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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

"Consistent with gender at birth"? Let's push back against conflating sex categories with gender

At some point the terms SEX and GENDER became synonymous. But they did not start out that way and we need to decouple them, especially as misunderstandings--willful or not--are used to incite fear and create anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-woman legislation.

The term gender was developed specifically to describe things that were NOT actually part of anatomical--or even genetic--aspects of the human experience. For example, not all those humans with "male" genitalia exhibit American standards of masculinity--and often pay a price for that.

Yet some cultures long understood and even embraced this idea--differences can be useful; we need everyone so let's use differences to our advantage. If one examines history or even contemporary global cultures, it's not hard to find wide-ranging differences when it comes to cultural roles.

Yet American culture long embraced "sissy" and other feminizing terms to describe males deemed not masculine enough. And to be a female who could outrun, out jump, out pull-up a boy? Well, the terms flung at her and the advice to "not outdo the boys" have a long history too. And as much as being "masculine" could help the social cred of a male, in American society being "masculine" has never been a particular social advantage for someone who is not in that sex category.

Yet legislators and others around the country use language that suggests one's "gender at birth" is the lane each of us should stay in--not willing to see that plenty of us don't have a sex category and gender presentation that "match" their limited ideals.

By the 1970s, some American feminists noticed that part of what was limiting women's access to equality--and power--in the U.S. and beyond were assumptions that too many thought were "naturally" associated with one or another sex category. There are parallels to the history of racial categories in the U.S. too; what Black men were "allowed" to do wasn't the same as what they were and are capable of. Feminists began to analyze and study and write about that difference, using gender to describe the social and cultural variables--not biological variables--that were and are conflated with sex categories. And yes, we'll get to the fact that there are NOT only 2 categories of sex in a bit.

Examples of how this works? Plenty! Here's one.

Some may be old enough to remember the 2001-2009 President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney administration. This December 2005 New Yorker cover has helped many of my students better understand that gender and sex are not the same thing.

There is no question both individuals are male; it does not question sexuality or what we might call gender presentation: no one is "dressed up" as a woman.

But what does this suggest about who has the power? Readers understood that the person standing was the President of the United States and the one in the chair was "only" Vice President. Yet what does the picture suggest about suspicions some had about who was really in charge?

Even if you didn't grow up in a so-called "traditional" household where dad came home after a day's work beyond the house and mom cleaned and cooked and "took care" of her husband, you likely can understand the implication here: Cheney is really in charge. He's "dad" in the comfortable chair, feet up, crushed beer cans nearby, smoking, looking sloppy at the end of a day--and maybe speaking to his counterpart.

Bush, however, holds a duster, has a towel functioning as an apron, his shirt and tie show no signs of filth. He also has his hand akimbo on his hip. More room for analysis here but basically, Cheney is gendered more masculine and Bush more feminine, even as their sex is never in question.

Yet Bush was a tall, fit, wealthy, powerful male with a long family history of wealth and prestige--and certainly taller and more fit than his Vice President. Yet the cover suggests that Americans are wondering if Cheney is indeed in charge. Consider how people could "read" that message even if their personal experience did not reflect a parallel upbringing.

People understand gender and it is not the same thing as sex.

But at some point, companies, educational institutions, governments, and more simply replaced a box one might check for Sex: M(ale) or F(emale) to Gender: M(ale) or F(emale). No one was acxtually asking if someone identified as M(asculine) or F(eminine). And now, the terms get used interchangeably in many settings, creating more problems.

So when states decide to force young people (or anyone) to participate only on athletic teams "consistent with their gender at birth," what does that actually mean?

We know the intent: boys play only with boys. Girls only with girls. But plenty of human beings don't fit even those categories: they possess neither the chromosomal duo XX nor XY at birth. And anyone who has taken basic biology in a context where science is appreciated knows the potential "gender at birth" or "sex at birth" categories are numerous. All these "biological" categories are also fully "natural."

But all these enforcement policies--whether by state legislatures or the International Olympic Committee--indicate something more: The belief that "biological" males absolutely must have advantages. They must be better, stronger, and carry innate advantages that no "biological" female could possibly best. The "threat"--at the K-12 or even Olympic level of competition--seems to be that those born male are "naturally" better, stronger, and have an "unfair" advantage. Olympic rules in recent years overtly restricted athletes not born male who had "too much testosterone" from participating, but no one was taking blood samples to see who had "too much estrogen." I mean, how in the world could that be an advantage anyone would be concerned about? And yet. To the best of my knowledge and research, no trans athlete wins every race against cisgender athletes. No trans athlete breaks all the records that cisgender athletes make.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David French wrote, "The evidence is overwhelming that there is a significant average difference between male and female athletic performance, including at the most elite levels and even when female athletes receive funding, training and nutrition comparable to that of the best male athletes." As is typical, the author invokes "one of the great joys" of his life--watching his two daughters play sports--as a way to demonstrate his "I'm not denigrating women" cred. My goodness! What if a man doesn't have daughters? How can he possibly understand?

French later states that he hates "rhetoric that declares that women's sports will be 'destroyed' by the inclusion of a small number of trans women in athletic competition." And yet he essentially sides with that argument. As one reader, Anthony James, responded to French's op-ed, "Lea Thomas, a transgender female swimmer, won her race for a national title, but did not set a national record, which is held by a cisgender woman. [Yet] she has been vilified."

Has anyone noticed that no one--I mean no one--wants to participate as a trans athlete because they know that's the way to gain an advantage? They are wanting to participate because they want to compete as who they are. And given the limited imagination about sex and gender categories, they have to try to do that in a system that does not recognize anything other than two sexes and everyone has to be assigned one of them. That's not only problematic for equality, but it's unimaginative.

And even when a person isn't trans, someone categorized as female and who is bigger, stronger, and faster than a whole bunch of guys, people tend to get very uncomfortable even as that is as "natural" as anything else. And are those characteristics "sex" or "gender"?

Finally, it might be useful to consider why so many of us believe that strength and speed in and of themselves matter more (when men use them) than realms in which those are not the priorities. It might be useful to consider the effect of those priorities on all the born-male and born-female human beings who don't "fit" expectations as well as all those humans who are born not strictly in either XX or XY category in the first place. It might also be useful to consider why American society tends to marginalize the importance of strong, fast, big bodies that were not necessarily born male.

Related Items of Interest

National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health (n.d.). "What are sex and gender and why do they matter in health research,"

David French (25 June, 2023). "The Legal Foundation of Women's Sports is Under Fire," New York Times.

Anthony James, Letter to the Editor Response to David French (5 July 2023). New York Times.

PBS Newshour (21 June 2023). "School boards become battle grounds for nation's diversions on race, gender, and more," PBS Newshour.

The New Yorker (5 December 2005).

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