July 19, 2019
A recent New York Times opinion piece by Julia Serano—one of ten commissioned by the Times from “the L.G.B.T.Q. community” for “Pride Month”—turns history upside down with only its second paragraph:
Opponents of transgender rights have increasingly worked to shift conversations and policy language away from gender and toward biological sex.
In reality, it is the supporters of “transgender rights,” not the opponents, who “have increasingly worked to shift conversations and policy language.” However, in this case, the effort has been to redefine the word “sex” to include “gender identity.”
“Sex” Discrimination vs. “Gender Identity”
In the courts and legislatures, efforts to end discrimination on the basis of “sex” began over fifty years ago. Congress outlawed discrimination based on “sex” in employment in 1964, and in education in 1972.
In 1964 or 1972, there would have been no question, in the minds of lawmakers or anyone else, that these laws prevented discrimination against individuals for being biologically female or biologically male.
On the other hand, in the last 15 or 20 years there has been an effort to add “gender identity”—“a term that originated in the field of psychology,” as Serano acknowledges—as a protected category in non-discrimination laws, alongside the more traditional categories such as “race” and “sex.” However, these efforts have largely failed in the majority of states and at the federal level.
That failure has led to a shift in strategy by transgender activists. Instead of seeking to add “gender identity” as a new protected category, they have taken to arguing that transgender people are already protected by laws against discrimination based on “sex.”
The Trump administration has rejected this interpretation of the word “sex” in existing statutory law. That conclusion seems to be what has aroused Serano’s ire.
Serano, a male-to-female transgender person (that is, a biological male who identifies psychologically as female), also takes Family Research Council to task for its defense of the administration policy:
The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian activist group, recently published an article titled “Trump transgender policy is simple and scientific: ‘Sex’ means biological sex.”
Perhaps the use of the word “scientific” in that headline was part of what triggered Serano, a biologist, to declare that “these developments … offend me as a scientist.”
What science? Here’s what Serano points to:
… [S]ex also seems straightforward. Every person superficially appears either female or male. But once we look beneath the surface, things are far more complicated.
While there are tangible biological sex characteristics — chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones and secondary sex characteristics — they do not always fit neatly into male or female classifications, or align with one another within the same individual, as is the case for intersex people.
Yet this argument fails for a simple reason—“intersex people” are not the same as “transgender” people. Ambiguities in some people’s biological sex have nothing to do with anomalies in some people’s psychological “gender identity.”
Science Says: Intersex is Not Transgender
Don’t take my word for it. Look to the American Psychiatric Association. In their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), they define “sex” as:
Biological indication of male and female (understood in the context of reproductive capacity), such as sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, and nonambiguous internal and external genitalia.
An “intersex condition” is also biological:
A condition in which individuals have conflicting or ambiguous biological indicators of sex.
“Gender identity” is something quite different:
A category of social identity that refers to an individual’s identification as male, female or, occasionally, some category other than male or female.
The Intersex Society of North America explains the concept this way:
People who identify as transgender or transsexual are usually people who are born with typical male or female anatomies but feel as though they’ve been born into the “wrong body.” . . .
People who have intersex conditions have anatomy that is not considered typically male or female. Most people with intersex conditions come to medical attention because doctors or parents notice something unusual about their bodies. In contrast, people who are transgendered have an internal experience of gender identity that is different from most people. [emphasis in the original]
The National Center for Transgender Equality makes the same point, in their “Frequently Asked Questions about Transgender People”:
What’s the difference between being transgender and being intersex?
People sometimes confuse being transgender and being intersex. Intersex people have reproductive anatomy or genes that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female, which is often discovered at birth. Being transgender, meanwhile, has to do with your internal knowledge of your gender identity. A transgender person is usually born with a body and genes that match a typical male or female, but they know their gender identity to be different.
. . .
While it’s possible to be both transgender and intersex, most transgender people aren’t intersex, and most intersex people aren’t transgender.
A piece on “debunking 10 intersex myths”—written by a “Black, queer, non-binary, intersex” author and published a year ago by the LGBT activist group GLAAD—stated:
Intersex people and transgender people are not the same thing.
It also noted:
Not all intersex people identify as a part of the LGBTQIA community.
A glossary prepared for a National Geographic issue on the “Gender Revolution” in 2017—by the authors of The Teaching Transgender Toolkit—likewise defined gender identity:
A person’s deep-seated, internal sense of who they are as a gendered being; the gender with which they identify themselves.
Intersex, on the other hand, was defined this way:
An umbrella term that describes a person with a genetic, genital, reproductive, or hormonal configuration that does not fit typical binary notions of a male or female body. Intersex is frequently confused with transgender, but the two are completely distinct.
(Unfortunately, even that glossary did not prevent the author of another article in the same issue—as well as Katie Couric, host of a NatGeo TV special on the issue—from wrongly conflating intersex and transgender.)
Serano’s critique of the FRC piece concludes:
The article not only ignores current thinking in the field of biology, but it also falsely implies that science yields simple answers. History shows otherwise, as scientific research has repeatedly revealed nature to be far more diverse and complex than we initially believed.
Yet the article on “current thinking” to which Serano linked also deals with biological intersex conditions—not psychological transgender ones. The fact that the biology of sex is “diverse and complex” (as with intersex conditions) does not change the simple scientific truth—made clear by the expert definitions above—that “sex” is a biological concept.
Nor does it change the simple legal truth that the word “sex” in non-discrimination law refers to biology, not to the entirely psychological concept of “gender identity.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Serano’s conclusion:
Those who now invoke science in support of their biases and prejudices do it a grave disservice, and science-minded people everywhere must speak out against it.
Unfortunately, Serano is the one guilty of this “grave disservice.”