There’s Nothing “Natural” About Binary Gender

A series of differently shaped laser cut and engraved wood seals are arranged on a surface.

As I’m sitting in the airport in Iceland with my wife waiting for our flight back to the US, I read about the newest iteration of the federal government’s policy on gender, part of an ongoing effort to erase transgender and gender non-conforming folks through defining us away. I say “us” because I am a transwoman, and any effort to delegitimize trans identity directly affects the way I move through the world. So, this new development feels to me like that split second when something slips out of your hands and you aren’t sure if you are going to be able to catch it or if it’s going to hit the ground and shatter: vision tunneling and mind thinking of the worst possible outcomes.

On October 21, 2018, the New York Times reported on the Department of Health and Human Services’ plan to redefine gender as a biological “fact” determined at birth. “The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’” Just days later, US officials proposed similar changes to UN Human Rights documents, replacing references to “gender-based violence” with the more narrowly defined “violence against women.” When transwomen are no longer recognized as women and violence against trans and gender non-conforming people is no longer recognized as violence, our lives feel increasingly unprotected. For the past few years, reports of fatal attacks against transgender people in the United States have been on the rise. In 2015, the murders of 23 trans people were reported, making it the deadliest year on record. In 2016, that number grew. The artwork pictured at the beginning of this article, Trans Effigy 2016 Seals, is a set of wax seal stamps representing the 27 trans and gender non-conforming people murdered in the US in 2016; the design for each stamp includes the individual’s name and the date and location of their death, and the handle length corresponds to the person’s age. In 2017, the number of trans lives lost to violence climbed to 29. By some reports, 2018 is on track to set yet another record. Attempts to erase trans existence by narrowly defining gender as “biological fact” need to be seen in this context.

Biological: of or relating to biology or to life and living processes.

A follow up piece in the New York Times expanded on another reason why using biology to understand gender is problematic: it doesn’t work. Genes, anatomy, and X and Y chromosomes are not clear determiners of gender identity, and a person’s sex/gender isn’t merely a description of some aspect of their biology. Gender expression and gender identity are much larger, messier, and culturally specific. Gender identity is established in one’s mind and community. Judith Butler first wrote about the “performativity” of gender in 1990. Performativity gets to the ways in which we all act out our gender by repeating gestures and cues from our cultural upbringings that signal to the world our gender identities. What it means to be a woman in the midwestern United States (and how those meanings are reproduced) is much different than what it means to be a woman in China or even in coastal areas of the US. We can see examples of this with something as simple as hair. If a person’s hair is perceived as either too short or too long for a given gender category, that person—whether trans or not—can be misgendered because their hair is not performing that culture’s script in the expected way. Western culture’s quest for ever more “clear and objective” forms of categorization results in ever more restrictive definitions of bodies and peoples. And nothing about this restriction is “natural.”

A flow chart reads "Sex Categories: Pick one, no take Backs" The choices are a square A or a round B. The response is a swirling series of lines.

The author sketched this image while reflecting on the federal policy changes regarding gender. Image courtesy of the author, 2018.

Setting aside the reality of gender not being fixed only to one’s physical body because it is a cultural performance, the idea of a “biological gender binary” is not supported by science. As Joan Roughgarden explores in Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (University of California Press, 2004), there are examples all throughout the animal kingdom wherein sexual bodies and behaviors exceed the rigid sex categorization of western science and culture. In the “rainbow” of biological diversity, many animals have intersex bodies, and other animals’ sex organs will change later in life to adapt to new or shifting situations.  Roughgarden shows that looking to animals in order to establish gender as a “naturally” binary system actually serves to prove that nature is not binary at all.

In humans, there are many factors that contribute to what is perceived as biological sex: chromosomes, hormones, genitals, and more. But the more one looks at these categories the more complicated things become. From genes to anatomy, every rule we come up with for assigning binary sex categories introduces a host of exceptions: individuals born with more than two sex chromosomes; genitals that don’t conform to expected measurements; hormone levels that are outside of average levels. The scientific community understands this reality and has drafted a statement signed by over 1,600 scientists that opposes such simplistic thinking. In short, the science surrounding sex/gender is too complicated and socially and culturally contingent to be understood in simplistic binary (male/female) terms. Continuing to uphold these binaries is a violently reductive move that endangers the lives and livelihoods of trans and gender non-conforming people.

Administrable: capable of being administered or managed.

Manageable: capable of being managed or controlled.

It’s hard not to lose sleep over these developments since in the United States and elsewhere there has been a long history of governments using biological arguments to define people’s bodies into stable categories that are, in the Department of Health and Human Services’ words, “objective and administrable.” The work being done here to make clear and knowable a person’s sex/gender in as a binary state echoes the ways in which other historical definitional “either/or” claims have been used to uphold binaries of oppression. The US has a long history of using dualistic logic—men/women, black/white, citizen/alien, human/non-human, nature/culture, etc.—to setup up a dominate category as above and preferential to a subordinate category. This ordering has explicit legal consequences, including infringements to civil rights, voting rights, housing rights, and environmental protections.

An image of rally protesting transgender people's use of bathrooms is superimposed over an image of the artist covering her breasts.

Still from the author’s gallery installation, “Trans Panic!.” Artist’s statement: “The piece takes documentary footage of a recent anti-trans rally I witnessed. My body is blanketed in the projected image of this video. The title of the piece ‘Trans Panic!’ refers both to the legal defense known as Trans Panic (stemming from the term gay panic) and to my own feelings as I witnessed this event. The 41 second video is looped and projected.” Image courtesy of the author, 2018.

My body is not administrable by the state. The whole of me will never fit on paper. My documents will always be a mess and will never tell my full story. I am not the papers—the birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, new change documents—granted to me by the state in order to “control” and “manage” the way I live in my body and my right to access (or choose not to access) healthcare, housing, employment, marriage, and even transportation, like the flight that brought me home from exhibiting and speaking about my artwork abroad and back to the difficult realities of being a trans citizen of the US. But it isn’t simply that my body can’t be made administrable to the state or that it won’t fit on paper. The real danger to them is that my body and your body—(yes, you reading this, whoever you are)—won’t fit neatly into the schematic of “biological gender,” and they want desperately to keep you from thinking about it.

Allucquère Rosanne Stone coined the term “fiduciary subject” in her book The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (MIT Press, 1995) to speak to the multiple apparatuses (legal documents, phone numbers, street addresses, and medical records) that compose and impose structures and definitions onto the messy physical realities of our bodies. Taken as a whole, what these systems do is make us knowable and readable to governmental systems of indexing and control, much in the same way governments use mapping to render the land knowable and readable for development purposes.  It is not simply that a “biological” definition of gender tries to fit square pegs in round holes or vice versa, but that it tries to put giant messy multidimensional ever-shifting tornadoes into round or square holes.

We (you, dear reader, and me and everyone we know) are all giant messy multidimensional ever-shifting tornadoes. Liberation and safety for trans and gender non-conforming folks is liberation and safety for all gender expressions, no matter how normative they might be, because what this boils down is one’s bodily autonomy. Put another way, what arguments for defining  “biological gender” are really doing is arguing for the government’s role to define our bodies and identities—and inaccurately claiming a “natural” basis for doing so.

The state cannot reduce the dimensions of our beings, but it will try. For trans people like myself, the dangers of these attempts are very real, as seen with so called “bathroom bills,” military service bans for transgender citizens, and more. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. There’s a long history of transgender discrimination in the US. In the United States and elsewhere, governments try to wield mistaken understandings of “natural” and “biological” gender and sex to “administrate” and “manage” the beautiful mess that humans (and their gender expressions) are. They will continue to try to redefine gender and sexual identities because my very existence, our very existence, erodes the categories created and sustained by our western heteropatriarchal society to keep those in power (straight white men) remaining in power and the rest of us scrambling to survive. Survival is resistance.

A sensor with black cables and wires connected to a clear casing fills the screen.

Image of one of the authors current projects, titled “Transmaterial Bodies.” Artist’s statement: “A Transmaterial Body consists of a mobile network created by a small linux machine, broadcasting a wireless signal creating a localized intranet wireless network. This network is battery powered and carried on the artist at all times. As such, the network and herself are constantly centered on and overlapping with each other.” Image courtesy of the author, 2018.

Now back in the US, I am trying to feel something other than dread and rage whilst working on my art and writing. As an artist, my work over the past several years has come to focus on, amongst other subjects, the ways in which trans bodies are perceived and taken up as cultural and political objects in the US. This ranges from works that ruminate on trans murder to immersive installations that explore media representation to new work that is exploring the limits of the body. Art and writing are, for me, necessary tools in the resistance that is survival, because the secondary goal of this binary worldview is to get us stop thinking about trans futures—to keep us trapped in the crisis of the present. This giant messy multidimensional ever-shifting tornado is going to keep looking for new futures, as the present doesn’t seem have space for me.

Featured image: Image of one of the author’s projects, titled “Trans Effigy 2016 Seals.” Individual seals range from 2.5” to 8”. Laser cut and engraved wood. Artist’s statement: “A documentation piece in which wax seal designs are created for each trans* person murdered in the U.S.A. in 2016. The designs were created using information gathered through research into each case including; date, name, age, location, and more. The handles of each stamp are extended and shortened based on the victim’s age in comparison to my own.” Image courtesy of the author, 2016-2017.

Chelsea Thompto is an artist living and working in Madison, WI and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She will be finishing her MFA in Art and MA in Gender and Women’s Studies in Spring 2019. Her research is strongly rooted in her experience as a transwoman, and she explores the ways in which trans bodies are viewed and politicized in the US. Website. Instagram. Contact.