Stop Calling Trans Women “Male” (Gender Analysis 07)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Calling trans women “male” is like the background noise of transphobia. It comes from many directions, and it’s pretty much constant. On one level, it’s a lazy invalidation of who and what we are, offered up by armchair biology fans who insist that trans women are always and forever “male”. On another, it’s unwittingly perpetuated rhetoric by people trying to provide 101-level explanations of what it means to be transgender while unaware that they may be causing even more confusion. And, of course, it’s overtly weaponized as a rallying cry of those looking to keep our genders from being recognized and protected under the law.

But this concept of physical sex as permanent and inescapable is actually incomplete, inaccurate, and irrelevant. Are trans women really “male” in any way that matters? I don’t think so.


“Genderbread” people and unintended transphobia

In recent years, a diagram called the “genderbread person” has become especially popular as a visual explanation of how gender, physical sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all separate axes that can operate independently. The diagram uses the genital area to represent “physical sex”, and the brain to represent “gender identity”. This representation is incredibly misleading.

Treating genitals as synonymous with “physical sex” does a disservice to both biology and terminology. Physical sex is a broad concept that encompasses many sex-differentiated features of the body. It’s not as if we have no evidently sexed features until we take our pants off. And this also doesn’t actually reflect the common understanding of what it means to be trans. If physical sex were defined by the genitals, then a trans woman who has genital reconstruction would then have both a gender and a “physical sex” that are considered female. Would that mean she’s not trans anymore?

This sharp separation of “physical sex” and “gender” reflects a flawed belief that our physical sex is constant regardless of our gender. It serves as an excuse to regard us as still being male. We often hear well-meaning people describe trans women with phrases such as “their physical sex is male and their gender is female”. Unfortunately, not-so-well-meaning people tend to hear this as “man who thinks he’s a woman”.

Illustrating our gender as being limited to the mind suggests that it’s all in our heads, as if it’s a mere whim that can’t be seen or felt, and probably isn’t that important anyway. The isolation of our gender from our physical sex gives the impression that the physical changes of transitioning are irrelevant, and that we’re just forever “male” regardless of whether our bodies reflect that.


Scientific facts: the “delusion” delusion

When we question the labeling of trans women as “male”, we’re often told that this is simply a “scientific fact”, and disputing this would mean engaging in a “delusion” or “denying reality”. But none of these things are actually the case. It’s not a scientific fact that our bodies are male. It’s a fact that a penis is a penis, and XY chromosomes are XY chromosomes. But calling these things “male” is a choice of terminology.

A label isn’t even in the same ballpark as an empirical finding – there are no scientific papers with conclusions along the lines of “therefore, we have found strong evidence that people with penises are male”. And there are no aspects of biology that depend on labeling these features as “male”. If we referred to penises and XY chromosomes as female, would that actually require revising or overturning any physical facts or scientific findings? No. Would it mean denying that a trans woman’s penis is a penis and a trans woman’s vagina is a vagina? No.

We’re only “delusional” to those who fail to differentiate between a state of reality and the categories we use to describe this. Revising a map does nothing to change the underlying territory. Trans people know this, but transphobes seem to struggle with it – really, who’s deluding themselves here?


Brushing up on biology

The broad description of trans women’s bodies as “male” ignores many facts about physical sexual characteristics. The presence of XY chromosomes is often cited as a justification to mark our bodies as irrevocably male, but features of physical sex are hardly limited to XX or XY. Some of this may simply be due to a lack of understanding of how the expression of sex characteristics actually works.

The reality is that almost everyone has both testosterone and estrogen in their bodies, and almost everyone’s cells are capable of responding to a deficit or surplus of these hormones. Estrogen activates estrogen receptors, and this leads to the expression of certain genes that ultimately produce secondary sex characteristics such as breast growth, softer skin, reduced body hair, greater fat storage, and less muscle than that produced by testosterone. Again, almost everyone has these genes regardless of gender and regardless of sex chromosomes. This is why hormone therapy works for trans people: changing the balance of sex hormones produces the desired physical changes.

When these concepts are misunderstood, it can lead to some pretty ridiculous arguments. Transphobes often claim that we’ll never have XX chromosomes, not realizing that their presence or absence makes no practical difference when it comes to transitioning. We’re described as having “hormonally-grown breasts” by those who don’t understand that all breast development is due to hormones in trans women and cis women alike. This is like calling a grown man “really a child” who’s only “cosmetically adult” because of “hormonally-induced puberty”. The changes in our bodies are called “superficial”, “cosmetic” and “artificial” by those who don’t realize that we’re making use of the same biological pathways of development as cis people.


Outdated models: chosen to serve transphobia

Picking one feature that lends itself to labeling our bodies as “male” becomes a rather suspect choice when the rest of our bodies indicates otherwise. And if you’re only calling trans women “male” because you’ve chosen only to look at the parts that allow you to call trans women “male”, that’s circular. It isn’t a firmly established scientific argument – it’s a last resort.

Calling trans women “male” is often an intentional choice meant to promote public fear and advance discriminatory laws. Claims that “males” will be able to use women’s restrooms serve to associate us with crimes committed by cis men, treating us as if we’re a threat because of what cis men have done. The term “male” is used here because transphobes know that if they said “trans women,” their argument wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They’ve grouped us under the same umbrella based on a shared feature that trans women explicitly disavow and actively work to move away from. But transphobes don’t care about that, because “allowing males in women’s restrooms” evokes suspicion and discomfort in every way that “allowing women in women’s restrooms” doesn’t.


Trans women are female

Many people don’t like it when trans women call ourselves female because it undermines the forms of transphobia that rely on thinking of us as men. It takes away that asterisk and removes one of the ways of marking us as less legitimate in our womanhood. It dissolves the arguments that link us to cis men based on this one tenuous, dishonest connection.

For some, calling us “male” is just an innocent mistake and it doesn’t come from a bad place. For others, it’s not so innocent. But no matter the reason, stop and think about what you’re doing. Trans women being “male” is not a fact. It’s just a really thoughtless thing to say.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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3 Responses to Stop Calling Trans Women “Male” (Gender Analysis 07)

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