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What Gender is Not

5 Things That Don't Necessarily Determine Gender


"[O]ur notion of what a human being is," philosopher Judith Butler once remarked, "problematically depends on there being two coherent genders." The trouble is that the more we look at gender, the more clear it becomes that it is a cultural tradition--overlapping with, but not lining up neatly with, biology. Biological sex, which is itself a false binary concept, does not necessarily determine gender.

1. Visible body differences do not necessarily determine gender.

Body size is not perfectly gender-correlated; neither are hair growth and vocal tone. You can't tell someone is male by looking for an Adam's apple, because some women have them. Some men have breasts, and some women don't. The difference between a penis and a clitoris can become insignificant if the former is hypotrophic and/or the latter hypertrophic, particularly for people who are intersex. And this is before we bring up gender reassignment surgery.

2. Chromosomes do not necessarily determine gender.

Most women have two X chromosomes, and most men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, but this is not universally true. Many men have two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome; some men, and women, have as many as three X chromosomes; some men have two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome; and some women have a Y chromosome.

3. Fertility does not necessarily determine gender.

While reliable statistics on the incidence of infertility are hard to come by, CDC data suggests that about 10% of the childbearing-age population is infertile--though not necessarily untreatably so. But every woman who has had a hysterectomy is infertile, as is every woman who has experienced menopause; and men, for their part, see their sperm counts decline with age.

4. Neuropsychiatry does not necessarily determine gender.

While much research has been conducted on aggregate differences between "the male brain" and "the female brain," gender is not an ironclad predictor of neurophysiology--and even when it does successfully predict brain patterns, there is no evidence that gender differences in neurophysiology are due to anything other than cultural conditioning.

5. Biology, in general, does not necessarily determine gender.

It is not my business in this article to say what does define gender, but it isn't a cut-and-dried issue that science can easily resolve. Even if we completely disregard the legitimacy of transsexual identity, which would be an unscientific and intellectually lazy thing to do, there is more than enough evidence to cast doubt on the argument that gender is an inevitable byproduct of a person's natural biology. It would be more accurate to say that gender is a label we give people to keep things simple, to the benefit of people who are comfortable with their assigned genders and to the detriment of people who are not.
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