September 16, 2019

What does "assigned gender at birth" mean?


I think the transgender community and its allies often take the word "assigned" for granted, rarely stopping to think about what it means or what it conveys to others.

Guest post by Veronica Claire

This is a topic that I raised in a private conversation with Jack, and he was keen to see it shared with a wider audience.

Assigned gender and assigned sex

Nuances differ between assigned gender and assigned sex, and there are shades of meaning within each. The everyday sense of the word is easiest to recognise when we are talking about (a) the way society allocates social roles and expectations based on our genitalia, or (b) the case of intersex people who were raised as boys or girls and even operated on for no reason other than society's intolerance of ambiguity. This is assignment in anyone's dictionary.

Other times, assigned sex or gender is used essentially as a euphemism for anatomical sex at birth, in contexts where neither society's social assumptions nor the possibility of intersex conditions are really under consideration, and where casual readers might be mislead to believe that we are denying the reality of anatomical sex beyond the act of assignment. Such usage is not wrong, but it should be cogniscent rather than reflexive.


What does assigned gender mean?

I believe the transgender community should talk more about what we mean by assigned sex and gender, so as to be prepared for the questions and misinterpretations of others. As part of that conversation, we might consider metaphors that illuminate what we mean by assignment.

We should also discuss the status of any possible synonyms — should "anatomically female at birth", "natally male-bodied" and so on be regarded as taboo (as they tend to be on account of excluding intersex people) or is there a place for them, acknowledging that no one term ("assigned" included) is perfect for every context?

Sex assignment is not the doctor's autonomous act

Moving on to more specific concerns, sex (or gender) assignment at birth is too often defined as something that a doctor does at the moment of delivery. This is transparent nonsense. Assignment is a process continually reinforced by society, not an autonomous act of one individual, and the phrase "at birth" simply indicates that we mean assignment based on anatomical indicators present on a newborn infant (as opposed to those which may become present at puberty or during transition).

Attributing sex assignment to a doctor makes sense only in the case of an intersex infant where, either, the doctor makes a surgical decision without parental consent, or, where the parents go along with the doctor's recommendation because the doctor is a trusted authority.

Portraying sex assignment as a doctor's autonomous act makes us look like delusional fools who obsess over birth certificates, when really, birth certificates have nothing at all to do with anything of consequence (idiotic reactionary laws notwithstanding).

I believe this way of defining "assigned sex" is harmful to our cause, because when people on the fence about transgender issues see us asserting things that anyone can recognise as transparent nonsense, it must surely reinforce the propoganda of our opponents.

Miscommunication

Howlers can occasionally result when people casually use "assigned gender" as a shorthand for "gender assigned at birth". For example, in articles about transgender men from history who passed throughout their public life, we might read that their "assigned gender" was only discovered after death.

This is unfortunate phrasing for two reasons. One, it is one of those contexts where assignment is only evoked euphemistically and it is anatomy, plain and simple, which is meant, and two, every single time that a contemporary looked at the trans man and thought "that's a man", he was, in that moment, assigned male.


Bioextrapolated

Thinking recently about the shortcomings of the word "assigned" and the lack of a perfect alternative, I came up with "bioextrapolated". This literally means taking a biological observation and assuming everything else lines up with it, which strikes me as an apt way to describe what we mean by assigned gender.

I suggested this to Jack, and he liked the word because "it communicates more clearly that the assigning of gender is actually based on an observation of what people believe is a trustworthy sign of true gender". On the other hand, "natally bioextrapolated as male" is even more clumsy than "assigned male at birth", so it doesn't solve every problem.

I don't believe there is a perfect word, and I think we are best served with a suite of synonyms to choose from. Even if we stick to "assigned" most of the time, sprinking in the occasional "bioextrapolated" may help to communicate that the former is a convenient shorthand for a complex concept, and that we are cogniscent of this.

You can meet Veronica Claire over at the Crossdream Life forum for crossdreamers, queer, nonbinary and transgender people. 

Illustration: GULSENGUNEL

4 comments:

  1. This blog post is discussed over at reddit. Here's my response to some of the comments:

    What I find is interesting with this blog post, is the fact that gender assignment is not something that happens only at birth. As Veronica points out, the doctor does not have the power to assigned someones gender (unless that someone is intersex, with ambiguous genitalia). If a doctor called an infant with a penis a girl, you can bet that both the nurses and the parents would yell at her. Instead the assignment is based on an extensive social contract, where everyone around the child is taking part in the assignment, at birth and beyond.

    The term "assigned female at birth" does not clearly communicate the continuous social processes that invalidate trans and nonbinary people. Instead it implies that only the medical profession is to blame. Doctors have a lot to answer for, but in this context they are not alone i causing all this pain.


    As for whether this discussion is pedantic or of little importance: Well, maybe. The AFAB/AMAB terminology seems to make sense for transgender people. I am using it myself. But some would argue that the AFAB/AMAB terminology is also a bit pedantic. And when it comes to communicating with on-transgender people, well.... it doesn't... communicate, I mean.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Replies
    1. Jack, I think you posted this comment in the wrong thread... :-)

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