Sex or Gender: Does the Form of Transition Matter?

This post is based on a comment to another post, but because the commenter didn’t even bother to make it about sexual orientation (which is the topic of the post where it came in as a comment), I’m not addressing it there. I am addressing it because this person demands that we “stop conflating transsexuals with transgenderism.” While that is a divergence from the very common, “trans women are women, so just get over it” variety of counter-argument, the support for that demand is no less full of lazy reliance on tropes and common, but discredited beliefs:

TransSEXuals do not transition to gender roles. They transition their SEX.

Here is the real-world, scientific definition of “sex” when applied to humans:
“The sum of the characteristics that distinguish organisms on the basis of their reproductive function and either of the two categories, male or female, into which organisms are placed on this basis.”

That’s it, nothing obscure or obtuse about it. What is missing is what is meant by “reproductive function” so here’s what that means:
“The biological capability to produce either ova or sperm.”

Very clear and concise. While there are additional aspects of female and male bodies that make them distinguishable from each other (and which correspond over 99.9% of the time — literally — to the ova- or sperm-producing capacity), including chromosomes and secondary sex characteristics, the bottom line is ova and sperm. Additionally, at least 95% of all adult humans not only have those gametes, but are fertile and capable of participating in the full human reproduction cycle.

This may seem to some people as unnecessarily reductive or uselessly precise. For other people, the list of other things that comprise what “sex” means (chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics) gives them the opportunity to debate the intricacies of this ad nauseum, playing games with exceptions and cherry-picking which items on the list are the most important. For people who are focused on not seeing the bigger picture, it then becomes an exercise in scoring points and winning arguments.

But human reproductive sex is lived reality for females and often in deadly ways. The vast majority of human females are pregnant at some point in their lives. This is a fact of human life and the core reality and function of biological sex — females can be impregnated and males do the impregnating. Further, that reality is the basis — the root — of how females are oriented to males in terms of human rights. There isn’t a social or cultural experience you can name that isn’t influenced by this root fact of nature. And in the majority of those experiences, women are in the subordinate position.

Feminists have been making this point for many, many years now. There is no reason for thinking people, especially those who claim to care about the experiences of girls and women, to keep having to have this explained and described. But that is the point, isn’t it. There is a gulf between the people who do care about female lived reality and the people who are making an argument for identity. But this commenter and many others now want to claim that there is a difference between one kind of “transition” and another:

The single most important part of transition is literally putting sex specific hormones in your body, closely followed by altering genitalia to represent desired sex.

There is no question that you can take any number of artificial chemicals, including hormones, that will change certain aspects of your physiology. What none of those chemicals can do, however, is change your biological sex. Nor can cutting things off or stitching things on. The commenter accidentally revealed the truth: All of those changes are cosmetic and result in only representing someone’s desired visible “sex” (because penis/penis-like = male and vagina/vagina-like = female).

Without digressing too far from the central point here, I want to mention that this is the space where post-modernist theorists have attempted to claim that the representation of a thing is the same as the thing itself. Whole continents of trees have been demolished for these claims to be ruminated over. But what is terribly fascinating to a handful of academics has not changed the facts of girls’ and women’s lives all over the world. If you choose to ignore those facts in the service of navel-gazing philosophies, you are nothing short of a soulless dilettante. Much like this person and what they are arguing for:

The reason transsexuals adopt gender roles associated with sex is to be identified as their desired sex.

Representational sex equals gender. If you must have your sex visible to others in the form of secondary sex characteristics that you have developed from taking artificial hormones, you are conceding to the gender binary just as transgender people do. Because in reality, adopting the visual representations of the other sex does not change your biological sex (just ask Thomas Beatie), it changes your perceived gender. The idea that it does change your sex is a medical fiction meant to address psychological issues.

Yet there are implicit and explicit demands on other people to go along with the medical fiction of sex change. But worse than that, this commenter who is demanding that we not conflate one form of transition with another, is also claiming that the conflation of sex and gender is perfectly fine if it suits an individual’s purposes.

Those of us who analyze these issues get that trans women think that acting out the stereotype of what “woman” means in society is a sure-fire way to be “identified” “correctly” and not “mis-gendered.” Many people who argue against our criticism fail to consider how that performance of a stereotype harms women and girls. A trans* person wants to act out a stereotype and have everyone go along with that. Many un-thinking people will. Just as they do when Miley Cyrus acts out the stereotype of what she thinks is a “sexy” adult woman filled to the brim with empowerment.

The sticking point is what feminists think about that, because unlike the “yay individualism!” liberals, we are concerned with more than those few individuals. While it is indeed sad that there are people desperate to be affirmed by other people in whatever role they’ve adopted (and we don’t begrudge people doing what they can to be more comfortable), the state of the world right now is such that our overarching concerns are for the girls and women who can’t simply live their full human lives for the single reason that they are biologically female.

While this commenter and many others want to advocate for pretend sex transitioning for a handful of people, the girls and women whose lives would be saved if that were a true possibility are nonetheless trapped by the oppressive sex and gender hierarchy some transsexuals are only too happy to support and strengthen.

Many feminists who want liberation for girls and women are very well aware of the difference between the transgender people who are demanding for everyone to agree that a penis is a female organ versus the people who only want to “pass” as their desired sex and gender (and on the far end, not just aping the stereotype, but stitching on the flesh-costume) and be left alone. While the latter person may be less likely to be demanding that feminists stop talking about all the problems that the trans* politic engenders, they are no more help in getting girls and women liberated from gender oppression. For that, the movement that supports any form of “transitioning” will continue to be criticized.

  1. ybawife said:

    Terrific stuff , clear and accessible information. Simple but brilliantly articulated. Tx you!

  2. nereidafilomena said:

    I refuse to call them trans women myself. I don’t think they should get to claim the word woman for themselves. Woman=adult human female. I won’t give it over. I also refuse to call them ‘she’ because I will not engage in their gender fantasies non-consensually! I refuse!

  3. Very well said, and speaks so many truths. Thank you for this,

  4. I really like this explanation of biology in the context of sex/gender discussions. We are constantly derailed by people who think that exceptions to the biological rule of reproduction (“intersex” conditions) can somehow undermine a feminist argument about the *social* construction of power dynamics. *Oppression* is a socially constructed problem of class-based power disparity. It is not inevitable; it needs a socially designed attack and solution. Not endless scientific debate about the effect of hormones on fetal development, etc. as you explain so sharply here:

    For other people, the list of other things that comprise what “sex” means (chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics) gives them the opportunity to debate the intricacies of this ad nauseum, playing games with exceptions and cherry-picking which items on the list are the most important. For people who are focused on not seeing the bigger picture, it then becomes an exercise in scoring points and winning arguments.

    We cannot authentically change our reproductive capacity from one sex to the other. And yet, we are asked to reduce the reality of reproduction to a mere REPRESENTATION thereof. Because of exceptions. It’s a circular argument if I’ve ever heard one.

  5. Sundazed said:

    One of the best posts I’ve seen on this subject. Thank You!

  6. Thank you for writing this. I have found it very hard to articulate my discomfort and yes, anger, at the pressure I feel to be inclusive in this way. I know there will only be condemnation and the accusation of ‘transphobia’. Tiresome. It also steers closely to the responses I have to drag and ‘camp’ in both women and men for many years now.

  7. Another excellent post. Clear and well written and from a place of love and compassion, rather than judgment or blame. I love the term ” female lived reality “. Brilliant! Praises, blessings, and thanks!

  8. kimberlycrail said:

    Reblogged this on Ancient Mother Wisdom and commented:
    Excellent summary of the gender/sex definitions, feminism and the transsexual/transgender issues women and girls face. “female lived reality” vs the “representation” of being female via drugs or “cutting things off”.

    Well written and clear, the tone is respectful and informative. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Julia said:

    can we give them “women” and claim ownership over “womyn”?

    Also, why is it that every article I read or any trans activism I see is 99% regarding trans “women”? I see so little publicly that concerns trans “men” rights. Why is this? Am i just looking in the wrong places?

  10. Dana said:

    Julia: Because they don’t really think “transwomen” are women and “transmen” are men. It’s clear they actually understand that “transmen” are females and feel contempt for them because of that.

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