Monday, April 21, 2014
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How Much Should Sex Matter?

WARSAW/MELBOURNE – Jenna Talackova reached the finals of Miss Universe Canada last month, before being disqualified because she was not a “natural born” female. The tall, beautiful blonde told the media that she had considered herself a female since she was four years old, had begun hormone treatment at 14, and had sex reassignment surgery at 19. Her disqualification raises the question of what it really means to be a “Miss.”

A question of broader significance was raised by the case of an eight-year-old Los Angeles child who is anatomically female, but dresses as, and wants to be considered, a boy. His mother tried unsuccessfully to enroll him in a private school as a boy. Is it really essential that every human being be labeled “male” or “female” in accordance with his or her biological sex?

People who cross gender boundaries suffer clear discrimination. Last year, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published a survey that suggested that the unemployment rate among transgender people is double that of other people. In addition, of those respondents who were employed, 90% reported some form of mistreatment at work, such as harassment, ridicule, inappropriate sharing of information about them by supervisors or co-workers, or trouble with access to toilets.

Moreover, transgender people can be subject to physical violence and sexual assault as a result of their sexual identity. According to Trans Murder Monitoring, at least 11 people were murdered in the United States last year for this reason.

Children who do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth are in an especially awkward position, and their parents face a difficult choice. We do not yet have the means to turn young girls into biologically normal boys, or vice versa. Even if we could do it, specialists warn against taking irreversible steps to turn them into the sex with which they identify.

Many children display cross-gender behavior or express a wish to be of the opposite sex, but when given the option of sex reassignment, only a tiny fraction undergo the full procedure. The use of hormone blocking agents to delay puberty seems a reasonable option, as it offers both parents and children more time to make up their minds about this life-changing decision.

But the broader problem remains that people who are uncertain about their gender identification, move between genders, or have both female and male sexual organs do not fit into the standard male/female dichotomy.

Last year, the Australian government addressed this problem by providing passports with three categories: male, female, and indeterminate. The new system also allows people to choose their gender identity, which need not match the sex assigned to them at birth. This break with the usual rigid categorization shows respect for all individuals, and if it becomes widely adopted in other countries, will save many people from the hassle of explaining to immigration officials a discrepancy between their appearance and their sex as recorded in their passport.

Nevertheless, one may wonder whether it is really necessary for us to ask people as often as we do what sex they are. On the Internet, we frequently interact with people without knowing their gender. Some people place high value on controlling what information about them is made public, so why do we force them, in so many situations, to say if they are male or female?

Is the desire for such information a residue of an era in which women were excluded from a wide range of roles and positions, and thus denied the privileges that go with them? Perhaps eliminating the occasions on which this question is asked for no good reason would not only make life easier for those who can’t be squeezed into strict categories, but would also help to reduce inequality for women. It could also prevent injustices that occasionally arise for men, for example, in the provision of parental leave.

Imagine further how, wherever homosexual relationships are lawful, the obstacles to gay and lesbian marriage would vanish if the state did not require the spouses to state their sex. The same would apply to adoption. (In fact, there is some evidence that having two lesbians as parents gives a child a better start in life than any other combination.)

Some parents are already resisting the traditional “boy or girl” question by not disclosing the sex of their child after birth. One couple from Sweden explained that they want to avoid their child being forced into “a specific gender mold,” saying that it is cruel “to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.” A Canadian couple wondered why “the whole world must know what is between the baby’s legs.”

Jane McCreedie, the author of Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex, criticizes these couples for going too far. In the world as it is today, she has a point, because concealing a child’s sex will only draw more attention to it. But if such behavior became more common – or even somehow became the norm – would there be anything wrong with it?

Read more from the "An Ethical Mind" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedRobert Murphy

    I believe that transgender people should be free to live as they choose and should not be subjected to discrimination, prejudice or violence. These are genuine social problems, and attempts should be made to solve them.

    However, it seems to me that much of the literature on the topic, including this article, is marred by a confusion between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. I understand the terms in the following way, and I believe they should be used in this way: a person’s biological sex is determined by the chromosomes he or she receives from the father at conception, and is a fundamental and unalterable part of that person’s identity. A person’s gender is a cultural artefact that is determined by clothes and hairstyle, among other things. These can easily be changed, and people should be allowed to do so. However, for the sake of intellectual clarity the distinction between the two terms should be maintained.

    If a person is born with the genitalia of one sex then there are no legitimate intellectual grounds for believing that that person does not belong to that sex. People should still be allowed to believe that they belong to the other sex, to live as if they do so, and to undergo treatment that makes them resemble a member of the other sex more closely. But these people’s beliefs about their sex should not be beyond criticism, just as religious people’s beliefs about their immortal souls are not. In both of these cases, the people in question have profound beliefs about their identity as individuals that contradict scientific evidence. I think the case is different when people are born with indeterminate genitalia. In these cases there are genuine scientific grounds for doubts about these people’s biological sex.

    To put my position another way, gender is a matter of choice, but sex is not. Being aware of one’s biological sex, and accepting it as a part of one’s identity, are necessary for a full and mature understanding of oneself, like accepting one’s age and being honest about it.

    It is true that there are situations in which the gender in which a person lives is more important than his or her biological sex. It is also true that in some situations, like the immigration one described in the article, neither is relevant. But there are other situations, namely medical ones, in which a person’s sex is relevant. Perhaps official documents should make it clear whether they are referring to a person’s sex or to his or her gender, and should only refer to either if it is necessary to do so.

    Incidentally, I consider myself a utilitarian, and I greatly admire Peter Singer, so it’s quite strange to find myself in disagreement with him.

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