Hey everybody! This is Dylan Felt (she/her) – I’m a research and evaluation Project Manager and Assistant Director of the EDIT Program at Northwestern University. I’m here today to talk about sex, baby! More specifically, I want to talk about how sex is a social category which is weaponized against transgender people, and how you can do something about it.
“Yeah, I get it already. Biological sex and gender are different, but they’re both important, right?”
Where we choose to draw the borders of ‘sex’ is a subjective, human choice. It’s also a political choice. The boundaries that we draw around bodies, and the meaning we assign to them, have political implications and purpose. Medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis refers to this as “the gerrymandering of sex” (Karkazis, 2019), and describes how sex gerrymandering is explicitly used to restrict the medical and social autonomy of transgender people and cisgender women. Historian Beans Velocci goes one step further and critiques sex itself as “ontologically incoherent.” In other words, it isn’t just sex classification that is a political project – it is the concept of “sex” itself. Sex isn’t a biological reality which we’re describing – it’s a social idea with social consequences.
“It sounds like this is a pretty ideological stance you’re taking. Are you sure you aren’t just feeling worked up because you’re trans?”
Thanks for asking, ghost of EvalTalk past! I hear your concerns, so I’ll get this out of the way: nobody is saying human anatomy and biology aren’t sometimes relevant in evaluation.
Here’s what I am saying though: asking someone what their sex is isn’t a sure-fire way to get at that anatomical/biological knowledge. For example, lots of women (cisgender and transgender), aren’t biologically capable of pregnancy. Just because someone checks ‘female’ on a box doesn’t mean you can assume that you understand that person’s biological faculties. Available evidence indicates that, where biological characteristics associated with sex are relevant, it’s better to just ask directly. Sex is an imperfect heuristic, so even if we were to set aside its political nature, critical use of the construct is still warranted.
“Okay, I guess I get that part, but I don’t get what the political piece has to do with me?”
Look, I get it, but we can’t just set aside the political implications. Across the United States, a wave of anti-transgender legislation has emerged, the vast majority targeting transgender youth. The bills range in scope, but they share a belief that sex is a biologically encoded reality which cannot and should not be changed. With that in mind, here are some hot tips I want you to walk away with:
- Evaluation is not a field from which we can abdicate our social responsibilities. We don’t evaluate from outside of society, we evaluate from within, and the work we do impacts the social ecosystem we inhabit.
- Liberatory practice and rigorous inquiry go hand in hand, and to pretend otherwise is to give in to fallacious, fascist attacks on critical work.
- We need to get serious about the ways in which the assumptions that underlie our data are reflective of, and contribute to, normative societal assumptions about sex that are regularly used to harm transgender people.
I’m not so foolish as to think that changing a question on a demographic form will quash the groundswell of anti-trans fascistic legislation. But I’m not so cynical as to think that what we do doesn’t make a difference, either.
I’d like to think, if you’ve read to the end of this post, you’re open to making that difference. I’m looking forward to working together!
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