The Trump Administration Wants to Define a Person’s Sex at Birth. It’s Just Not That Simple
A memo circulating through the Trump Administration proposes that several government agencies should define sex as “a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” according to the New York Times. This definition is a blunt instrument that, along with its cruel dismissal of the transgender population, fundamentally misunderstands the scientific nature of a person’s sex.
Sex is not so binary as we have assumed. A small but substantial portion of the population is born with intersex traits, including atypical sex development and sometimes genital and chromosomal ambiguity. This has been the case from the dawn of humanity, as some religious traditions have recognized; for instance, the Talmud, an ancient body of Jewish law and commentary, established rules for how to handle such ambiguity.
Consider this example: Some babies are born with female genitals but have XY (typically male) chromosomes. Since we don’t commonly test chromosomes at birth, such children are raised as girls, and in fact they develop female secondary characteristics at puberty. Many happily identify as women and are surprised when they find out their XY genetic make-up. Would these women now be forced to change their gender identity and become men? Clearly, this ill-considered proposal would confound science and human experience.
Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.