Is Julia Serano right that transwomen are female?

Aug 26, 2017 · 35 min read

The thrust of Julia Serano’s article ‘Transgender People and “Biological Sex” Myths’ is that transwomen should be considered biologically female. Serano is a biologist, so we should pay attention. However, they are not a philosopher or epistemologist. Jonah Mix previously wrote a good article rebutting problems in Serano’s arguments “transwomen are women”.

As arguments about biology are so common from trans activists, I’m going to try to do something similar on the scientific side. (I’m not going to claim any particular credentials; any claims will either be backed up by a link, or should be common knowledge; arguments can be judged on their merits.) This does not ignore the real suffering of individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria, no matter its ultimate cause. Nor do I oppose laws which protect transsexual individuals, by providing a legal sex on identity documents consistent with their appearance, provided this is understood as legal fiction. This essay explores Serano’s claims as part of broader goals introduced by the trans activist community: namely, the society-wide abolition of biological sex.

Serano sets out this argument in the following way:

1. It’s claimed that feminism should be for biological females and women are oppressed on the basis of sex, so claiming transwomen aren’t female, undermines them and excludes them from solidarity with women.

2. There is no clear distinction between male and female, as sometimes biological anomalies occur. Transwomen have enough of the attributes of biological females to be considered female.

3. There is no essence to sex; it is just a set of particular traits. Saying otherwise is an essentialist fallacy. Sex characteristics can be changed by hormones or surgery, so sex can change.

4. Gender and biological sex are not distinct. For example, the brain has sex hormone receptors. There is some evidence, that gender identity is influenced by biology, due to brain studies in transsexuals. Living as a woman must change the brain in some way.

5. Sex is socially constructed, that is, its designation is mainly decided by society, and it is assigned at birth.

6. Transwomen face sexism based on their gender, not their sex, therefore transwomen should be considered women.

7. It is not true that trans people are trying to deny or erase biological sex differences or the reality of being female. The phrase “biological male/female” is an attempt to say that biology overrides trans people’s gender identities and lived experiences, and to dismiss the reality of their gender.

I will set out some definitions of these words being used before discussing these claims and exploring some consequences of accepting them.

What Does Transgender Mean?

Definitions related to transgender topics are often neither consistent nor precise. Serano defines

Transgender: the most commonly accepted umbrella term for people who transgress gender norms or defy traditional gender categories in some way. Activists in the 1990s forwarded this term to unite transsexuals, crossdressers, drag artists, butch women, feminine men, and people who are androgynous, intersex, non-binary, and possibly others.

Surprisingly, this list omits gay men and lesbian women, although homosexuality also defies most traditional roles or norms of men and women. Serano offers a tighter definition for transwomen:

Trans women differ greatly from one another. Perhaps the only thing that we share in common is a self-understanding that there was something wrong our being assigned a male sex at birth and/or that we should be female instead.

The word “sex” refers to a reproductive category, as per Oxford:

2. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.

“Gender” is more poorly defined. Oxford:

Either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.

“Gender” and “sex” are often synonymous, perhaps owing to American embarrassment over the word sex. There is also no agreement on whether male, female, man, woman belong exclusively to the category of gender or sex for humans. Thus there is no hard rule on whether by gender one means social and cultural differences or biological sex. Writing in the social sciences often uses gender in the latter sense. But when the distinction between these meanings is precisely what’s at issue, the word gender hinders communication.

The law also generally does not distinguish gender and sex. Although the law in most Western countries recognizes transgender persons, and refers to their recognition as change of gender, this usually involves a change of a sex field on documents. The US drivers’ license field is sex, as are state ID cards, birth certificates and passports. This is similar to the UK.

The legal definition and recognition of transgender differs by jurisdiction. A typical example is the state of New York, where “gender identity” is held to be

one’s internal deeply-held sense of one’s gender which may be the same or different from one’s sex assigned at birth. One’s gender identity may be male, female, neither or both, e.g., non-binary. Everyone has a gender identity.

and transgender is defined as

an adjective used to describe someone whose gender identity or expression is not typically associated with the sex assigned at birth.

This contrasts with Serano’s definition, above. The meaning of “gender” is rarely spelled out. American Psychiatric Association (APA) guidance associates gender with “clothing, hairstyles and […] a name of the opposite gender”:

People with gender dysphoria may allow themselves to express their true selves and may openly want to be affirmed in their gender identity […] They prefer, or demand, clothing, hairstyles and to be called a name of the opposite gender.

It is possible the reason gender tends to be poorly defined in the law and in psychiatry is that it would be politically unacceptable, especially to feminists, to explicitly define manhood or womanhood by clothing or hairstyle. Nonetheless that’s where the “rubber hits the road” as a medical gender dysphoria diagnosis becomes a legal gender change.

For example, in New York, no particular medical treatment is required for a transgender person to change gender/sex marker on documents, but rather “a doctor’s letter affirming or attesting to “gender transition”, with “appropriate clinical treatment.”. This is similar to current requirements in the UK. In certain countries, such as Ireland, Malta and Norway, a change of legal gender can be done entirely by self-declaration:

I do solemnly and sincerely declare that I have a settled and solemn intention to live in the preferred gender of male/female (delete as appropriate) for the rest of my life.

Thus, core concepts of gender and transgender are poorly defined, ambiguous, and depend on stereotypes. The role of psychiatry is visible as the drivetrain between transgender identity, and legally enforceable, non-biological definitions of man and woman, male and female. By defining a medical condition with a consequence that the male patient becomes legally female, psychiatry redefined male and female. Transgender activist involvement in psychiatry was, historically, absolutely necessary for that legal change.

Julia Serano’s Definitions Are Inconsistent

A feature of Julia Serano’s writing is shifting justifications and definitions. At no point does Serano stick to one definition of female, as opposed to repeating, in different contexts, that all transwomen should be considered female. Serano claims or implies transwomen are female in the following ways:

  1. because being female is a collection of mutable traits that transwomen can alter themselves to suit, to an extent
  2. because “the gender/sex distinction is rooted in mind/body dualism”
  3. because “our understanding of sex is socially constructed “
  4. because ‘most people use the terms “sex” and “gender” synonymously’
  5. because men “simply see [me as] a woman/female […], and [treat] me accordingly”
  6. because of “trans people’s gender identities and lived experiences”

But these can’t all be true. If transwomen are female because they’ve changed their bodies, this contradicts a claim transwomen are female because of a “sexed mind” or “gender identity”. That in turn don’t get along with the claim that sex is a constructed idea peculiar to human society rather than being a biologically innate fact. All of these are at odds with the idea that life experience is what makes Julia Serano female, and how are we to reconcile that with the idea it has something to do with male perceptions? For someone who accuses others of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at an argument to make a case, Serano sure looks guilty of this.

Serano’s essay is an exercise in making the simple complicated, and the clear obscure.

Sex Has An Inherently Binary Reproductive Basis

Let’s start with why sex exists at all. There is a good and fairly obvious reason evolution led us to have sex: it makes our offspring much fitter, much faster. Sexual reproduction allows individuals to vary by way of recombination of their parents’ genes as well as mutation. This has an enormous advantage over asexual reproduction in added fitness per generation, and spreading advantageous mutations. Sexually reproducing species can adapt to change tens of thousands of times faster than asexually reproducing species. (,

As David McKay pointed out:

If mutations are used to create variation among children, then it is unavoidable that the average fitness of the children is lower than the parents’ fitness; the greater the variation, the greater the average deficit. Selection bumps up the mean fitness again. In contrast, recombination produces variation without a decrease in average fitness.

David McKay illustrated the advantage of sex, below: it’s obvious that having sex creates fitter children.

Why sex is better than sex-free reproduction. If mutations are used to create variation among children, then it is unavoidable that the average fitness of the children is lower than the parents’ fitness; the greater the variation, the greater the average deficit. Selection bumps up the mean fitness again. In contrast, recombination produces variation without a decrease in average fitness. The typical amount of variation scales as √ G, where G is the genome size, so after selection, the average fitness rises by O( √ G). From McKay “Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms”

An organism’s biological sex is its reproductive class. An organism in the class capable of producing small gametes/sperm is the male, large gametes/eggs the female. Not all females at all stages of life are capable of producing eggs, but only those capable of producing eggs are females. Therefore, there are two and only two sex categories.

The deep reason for why there are two sexes is that cells are diploid (have two copies of each non-sex chromosome), and that DNA recombination, the core advantage of sex, requires the crossing over of two chromosomes during the cell division that produces sperm or eggs, known as meiosis. Disorders in sexual development (DSDs) which alter the number of copies of X or Y chromosomes, or induce other defects, also do not constitute a third sex.

Meiosis is found in all sexed organisms and generates gamete genetic diversity in two ways: (1) Independent Assortment. The independent orientation of homologous chromosome pairs in the stage labeled Meiosis I.(metaphase I) (2) Crossing Over. The physical exchange of homologous chromosomal regions by recombination during the second stage (prophase). Via

It is possible for a particularly severe DSD to mean that an animal’s or person’s sex cannot be clearly defined as one or the other. However, “not clearly defined” is not a reproductive class: it is an inability to define an organism’s reproductive class. Just as someone without hair cannot be said to have a hair color, not every human being necessarily has a well defined sex. But that does not mean the number of sexes or the nature of sex has changed. There is no reproductive role for “undefined sex”, or true hermaphrodites. Julia Serano does not mention the possibility that certain humans may not have a well defined sex. This is an example of a false choice fallacy.

Julia Serano adds,

And this is not merely a “trans perspective” on the matter; here is an article from Nature (one of the most respected science journals) arguing that, “The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.”

But the headline quote over-sells this non-peer reviewed news article — not everything hosted on Nature is a published paper. This article points out research which shows

  1. there are rare disorders whereby mosaics of cells in one organism can be male and others can be female
  2. mouse gonads can be changed from producing sperm to eggs.

There is no case being made, for more than two sexes existing, or for abandoning the idea male and female are distinct, binary entities. Indeed, if two sexes didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between male and female cells or gonads in these papers. The ability to induce a gonadal change in mice is an artificial inter-sex condition: unlike clownfish, which really do change sex, those mice whose gonads are being altered don’t go from having babies to siring them. Even if the researchers had induced mice to truly change sex, it wouldn’t change the binary nature of sex.

Sex Cannot Be Changed By Medical Intervention

The argument human sex can be changed by intervention is not convincing, for the following reasons.

Humans are mammals. Would we accept the argument that a hormonal or surgical change could change the sex of any other mammal? If you gave a ram, female hormones, we would not call it a ewe, just because some of its secondary sex characteristics had changed. Some dominant female hyenas take on male-appearing sexual characteristics, such as enlarged clitorises that resemble penises, but we also do not call them male hyenas.

There are some animals that are capable of changing sex and reproducing, such as clownfish. We would agree that artificially inducing a sex change in a clownfish, by triggering the appropriate biological pathways, does indeed count as a sex change by intervention. But that’s because we accept that clownfish are capable of changing sex (reproductive role) in the first place. It does not follow that humans can change sex.

Would we accept sex could be determined by medical intervention after birth, if transgender weren’t a factor? If a normal non-transgender male had his penis removed, due to cancer for example, we would not call him female. Transgender cannot be about biology, but a sense of identity.

The claim that slightly vague boundaries in classifying exactly who is male or female justify calling Serano or transwomen female, is also weak.

Would we accept an argument slightly vague boundaries meant a definition free-for-all in other biological concepts, like species? Serano’s argument applied to species, would be something like: “Not all dogs have exactly the same genome, four legs, a tail, look like a dog is expected to look, etc. Therefore, the concept of what is and isn’t a dog is complex and somewhat variable. Therefore, a sufficiently dog-like cat could be called a dog.” That would be a ridiculous claim.

And would we accept this vague-boundary argument for any other concept at all? “There is no clear boundary between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia; people can be found living at points in between both cities. Therefore, someone located in the heart of downtown Melbourne could be said to be living in Sydney.” Again, ridiculous!

Finally, let’s suppose that hypothetically, there were no intersex people. It’s not obvious why that would make transgender claims any less valid. Serano’s claim to be female arises from Serano’s desire to be considered a woman in as complete a way as possible, not from an observation that intersex people exist. This is motivated reasoning. Even if intersexed people did not exist, as long as there were biological males like Julia Serano, they would still be claiming to be female, using some other excuse.

Intersex Authorities Reject Transgender Comparisons

Intersex organizations have come out against attempts to use the existence of their condition for transgender advocacy. In the process, they draw a sharp distinction between a subjective transgender sense of internal gender identity and their unquestionably real biological condition, which has a well understood molecular biology basis. It is hard to see why we should prioritize transgender claims that the comparison to intersex is valid, over intersex persons who reject that comparison.

“Many people confuse transgender and transsexual people with people with intersex conditions because they see two groups of people who would like to choose their own gender identity and sometimes those choices require hormonal treatments and/or surgery. In spite of these similarities, these two groups should not be and cannot be thought of as one. The truth is that the vast majority of people with intersex conditions identify as male or female rather than transgender or transsexual. Thus, where all people who identify as transgender or transsexual experience problems with their gender identity, only a small portion of intersex people experience these problems. It’s also important to understand the differences between these two groups because in spite of some similarities they face many different struggles, including different forms of discrimination.“

“Intersex people do not self-identify their sex in the way that trans people do. Intersex is primarily about the body, not identity — we have inescapable differences of sex anatomy. This recommendation reduces sex to identity politics.”

“On the one hand, the conflation of intersexed and transgender experiences is confusing and wrong; ‘transgender’ is too vague to be useful. But on the other, the conflation of trans with intersex is [trans activists’] primary objective. Intersex people ‘really mess with the system’, so it’s a way of pursuing political objectives that have little to do with the reality of most intersex lives. The appropriation, and redefinition of intersex as a form of transgender identity is not a way to recognize and validate the lives of most intersex people; it’s a way of expressing trans as intersex. This is not a way to build community, but a way of destroying it.”

Claiming Essentialism Is Flawed, Is Flawed

The objection “biological sex is essentialist”, as though it negates the reality of sex, is wrong-headed. Biological sex is a concept made of components. So what? Every concept is essentialist. Acting as though a dining table exists beyond its constituent parts is essentialist, because we call the whole a table. Nonetheless, we aren’t abandoning the concept of tables. Thinking that Julia Serano exists beyond a pile of atoms located somewhere in California is essentialist, but Julia Serano isn’t arguing against the existence of Julia Serano. Even those individual atoms are an essentialist concept, since all an atom is, is an object with “atom-like properties”. What Serano calls essentialism is the ability to have ideas and talk about objects at an appropriate level of abstraction, and navigate the world. Essentialism is giving names to things and recognizing patterns. Essentialism is what intelligence is made of.

But there is an unreasonable essentialist claim here. It’s the notion that all transwomen are somehow “essentially female”, despite biological evidence to the contrary. If anyone can be a woman or female with no objective attributes, then being a woman or female has no meaning. The fact that being female or a woman is apparently completely non-material to Julia Serano is another reasonable objection.

Even If Serano Is Right About Sex, Most Transwomen Still Aren’t Female

Let’s imagine for a moment sex is not a single conceptual characteristic. Serano is implying sex could be thought of as a value, with perhaps five listed components: chromosomes, gonads, external genitals, ratio of sex hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. If we code 0 as female and 1 as male, we could say normal women “score” 0/5 and normal men score 5/5 out of these attributes.

What does the distribution of sex characteristics look like in non-trans people, if we’re willing to assign some intersexed people “partial” scores? We can get an idea from the Inter-Sex Association’s page on frequency. What does a histogram of one million non-trans people’s sex characteristics look like, based on this?

This is what the distribution of sex characteristics would look like in 1 million non-trans people. The US population is 50.8% female.

Not complicated, is it? What we have are two very, very well separated populations. Even when you zoom in on a scale where any disorders are visible, only a few tens out of a million, are truly sexually ambiguous. This tells you sex is well described as a binary characteristic. Effective descriptions should include what’s important, and not what isn’t. To ignore that principle is to miss the forest for the trees. Describing sex as non-binary is inappropriate outside of specifically discussing rare disorders that affect millionths of the population. The use of “sex is non-binary” rhetoric by trans activists like Julia Serano is politically, not scientifically, motivated.

This is what the distribution of sex characteristics looks like in 1 million non-trans people, zoomed in to the bottom 0.2%

When Julia Serano and other trans activists says that sex is neither simple nor straightforward, they are lying. Sex is as simple and straightforward as any other kind of bodily property, like the fact people have ten fingers.

For comparison, the incidence of people born with abnormal numbers of fingers and toes is between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1,000 in the US, similar to the number of people with abnormal numbers of sex chromosomes. If we aren’t lobbying glove manufacturers to accommodate strange numbers of fingers, or saying the number of fingers people have is a complex and hard-to-define matter, why is the transgender lobby trying to abolish the concept of biological sex?

Does it then make sense to accept transgender persons are the opposite sex as some claim to be?

What’s the distribution of sex characteristics within trans people? We can take figures from the National Trans Equality survey. This is the largest survey of its kind ever conducted in the US, a nation-wide survey of nearly 30,000 trans-identified people conducted in the summer of 2015, online and by post.

Of the sex characteristics Serano mentions, chromosomes and gonads (ovaries/testes) cannot be changed from female to male, while hormone balance, external genitals, and secondary characteristics (breasts, appearance, etc) might be. According to this survey, about 70% of transmen and transwomen are on hormones. While it does not distinguish males and females on hormones, let’s assume the proportions are similar: it won’t change the conclusion. So those on hormones have changed up to two out of five sex attributes: their ratio of sex hormones and secondary sex characteristics, to an extent. The proportion of transgender people who’ve changed their external genitalia is quite small. Only 12% of transwomen have had a vaginaplasty or labiaplasty, and 5% of transmen have had a metoidioplasty or phalloplasty. Generously, we’ll count all of these as true sex changes to genital characteristics. We can assume if they’ve had bottom surgery they’re also taking hormones.

This is roughly what the distribution of sex characteristics in US transmen and transwomen looks like. Does it make sense to say populations with these sex characteristics, should be called male and female respectively?

Even if you think of sex as not being absolutely binary and something that could be changed, it still doesn’t make sense to say transwomen are female. You could perhaps argue transwomen who’ve had vaginaplasties and been on HRT are “more biologically female than not”, but that ignores that many or most transwomen have not had that medical treatment, yet still wish to be called female. It also ignores the possibility they would be better described as having an undefined or poorly defined sex. Transgender activists oppose any such attempt to make a division of who is “truly trans”. There is no legal requirement for any particular treatment for a change of gender.

It makes still less sense to say non-binary people aren’t their biological sex observed at birth, since far fewer (14%) even take hormones, but Serano ignores non-binary people, too. Yet non-binary demands to not be considered either biological sex are also a common demand of the trans and non-binary activist movement.

The Brain-Sex Conjuring Trick: Serano Misrepresents Mind-Body Dualism

The recent furore over James Damore’s firing from Google sparked a public conversation about mental differences between men and women, with some psychologists saying personality differences are innate, and others disagreeing. This is a politically charged dispute. However, we don’t need to take a side in it, to reject transgender claims that they are biologically the opposite sex because they somehow have “brains of the opposite sex”.

Here is the thing. Brains do not have a sex. Brains do not have gonads or sexual organs. Brains do not reproduce sexually. Brains do not belong to a reproductive sex class. It does not make sense to say a brain can have a sex.

When trans activists say that brains can be sexed, what they mean is that males often, but not always, have a particular kind of brain and females often, but not always, have a different kind of brain. They then give these brains a label of male or female based on that tendency. They are labeling brains on a claimed relationship between the properties of the brain and the sex of the body that brain is in. The labels of male and female given to the brain mean something different to the words male and female used to describe sex. This is the key to why transgender “brain sex” arguments don’t make sense.

There is no oddity or mismatch about a so-called “male brain in a female body”. It is extremely important to distinguish the label of male applied to the brain, from the word male meaning biological sex. The word male in “male brain” does not refer to the sex of the brain, because brains don’t have a sex. It’s just a label, with no other implications. The idea there can be a “mismatch” between brain and body comes from an abuse of language in describing brains with the same set of words as biological sex. Using the words male and female for different concepts creates the fictitious appearance of a mismatch, a category error. That’s the transgender brain-sex conjuring trick, creating the nonsense of a “mismatched brain” out of nothing.

Julia Serano claims that the structure of the brain can be affected by your sex. But so what? As Serano points out themselves, many factors can affect the brain. It doesn’t change the biological fact of sex as the body’s reproductive class.

Julia Serano claims some scientific research shows transwomen may have more female-typical brains, but so what if transwomen have female-typical brains? It doesn’t mean there is any kind of mismatch, or that transwomen are female. That’s just the brain-sex conjuring trick. There is no reason to change the biological language we use to describe human sex.

There Is No Evidence Gender Identity Exists

Serano refers throughout to gender identity:

For the mind (which, in the case of trans women, would include our gender identities and lived experiences moving through the world as women)

More controversially, there is some evidence to suggest that our gender identities are influenced by biology.

when people go out of their way to use the clunky phrasing “biological male/female,” they are almost always attempting to contend that 1) biology trumps trans people’s gender identities and lived experiences

Gender identity is held to mean an internal sense of oneself as a man or woman. While Serano might have some different meaning in mind, the common sense of gender identity, as also defined in law above, is the one most people would think of.

The problem is, it’s not clear most people, or indeed anyone, has an innate, internal sense of themselves as a man or a woman, beyond simple knowledge their bodily sex is male or female. An important objection is philosophical: even if you did consciously feel like a man or a woman, given that other people’s internal states are inaccessible to all but the psychic, how could you know to label your feelings that way? Further, all known human senses have developed for clear evolutionary reasons, and aren’t unique to our species. What would be the advantage of evolving and maintaining an internal sense of being a man or a woman — particularly if the sole apparent manifestation of this sense is to occasionally produce distressing gender dysphoria? Has anyone ever seen a gender-dysphoric monkey?

How about the brain studies on transwomen that Serano quotes? First, in general, finding that a male had a “feminine-looking brain”, does not prove they could feel like a woman and be aware of it, for the reasons given in the paragraph above: nobody is psychic. Second, this study in particular is flawed; the results do not prove any males have innately “feminine” brains. Anne Lawrence, an expert in transsexual and transgender science, dissected this at length:

The simplest and most plausible explanation of the Zhou/Kruijver findings is that they are attributable, completely or predominantly, to the effects of cross-sex hormone therapy administered during adulthood. There is no longer any reason to postulate anything more complicated.

Quoting single studies in a complex field risks cherry-picking. A review of the neuroscience last year by Guillamon, cautiously validates a hypothesis on the etiology and typology of transgender articulated most clearly by the psychologist Ray Blanchard. Discussing Blanchard’s typology in depth would take us far astray, but Kay Brown has an accessible introduction. In short: male-to-female transgender persons appear to fall into two subtypes, first, homosexual transsexual, and second, autogynephilic. Both may have perfectly good reasons for seeking to transition, but in neither case, is there any reason to suppose the cause is an innate gender identity mismatch. For the case of female-to-male transgender persons, it is supposed that they may be analogous to the first subtype, but not the second.

Following this line of thought, Cantor (2011, 2012, but also see Italiano, 2012) has recently suggested that Blanchard’s predictions have been fulfilled in two independent structural neuroimaging studies. Specifically, Savic and Arver (2011) using VBM on the cortex of untreated nonhomosexual MtFs and another study using DTI in homosexual MtFs (Rametti et al., 2011b) illustrate the predictions. Cantor seems to be right. Nonhomosexual MtFs present differences with heterosexual males in structures that are not sexually dimorphic (Savic & Arver, 2011), while homosexual MtFs (as well as homosexual FtMs) show differences with respect to male and female controls in a series of brain fascicles (Rametti et al., 2011a, 2011b). If other VBM and CTh studies on the cortex of homosexual MtFs are added (Simon et al., 2013; Zubiaurre-Elorza et al., 2013), there is a more substantial number of untreated homosexual MtFs and FtMs that fulfill Blanchard’s prediction but still only one study on nonhomosexual MtFs; to fully confirm the hypothesis, more independent studies on nonhomosexual MtFs are needed.

[That is: it seems male-attracted transwomen, indeed, have “partially feminized brains”, like some gay men. But transwomen who are not exclusively attracted to men, appear to have brains typical of most males, and seem to have different motivations for transitioning. Gender identity is not required to explain these neurological observations.]

Serano goes on to say,

Even more persuasive is the fact that a majority of genetically male children who have been (without their knowledge) raise from birth as girls because they did not have a penis (due to botched circumcision, or the non-intersex condition cloacal exstrophy) eventually come to identify as boys and men, despite their gender socialization to the contrary.

These studies on cloacal exstrophy patients have been discussed by SocialJusticeWizard:

Out of the 14 individuals raised as girls, 4 announced they were male and 4 later chose to live as boys when they became aware of their genotype. The 2 individuals who were raised as males identified as males throughout life. […] The sexual behavior and attitudes of all 16 subjects ultimately reflected strong masculine characteristics regardless of gender assignment.

So: 14 males raised as girls, four later announced they were male. The problem with claiming that an innate sense of gender identity exists, is it immediately raises why all such male children raised as girls did not come to identify as boys or men. If 0.3% of males are transgender but all people have a sense of gender identity, then virtually all such males should do so, but instead, only 30% did. On the face of it, given cloacal exstrophy is not apparently related to any neurological issue, this seems to invalidate a claim that most people have an innate gender identity. Other reasons, such as awareness they had undergone sexual reassignment as infants, and strong personality differences resulting in identification as boys, could adequately explain those four who did transition back, without requiring any sense of gender identity to exist.

[Parenthetically, it is quite possible, for there to be a trend of innate differences in personalities and interests between males and females, without gender identity existing. The question is controversial, but all we need to say here is this is irrelevant to the question of gender identity. What would be bizarre is a claim there are no innate personality differences between males and females, yet innate gender identity exists — but this seems to be precisely the consensus left-liberal position! It is noteworthy that few trans activists have weighed in on the James Damore saga.]

In short, innate gender identity is a hypothesis not clearly supported by evidence. A reason for the popularity of the hypothesis may be the association of trans activism with gay rights: it must be politically useful that homosexual orientation and transgender identity have identical metaphysical properties. Both are discrete identities that a person can be said to have, one making someone gay, the other making someone transgender. Being protected by anti-discrimination law and anti-conversion therapy laws, transgender identity is now almost beyond question.

Sex Is Not Meaningfully Socially Constructed

Serano claims sex is socially constructed, which is to say, following the Wikipedia link Serano gives for the definition, “the natural world has a small or non-existent role” in the construction of sex. If biological sex is socially constructed, why has no transwoman ever given birth?

We’ve had sexes long before societies or cultures existed. Sexed organisms are billions of years old. In mammals, as Jerry Coyne pointed out,

if sex were purely a social construct, sexual selection wouldn’t work: males would look identical to females. That difference itself suggests that there’s a biological reality to sex, and that this biological reality — the correlation of chromosomal constitution with reproductive traits and with secondary sexual traits — is what has caused both behavioral and morphological differences between the sexes. If sex were purely a social construct, […] then male deer wouldn’t have antlers, male peacocks wouldn’t have long tails, human females wouldn’t have breasts, and human males wouldn’t have greater muscle mass and upper body strength.

It’s debatable that as Serano says, “our definition of sex, and the way that we categorize people into sexes, is determined by society and our assumptions about how the world works”, but are there any definitions of which this couldn’t be said? Is an electron a cultural construct? A housebrick? A cat? A sociologist or a cultural theorist could argue these are social constructs by virtue of the fact we have social reasons for wanting to define these concepts. A claim this vague is not useful. So: why single out biological sex in particular?

Sexism Must Be On The Basis Of Sex, Not Gender

Julia Serano claims that men oppress women on the basis of gender, rather than sex — that is, apparently, sex-stereotypic behavior. To make this claim, Serano says

many other expressions of sexism target traits that fall under the realm of gender (e.g., accusations that women are not mentally or constitutionally fit for leadership positions, comments deriding feminine gender expression, etc.).

This is a strange thing to say, because these supposed female gender traits are held to be the direct result of being biologically female, and thus, discrimination against them, must constitute oppression on the basis of perceived sex. [Moreover, it’s not clear why sexist standards would penalize “feminine gender expression”, as opposed to enforcing it, in women; you can’t oppress women for both being stereotypically feminine and for being unfeminine, if the basis of that oppression isn’t simply being female.] Many feminists claim the reverse is true: feminine gender expression is something imposed on women, and they are oppressed for not conforming. This seems to be irreconcilable: either transwomen face sexism on the basis of feminine behavior, or women are oppressed by the expectation to conform to that standard. Serano:

Feminism is a movement to end sexism. Trans women face sexism. Ergo, trans women have a stake in feminism.

In general, a passing transwoman could be the victim of sexism, without changing the fact sexism is directed against women on the basis they are female. Feminism is held to be a women’s liberation movement, and thus, whether transwomen should be included depends on whether they are women. That cannot be decided on the basis of whether they face sexism, which is a matter of others’ perception, not internal identity. And not all transwomen have to behave in a feminine way, if being a transwoman is about internal identity or about biological changes to the body. Yet Serano implies all transwomen have a stake in feminism; presumably if we said to some transwomen that if they do not pass for female or do not behave in a certain way, they do not have a stake in feminism, this would be considered offensive.

If Transwomen Are Female, This Robs Humans Of Language To Describe Themselves

Is it more reasonable to place Julia Serano and transwomen generally, into the male reproductive class, the female reproductive class, or the third option Serano does not mention, undefined sex? Consider these points.

  1. Are transwomen born as unambiguous members of the male reproductive class? In general, yes.
  2. Have transwomen often acted as members of the male reproductive class, quite often fathering children? Yes.
  3. Do transwomen often have penises, testes, male gonads? Yes.
  4. Are there transwomen who are, as far as anyone can tell, indistinguishable from non-trans males? Yes.
  5. Is there any reason to suspect mammals are capable of changing sex, or that humans are no longer members of the mammal family? No. It’s true that some fish do change sex, but our ancestors parted ways with our fishy cousins 290 million years ago.
  6. Have transwomen changed their capability to reproduce to that of females? Or are transwomen capable of producing eggs, being fertilized, gestating a fetus or giving birth? Although this might change, in the far future, for now the answer is a definite no.
  7. Have some transwomen lost some physical aspects of being members of the male reproductive class? In many cases, yes, as they have grown breasts, had their facial hair removed, had orchiectomies, or been given neovaginas. But even if we accept some transwomen are no longer unambiguously male, it does not follow they must be considered female. That is a false choice. Femaleness is not absence of maleness. Being female is a distinct reproductive role. If we do not call transwomen male, it is more reasonable to say their sex is not well defined than to say they are female.
  8. Do transwomen appear to be female? In some cases, yes. But this does not mean transwomen are female. Appearances do not always dictate reality. We do not call the mimic octopus seaweed, when it is doing its seaweed impression. Many transwomen also do not pass as female: their political demand to be considered women or female, generally, is not based on appearance or ability to pass.
  9. Do passing transwomen sometimes suffer from sexism based on that perception of being female? Sometimes, surely. But that also does not make them female.
  10. If transwomen weren’t claiming to be female, but claiming to be a “third gender” class of males, or of undefined sex, would anyone else have made that claim on their behalf? What is the compelling, objective reason we would consider this argument at all outside of transgender politics? But no objective category of person can be based on self-declaration.

If nonetheless we insist Julia Serano, and transwomen generally, are in the female reproductive class, what does this imply about our ability to discuss human biology?

  1. Human females can have penises and male gonads and produce sperm and father children
  2. There is such a thing as a female penis and female sperm
  3. Human females do not have any particular chromosomal arrangement, physiology or endocrine makeup or reproductive role
  4. There is no objective way to decide whether any human is female or not.
  5. Therefore, being female is simply a matter of the person declaring they are female, which is meaningless.
  6. Therefore, the words male and female do not refer to anything in particular, in humans, except perhaps as social honorifics.

If the words male and female no longer refer to anything, they are scientifically and medically useless. If we declare Julia Serano and transwomen in general female then we have abandoned a meaningful concept of male and female in humans. Declaring transwomen as female, takes away language for women (female humans) to describe themselves and their bodies. Generally, it deprives humans of the language to describe their experience and needs as sexed beings, and to understand the world.

Furthermore, how do we know the grand project of abolishing male and female, will stop with humans? It’s hard to say humans are animals, that all animals (and plants) have sexes based on chromosomes, yet somehow humans don’t have sexes as other animals do. Why would humans be an exception when they don’t look exceptional at all in the realm of biological sex? It’s easy to see a mechanism for a true slippery slope, whereby it becomes controversial to discuss biological sex anywhere. Which leads to…

Trans Activists Do Actually Want To Erase Biological Sex

Julia Serano says,

I can assure you that trans people are highly aware of biological sex differences — the fact that many of us physically transition demonstrates that we acknowledge that sexually dimorphic traits exist and may be important to some people!

But the question isn’t whether trans people are aware of biological sex differences — they have eyes to see. The question is whether they’re willing to allow us to talk about biological sex.

Sex and gender are complicated phenomena, and language is imperfect. I personally have no problems with people talking broadly about “female anatomy” or “women’s reproductive rights,” so long as they aren’t purposely trying to erase transgender and intersex people in the process […] I (and virtually all other trans people) have absolutely no qualms with women talking about their vaginas or other body parts, provided that they are not asserting that these sex attributes apply to all women, or denying the fact that some men may possess them as well.

Coming from someone who has argued anything less than absolute precision in biological language means current definitions should be abandoned, this seems sloppy. If Julia Serano truly believes all transwomen are women and biologically female, then we cannot talk about female anatomy or women’s reproductive rights. Even if Serano is willing to be ideologically inconsistent, others might not. A more dogmatic trans activist could say,

There is no such thing as female anatomy, because female people can have any kind of anatomy. There is no such thing as women’s reproductive rights, because men can have abortions and women can produce sperm. There is no reason to associate women with vaginas, because anyone can have a vagina. We should use inclusive language, and that means we should not use any sex based language to refer to anatomy or biology. Any claim otherwise is cisnormative, oppressive, and transphobic; it erases transgender persons.

Transgender activist logic puts our heads in the guillotine; even if Julia Serano has kindly promised they will not personally release the blade, we can still worry someone else will.

Is this more than hypothetical? Yes. The deconstruction of female and woman as biological concepts is well under way in the medical field. The British Medical association recommends referring to “pregnant people”, and US non-profits recommend “chest feeding”. The logic is inexorable: who can say no to being trans inclusive?

Where else are trans activists redefining our consensus reality? The cotton ceiling wars, where transgender re-definitions of male and female are remarkably successfully, re-writing the nature of gay and lesbian identity. Obviously, sexual orientation as an attraction to men or women on the basis of biological sex, cannot co-exist with identity as a man or woman on the basis of an internal gender identity. Sexual orientation as a concept may become obsolete or widely seen as bigoted.

The erasure of gay and lesbian as concepts is a logical consequence of the definition and legal recognition of gender identity.

Even though most transgender people likely don’t want to erase our ability to talk about biology, the problem is that activists often do, and nobody appears to want to stop them. It is a mistake to characterize groups only by their average member: extremes matter, especially in politics.

After shock, anger and denial, comes bargaining. Can we have any other words that mean women or female? “Biological female” is, according to Serano and other activists, transphobic. How about AFAB, assigned female at birth? Leave aside that this is a lie — sex is observed, not assigned, outside of rare DSDs. But not absolutely all female humans are “assigned” female at birth, either. Trans advocates often say children should not be assigned anything at birth — such as this child, if it’s female.

How about cis women? But transmen and nonbinary females are also female. And genderfluid, and agender, and any other Tumblr-influenced neologism. There is no finite set of words that cover the exact same set of humans as female human.

How about vagina havers? But not all female humans have vaginas; vaginectomies for cancer are rare, but exist, and so do women born without vaginas, and so do transmen who have phalloplasties. The same goes for all anatomical descriptions, no matter how gross and disturbing.

[Could we make up a new word? No. If we declared all female humans schnargles, transwomen would declare themselves trans-schnargles. “Trans-schnargles are schnargles!”.]

We have to conclude the end point of trans activism is where we are forbidden to refer to the set of female humans. The demand is not that “transwomen are women”, or even that “transwomen are female” after all. It’s that women (female humans) must not be said to exist, by any word. This is a strange and sinister thing. It’s blasphemy by way of set theory. We’ve seen forbidden speech and even forbidden numbers; now we have forbidden sets.

How do you talk about women’s healthcare, in this brave new world? This is from the World Health Organization “Ten top issues for women’s health”:

Cancer: Two of the most common cancers affecting women are breast and cervical cancers.

Reproductive health: Sexual and reproductive health problems are responsible for one third of health issues for women between the ages of 15 and 44 years. Unsafe sex is a major risk factor — particularly among women and girls in developing countries.

Maternal health: In 2013, almost 300 000 women died from complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Violence against women: Today, one in three women under 50 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner, or non-partner sexual violence — violence which affects their physical and mental health in the short and long-term.

Mental health: Evidence suggests that women are more prone than men to experience anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints — physical symptoms that cannot be explained medically. Depression is the most common mental health problem for women and suicide a leading cause of death for women under 60.

Getting older: Having often worked in the home, older women may have fewer pensions and benefits, less access to health care and social services than their male counterparts.

Simply, you can’t rewrite this to be trans inclusive. Without a concept of women as female humans, the World Health Organization’s web page on women’s health cannot exist. In a fully trans-inclusive world, it would need to be split into innumerable pages, each referring to “vagina havers”, “cervix havers”, “people with breasts”, “people capable of giving birth”, “people who identify as women”, to maintain the transgender pretence these concepts have nothing to do with one another. Certain concepts such as women’s mental health, women in the workplace, and issues around women ageing might not be speakable at all. Wouldn’t that be harmful to women?

How do you talk about something really fundamental, like this passage from Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th Edition:

The set of chromosomes of a typical sexually-reproducing organism consists of autosomes, which are common to all members of the species, and sex chromosomes, which are differently allocated according to the sex of the individual. A diploid nucleus contains two closely similar versions of each chromosome. For each of the autosomal chromosome pairs, one member was initially inherited from the male parent (a paternal chromosome) and the other was initially inherited from the female parent (a maternal chromosome).

This basic description of the reproductive biology common to all sexed plants and animals fails entirely to be transgender-inclusive, but relies on transphobic concepts such as biological sex, male and female. Even describing meiosis is transphobic. What are we to do, burn the biology books and smash the microscopes? Gender ideology poses a mortal threat to our ability to describe all complex life on earth.

Are we really to do all this in order to keep a small number of transgender activists in their Emperor’s New Clothes? But that’s where their logic leads, which so many governments, laws and institutions have swallowed whole. Whether industrialized human civilization can survive a successful transgender activist movement, is admittedly an interesting thought experiment.

Conclusion: Killing Words

Protesters against Prof. Jordan Peterson, who refuses to use non-binary pronouns:

If humans weren’t social, we wouldn’t need words. Words are the currency of meaningful communication; words mean what everyone decides they mean. Because our societies are governed by laws, which are made of words, the government must enforce the legal meaning of particular words. That can mean firing, fining, imprisoning or even killing those who disagree. Law must be backed, finally, by state willingness to kill, even laws about street parking hours and transgender pronouns. That is why laws are serious things.

I do not know of anyone who has been imprisoned or killed for refusing to call a transwoman she or a nonbinary person zie or they. However, the threat of legal enforcement of transgender claims in human rights legislation, restricts discussion and criticism of trans ideology in academic and corporate life. These legal threats drive censorship in corporate owned social media — our early 21st century version of public life.

A sufficiently determined government has wide power to dictate meaning. The French government enforces courrier electronique to prevent the English word email corrupting the French language. However, even the United States Government and its nuclear arsenal cannot escape a logical contradiction. Decreeing that males are female, will not change biology, human reproduction, or medical needs. Very probably, it will not change human nature, social stereotypes and attitudes around biological sex. What laws being promoted by trans activists might do is stop us from being able to communicate about these things, which will lead to widespread harm.

Effective criticism of transgender laws and policies is already quite limited due to institutional and corporate censorship. We cannot stop the British, Australian, Canadian or American governments from declaring that Julia Serano and all transwomen are biologically female. We also may not be able to stop these entities enforcing that claim and all that follows from it, even to the extent of destroying biological science, persecuting women, and imprisoning and killing people. But we can anticipate consequences of changing the meaning of these words, and of leaving women (female adult humans) without specific words to describe themselves.

Controversies over the transgender movement can often be seen as a territorial dispute over particular words. Like national disputes, these have a zero-sum character. If the words woman and female are useful to transwomen to refer to themselves, they cannot be useful to women (female humans) as a word that specifically refers to themselves while excluding non-women (men) and non-females (males). But humans very often need to refer to one another as men and women, male and female, in legal, social, sexual, biological and medical contexts.

We need to be able to communicate, and to do that, we have to agree what words mean. If we can’t decide what these words mean in a given context, and we can’t agree to disagree, then we have a problem. Transgender claims have set up a social conflict that will not go away, and cannot foreseeably stop escalating. At present, the conflict over transgender definitions is like a tsunami wave far out in the ocean: few are affected, beyond lesbians, some feminists, vulnerable children and teens, and the kind of social conservatives who always worry about liberal social changes. But under the surface, something vast and unignorable has fractured. We’ll see when the wave hits.


I assigned each of the most common DSDs a score out of 5 for male to female, on: chromosomes, gonads, external genitals, ratio of sex hormones, and secondary sex characteristics, coding 0 as female and 1 as male. The score I’m assigning for sex characteristics for each DSD will be somewhat debatable, but should nonetheless give some idea of the distribution of very severe and mild DSDs.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store