Hi Abe, thanks for reading.

It seems like you are mainly concerned with physical sex here, so let’s talk about physical sex for a moment:

I’m sure you realize that there are all kinds of people who we might call “female” at birth who cannot give birth for all kinds of reasons.

There are also people born with vaginas who turn out to have a Y chromosome: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16934-girl-with-y-chromosome-sheds-light-on-maleness/

Furthermore, as many as 1 in 1000 people are born with genitals that are neither obviously a penis nor a vagina at birth:

(Historically, our approach to those individuals has been to surgically make them into vaginas; fortunately this approach is changing.)

Here’s a good article, meanwhile, written by an anthropologist who studies sex distinctions, which makes it very clear that there is no hard boundary between the sexes, medically speaking:


As endocrinologist Dr. Joshua Safer has put it, “The idea that a person’s sex is determined by their anatomy at birth is not true, and we’ve known that it’s not true for decades.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/22/health/transgender-trump-biology.html

I’m not presenting this information to try to mock or judge anyone. But it’s medically inaccurate to assert that bodies must fall into either one hard and fast category or the other, and it’s simply not helpful to pretend people are right about something when they’re not.

I’ve seen physical sex compared to color before: we’re all aware that color exists on a spectrum. When we give children a box of 8 or however many crayons, we’re not saying those are the only colors that exist, but rather, “here’s a representative sampling of the colors; please don’t draw on the wall this time.”

We tend to sort bodies into categories because it’s easier for our brain to comprehend a few categories than the infinite miracle of nature all at once. In Navajo society, there are 4 (sometimes 5) recognized genders. This helps cover the richness with more accuracy and depth than a two-gender system, but even these categories are a shorthand representation of what’s actually there. Reality is complicated!

One thing I have hoped to communicate here is that the medical evidence is in favor of a broader, more nuanced understanding of physical sex, and the two-sex system (with “gender” being seen as simply an extension of physical sex) is not something all cultures share.

In our culture, this is especially hard for us to grasp because we have mythologized an agricultural approach to separating bodies by physical sex (and assigning gender accordingly) very deeply, for a very long time. Interestingly, however, some of the most ancient deities transcend sex and gender categories. The Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar was presented as both physically and psychologically androgynous.

This doesn’t even begin to get into the distinction between gender and sex, but it’s something to start with. Thanks for reading.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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