gender: transgender/intersex

Amanda C. caught John McCain with some interesting presumptions! The contact part of his webpage has a drop down menu for the senders’ honorific(s) (see a close up below):


Close up:


So, the list is heteronormative (no “Mr. and Mr.” or “Ms. and Ms.”).

Further, because no write-ins are allowed, it also forces people who aren’t gender-typical to choose a gender if they want to send McCain a note.

And it bizarrely erases women doctors (no “Mr. and Dr.” or “Dr. and Mr.”).

Nice catch, Amanda!

UPDATE: After seeing this, Danielle F. sent in a screenshot of the honorifics choices that came up when she ordered tickets to “The Nutcracker” at the Detroit Opera House:


So you could theoretically be a single female Rev., Col., Capt., and so on, but the married versions of those all assume a female spouse. Notice they also have a listing for King, but not Queen.  I guess they get a lot of male royalty at the Detroit Opera House.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Adeste S. sent in this performance by two women about the difficulties and frustrations of being transgendered:

Performed at Brave New Voices.

NEW! (Mar. ’10): Ryan sent in this video of Sass Rogando Sasot speaking to the United Nations about transgender rights. From an article at Coilhouse:

Her speech, titled “Reclaiming the Lucidity of Our Hearts”, addresses the need for vastly improved acceptance, support and protection of transgender citizens worldwide.

Her entire presentation is very moving, but about 8 minutes into this clip, something shifts in Sasot’s voice and delivery. What began as an engaging speech swiftly transforms into something far more urgent, immediate, and beautiful.

We posted earlier about the biology behind the controversy over Caster Semenya’s sex.  Germán I. R.-E. and Philip Cohen (who has his own post on the topic) asked that we comment on her recent makeover.

Some sociologists argue that gender (as opposed to sex) is really more about performance than it is about our bodies.  That is, we do gender and, when we do it in ways that other people recognize, everyone feels satisfied.  This is, perhaps, what Caster Semenya’s handlers were hoping for when she submitted to a makeover for South Africa’s YOU Magazine:


Notice that Semenya carries the same body into this photoshoot, but she is properly adorned with make up, feminine clothing, jewelry, a passive pose, and a pleasant and inviting facial expression (because to be feminine is to be accommodating).


Perhaps more importantly, the copy and the interview tells the reader that Semenya likes dressing up and looking pretty, another important indicator of both femininity and non-masculinity.  The cover says:


(Notice, too, the implication that power and glamour are opposed.)

This insistence that Semenya feels (or wants to feel) feminine, as well as looks it, is mirrored in the text (as summarized by the Guardian):

It carries an interview with the 18-year-old student. “I’d like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance,” she says. “I’d also like to learn to do my own makeup.”

The lifestyle magazine quotes Semenya’s university friends saying that she wants to buy stilettos and have a manicure and pedicure. Semenya adds: “I’ve never bought my own clothes – my mum buys them for me. But now that I know what I can look like, I’d like to dress like this more often.”

You magazine says that, after the photoshoot, Semenya told her manager that she would like to buy all the outfits she had modelled.

So, in the face of the leaked and unconfirmed finding that Semenya has undescended testicles and higher levels of testosterone than the “average” woman (see note at end*), there is an assertion here that what matters (i.e., the measure of sex that we should attend to) is her gender identity (feeling feminine) and her gender performance (doing femininity).

Anna N. at Jezebel points to how the public interest in Semenya’s sex may have pressured her, and those around her, to play this gender game. She writes:

…up until now, Semenya and her family have been unapologetic about the way she looks and dresses. Her father said that she had always preferred pants, but that she was still a woman — and the idea that she has to put on a dress and lipstick to prove her femaleness to people is pretty depressing.

It is also something that almost all women in Western countries do everyday.  We perform gender, in part out of habit and in part consciously, all the time.  Semenya hasn’t cared about this performance and that is at least in part why the controversy over her sex is taking the form that it is.

* Note:  The release of male-related hormones, androgens, isn’t the whole story here.  Cells must also have the relevant receptors for the presence of the hormones to matter.  Semenya likely is lacking some of those receptors, either in her whole body on in parts of her body, because her body obviously didn’t respond to the hormones (otherwise she would have a penis and scrotum).  My point here is dual: (1) the presence of testicles and testosterone doesn’t tell the whole story and (2) even if we knew the whole story, it doesn’t tell us if she is female or male.  What if her body doesn’t detect the presence of those androgens?  What if it reads the presence of some of them, but not others?  What if she is chimera or mosaic?  All these are interesting questions biologically, but the answers will not tell us whether she is male or female because sex, like gender, is a social construction.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Chrissy Y., Stacey S., and a former student of mine, Kenjus Watson, have all suggested that we post about the controversy over Olympic athlete Caster Semenya’s sex.

A lot of people are talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to be asking about her sex and why we would be so obsessed with knowing the answer. Those are fine questions (and I address them secondarily).  But first I would like to suggest that, even if we were to decide that it is appropriate to want to determine her sex (that we are obsessed with it for a good reason), it would be impossible to actually determine her sex definitively. Let me explain:

If you were to try to decide what qualifies a person as male or female, what quality would you choose?

I can think of eight candidates:

1. Identity (whatever the person says they are, they are)
2. Sexual orientation (boys dig girls, vice versa)
3. Secondary sex characteristics (e.g., boobs/no boobs, pubic hair patterns, distribution of fat on the body)
4. External genitalia (e.g., clitoris, labia, vaginal opening/penis and scrotum)
5. Internal genitalia (e.g., vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes/epididymis, vas deferens, seminal vesicles, prostate, etc)
6. Hormones (preponderance of estrogens/androgens)
7. Gonads (ovaries/testes)
8. Chromosomes (XX/XY, the SRY gene)

Most of us assume that these criteria all line up. That is, that people with XY chromosomes have testes that make androgens which creates a penis, epididymis, vas deferens etc… all the way up to a male-identified person who wants to have sex with women.  We also assume that these things are binary (e.g., boobs/no boobs), when in reality most of them are on a spectrum (e.g., hormones, also boobs, likely sexual orientation).

But these criteria don’t always line up and sex-linked charactertics aren’t binary.  Examples of “syndromes” that disrupt these trajectories abound (e.g., Klinefelter’s syndrome).  And all kinds of practices, including surgeries, are sometimes used to force a binary when there isn’t one (e.g., intersex surgery to fix the “micropenis” and “obtrustive” clitoris and breast reduction surgery for men).

If these criteria don’t always line up, then we have to pick one as THE determinant of sex.  But any choice would ultimately be arbitrary.  The truth is that none of these criteria could ever actually definitively qualify a person as male or female.

The alternative would be to require that a person qualify as male or female according to ALL of the criteria.  And you might be surprised, then, how many people are neither male or female.

I think the debate over whether we should test Semenya’s sex is getting ahead of itself, given that there is no such test.


Yet, while we won’t be learning anything definitive about Semenya’s sex, the controversy does teach us something about our obsession with sex difference.  On MSNBC, Dave Zirin explains what the controversy over is really about:


To me, one of the most interesting things that Zirin says is that sex isn’t actually a good indicator of athletic ability.  He may be a guy, he says, but having a penis doesn’t translate into outrunning anyone.

He is implying that sex segregation in athletics, as a rule, is more about an obsession with sex categories and their affirmation than it is about sports. Remember, Semenya’s sex is being questioned not just because she appears masculine to some (she always has), but because she kicked major ass on the track.

Kenjus, my former student, writes:

…why didn’t they test Usain Bolt?  He did amazingly well… Yet, his otherworldly accomplishments are considered the result of his never-before-seen body structure… Usain, however, is a big, strong, fast Black man. The fact that his times are just as mind-boggling as Caster’s gets lost in the widely accepted narrative that big, strong, fast Black men accomplish amazing athletic feats. It’s what they’re built for.

But this woman has apparently baffled the athletic and scientific experts because her body is not doing what a woman’s body is supposed to do. More specifically, her shape is too muscular, her voice is too deep, and her time is too fast. Essentially, “Semenya-the-woman” CANNOT exist in an exclusively two-gendered (i.e. men and women) society in which men are innately bigger, stronger, more deeply-voiced, and particularly FASTER than women…


Semenya is getting far more media attention than the recent cheating scandals of higher profile athletes. This is precisely because there’s something that separates Caster from an A-Rod, a Marion, a Sosa… The world is captivated by Caster because something that should be certain; unquestionable; medical; pre-ordained, is in flux.  It is regrettable that some athletes take illegal drugs to gain an edge over the competition. It’s entirely unethical, unnatural, and ungodly for an athlete to not fit into our narrow specifications of what constitutes gender or sex.

Indeed.  Our obsession with Semenya’s sex, in addition to being hurtful and invasive, says a great deal more about us, than it does about her.  And perhaps the reason we are so obsessed with proving Semenya’s sex, to bring this post back to its beginnings, is because binary sex doesn’t actually exist.  Me thinks we protest too much.

(Thanks to Mimi Schippers, via the Sociologists for Women in Society listserve, for alerting me to the video. Images found here and here.)


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Genderkid sent in a link to a story in The Morning News about the Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, an art installation by Charlie White at the Hammer Museum in L.A. A description from the story:

The series is a correlation of two stages of transformation, pairing teen girls (12-14) with like adult [transgender] male-to-female…

More from The Morning News:

In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror.

For just as the original 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of Communism’s impending doom, and stories of men with hooks were concocted to frighten young girls from riding in cars with boys, so often have Hollywood summer comedies acted as cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward either the pubescent or transgendered woman. Because in the right skirt or the right application of makeup, each has proved alluring to our hero…

Indeed, both sexy underage girls and transgender women who “fool” unsuspecting men are often portrayed as threats to (straight, adult) men. The “Lolita” figure is long-standing, and portrayals such as the Ally McBeal plotline in which a man falls in love with a transgender woman without knowing she is trans present the possibility of men being “fooled” into having sexual or even long-term romantic relationships with a transgender woman. Both teen girls and trans women are threatening and can get a guy in trouble.

Of course, we’re more accepting of one of these types of trouble than the other, and we shouldn’t be surprised that trans individuals who are “discovered” may face dire consequences for “fooling” men who have an intense investment in a rigid type of heterosexual identity and fear ridicule by peers, such as the three men who killed a transgender teen in California. (And I don’t mean to imply here that women don’t ever feel uncomfortable with or attack trans individuals, but the murders I’m aware of all included male perpetrators.)

Anyway, it’s a pretty fascinating set of images. Thanks, genderkid!

UPDATE: Commenter EGhead says,

This analysis also neglects that society insistently refuses to acknowledge transgendered women as women, even though they are, while insistently acknowledging girls as women, even though they aren’t.

Fair enough–I think that’s a good point.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Francisco pointed us to a spoken word poem by Andrea Gibson in which she talks about what it’s like to be ambiguously gendered:

Transcript (borrowed from Francisco):

So, I teach in a preschool. Hehe… I make a goddamn difference, now what about you. That’s one point I had to make before I read this poem. The second point is, I usually have hair that is much much shorter than this. That’s all you need to know.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” he asks, staring up at me in all three feet of his pudding face grandeur, and I say “Dylan, you’ve been in this class for three years and you still don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl?” And he says “Uh-uh.” And I say “Well, at this point, I don’t really think it matters, do you?” And he says “Uhhhm, no. Can I have a push on the swing?” And this happens every day. It’s a tidal wave of kindergarten curiosity rushing straight for the rocks of me, whatever I am.

And the class, when we discuss the Milky Way galaxy, the orbit of the Sun around the Earth… or whatever. Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and kids, do you know that some of the stars we see when we look up in the sky are so far away, they’ve already burned out? What do you think of that? Timmy? “Umm… my mom says that even though you got hairs that grow from your legs, and the hairs on your head grow short and poky, and that you smell really bad, like my dad, that you’re a girl.” “Thank you, Timmy.”

And so it goes. On the playground, she peers up at me from behind her pink power puff sunglasses and then asks, “Do you have a boyfriend?” And I say no, and she says “Oh, do you have a girlfriend?” And I say “No, but if by some miracle, twenty years from now, I ever finally do, then I’ll definitely bring her by to meet you. How’s that?” “Okay. Can I have a push on the swing?”

And that’s the thing. They don’t care. They don’t care. Us, on the other hand… My father sitting across the table at Christmas dinner, gritting his teeth over his still-full plate, his appetite raped away by the intrusion of my haircut, “What were you thinking? You used to be such a pretty girl!” Frat boys, drunken, screaming, leaning out of the windows of their daddys’ SUVs, “Hey! Are you a faggot or a dyke?” And I wonder what would happen if I met up with them in the middle of the night.

Then of course there’s always the somehow not-quite-bright enough fluorescent light of the public restroom, “Sir! Sir, do you realize this is the ladies’ room?” “Yes, ma’am, I do, it’s just that I didn’t feel comfortable sticking this tampon up my penis in the men’s room.”

But the best, the best is always the mother at the market, sticking up her nose while pushing aside her daughter’s wide eyes, whispering “Don’t stare, it’s rude.” And I want to say, “Listen, lady, the only rude thing I see is your paranoid parental hand pushing aside the best education on self that little girl’s ever gonna get, living with your Maybelline lipstick after hips and pedi kiwi, vanilla-smelling beauty; so why don’t you take your pinks and blues, your boy-girl rules and shove them in that car with your fucking issue of Cosmo, because tomorrow, I stop my day with twenty-eight miles and I know a hell of a lot more than you. And if I show up in a pink frilly dress, those kids won’t love me any more, or less.”

“Hey, are you a boy or a — never mind, can I have a push on the swing?” And some day, y’all, when we grow up, it’s all gonna be that simple.

Francisco sent in the Jan. 7th cover of The Statement, the magazine of the Daily Michigan (found here).  It features three apples: one carries male markers (giant mustache), one female markers (eyelashes, make-up, and big red lips), and the third, labeled with a question mark, carries markers for both sexes, sort of askew, and is partially missing.

Cayden writes:

[Apparently p]eople who don’t conform to the gender binary (and quite rigidly too — note the “man” apple’s huge stache and the “woman” apple’s pouty red lips) are incomplete people: monsterous and frightening.

Nadya at Coilhouse sent in this ad campaign for Kiwi Kleen Toilet Cleaner.  In order to disgust you, the ads suggest that sharing a toilet seat is like sitting directly on someone else’s ass and, to disgust you further, they suggest that that someone else could be a Mexican wrestler, a fat pig, and a transsexual.  Keep it classy, Kiwi Kleen.  (Images found at Coilhouse and Coloribus.)