialist understandings of sex/gender.
Gia goes on:
During the panel, I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender. Again, we are mammals. There are Male and Female marmosets and Male and Female humans. There aren’t, of course, Woman and Man marmosets. One is biology, one is culture.
What I find problematic about this particular rhetoric is that it depends upon a strict separation between biology (or “nature”) and culture, something anthropologists have been arguing against for years. For Gia, it is obvious that nature and culture are clearly divided because that’s a common (and mostly unquestioned) cultural narrative in Enlightenment societies. Thus, when Gia says:
The Male and Female categories don’t vary around the world.
That’s is not actually true. The male/female categorical distinction as Gia has defined it is not a distinction that is made universally in all cultures. In fact, to make such a claim is projecting Euroamerican beliefs about sex/gender onto other sex/gender systems while simultaneously making the implicit claim that our way of viewing sex/gender is the “one true way.” Further, this is a perfect example of the social construction of sex, which Gia says later in the post that she does not understand. Sex as a biological category—as all ontological categories—is socially constructed. This is not to deny the materiality and reality of bodies; rather, it is to distinguish the meanings and senses we make of bodies from the bodies themselves.
It is also a myopic understanding of biology. Gia says, “A Female baby born in the US will have the same biology as a Female baby born in Saudi Arabia.” (As an aside, Gia rightly notes early in her post that it’s important for us to be as accurate as possible with our language, so I find it quite troublesome that her wording is so sloppy here.) I’m going to assume that what Gia means here is not that their biology is actually the same, but that their sex characteristics are the same. But is this true? Maybe. Maybe not. Humans are not all the same, and people’s biologies vary for many reasons. Just because two people are born with XX chromosomes does not mean their biology—or their sex—is the same.
After the recording of the panel went up and people started criticizing it, Gia said sarcastically in response to them”
“Yes, I am a bigot because I like to stick with the scientific definition of ‘sex’…”
I wish Gia would take a step back and try to gain some insight into why people are angry about the essentialism she is espousing. What should be obvious to anyone who has done any studying about trans* and intersex issues (which Gia says she has done) is that there is a tense and troublesome history between medical scientists and people with non-normative bodies and identities.
Now, I don’t know Gia at all, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s not a bigot. So, it seems to me that the right thing to do is to try to step back and understand why trans* people are angry with her. With a little more sensitivity to history, she might better understand why the fact that science defines something in a particular way doesn’t necessarily hold much sway in many people’s lives, and in fact many people have been treated like complete shit “in the name of science.” Science is not the be-all-end-all of definition deciders, and claiming that because something is defined a certain way by scientists that it is therefore de facto correct sounds an awful lot like an argument from authority to me.
As I previously mentioned, Gia admits confusion as to why people claim that biological sex is a social construction. Ironically, her post is a perfect example of how sex is a social construction. She discusses the presence of intersex people in her post, and yet she stubbornly insists that sex is a strict binary rather than recognizing the diverse variation in human biology. The insistence that sex is binary—all people are either male or female, intersex be damned!—is a socially constructed understanding of bodies because it seeks to make sense of bodies by placing them into socioculturally determined categories. The fact is that the two-sex system is a historically recent and culturally specific understanding of sex grounded in the Enlightenment.
Both sex and gender are assigned at birth or earlier usually based on genitals (not chromosomes!). Gia argues that the declaration of an infant’s sex (she denies that gender is assigned, something I address below) has no bearing on how that baby is gendered. But this flies in the face of the experiences of myriad intersex people. For example, intersex people born with “ambiguous genitalia” are often subjected to invasive and life-altering surgeries as infants in order to fit their bodies into the sex binary constructed by biomedical science. This is another example of the social construction of sex.
When a physician decides that the genitals of a newborn need to be altered to fit into either the “male” or “female” category, that is usually not done because it is a medical emergency. It is a social emergency. It is a response to the horror of a body existing that cannot be easily sorted into a category. Contrary to Gia’s claim, it is telling people what sorts of gendered activities they should engage in because these surgeries are done with the aim of bringing bodies in line with normative understandings of gender (e.g., “how will she have sex if she does not have a vaginal hole for a penis?”, which makes the assumption that she will be a heterosexual woman). This is because sex and gender, while used to categorize different phenomena, are inseparable from one another. A claim that gender does not inform our understandings of sex, or that bodies do not influence the way we gender others, is a claim made in ignorance of how intimately connected sex and gender are in Euroamerican societies. It is based on a false sense of a clear dividing line between nature/biology and culture.
I’ve written before about the pervasive myth that human biology/nature can be disentangled from culture. Part of the underlying belief behind this myth is that culture is completely separate from (or alternatively built on top of) biology, rather than that they are co-constructive or that culture shapes biology. Belief in this narrative is quite obviously presented in Gia’s post, particularly in how she sees gender as acquired through “conditioning” rather than as something people do that is informed by beliefs about biology, nature, and bodies (among other things).
There is no “gender assigned at birth”. Gender is acquired by constant social conditioning that starts immediately after birth… but isn’t an inevitability at birth.
But this statement begs the question: How does gender “conditioning” begin “immediately after birth” if it is not assigned to a person? How, exactly, do infants begin being gendered if they lack the cognitive and linguistic abilities to express the gender that they would like to identify with? Gender is assigned by those who are aware of the sexed body, and thus begins the process of becoming enculturated into a certain gender system. Gia misunderstands what “assigned at birth” means—it is not a way of saying gender is an inevitability; rather, it is a way of categorizing a body and establishing expectations for how that body should be interacted with.
Gia’s discussion of the trans/cis binary does bring up some interesting points about the ways that strict adherence to binaries seeks to stick people into categories with which they do not identify. I have written on the tension I experience myself with this binary when it comes to my own identity. But I find that Gia is arguing out of both sides of her mouth here: She is arguing that the trans/cis binary is a false dichotomy (I agree) while simultaneously insisting that the male/female binary is not only accurate, but immutable. I think it’s important to ask: what are the motivations behind this stance? That’s not something I or anyone else can answer for Gia, but it’s an important question that she should consider.
Thus we come to the transphobic portion of the post that reads as if it came straight out of a radfem manifesto. Gia writes:
When someone decides to “change their sex”- the “surgical and hormonal techniques” mentioned above- they aren’t actually changing their biological sex, they are cosmetically changing their outward appearance. Just like someone who dyes their brunette hair blonde and has to keep dying it because their actual hair colour is brown, if they were born an XY Male, they don’t ever, ever become an XX Female no matter what hormones they take or surgery they have or how long they live as a Woman. They just don’t. To think about it a different way, an XY Male with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or Hemophilia or colour blindness is not going to be “cured” by having sex reassignment surgery.
Stating that XY Males never become XX Females is not a value judgement on their trans* status at all. It is not bigotry. It is biology. And being a genetic Male doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is or, more importantly, should be a stereotypical Man, nor does it say they should be any kind of a Man at all.
Here, Gia is espousing a belief in the immutability of biology, and of sex in particular. This belief is based on a false equivalence of biology with genetics. If you notice, the argument Gia makes above is that biology is not changeable because a person’s chromosomes do not change when they undergo SRS. If you buy into the genetic determinist definition of sex that she provided, this makes sense. However, as I’ve already explained, chromosomes are not the only (or even most important) factor in determining a person’s sex. If we consider sex more broadly to include hormones, gonads, genital morphology, and secondary sex characteristics, then it is absolutely possible to change a person’s sex. Comparing SRS to cosmetic changes such as dying one’s hair as well as comparing it to various diseases and disorders are not only a bad analogies, it’s insensitive and hurtful to trans* people.
It’s no wonder that people are angry with Gia when she says things like that. Or like this: After posting a photograph of a group of women with AIS, she goes on to ask of intersex people:
So, why is it deemed perfectly acceptable to say that women with AIS are “genetically male”, but not say that transgender women are “genetically male”?
The answer is that it’s not deemed perfectly acceptable to say that women with AIS are genetically male. If you look at the link I provided to the Intersex Society of North America, you will notice that they never refer to people with AIS as “genetically male.” That’s actually quite insulting to many intersex people. It’s based once again on a genetically reductionist definition of sex. The women in that picture have what appear to be female bodies based on secondary sex characteristics (one of the many characteristics used to define sex), so why does Gia insist that it is their chromosomes that are determinative of their sex rather than their secondary sex characteristics? What is it about chromosomes that is the be-all-end-all for sex in Gia’s mind? This is a stance that Gia has not attempted to defend, but rather she simply takes for granted that genes are the most important aspect of a person’s biology.
Perhaps this is due to the way that biomedical science has gone about defining sex/gender (and more often than not they conflate the two with no recognition of the role of culture in either one) and the fact that many skeptics ironically unquestioningly accept information from scientific sources. Gia is completely dependent upon “scientific”/biomedical definitions of sex/gender, which are actually usually not defined through rigorous scientific work but from assumptions made by researchers based on Euroamerican cultural beliefs (when they seek to define the terms at all).
As this post is already quite long, I’m going to skip the rest of the transphobic stuff towards the end of her post and leave that to others to address (please feel free to leave links or to take apart her arguments yourself in the comments!). But I do want to address one last thing that really chaps my ass, and is something that I see a lot of skeptics do.
She closes the article with this:
There is a reality – in this case Biology (Sex) – that exists outside of our experience of the world- Culture (Gender). One is a real, measurable, testable thing. The other is… culture. Like with Science and Religion, there is no conflict between them as long as the proponents of the cultural creation don’t insist that it explains reality.
This is a facepalm-worthy misunderstanding of culture. Culture is just as much a part of being human as biology is. In fact, it is impossible to disentangle culture from human activity. Our biology does not exist outside of our experience of the world—we experience the world with and through our bodies. Culture is not just some imaginary shared delusion that has no impact on our lives. Culture is a real process that has profound effects not only on our own biology but also on the environment and the global ecosystem within which we exist. And many aspects of culture are measurable and testable—just look at economics!
All explanations of reality—including science—are cultural. They utilize language and involve processes of shared meaning making. This is a frustratingly common belief amongst skeptics, that somehow explanations of reality are the same thing as the reality they are describing. But that’s simply not the case. And that’s what’s wrong with the above statement from Gia. She is using a “cultural creation” (science and biomedicine) to explain reality while simultaneously telling us not to do exactly that. Until essentialists acknowledge the myriad ways that their culture seeps into their constructions of sex/gender, we will keep having these same arguments over and over.
Featured image from Beatrice the Biologist’s blog.