January 7, 2020

Sorry, gender cannot be reduced to biological sex.


Why is it transgender people cannot understand that biological sex is biological sex? That is pretty obvious isn't it? Or...?

The recent J. K. Rowling is a transphobic TERF debate has in many ways clarified what the anti-trans arguments boil down to.

Rowling gave her support to Maya Forstater, who – among other things – has argued that “I think that male people are not women. I don’t think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology.”

Forstater's statement echoes a lot of similar arguments about trans people denying the reality of biological sex. How can sex be "socially constructed", when everyone can see that little boys have penises, and little girls have vaginas?

These common sense statements are  seductive,  partly because they seem so intuitively true  and partly because many  trans activist have found it hard to communicate their concerns in simple to understand ways.

Here comes a simple and common sense explanation for why Forstater's argument is wrong.

Words about motherhood

To put the whole discussion into perspective, I am going to use somewhat different, but related example, namely the concept of motherhood.

I am sure we all can agree that a good definition of "a mother" is a person who has given birth to a child. This truth actually applies to most mammals. The biological definition of "mother" therefore implies that the person in question is female, and she has a fully functioning uterus and fertile eggs.

But note that this is the biological definition of mother. It does not reflect the way we think of motherhood in a social and cultural setting.

I grew up with a friend whose biological mother had died giving birth to him. Her sister, who happened to be infertile and had no kids, adopted him. She and her husband raised him as their own. As far as he was concerned, she was his mother and her husband was his father, and that was the way the rest of us also saw it.

In other words, there is a cultural and social definition of motherhood that is different from the biological one. We could probably say that a mother is a woman who  who raises a particular kid and loves them and cares for them. The term "mother" is defined by the interaction between the woman and the child. She sees the kid as her child, and the kid sees the woman as their mother.

Moreover, the social role of being a mother also includes other members of the family and the community. They will also see this woman as the mother of this kid.


The identities defined, "mother" and "child", transcends biology. Indeed, we have even more concepts of motherhood, like in stepmothers, mothers who give put up their child for adoption, surrogate mothers, donor mothers, foster mothers, families with two mothers and so on and so forth. *)
When mothers were real mothers.

This does not mean that the biological definition is wrong, per se. It simply means that as far as human interaction is concerned, it is of limited use.

A medical doctor may make use of the biological definition, a zoologist may also do so, but for a teacher, a priest, a psychologist or a politician it is rarely useful.

The circular logic of  the anti-trans argument

What Rowling and Forstater are saying is not what they pretend to be saying, namely that "biological sex is biological sex" (which is – when you think of it – just a  statement with no meaningful new information  – it is not an argument). What they are saying is that "cultural and social gender is nothing more than biological sex."

So their understanding of what defines a man in any context, biological or social,  is that he has a penis. But here's the thing: Right wing fundamentalists and trans-exclusionary radical feminists do not behave in accordance with this "truism". Far from it!
The strict policing of bathrooms is one way of enforcing the
gender binary (Photo: breaking the walls)

They do not go up to every person they meet and ask them to pull down their trousers or skirts so that they can see their genitals.

They do not ask everyone they do not know for a DNA-test so that they know how to treat that person, as a man or a woman.

In fact, they all accept the immediate impression of what gender that person is, based on body shape, clothing and  gender expressions – as do most people.

Because in social interactions gender is not defined by genitalia, but by the way we appear, behave and present ourselves.

Women in women's bathrooms

This is why I with great confidence can say that all the women who fear the presence of trans women in women's restrooms, have shared public bath rooms with trans women over and over again. Nothing bad has happened.

And that is precisely why they fear trans women so much. Their whole world view requires a clear and unambiguous definition of  sex/gender, and the very existence of transgender and gender dysphoric intersex people proves that their idea of a strict sex binary is wrong.

The problem for transphobes is not that trans women threaten the safety of cis women in bathrooms. The problem is that they pose no threat at all. Indeed, trans women often face the same kind of sexual harassment as cis women does. They face the same threats, which accentuates what they have in common, and not what makes them different.

The good old days, when men were men and women used
a lot of hair spray. (Thunderball 1965)


Why trans people cannot exist in a binary world

Remember that as far as the gender fundamentalists go, left wing or right wing, trans people should not exist. I mean this in a factual, and not moral, sense. They literally should not exist.

According to the right wing extremists, trans people are evolutionary unfit, and the evolutionary process should therefore have rooted out all genes and traits that makes transgender identities possible. These traits should have been killed off it the brutal fight between fit straight men who do battle  over the right to have sex with beautiful women.

According to the religious extremists, God  made us man or woman, and since God makes no mistakes, trans people cannot exist. Nor can gay and lesbian people for that matter. They may blame the Devil  of course, but by doing so they risk giving the dark side part in creation, which is something they do not want.

Many trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) will tell you that they do not really believe that the presence of a penis causes a man to feel like a man. Instead they will argue that in a Patriarchy ruled by men, men are raised to feel and behave like men.

So the presence of a penis causes this person to be identified as a man by others, which again causes that person to feel like a man. That is why men are men, and women are women, and why the two never will understand each other.

This is a slightly more sophisticated variant of  the "biological sex is biological sex" argument, but it does not change the fact that some "men" raised as "men" do not feel as "men". If biological sex plus socialization equals gender destiny, they should not exist.

The TERFs may dismiss female to male trans men as deluded lesbian women who want access to male power and privilege. This is of course a very arrogant way of disregarding the experience of people who they think of as women, but given the TERF world view  it makes sense.

The "men" who want to be women, however, are impossible to understand within this framework. Who would anyone want to relinquish the power of being a man to become a female victim? The TERF map of the world does not allow for such needs, which forces the TERFs to define those assigned male who say they are women as mentally ill or sexually perverted. Which is a pretty misogynistic way of looking at womanhood, when you think about it.

The existence of trans people falsifies the strict binary

Again: According to the world views of anti-trans people  – pseudo-Darwinism, divine perfection or social conditioning – trans people cannot exist and should not exist.

Some think that for something to be real, they have to
see it. Well, trans people are real.
Photo: justhavealook




Yet there they are, both transgender and misgendered intersex people, people who for various reasons experience a deep disconnect between their assigned and felt gender.

Their very existence proves that the idea that gender identity is caused by their genitalia or their X and Y chromosomes cannot be right. Experienced gender cannot be reduced to biological sex.

There are most likely many reasons for why trans people are trans, including genetic, hormonal, cultural, social and psychological factors, but in this context that does not matter. What matters is that their experience of wrongness, dissonance, mismatch is real. Very real.

And given the way transphobic people treat trans people – the harassment, the invalidation and the social exclusion – arguing that trans people chose to be trans because it is "fashionable" is ridiculous. There are simply too many of them, with too diverse backgrounds for this to be true.

Moreover, transgender  people have been around for millennia and in a wide variety of cultures. They are not the invention of capitalism, communism, satanic cults, aliens or trans trenders.

"Throw ball like a girl." For real! Photo Hruan.

Gender is not the same as sex

Note that the reason people started using the grammatical term  "gender"  to describe the cultural, social and cultural aspects of how we see ourselves and others, was that people saw that the experienced and/or expressed gender could deviate from the biological sex.

Since then the term gender has also been used to discuss the cultural and social aspects of gender in general. Again it is an observable fact that gender cannot be reduced to biological sex. We have tons of psychiatric, psychological, anthropological, sociological, linguistic and historic research to support this understanding of sex and gender.

As soon as you allow for the same flexibility when it comes to the terms "man" and "woman as we do with "mother" and "father", it is easy to see that culturally speaking, there is nothing in nature that stops us from accepting trans people for who they are.

Why are transphobes in denial?

So why won't the transphobes accept trans people?  The main reason is that their whole world view, and their understanding of their own role in society, depend on it.

For religious fundamentalists – Christian, Muslim, Hindu – the gender binary and the traditional, gender roles are required to uphold the power of men over women, and insiders over outsiders.

To right wing extremists, the idea of the hypermasculine male warrior and bread winner requires strict gender roles, where women are reduced to caretakers and baby factories.

As far as the trans-exclusionary radical feminists go, they need a world view were all men are  perpetrators and all women are victims.  They do not, as most modern feminists do, understand that there are no winners in the Patriarchy. Both men and women are forced into the straight jacket of gender stereotypes, where they have to live lives that are not fully their own.

The TERFs also seem to ignore the amazing diversity of both female and male lives. A woman who has grown up in the countryside of Ghana does not have the same life forming experience as white upper class women in Britain. As soon as you grasp that diversity, it isn't hard to include the unique experiences of trans women into the world of women.

This is why the sentence "gender is the same as biological sex" is never used by people who do not have a clear anti-trans (and even anti-gay) agenda. They want to bring us back to a time when the English language had only one term to discuss both biological sex and gender, because by controlling language in this way, they can insult and invalidate trans people while at the same time sounding reasonable. But they are not reasonable.

What about the spectrum?

Some of you have probably noticed that I have not said a word about nonbinary identities or the concept of a gender spectrum so far. This is not because I do not think they are important. I have simply tried to make my argument as straightforward and simple to understand as possible.
Gender identity, gender expression, masculinity and femininity,
sexual orientation and human bodies are all
best understood as parts of spectrums.
Illustration: Thot Adan.

The reason fundamentalists hate the idea of a gender spectrum (often referred to as  "gender ideology" by them) is that it provides us with such a good picture of the real world.

Anyone who are able to put aside the stereotypes for one moment will see that men and women are not copies of some kind of perfect, divine, patterns or clich├ęs. Most women are not Barbies, or perfect housewives or compassionate mothers. Most men are not muscular soldiers, brilliant professors or whatever it is a specific cultures sees as the eternal masculine.

Indeed, both men and women, vary along all relevant gender axes:
  1. Masculinity vs. femininity (regardless of how you define these terms)
  2. Interests (Knitting used to be a male occupation)
  3. Abilities (Feminist reforms have made it absolutely clear that women can be as good as men in any occupation, and vice versa)
  4. Gender expressions (Roman men would not be seen dead in trousers)
  5. Body shapes (to the extent that women may appear "mannish" and men "womanish")
  6. Genitals (and that goes beyon the existence of intersex people born with ambiguous genitalia.)
  7. Sexual orientation (which definitely does not follow the man+woman archetype.)
  8. Gender identity (i.e. your sense of self gender wise)
But if this is the case, why is it so important for the anti-trans people (as well as the anti-gay lobby) to uphold a strict gender binary? Why not embrace this diversity and enjoy it?

Power, that's why. This is all about the power to control others. The good news is that language can also be used as a tool for liberation.


Photo: Martinan
*) See Georg Lakoff's book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things for a more through discussion of the linguistic meaning of the word mother.

See also:


Take also a look at the fascinating discussion that gave birth to this article over at CDL:

35 comments:

  1. the problem of fundamentalists is that sex=gender in every case which is patently false. But if your version of reality must support the binary then that is your only argument. In the reality based version of our existence plumbing becomes secondary and we are left with a pregmatic meaning overriding the literal one. In other words, your mother is someone who fulfills that role irrespective of whether she possesses a vagina.

    Fundamentalists are stuck and cannot let go of the only card they have left. Because in its absence their entire case unravels and it why they stubbornly rely on biological sex on trumping everything else.

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    1. Hi Joanna. I don't mean to be critical at all by pointing out a typo here. I just got a real chuckle thinking what "pregmatic" could mean. A pragmatic pregnancy? A woman who can become pregnant automatically, almost without her knowing it? :-)

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    2. I agree, Joanna. It is also interesting to note how people raised as fundamentalists are actively doing some kind of self-lobotimization in order to keep on believing in the myths that make them belong and feel safe. Until, of course, they have some kind of a personal crisis and/or a good friend shows them the error of their ways. Those kinds of tipping points may actually cause them to abandon their whole world view in the end.

      And yes, I also think "Trumping" is a relevant word here ;)

      As for pregmatic pregnancies. Trans men giving birth sounds pretty pragmatic to me.

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    3. Lol the "pregmatic" was indeed a typo and as for trumping I almost thought the better of it but then decided to use the word anyway as it is very fitting for our times :)

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  2. I would argue that the TERF and male sexist use of biology to describe and categorize men and women as belonging to completely distinct classes of being, is an efficient way of forcing people to treat men and women differently. It is a way of separating them culturally, socially, politically and legally by appealing to some kind of "objective, unalterable reality". Previously the appeal was made to God and the laws of God. These days the appeal is to science and biology:

    Women cannot be doctors and astronauts because they are stupid and innocent by nature.
    Trans women cannot be let into women's bathrooms because they are men, and men are violent by nature.

    None of this is true.

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  3. Trans women are women, not because they have a female chip in their head, or because everyone can be whoever they want to be, or because gender is not real. For me trans women are women because they have a consistent, persistent, and strong sense of having a female identity, in spite of biology and socialisation, while at the same time (in most instances) being sane, and because there is nothing in the way we think and speak that stops us from accepting them as such, apart from prejudice and malice.

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    1. Thank you, Jack. I'm certainly not trans or transitioned because of a "want or desire." I transitioned for survival and to stop denying my truth. Life's good for me these days, thank goodness. I love being a girl.

      This afternoon I brought some chicken soup to a cis girlfriend who has a cold. We spent some time chatting about things commonly associated with women: relationships, our struggles and self-questions, and deep appreciation for each other. As I left we gave each other a close hug and said that we love each other. And, we do.

      This all comes so naturally to me. I was so frustrated and at times hurt that when I tried to have such conversations with male friends, well, they looked at my oddly and changed the subject. Needless to say we didn't profess our love for each other.

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  4. To a great degree, gender is a construct and we have spent vast amounts of cultural energy selling differences that dont actually exist. I am seeing this very markedly in the generation of my children and their cousins who are regularly breaking the norms we were sold as being sacrosanct. They behave and choose professions outside of the boxes we were told were biologically innate and are freeing themselves from oppression in the process.

    The time of the all powerful white man is over and society will take on a distinctly rainbow like nature because that is the way it has always been had it not been constrained through dogmas which are not well founded.

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  5. I agree, Joanna. The resent backlash against trans and queer people is not a sign of the strength of the old male guard, but a sign of its weakness. They see that their time is up and do a desperate attempt to stop the rainbow people by force. We should not be complacent, though. This has happened before. If people stay silent and do not fight back, they may succeed. By the way, here is one good example of how Gen Z is fighting back,, meme wise.

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  7. Jack, the point you make about biology plus socialization weeding out trans people is a very important one because as we know this is not the case. The fact that we persist in spite of deep and impactful Pavlovian training means that we are genuine and likely also biologically sourced. This is anathema to extremists who cannot allow for such variants preferring to chalk them up to either mental illness or perversion.

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  8. XX - XY

    Choose one: gender = sex.

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  9. Reality or fantasy, I choose to think according to reality. Two sexes, therefore two genders.

    How do you account for the existence of chromosomes, the thereby immutably sexed nature of every cell in the human body, or the ability to determine the chromosomal nature (therefore sex) of a human being from their skeletal form alone?

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    1. I suggest you do some homework and read up on a subject you clearly know nothing about. We are not discussing or disputing chromosomes here but, if we do, then what gender are intersex people? ( I only ask out of curiosity)

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    2. One may consider them outliers, and an exception that ultimately proves the rule.

      You say it is clear, but that is a bare presumption as you know nothing about me.

      Of course the topic is not chromosomes as such, but the matter of gender - which cannot be adequately understood without referring to chromosomes as the biological and physiological reality upon which gender supervenes.

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    3. What is the gender of a blood cell, Joanna?

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    4. what is gender period? define it

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    5. Would you say that gay, lesbian or bisexual people are outliers? I'd agree in that they represent about 3% of the human population. Transgender people are also outliers, about 0.7% of humans. We're all normal examples of human diversity.

      That said, why do you wish to deny my reality? Who are you to know what's really in my mind and soul?

      I've been aware that I wasn't a boy since before preschool. I'm glad for you that none of this has been an issue for you. But I love myself as I am and nothing you can say will diminish that.

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    6. oh and outliers do indeed prove that sex does not always equal gender; this is very clear. Being small in percentage does not invalidate them. Sex is usually clear and measurable in most people but how one feels is not so clear especially since no many people in this world do not respect what gender supposedly means. If you want to stick to only discussing sex and chromosomes then there is nothing to discuss further but it doesn't change the fact that trans people exist and are increasingly thriving. I wish you well by the way...

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    8. Thank you for the responses, Joanna and Emma. I wish both of you well for the record, and I think the declarative tone may not give that away. Nothing personal here, truly.

      Emma: I would take issue with the claim that LGBT people are all "normal examples of human diversity" - but that's fine. I do not wish to deny your reality; 'your reality' is not my concern, for there is one single reality, and that is my own concern. 'Your reality' is your individual and perhaps idiosyncratic take on reality as such - if you interpret my perspective as denial of your reality, you might consider checking to what extent your reality is in accord with the rest of it.

      Why do you interpret my perspective as a wish to deny your reality? If you have XY chromosomes, you are physiologically male. As a child I myself dressed in clothes meant for the opposite sex. I am not a stranger to these things, in fact. If you have XY chromosomes and 'know' you are not a boy, I would humbly submit that something more complex than 'actually being innately a girl born with the wrong body and chromosomes' is at play here. To say that you are naturally transgender and the matter is as simple as that is a denial of your actual reality. Or am I mistaken?

      Joanna, I must further dispute your position: outliers demonstrate the biologically dependent nature of gender if it is retain any meaningful (read: real and generic rather than 'personal' and idiosyncratic) signification. Being small in number does not invalidate them, I agree. And yes, how one feels is not so clear - I agree completely on that count also. Intersex outliers demonstrate the same rule of sexual dimorphism and polarity: there are two polar chromosomes, not any more than that; the specific physiology of intersex persons or hermaphrodites is still entirely an effect of and supervenient on the essentially polar nature of sex and gender.

      The alternative is to establish the concept of gender within a vacuum free of all human biology and physiology, rendering it void of explanatory power and severing its correspondence to reality as such - save for individual personal 'realities' forever at odds with their owners' own physiology and with reality itself. (Deleted and republished for typos)

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    9. Why do people look at trans and intersex people as outliers? This is not because nature is binary, but because people have decided on a few variables that they use to define gender. So if you have a penis, you are male and if you have a vagina you are female.

      On top of this both religion and old science would add procreation: The reason for having two biological sexes is procreation. If there is no potential for procreation something is wrong, because God or Darwin said so.

      People focus on genitalia and procreation because it fits their world view, not because it is more objective than other variables (as, for instance, a deep felt sense of self).

      The objective truth that most of human sexual activities do not lead to fertilization, nor are they aimed at this. The same applies to most mammals. Most scientists now agree that sexuality has important social and psychological functions that are just as important as procreation.

      As for genitalia: As soon as you stop thinking of genitalia as tools for procreation only, the variation you see among some intersex people continue into the group that is considered "normal". Penises vary immensely in size. I believe one researcher counted at least eight various basic shapes of vulvas.

      And as I noted in the article, if you look at body shape, psychology, interests and abilities, the binary falls apart.

      My point is simply this: As soon as you change your point of view, the same biological reality proves a completely different narrative. It tells you the story of variation, not division. Trans and intersex people are not outliers in the sense of exceptions to the rule. The exemplify the rule of diversity.

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    10. Jack, I don't see use of the word "outliers" as a pejorative at all. What comes to my mind is a probability distribution bell curve of human gender. Given how small our population is relative to non-trans people, we are in the tails, where outliers lie.

      Further, use of "outliers" validates (perhaps unintentionally) not only our existence because we are on the curve, it also illustrates your point, that gender is not strictly binary.

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    11. You do realize that "he" and "she" were language used before we even had knowledge of chromosomes, no? Chromosomes don't determine what someone in America and what someone in India values as "masculine" or "feminine". In the same light, it doesn't determine your gender identity.

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    12. i find it funny that people think chromosome is such an end all,checkmate, end of discussion statement... the reason, i think, that they hang onto it so dearly, is without it, they have nothing to stand on except undisguised hatred and contempt towards the 'other' ... its a shame the footing is on invisible flooring. the anonymous tone is so cheesy and trying to be scary and intimidating. the transphobic view will always suffer from confusion until they accept some simple ideas like gender not being equal to sex. i agree its a control mechanism to support a fragile framework relying on heterocentric induced hallucinations. i also feel some people have a difficult time relating to trans issues because to empathize you must imagine.. and most people simply dont want to fathom the idea... because its challenging to their understanding.. i find the existence of trans is just naturally invalidating to the system and if u love the system... naturally u will dislike the idea of mutability.

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  11. You're right. Gender cannot be reduced to biological sex but it can be reduced to neurological functions. Remember, a brain is not something you possess. You are your brain and how it is structured will determines how it functions. And there are male and female brain structures. There are all facts.

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    1. i am my brain? thats a fact?

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    2. Everything that you think and feel is a product of neurological activity. Consciousness is a physical phenomena. So yeah, you ARE your brain.

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  14. Because we are our brains is precisely what gives weight to the transgender reality. Irrespective of era of history, trans people have always existed and will continue to exist as well as be perfectly high functioning and sane. Detractors today use the terminology of social movement because they want to frame that reality as a mental disorder when it is simply a constant subset of humanity. However, regardless of outside opinion, trans people aren't going to disappear much to the chagrin of those who still cling to the myth that the gender binary is 100% applicable to all humans.

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