students in lounge

Expecting parents field a lot of questions, but none more often than this one. This question reveals how deeply embedded gender is in our social interactions. It is also indicative of an overly simple understanding of sex and gender identity. 

A number of complex biological factors interact to determine and signal a person’s sex. For most people these dimensions match: 

  • chromosomal make-up (XX or XY genes)

  • the ways that their body has developed (female or male), and 

  • their internal knowledge of whether they are a woman or a man. 

But these elements do not always match. When they do not align, people experience transgender identities and/or intersex conditions. 

The term transgender describes people whose gender identity (their sense of being a woman or a man) differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The visibility of trans folk and public conversation about them has increased exponentially in the past few years. Celebrities like Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner’s transitions have received wide publicity. Others  who have burst onto the scene after transitioning have told their own stories to varied audiences including a 2015 book talk that Janet Mock gave right here at UVA.

A recent survey estimates that .6% of the population identifies as transgender. Accurate numbers are particularly difficult to assess, however, because surveys like this depend upon self-reporting. Another 1.7% of the population has an intersex condition, which occurs when their chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia do not all align and their body does not follow a typical female or male pattern of development.

While the existence of people with non-binary identities is acknowledged more publicly now and our use of the term transgender is a recent addition, their existence is not new. Across time and geography, cultures have been organized in ways that assign work responsibilities according to gender roles – but specific tasks are not always assigned to the same gender across cultures. In times of warfare, women have taken on male identities in order to fight. Archival evidence in the National Archives suggests that at least 250 women fought as men in the American Civil War.

Many cultures have also recognized that not everyone fits into one of two boxes. Maintained from pre-contact North American understandings of 3-5 gender categories, Native Americans have a long tradition of “two-spirit” individuals, those who have both a male and a female spirit within them and who are “blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders”

Take as an example the case of T. Hall, a servant called into Virginia’s Common Court in 1629. T. had been born in England where they were raised as a girl (Thomasine). In young adulthood, T. cut their hair and put on men’s clothing to enter military service as Thomas. Upon leaving the military, T. put on women’s clothing to earn a living with needlework before again switching to men’s clothing to immigrate to the Virginia colony. In Virginia, T. appeared in women’s clothing at times. Gossip and the financial interest of T.’s current and prospective masters prompted an investigation of whether T. was a man or a woman. When asked by authorities, T. replied that they were “both man and woman”.  Multiple physical searches of T.’s body to resolve the question proved inconclusive (likely due to an intersex condition), and the matter ended up in court.

For T.’s community, though, the inability to ascertain T.’s sex was problematic only insofar as they could not confidently assign T. the “correct” social role. As Zachary Pullin (Chippewa Cree) notes, “Gender describes an individual’s expected role within a community.” 

Faced with what must have seemed an unanswerable conundrum, the Court attempted to establish a permanent identity – and social role – for T. The Court ordered that T.’s identity as “a man and a woman” be published where he lived and that he must wear men’s clothing (namely, pants) with a woman’s headdress (coif and kerchief) and apron. We have no record of T.’s life after the ruling, but I submit that forcing them to wear highly gendered men’s and women’s items simultaneously must have opened T. up to ridicule, social ostracism, and physical danger.

Nearly four hundred years later, communities still grapple with the questions raised when people who do not conform to locally-specific gender norms make use of highly gendered spaces. As norms change and spaces designed for rigid binary distinctions need to be reconfigured to accommodate the entire community, difficult conversations are initiated.

Our past, when we take time to examine it, shows how the process and the solutions have too often failed people. The conversation neglects to account for the human dignity and safety of all involved, including an accurate assessment of threats. Those whose lived realities do not neatly fit into clear-cut categories suffer at the hands of those who fear difference. A moral imperative for those whose physical well-being is not endangered is to offer protection to those who need it. As we publicly debate bathroom usage and integration into military troops, we would be well served to look to history.

Recommended reading - complex issues are made accessible in these highly readable works:

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Corelia Fine 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee 

The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights by Deborah Rudacille 

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling