This week the U.S. Department of Health and Services circulated a memo proposing a regulatory change that would classify gender using “a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” For the administration of federal programs, the department is considering defining gender as an unchangeable biological condition determined by genetic makeup and identifiable traits at birth. The revision would reverse a decision by the last administration to define gender as a choice rather than a biological fact.
Some opponents of the proposal believe that exceptions in human sexuality render a binary definition insufficient. Others contend that human sexual identity should reflect individual preference rather than biology. Definitions based on exceptions or preferences rather than empirical evidence, however, are problematic. Words need to reflect real distinctions for them to have any meaning. Laws based on distorted definitions are unfair because they obligate people to live as though under a different reality.
First of all, exceptions matter but they do not redefine the rule. Look up the definition of “homo sapiens” and you will see that we are a bipedal species with 46 chromosomes. Nevertheless you will meet people who have one leg or no legs because of an accident or birth defect. Rarely a person is born with more than two legs, the result of a parasitic twin. There are also exceptions to the number of chromosomes. Occasionally a person is conceived with an extra chromosome or is missing a chromosome. Having an irregular number of chromosomes or limbs does not diminish one’s humanity but it would be incorrect to say that humans have 45 to 47 chromosomes and zero to four legs.
Unlike many species of flowering plants and earth worms in which individuals naturally have both functional male and female reproductive parts or some species of fish and snails in which individuals naturally change sex under certain circumstances, humans are not hermaphroditic. Like other mammals, human beings come in male or female forms and sex is fixed at birth. Occasionally, a baby’s body does not respond to male hormones in utero causing male organs to not develop or develop only partially. Because of androgen insensitivity syndrome, these individuals have male chromosomes but develop female physical traits. The syndrome does not diminish the humanity of those who have experienced it but the human species cannot be redefined as having more or less than two sexes because of it. The condition is an exception to the rule.
Definitions based subjective preferences rather than objective facts are more problematic. Would opponents of the proposed regulatory revision be comfortable with a legal definition of climate change that was based on preference rather than empirical data? For words to have any meaning they should attempt to reflect objective reality. The interplay between language and perception is complex but simply saying something cannot make it so.
Denying someone a general benefit based on their sexual identity preference is unjust. Feeling alienated from one’s own biology is a painful experience that deserves an empathetic response; however, redefining males as females and vice versa because they choose to live as such does a disservice to men and women who are obligated to comply with another person’s subjective reality.
When males compete as females in track, wrestling, and other sports, for example, they tend to win because of their heavier male muscular. Erasing the distinction between male and female in language does not alter those distinctions in real life.
The Trump Administration is right to define male and female according to scientific standards. The Colorado Legislature should follow suit next session by revisiting a 2008 law that forbids schools and other public institutions from distinguishing between male and female, as scientifically defined. Colorado law should define male and female on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.
Laws should be based on facts not wishful thinking.