tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
[personal profile] tim
Hey, guys!

You know the popular figure of speech where you use "person with a Y chromosome" as a synonym for "man", and "person with two X chromosomes" as a synonym for "woman"? Examples of such sentences might include: "Even though I have a Y chromosome, you might be surprised to learn that I think rape is bad," or "As someone with two X chromosomes, I'm here to tell you that I like sex."

Such statements are generally not descriptive, since most people have not been karyotyped. (Though if you have been, then more power to you! At least your remarks are factual.) They are even less likely to be descriptive if you're talking about somebody else. Unless you are a doctor, you probably have not, personally, tested anyone's blood to determine whether they have a matched pair of Xes. Moreover, such figures of speech do not take into account people whose chromosomal types are XO, XXX, XXY, XXXY, or XYY, much less XXes and XYes whose karyotype does not match the anatomical sex that an observer would likely impute to them at birth. Yes, just for the record: people with a Y chromosome have been known to become pregnant and give birth, while (statistically) a few thousand Americans have male genitalia and two X chromosomes apiece.

So what you're really saying when you say "She has two X chromosomes..." is, "I have made the observation that I believe her presentation to be female, and from that -- based on received knowledge -- I've deduced that she has two X chromosomes." You might as well just say that she appears to be presenting as a woman, no?

No -- because the work that your remark is doing is not just to communicate that you believe the target of your attention to be a woman; it's also reinforcing the belief that for each person, there exists a single, objectively measurable sex, which is always male or female, and which may differ from that person's internal sense of who they are. In other words, it's reinforcing the believe that trans people have a "true sex" that's different from the sex they intrinsically know themselves to be, while cis people just are men or women; no need for auxiliary phrases like "identify as".

Ever since this particular ideology -- that of biological essentialism -- was established (which actually wasn't all that long ago -- modern medical technology caused more pressure to "correct" intersex people's bodies in order that they might not live to contradict the ideology of objectively measurable, binary sex), cis people have had a number of privileges. For one, a cis person has the privilege of killing their sexual partner if the partner is trans and the cis person claims their partner failed to reveal their "true sex", so-called. For another, people who run health insurance companies can save money by denying trans people health care and claiming that having developed with anatomy that doesn't match your internal mental map of your body is a lifestyle choice. There are a variety of other ways in which people whose lives conform to an essentialist worldview can dominate those who don't, as I've written about before.

It's not like people ever got together to invent essentialism and decided to promulgate it by, in a centralized, coordinated fashions, encouraging people to say things like "My ovaries hurt today! I wish I had a Y chromosome." Broad social patterns can arise from local phenomena, like one person finding a particular turn of phrase useful and repeating it. And every time someone says something like, "Of course I love porn -- I have a Y chromosome," that reproduces essentialism one more time and gives it additional power. Language matters; how people think affects what people do. From essentialism, violence against trans people follows. If not for the belief that there is some innate, measurable, immutable characteristic about each person -- instantly observable by everyone (if you're cis) and everyone but yourself (if you're trans) -- that determines their sex, the trans panic defense wouldn't exist. We would have to accept that it's coercive to tell your child that they're a boy or a girl before they're old enough to tell you. We might even have to start asking everyone we meet what their preferred pronoun is -- or start using gender-neutral pronouns. (I like "they"/"them"/"their".)

You might argue that the number of women who don't have two X chromosomes, and the number of men who don't have a Y chromosome, is small. So small that there's no need for you to revise your language on account of such a small group. In reality, the size of a given minority group in question is nearly irrelevant when we're talking about language that erases that group. You know how it was once acceptable to use "he" as a generic pronoun, because the argument went that it was understood that "he" referred to both men and women -- even though you'd never say "If a person is pregnant, then he should take folic acid?" Now, of course, such language is only acceptable if you're George F. Will: most of us understand that when you use "he" this way, you send a covert (or not-so-covert, anymore) message that the default sort of human is a man, and womanhood is defined as a variation on a basic, default, masculine template. Likewise, when you ignore trans and intersex "exceptions", you send a covert message that trans and intersex people aren't really people, that they're "mistakes" or "deviations" -- irregular goods by-products of the manufacture of normal (cissexual) humans.

Thus, casual throwing about, by non-life-scientists, of "chromosome" talk doesn't lend a scientific veneer to any conversation -- quite the opposite. It says that you're a person to whom personal opinions about how the world should be -- namely, the value judgment that non-binary-sexed humans are mistakes -- are more important than observing the world as it is. The belief that an intersex person is a mistake -- is less of a typical, exemplary human than a cis, non-intersex person is -- will eventually, no doubt, be seen the same way we now view the researcher who wrote a 1981 paper on the (quote) "Abnormal Sexual Behavior" of female long-eared hedgehogs. We now see that a scientist who classifies the behavior they observe (whether it's lesbian hedgehogs or Friday night in the Castro) as "abnormal" is one who cannot be objective, as they have allowed their particular culture's norms to blind them to universal truth. Someday, the day will come when we look at the sorting of cissexuals into the "normal" bin, and transsexuals and intersex people into the "deviations" bin, as just as ideologically driven as slut-shaming a hedgehog. And that day can't come soon enough. When that day comes, we will no longer identify ourselves and each other by a biological marker that means little more to most of us than a reification of purely social conventions. Just as those of us who think women get to be human too try to avoid addressing a group that isn't entirely male as "You guys!", those of us who think that we get to be human whether or not we were born cissexual try not to repurpose perfectly good scientific terms to do political work that we don't even endorse. No, I'm not reaching when I make this comparison. In both cases ("you guys!" and "has two X chromosomes"), the usage of language is predicated on the assumption that there's a particular subset of humans (women, in the first case; trans women and some intersex people, in the second) that just isn't worth mentioning.

If you find all of these sentiments to be politically correct fascism, then you're not in the audience for this essay; I'm only addressing people who want to be respectful, more than that, express what they mean without causing genuine harm (as opposed to offense). I'm not telling you what to say -- I'm only offering food for thought for those who do care about how what they say affects other people's lives. If you do feel like all of this is politically correct pedantry or like you're being told what to do, stop reading now!

The rest of us want to stop using language that erases people, language that renders groups of people invisible. We can disagree with each other, can fight for what we think is right, but outright denying that a person or a whole group doesn't exist is worse than meanness. Being oppressed is worse than having somebody be rude or mean to you. So I hope that when you learn that words you've been using, with no intent to offend, have the effect of reinforcing social structures that make people invisible, you'll stop.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-10 07:43 am (UTC)
puzzlement: (Default)
From: [personal profile] puzzlement
Yes, just for the record: people with a Y chromosome have been known to become pregnant and give birth, while (statistically) a few thousand Americans have male genitalia and two X chromosomes apiece.

Thanks for the fun fact, I genuinely believed that having been pregnant limited the possibilities to XX and XXX. (I see this case report, for example, as an exception, after searching.) On the general topic: indeed. Thanks for the writeup.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-10 03:58 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] calculus_of_destructions
This was really good. Thanks so much for writing it!

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-11 03:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] protondonor17.livejournal.com
As far as I'm aware, the only important thing on the Y chromosome (outside the pseudoautosomal regions which don't count cause they're the same in both X and Y chromosomes) is the SRY gene. So sex chromosome karyotype is only even potentially relevant during development, and that's assuming the absence of SRY loss-of-function mutations, translocations of SRY onto an X chromosome, or variations in the many, many genes coding for steroidogenesis enzymes, steroid hormone receptors, etc. This makes the "chromosomes = assigned sex" reduction incredibly unscientific not only because it's loaded with all kinds of horrid value judgements, but also because it's ignoring the factors that actually operate during development! (And when cis people talk about "biological sex" it's generally development of genitalia and gonads that they seem to mean, rather than, say, neurological/encephalic sex.) Basically the more I learn about developmental bio the more weird and arbitrary the sex binary starts to seem. </biogeekery>

That said, as a person who knows fuck all about their karyotype, I'm here to tell you that I love this post.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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