Beyond the Genderbread Person

The Failures of Biological Sex

If you’ve been around in queer spaces for just about any length of time, the odds are good that you’ve seen something like this picture before:

https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2018/10/the-genderbread-person-v4/

The Genderbread Person is meant as an educational tool which familiarizes children with the basics of how different queer identities interact. For this purpose, it’s more or less adequate. However, today I want to use it as a jumping-off point for discussing one of the most persistently misused and misunderstood concepts surrounding gender theory and biology: the concept of biological sex.

An elusive, complicated, and easily weaponized topic, biological sex attracts the attention of internet reactionaries, sociologists, and biologists alike. There are a deluge of takes out there, and I’m here to tell you that they’re all literally, factually, objectively wrong. So say I, the internet lady.

Seriously though, I find the ways this is conceptualized by most people who mention it to be severely lacking, including material like The Genderbread Person which is supposed to support trans people. I can’t say I have that much formal experience with biology, but I do have 21 years experience of being an actual living, breathing trans person with thoughts and a persistent internal consciousness.

I want to make it clear, though, that I don’t hold any grudge against this chart or the people I see talking about biological sex in a non-transphobic way. I simply think that a lot of common understanding of the topic is severely flawed. I’m going to be restating a lot of things from this Twitter thread and my own thread on the matter, so I’d encourage you to read those for a bit of supplementary discussion.

Part 1: What is Biological Sex?

A stylized render of several X chromosome pairs floating in a blue liquid
https://humanoriginproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/human-chromosome-function.jpg

I think one of the quickest ways to get to the root of the problem I’m talking about here is to ask ourselves what exactly biological sex is. Of course, the common understanding is that it’s not equivalent to gender, which is true, but what actually is it? A quick search on dictionary.com gives this:

1. either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated with reference to the reproductive functions.

2. the sum of the structural and functional differences by which the male and female are distinguished, or the phenomena or behavior dependent on these differences.

This definition is more or less serviceable for most people. The majority of people are Male or Female, so sex is just all the things that differentiate those two groups. But if there’s one thing I learned in engineering school, it’s that everything gets more complicated the more you zoom in, and you have to use the right scientific model for the job. Newtonian mechanics break down when you approach the speed of light, and this definition of sex breaks down when you consider the existence of trans and intersex people.

Are trans women Male or Female? Which reproductive functions have to be present to be classified as such? What about people with attributes of both or neither group? Perhaps this is where the Genderbread Person can help us out.

Now the distribution is no longer a simple binary, but a set of two spectrums accompanied by a system of checkboxes detailing what you were assigned at birth. While it’s a valiant attempt at clarifying things further, this more detailed, text filled version still leaves things very ambiguous, especially in the distinction between “Gender Expression” and “Anatomical Sex.” Grooming and hair are considered a part of gender expression, while body hair is a biological sex thing — but aren’t these both the same thing? Gender expression contains your appearance, while anotomical sex includes your body hair, skeleton, genitals, voice, skin — pretty much every aspect of … your appearance. Where’s the line here?

It’s clear that the “Anatomical Sex” scales are trying to measure all the elements of presentation & biological state that are traditionally gendered, but why are these being given special consideration over everything else when most of them are things you can literally change? The author even acknowledges these things change over the course of your life:

Sometimes we’re talking about sex assigned at birth, and a lot of other times we’re talking about the anatomical sex that someone embodies (which changes, for all of us, throughout the course of our lives — although that change is, for some of us, more drastically, or for different reasons, than others).

So then, there’s the sex you were assigned at birth, and then there’s your “Anatomical Sex”, which is a stitched together mess of all the elements of your biology that cannot be changed with something as simple as clothes or a razor. These traits are then meant to go on a set of two “male” and “female” spectra in some sort of normalized fashion.

Just one problem though. How does that work!? What makes you increase in Male Points? If you lose your boobs from breast cancer do you drop on the Female-ness spectrum? Does your dick size affect your Anatomical Sex Rating? Would a bearded cis woman get more Masculinity Credits than a particularly androgynous cis man?

Interestingly enough, the checkboxes are a lot more clear and straightforward, and don’t come with a lot of weird connotations. Birth assignment is based on genitals, hence the symbol being placed on the Genderbread Person’s crotch. This refers to what a doctor assumed you were when you were born based on what they thought your genitals looked like. The “anatomical sex” spectrums, on the other hand, fall to the same problems as every other attempt to put sex on a spectrum. They lump a lot of characteristics together and just sort of assume them to be indicative of some kind of transcendental sex alignment that exists outside of us and can be channeled in varying amounts.

These kinds of charts fail because they cram a lot of different attributes associated with biological sex, each of which come with their own sets of checkboxes or spectrums, onto just one axis (or two half-axes). The only way to get any clear meaning out of this is to already have a lot of unquestioned baggage about what a man or a woman inherently is. It almost seems as if maybe the entire biological state of the human body can’t reasonably be reduced down to a single bimodal variable. Almost. Who can say? Certainly not me. I would never say that.

Part 2: The Entire Biological State of the Human Body Can’t Reasonably Be Reduced Down to a Single Bimodal Variable

A vague collection of reddish lines and swirls, presumably as part of a cell
Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash

So what am I getting at here? Where am I going with this? Am I trying to discount the whole of biological sex as a concept? Am I indulging in some hopelessly aimless postmodern skepticism? Well, yes and no. All I’m really trying to do is draw attention to all the broader sociological baggage contained in a mention of biological sex, even by well-intentioned allies.

The thing is, when we mention biological sex, whether to own the TRA’s online or to differentiate it from gender, we don’t really make it clear what we’re actually talking about. To some, I, as a trans woman, am “biologically male”. But this is a confusing way of describing my biological state, isn’t it? I have significantly more estrogen flowing through my body than testosterone, I have naturally-developed breasts, the fat on my body mostly distributes towards my hips, etc. Yet, to the people who perpetuate this idea, my current biological state is effectively the same as it was when I was born, or at best only a few points higher on the female-ness scale.

Pictured: Me, a Biological Male whose internal biology is identical to when I was born

Even when a conception of biological sex allows for change over time and distribution along a spectrum like the Genderbread Person does, we still run into the same problems detailed in the last part. So many traits are crushed together onto this single spectrum. Exactly how many Male Points do I get vs. Female Points? Which parts of my body count for how many? Is anyone going to actually test what my chromosomes are?

So then, what are we really talking about when we talk about biological sex? It’s brought up as shorthand for all sorts of different aspects of your biology, from height to genetics to genitalia to hormonal makeup. It’s used to describe what you “look like” to someone, often to dismiss your gender out of hand. Truthfully, though, there’s only one point in your life where your sex is actually definitively determined, and that’s when you’re born.

But what does the doctor actually do to test your Immutable Biological Sex at birth? Do they test your genes to see what chromosome pairs you have? Maybe check for residue of certain hormones? Do they have a crystal ball that tells them how your body will develop and what your gender will be? No. They measure your dick. They take a look at your genitals and check to make sure your glans is in the correct length range. If it’s not big or small enough they might engage in “corrective” surgeries to force it to be. Either way, you’re generally at this point declared either Male or Female, immutably, forever.

A chart detailing current medical standards for assigning sex at birth, provided by ISNA.
https://www.ambitgenderdiversity.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Webp.net-resizeimage-4-500x298.jpg

Now, for most people this basically works. The genitals typically indicate which hormones you were exposed to in the womb, which typically indicates what chromosomes you have. Typically, those chromosomes will guide further release of hormones, guiding your body to develop in a way typical of your assigned sex through puberty. Your gender will typically line up with this, and your sexuality will typically be aligned towards people of the opposite sex. But the word “typical” is doing a lot of work here, isn’t it?

Every single step in this process can go differently from expectations. You might have androgen insensitivity syndrome, which causes you to grow indistinguishably from a cis woman despite your XY chromosome pair. You might be trans or intersex in any number of different ways. You might be a lesbian. You might be a woman with hyperandrogenism and perform so well in sports as a result that people will try to get you banned. All sorts of things could happen, and none of them are well described by the concept of biological sex at all, even as a spectrum.

So then, what’s the alternative? Well, the answer to that question is actually quite simple. When we need to talk about the ways in which I might differ from an average cis woman, we can … talk about ways in which I might differ. If we need to talk about my dick, or my prostate, or anything, we can just talk about it. If my y-chromosome needs to come up, we can talk about what things are more likely for people with y-chromosomes. The key thing is that there’s nothing inherently, transcendentally gendered about these elements of my biology. My dick is just an organ, it doesn’t have “men only” scribbled on it, nor does the testosterone molecule or the concept of beards.

When you claim I’m a biological male, you obscure all the things that separate me biologically from a typical cis man and overemphasize what little distinguishes me from a typical cis woman. If I told my doctor I was a biological male, he’d want to know why my T levels are so low for a man my age. Instead, my doctor just knows that my body exists as it is, without the unsubstantiated connotations of “sex”. Not only is this a more inclusive way of talking about things that tends to be less hurtful to trans people generally, it’s also just a more accurate way to discuss the underlying biology.

Part 3: How Biological Sex Obscures Biology

A translucent person sitting on a bench
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/invisible-women-book-dangerous-gender-data-gap-health-safety

On March 7, 2019, British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez published Invisible Women, a book which I broadly appreciate the conceit of. It digs into the all-too-common ignorance inherent in “blind” data collection, detailing how the lack of female test subjects in many data sets creates implicit misogynist bias in AI training, thermostat setting, risk mitigation, medical training, and much more. I haven’t personally read the book, but I find its core idea very interesting and important. It’s ironic, though, how such a repudiation of wild overgeneralizing assumptions about biology seems to frame its entire argument in purely binary terms.

The book’s claims, or at least those claims that have spread online, tend to take the form of simple truisms about the biology of men and women. Women experience heart attacks differently, men have faster metabolisms, you get the idea. While some instances are at least explained in more depth (i.e. cars are designed for people around an average cis man’s height, so women are often less safe driving), many of these are simply stated as a fact with no clear reasoning, at least in reporting and broader understanding of the book. This leaves someone like me in an interesting situation.

To be clear, I don’t mean to rag on this book, and it may go into more detail in and of itself. I’m simply using this as a jumping off point to talk about a particularly bothersome effect of the fixation on “biological sex”. The question is, when I see a statement like “women experience heart attacks differently”, what am I supposed to take from that? How is my knowledge of my body improved by such a broad statement? It certainly works fine for the majority of people, but I and many others like me are left wondering what our heart attacks will feel like, or how quick our metabolisms can be expected to be.

Two people walking in the woods
Photo by Boxed Water Is Better on Unsplash

This is something that crops up regularly in everyday life. I’m sure many of the cis people reading this barely notice all the times they have to tick off a “gender” box on a form which is clearly meant to be asking about their biology. For someone like me, though, that everyday occurrence will spark a lot of confusion. When I set my profile on my calorie counter, I have to pick from “male” and “female” — which will give a more accurate picture of an effective calorie goal? A personal health class I’m taking insists that fat composition should be above 4% for men and 12–13% for women — what should be my threshold? COVID-19 infection is more likely for “men” — am I at an increased risk? Despite mass consensus that these differences are based on “sex” rather than gender, gender was the only variable that was actually tested for. These data failed to give the actual causes of those differences, so I can’t know how they affect me.

Importantly, none of this difficulty is particularly borne out of dysphoria, at least not primarily. Trans people complaining about these topics are often characterized as if our distress is entirely a matter of philosophy and personal comfort, but it is in fact a very practical issue. I have hormone levels typical for a cis woman my age, my fat distributes towards my hips and breasts (which I, you know, have), and my body hair grows far thinner and blonder than it used to, but I of course still have a dick and I’m still broader-shouldered and taller than I might’ve been had my first puberty been stopped. So then, how fast is my metabolism? How will my heart attacks occur? Whose nutritional guidelines can I follow? What do I write on medical forms?

Trans people are not, as some people insist, dogmatically convinced that we are identical to cis people. I and most of the trans people I know are fine with acknowledging certain ways in which we differ from cis people. The problem is that transphobes, among others, endorse such an oversimplified and binary view of biology that they conclude that if a trans woman like myself is not identical to some platonic ideal of a “real” woman, then she must instead be identical to the opposite. But that’s not how this works. Trans women are simply a different kind of woman, a group with different biological needs in some cases and similar needs in others. If we can understand that black and white women are both women despite having differences in susceptibility to certain diseases and slightly different physical appearances, we can understand this (as an aside, the intersection of racism and this kind of essentialized sex is an interesting topic but as a white woman I feel I have little authority to talk about it in depth).

A clean medical office
Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

I’ve been focusing on trans women primarily in this section due to my personal experience with being one, but some notice should be paid to the problems faced by other kinds of trans people. When it comes to gendered bathrooms, for example, trans men are often made to choose between using a bathroom where they have the ability to dispose of tampons and using a bathroom where they won’t look and feel incredibly out of place. Trans men who need abortions are also often swept under the rug, their hard-won legal recognition being used against them. When the wider world fails to understand biology, trans men are often placed in this uncomfortable dilemma of either telling one lie or telling another. I am not being dramatic when I say that this can be fatal.

Nonbinary people also exist as potentially the greatest issue for this whole facade. I’m a nonbinary trans woman, which gives me the benefit of pretending to be binary in most places and marking down the “sex” option that’s close enough to my gender just for the sake of putting something down. People with weaker or more variable attachments to a binary gender than I will face far more confusion, and the expansion of biological discussion to more than a single bimodal variable stands to help them the most. Otherwise, they are bombarded daily with a series of binary questions that they have no real way of answering, and the addition of a “nonbinary” checkbox is often far too vague to meaningfully alleviate this.

some undefined statistics on a screen
Photo by M. B. M. on Unsplash

Biological sex makes it nearly impossible to talk about any of the nuance that I’ve discussed in this section. Transphobes will claim that we, as trans people, are hiding from our own biology, that we can’t change reality with simple self-identification, but more often than not they seem to be living in a far more absurd fantasy than ours. A model of all humans bodies as one of two immutable and perfectly identical forms is patently ridiculous, as I hope I’ve shown here.

The human body is diverse and complicated, and no two people are alike. Yet, we all have the same organs, on a basic level. Our bodies have the same blueprints in our DNA, sans a small part that adjusts hormone release in the womb and during puberty. My body knew how to develop breasts with nothing but signalling from a single organic compound. Before we emerge from the womb, our testes and ovaries, scrota and labia, penis and clitoris, are one and the same. And even as we differentiate through puberty, we may become tall or short, pears or apples, strong or weak, active or passive, regardless of what hormones are sparking that puberty, if with slightly different statistical likelihoods. This artificial sense of objective difference is perhaps the greatest failure of biological sex as a framework. Despite the name, it shows little care for biology as it exists in the real world.

Part 4: The Point of Biological Sex

An image of two people kissing
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

I hope I’ve made a good case for why biological sex isn’t very good at its job, or at least gotten you to reconsider your assumptions a little bit. Now, I’d like to talk a little more about what I think biological sex is really doing, intentionally or not. In order to talk about that, I’m going to revisit the Genderbread Person. Remember them? This article was about them, at some point.

See, older versions of that figure weren’t quite as robust in terms of at least attempting to reckon with some of the broader diversity of gender and sexuality. The first version looked like this:

The original Genderbread Person, featuring 4 spectrums from male to female in Attraction, Identity, Expression, and Sex

This very basic framework has been a common way of trying to talk about queerness with people who have absolutely no idea whatsoever. Most people are very bogged down in the conception that whatever ideas were handed down to them by their parents and society at large are objectively correct on some level beyond any of us. With the idea ingrained that to have a vagina is to be a woman and vice versa, I can understand why shooting low and simply attempting to disentangle spectrums of gender and “sex” has become so popular. When I was younger and didn’t understand a lot, I certainly found that easy to digest.

However, when I started talking to more trans people, I found that it was even easier to digest the idea that the entire concept of sex is sloppy and flawed from the start. I was in a conversation on Discord a few years ago in which some cis guy was confused as to why calling a trans woman a “biological male” was wrong. A trans person basically explained that in such situation that her biological state had to come up, it would be far more productive to just directly talk about her dick or prostate or whatever than to mask it behind such stigmatizing terminology as “biological male”. I had spent years up to that point framing everything with “sex and gender are different”, but just like that, I was incredibly on board. It just seems a lot more intuitive in the end.

Perhaps that’s just because I’m trans and some hard-coded societal idea of an objective association between these things didn’t sink in quite as firmly for me. That’s difficult to say. But what I can say is that the use of “sex and gender are different” as a catch all explanation of trans people is one of my biggest pet peeves online. The more I think about it, the more that phrase feels like a complete cop-out, an excuse to not challenge entrenched ideas of what gender and biology are and what they can be. It would be too radical to simply say that sometimes women are born with dicks and men are born with vaginas, because evidently at some point God Himself came down from the sky and informed us that our genitals came with DRM.

Two people presumably celebrating a gender reveal party
Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash

Fundamentally, the core of biological sex is about, well, sex. Like, reproductive sex. Fucking. There’s no shortage of radical feminist theory that makes this claim. A “real” woman is defined in a patriarchal society as whatever person is capable of growing and rearing children, and a man as whoever can fill her with that child, pin her down, limit her agency as much as possible. Anyone born with a vagina is supposed to have a complementary uterus and is therefore assigned to the role of woman, future homemaker, mother, baby oven, sex thing. Anyone born with a penis must surely eventually develop gonads capable of producing sperm, alongside the necessary bulk, body hair, and anger management issues for picking up a job at a steel mill or something.

This assignment is backed up by centuries of dubious studies and pseudoscience that attempt to frame women as weaker, more passive, less driven, dumber, slower, smaller, lesser. It’s nothing but essentialism, deciding whether you’re a spear or a mirror, aggressive or vain, strong or pretty, before you’ve even let out your first cry. In this way, birth assignment and by extension “biological sex” is one of the most powerful tools for the perpetuation of patriarchy. The expectations assumed to follow naturally from your “sex” harm everyone, forcing men into power and danger and women into coddling and submission. The concept has always been far more focused on denoting what role you’re supposed to fill than actually understanding people or their biology.

Though we understand sexuality now to be a distinct thing from gender or sex, it’s pretty easy to see based on what I’ve said here that things weren’t always that way. Before queer people gained mass prominence, to be gay was to be trans, because both were a violation of your role. In a world where attraction to women was considered a fundamental part of the male experience and vice versa, anyone who experienced some amount of attraction to anyone they weren’t supposed to would naturally interpret it a very similar way to someone experiencing unrelated conflict between their gender and birth assignment. What else would explain the idea of an effeminate gay man or a butch lesbian so clearly? The transcendent experience that links all queer people, despite our unrelated nature on the surface, is that repudiation of birth assignment, that knowlege that we aren’t what society has told us to be.

A roughly painted set of LGBT pride flag colors
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Over time, sexuality and gender as concepts were disentangled from each other and from the all-encompassing notion of biological sex. The LGBTQ+ community formed as a space where people could decide for themselves what roles and ideas worked for them and transform these oppressive frameworks into methods of self-actualization and understanding. Sexuality, no longer enforced, became a self-determined idea of what people you find attractive. Gender in trans communities has changed from a tool of self-restriction to a means of self-expression. And yet, biological sex is still here, puttering along as if nothing has happened.

Even as we understand how to conceptualize sexuality and gender, among other things, separately from one another, we still attempt to cling to some haphazard remnant of this framework which treats a baby’s crotch with the same reverence as a crystal ball. All this bargaining with the concept of biological sex feels utterly pointless to me. Attempts to use terms like male and female instead of man and woman to somehow circumvent these issues fall flat too, because terms don’t just instantly lose their connotations like that and talking about “males” doesn’t achieve anything useful that talking about actual biology couldn’t. Even the second version of the Genderbread Person, when pressed to come up with 5 biological sex presets, had to resort to intensely vague language in order for the concept to make any sense in this context.

The biological sex spectrums from GPv2, featuring presets for male, female, intersex, “female self-ID” and “male self-ID”

I used the Genderbread Person as a jumping off point for this article because of the specific ways it tries to bargain with and simplify queerness and ends up over-complicating things and becoming outdated in like 2 years. I feel this is emblematic of serious flaws in how both transphobes and genuinely well-meaning cis people approach gender. When you try to frame queerness in purely normalized terms, taking care to make us seem as nonthreatening as possible, you simultaneously declaw queer politics as a whole, leaving us unable to implement the broader sociological change that our existence necessitates. Sometimes that dampened, nonthreatening queerness can be useful for teaching people and advancing our cause. But the moment we fully give up on trying to reformat the world we live in to suit the true diversity of experience that exists inside us is the only moment we truly fail.

Part 5: Objections

Two people talking to each other on a bench in front of a window with a view of a beach
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Before I wrap up, I think it would be prudent to address some of the more obvious objections to my line of thinking and some of the ones I’ve encountered when talking about this in the past. I’ll try to avoid fighting against strawmen here but I’m as flawed as anyone, so don’t take my word as law.

Many feminist issues, like birth control and abortion, are heavily tied in with biology. Do you believe that these issues cannot be considered fundamentally feminist, and do you think that biology has no place in feminism?

As I said in the last part, biological sex is a method of patriarchal role assignment first and a functional theory of biology second. The kinds of people who want to restrict such things as birth control and abortion for sexist ends are not doing so out of any respect for biology, but as a way of enforcing what they think biology is supposed to be. To them, trans men are failures in an identical way to women who don’t want to deal with 9 months of pregnancy; both are rejecting their birth assignment and attempting to exercise a level of autonomy that “females” aren’t supposed to have.

In other words, “family values” conservatives don’t agree that trans men are men, and preventing anyone with a uterus from exercising a certain control over their life and body seems to them to be a perfect way of keeping women in their proper role. It’s hardly the first time that discriminatory policy has affected people outside the intended target; in fact, the power of most discriminatory policy is that it appears to simply be a principled regulation of something unrelated to the target on the surface. Poll taxes, literacy tests, the war on drugs — none of these exclusively affect black people, and their perpetuation through generations makes the racist intent hard to notice, but they are still racist policies. It should be simple in feminist theory to simply say that reproductive or uterine health is being restricted rather than women’s health, even if the target remains the same.

We can’t expect children to understand such complicated concepts as what you’re talking about. Even I find it hard to understand!

I suppose this is purely subjective, but I would argue the opposite. As it stands, we bolt our biology to a bunch of unwieldy terms like “male” that can imply a host of different things. In my opinion, it would be easier to develop more precise terminology for specific body parts and elements of biological state. A lot of scientific research could become much more concise with better terminology for these things.

As for children, I think simply explaining that certain body parts exist, that some are usually correlated with each other, and that some imply certain things about your future development would be much more elegant than trying to cram this whole messy concept of sex into the mix. The only real reason we don’t do this now is pure social inertia and the understanding that children will have already learned about this from their parents before they enter school at all. I don’t have the answer for that, it’s going to be a gradual process. The point is, though, that the only reason this seems complicated now is because you’re used to the alternative.

What is the source of gender dysphoria if biological sex isn’t real? Do you believe that transitioning is wrong and that trans people should just accept their bodies as they are?

I come at this stuff from a position of radical bodily autonomy. I think people should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, so even though I would argue that the hormones I take aren’t inherently “female” and they aren’t progressing me some discrete amount towards being a “real” woman, I still think I should have the right to use them. I want the physical effects they provide, they make me feel better.

Gender dysphoria is a complicated thing. It appears to have some mixed origin in biology and sociology, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t really have the perfect answer there, I just experience it in a way that’s impossible to describe. Even though I intellectually understand that I wouldn’t be less of a woman if I had a flat chest or a beard, sometimes it can be hard to really internalize that. My internal emotional state doesn’t always bend the knee to my ideological convictions, and it shouldn’t have to.

You can’t change the fact that beards are masculine and boobs are feminine. Thousands of years of human history won’t change in an instant just because your feelings are hurt.

I framed this question a bit aggressively because that’s often the way it’s asked. My point is not that people, in the real world, don’t currently associate gender with certain physical attributes. It’s obvious that we do. All I’m trying to say is that the association does not come from any higher authority than people. The association is not objective and it doesn’t exist outside of our assertion that it does.

Internal experiences are different for everyone. For some people, sporting a beard or wearing a suit might be an expression of their femininity. I expect this is something that my fellow butch lesbians can understand. This is what the concept of gender expression exists for. We all have our own ways of understanding and expressing who we are, and the broader societal understanding of what certain traits mean doesn’t change that.

Do you think I’m transphobic because I have difficulty internally understanding someone’s self-identified gender?

You don’t need to beat yourself up too much if a person’s gender doesn’t feel intuitive; it’ll come with time. We all grew up in a society that ingrained these ideas of rigid gender inside us, and I can’t expect anyone to be a perfect ally in an instant. It took me a long time to be able to put any of this into words. I understand.

Do you think I’m transphobic because I have a genital preference?

I think genital preferences are fine in the exact way that preferring a certain hair color or height or body shape is fine. Everyone has their preferences, but preferences do not a sexuality make. To claim that simply calling yourself a lesbian is sufficient to communicate that you don’t like penises when other lesbians have no problem with them implies that you believe not having a penis is an essential part of womanhood and that you think those lesbians don’t “count”. I hope the article shows this is at the very least a bit rude.

Why do we have to change this to make it more complicated? Why can’t you just accept the framework we’ve been using for centuries?

This article is all about why I think this framework isn’t very good. I hope I’ve at least demonstrated that “biological sex” isn’t very effective at clearly describing the world. If you agree with that premise, you should be able to understand that the framework should change for the same reason we no longer claim that the sun is a gigantic fireplace. When we find a better way of describing the world, we should update our scientific frameworks accordingly, because the fact that the newly understood details fly in the face of the old framework is the point. Science is supposed to evolve; if we refuse to adapt to the real world because of dogma, we’re not practicing science anymore.

Part 6: The End of Biological Sex

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

I don’t hate the Genderbread Person. I understand what it’s trying to do, why it puts an emphasis on being non-threatening and meshing easily with the existing way most people think about sex and gender. I would recommend reading the article describing the rationale behind the graphic, if only to get a better understanding of what I’m critiquing here.

No, my real problem is with what the Genderbread Person represents. There’s a quote in that article discussing what criticism the creator takes on board that I feel is very revealing:

When a suggested change or criticism can help move the Genderbread Person a little closer to being best possible (most accurate, inclusive, and helpful) depiction of gender in society, I generally make that change.

When a suggested change or criticism would instead make the Genderbread Person a better depiction of ideal/utopian society, I generally do not make that change.

Much of what I’ve written in this article might be dismissed as “utopian”, or too focused on what I think gender should be, but I take issue with this line of reasoning. Material like this cannot be regarded as somehow non-ideological, because the simple acknowledgement of the existence of trans people is inherently a political, ideological stance. Gender for most people in society is still a binary, oversimplified category that you can never escape, but the Genderbread Person is still comfortable disputing that idea. Surely, it wouldn’t be too much harder to remove the incoherent and confusing sex spectra altogether, right?

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

But it seems that a world in which people are acknowledged how they want to be acknowledged, with a diverse assortment of bodies understood in a comprehensive and inclusive way, cannot exist now. That must always be in the future, some far-flung dream, even for the most well-meaning of cis allies. Tearing down the frameworks that oppress all of us would simply be too radical and too difficult to understand. For allies and transphobes alike, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of assigned gender.

And so, here we are. I don’t want to undermine the accomplishments, the efforts, the genuine convictions held by our allies, and I don’t even really want to make transphobes feel like they’re just stupid people or something, but arguments between the two often amount to nothing but calling each other Bad At Science without any knowledge of how science actually works. It’s difficult not to get angry when I see the separation of sex and gender used for little more than reducing gender to some superfluous “identity” that we as trans people have simply taped over the Objective Matter of our sex. More than anything, I just want people to understand how wrong that is and accept us as trans people, truly and completely, without any filters or caveats.

No more “people who identify as women.”

No more “no one is saying that sex isn’t real.”

No more “female sex organs”.

Just honesty, acceptance, and mutual respect for all.

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Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.

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Alexis

Alexis

Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.