The T About Biological Sex

Audrey Hepburn drinking tea(?)

I have noticed an increase in the usage of “biological sex,” even on trans based blogs and social media feeds. This term is accidentally offensive at best, and a transphobic dog-whistle at worst — please stop using it! “Cisgender” is a better term to identify people who align with their sex/gender assigned to them at birth—not “biological woman” or “biological man.” And “assigned sex” refers to the sex a doctor labels someone when they are born—not “biological sex.” The first issue with concept of biological sex is that it enforces a rather dated and simplistic understanding of sex and biology. It suggests an exclusively dimorphic sex morphology: i.e. a “typical” female or male binary anatomy; this is not the case, bodies are more complicated than this. Many bodies defy classical sex definitions and dimensions. With regards to genitals, this also doesn’t work, as it omits intersex people — intersex people appear too often in the general population to be discounted as anomalous. There is a long history of violence and torture that has been done to intersex infants to make them conform to “typical” sex morphology — often at the expense of their mental health. And torture is the correct term here, as it is used to describe intersex infant genital mutilation in a human rights context. More specifically, and most internally (and therefore seemingly immutably), biological sex posits two chromosome types as the base reality of sex. This is not the case.

The retreat to chromosomes has taken place after the invention of medical/techno interventions that alter more macro morphology (HRT [pharmacological] as well as surgeries [medical technology]). Before these medical interventions genitals were seen as the basis of sex. Thus, the criteria for what counts as biological sex moves (which suggests that sex is itself a constructed concept). Humans, ever on the hunt for tribal boundaries, make distinctions that allow them to other and abject those who are different; the turn to chromosomes as the bedrock of sex is an instance of this tribalism—and an elementary knowledge of sex biology by the general public (and here I mean “elementary” as in elementary school). In this case, chromosomes are seen as the essence of biological sex. They are interior, immutable, and unalterable — this is beside the issue of to what degree chromosomes can be counted as the sole factor of sexual development. Regardless, most people do not know their chromosomal makeup and there are many intersex non-XY chromosome types. And, there are even several relatively common XY variants which typically yield socialized females, assigned so at birth; these women, in some cases, can give birth. All of this is besides the fact that there are signs that trans people have “biological” indicators indicative of their experienced and lived genders/sex.

So, when I hear “biological” male or female, I am immediately put on guard because chances are someone is trying to frame sex in a sense that excludes trans people as valid and legitimate. And let’s be honest, the idea of medicine/biology as a positivist material reality is a social construct that we have decided upon. There is a material substrate which we are ascribing our notions of biomateriality onto, but it probably functions in ways that are more complex than the models we create to understand it.

But our understanding of sex is not fully bound to biology — as much as we may hope to see “biological sex” as a kind of mirror reflecting a concrete underlying reality. Sex is also entangled with language (what isn’t?). For starters, sex does not translate neatly across cultures and languages, gender even less so, as it is an Anglo-linguistic invention. Thus, in French, for example, sex and gender are less ontologically separable, because there isn’t an easy equivalent to the word “gender.” But there are other complications; there are legal definitions and frameworks which help us to define meaning. My legal sex is female, despite being assigned male at birth. And there are also historical discursive formations of the concept of sex which change over time to reflect current dominant understandings and systems. For example, sex, in its current iteration, is a form of colonial oppression, one that has been created to control other gender/sex subjectivities tied to race. In this way, sex and gender become aspects of Eurocentric colonial capitalism (read Maria Lugones “The Coloniality of Gender”). Thus, sex is not simply the stuff of your body, a raw substrate that gender is grafted or performed upon.

I am not a biological male with a deviant female gender, as some sex essentialists would have you think. I satisfy more qualifiers for female sex than male. And you know what? I have not tested my chromosomes, nor do I need to, because this is a relatively silly metric anyway. We interact with each other socially, not biologically — mostly. If I am socially conveyed and hailed as a female in my interactions, then who cares about some mythic bio-essence? So, when you see the term “biological sex” please be critical. This term is used as a kind of lazy shorthand that on the surface may seem objectively applicable, but upon further reflection is meant to exclude trans people and render them invalid (it also excludes intersex people because it conveys a sense of sex as binary and oppositional). At the same time, I get it. This cyclone of gendered language that seems to expand every other day must be off-putting to some, especially people who are not trans, intersex, or non-binary. At the end of the day, if you are acting in good faith and want to learn, then you are doing a good job. But, some of these terms are more insidious than others. And without serious engagement with certain ideas and communities, it is easy to be uncritical and fall prey to conservative or anti-trans dog-whistles.

I’m trans, a grad student in gender studies, and a legal researcher.

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