Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sex Is Not Between Your Legs

There's an article going around right now on the subject of preferred pronouns being asked upon admission to a college campus.  There was a lively debate going on in a trans male forum I frequent.  The debate was largely centered on this paragraph:
"Because I go to an all-women's college, a lot of people are like, 'If you don't identify as a woman, how did you get in?'" said sophomore Skylar Crownover, 19, who is president of Mouthing Off! and prefers to be mentioned as a singular they, but also answers to he. "I just tell them the application asks you to mark your sex and I did. It didn't ask me for my gender."
Before I continue, I should mention something about the article.  It refers mostly to genderqueer and other nonbinary trans folk.  Nonbinary transfolk and binary-privileged trans folk have different issues despite considerable overlap.  I include this excerpt from the article not because it is directly relevant to the group I'm talking about, but because it's what springboarded a discussion in a group which is exclusively made up of binary-privileged trans men.

Anyway, on to my point.

In feminist and GASD/LGBT/queer communities, there is often great care taken to distinguish "sex" from "gender."   Sex is used to talk about physical characteristics, most notably genitals and chromosomes but also hormones and body shape and things like that.  Gender is used to talk about roles and identity.  This is often explained quite simply with the phrase "Sex is between your legs. Gender is between your ears."  In many ways this idea is transgender 101.  For years it's been used as a justification for the mere existence of trans folk as well as intercultural third gender categories.
Today I learned about "Anthropology Major Fox."

It's also wrong.

Well, OK, it's not all wrong.  In practice, the sex/gender distinction is a way some academic fields and communities describe things that aren't as simple as a rigid binary gender system is comfortable dealing with.  Making that distinction is an excellent stepping stone to understanding that not all people who have a certain chromosome set or genital configuration are going to have the same gender and that not all cultures have the same gender categories.

The problem is that it's oversimplified as well as contrary to peoples' lived realities.

When I was hanging out with newer trans people more often it was almost a daily occurrence that somebody would complain that they had to fill out a form that said "sex" instead of "gender."  There was a real deer-in-headlights confusion because trans 101 had maintained that sex and gender are two entirely different things.  In other words, even though these were people who were living their whole lives as a particular gender, they had it in their heads that if somebody asks for their sex it automatically means "what genitals are you sporting" or "what chromosomes do you have."  So you'd get a lot of people who said things like "my sex may be female but my gender is male."

This confusion makes sense when you're partially closeted or filling out a request for an ID or you're filling out hospital intake forms or something like that, because what sex you are listed as can affect things like what medical services you can get or your risk of being erroneously tried for fraud.  However, this confusion has spread so far and wide that people even stress out when they're filling out something like a dating site or a survey or some other thing that isn't tied to this sort of difficulty.  There's no reason somebody who lives male full-time should need to put "female" on a social media profile, but many people are wary to do so because we assume--having been cultured by the social justice community to believe this rigid sex/gender distinction--that "sex" automatically refers to assigned-sex-at-birth.  It rarely ever does, though.

It's also a mistake to look at cases in which "sex" is used instead of "gender" and automatically turn our noses up as if we are significantly more enlightened in knowing "the truth."  The sex/gender distinction has never been a universal practice, and like all binary distinctions it's limited in its usefulness to the context that created it.  The vast majority of times people ask for your sex, they are in a practical sense asking for your gender.

This rigid sex/gender distinction can actually be harmful rather than helpful to trans folk because it is yet another way we are obligated to identify ourselves with our birth sex despite that identification being inaccurate (and possibly triggering). The main issue is the "sex" half of the equation.  What constitutes "sex" is much more culturally defined than people assume, and these characteristics are also NOT immutable.  The medical therapies most binary-privileged trans folk go on markedly change our physical characteristics, meaning we wind up with a "sex" that is contradictory and mismatched.  It's perfectly possible for a man to have a penis and two X chromosomes, or a vagina and no breasts, or for a woman to have two X chromosomes and a high testosterone level, or any other number of combinations.  Really the only physical characteristic that can't be changed (yet?) is what sex chromosomes you have, and unless you've had a genetic test done you can't even really be sure what yours are anyway.

In short, your gender is an identity, but when it all boils down to it, so is your sex.

Should we scrap the whole sex/gender distinction altogether?  I wouldn't argue for that.  Like I mentioned above, it's useful in some contexts, including as a way of managing complicated self-identities.  But it is important that we facilitate the understanding that people don't have to identify with what they were assigned at birth, even when people are asking their sex.  That distinction is not nearly as hard-and-fast as people believe it is.