• Sara Perry


The conversation ignited by the new "ban" on transgender military members goes much further than whether or not the military should have to cover the expenses of hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgeries. It goes back to the core of how we, as a society, define and categorize sex and gender, and the repercussions of the system of dichotomy we use for everything; black/white, good/bad, light/dark, male/female, gay/straight.

The very basis of our language pushes us to fit things into polar opposites, making it extremely difficult to accommodate for all of the variation in nature. As we come to work closer to analyzing things as a spectrum, it's probably best to start with breaking down the definition of the words we are using.

Gender: "either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female". Social and cultural differences might as well mean: what you and your friends decide. We have come to understand gender in terms of how we feel on the inside about what we want to come off as. Trying to keep it in very simple language, gender is about who you are as your eyes scan from your toes into your reflection. The lucky ones that feel great in their shell, the ones that want to rearrange a few things, the ones that want to peel it all off, and everyone in between. Most of society understands that feeling feminine or masculine can vary and that it's sort of okay to feel something that others don't expect you to feel. Things get a little more complicated when we start talking about biology, just because we think we can examine in with objective lenses... but instead, we pathologize.

The term "sex" can refer to dozens of things, but when we are talking about a biological sex we are typically referring to masculine versus feminine properties that a body has. The Webster's dictionary defines it as: 1.- Either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures; or 2.- The sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of organisms that are involved in reproduction marked by the union of gametes and that distinguish males and females. Does anyone see the problem here? When we are saying either of the "two major forms" we are acknowledging the entire spectrum of people being left out- but we are not providing an alternative for those people. The second part is even more vague, imposing behaviors into part of the definition (vague, perhaps, but incredibly helpful in advocating for trans and intersex).

To define sex, we need a clearly distinguished criteria. The most typical approach we use is genitalia (flash into clips of hilarious gender reveal ideas and pink and blue streamers). We know there are millions of penis-having people, and millions of vulva-having people, but what about everyone in between? I know what you are thinking but stick with me here- how uncommon is the occurrence of an intersex individual (and FUCK! How do we define intersexuality?!)? It's actually pretty common --according to studies by Fausto-Sterling et al., it is the same percentage of the population that is redheaded. So, every time you see someone with red hair, use it as a reflective moment to consider another person in the vicinity is likely a natural variation of sex. Mind you, a lot of times, intersex individuals don't look intersex at all- with it not becoming obvious until puberty or when they are trying to conceive. Until pretty recently, some US states had laws that allowed for immediate genital correction of "abnormal" genitalia with and sometimes without notification to the parents. The 1970s were excremely scalpel-happy with the rise of "corrective" surgeries with the assumption that surgeries before the age of long-term memory and upbringing were ultimately less traumatic. We saw boys with micro penises being carved into picture-perfect vulvas, only to realize many never identified as women in the long run. The famous case of David Reimer ended in depression and suicide- showing that decisions on sex and gender ultimately only fall on shoulders of the person wearing the skin.

Ok ok, so maybe we can't tell if you are male of female by looking at your genitals. But perhaps the sex chromosomes? You definitely can't fake that. While XX and XY are common chromosomal patterns in humans, but they are not the only arrangement. What is more, XXY, XYY, XXX not only exist (as does the combination of both types inside of one person (XY/XX), but they can have common genitalial expression and behavioral characteristics. How do we account for all of the people on the XY spectrum? And why do we keep calling these expressions unnatural when they are literally nature intact?

So genitals are funky and chromosomes like to dance around like drunk chicks at a nightclub... what about behavior? Are there tendencies to behaviors that seem to be related to one side of the spectrum as opposed to the other in all cultural frameworks? To us it would seem that males tend to be more assertive. They are the hunters, both in terms of providing and in terms of seeking mates. They are more aggressive both in language and in presentation. Females, however, tend to be caretakers... at least in humans. They tend to advocate for compromise and resolution. Would you agree? And would you allow these patterns of behavior to be enough to categorize males and females discriminately? The African Aka community would beg to differ, with their males staying home with the littles, even filling breastfeeding roles. The Mosuo in Tibet, similarly see masculinity as frail and cumbersome. Females lead everything from the food to the finances.

With definitions so vague and so broad, it is a wonder we have managed to maintain the notion that gender and sex is (naturally, heavenly ordained) dichotomous. Perhaps the shift into the acceptance of trans and intersex is a much greater shift into the acknowledgement of the varied expressions of human bodies we are lumped into- shells that at the very least were made with intricacies and specialty; and perhaps even were perfectly designed to be as unique as they are.

In a world where what nature makes is considered unnatural, what do we have as evidence that it is not? And when will be the breaking point that asks for true objectivity?


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