Clarifying terminology crucial in transgender debate

Photo by Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

As sex and gender issues simmer — and routinely boil over — at every level of government, now more than ever we need clear definitions of terms used in the transgender debate.

It’s likely in the upcoming session that some Texas legislators will press for a “bathroom bill” to regulate access to single-sex facilities, promising a repeat of the rancorous 2017 session. Meanwhile, the Austin school district is seeking citizen input as it prepares to rewrite its sex ed curriculum and the Trump administration is considering changing the definition of sex under Title IX.

In the four years I have been writing about these issues — working from a feminist analysis that challenges both the ideology of the transgender movement and its conservative critics — I’ve seen how failing to clearly define terms increases the chance of misunderstanding and bitterness.

So, with no illusions about the likelihood of consensus on policy, I offer a sex and gender glossary with hopes for consensus on terminology.

The most important move is to stop using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. “Sex” refers to the biological differences between male and female — physiological realities based on different roles in reproduction. “Gender” refers to the cultural meanings attached to sex differences — what a society labels as “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics. Sex categories don’t change; in every human society, male and female produce sperm and eggs to reproduce. But gender norms vary among societies and over time within societies.

What about “man” and “woman”? Do those terms refer to biological sex categories or cultural gender norms? Most people use man/woman as synonyms for male/female — that is, to mark biological categories.

Since the feminist challenges of the late 1960s and ‘70s, we have recognized that gender norms are a “social construction” — masculinity and femininity norms are not dictated by biology. Sex differences between male and female humans are real, but they cannot account for the many arbitrary gender norms that exist in societies. (For example, consider fashion and grooming practices that have no connection to biology — there’s nothing “natural” about women shaving their legs and armpits while men remain hairy there, a now-common practice in the United States.)

In some academic and activist circles, it is fashionable to assert that the sex categories of male/female are also a social construction, but this ignores basic biology. Every human ever born — in every society that has ever existed — was the result of the coming together of sperm and egg, produced by male and female. If sex categories really were social constructs, we could socially construct different roles in reproduction, but that happens only in science fiction.

Here we must add an important “but”: There are individuals born with intersex conditions — a term used for people with some degree of variation in chromosomes, genitals, gonads, or secondary sex characteristics. Some argue that intersex births, even though small in number, prove there really are more than two sexes, but this again misunderstands biology. Humans reproduce sexually, and that requires an egg from a female and sperm from a male. There are people who lack the capacity to fill one of those reproductive functions for a variety of reasons — conditions that may be present at birth or develop later in life — but that doesn’t change the facts of reproduction and human sex categories.

So, it’s crucial not to confuse the terms intersex and transgender. People who identify as transgender make claims about their identity based not on physiology but on internal subjective experiences. In general, people who campaign for intersex rights, such as opposing surgery to “correct” these conditions in children, are clear about the distinction.

Underpinning these debates are different ways that gender is defined, about which no consensus seems likely anytime soon. Many feminists, myself included, understand gender as a hierarchy that emerges out of patriarchy, and the resulting rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms support institutionalized male dominance. For these feminists, gender norms can be challenged through political struggle. For some conservatives, gender norms are seen as a natural outgrowth of sex differences; for them, gender roles cannot, and should not, be challenged because they’re an immutable aspect of human nature. In the transgender movement, there is no single account of gender; sometimes it is seen as hard-wired yet disconnected from sex categories, while other times it seems to be understood as an individual choice.

What kinds of identities are, or should be, included under the umbrella term “transgender”? From scholarly literature and varied personal testimonies of trans-identified individuals, there is no simple answer: A trans person who is born male may identify as female, or vice versa. Or a trans person who is born male may not identify as female but feel more at home living within feminine gender norms, or vice versa. Trans individuals of various gender identities may or may not choose to take cross-sex hormones or undergo surgery to change their appearance.

Others who identify as transgender may embrace the term “nonbinary,” rejecting either male/masculine or female/feminine categories. Still others identify as “gender fluid,” asserting that they move between male/masculine and female/feminine as their internal subjective experiences change.

This expansive use of the term transgender is not a problem — people are free to describe themselves anyway they like — until public policy is on the table. At that point, an open-ended definition of transgender becomes an impediment to productive debates, since people cannot be sure to whom a policy might apply. For example, girls’ and women’s athletics are organized separately from boys’ and men’s to create space for female athletes to compete on equal footing. What happens when a transgender girl (someone born male who now identifies as female) seeks to compete in girls’ high school sports? What about a person who is born male but identifies as nonbinary? How do we balance the interests of these various individuals? To answer these questions, we have to understand the categories we are dealing with.

If we move toward at least a rough consensus on terminology, everyone benefits. But it means that certain begging-the-question slogans of the transgender movement — such as “trans women are women” — cannot be asserted as an obvious truth but must be explained and defended. Whether or not a person born male can claim membership in the sex category of female/woman is precisely what’s being debated, and stating it as if it were a fact does not make it one, nor does it help people who are confused by the claim understand it.

My critique of the ideology of the transgender movement is rooted in a radical feminist critique of patriarchal gender norms, the system of institutionalized male dominance also at the core of men’s violence and sexual exploitation of women in prostitution and pornography. I have defended that feminist position online and in greater detail in the book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, but here I want to make a simple plea for greater conceptual clarity. When people disagree, as we inevitably will, we can at least achieve greater understanding on all sides — liberal defenders of the transgender movement, conservative critics of those policies, and radical feminist critics of patriarchy — when we define terms the same way.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Robert Jensen

Emeritus journalism professor, UT-Austin

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