Photo by Ted Eytan, 2017, Washington, DC

A memo leaked to the New York Times from the Trump Administration proposes defining “sex” under Title IX as “a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” The memo claims that such a definition is “grounded in science.” This claim is false and ignores decades of research from sociologists and others in the scientific community that demonstrates that sex is a spectrum, not a binary, and that gender identity is not determined by the sex one is labeled a birth. The proposed redefinition is not based on science; rather, it is a blatantly political attempt to deny the existence and rights of transgender, intersex, and non-binary people. Sociologists for Trans Justice denounces this proposed redefinition and calls for all sociologists to support the rights of transgender, intersex, and non-binary people.

What the memo specifically states is that chromosomes will be considered definitive of sex, and that sex assigned at birth can only be legally changed if a person is assigned female but found to have XY chromosomes or assigned male but is found to have XX chromosomes. In fact, all of us have multiple physical sex characteristics that are presumed to align, but can vary independently: genitals, gonads, hormones, and chromosomes. Of these, those we call “sex chromosomes” have the least impact on our lives after birth, while the other three are much more important. There is no scientific basis whatsoever for stating that chromosomes will be the one sex characteristic that will “count” for determining a binary sex assignment, especially considering that some people have chromosomes that don’t fit the XX, XY binary. The reason chromosomes were chosen is political: it is the only one of the four that doctors cannot at this time change, and it was thus selected in order to invalidate transgender people.

Transgender people are not the only ones harmed by this choice. Between 1-2% of the population is diagnosed as physically sex variant today. Intersex people have genitals, gonads, hormones and chromosomes that do not align in the binary manner the memo presumes is universal. And in choosing binary sex assignments for intersex people, doctors do not base their decisions on chromosomes. Intersex organizations already protest medical interventions being performed on unconsenting intersex children. This political declaration that chromosomes will be definitive of “true” binary sex will make the situation even more traumatic, by declaring that many intersex children were assigned the wrong binary sex by doctors.

This memo also invalidates the non-binary identities of people who are neither intersex nor medical gender transitioners. Its authors presume that “everybody knows” that there are only two “real” genders. This is an ethnocentric ideology–that is, it ignores other cultural traditions outside the contemporary Euro-American one. Many world cultures have recognized three or more sex and/or gender categories. Because sex and gender are, empirically speaking, spectra, any decision about how many categories “should” be recognized is equally arbitrary, and three or five is no less “scientific” than two.

Finally, it’s not only self-identified intersex, trans, and non-binary people who would be affected – these definitions would have a dampening effect on knowledge about and freedom for all people by making invisible the enormous gender and sex diversity that currently exists and that shows signs of continued growth.

Scientifically speaking, neither sex nor gender are binary. Socially speaking, trans, intersex and non-binary people deserve to be treated with the same social respect that all people deserve. For these reasons, we oppose the language of the administrative memo in strongest possible terms.