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Me, She, He, They
Reality vs. Identity in the 21st Century
This essay first appeared in Iconoclast, an anthology originating in the brain of, and edited by, Mark Halloran, PhD, and published by Academica Press in 2022. Citations and endnotes have been combined for simplicity.
A few years ago, I had a curious exchange with a friend’s young child. We were admiring his pet from a distance, and I asked him “Is your cat male or female?” He considered this for a moment, then replied, “I don’t know. Maybe both?”
“Can’t be.” I told him. “Cats aren’t like that.”
At which, with no hesitation, the young boy declared, “you’re a liar!”
It seems unlikely that a child of the 20th century—or the 19th, or 18th—would have been convinced that a cat could be both male and female. There are occasional, very rare developmental mix-ups—on which, more below—but no mammal species makes a go of it by being a hermaphrodite1. Even very casual observers of cats (and humans) easily conclude that there are two functional types, male and female, and that they do not show up in the same individual.
Some other animals do things differently, of course. Banana slugs are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning that single individuals have both male and female reproductive parts at the same time, like the child’s fictional cat. Many reef fish are sequential hermaphrodites, having the capacity to switch from one sex to the other, although there are limits, in terms of both direction and frequency. It is the rare fish, for instance, that can switch sex from male to female, while individuals in many species go the other direction—bluehead wrasse, for instance, start out female, and can become male later on. But mammals? Nope. We are not hermaphrodites.
Sex is real, and ubiquitous. Sex, in this usage, is shorthand for “sexual reproduction,” which is the raison d’etre for there being distinct sexes. In our lineage, sexual reproduction has an uninterrupted history of at least 500 million years; it may well be closer to two billion years2. Furthermore, sex is binary, at least among all plants and animals.
Sex is not, at its most fundamental, about chromosomes or hormones, about breasts or facial hair, about behavior or fashion. Sex, at its most fundamental, is about DNA from multiple individuals being brought together to create a zygote. But DNA isn’t sufficient for a new life—you also need cellular machinery like mitochondria and ribosomes.
Without this cellular machinery—the cytoplasm—no zygote will be formed. Cellular machinery is big, though, compared to DNA. Someone’s got to bring it if sex is going to work. So, some sex cells—gametes—are big because they contain the requisite cellular machinery. Those big gametes are eggs.
That’s one of the two large problems posed by reproducing sexually: from whence to source the cellular machinery. The other is how to find a partner. Trade-offs being what they are, big cells are slower than small cells. Eggs being big (for cells), they therefore also tend to be slow or entirely sessile. So, it falls to the other type of gamete to move around its environment, looking for eggs. This other type of gamete is largely devoid of cellular machinery. It’s called pollen in plants, sperm in animals. Eggs are large and cytoplasm rich and sessile; sperm are small and stripped down and fast. Two types of gametes; two sexes3.
In much of life on Earth, in nearly all plants and animals, and in absolutely all mammals, which includes humans, sex is real and ubiquitous. In his masterful compilation and analysis of the anthropological literature, Donald Brown writes that all cultures “have a sex terminology that is fundamentally dualistic, even when it comprises three or four categories4. When there are three, one is a combination of the two basic sexes (e.g., a hermaphrodite5), or one is a crossover sex (e.g., a man acting as a woman). When there are four there are then two normal sexes and two crossover sexes.”
Brown’s “crossover sex” is now referred to as the umbrella term “trans.” Trans has emerged in many cultures, but it has never been common—not nearly so common as homosexuality, for instance. And Brown’s “hermaphrodites” have more recently been called intersex, who are now often referred to as having a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD), although here we begin to run into problems. The distinction between people with DSDs and trans people is sometimes hard to parse, the boundaries between them sometimes fuzzy. Some people who actually have DSDs may never have them diagnosed, and may live as trans people, thus belonging in both categories. Both categories are indeed real, and—in contrast to sex itself—very, very rare.
In a few places, Western science has discovered a mechanism which explains a relatively high rate of unusual sexual presentation. In the village of Las Salinas in the Dominican Republic, for instance, some number of people are understood to be machihembras6 —intersex, in fact, but presenting as female through childhood until puberty transforms them into decidedly more male in appearance. The molecular explanation for this particular DSD is, in part, that mutations in the 5α-reductase type 2 gene (which is autosomal, not on a sex chromosome) affect the steroid 5α-reductase 2 isoenzyme, which in turn causes a dihydrotestosterone deficiency, which in turn inhibits development of male typical characteristics such as external genitalia7.
We should all be grateful for the scientists who are driven to discover molecular pathways like the one above, but for most of us, the human side of the story is more compelling. In Las Salinas, Felicita was a little girl who enjoyed going to birthday parties with her sister until, as she approached puberty, she came to prefer playing with boys. During adolescence, as her sister’s body became rounded and fuller, Felicita’s shoulders broadened, and she grew strong and tall. Like most children with 5α-reductase deficiency, she had looked like and been raised as a girl, until puberty revealed that for her, the truth was more complicated. Felicita was a machihembra8.
Las Salinas is not the only place on Earth in which a DSD has come to be explained by scientists, a DSD which explains, in retrospect, the relatively high number of people in those communities who transition from female to male during puberty. Las Salinas is not unique, but it, like DSDs and transness more generally, is very rare.
Those individuals who can or will or have or might make eggs are female. Those individuals who can or will or have or might make sperm (or pollen) are male. This is a true binary, which DSDs make more difficult to parse, but DSDs are the extreme exception. They are, indeed, disorders9.
Sex is not assigned at birth. Sex is observed at birth. A baby born with ambiguous genitalia or an undiagnosed DSD may be observed to be the sex that they are not, and that observation is therefore in error. Development is complicated, but the fact of anisogamy—two different types of gametes, not three or five or thirteen, but two, which come together to create a new life—is true.
Furthermore, development being complicated means that sometimes, some of the manifestations of your sex will be out of sync with your actual sex: hence the idea of being “born in the wrong body.” Again, sex is not, at its most fundamental, about chromosomes or hormones, about breasts or facial hair, about behavior or fashion. But if your sex chromosomes determined your sex accurately with regard to gamete type and primary sex characteristics, but ran into some hiccups as your brain was being formed, or as your secondary sex characteristics were developing, you might well feel—as some do—very much at odds with the body you are in. Of course, you might also feel that way during adolescence regardless. The vast majority of people who feel uncomfortable in their own bodies as those bodies transform from child to adult are not trans10.
Let me be clear: We are dealing with the interface between long standing products of evolution, subtle matters of humanity which have blurry borders, and a brave new world of technological modifications that has yet to stand any test of time. That leaves all of us, even those who are thoroughly versed in the facts and logic of sex and sexuality grappling with new and genuinely difficult questions. No one has yet worked out the solutions that best resolve all of the tensions.
Sex is real and ubiquitous. Trans is real, but extremely rare. In the 21st century WEIRD world (those countries that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic)11 however, both of those points are increasingly taken as hostile to individual autonomy. To simultaneously observe that sex is real and everywhere, and that trans is real and rare, seems to guarantee running afoul of someone’s ideology. Some will insist that anybody who says they are trans is trans. Others that sex is an artifact, perhaps of the patriarchy, perhaps of society writ large. Lurking just below the surface is the belief that speech creates reality: claims of truth become the truth. You can be freed from the very concept of sex, just by believing that you are. Such emancipation!
As Libby Emmons so cogently points out12, modern instantiations of trans-genderism, like trans-humanism, imagines a split between body and mind. “Transgender practice,” writes Emmons, “is the ultimate biohack. The claim that one has been born into the ‘wrong’ body is a total rejection of mind-body unification, and a statement that mind and body can be so disparate that the body must be thoroughly altered to match the mind’s perception of how it ought to be.” There is something in this line of thinking that believes that if I want it hard enough, it will be so.
To a degree, believing that you are the master of your own fate is empowering. It can open doors that might not even be recognized as doors had you not insisted on something that others find hard to believe. But sex isn’t like that.
We do not change underlying reality by thinking about it differently, nor does it fail to apply to us if we are unaware of it. Ignorance of the physical laws of the universe does not make them go away, unlike what you may have inferred from the Road Runner cartoons. Gravity is not the product of our minds—or of the minds of animated coyotes. Gravity is a product of the universe. Sex is not a product of our minds either. Rather, sex is the product of our entire evolved beings. We are fully embodied, and cannot be otherwise. There is no essence of the human experience that can be distilled, from brainwaves or neuron maps or genomics or anything else. We exist at the interface with the world in which we live, in which we have evolved for three and a half billion years.
This concept of a fundamental duality within each of us, between body and mind, in which they are independent of one another, both struggling for primacy—it’s wrong. And it’s reductionist. Somehow it manages to fall prey both to the postmodern notion of reality as a social construct, and to the reductionist model currently imposed on so many modern institutions, including much of science, medicine, and nutrition. Too often, those who apply reductionist thinking imagine that if you come upon a complex system, and succeed in naming some of the parts in that system and counting them, then you have come to know not just those parts, but in fact have mastery over the whole system. Viewing ourselves through a reductionist lens inhibits our ability to see ourselves, and others, as whole, complete beings. In doing this we fail ourselves—trans or not—by fooling ourselves into seeking solutions that serve only isolated facets of our being.
Reductionism is at odds with emergence, though. Complex systems are emergent: in complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Childhood is a time of exploration. It is a time to learn rules, to break rules, and to make new rules. Humans have the longest childhoods of any organism on the planet, and we are born with more potential than we will use13. Our potential fades with time—note for instance the ability to pick up a new language in childhood, and the increased difficulty when the same attempt is made even in young adulthood. So, childhood is a time of exploration and of practice, of assessing the world and testing boundaries. In childhood we come to understand what is real and what is not, what is changeable and what is not, and how different the world is from that in which our elders came of age. Adolescence, therefore, when children transform into adults, can be challenging and difficult under the best of circumstances.
The 21st century WEIRD world has left many bereft of choice, lacking in passion or insight to contribute in a way that feels meaningful. Coming of age can be filled with angst, but this historical moment goes well beyond what is common. The blame for the widespread failure to find meaning in existence can be placed in several additional courts: Currently fashionable parenting styles “protect” children from risk and experience. Screens are replacing social engagement in real life. Schools are ever more broken, teaching compliance and obedience to the new orthodoxies, as they actively punish rigor and extrapolation, critical and independent thought14. Prescription drugs are being used widely to treat disengagement, hyperactivity, and anxiety—a “corrective”, in part, for the fact that some children resist underwhelming or toxic school experiences15. And falling economic prospects make things like owning your own home an ever more distant dream for most young people. Add to this the recognition among many that our economic and political systems are decohering. The rate of change is accelerating so fast that even the near future will not look anything like the past16. All of these contribute to the ever-greater number of people who arrive at the cusp of adulthood with the bodies of adults, but either the minds of children, or an overwhelming sense of futility, or both.
Enter into this minefield the expectation that everyone is their own brand, and should be, at all moments, declaring themselves as that brand. How to distinguish yourself, if you don’t know what you’re good at, can’t seem to care about anything, and wouldn’t know how to find out? If you have grown or are growing into the body of an adult but still have the mind of a child, and have emerged into a world seemingly bent on incoherence, what is there to do?
Some will lash out at the system; this is a time-honored response to feeling disenfranchised from the status quo, although its modern manifestations have a different character from those of the past. Others strive for what they already know, seeking comfortable lives in which past markers of success—a stable family, job, and home—are the totality of their goals. Those who would make their mark on the world - as scientists, or artists, explorers, or healers - are more adrift than ever, unless they choose one of two routes. They can join the establishment, get the appropriate degrees, get jobs with or appeal for funding from the appropriate entities, and become ever more beholden to those entities. They may well find their thoughts converging with what everyone else thinks. They’re not engaging in a craven embrace of orthodoxy; it’s simple survival. Or they can gamble on becoming “influencers,” many of whom are a caricature of the creative lifestyle, a kind of hedonistic embrace of all that is frivolous, fleeting, and decadent. Successful influencers make a “good living” doing this, but are they living a good life?
Within the last decade, an additional route to social belonging, to feeling like you have a place in an incoherent, unforgiving, and uncaring world, has been to declare yourself trans.
Jazz Jennings “came out” as trans at five years old, was encouraged to transition by a family that has been described as “supportive” in some quarters, began doing media appearances at the age of 6, and catapulted into a life of fame in 2013, at the age of 11, when interviewed on 20/20 by Barbara Walters17. Jazz is hardly the only person who has found fame in being trans. But out of the limelight, many thousands of other young people are transitioning, often to the celebration of their immediate peers (and social media contacts), but to the consternation of their families18.
Over the last several years, the number of people declaring themselves trans has increased by a factor of twenty (see data from the U.K.19 and the Netherlands20, and find more at statsforgender.org21). Furthermore, historically, the very low number of trans people has been biased towards MtF (Male to Female): young men transitioning into transwomen. But that has recently reversed22. In one year alone in the U.S.—from 2016 to 2017—the percentage increase in FtM “gender confirmation” surgeries, in which young women are surgically modified into transmen—was 289%23. This is not subtle. And it is not organic. As with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, social contagion is likely playing a powerful role, as evidenced in part by the rapidity with which trans identity spreads through female friend groups24.
One additional deeply unfortunate possibility, which might partially explain the rise in trans-identification, is that our hyper-novel world is indeed driving an increase in DSDs. For instance, atrazine, a widely used herbicide and known endocrine disrupter, is detectable in rainfall even in regions where it is not actively applied. Frogs that are exposed to atrazine in lab experiments, even in low doses, do not develop normally. Furthermore, exposure to other endocrine disrupters is known to have perplexing effects on amphibians, such that at some doses only females are produced, and at slightly different doses only males are produced. And in the wild, hermaphroditic frogs are more common in areas with atrazine use or contamination25.
Frogs may be more susceptible to environmental chemicals than are humans, in part because they breathe through their skin, easily taking in toxins through that massive organ. But imagining that we are immune to the effects of known endocrine disrupters is naïve at best. An increase in endocrine disrupters in the environment may be contributing to the uptick in declarations of transness among the young26.
Even if this is true, however—even if the chemicals that we are practically bathing in now have effects on people that are similar to the effects they are known to have on frogs—this is no justification for wilting in the face of declarations from children. We owe Jazz Jennings and the many thousands of less famous children futures that are as full of potential as possible.
Most of the young people who are now declaring themselves trans are not trans. But declaring yourself something you are not can help a person feel, if nothing else, very much alive, at least during that period of time when everyone around them is celebrating their bravery for “coming out” as something that they are not. It will be a fleeting high, and unsustainable, but as with the rush that comes with many illicit drugs, the costs are not easy to see in the moment.
Into this landscape arrive those who would defend the use of new pronouns in children in order to be “inclusive” or “kind.” We do not try to be inclusive or kind to an anorexic who insists that, at 5’8” and 82 pounds, she is fat. We do not try to be inclusive or kind to a schizophrenic who insists that he is working with the King of Siam to save the world from the lizard people.
Nor should we try to be inclusive or kind to a child who wakes up Tuesday and declares himself Spiderman, come Wednesday he’s a T. rex, and on Thursday he’s a princess. Given that we don’t embrace the child’s fantasy on Tuesday or Wednesday, what makes Thursday different? “Kind,” in this case, is a euphemism for: accede and cater to the fantasy. And this kindness is no kindness at all.
Children are in the act of figuring out what the world is. They check their experience against what the trusted adults say, a sibling’s interpretation against that of a friend, today’s experience against last week’s. Childhood is when we learn how to be, and discover what we can be. Free and wide-ranging exploration will include ideas that are out of this world. Adults should allow children their fantasies, within reason, but not allow them to believe that fantasies are real as they approach adulthood.
Affirming the delusions of a dangerously thin girl who thinks she’s fat is not kind. Affirming the delusions of a girl who believes that her interest in “boy stuff” makes her a boy is also not kind. We owe people who are stuck in a fantasyland of reality-denial a correction. We owe them compassion and truth. We don’t owe them a celebration of their confusion and naivete. In fact, such celebrations actually do harm.
We have all seen pronouns in profiles and email signatures. Most of us will have been asked to announce our pronouns in meetings or zoom calls or classrooms. We are told that this is simply about respect. I don’t buy it, and neither should you.
Look At Me!
The newest kid on this block is “non-binary.” Announcing yourself as non-binary literally requires nothing on the part of the person “coming out”, but now they may well get accolades for doing so. Google “non-binary in Hollywood” and be regaled with assurances from the famous and almost famous that because they don’t entirely feel like a woman (or a man) all the time, they are therefore non-binary.
The concepts of “man” and “woman” are as ancient as humans. Remember the universality of “sex terminology that is fundamentally dualistic” in human cultures6. The fact that every human culture to ever exist correctly recognizes that there are two sexes, should not be surprising, given that—again—male and female go back several hundred million years in our lineage alone, perhaps two billion years.
Gender is the software of sex. Gender norms flow from the sexual binary, but they are far more fluid, their boundaries less rigid, their expressions infinite. Remember the sex-switching reef fish? Not only do they switch sex, they switch gender, too. Female bluehead wrasse produce eggs (sex) and are docile, neither defending territories nor approaching conspecifics (gender); once switched into males, however, the same individuals now produce sperm, and are both active and aggressive in inspecting both sites and individuals that come near them27.
Gender follows from sex, but it is far more labile. Gender is not a binary. Because of what sex is and how it manifests in humans, men have traditionally been more likely to have power—at least, overt, outward facing, society-level power. And women have been more likely to use covert means to achieve their goals, working behind the scenes, using social rather than physical means to diffuse tension28.
Is it possible to move beyond those gender norms now, in the WEIRD world? I believe that we can. But observe that the very manifestation of so much of trans-ideology hinges on those very gender norms. Here is the (devout Christian) mother of a boy describing how she “knew” that what she actually had was a daughter, “I tried so hard to force her into wearing clothes with camouflage and superhero patterns, and I even gave her a severe, flat-top haircut”29. But the child was having none of it. So instead of recognizing that this boy, at least for now, had little interest in traditional, stereotypical gender norms, the mother decided that her boy was in fact a girl. And here is Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a clinical and developmental psychologist, explaining how you can tell if a preverbal child is transgender: “I have a colleague who is transgender. There is a video of him as a toddler – he was assigned female at birth – tearing barrettes out of then-her hair. And throwing them on the ground. And sobbing. That’s a gender message”30. A baby girl tears barrettes out of her hair, thus indicating that she is actually a baby boy. Well, that’s certainly one interpretation.
In Harper’s Magazine in 2020, Anne Fadiman31, Writer in Residence at Yale, argued in favor of the singular they for people who view themselves as outside of the binary. It may at first seem that we owe such people this much at least. No, we do not. What we owe people is resistance to foolishness. This foolishness is not the next civil rights battle. It’s a battle for fantasy over reality, for a fragmented and fractured human experience over an integrated one, for a reductionist understanding of ourselves over a holistic one. In Fadiman’s telling, one big rift between linguists is between the prescriptivists, who favor rules and standards (“this is how people should talk”) and descriptivists, who favor popular usage (“this is how people actually talk”). What fails to be included in this categorization scheme, of course, is whether language is accurately representing reality.
From my scientific perspective, it looks very much like this scheme—prescriptivists vs. descriptivists—is an incomplete solution set. At least one category is missing from the analysis. In all the discussion among linguists about pronoun usage in English, I have never seen an analysis that asks: “what is actually true?”
What is actually true is that we have two sexes. Gender is somewhat more complicated, but male and female, man and woman—these refer to biological realities that do not change no matter what we say about them.
One year after Fadiman’s piece, writer Michael Waters32 made a similar argument in The Atlantic Monthly: “Today’s gender-neutral English-language pronouns make space not just for two genders, but for many more, serving as a way for people who fall outside the binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to describe themselves.”
And in the New York Times, linguist John McWhorter33, who has written brilliantly on adjacent topics, fell prey to the same incomplete logic in September of 2021. Arguing, again, on behalf of the singular “they,” he imagines that he understands the complaints: “Why does language have to change all the time, with all we have to think about?” This, I contend, is not the objection that most of us have. The next example that he gives is the shift, in English, from a preponderance of double, and even triple, negatives, in Shakespeare’s time, to a rejection of such usage. The difference, I hasten to point out, is that double and triple negatives are entirely a human construct, with effects on communication and clarity, but in no way reflecting underlying reality. Our pronouns, in distinct contrast, refer to a reality that we do not change simply because we change the way that we talk about it.
I have always called adults by the pronouns that they wish to be called by. Never in my experience as a college professor was I asked to use brand-new pronouns. I did have trans students, and their cross-sex pronoun preferences posed no problems in our classrooms. But children’s flights of fancy, their fantasies that could be their greatest strength as they imagine all of the ways to be human, should never be cemented into permanence. That risks turning their greatest strength into their greatest tragedy. The adults in their worlds are doing them a great disservice—which is putting it mildly.
One of the oddities of this moment, and of these ideologies, is that they simultaneously complexify what is simple (e.g., the binary of sex), and simplify what is complex. The former is surprising for its utter lack of connection to reality, both easily observable reality and deep historical reality. The latter—the simplification of the complex—is, unfortunately, such a banal instinct that it is very common through human history. We simplify the complexity of the world in order to feel in control, in order to feel like gods. Left to our most banal devices, we are, again, reductionists, seeking single answers with easy cures for complex problems.
Suffer from tonsilitis? Rip them out! Feeling anxious? Take a pill! Wishing for freedom from restrictive gender norms? Declare yourself a man! Or better yet: declare yourself non-binary!
Trans people are real but rare, but nonbinary people? This is just a fiction, a sign of a society that has forgotten to check its beliefs with reality, a society so wealthy, insulated, and comfortable that it has, too often, forgotten that reference to an objective reality is actually a necessary precursor to making things happen in the world. At the end of her essay in Harper’s, Fadiman argues that there are five reasons to use the singular they, “from most conservative to the most revolutionary.” The striking thing about this list, to me, is that the situation that Fadiman thinks is most conservative, likely to be accepted by a larger fraction of people than any other, is using they “only for nonbinary people.” This presumes that “nonbinary” is a real category. But just as a cat can’t be both male and female, or neither male nor female, the same is true for people. If you like, go ahead and throw gender norms out the window; but don’t conflate the norms of your culture with underlying biological reality, which is what the language, and our pronouns, are actually describing.
As I was writing this essay, I saw a young woman wearing a sweatshirt that said “anti gender roles club.” Yes to that. Yes to freeing ourselves of the now unnecessary baggage that has been entrenched by social norms. Let us free ourselves from that part of our expectations that we can free ourselves from, without pretending that we, men and women, are the same.
But as I was writing this essay, I also saw a piece in Science magazine headlined “Why I came out as non-binary to my PhD lab”34. We are not told what kind of science the author is allegedly learning how to engage in. What we are told is that “I knew that if I wanted to survive graduate school, I needed to be open with my lab mates” about the use of “gender-neutral/non-binary pronouns.”
I’ll match that anecdote with one of my own: When I was in graduate school (as it happens, at the very same institution, but many years earlier), becoming a credentialed scientist, it never occurred to me that my peers or advisor needed to know the inner workings of my psychology in order for me to survive. Nor was it in fact the case. In fact, in order to do my research—which entailed, among other things, contending with aggressive lemurs and errant spice boats and cyclones, while living in a tent on a remote island off the coast of Madagascar—I needed to not succumb to my own psychology. I was in the field, and in grad school, to do science, not to engage in group therapy.
The “non-binary” category seems to be evidence of either deep mental confusion, or deep narcissism, or perhaps both. The author of the “Science Careers” piece continues that, in the six months since informing said lab mates, “The word ‘she’ has slipped out in conversations more times than I can count, and every time, it feels like a knife is being stabbed into my stomach.”
We all have preferences about what we want to be called. Perhaps a nickname from childhood has stuck around past its use-by date. Perhaps you prefer your middle name to your first. When I was a college professor, I was happy to have students call me by my first name, but a few preferred to use a title, in which case “Dr. Heying” was fine too. But occasionally a student would call me “Mrs. Heying.” As I told them—gently, privately—that wasn’t fine by me, because while it was true that I was married, my marital status had no bearing on my role as their professor, whereas my academic degree did. So I bristled slightly at being addressed as “Mrs.”, especially (but not only) in an academic setting, and I told the students why, but you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t harangue the students, nor did I dwell on a mistake that was clearly trivial. If being misgendered feels like “a knife is being stabbed into [your] stomach,” I’m pretty sure that you need to get out more.
Some “first-world problems” are real challenges which would nevertheless not rate on a list of complaints had the complainant want of food, shelter, or clean water to drink. Spending hours navigating an automated customer service system to get to a real person, or facing the newest round of software updates that have broken a once functional system—these are legitimate first world problems. Other first world problems, though? They are fabricated. Out of confusion. Or for attention. As the inimitable Douglas Murray observes35, he has yet to hear the distinction between coming out as non-binary and simply shouting “Look at me!”
We need science, and we need scientists. One of the things that will get in the way of both things is allowing the institution of science to fall prey to ideology that patently makes no sense. When one of the two most influential science journals in the world publishes a self-indulgent piece on the visceral pain experienced by a “non-binary” grad student upon being misgendered, while truly important scientific issues remain uninvestigated or patently botched, it all seems a lost cause.
Add to this that medical schools are now falling down the rabbit hole as well: a professor apologizes for referring to pregnant women (because men can apparently get pregnant; or so tomorrow’s doctors are being taught); another one insists that biological sex is a “social construct;” while others get lambasted for referring to breastfeeding instead of “chestfeeding”36.
So too is the American Medical Association. In their guide to “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts”37 jointly produced with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), they argue that sex is assigned at birth; that transitioning between sexes is possible in humans; and that while “two-spirit” people (from the Ojibwe) have bodies that “simultaneously house a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit,” the “gender binary” is nonetheless “colonial.” Medicine and its practitioners are losing their collective grip on reality, and on science, and are failing the very people they purport to be trying to help.
And yet. Consider this: A smart and capable young person approached me with this true story. A natal female who had transitioned to male, Ronny (a pseudonym) grew alarmed at having doors close as womanhood receded in the rear-view mirror. Realizing that “passing” as female was no longer possible, Ronny settled on non-binary as a result. Ronny does not seem confused to me. Ronny is not in denial of reality. Ronny does seem sad, and almost resigned. And Ronny arrived here, in part, because of a mainstream narrative that assures people that if they don’t fit regressive stereotypes of what it means to be male or female, if they are butch women or feminine men, or if they are attracted to members of their own sex, then they are actually a different sex than they’ve been told. Well, no. Ronny was manipulated and misled by a system, and is left with an array of bad choices. At this point, non-binary may well be the right choice for Ronny.
I grew up with Ms. Magazine, and Title IX, and Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air on a Minneapolis street, beamed into my living room every week without fail. Mary Tyler Moore’s hat throw was an expression of such unbridled freedom and possibility that it filled me, as a little girl, with joy every time that I saw it. I did not view it this way then—and it was apparently not the intention—but her joyous hat throw could be seen as an homage to the trope of the bride throwing her bouquet to the single women in attendance at her wedding. The single women fight to receive the bouquet in hopes that it would give them the luck they want, to land a man, to become the next woman on the altar.
Mary Tyler Moore’s exuberant hat throw was not a rejection of marriage; we do not need to throw out the old in order to embrace the new. Rather, it was a celebration of the additional opportunities afforded by a world that was opening up to the reality that women are just as varied as men, just as skilled and flawed, with just as much capacity for both passion and tragedy. Just as—but not the same as. Equal to under the law—but not identical to.
Sex is real and ubiquitous and fixed. DSDs are real and very rare. Transsexual people do not exist, but transgender people do. But feeling out of step with gender norms does not make you trans. Also, feeling out of step with gender norms is neither wicked, nor should it be noteworthy. Feeling out of step with gender norms certainly should not warrant the creation of fictional new categories, like non-binary, unless the point is to keep the rest of us on our toes.
To that little boy who would have us believe that his cat might be both male and female—and to the legions of people who would have us believe that their sex is a matter of choice—I say this: Your beliefs are not merely wrong, they are acutely disempowering. This marks a step backwards for all of us individuals who are gender non-conforming: the girls who like to play in the mud and with numbers, and the boys who like to save injured birds and discuss their feelings. It therefore marks a step backwards for society, because allowing all humans to find their skills and interests and passions, rather than constrain them to stereotypes, is fundamental.
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Older systems of nomenclature have sometimes conflated individuals with Disorders of Sexual Development, or intersex people, with being “hermaphrodites,” but as is argued persuasively here, this is both confusing and damaging: Dreger et al 2005. Changing the nomenclature/taxonomy for intersex: a scientific and clinical rationale. Journal of pediatric endocrinology and metabolism, 18(8): 729-734.
Sex evolved once, in the last common ancestor of all eukaryotes, between one and two billion years ago (for a brief review of the evidence and further investigation of what was required for sex to evolve see Goodenough and Heitman 2014. Origins of eukaryotic sexual reproduction. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 6(3): a016154). There have been a small number of reversals in the trait since then, but likely not in our lineage. In vertebrates, which evolved ~500 million years ago, there have been no reversals in sexual reproduction.
There is a rich scientific literature on the evolution and maintenance of sex, specifically anisogamy. Three important contributions include: Smith 1971. What use is sex? Journal of theoretical biology, 30(2): 319-335. Parker et al 1972. The origin and evolution of gamete dimorphism and the male-female phenomenon. Journal of theoretical biology, 36(3): 529-553. And: Rose 1982. A physiological barrier for the maintenance of anisogamous sex. Journal of theoretical biology, 94(4): 801-813.
Brown 1991. Human Universals. McGraw-Hill.
Again, the term “hermaphrodite” should be reserved for individuals who are functionally both male and female, either simultaneously or sequentially, not merely showing phenotypic characters of both sexes. See Dreger et al 2005.
Also known as the güevedoches, which translates as ‘penis at twelve’.
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Witchel 2018. Disorders of Sex Development. Best Pract Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 48:90-102. Also: some have argued for the term “Differences” rather than “Disorders,” a debate I will not explore here, except to say that any difference in sexual development which renders an individual sterile can be understood to be a disorder. This is an observation, not a moral judgement. Less extreme divergences from the norm in sexual development might appropriately be referred to as differences, and probably exist on a continuum with some DSDs.
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This conclusion is based on years of conversations with college students, and is also supported both by research on the drugs in question (see e.g., Whitaker, R., 2010. Anatomy of an epidemic: Magic bullets, psychiatric drugs, and the astonishing rise of mental illness in America. Random House Digital.) and on best practices for educating children (see e.g., Gray, P., 2013. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books.)
Heying and Weinstein 2021. A Hunter-gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life. Penguin.
20/20 Interview of Jazz Jennings by Barbara Walters in 2013:
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