So What Is Gender Anyway?

So What Is Gender Anyway?

Sex and Gender. These are the terms at the heart of the latest right-wing moral panic, used to explain why trans people are who they say they are—or why they aren’t. 

In common parlance, ‘sex’ usually refers to the physical attributes of an individual’s body, while ‘gender’ encompasses a broader understanding of an individual’s identity and how they perceive themselves in relation to social norms and expectations. It’s your internal sense of being male, female, non-binary, or any other gender identity. Under this framework, gender is a spectrum, acknowledging a diverse range of gender identities, while sex is often considered a binary concept, dividing individuals into male and female. According to this view, trans people don’t alter their physical sex through gender-affirming interventions. However, their gender identity is considered valid, recognizing them as men, women, non-binary, etc. This view sometimes leads to the notion that trans people were ‘born in the wrong body.’ But we should be cautious about this framing, as it oversimplifies a complex reality. Although scientific research has identified certain brain differences between individuals assigned male and female at birth, the precise relationship between these differences and one’s gender identity and behavior remains uncertain.

While gender is widely recognized as a spectrum, we ought to delve into the complexities of sex as well. One definition of ‘sex’ pertains to the ability to either impregnate or be impregnated. This mammal-centric view focuses on reproductive functions and associates sex with the capability to sexually reproduce. Another definition simplifies sex as the biological quality that categorizes individuals as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, often relying on physical attributes such as genitalia, reproductive organs, and secondary sexual characteristics. In contemporary discourse, many people primarily define sex based on chromosomes. According to this view, individuals with XX chromosomes are classified as women or females, while those with XY chromosomes are categorized as men or males. 

While all of these definitions contain elements of truth, their limitations become apparent when we look beyond the norm. If we were to go by the first definition, how would we classify individuals who can neither impregnate nor be impregnated? Such individuals obviously exist. If we were to look at the second definition, what are these biological qualities? Gametes? Gonads? Chromosomes? How would we classify individuals who’ve had some or most of their ‘biological qualities’ removed or were born without them? Even sticking to a largely unchangeable quality such as chromosomes, the picture remains complicated. There are XX individuals who are anatomically unambiguously male. There are XY individuals who are anatomically female enough that they can successfully give birth. They live their entire lives as women without knowing that they have XY chromosomes. There are individuals with both XX and XY chromosomes and there are some born with XXX, XXY, XO, etc. Some have asserted in response that ‘maleness’ ought to be determined by the SRY gene that is typically present in the Y chromosome. Sometimes, the SRY gene is translocated to the X chromosome, creating an XX male. However, since XX (SRY negative) males also exist, even this criterion for sexual classification can be contested. Most of us live and die not knowing anything about our chromosomes, since this information is irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. 

It should be apparent by now that the definitions mentioned earlier are incomplete and insufficient. This doesn’t necessarily pose a problem—the meanings of words can vary depending on context. The issue arises when we attempt to impose a single, rigid definition of sex as universally accepted and always applicable. 

A good definition should be accurate and be useful within context, in the sense that it should explain what the word is describing in practice, leaving behind as few exceptions as possible (especially if these exceptions are human beings). 

All definitions are subjective. There is no objective definition of ‘sex’, ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘man’, ‘woman’ ‘human’ or ‘monkey’ prescribed by gods or nature. Language is a social creation. We should simply provide principled arguments as to why certain definitions should be adopted over others in particular circumstances. 

‘Sex’, and by extension ‘male’ and ‘female,’ are polysemous (they mean different things in different contexts). For example, ‘female’ is occasionally used to describe a type of USB port, while ‘female’ can also refer to the sex of an organism. Univocal definitions of these words do not exist, a fact that is acknowledged even by biologists.  

Gender is often considered a social construct that encompasses sets of stereotypes and expectations imposed on individuals based on their sex. Gender is generally associated with specific behaviors, appearances, and roles that society deems appropriate for either males or females. These stereotypes can include characteristics like long hair, wearing skirts, growing beards, etc. The stereotypes expected of males/men are referred to as ‘masculinity,’ while those expected of females/women are labeled as ‘femininity.’ But in academic conversations, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are primarily used to describe gender expression, which refers to how individuals present themselves and adhere to cultural norms associated with gender. While gender as a set of stereotypes is an acceptable place to start, it doesn’t capture the full complexity of the concept. 

Feminist theory, queer theory, and sociology all offer broader perspectives on gender. These disciplines recognize that gender isn’t solely defined by stereotypes, but is a socio-cultural system that influences individuals’ lives in various ways. Queer theory delves the deepest, challenging our understanding of gender down to the binary categories themselves, emphasizing that limiting gendered classes to ‘men/male’ and ‘women/female’ is a normative decision made by us as a society. It strives to explore the fluidity and diversity of gender identities and expressions beyond traditional norms.

Taken together, these fields strongly critique the colloquial notion that gender as a concept is limited to a collection of stereotypes corresponding to each sex. Simplified dictionary definitions—while they may serve a purpose in certain contexts—can be insufficient and even harmful when applied to complex and politically charged concepts such as gender and sex. Their oversimplification has led to misconceptions, particularly in discussions of trans and intersex rights. One common misconception is the belief that advocates of trans rights aim to replace ‘biological sex’ with gender in both legal frameworks and everyday life. This misconception is often perpetuated by parties with anti-trans motivations, including those who consider themselves feminists. They argue that gender, understood by them to merely refer to gender stereotypes, should not be affirmed but dismantled. They further argue—sometimes only implicitly—that the acceptance of the trans community reifies these stereotypes. However, this perspective is based on a false premise that stems from misunderstanding what it means for gender to be a social construct. 

A social construct, put simply, is a concept describing material reality that has arisen from collaborative consensus. Money is a social construct, but nobody would assume that, say, American dollars would be accepted at a store in Germany or that a 50 Euro bill could be exchanged for a bill twice the value simply because money is socially constructed. Money describes a commodity’s value that legitimately exists, created through labor or through other means. In the same manner, ‘gender’ relates to certain characteristics that inarguably exist. It’s just that how we choose to describe, explain, and categorize people with these characteristics is fundamentally subjective and achieved through collective coordination. 

Defining sex and gender

While there are many definitions of ‘sex’, in medical and biological contexts, ‘sex’ in humans and other sexually-reproducing organisms broadly relates to the anatomical, hormonal, and genetic characteristics typically associated with reproduction. Depending on the field of study, one can ramify ‘sex’ into:

  • Chromosomal/Genetic sex: This refers to the sex defined by the presence of specific sex chromosomes in an individual’s somatic cells. In humans, genetic females have two X chromosomes (XX), while genetic males have one X and one Y chromosome (XY). 
  • Endocrinological sex: This definition of sex focuses on the phenotypic manifestations influenced by endocrine factors, such as hormone levels. 
  • Gonadal sex: This definition of sex is based on the gonadal tissue present. Individuals with ovaries are considered to be gonadally female, while individuals with testes can be said to be gonadally male. In rare cases, individuals may have ovotestes, which possess both ovarian and testicular tissue. 
  • Gametic sex: The sex of an organism as defined by the type of gametes they produce. This categorization is primarily used in the field of biology and is thus also referred to as ‘biological sex.’
  • Hormonal sex: This definition of sex considers the proportion of sex hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, in an individual’s body. 
  • Morphological sex: Sex based on the morphology of external genitalia. The presence of certain anatomical characteristics can be indicative of a particular sex. 
  • Nuclear sex: This definition looks at the presence or absence of sex chromatin in somatic cells. In humans, the presence of sex chromatin indicates that the individual’s nuclear sex is female. 

These distinctions are of particular significance in the field of medicine, as they can help healthcare professionals understand and individualize treatments for a diverse set of patients. For example, individuals who were assigned the same sex at birth but have different hormone profiles or different chromosomes may respond differently to the same medical intervention. Recognizing and considering these distinctions can contribute to safer and more precise medical care. 

There’s been some debate surrounding the phrase ‘sex assigned at birth’. Some argue that sex isn’t something assigned but rather something that is simply observed and recorded at birth. But sex isn’t a physical attribute that can be observed or recorded like length or weight. Sex is a category that picks out various properties (like those listed above), many of which are not directly observable. But however observable some of these properties are, categories themselves cannot be observed. 

In social/legal contexts, ‘sex’, or more commonly known as ‘gender’ or ‘lived sex’ in humans refers to the social significance of the anatomical, hormonal, and genetic characteristics typically associated with reproduction.

Nobody observes chromosomes, gametes, or gonads before addressing someone as a man/male or woman/female, making the medical definition of sex useless in a social setting. Rather, outward presentation, which is primarily influenced by the norms and expectations that society ascribes to people with certain biological characteristics is used to identify one’s sex as it is defined in social contexts. In practice, within social and legal contexts, ‘sex’ is synonymous with ‘gender’. This assertion may initially come as surprising, but it aligns with how these two terms are commonly used in everyday communication. 

The concept of sex, even within biological and medical contexts, isn’t a neutral and objective reference to anatomical, hormonal, and genetic traits. The categorization of these traits is not fixed and can be revised without sacrificing their predictive value. The traditional division of ‘male’ and ‘female’ has been widely accepted historically, but these categorizations are not the only possible way to group individuals based on their biological characteristics. Hypothetically, we could introduce alternative categories such as ‘maleons’ (individuals with XY and similar variations who can produce gametes), ‘demaleons’ (individuals with XY and similar variations who can’t produce gametes), ‘femaleons’ (individuals with XX and similar variations who can produce gametes), and ‘defemaleons’ (individuals with XX and similar variations who can’t produce gametes), effectively creating four distinct ‘sexes’. 

While such a radical change would face significant resistance, the hypothetical illustrates how all categorizations are produced and sustained socially when they’re useful. None of these categories, even the ones we commonly use, exist objectively, even though their referents—anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones in this case—do. The categories themselves are completely malleable. The map is not the territory. The categorization is a product of human interpretation that serves specific social purposes. It reflects our norms, expectations, and historical contexts rather than an inherent and unchangeable truth about human biology. In essence, the very division of individuals into the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ even within the fields of medicine and biology, is a social act based on gendered conventions. In technical terms, gender/lived sex (hereafter just ‘gender’) categories are ontologically prior to the sex categories in medical and biological contexts.

And so the social significance of the anatomical, hormonal, and genetic characteristics associated with reproduction, i.e., ‘gender’ is what leads to:

  1. The division of individuals with certain characteristics into men/women or male/female categories or more.
  2. The creation of social norms, roles and stereotypes associated with members of the above categories. 

Consequently, single-sex spaces, birth certificates and other arrangements ‘based on sex’ are effectively divisions on the basis of gender since they all apply within social contexts. The myth that anyone is trying to ‘replace’ sex with gender is just that: a myth, because sex and gender are synonymous in the contexts where those words are used.  

The intersex double standard

Since gender refers to the social significance of the characteristics associated with reproduction, it is ultimately we as a society that decide which characteristics to consider when grouping a population into each gender category.

Conservatives have long argued for strict ‘biological’ definitions of gender/sex categories within all social contexts. Even if we were to ignore that these definitions don’t reflect their actual usage, the complexity of (biological) sex gives rise to inevitable problems. Forget about trans people for the moment. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find anti-trans ideologues arguing that one’s gender should be solely defined by the gametes one produces or ‘would have produced, had something not gone wrong.’ Ignoring the flaws in this argument (for now), these ‘biology-based’ definitions of gender/sex, if taken to their logical extremes, would entail, for instance, calling a CAIS woman or a 5ARD woman a ‘man/male’. 

CAIS (Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) is an intersex condition that occurs when the body is incapable of using androgens at all. These individuals are genetically XY, possess internal testes, but are endocrinologically and morphologically female. They are raised as girls and many of them discover their condition in their teens only after failing to menstruate. 

5ARD (5α-Reductase 2 deficiency) is another intersex condition caused by a mutation in the SRD5A2 gene. Such individuals are genetically XY and have underdeveloped genitalia that may or may not develop during puberty. Many of them are raised as girls. 

The cruelty of forcing individuals with these conditions to live as men after they’ve lived all their lives prior to diagnosis as women is evident. Many anti-trans ideologues appear to agree on the surface, which is strange given that their definitions of ‘sex/gender’ would necessarily exclude CAIS and 5ARD women from womanhood. 

When trans people are brought back into the equation, the problem is obvious. Conservative definitions seem designed for the sole purpose of excluding trans women from the category of ‘woman’. Their supposed acceptance of individuals with conditions such as CAIS, 5ARD and a few other intersex conditions seems like an attempt to prevent collateral harm from being brought on by their exclusionary definitions. Anti-trans actors eagerly point out that trans people aren’t intersex, but this misses the point. Just as it is cruel to force an intersex person to live as a gender they don’t perceive themselves to be, it is likewise cruel to force anyone else to do so. 

Language and categorization

Some have argued against the notion that the medical definition of sex is useless within social contexts. They claim that we can use traits like chromosomes, gametes, or gonads as universal criteria for defining a sex/gender category even in social contexts where none of these traits are observed. Their argument can be condensed into the claim that we don’t have to define a category based on how we recognize its members in a particular context. Even if we ignore that there is no material biological/genetic characteristic common to all people within a particular gender/sex category (in both social and biological contexts), this argument ignores how language works. 

For instance, if we encounter an adult with breasts, we typically assume they are a woman based on our recognition of that characteristic. The recognition of breasts in this case becomes a strong defining characteristic of a woman within the context of identification. 

Therefore, when we use a specific characteristic to recognize and identify members of a category within a certain context, that characteristic (at least implicitly) becomes a part of the definition of the category in that context. All categories are fuzzily outlined with lots of traits, which are derived through interacting with real world exemplars and learning what others think constitutes that category. Although dictionaries may not explicitly mention these traits in their definitions, dictionaries only provide a general idea of how words are commonly understood. They can’t cover every possible meaning or context and they most certainly aren’t the final authorities of the word’s usage.

Gender identity

The concepts of men/women and male/female have long predated the fields of biology and medicine. So imposing an arbitrarily chosen standard based on gametes, gonads, or chromosomes—none of which are even observable in everyday social interactions—on social life would be counterintuitive at best, and harmfully exclusionary at worst.

It’s far more useful to define a sex/gender category in a way that continues to include members that have lived in that category over time (intersex women in the category of women and so on). Equally importantly, adopting and maintaining such an inclusive definition tracks with how the words man/woman and male/female are used in common parlance, where our recognition of the members of these categories is guided by outward appearances and presentation—which usually reflect a person’s understanding that they belong to a particular category. Note that ‘outward presentation’ may be as simple as a straightforward declaration that one belongs to a particular gender/sex category. The various waves of feminism have hopefully made it clear to most that there is no one ‘true’ way to present as a member of any gender/sex category. 

It’s evident that every society is arranged to offer different, continuously evolving ‘paths of experience’ to members of different gender/sex categories. Even the same experiences are likely to be interpreted differently by men and women due to social conditioning and patriarchal power imbalances. 

It should be an individual’s right to navigate society as they see fit as long as their doing so doesn’t inflict harm on anyone else. The fact that there are trans people at all is strong evidence that humans are inclined to identify with a specific gender/sex category, usually the one constructed around their sex assigned at birth. This inclination goes beyond just liking certain gender roles or stereotypes, since that alone can’t explain the trans people who go to great lengths to escape from places that want to harm or eradicate them, nor can it explain the trans people who ‘retain’ the interests associated with the gender/sex category they transitioned out of. 

The inclination to identify with a gender seems motivated by something else. Individuals appear to feel more comfortable when they, their personality, and their presentation are framed with reference to a particular gender/sex category and its norms and expectations. For example, being feminine as a man carries very different connotations than being feminine as a woman. By choosing to belong to one category or the other, the individual is indicating how they want their femininity to be perceived by a gendered society. Even if one were to defy these norms and expectations, they’d be choosing to do so through the framework of their identified category. It’s not so much ‘I prefer being feminine, therefore I am a woman,’ as it is ‘I prefer being feminine, and my femininity should be socially understood through the perspective of womanhood’.

The contributions to this inclination could be early social conditioning, neuropsychology, the mere belief that one’s ‘path of experience’ ought to correlate with their sex assigned at birth, a combination of the above, or more. This inclination usually forms an integral part of one’s identity, known as ‘gender identity’. 

This inclination ought to be respected as it is a cornerstone of self-determination, even when their inclined ‘gender/sex’ category isn’t the one that is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth, since refusing to do so would entail a double standard. Grouping individuals into sex/gender categories based on this inclination is more logically consistent and ethical compared to the alternatives, tracking with how the words man/male and woman/female are used in social contexts.

Anti-trans advocates sometimes suggest that if people could really change their gender simply by identifying out of it, women would identify as men to escape oppression, and gender-based oppression would end. But gender identity is integral to self-identity for most people, not willingly shed at any price. To provide an analogy that hopefully settles the matter, we generally accept that one may change their religion, but it would be ludicrous to argue that Jewish people ought to have simply changed their religion to escape Nazi persecution during the Second World War.

Changing sex

The point so far has been to understand that in social contexts, a trans woman is a woman/female if we are to keep using the words ‘woman/female’ the way we use them today. This might lead one to ask: can sex be changed in biological/medical contexts as well?

In these contexts, ‘sex’ refers to a cluster of characteristics (genetic, hormonal, endocrinological, gonadal). Most of these can be changed with today’s technology. Therefore, sex, in practice, can be changed in humans, although not completely. 

  1. Chromosomes/DNA: Can be partially altered via childbirth (fetal microchimerism)  and organ/bone marrow transplants. XX (SRY –ve) males, XY females, and mosaics (both XX and XY) exist. Moreover, everyone has the genes that are linked to ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex characteristics.
  2. Hormones: Can be altered via Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or health conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
  3. Gonads/Gametes: At present, they can be removed or one can be born with non-functional ‘streak’ gonads. 
  4. Genitalia: Can be removed or altered via bottom surgery (which was originally developed for cis people). This alteration cannot be said to be purely ‘cosmetic’ since ‘male’ and ‘female’ genitalia are homologous organs to begin with. 

From a materialist perspective, the etiology of an individual’s genitalia, presence or absence of gonads and gametes, or hormone profiles are irrelevant, especially for the purposes of social classification. What matters is the person’s current state and characteristics, not their past or potential development in hypothetical circumstances. Thus, arguing someone with removed gonads ought to be defined by the gonads they once had is fallacious, in the sense that the past state of the organism is taken to be sufficient for defining it in spite of its actually existing physical state. 

Besides, during early embryonic development, all humans possess bipotential reproductive structures, meaning that the potential for developing both male and female reproductive systems exists. Taking this into consideration, one could argue that all humans are of one sex, if we are to define an individual’s sex based on the anatomy they once had, given that there’s no objective criterion for determining the point in time being used as a reference. 

Arguing that a sex-change is only ‘valid’ if the organism can participate in reproduction post change is another arbitrary standard that fails to contend with the complexity of sex and reproduction in various organisms, including humans. Reproduction is just one aspect of an organism’s sex, and the ability to reproduce is not a necessary requirement to be of a certain sex. Many organisms, including humans, can experience infertility. Insisting that an organism must be capable of reproduction to be categorized as a certain sex would entail dubiously classifying these individuals as ‘sexless’.

So, if one were to look at a trans man giving birth, what sex would they be? Would our answer change if we were talking about, say, a bird laying an egg? The truth is that upon observing a bird laying eggs, if we were to be scientifically accurate, we would at most be able to determine its morphological, endocrinological, hormonal, and gonadal sex. Nothing more. It’s entirely possible the bird could be genetically male. Birds and other non-human animals also do not appear to have anything comparable to human gender/lived sex. This is not the case when it comes to a trans man whose gender/lived sex is evidently male. The average trans man is also endocrinologically, hormonally, and in some instances, morphologically male whereas their gonadal, genetic and gametic sex could be argued to be female or ‘none’. 

Flawed definitions

Although most laypeople, medical practitioners, and biologists (at least implicitly) understand ‘sex’ to refer to a cluster of genetic, hormonal, endocrinological, and anatomical characteristics associated with reproduction, the anti-trans movement has three definitions of their own, claimed by them to be the ‘true’ definitions of sex.

One definition (which is loosely based on the definition in biology textbooks) goes as follows: ‘sex’ is defined by the gametes one produces or would have produced, had something not gone wrong. 

Another argues that ‘sex’ is defined by one of two development pathways towards the production of small (male) or large (female) gametes. In the case of organisms that cannot produce any gametes, one must look at which development pathway the organism went furthest along. 

Yet another definition, similar to the first, argues that an organism’s ‘sex’ is defined by which gamete it is organized, or of the nature, to produce. 

On the surface, these may seem like sound definitions, but the closer one investigates, the more unscientific they become. In fact, even those who tout these definitions don’t act as if they truly believe in them in practice. If sex were truly defined solely by gamete type, then nobody would be able to determine the sex of anyone without observing them ejaculate or menstruate, and those infertile individuals unable to do either would be ‘sexless’. This definition, if it were the only one used, would be useless in every social context. 

One might assume that the gamete-centric definition is only meant to be used within certain medical contexts, but that isn’t true. Given how anti-trans ideologues repeatedly call trans women ‘males’ or ‘men’ and demand their exclusion from single-sex spaces, it’s clear they intend these definitions for social contexts as well. These definitions are proffered for the sole purpose of enforcing an artificial sex binary, thereby excluding trans women from the category of women. This is an equivocation on their part. Anti-trans advocates use the more holistic definition of sex when it serves them—for example, when they claim things like ‘oppression happens on the basis of sex rather than gender’, even though they’re the same thing within social contexts—and in the same breath, employ the gamete-centric definition of sex to exclude trans women.

The flaws exposed

While anisogamous organisms reproduce through the fusion of different-sized gametes, this isn’t a universally applicable rule. ‘Gametes define sex’ may hold true for entire species, but it cannot be rigidly imposed on every individual organism. The gamete-centric definition wasn’t intended for such purposes and doesn’t align with sex categories, especially when considering infertile organisms. 

Some argue in response that removing limbs from a tetrapod (and thus sex organs from an organism) does not change its classification. But being a tetrapod requires meeting multiple conditions, with having four limbs being just one of them. Snakes, despite being limbless, are still classified as tetrapods. This implies that the statement ‘tetrapods have four limbs’ is merely a generalization. Such arguments implicitly acknowledge that sex is not solely defined by gamete type. To address the limitations of the gamete-centric definition while attempting to maintain a binary classification, conditions like ‘organized to produce small/large gametes’ and ‘the gametes the organism would have produced’ are introduced. These are weak.

Creationism, strategies, and potential gametes

The condition of being ‘organized to produce a certain gamete’ fails to account for infertile individuals. Using this definition to sex organisms unable to produce gametes invokes normative and creationist-adjacent notions about biology. It’s inappropriate to claim an organism is ‘organized’ or ‘of the nature’ to do something it manifestly cannot do. For example, we wouldn’t say a blind person is ‘organized around’ the function of sight. 

Others argue that the sexes are ‘evolutionary strategies’ associated with gamete production. Even if an organism is infertile, its sex characteristics are centered around one (or both) evolutionary strategies linked to gamete production. However, this contradicts the frequent usage of terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe organisms rather than ‘evolutionary strategies’. Furthermore, being ‘centered around’ an ‘evolutionary strategy’ implies that the organ possesses traits, behaviors, and adaptations contributing to reproductive success. Organs unable to perform the functions associated with a particular strategy, such as gamete production, lack some necessary traits and adaptations and thus cannot be said to possess that strategy as functional organs do. 

Critics often respond that, say, a car’s hood is still centered around the strategy of protecting the engine, even without an engine present. But cars are designed with a purpose, unlike organs and evolved organisms. The concepts of ‘design’ and ‘purpose’ usually imply a deliberate plan or intention, which is not present in the context of evolution. Traits observed in organisms are the product of natural selection, not conscious planning or intentional design. 

The condition of ‘the gametes an organism would have produced had something not gone wrong’ is also flawed. ‘Something going wrong’ implies a predetermined ‘correct’ way for an organism to be, which contradicts our understanding of evolution. There is no conscious process or purpose involved, and there are no blueprints dictating how an organism should be or function. The assessment of traits as advantageous or disadvantageous is subjective, and distinguishing between ‘going wrong’ and normal variation is subjective. 

Bodies do not have pre-determined plans, and predictable or unpredictable outcomes do not equate to things going right or wrong in the literal sense. Using the logic of a different outcome, one could argue that a trans woman is female, that were it not for her development into an organism with testes, she would’ve been an organism with ovaries and large gametes. Perhaps the development of testes is what went wrong, since ‘going wrong’ fundamentally depends on the subjective conception of the organism’s good.

It’s important to acknowledge that this line of reasoning doesn’t entail a rejection of medicine and biologically informed diagnoses, but recognizes that our concepts of health are not objective but are guided by normative elements. Having a concept of health is still valuable, but we should be aware of its subjective nature.

Development pathways

The assertion that sex should be defined by the developmental pathway leading to gamete production is similarly flawed. Just as it would be incorrect to label someone without eyes as ‘blue-eyed’ based on their developmental trajectory, designating a trans woman as ‘male’ based on her past development overlooks the material reality of her body. Just as we don’t consider humans to lack a gonadal/gametic sex by using the period when they possessed indifferent gonads as a reference point, it is misguided to refer to a trans woman as ‘male’ by stopping our reference point at a time when she could produce small gametes. Development pathways are continuous and can be altered naturally or by external (and intentional) factors. From a materialist perspective, the present body’s reality is what matters for classification, regardless of etiology. 

Furthermore, human development is far more complex than a singular ‘male’ or ‘female’ path. The rare instances of the continued development of the Müllerian duct system observed in individuals who are male in all other respects serve as an indication of that. It also makes no sense to ask which development pathway one went furthest along, because such a statement implies the existence of a ‘correct’ or ‘planned’ way for an organism to develop along, which, to reiterate, goes against our understanding of evolution. 

The aforementioned definitions contradict their aim of maintaining a strict binary understanding of ‘sex’. While gametes are binary, proponents of these definitions struggle when faced with individuals unable to reproduce. They invoke concepts like ‘development pathways’, ‘evolutionary strategies’, or ‘expected gametes’. These concepts relate to anatomical features tied to gamete production, which is not strictly binary. Particularly with the ‘evolutionary strategy’ definition, it devalues gamete production by prioritizing other sex characteristics as the defining factor. Consequently, these acknowledgments inadvertently expose the inability of these definitions to prove sex as binary or exclude trans women from being categorized as women.

In other words, these definitions inadvertently concede that it is far more useful and accurate to understand ‘sex’ to be a broad spectrum of characteristics associated with reproduction, rather than a strict binary division as was originally conceived. Just because there are only two gametes doesn’t imply there are only two sexes, since, as established before, gamete types aren’t synonymous with sex categories. It is impractical to reduce reproductive anatomy to a simple two-group classification. The understanding of ‘sex’ as a multimodal distribution of reproductive characteristics provides a far more comprehensive framework for scientific endeavors. This perspective acknowledges the diversity and complexities within populations and avoids reducing individuals to a rigid binary system. Instead, it acknowledges that ‘sex’ encompasses a range of characteristics and expressions related to reproduction, acknowledging the diversity and fluidity that exists across anisogamous life forms.

Featured Image is Boat of people with intersex condition participating in the secnd edition of the Utrecht Canal Pride on June 16, 2018, by Paul2