My puzzlement began about a dozen years ago, when I first started hearing about gender reveal parties, that now familiar custom among expectant parents. I was confused because as commonly understood, this was not possible: gender—male, female, or anything else in this vein you’d care to imagine—is socially constructed. It’s a matter of roles, whether freely chosen or determined by cultural stereotypes. But an unborn child has not made any choices or been subjected to cultural norms, and so has no gender yet. Thus the very idea of a gender reveal party is presumptuous—unless, of course, the idea is to brand a baby as a boy or girl, in which case what we’d really be talking about is a gender imposition party. But it’s safe to say that those most ardent about holding such celebrations would not care to think about the practice in those terms. So it seems only logical to conclude that gender reveal parties are in fact sex reveal parties. For those who wish to be on the right side of gender history, however, that sounds, well, a little icky in polite society. Sex seems … sexist.
This is not the only case of such contemporary euphemisms, which range from inaccurate to dishonest. When some people do talk about a person’s sex, they imply that it’s the result of an arbitrary label. So it is we are told that we are “assigned” a sex at birth, as if such an outcome is the result of a fallible god or distractable medical staff rather than a biological phenomenon that is woven into every cell of our bodies. Whatever else we might do, whoever else we may be, sex is one of those immutable facts of life, like the time, location, and circumstances of our births. Indeed, it is the very interplay between such fixed conditions and those over which we do have some control by which we form the meanings of our lives. Human agency is precious precisely because it is finite. Often it’s a matter of how we handle what we don’t choose that defines our character.
Thankfully, it is possible to change some aspects of human biology, including sexual biology. Which brings us to another euphemism: “gender-affirming care.” This is a complex term that encompasses any number of medical interventions that include hormone treatments and surgical procedures involving internal and external organs. Back in the unenlightened old days, we called such procedures sex-change operations. The process has become both more streamlined and more complex in the last half-century. But whatever it is, however you do it, and whatever it is that’s getting affirmed, sex is at the core of what’s being done. Those who use the term “gender-affirming” don’t seem to want to acknowledge this factual reality. Indeed, even broaching the subject is regarded as at best impolitic and at worst makes one a target of righteous indignation (a time-honored way of avoiding unpleasant topics).
Those who bristle at terms like “factual reality” when it comes to such matters (preferring “lived experience,” for instance) are likely to note that sexual identity is really not, as a matter of fact, the strict binary some presume it to be. This is true. Human sex is a product of a series of variables: chromosomes, hormones, primary sex organs, and secondary sex organs. Exceptions can happen at any step along that chain, resulting in a relatively small percentage of people who are intersex in one way or another. We need to recognize them for who they are, affirm their rights, and grapple with the ambiguities of human experience.
Even when that’s inconvenient. While we’re on the subject of the ambiguities of human experience, I’ll mention another euphemism, this one in the context of our current abortion controversy: “reproductive health.” It certainly is true that there are many cases where women (or, as some would have it, pregnant people) have abortions as a matter of reproductive health, whether as a matter of ectopic pregnancies, intrauterine infections, or severe cases of preeclampsia, to cite three examples. Whatever other restrictions may be in place, there is no state in the union where such a woman cannot get an abortion. It is also the case, however, that there are abortions that happen for reasons that have nothing to do with reproductive health. They might include challenges to mental health (a serious, at least potentially treatable problem, though ending a pregnancy may not be the best way to do so), or a belief that bearing a child at a particular point in one’s life is an imposition to be avoided. There are many states where one can get an abortion on that basis. What we’re really talking about are termination rights. Such a phrase is unlikely to enter common parlance, however, because it’s a little too candid (“abortion rights” may be a fair compromise). In any case, about half of those aborted are female, whatever their gender would be, and do not have a right to choose. The veil of “reproductive health” makes such complications easier not to acknowledge.
Let me be very clear: It is not my point here to challenge the right of an individual to choose a gender expression, oppose medical interventions for adults in the service of that expression, or advocate bans on abortions for reasons that may extend beyond the life of the mother. I am challenging the banishment of the language and consideration of sex in public life because I think it’s damaging our ability to think clearly, act fairly, and promote productive discussion.
I can understand how we got into this situation, which at least in part is for honorable reasons. To acknowledge the reality of sex—and the biological and behavioral consequences that follow—is to potentially open the door for all kinds of boorishness and bigotry (the very phrase “boys will be boys” sends chills down some spines) as raise questions about reasons for the pay gap, which may involve not entirely cultural tendencies some women may have for not becoming coal miners. Such patterns have been widely reported even in progressive gender paragons such as Sweden.
It’s important to note that there have been generations of people who have needlessly suffered in the face of collective prejudices, and there have been generations of activists who have waged, and won, struggles we should recognize as part of larger victories for human dignity and equality in the public sphere. That work never ends, even if it is always changing shape, and even if the best of us will inevitably be on the wrong side of history sooner or later—and yes, I recognize I may be on the wrong one here in essaying the point of view that I’m submitting for your consideration: after all, to quote the hard-won wisdom of Tammy Wynette, I’m “just a man.” Such arguments constitute the stuff of what history is—the story of how weird ideas do, and don’t, end up becoming common sense. (Latinx, anyone?)
In sum: we should strive to maintain a sense of balance and clarity in the relationship between sex and gender, not losing sight of either. There is a place for kindness, in language and much else. But attempts to control discourse through phraseology do more harm than good when they become manipulative and elitist in our academic, journalistic, and professional discourse.
In the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa: Let’s talk about sex. Politely, please.
Society can’t truly progress in absence of truth. I think that it is easy to avoid facts and circumstances when they evoke a sense of shame, however subtle it may be. But by creating terms that disconnect us from reality, we are failing to acknowledge something for what it is and will find ourselves running circles around an unresolved issue.
Trans women are authentically women: psychologically, emotionally and socially. However, the presence of the Y chromosome in every single cell in their bodies reveals the DNA of a male. That Y chromosome in no way diminishes the right of trans women to live and to be respected as female. End of story- or at least it should be. The trans movement is not advanced by denying the irrefutable biology, or demonizing those who believe this to be true.
In many academic and corporate settings I would be shunned or fired for writing this, despite my conviction that my beliefs are fundamentally pro-trans.