tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
[personal profile] tim
"Sex is just what cis people call 'gender' when they want to misgender you." I've said this many times and I'll keep saying it as many times as I need to. If people remember one thing I've said, I hope it's that.

Why do cis people need the concept of "biological sex" so much? Why do they have such a strong need to put trans people in their place by saying, "Sure, you identify as a woman. But your biological sex is male"?

At the root of cisnormativity, like all other harmful normativities, is a desire to control. To exercise power over somebody else. And telling somebody, "You aren't really who you say you are -- I can invoke some greater authority that says you're lying about who you are" is a way of controlling somebody else. It frames that person as an unreliable narrator of their own experience, and reinforces the cis person's greater power to name, to identify, to categorize.

It doesn't help that the watered-down liberal version of trans education that has been promoted for a long time emphasizes the difference between "sex" and "gender," making cis people feel like they can evade criticism as long as they memorize that talking point. It also doesn't help that anyone who challenges the simplistic sex/gender binary gets accused of wanting to alienate allies or wanting to make it harder for them to understand us.

That didn't cause the problem, though.

"Sure, you identify as a man, but you'll always be truly biologically female" ultimately means, "What you identify as doesn't matter. It's not real; it's all in your head. My objective observation of your body is that you are female, and that's scientific."

There is no rule of science that says we must use terms for other people that they wouldn't use for themselves. That's social and political.

So the attachment to "biological sex" is really about saying this: "There is something other than your own self-description that I can use to classify and categorize you without your consent. I can categorize and label you based on externally observing your body, without asking you what categories you belong in." The power to name is the power to control. And cis people react badly when we try to take this power from them by saying that "sex" is just another name for gender.

It's easy to see what purpose "biological sex" serves structurally: gender-based oppression would no longer be possible if gender categories were entered into consensually. To oppress somebody, you need the ability to place them in an oppressed class in a way that others will generally recognize as valid.

But on an individual, psychological level, I wonder what purpose it serves. Why is there such a strong need in so many cis people to tell somebody else they're wrong about their own sex?

One answer is that cis people don't like admitting mistakes, and that most cis people learned as children that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. When faced with a choice between recognizing trans people as fully human, or maintaining their own omniscience, they go for the narcissistic choice of refusing to admit that what they learned early on was incorrect.

But I don't think that's the whole story. People make all kinds of mistakes, but admitting that they were taught something incorrect about sex categories seems uniquely difficult.

So I'm leaving it here as a question. Why does any individual cis person feel such a strong need to tell a trans person, "You are truly biologically male," or, "You are truly biologically female" when that isn't how the trans person would describe themself? The answer isn't "science", since science doesn't require anybody to place others in particular political categories; as well, very few cis people saying this have any understanding of science. I don't know the answer to this question, but I think the only way to begin finding it is to reject the pseudo-scientific notion of biological sex as objective truth rather than socially and politically motivated narrative. We have to stop asking what biological sex is, and start asking what work the concept of "biological sex" does and what needs it satisfies.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 12:21 am (UTC)
yatima: (Default)
From: [personal profile] yatima
This is a hard one, in that answering honestly means admitting to things I'd rather not have to acknowledge about myself. For example: I was horribly unsound on trans issues in my 20s. My unsoundness took the form of being mostly fine with people who I had met after transition, but deeply uncomfortable around people I met before transition. Essentially I wanted other people - and not only trans people, this was just the most obvious manifestation of my pathology - to stay still, to be what I originally thought they were, and not to change and show unexpected facets or depths.

This was a literally dehumanizing position that it took me far too long to unpack. I think it came from a deep fear of other people, and of loss of perceived control. I think I wanted to sort the world into the categories "threat"/"not-a-threat". I also perceived transition as a loss; in one case I saw it as self-mutilation, and in another I felt the journey of a famous lesbian writer who transitioned as a loss to literature by women.

Separately I was also confronted by the way some trans women performed femininity. I think I felt this as a challenge to my own gender performance, which has always been androgynous. Ironically I now see that in some cases, that performance of femininity was as unwelcome to them as it was to me, but was required of them by the medical establishment as a pre-condition of transition. Everyone loses!

It was all very selfish of me. I said none of it to the people involved but I'm sure they felt cold waves of confusion and general weirdness coming off me. I'm sorry for it and am working to educate myself and do better.
Edited Date: 2016-07-10 12:24 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 03:22 am (UTC)
sonia: Quilted wall-hanging (Default)
From: [personal profile] sonia
I don't need to tell a trans person anything about how they identify. None of my business!

Where I do still trip up, is that baby-making requires one sperm and one egg (and one womb), so it seems to me that there's still a binary in there somewhere, producing sperm or producing eggs. I wish there were a useful way to discuss that without the overlying layers of coercive identity.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 07:20 am (UTC)
juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] juli
Not connecting those things to identity is probably the easiest thing to do. There's no need to extend the biological dichotomy of gametes to a dichotomy of person. You just talk about the specific material/gametes needed, or who provided them, or whatever. And it's usually not even all that helpful or necessary to push the question of who provided them. So, really, the question is when it matters and why, but usually the issue can be avoided.

So, really, just don't feel the need to connect those specific biological traits, facts, facilities, etc., to any notion of sex or gender. Don't even connect them to chromosomes; that's demonstrably unscientific (i.e. wrong.)

Elided here is any exploration of the fact that for people who produce defective eggs we can combine eggs to produce a single viable egg for insemination; likewise any advancements related to combining just two eggs to create a complete, viable embryo.

Like with most other things connected to "biological sex", it's just a matter of avoiding the leap to dichotomous categories for people, or associating biological traits/facilities with identity, or speaking about biological traits/facilities unnecessarily, etc. It doesn't just help trans people, either, but more reflects the nuance of human biology, procreation, etc. I know a lesbian couple, one of whom is pregnant; do I need to know whose eggs, whose sperm? Do I need to wonder whether the other's womb is viable? For triads producing children, does it matter whether genetic material from one, two, three, or none is involved? Further variations left as an exercise to the reader.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 12:10 pm (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
That might be a trinary, though: producing viable sperm, producing viable eggs, or producing neither. The fertility industry exists in part because of the existence of the third category, which includes a large fraction of the human species: everyone at some points in their lives, and some people throughout. A lot of us don't know which category we're in; I know I don't produce sperm, and my efforts to avoid pregnancy have been based on the assumption that I do produce viable eggs, but consistent use of condoms means not knowing what would happen if sperm did reach one of those presumptive eggs.

Even most cis people these days wouldn't claim that a person changes gender at menopause, or if they have a hysterectomy or vasectomy. And fewer think of pre-pubescent children as a separate gender: there's a great insistence on labeling even infants as either male or female.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 05:00 pm (UTC)
sonia: Quilted wall-hanging (Default)
From: [personal profile] sonia
Agreed that when there's no baby-making involved, for whatever reason, this shouldn't even be an issue. At the same time, [personal profile] tim asked about why biological sex comes into it. I think a great deal of gender gatekeeping is societal structure aimed at controlling other people's baby-making.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-11 09:10 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
What your endocrine system is doing has real effects on parts of your life other than "can I make a baby" and may by a relevant thing to talk about. I don't see why we need to connect these things to gender; but equally I don't see how we can stop transphobic people from doing so.

it may be partly about insecurity

Date: 2016-07-10 12:45 pm (UTC)
redbird: congnitive hazard, one of those drawings that can't work in three dimensions (cognitive hazard)
From: [personal profile] redbird
One thing that might be going on is that some cis people think about gender long enough to get from "that person who was told ever since infancy that he was a girl knows he's male" to "so how do I know I'm a woman?" Throw in a culture that tells many people they aren't good enough/trying hard enough at being the gender they identify with—"girls don't like math" and "boys don't cry" and all the rest of that crap—I think people are looking for proof that they really are the gender they were raised in and identify with.

If the piece of paper from the hospital you were born in or the state or city Board of Health isn't proof against uncertainty, insults, or gatekeepers who say things like "you're not man enough for this activity" or "this is only for girls," what is? It's a bureaucratic as well as scientific and scientistic culture, and I think that means people are looking to a karyotype or a report from 23andme as a more convincing piece of paper.

(I also have a vague hunch that this question connects to biphobia, but that's going to take quite a bit more thought.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-10 08:05 pm (UTC)
graydon2: (Default)
From: [personal profile] graydon2
Why is there such a strong need in so many cis people to tell somebody else they're wrong about their own sex?

Buncha reasons. First as you say there's almost certainly an element of control-of-others, siding with the oppressor.

I think there's also a lot of misinformation, a kind of ambient scientism that assumes that science has simple and easily-grasped reductive models of phenomena; a lot of people have literally no idea that science might say the opposite of what they think on a subject, or provide extra detail that makes the subject seem more complex or nuanced, or define blurrier and more-overlapping categories than before the scientific inquiry started. Ask someone if they believe in similarly simplified and essentialist categories of biological species for example (much less races), or the beginning and end of lives, or individual identity, or memory, or physical objects, elements, time, space ... Virtually every concept that people think science has a simple and rigorous model for, science actually has a maddeningly complex model with dozens of extra variables for, surprise boundary conditions, and only a few blurry statistical clumps we use to assign day-to-day terms to. That's an unnerving fact obscured from the public understanding of science, and it gives room for pseudoscience and scientism.

I think added to that, the way people relate to gender is often tied up in the way they entertain sexual attraction, and the degree to which people produce aesthetic categorization that -- even if they know it to be subjective -- they feel strongly about and want to justify through some appeal to objectivity. People tend to struggle to define their subjective aesthetic categories and often grasp for justifications around them: just watch someone try to tell you that some music, food, art or comedy is "objectively bad". I think something similar happens around gender and sexuality (to say nothing of class and race).

Often the most reliable and comforting aesthetic justification to grasp for is intangible and tied up with a model of authenticity defined by provenance, pedigree, or similar origins: you don't know why (say) a Hermes bag is the best bag, but you know that Hermes happens to make them. Genes are seen to "make" people, so stories around genetic provenance flow pretty naturally if you believe that / have a simplified model of the science. But the problem with the intangible provenance-based construction of aesthetics is that it's subject to forgery -- someone can make a fake origin-story, to try to garner the attention of those who pay attention to the "authentic" -- and so people wind up expending a fairly large amount of energy uncovering "true" provenance, trying to differentiate authenticity from fakery. Trans people, I think, run into this entire category of human psychological trappings around Pretender vs. Legitimate. I mean there are numerous literary genres structured around unmasking the fake and acknowledging the True Secret Princess / Heir To Throne etc.

Tbh -- I hope this isn't painful to hear! -- I find trans (and gay) narratives around this a little challenging. Because they often appeal to the notion of True vs. Fake while simultaneously denying those notions. That is: it's not uncommon to hear someone describe their experience as one of uncovering their "true" gender or orientation, with the implication that it's an immutable facet of themselves, a clear category to which they "belong", that they just had to do enough homework to uncover the truth of. But this claimed truth is simultaneously defended by an appeal to the nonexistence and/or subjectivity of "true" categories, a request to have others suspend their judgments of immutable or objective categories and defer to more personal, contingent, maybe even situational truths.

(I know this is not an original observation on my part, I've heard lots of gender and sexuality theorists make the same point, and to the extent that I have no skin in the game I tend to never mention it unless we're knee deep in a conversation about said theory. I absolutely respect the need to make whatever argument is expedient in establishing one's own safety and societal right to exist. I just find it's hard to spell out a consistent, detailed epistemic theory around the topics of gender and orientation aside from "can't we all get along?", and as a result I mostly keep my mouth shut about the details.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-11 12:39 am (UTC)
luinied: I can't do this in-joke justice in the space available for image descriptions. (egg)
From: [personal profile] luinied
That is: it's not uncommon to hear someone describe their experience as one of uncovering their "true" gender or orientation, with the implication that it's an immutable facet of themselves, a clear category to which they "belong", that they just had to do enough homework to uncover the truth of.

I don't remember if I've shared this somewhere you read, so apologies if this is repetition, but the best refutation of this that I've read is this post of Natalie Reed's (though I hear these things had been said earlier, I just don't have links to that). In particular it has both the detailed overanalysis that I like (though I get why not everyone does) and the admission that, yeah, we don't go into this complexity a lot because people looking for ammunition against us love taking things we say out of context.

(But as someone who had trans friends since age 17 and only finally admitted that transitioning always seemed appealing at 31, I'm pretty into getting the word out that things can be complicated and not obvious in how they fit together.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-11 10:14 pm (UTC)
graydon2: (Default)
From: [personal profile] graydon2
That is a great article!

Though .. minor caveat, but .. it still contains a superfluous appeal to the notion that evolved characteristics are either adaptive or maladaptive; if there's one thing I wish the public could get over around evolution, it's this belief that evolution is all about adaptation (or lack thereof). Many characteristics -- even those fixed in populations -- are effectively just noise and there's nothing more to say about their effect on the organism than "huh, I guess it has/does/is this thing". It's not good or bad, just neutral.

(All that subject to the caveat that I'm ... not especially keen on genetic determinism in the first place.)
Edited Date: 2016-07-11 10:15 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-11 06:12 pm (UTC)
wild_irises: (imagination)
From: [personal profile] wild_irises
I have long thought about the fact that a baby's genitals are the first thing we learn about them. These days, we learn that long before skin color, and while skin color can be quite a surprise, it's usually within an expected range, and also subject to change for many years after birth.

Genital configuration, on the other hand, while nowhere near as binary as culturally assumed, statistically most often falls into one of two fairly easily defined categories. It seems to me to be understandable to want to know something about a baby, and that's a very visible thing.

NOTE: I completely agree about control and other things people have said above. I'm just adding what seems to me to be a rarely discussed datapoint.

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Tim Chevalier

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