It’s damaging to argue that people who defy their sex don’t know what they’re doing
In the article “Kids and gender: We have to (be able to) talk about it” (Ideas, Sept. 25), Lisa Selin Davis makes the critical mistake of taking Christopher Rufo — the architect behind the campaign against critical race theory and a person whose work goes hand in hand with right-wing anti-trans pundits, such as self-proclaimed “theocratic fascist” Matt Walsh — as a primary source of information.
Further, Davis appears to insinuate that transgender rights activists desire to bring back gender roles as rigid categories. Yet I, both as a trans person and a friend of trans people, rarely see anyone within that community trying to adhere to such strict roles.
The rhetoric in Davis’s article is much the same as rhetoric I’ve seen from various transphobes on Twitter and 4chan. This is a damaging argument that believes people who dare to defy their sex assigned at birth don’t know what they’re doing and that to oppose such people is to protect children. It’s the kind of rhetoric that leads to cases such as the bomb threat targeting Boston Children’s Hospital.
We need more patience, compassion to counter the political theater of ‘othering’
Re “Kids and gender: We have to (be able to) talk about it” (Ideas, Sept. 25): Lisa Selin Davis claims to be a liberal and a feminist but is writing a piece that follows the script of a specific and well-orchestrated political strategy designed by those for whom liberalism and feminism are anathema.
While there is very little legitimate discussion on understanding the lives of trans Americans, the struggles they face, and how their families and communities can support and love them, there is an unrelenting campaign to manufacture political theater and to “other” these fellow citizens.
The tactics play upon the limited experience many have with transgender people and echo stereotypes from a horrific past. The campaign is a naked display of political violence against the vulnerable or those who are perceived as unable to fight back.
I agree with Davis that there are some who don’t feel in their heads or hearts that they fully understand people like my own family member who is transgender. I applaud those I meet who approach that lack of understanding with patience, compassion, and love.
However, the unrelenting political theater I’ve observed attacking transgender children and adults is neither feminist, liberal, nor kind.
The categories of male and female are what we grapple with
Lisa Selin Davis’s Ideas piece on kids and gender has much to recommend it. However, I believe the author misunderstands what gender theorists mean when they claim that biological sex is socially constructed. To say that sex is socially constructed does not mean, as Davis suggests, that biological sex is not “real.” Of course vaginas, penises, uteruses, etc., are real. Rather, what it means is that the categories of male and female that we use to refer to sex are constructed (i.e., invented).
There are many real biological traits for which societies do not create distinct categories — traits that in fact are empirically observable, that exist — but those various traits do not necessarily become a basis for division of labor in families and the labor force and they are not used to justify social, economic, and political inequalities and power relationships. Sex, divided most often in terms of male vs. female (though this is not the same in every society, and it is increasingly changing) is used in this way.
It is the work of gender scholars to explain how and why particular real biological differences — in this case sex — are socially constructed into the categories they are, and how and why those categories come to mean what they do.
The writer is a professor emerita of sociology at Tufts University.
‘Biological sex is dimorphic’? Well, it’s complicated
I applaud Lisa Selin Davis’s call for civil and rational discussion. Let’s start with her assumption that “biological sex is ... dimorphic.” My guess is that most people, perhaps including Davis, don’t know what biological sex actually is.
Only some species reproduce sexually (as opposed to cloning), and only some of these are sexually dimorphic (two gamete types: larger eggs and smaller sperm). This is the definition of “biological sex”: the asymmetry in typical gamete size. Seems simple, but the mechanisms of sex determination vary wildly across species. For some reptiles, it’s the temperature of the egg’s environment. For some fish, the young develop as one sex and sometimes change to the other depending on group structure. Barnacles do produce sexually dimorphic gametes but are hermaphroditic, each producing both sperm and eggs. For some bugs, worms, even some mammals, females have two X chromosomes and males only one. For most mammals, males have a Y chromosome while females don’t. But that’s just the beginning; what happens next?
For humans, sexual differentiation is triggered at around six weeks gestation by a single Y chromosome gene product that triggers a “masculinized” body plan; this is why most “Y present” people develop testis and produce sperm and most “Y absent” people develop ovaries and produce eggs. But there are many exceptions to this typical pattern. Some people have a mosaic of different genetics across their cells, resulting in a mixture of effects across their body. By the time we are adults, we’ve had multiple waves of hormones. Individual differences in their amount, our tissues’ sensitivity, and other physiological and environmental factors that strengthen or weaken their effect all result in an incredible diversity of practically continuous variation in our bodies and behavior.
I ask: Where in this is it obvious that biological sex is dimorphic?
The writer is an associate of the psychology department at Harvard and teaches in the Division of Continuing Education.