Language, Biology, and Gender Identity

Language like “Biologically born a male, Nicole identified as a girl as early as age 2,” (from a recent article about a positive court decision in Maine) routinely appears in discussions of trans identities, and it’s easy to see how writers fall into this type of discussion. The narrative around transgender identity is all about the transition, and so writers want to identify what they think of as trans person’s condition prior to the start of transition.

The problem is that, by using a trans person’s assigned sex as their origin, the writer makes the assumption (rooted in centering the experiences of people whose assigned sex at birth aligns with their gender identity – which is to say cisgender people) that everyone is cisgender until proven otherwise. In this case, it starts from the premise that Nicole was originally a boy in a “biological” sense before she began “identifying” as a girl. This undergirds an understanding of what it means to be trans that fundamentally undermines trans identities and fuels transphobic arguments against treating trans people equally with cisgender people. Rather than understanding that the gender a trans person was assigned at birth was incorrect, this type of language turns birth-assigned gender into what someone “is,” and reduces a trans person’s gender to something they “identify as.” It ultimately is another way of framing trans identity as “a trap”: a trick that trans people are attempting to play on the rest of society, or an idiosyncratic view of oneself that society graciously deigns to accept despite it not being what a person “is.”

Most people were probably taught in school about XX and XY chromosomes, and believe that sex is just that simple. However, there is nothing simple about it. In discussing the experience of being trans, Parker Molloy did an excellent job of discussing the science of sexual differentiation. She addresses most of the common arguments from biology (specifically in reference to trans women), starting with the most common: chromosomes. There’s the obvious example of women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where a cisgender woman has XY chromosomes due to her body’s non-reaction to androgens (the name really does say it all). Perhaps more interesting are recent studies finding neurons with Y chromosomes in 37 of 59 women (63%) and 56% of women investigated in a cancer study were found to have a Y chromosome in samples of their breast tissue. Molloy goes on to provide similar counterexamples for arguments that “you have to have a uterus to be a woman,” “you have to be *born* with a uterus to be a woman,” “you have to be ‘socialized as a woman’ to be a woman,” or “you have to be born with a vagina to be a woman.” The article is at and is absolutely worth an entire read.

Similar examples exist for men: men born with penile agenesis are still men, as was sadly demonstrated when doctors starting in the 1960s decided that, when genitalia was ambiguous, they’d make a best guess as to what sex the baby should be assigned and perform surgery to attempt to make their genitalia less ambiguous; in the case of penile agenesis, that meant assigning them as women. Not at all shockingly, the fact of being born without a penis didn’t render these men women, and many recipients of this “treatment” grew up with severe gender dysphoria as a result of their gender identity being inconsistent with their coercively-assigned sex (See generally the work of John Money). Despite the demonstrated failure of these methods, such reassignments still occur today, for reasons as allegedly compelling as “if the parent cannot tolerate” having a child with ambiguous genitalia and sex. (See, for instance,

This is not to argue that assigned sex is meaningless construct; rather, it is to emphasize that the process of mapping an individual’s physical characteristics into a “sex” or “gender” is a heuristic one where loose rules apply and no single element is either necessary or sufficient to qualify an individual as a particular sex. The thrust of the argument that there is a “biological sex” that a person is born into, and that this “biological sex” is a hard scientific fact, is blunted by recognizing the way that the “biological sex” is merely a best guess of how to classify a person based on a series of elements, leaning most heavily on the appearance of external genitalia as an infant. Because, as noted above, no element of sex assignment is necessary or sufficient to qualify an individual as “male” or “female,” the lines of what constitutes “biological sex” are mutable and fuzzy, rather than the clear bright lines that many understand them to be.

By deploying such a best guess against transgender people, the argument from “biology” reeks of special pleading: each time assigned sex is defined in a way to exclude trans women, it would also exclude cis women, who are nonetheless included. It’s reminiscent of the arguments against marriage equality: each argument advanced to discriminate on the basis of sex would ban certain opposite-sex marriages, but those marriages are nonetheless non-controversial. One should be deeply suspicious when advocates advance such underinclusive arguments, because it raises a powerful inference that the true basis for the argument is just to support discrimination. In this particular case, it all comes down to an argument that cisgender is the only valid gender identity, even though there’s no basis for that conclusion. In its weaker form, sometimes even made by purported allies, trans people are told that they were “born a boy [or girl]” or are “biologically male [or female]” and “became” a trans man or trans woman, even over the strident objections of trans people.

These arguments from “biology” sometimes take relatively innocuous forms, such as the construction in the opening paragraph, where the author is attempting to discuss Nicole’s transition, but more frequently these arguments are used as a way to attack trans people in a cloak on objectivity. A school of feminist thought known as “radical feminism” has largely distinguished itself from others through deploying such arguments, and as such it and its adherents are frequently referred to as “TERF(s),” for “trans-exclusionary radical feminism.” Since the 1980s, TERFs have been arguing that transgender individuals are a construction of the patriarchy and a symptom of strict gender roles, rather than a failure of the assigned-sex heuristic to fit all individuals. The argument takes the form that trans individuals do not have an innate identity that is not consistent with their assigned sex, but rather that they have been culturally conditioned to sex roles to which they seek to escape. As such, TERFs can be found arguing against legal protections for trans individuals, in the false belief that any protections for transgender individuals (especially transgender women, who they consistently view as male solely on the basis of their assigned sex) will work to reinforce gender roles and harm “women-born-women” by allowing transgender women into women’s spaces. (See generally; note that the author uses “gender orientation” to refer to one’s subjective sense of physical sex, disaggregating it from an individual’s self-identification). In seeking to fight the system of patriarchal oppression, TERFs raise assigned sex from a heuristic to a fundamental law of reality that is concrete and perfect, despite the mutable nature of the heuristic and despite the consequences for trans individuals.

Similar arguments can be found in the emphasis on surgical procedures to reify the identity of transgender individuals. Until 2013, the Federal government required proof of surgical procedures (generally surgery upon the genitals, though some trans men were able to meet the requirement with double mastectomies) in order to have one’s gender changed in official records. Many states still include such requirements, and some states refuse entirely to update records from assigned sex. This focus isn’t limited to government; one of the first questions many trans individuals are asked when coming out relates to their plans for surgery. Despite the fact that surgery is not universally desired and is out of reach for some who want it due to insurance discrimination against trans individuals, the emphasis on biology and physical bodies drives a narrative that reinforces surgery as the necessary and sufficient requirement to allow an individual to overcome the presumption of their assigned sex and “become” the sex consistent with their gender identity. This understanding does real harm, putting arbitrary blocks in front of social acceptance and, in some cases, even driving individuals to undergo surgery they do not wish to have merely to be socially recognized as themselves.

To someone who is unfamiliar with trans issues, it may seem that trans individuals are hyper-focused on language. However, when considering the way in which language is deployed to dehumanize trans people or ignore their identities, this focus is not only understandable but entirely justified. When trans people seek to eliminate phraseology such as “born a boy” from media discourse, it is not out of a desire to deny reality, but rather to correct an incorrect understanding of what assigned sex signifies and what it means to have a gender identity that is not consistent with one’s assigned sex. When trans people decry the language of “becoming a man” or “becoming a woman” being used to describe genital surgery, it is not out of an arbitrary desire to police the language of others, but rather to reinforce that trans men are men and trans women are women, regardless of what surgical procedures they have or have not undergone. Language shapes the narratives that we use to understand the world, and trans people are simply attempting to make space for their narratives through clarity of language.