Stop Calling Trans Women "Male" (Gender Analysis 07)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Calling trans women “male” is like the background noise of transphobia. It comes from many directions, and it’s pretty much constant. On one level, it’s a lazy invalidation of who and what we are, offered up by armchair biology fans who insist that trans women are always and forever “male”. On another, it’s unwittingly perpetuated rhetoric by people trying to provide 101-level explanations of what it means to be transgender while unaware that they may be causing even more confusion. And, of course, it’s overtly weaponized as a rallying cry of those looking to keep our genders from being recognized and protected under the law.

But this concept of physical sex as permanent and inescapable is actually incomplete, inaccurate, and irrelevant. Are trans women really “male” in any way that matters? I don’t think so.

 

“Genderbread” people and unintended transphobia

In recent years, a diagram called the “genderbread person” has become especially popular as a visual explanation of how gender, physical sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all separate axes that can operate independently. The diagram uses the genital area to represent “physical sex”, and the brain to represent “gender identity”. This representation is incredibly misleading.

Treating genitals as synonymous with “physical sex” does a disservice to both biology and terminology. Physical sex is a broad concept that encompasses many sex-differentiated features of the body. It’s not as if we have no evidently sexed features until we take our pants off. And this also doesn’t actually reflect the common understanding of what it means to be trans. If physical sex were defined by the genitals, then a trans woman who has genital reconstruction would then have both a gender and a “physical sex” that are considered female. Would that mean she’s not trans anymore?

This sharp separation of “physical sex” and “gender” reflects a flawed belief that our physical sex is constant regardless of our gender. It serves as an excuse to regard us as still being male. We often hear well-meaning people describe trans women with phrases such as “their physical sex is male and their gender is female”. Unfortunately, not-so-well-meaning people tend to hear this as “man who thinks he’s a woman”.

Illustrating our gender as being limited to the mind suggests that it’s all in our heads, as if it’s a mere whim that can’t be seen or felt, and probably isn’t that important anyway. The isolation of our gender from our physical sex gives the impression that the physical changes of transitioning are irrelevant, and that we’re just forever “male” regardless of whether our bodies reflect that.

 

Scientific facts: the “delusion” delusion

When we question the labeling of trans women as “male”, we’re often told that this is simply a “scientific fact”, and disputing this would mean engaging in a “delusion” or “denying reality”. But none of these things are actually the case. It’s not a scientific fact that our bodies are male. It’s a fact that a penis is a penis, and XY chromosomes are XY chromosomes. But calling these things “male” is a choice of terminology.

A label isn’t even in the same ballpark as an empirical finding – there are no scientific papers with conclusions along the lines of “therefore, we have found strong evidence that people with penises are male”. And there are no aspects of biology that depend on labeling these features as “male”. If we referred to penises and XY chromosomes as female, would that actually require revising or overturning any physical facts or scientific findings? No. Would it mean denying that a trans woman’s penis is a penis and a trans woman’s vagina is a vagina? No.

We’re only “delusional” to those who fail to differentiate between a state of reality and the categories we use to describe this. Revising a map does nothing to change the underlying territory. Trans people know this, but transphobes seem to struggle with it – really, who’s deluding themselves here?

 

Brushing up on biology

The broad description of trans women’s bodies as “male” ignores many facts about physical sexual characteristics. The presence of XY chromosomes is often cited as a justification to mark our bodies as irrevocably male, but features of physical sex are hardly limited to XX or XY. Some of this may simply be due to a lack of understanding of how the expression of sex characteristics actually works.

The reality is that almost everyone has both testosterone and estrogen in their bodies, and almost everyone’s cells are capable of responding to a deficit or surplus of these hormones. Estrogen activates estrogen receptors, and this leads to the expression of certain genes that ultimately produce secondary sex characteristics such as breast growth, softer skin, reduced body hair, greater fat storage, and less muscle than that produced by testosterone. Again, almost everyone has these genes regardless of gender and regardless of sex chromosomes. This is why hormone therapy works for trans people: changing the balance of sex hormones produces the desired physical changes.

When these concepts are misunderstood, it can lead to some pretty ridiculous arguments. Transphobes often claim that we’ll never have XX chromosomes, not realizing that their presence or absence makes no practical difference when it comes to transitioning. We’re described as having “hormonally-grown breasts” by those who don’t understand that all breast development is due to hormones in trans women and cis women alike. This is like calling a grown man “really a child” who’s only “cosmetically adult” because of “hormonally-induced puberty”. The changes in our bodies are called “superficial”, “cosmetic” and “artificial” by those who don’t realize that we’re making use of the same biological pathways of development as cis people.

 

Outdated models: chosen to serve transphobia

Picking one feature that lends itself to labeling our bodies as “male” becomes a rather suspect choice when the rest of our bodies indicates otherwise. And if you’re only calling trans women “male” because you’ve chosen only to look at the parts that allow you to call trans women “male”, that’s circular. It isn’t a firmly established scientific argument – it’s a last resort.

Calling trans women “male” is often an intentional choice meant to promote public fear and advance discriminatory laws. Claims that “males” will be able to use women’s restrooms serve to associate us with crimes committed by cis men, treating us as if we’re a threat because of what cis men have done. The term “male” is used here because transphobes know that if they said “trans women,” their argument wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They’ve grouped us under the same umbrella based on a shared feature that trans women explicitly disavow and actively work to move away from. But transphobes don’t care about that, because “allowing males in women’s restrooms” evokes suspicion and discomfort in every way that “allowing women in women’s restrooms” doesn’t.

 

Trans women are female

Many people don’t like it when trans women call ourselves female because it undermines the forms of transphobia that rely on thinking of us as men. It takes away that asterisk and removes one of the ways of marking us as less legitimate in our womanhood. It dissolves the arguments that link us to cis men based on this one tenuous, dishonest connection.

For some, calling us “male” is just an innocent mistake and it doesn’t come from a bad place. For others, it’s not so innocent. But no matter the reason, stop and think about what you’re doing. Trans women being “male” is not a fact. It’s just a really thoughtless thing to say.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.


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Stop Calling Trans Women "Male" (Gender Analysis 07)
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33 thoughts on “Stop Calling Trans Women "Male" (Gender Analysis 07)

  1. 1

    I understand this line of thought being present in the more venerable civilizations of the world, such as my own, but what I cannot fathom is how calling Transgender women male became prominent in The Land Of The Eagle. Was your nation not formed upon the belief that a person’s birth circumstances are of lesser significance than the manner in which they elect to live their lives? That by choice, above all other elements, may the character of an individual be made clear?

    That said, male and female are useful heuristics in biology to classify characteristics that tend to appear together. Calling certain grouping certain anatomical details, as well as specific behaviours together into two broad groups is a pragmatic time saving decision, if those attributes generally correlate. Science would be very difficult without being able to use generalizations at least sometimes. What we label them may be arbitrary, but the reasons for the labelling are not.

    1. 1.1

      Using correct biological terms has nothing to do with “how someone lives their lives.” The choice to call oneself a garden hose is theirs for the taking but the rest of the society, unless they actually see a garden hose, will unlikely name the individual as anything other than human. And calling them backwards to identifying with their senses is simply another act of aggression and bullying that have become hallmarks of this movement. Similarly when someone calls themselves a “man” or “woman” by adopting this as an identity, more often than not we witness the parading of the hugest of cliches of gender such that “the manner in which they elect to live their lives” regresses primarily women’s rights (and I would argue men’s rights as well). There is not authentic way of being man or woman because both are social constructions fraught with the very cliches trans bizarrely find unproblematic. Again, you can identify black people with the racist cliches of past, but like trans women modeling high heels and nails as “proof” of their womanhood, black persons will no more appreciate the imitation with chicken, watermelon or basketball as proof of the subject’s “true blackness.” There is reality and what the trans movement did not count on was many humans’ attachment to reality.

  2. 2

    Another on point article- particularly relevent with Fox new’s repreated misgendering of Caitlyn Jenner.
    There’s only one instance where I’ve come across misgendering that wasn’t an open asshole move, apparently in chinese there’s no audibile difference between male and female pronouns, and a chinese guy I know is constantly misgendering everyone he meets.

    I dislike the chromosonal argument partigularly because it is a) wrong and b) throws a lot of intersex indaviduals under the bus.

    This post seems to mostly come from the point of view of medical transitioning- what’s the response to misgendering that somone who can’t or doesn’t want to medically transition has?

      1. I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure that Chromosomes don’t affect biology at all after birth. That’s why chromosome-related conditions such as down’s syndrome are detectable in utero. It seems silly to judge people based upon them.

        1. You are very mistaken. Chromosomes are structures that are composed of the cell’s DNA (with some supportive proteins that help the DNA coil tightly to keep it packaged). All the time some sections of some chromosomes get opened (become less tightly coiled and become accessible to the proteins that form the cells transcriptional machinery), transcribed into RNA, and then the RNA is (usually) translated into protein. Chromosomes are necessary for cells’ daily functions, thus they constantly affect biology.

          However chromosomes are merely large DNA structures. Just knowing what chromosomal arrangement (karyotype) someone has may not be very informative, because there can be many differences in fine structure. For instance you can express a single gene from the mouse Y chromosome in a female mouse (starting from embryonic stages) and you get a male mouse with XX sex chromosomes.

          Also, we have the capacity to counter many genetic or otherwise inborn conditions with medical intervention. If the intervention is successful to the point that the person is capable of living a healthy life, do we need to say ‘this is a person who was born with condition A and was treated for it’ rather than ‘this is a healthy person’?

          1. Health is a rather ambiguous term. The closest thing to a concrete definition is that health is your estimated lifespan minus your current age. By that definition, transgender persons are by definition unhealthy, they live much shorter lives than everyone else, largely due to murder and suicide.

            Thanks for the information about the role of chromosomes to regular cell functions, I always thought that DNA stopped having any effect after the cell was constructed, and simply provided the instruction set for cell reproduction. Now I know and knowing is half the battle.

      2. Explain why you believe it is wrong. Also explain why you believe those who disagree are transphobic. Believing that many trans candidates are suffering psychologicaly, rather than a tragedy of physicality, implies neither hate nor fear. The genotype of the individual is not at issue – there are plenty of people of either gender who display solid genotypical traits of their gender who insist they are trans.

  3. 3

    There’s this one paper that I keep in my bookmarks when talking to people that don’t understand trans people very well and feel the need to insist that trans women are “male”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268825/

    Basically, what it states is that biological sex is best determined by the collective phenotype of cells, since a lot of sex differentiation is the result of hormones triggering gene expressions, rather than genetics themselves, and that genitals don’t really determine sex. That being said, I don’t really personally care what my sex is classified as (but please don’t call me “male”). My gender is female, my body runs best on having estrogen in my system, and I love the physiological results of my estrogen prescription.

    1. 4.1

      Yes. They possess an XY chromosome.

      Having a Y chromosome doesn’t inherently make someone male: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2190741/

      Regardless, DNA is only the blueprint. Let’s not confuse the blueprint with the actual building. A trans woman running on estrogen gets her physiology by expressing the same genes as a cis woman does to create her secondary sex characteristics. Trans women aren’t “biologically male.”

    2. 4.2

      @4 Tony Locke says:

      Are trans women really “male” in any way that matters?

      Yes. They possess an XY chromosome. Thanks and goodnight.

      Um, you forgot the part where you explain what it is about chromosomes that matters in any way…

  4. 5

    You are not a female because you get a boob job, put on a dress, and cut off your wang.

    You cannot deny science no matter how much you demand people play along with your delusion. Bruce is not a women. Sorry.

    1. 5.2

      If someone identifies as female they are, and it is polite and considerate to treat them as such. What bits they have under their clothes are none of your business.

      1. Just because someone ‘identifies’ as a woman doesn’t mean they are one! And politeness has nothing to do with not wanting to collaborate in their delusion. The psychiatric wards are full of people who think they’re Jesus or Napoleon or Joan of Arc… based on your logic, we’d have to believe they genuinely are. If I say I ‘identify’ as a bird and leap out of a tree, will I be able to fly? Of course not… because I’m not a bird. Being a woman is a lived experience. It isn’t simply ‘identifying’ of having ‘women feelz’.

  5. 6

    But calling these things “male” is a choice of terminology.

    And who exactly are you to demand that I accept YOUR terminology. Whom I decide to call male and whom I decide to call female is up to my discretion, and mine alone.

  6. 7

    I find it interesting that a site called “freethoughtblogs” spends its time telling other people what to think and say. A male doesn
    to become a woman because he gets something cut off, and visa versa. It is common sense and science that tells me this. I also have the right and freedom to think and say this.

        1. Tay

          Some good points have been made. I would like to add that not everyone who is trans has the same understanding of their sex/gender though. I also share skepticism in our traditional understanding of sex and think it has it’s limitations. We put a lot of faith in science to be unbiased, but that isn’t always the case.

          Science once supported the assertion that black people were extremely different from other types of people, and as a result, inferior. Following this line of thought, our conventional conception of male and female as diametrically opposed opposites, almost different species, is a flawed as well. Male and female are more alike than they aren’t, both behaviorally and physically. Dimorphism in humans isn’t as severe as people make it out to be.

          Of course that is the reality we live in, and part of the reason I think Butler was right when she said “sex is always already gender” – because the two concepts are so bound up in one another culturally. It’s exceedingly difficult for people, as products of their society, to try and conceive of a configuration that exists outside of the pattern.

          This is, I think, part of why many trans people are so resistant to people making determinations about them. Male and female aren’t just value neutral terminology specifying which chromosomes you have – they’re dynamic terms that are laden with unexamined value. When someone calls you male or female they’re not just specifying a characteristic you possess, but a set of cultural behaviors associated with people who possess similar features. And that definitely does shape HOW trans people are treated.

          This also isn’t to say that the model of dialectical class analysis used by some people is worthless either. I believe Marx and other philosophers provided us with some interesting tools by which we can understand relations between different groups of people in society and also understand the ways in which differences are wielded as power to oppress others.

          I do, however, maintain that our understanding of sex is imperfect and that determinations about people made from a strictly clinical/statistical viewpoint aren’t a good model by which we should decide how we treat people. I think that we open ourselves up to unfairly targeting a lot of people in society who don’t do particularly well by white bourgeoisie standards. Theory is one thing, the reality that people live is something else entirely.

  7. 9

    Hi Zinnia,

    Since we are now experiencing a wash of people comparing Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, can we expect a gender analysis from yourself on Transgender vs Trans-ethnic at some point in the future?

    Thx

    1. 9.1

      I think the main difference is the dishonesty. Caitlyn Jenner has not denied being a trans-gender woman, but Rachel Dolezal actively concealed her past. Remember, the Land Of The Eagle was founded by George Washington, a man so opposed to mendacity that he admitted to an act of minor deforestation in his youth. Most USA citizens view him as being a paragon of the virtues their society most exalts, thus they value honesty very highly. The 42nd ruler of that country was,if you remember, cast out from the high places and condemned to forever wallow in blighted obscurity. His crime was, by the standards of his own justice system, fairly minor, what truly incited the wrath of his citizenry was that he lied about his wrongdoings. Zinnia Jones and her countrymen hold truthfulness second only to freedom in their hearts.

  8. 10

    I will not lie and call somebody a “woman” or a “female” because a man in a dress, whether or not he has had his genitalia hacked off, tries to impersonate one, Don’t you DARE dictate to me, a woman, what a woman is. Take your woman-hating filth called transgenderism and stick it.

    1. 10.1

      @ Susan Nunes: You’re whats wrong with society and social bigotry treated as what’s “ok” to cause division and hate amongst fellow humans. It completely bewilders me that people can be so woefully ignorant and without a second thought demean or debase others. Even if you’re just a Troll, it’s still pathetic you actively seek out to cause problems…

  9. 11

    It’s a good thing you clarified this. I value logic more than politics, and it’s logical to call a trans-woman a woman. I had assumed, however, that a trans-woman would be called male for the sake of political correctness, because I’m so used to political correctness flouting logic. I’m probably not the only one who made that mistake.

    Now I know that political correctness happens to be on the side of logic in this case. But really, we Leftists shouldn’t have to play this guessing game. We’re supposed to be the smart ones.

  10. 12

    Apologies in advance if this isn’t the appropriate place for this question, but I’ve been wondering about just this topic lately and I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate it.

    I teach both secondary and post-secondary students in biology, including human anatomy & physiology courses that are meant as the basis for further medical training. In the brief time we have to discuss human reproductive systems and human genetics (including the genetic basis of “sex determination”), I do explain to my students that I use “male” and “female” to refer to the presence of testes or ovaries (i.e. “male reproductive system” and “female reproductive system”). I also explicitly state that in class we deal with oversimplifications, that they should be aware that the presence/absence of “male or female” chromosomes, gonads, genitalia and/or any other secondary sex characteristics do not correlate perfectly with each other, and that none of these determine gender identity or sexual partner preferences.

    Am I doing more harm than good by drawing a distinction between the use of the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ vs. ‘man’ and ‘woman’, in this context?

    Is there a good alternative to using ‘male’ and ‘female’ as adjectives in reference to, for example, reproductive systems? I try to make sure I say things like “the male reproductive system includes these structures” instead of, e.g. “men have these structures” or “males have these structures”, or I say something like “the genes on the Y chromosome typically code for the production and development of male gonads and secondary sex characteristics”, rather than “the Y chromosome makes someone male”. But are there alternatives that are a bit more nuanced and can still get the biologically relevant information across?

    My background is all from work with non-human-animals… as we really have no way of asking an animal its gender/sex/etc. identity, to classify animals by ‘sex’ we by necessity rely on objectively identifiable/measurable things like gonads, hormone levels, or external sex-typical characteristics e.g. genitalia, song, coloration, body shape, etc. But since I’m now teaching about humans specifically, I find I’m having an awfully hard time sorting out how to discuss such things in a purportedly objective course, when discussing characteristics of individuals who of course CAN explicitly self-identify as a particular gender and/or sex (or absence thereof).

    Do you have any suggestions (or do you know of any good resources available) to help biology teachers discuss human reproductive systems and genetics, without inadvertently reinforcing the more harmful ideas out there?

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