The title of my book, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?
, sounds rhetorical. But it isn’t. I want readers to really ask that question. Sometimes gender is relevant, but in many cases it isn’t. Gendered signs tell us which restroom to enter, and bureaucratic forms prompt us to check male or female boxes. The reasons for labeling and segregating us according to gender seem to go without saying. But falling back on that idiom should give us pause. For the social norms that “go without saying” are often the ones we most need to question.
I help businesses and organizations question how and why they administrate gender. Beyond Trans
is inspired by this work I love doing — this work that lets me put my 20 years of academic gender theory expertise into practice out there in the so-called “real world.” The term “real world” makes me wince because teaching college students is very real, and very important. But I get and sympathize with the sentiment. Academics ought to venture off campus, and find ways to interact with and be helpful to other sectors.
In Beyond Trans
I offer concrete administrative policy recommendations to empower and guide change makers in a range of organizations: government-issued identity documents (birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports); public restrooms; college admissions; and sports. At the end of the book, in the appendix, I share some of the workshop materials I use to help my clients conduct “gender audits.” I mean for that term to be a bit playful. Rooting out discrimination is serious but it doesn’t have to be dreary.
I use these guides and worksheets in trainings and workshops to foster introspection and awareness of the myriad ways that a company, school, or organization invokes “gender” or “sex” in their formal and informal policies. Some of these are explicit and obvious, such as pants and skirt stick figures on restroom doors, while others are implicit and subtle, such as “professional” dress and grooming standards, and the gendered honorifics endemic to customer service such as “sir” and “ma’am.”
Are these necessary? Are they harmful? Asking these questions together is important because if a policy or norm is harmless, then why bother changing it? Take for instance the social norm of saying “bless you” after someone has sneezed. This social custom is unnecessary. If the goal is to express kindness or concern for someone who sounds and appears to be stricken with a cold, then we could say something else like, “I’m sorry you sound and appear to be stricken with a cold.” But most of us don’t feel the need to point this out to the person offering such a platitude. It’s harmless, just something that lots of people say to other people reflexively, without giving the words particular thought.
The vast majority of our formal and informal gender policies and practices are also reflexive, and unnecessary. We are conditioned to look for the binary stick figure or sign on the restroom door that is designated for us. The signs and boxes on bureaucratic forms tell us where we belong in the male/female sex binary. We are guided, nudged, and in some cases forced into these categories. People who work in customer service are trained to refer to customers as “sir” or “ma’am.” And in many cases, explicit training isn’t even necessary because we are socialized to mete out and accept these gender prompts from a very early age. We do it to be polite. So what’s the harm?
In Beyond Trans
, I explain the harm of “transgender discrimination” by invoking the voices and experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people — including some of my own experiences as a transgender man who lived the first 38 years of his life female embodied. What does “transgender” mean, and what does it mean to be discriminated against based on this identity? Currently, we use the term “transgender” to describe the experience of identifying as the “opposite” sex assigned to us at birth. One thinks of public figures such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner
— transgender women whose gender expressions adhere to feminine norms. But some people find a home identifying as both male and female, or neither.
This variation has repercussions for how we detect and fight transgender discrimination. Some people who identify as “trans” experience transgender discrimination because others perceive them to have altered, or be in the process of changing their birth sex designation, or because they have disclosed such as transition. Some people who identify as trans do not experience transgender discrimination because they appear to others to be gender conforming. To further complicate matters, some people who do not identify as trans experience transgender discrimination because others perceive them as trans and/or gender non-conforming.
What we are really talking about here is sex-identity discrimination. This form of discrimination is a sub-category of our traditional understanding of sex discrimination, which, generally speaking, is based on negative stereotypes about what a person can and cannot do because she is a woman, or he is a man. By contrast, sex-identity discrimination encompasses gender stereotyping, but goes further to deny a person’s claim to be female or be male. In this way, sex-identity discrimination is about categorical belonging in a way that sex stereotyping isn’t.
Sex-classification policies trigger sex-identity discrimination. Whenever sex classification is written into a policy, the individuals charged with administrating that policy, be they a restaurant manager enforcing sex-segregated restrooms or a TSA agent inspecting sex-marked passports, are granted the power to affirm or reject our self-statements about where we belong in the male or female binary. And because most companies and organizations fail to define “sex” or “gender” when they use them in their policies, these judgments are wholly subjective.
This is where a background in feminist and gender theory comes in handy. Many people still believe that sex is determined by genitalia. Girls have vaginas, and boys have penises. This is why so much of the media focus on trans experience has been on whether a person has had “sex change surgeries.” Genital-based sex definition is true in the aggregate. Most people who are born with penises and identified as male at birth go on to identify as boys and then men. And most people who are born with vaginas and identified as female at birth go on to identify as girls and then as women.
But trans experience tells us our bodies are mutable, and intersex experience tells us that sex is not always dyadic. We make assumptions about what other people’s genitalia looks like, but we do not know because we are required by law and social custom to cover this part of our bodies while in public. Nor do we know how another person’s body is experienced by that person. So why do we continue to invoke gender in policies and social norms? How can we design policies that are not only trans inclusive but also better for all of us? Take a look inside Beyond Trans
for some ideas!
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Heath Fogg Davis
is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University. He is the author of The Ethics of Transracial Adoption
and Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?