I often explain to people that physical sex is a spectrum. But what does that mean? Well, to understand, lets talk about color instead.
Colors exist on a spectrum. Nature gives us the rainbow, each color sliding into the next. So, how many colors are there?
Of course, there’s no “correct” answer. Some societies don’t even have a word for color, and describe an object’s color by analogy: “that ball resembles ginger flowers.” Some societies name a binary: dark or light. Some name three color categories: dark, light, or red. In Western civilization, Aristotle stated there were seven colors: black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Today, Western science names a different seven as constituting the color spectrum, revealed when a prism splits light into a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.” ROY G. BIV,” as you may have learned at school.
I know that when I learned ROY G. BIV, it was in science class, and I presumed there was an objective reason for scientists to divide the spectrum into 7 colors. But there isn’t. Isaac Newton established these 7 colors during his research with prisms in the 1700s. He added two colors that Aristotle didn’t see in the rainbow: orange and indigo. Orange wasn’t a color recognized in European languages until the introduction of the sweet orange fruit around 1500. Newton added indigo because it was extremely significant as a color reserved for European royalty at the time, made from rare, very expensive dyes.
Today, when children in the U.S. learn to name colors, they learn to recognize orange—but not indigo. Dark blue-purple is no longer culturally significant—it’s not fabulously expensive to dye cloth such a color, and there are no longer special colors reserved for the nobility. And when you look at the contemporary classic rainbow flag, you’ll see it only pictures six colors, not seven, having abandoned indigo:
As I believe will be clear by now, there is no “correct number of colors” in the rainbow. In reality, the rainbow is a continuous phenomenon, blending across the spectrum. We can choose to cut it into five color categories, or seven, or a thousand.
Still, though the dividing lines are social and subjective, they do have power. As someone raised in the U.S., playing with the classic Crayola basic set of 8 large crayons for young children, I was taught to recognize blue and purple, but not indigo. And I just don’t see it in the natural spectrum, or it seems to me odd that we would name a tiny slice of the rainbow indigo, but not name the wider band of turquoise I see when I eyeball one:
This brings to mind some family history. Throughout my entire youth, my mother and her own mother had a running argument about whether turquoise was a type of green, or a type of blue. They would sometimes try to rope others into their lifelong debate, one demanding, “Look at the stone on this necklace; you agree with me that it’s blue, right?” Or “Look at this shirt—don’t you agree it is green?”
By the time I was 6 or 7, it was clear to me that this was a pointless debate. Turquoise is a color that is intermediate between blue and green. You could say my mother and grandmother were both right—turquoise is sort of green, but it’s also sort of blue. Or you could say they were both wrong. Both were able to identify turquoise as distinct from “regular” blue or green. Either way, arguing about it was a waste of time. Enjoy the pendant, appreciate the shirt, and stop trying to force their color into different boxes for adjacent ones considered more "pure"!
A friend told me that their sisters always argued about whether saffron should be considered “really yellow” or “really orange.” (It’s a yellow-orange color.) So it’s not just my relatives. You, however, may never have encountered such a debate. But imagine if you grew up instead in one of the world societies that just divides colors into a binary of “light” and “dark.” You can bet there’d be a lot more arguing, if you and your family were forced to negotiate whether to place a pile of color swatches into the light or dark pile! Maybe you’d agree that a crimson swatch goes in the dark pile, while pastel pink goes in the light pile. But what about a bright magenta?
I bet my family would debate such a color-sorting task into
a binary of light and dark for hours! Or really, for life, since that is what they did with the color turquoise.
Dividing a spectrum up into a binary is extremely arbitrary. It’s bad enough doing it with color swatches. But you know what's worse? Trying to do it with people.
We’ve had battles over this for centuries now, when it comes
to people’s colors. In reality, human skin comes in a wide spectrum of colors of beige and tan
and brown and sepia. But in the U.S., under racial slavery, people were divided instead
into a binary of black versus white, in areas colonized by the British. In Louisiana,
colonized by the French, a 5-category spectrum of black/white racial categories
was used (black, mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, white). In the West and
Southwest, colonized by the Spanish, a rubric of mestizaje was used
to define a 16-caste spectrum of privilege, depending on a person's blood quantum of Spanish,
Indigenous, and African ancestry. These French and Spanish systems were both white supremacist,
but they recognized different degrees of privilege and marginalization.
However, in the East and South, colonized by the British, a person was assigned
to a binary of “black” or “white,” subjected to or free from racial enslavement.
But where to draw the line separating the privileged from the oppressed? To ensure that a when slaveholder impregnated a person he enslaved, he produced, not an heir to his property, but a child considered his human property, the British colonies devised the “one-drop rule.” This said that anyone with “one drop” of African blood was black. After generations of such impregnation, by the time of the Civil War, many enslaved “black” people were mostly European by ancestry, and might have lighter skin than many people classified as “white.” All of the individuals in this photo, for example, were enslaved until the end of the Civil War, and classified as “black”:
We in the U.S. today inherit this history. Most African Americans have at least some European ancestry. And Americans continue to see people with mixed European and African ancestry as “black”, even when they are very pale of skin.
That said, today many more Americans of mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds are rejecting a binarized vision of race, and claiming their mixed heritage. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census finally allowed Americans to check off more than one race/ethnicity to identify themselves, and the number of people doing this has surged. Many people are relieved and proud to be able to have the rich complexity of their backgrounds recognized. They want to locate themselves on the vast spectrum of human ancestry positions. They want to say no to participating in arguments over whether, for example, a person whose mother is Korean and whose father is Nigerian is “really Asian” or “really Black.”
And here’s where we get to intersex people. Today, a child born in the U.S. must be identified on their birth certificate as being either “male” or “female.” Physical sex is legally defined by a binary, and we are taught in our high school biology classes that this is scientific fact. But that is false. Sex, like the rainbow or the range of human skin colors, is a spectrum. There exist a wide range of intersex positions on the sex spectrum. Chromosomes, hormones, genitals, and gonads can each vary independently. There are many genotypes other than XX or XY (XXY, XXYY, Xo, XX/XY, etc.). People of all sexes all make, and need, the full range of sex steroids (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, etc.), and the balance of these hormones varies widely. People are born with a full spectrum of phalloclitoral forms between the expected norms of penis or vulva. All of this is true of all animals as well. The sex spectrum is a part of nature.
But Euro-American society has been trying to squash that rainbow of bodily forms into a binary since the high Middle Ages. It’s always arbitrary and subjective and awkward—yet like my mother saying that turquoise is “obviously blue," people have often believed firmly that they know how to classify someone intermediate into the “correct” binary box. Who gets to make that decision? In prior centuries, the church, then civil courts, and since the Victorian era, medical doctors. And on what basis? Church authorities and civil courts tended to focus on external genital appearance and lived gender. Doctors scoffed at this, and said the “true [binary] sex” was established by some principle laypeople could not observe, and only "medical men of science" could. Victorian doctors based their determinations on post-mortem dissection of the gonads, viewing them under the microscope, with testes making one “truly male” even if they were in the ovarian position, and the individual had vulva, substantial breasts, and did not grow facial hair. Early 20th century doctors based one’s “true [binary] sex” instead on the newly-discovered testosterone and estrogen, based on the false presumption that people produced one or the other, which, it became quite clear, was false. So that regime was replaced by a focus on sex chromosomes as soon they were discovered. But that chromosomal rule was soon displaced by a psychological and surgical focus on childhood sex reassignment surgery, with the intent to eliminate genital variance and produce a heterosexually-oriented, endosex-appearing patient.
Each group of authorities believed that they had discovered the “true dividing line” between male and female binaries. Each discarded the system employed by the prior set of authorities. And every one of them was equally wrong. There is no true, correct dividing line between light and dark colors, between humans being classified as “black” or “white, or between intersex people being pushed into male or female boxes. Whatever binary dividing line you argue for, it is equally wrong, because spectra are the reality. Intermediate positions are real.
And when you let someone else with power over an intermediate person decide what binary box to force them into, it’s always coercive and morally wrong. The one-drop rule may have been extremely clear and easy to apply—but that’s exactly the problem. It was used to enforce enslavement and allow slaveholders to benefit from sexual abuse.
Today, transphobic individuals who conceive of themselves as
feminists—the TERFs—are seeking to impose a new one-drop rule on intersex
people. We see this emerging in the realm of athletics. We need to be able to examine and critique that, so let's explore.
Over time, various groups claiming authority under the regime of binary sex to decide who was “really male” and who was “really female” have drawn the line in different places in the middle of the spectrum. You might imagine that a rainbow of sex diversity would just be split evenly down the middle:
But that’s not what doctors do. To some extent, their binary sex assignment choices are driven by the fact that physical sex has multiple dimensions--genitals, gonads, chromosomes, hormones—each of which can vary independently. This creates more of a complex multidimensional space in which physical sex is located. But their decisions are not just based on some preponderance of sex traits. They are driven by a principle of avoiding the surgical result of an “inadequate penis,” in service to the social phenomenon of fragile masculinity. In certain cases, they are driven by an aim of possible fertility, when ovaries are present, though they sacrifice testes without compunction. For many decades, the primary driver of binary sex-assignment decisions was to satisfy the principle of compulsory heterosexuality (and this lingers, long after queerness officially lost its label as a “disorder”). And from the 1970s-2010s, U.S. doctors claimed that it is generally better to assign intersex babies female, both to avoid psychological harm caused by fragile masculinity, and because, I kid you not, surgically “it is easier to make a hole than a pole.” So if we look at the binary sex assignments given to intersex infants by doctors, we get a strange patchwork, like this:
However arbitrary this may seem, it was presumed that doctors
chose the medically correct, “true” or “best” binary sex assignment. Often, the
fact that the children had born intersex was kept secret from them, because
this was believed to ensure they did not question their status as girls or
boys. Their “disorder of sex development” had been “cured,” and should no
longer be relevant to their lives. Nobody but the doctors and parents need ever
know. Concealment in a closet so deep even the person in it was unaware of that
fact was deemed ideal.
But now TERFs claim that they have the authority to decide who is “really male” and who is “really female.” And their core principle is not to conceal a person’s intersex status. They want it revealed to the world. Their core principle is that “biological females” need to be protected from “biological males,” who are held to pose a sexual and social threat to them. Thus, they claim, anyone with male sex characteristics must be kept away from cisgender endosex women and girls. Intersex and trans women “do not belong” in women’s bathrooms or girls’ changing rooms. And intersex and trans girls and women must not be allowed to compete in sports with cis endosex females. It doesn’t matter, say the TERFs, if the trans and intersex women have received hormonal or surgical medical treatments, because they were born with “male sex traits,” and this can never be undone.
In other words, TERFs follow a “one-drop rule” when it comes to deciding where to cut the sex spectrum in half to divide it into male and female. Any hint of sex variance permanently renders one male. As the racial one-drop rule supposedly protected white “purity,” so the TERFs’ body policing is intended to protect “female purity.” That results in a scenario like this:
The thing about purity rules is that they always wind up harming the group they claim to protect. They cause moral harm to that group, by getting them deeply invested in exclusion and boundary policing and a search for traitors and infiltrators. And they wind up oppressing many within the group, as they are found to be impure in one purge or another.
Consider: about 10% of all cisgender women have PCOS,
polycystic ovary system, which makes them produce testosterone well above the “normal
female range.” This doesn’t make them magically into athletes, but according to
the TERF female purity rule, people exposed to high testosterone have an unfair advantage that cannot be
erased by medical treatment, and should be excluded from participation in women's sports. So there goes 10% of the population of people assigned female at birth. . .
And consider this: by the time she is age 40, the average cis woman has XY chromosomes in her body. That’s because the average woman will have, by that time, gestated, at least for a while, an XY fetus, and fetal genetic material crosses through the placenta into the mother’s body and implants there. (Also, XX genetic material from a gestator passes into the fetal body and implants there as well, but TERFs don’t care about whether men have XX chromosomes in their bodies.)
Should every woman who has been pregnant for any time with an XY fetus be excluded from playing in women’s sports? There are some scientists who posit that this implantation of XY chromosomes somehow prepares a woman to raise sons by making her more competitive. Many others roll their eyes at this as a just-so story of gender essentialism backed by no real empirical evidence. But that story very much fits with TERF reasoning about any "impurity" imparting a male taint that must be kept away from the biologically pure women.
If you slice the rainbow of human sex characteristics aggressively,
paring off all deviations from the “pure female,” this violent act doesn’t just
toss out women who were recognized as intersex at birth or assigned male at
birth. It tosses out more and more women who were assigned female at birth without
any controversy. (This is true of Olympian Caster Semenya today.)
Purity policing instills shame and secrecy. It does violence
to the psyche. It harms not just people who have always known of their variance, but those who thought themselves pure, and benefited from that--until they are
revealed to be "tainted", or they train to be an athlete, and then strike others as "too muscular."
Just look at life for people of mixed race under the American regime of the one-drop rule of white racial purity. Is that what we want to emulate, with regard to physical sex? It’s so very much better to recognize spectra. To embrace our mixed ethnic heritages, name them, take pride in them. To accept physical sex spectra in all their complexity. To celebrate human rainbows.
Let’s do that!