The Fiction of Binary, Fixed Gender

Though I have long been a supporter of organized sports for young women, I cannot let Kai Wright’s piece on Caster Semenya go unnoticed here, particularly not after the comments produced on the Beauty and Power post on gender presentation in the women’s bodybuilding set late last year:

[…] the reality is that Semenya may be neither “boy” nor “girl,” or could be both. And who cares? It happens. Our social certainty about the male-female divide is not supported by biology. As Northwestern University bioethics professor Alice Dreger told the New York Times last week, “As I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”

Children are routinely born with cellular variation on the XX and XY chromosome sets that define boy and girl status. Hormone levels vary, too, as do the secondary traits we associate with a given sex. People have large, protruding clitorises; scrotums divided such that they look like labia; inactive hormone receptors and on and on. Anywhere from 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 births require specialists to assign a child’s sex, according to the Intersex Society of North America. After these assignments are made, cruel plastic surgeries to “correct” perfectly natural physical variations are often performed for no medical purpose whatsoever. Kids are mutilated to ensure they fit comfortably inside our mythical gender boxes.

We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.

Check out the full piece at The Root.


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8 Responses to The Fiction of Binary, Fixed Gender

  1. Alan says:

    I think competitive sports is one of the few areas where gender matters at all. For women’s sports to be meaningful competitions, they to be limited to just women athletes. There are obviously people at the boundaries, and, unfortunately, those cases need to be evaluated case by case.

  2. Bakka says:

    I would also like to plug one of the women quoted in this piece. Alice Dreger’s work is awesom http://bit.ly/qu6fr she has a really interesting piece where she argues that because of the variation of sexual morphology, laws against same-sex marriage are actually unenforceable.

  3. Bakka says:

    I meant to start with “Great Post!”

  4. cathy says:

    I would fail the test they want to make her take. I have PCOS, which amoung other things, causes weight gain and fatigue. Despite the fact that I am a big, curvy woman with an E-cup whose disabilites are so bad that I often cannot walk up a flight of stairs, I would fail this test. Its not just things that are traditionally thought of as intersex conditions that can cause a fail on this test. Shoot, in some cases a uterine mass could make you fail. Yes, pathologization of intersex and trans people plays a role here, but this also excludes cis women.

    Bekka, what I know of law in cases of intersex marriage is that the marriage tends to be allowed but does not hold up under legal challenge (such as suing for partner’s wrongful death). An intersex man who had been assigned male an female at different points of his life was declared female by a court and denied benefits from his dead partner because of anti-same sex marriage law. Rather than things being easier for an intersex person to marry a partner with a gender of their choosing, the US legal system usually makes it nearly impossible for them to have any strong legal marriage rights at all. Anti-trans laws also hurt intersex people, because some of these laws define sex as chromosomes specifically ignoring genatalia or identity, which means a woman identified intersex person with a vagina who has XY DNA is defined under these laws as a man. Rather than respecting the choice of intersex people, the court tends to pick a sex based on somewhat random region to region criteria (some use genatalia, some use chromosomes, some use assign sex at birth, some use last medically assigned sex) making it difficult for an intersex person in these cases to have legal rights that would be afforded to either side of the gender binary.

  5. Dawn. says:

    Rather than respecting the choice of intersex people, the court tends to pick a sex based on somewhat random region to region criteria (some use genatalia, some use chromosomes, some use assign sex at birth, some use last medically assigned sex) making it difficult for an intersex person in these cases to have legal rights that would be afforded to either side of the gender binary.

    THIS. This is an excellent example of why binary, fixed genders are a socially-constructed fiction. If a person’s gender can change based on what state they live in, how can anyone say with a straight face that gender is a fixed binary? I call “BULLSHIT” on that.

  6. Zoe Brain says:

    As a lawyer for Christie Lee Littleton said:

    “Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”

  7. factcheckme says:

    i would like to direct readers to the very excellent article by ann fausto-sterling called “the 5 sexes.” it explains that there are actually 5 sexes, not 2, so having a gender-binary of male/female is quite at odds with the assertion that sex and gender correspond, or are immutable and consistent. the 5 sexes are male; female; hermaphrodite; and 2 kinds of psuedo-hermaphrodites. a true herm has one ovary and one teste; the 2 kinds of psuedo-herms have either male or female gonads (not both) with inconsistent or ambiguous genitalia.

    i have found this article useful over the years as a reference. i cited it in my article http://factcheckme.wordpress.com/2009/08/31/the-5-sexes-why-male-and-female-are-not-enough/

    the original fausto-sterling article is located at http://frank.mtsu.edu/~phollowa/5sexes.html.

  8. Bill says:

    Good point taken too far. As the author notes, humans like categories, and the big two – which have validity – are boy and girl. These categories apparently, generally work at the most basic level between 99. 9993% of the time and 99.9995% of the time, according to the statistics presented above (less if you include chromosomal aberrations).

    I wouldn’t call binary gender a fiction, otherwise all categorization loses meaning, by those standards. I’d call it a “complicated truth.”

    The tragic cases are those where sexual reassignment surgery makes the wrong choice, and a child grows up trapped inside a gender that is incorrect. Not common, but it happens, and it’s very sad.

    Regarding “cruel plastic surgeries to “correct” perfectly natural physical variations are often performed for no medical purpose whatsoever”, two points:

    1. A half formed scrotum, for example, may be genuinely considered something medically correctable, much like a cleft palate.

    2. Variations in development or physical appearance that harm an individual’s sense of identity, conformity and well-being often qualify for being a “medical need.” The most obvious, well-researched examples of this are among those disfigured in accidents. We can either give patients the option to adapt to society’s cruelty a little, or somehow re-engineer social tolerance and norms. I know the latter is more romantic and appeals to our sense of justice, but the former is achievable.

    (Oh, and, “Hi Lauren.” Good to see you blogging)

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