Content Warning: This article discusses transphobia and arguments used by transphobic people to invalidate the existence of folks with trans and gender expansive identities. If you are affected by this type of content, please feel free to click away. Additionally, The Trevor Project is an organization aimed toward LGBTQ+ folks aged 25 and under and has support hotlines in the form of calling, texting or online chatting. Please look through their resources and consider their hotlines if you are LGBTQ+ and need support.
Welcome back to this series of open letters proving transphobic arguments wrong with facts and evidence! This week’s letter is about the difference between sex and gender. Folks who use anti-trans rhetoric often equate the two sexes (male and female) with two genders (man and woman) and make the conclusion that there are only two genders. We will dive into the differences between biological sex and gender identity. We will also discuss the concept of binary systems and how they function within the categories of both sex and gender, and how they aren’t actually very accurate.
I recommend reading the Open Letter, Part 0.5: An Introduction to Trans+ Identities and Language if you haven’t already, as I define many vocabulary terms that are used when discussing trans+ identities and concepts of gender and sex that I will be using here.
- Sex and Gender: Two Different Concepts
Some people conflate sex and gender together and use the terms interchangeably. This cannot be further from the truth.
Biological sex (or simply ‘sex’) is determined by anatomical and genetic indicators associated with a particular sex, including but not limited to sexual organs (penis, vagina, ovaries, etc.), XX and XY chromosomes (or variants of these chromosomes, like XXY and XYY), breasts, facial hair and bone structures (Medical News Today).
Gender identity, on the other hand, is a socially constructed identity that may or may not align with one’s assigned sex at birth. Gender identity is a person’s internal experience and naming of their gender (Gender Spectrum). Gender identity can influence how one chooses to express their gender through clothing, hairstyles, pronouns and more. However, gender identity does not indicate gender expression.
- Binary Sex and Binary Gender: Restrictive Social Concepts
A common transphobic argument is that gender is binary because sex is binary and they are the same thing. We just discussed the separation of gender and sex, but let’s address the concept of binarism.
Binarism is a system in which there are two (bi) options. In this case, the gender binary is man and woman (not male and female; those are terms for biological sex!). However, even though society views gender as a binary system, it really isn’t. There are folks who identify with genders outside the binary or even beyond it, depending on how they see and experience their gender identity and relationship with the concept of gender. There are also people who identify with the binary terms but express themselves in ways that don’t necessarily align with the specific socialization of that identity—for example, tomboys are people who identify as a woman but express themselves in more masculine ways through their clothes and makeup choices, among other things.
Not all trans people lie outside of the binary, however. There are binary trans people who identify as the “opposite” end of the binary from the gender that is socially associated with their assigned sex at birth. These people are valid, just as those who identify outside of the binary are valid.
Something less discussed is the concept of the sex binary and how that binary system isn’t all that accurate either. When we discuss biological sex, we often refer to the sexes as “male” and “female,” but there are folks who are born intersex. Intersex folks are people born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the conventional definitions of male or female (Intersex Society of North America (ISNA)).
But you might be wondering how common intersexuality is, and that’s a fair question. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a studied scholar in biology and gender studies who currently teaches at Brown University, released a study with her undergraduate students that determined that about 1.7 percent of births result in an intersex baby (Blackless et. al.). To put this in perspective, redheads are born at a rate of about 1-2 percent (Healthline). So if you think about how often you see a redhead in public, that is probably about the same rate you meet someone who is intersex.
Doctors and medical professionals followed the Hopkins model of treating intersexuality, which involved determining whether the sexual anatomy of the baby is more aligned towards female or male reproductive standards and employing surgical procedures to essentially ‘re-sex’ the child before 18 months of age (ISNA). This is often done without consulting the child’s parents or by lying to the parents by saying these surgeries were medically necessary. Additionally, intersex children are often lied to about their intersex status, which causes psychological stress and often causes these people to mistrust all medical professionals (ISNA). Intersex advocates are pushing for the adoption of a patient-centered model of intersex treatment that does not involve surgical procedures to alter the genitals of a child until they are old enough to consent and understand the complications. This model also involves fully informing the parents and, when they are old enough to understand, the child of the intricacies of intersexuality (ISNA).
Through this letter, I’ve explained the complexities of our sex and gender systems and how describing them as binaries is very limiting. Next week’s letter focuses on the historical and cultural prevalence of a wide variety of gender identities across the globe to address the transphobic argument that gender identity beyond the male/female binary is a recent concept.
Read More of the Open Letter Series
An Open Letter, Part 1: Gender is Not the Same as Sex (this article)
An Open Letter, Part 3: Myths about Trans+ Medical Care (now published)
An Open Letter Part 4: Transphobia’s Impact on Trans+ People (now published)