So I know lots of people make a difference between “sex” (the biological aspects) and “gender” (the social aspects). And a lot of people also make a distinction between “gender identity” (the way you feel inside) and what you might call “social gender”. However, I think that there’s another distinction a lot of people are failing to make, which is making their discussion about transness hopelessly confusing.

Specifically, there is a difference between what you might call “gender role” or “gender performance” or “gender expression”, and what gender people tend to read you as.

Let me give an example. I think everyone would agree that Big Boo from Orange Is The New Black presents herself in a masculine way:

Big Boo from Orange Is The New Black.

However, if you’re like most people, you also instantly recognize her as a woman. You are not confused about this point by her short hair, tattoos, and masculine clothing. Similarly, this lovely man from His Black Dress is clearly recognizable as a man:

Now, you might say “Ozy, we are not recognizing anything about their gender! We’re recognizing their sex! Big Boo is obviously a member of the female sex, while the guy who runs His Black Dress is obviously of the male sex.” I could argue that you can’t tell whether Big Boo happens to have XY chromosomes without a blood test, but then you can’t tell that my father is my genetic father without a blood test either, and yet you can still come to a pretty good guess. The idea that trans women are ‘pretending’ to be women suggests that most people are very upset when their guess about what sex someone is is different from what sex they ‘really’ are. (Of course, most trans women are a different sex from cis men, because they have female-typical hormone balances.)

Still, in a biological sense, the female is the one who produces ova (even if she produced sperm in the past, such as in species that change sex). However, a woman who had ovarian cancer and had to have her ovaries removed would be considered a woman by everyone, including those who deny that intersex and trans people are women or that there are more than two sexes in humans. So I think even in that case they must admit that they’re not just looking at the biological definition of sex.

Trans people engage in a lot of activism about what gender people read other people as. Some people are engaged in very idealistic activism in which you are not supposed to identify other people as a gender until you ask them about their internal feelings. More practical trans advocates suggest that people tend to prioritize easily changed signifiers (such as wearing lipstick) over signifiers impossible to change (such as height) and be more willing to change their minds if it turns out they’ve made a mistake. (Note that everyone believes it’s okay to change if you’ve made a mistake– it would be a very strange person who continued to call a long-haired man ‘she’ once he turned around and saw his full beard.)

Now, I have seen a lot of people say something like “‘male’ should be an adjective that refers to sex, while ‘masculine’ should be an adjective that refers to gender.” However, having this distinction shows why that’s not a good idea. Big Boo is uncontroversially a woman; she happens to be a masculine woman. It is not useful to remove our ability to make a distinction between what gender a person is usually read as and how well they conform to the expectations of the gender they are usually read as.

Furthermore, I’ve seen a lot of people confused about what socially dysphoric trans people want: they helpfully inform us that girls can do anything boys can do and that you can just be a butch girl if you want! Other people seem to believe that trans people have being referred to by the phonemes ð eɪ as a rather ludicrous terminal value. Of course, that’s not the point. Socially dysphoric trans people may or may not have preferences about the expectations associated with the gender they’re usually read as, but they always have a preference about what gender people read them as.

Similarly, I have seen people express confusion about the idea that “woman” and “she” refer to social role, not biology, because most people do not feel much temptation to refer to a masculine cis woman as a man (except to criticize her gender-non-conformity). Hillary Clinton is fairly masculine: she’s a driven, aggressive, hawkish, ambitious, ruthless, powerful woman who is running for President. But imagine that Hillary Clinton had an intersex condition– perhaps complete androgen insensitivity syndrome— that she hasn’t told the country about.

And the fact that Hillary Clinton is typically read as female allows one to do all sorts of useful inference, even if she were intersex. For instance, it allows one to draw conclusions about the likelihood of the following events:

  • She is called a ‘bitch’.
  • She wears a dress in public.
  • She is referred to with female pronouns.
  • If she becomes President, it is considered historic.
  • People will accuse people disliking her of being sexist.
  • People who dislike her will actually be sexist.
  • Donald Trump will make horrifyingly sexist comments about her.
  • She feels the need to signal being especially tough and hawkish to make up for her gender.
  • And so on and so forth

Conversely, if I found out that Hillary Clinton had CAIS, I can’t imagine that much inference it would allow me to do (other than purely social things like “she probably wants to hide it” and “if it came out people would call her ‘really a man'”). I guess I would assume Chelsea was probably adopted? But personally how many “Hillary Clinton Is The Democratic Nominee: What This Means For America” thinkpieces I’m going to have to scroll past on Facebook makes a lot more difference to my actual life.

One’s biological sex is relevant in relatively few circumstances– mostly prospective sexual partners, doctors, and knowing who’s likely to be sympathetic when you start complaining about period cramps. However, what gender people see you as is relevant in a whole bunch of circumstances– ranging from “how likely is it that you’re going to get catcalled on the street?” to “as a child, did you spend time planning your weddings with your friends?” Admittedly, it is somewhat weird that the category “man” is defined as “person whom most people consider to be a man.” But it clearly is an empirically existing cluster which allows one to conclude things about the people who have it. (I am reminded of Ursula K Le Guin’s planet of O, which has the moieties of Morning and Evening, which are defined in a similarly self-referential way but also clearly socially important.) Unfortunately, one problem with defining the word “man” to refer to “a person who is considered to be a man” is that there’s a bit of a bootstraps problem– everyone has to consider a trans man a man before he can be a man.