Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’
Abstract The distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is challenged by
arguments that ‘sex’ is equally a social construction, initiating a self-
reﬂexive effort to return feminism to its foundational grounding. This
article concerns intersexuality and transsexualism as two bodily forms
that further suggest ‘sex’ as socially inscribed. I argue that feminist
theory needs to ascertain whether the artiﬁcial emphasis on sexual
difference, contra nature, is better able to effect social change than
conjoined efforts to expose ‘sex’ as a construction intended to ground
divisions. Recent support for ‘multiple genders’ often remain dependent
on a morphological notion of ‘sex’, and, as such, may not constitute a
radical challenge to our current ‘sex’/‘gender’ system.
Keywords mutiple genders, nature, queer, sexual difference,
The development of the trans movement has raised a vital question that’s being dis-
cussed in women’s communities all over the country. The discussion revolves
around one pivotal question: how is woman deﬁned? The answer we give may deter-
mine the course of women’s liberation for decades to come. (Feinberg, 1996: 109)
Feminists do need to make normative judgements and to offer emancipatory
alternatives. We are not for ‘anything goes’. (Fraser, 1995: 71)
The journal Differences recently devoted an issue to questioning the con-
tinued viability of women’s studies as a discipline, adjoining a growing
‘identity’ debate in feminist theory. Notwithstanding a generally support-
ive attitude, the contributors acknowledged a general movement away from
women’s studies towards gender, gay, lesbian and sexuality studies:
. . . women’s studies has sometimes greeted uncomfortably (and even with hos-
tility) the rise of feminist literary studies and theory outside its purview, Critical
Race Theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and cultural studies. Theory that
destabilises the category of women, racial formations that disrupt the unity or
Myra J. Hird Queen’s University of Belfast
and New Delhi)
vol. 1(3): 347-364.
06hird (ds) 5/10/00 2:34 pm Page 347
primacy of the category, and sexualities that similarly blur the solidarity of the
category – each of these must be resisted, restricted, or worse, colonised, to pre-
serve the realm. (Brown, 1997: 83)
That feminist theory dwells on issues of identity is understandable. I need
not revisit the now well-trodden history of theory’s ‘end of innocence’
Current concern with the fragmentation of identities adjoins the debate
surrounding the continued viability of differentiating between ‘sex’ and
‘gender’. The ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary has circulated throughout the social sci-
ences, providing a powerful foundation for a material account of women’s
oppression. ‘Sex’ referred to biological differences between women and
men, whereas ‘gender’ signiﬁed the practices of femininity or masculinity
in social relations. This bifurcation served a number of functions, of which
the most immediate was to provide a convenient, tangible means to con-
stitute identity and proceed with the immediate concern of challenging the
hierarchical relationships that subordinate women to men.
Conﬁdence in this distinction is eroding, or has already degenerated to
such an extent that Hood-Williams (1996) is able to offer its ‘post-mortem’.
Many feminist scholars have contributed to this ‘post-mortem’ by cri-
tiquing the ‘sex’/‘gender’ distinction.
For instance, Delphy argues that,
rather than seeing sex as the baseline from which gender emerges through
sociality, ‘gender . . . create(s) anatomical sex’ (1984: 144). By conﬂating the
biological with the natural, ‘sex’ becomes the natural that initiates the
social. Moreover, ‘natural’ difference is based almost entirely on one par-
ticular aspect of biology: sexual reproduction.
Under the discursive sign
of sexual reproduction, an entire orchestra of ‘biological facts’ is brought
into play to ﬁx the notion of biological ‘sex’ differences. Thus, chromo-
somes, hormones and genitalia have been variously ‘constituted as
embodying the essence of sex’ (Harding, 1996: 99; emphasis in original).
Also critiquing the ‘sex’/‘gender’ distinction, Hood-Williams (1996)
focuses on three interrelated assumptions that underlie this (often) taken-
for-granted binary. First, the biological distinction between women and
men assumes that a distinction can be made between biology (‘sex’) on the
one hand, and culture (‘gender’) on the other; and, furthermore, that
whereas ‘gender’ is changeable, ‘sex’ is immutable. Finally, and most
importantly for this article, this binary depends on the idea that biology
itself consistently distinguishes between females and males. Nature, as I
hope to argue, offers shades of difference and similarity much more than
clear opposites, and it is rather a modern ideology that imposes the current
template of sexual difference.
Despite feminist critiques, the overall feminist project has largely
depended on a ‘real’, corporeal base on to which ‘gender operates as an act
of cultural inscription’ (Butler, 1990: 146; emphasis in original). Wittig’s
(1993) theory of lesbian identity illustrates Butler’s point. Wittig argues that
lesbians’ position in the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary is ambivalent: lesbians are
contemporaneously ‘women’ (as deﬁned morphologically) and ‘not
women’ (as deﬁned by heteronormativity). The political project determined
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to challenge the heteronormative deﬁnition of ‘woman’ makes Wittig’s
analysis valuable. However, the analysis relies on an immutable notion of
‘sex’ to argue the social construction of ‘gender’ (Fuss, 1995). Although
Wittig goes to some length to discuss lesbian social identity, she also quite
clearly considers lesbian membership initially on the basis of morphology.
Nowhere does Wittig discuss the possibility of lesbians with penises. So,
implicitly, lesbians are women and women are females and females are
human beings with a particular morphological body.
Even some postmodern feminists often seem unwilling, in the final
instance, to give up a corporeal notion of the feminine. At the same time
that Shildrick, for instance, is able to write of ‘posthumanism’ and ‘iden-
tity as process’, she states: ‘I . . . have no wish to fully abandon the
concept of the feminine’ and that although ‘boundaries are fluid and per-
meable, they [do not] cease altogether’ (1996: 9–10).
cyberfeminist analyses may focus on the body as ‘fragmented’ and
‘chimerical’, but for most feminists these discussions remain conceptual
and remote from the everyday material relations of ‘gender’, where ‘sex’
is fully grounded.
Two lived bodily identities currently challenging the modern
‘sex’/‘gender’ binary are intersexuality and transsexuality. Intersexuals
radically confront the modern two-sex model of sexual difference, and
medical accounts of their sex ‘reassignment’ tell a disturbing story of the
literal reinscription of sex on to ‘unruly’ bodies.
And if intersexuals chal-
lenge the reiﬁcation of the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary, then male-to-female (MTF
– whether preoperative, postoperative or non-surgical) transsexuals par-
ticularly focus the assumption that you need a particular morphological
conﬁguration to ‘know’ yourself as female. Beauvoir’s signature statement
that ‘one is not born, but becomes a woman’ seems to anticipate trans-
sexual claims (de Beauvoir, 1953). However, as I will suggest, this social
constructionist account more often provides the justiﬁcation to exclude
individuals who have not shared the supposedly common experiences of
growing up as women under patriarchy. In our current discursive ﬁeld, to
exist at all means being a woman or a man, or, in Butlerian terms, ‘sex is
the norm by which the “one” becomes viable at all’ (1993: 2). Thus, femin-
ist theory continues to labour deﬁnitional concerns based on the
Indeed, on a practical level, much feminist theory continues to operate
from a largely undisturbed two-sex model, as it seems to facilitate analyses
of women’s experiences.
Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire (1994)
remains the ‘deﬁnitive statement on transsexualism by a genetic female
academic’ opposed to sex-reassignment surgery, and it clearly voices a
shared feminist concern (Stone, 1991: 3). Raymond uses a familiar modern
recipe of biology and socialization to differentiate between ‘authentic’ and
We know who we are. We know that we are women who are born with female
chromosomes and anatomy, and that whether or not we were socialised to be so-
called normal women, patriarchy has treated and will treat us like women. Trans-
sexuals have not had this same history. (1994: 114)
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Precisely by invoking the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary, Raymond is able to argue
that ‘transsexuals are not women. They are deviant males’ (1994: 183).
With an aim to questioning the feminist deployment of the ‘sex’/‘gender’
binary, I want to explore the ways in which intersexuals and transsexuals,
on different grounds, refuse the opposition of sexual difference. I hope to
raise deﬁnitional concerns about the continued use of the ‘sex’/‘gender’
binary that has major implications for questions of inclusion and exclusion.
Let me be clear that my objective is not to highlight the difﬁculties of
‘including’ intersexuals and transsexuals as women, but rather to question
how anyone claims this membership based on the current ‘sex’/‘gender’
binary. Given the tenuous deﬁnitional status of both ‘gender’ and ‘sex’, I
explore the viability of recent proposals to ‘end’ gender. My aim is not to
entertain a reductionist argument ‘for’ sex and gender plurality and
‘against’ sex and gender restriction.
Rather, I am interested in naming the
consequences of particular instances of reductionism that the ‘sex’/‘gender’
The variability of sex
Intersexuals provide a valuable opportunity to explore the relationship
between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, as well as the designation of meaningful cat-
egories of difference. In this section I hope to argue that the ‘sex’/‘gender’
binary is particularly reductive for intersexuals, with very real political,
social and personal implications. Chase (1998) estimates that one in every
100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable
enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex.
The sexologist John Money founded surgical sex ‘reassignment’ of inter-
sexual infants in the United States, and his protocols remain standard prac-
tice today. Money’s extensive published work testiﬁes to both the
discursive gymnastics required to sustain a two-sex model, and the pro-
found impact this reductionist model has had on the lives of intersexuals.
Money developed a vocabulary that combined biology and sociality, allow-
ing the medical community to sustain the belief that ‘sex’ consists of two
exclusive types despite the medical community’s own evidence that this is
not the case.
According to Money, core gender identity results from the child’s inter-
actions with parents as well as the child’s perception of their own genitals
(1985: 282). We might expect that the emphasis on gender identity as
socially acquired might lead Money to conclude that anatomy is not
destiny, especially since he is studying children with variable genitalia
who nevertheless identify as either girls or boys. But Money reclaims the
importance of alignment between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ by deﬁning a ‘critical
period’ of parent–child interaction which cements an earlier in-utero
period, where hormonal activation of the brain sets the direction of neural
pathways in preparation for the reception of ‘post-natal social gender iden-
tity signals’ (Raymond, 1994: 47). Thus, Money argues for surgical inter-
vention as soon after birth as possible, for the child’s psycho-social
well-being (Hird and Germon, 2001). In other words, surgeons believe that
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they ‘merely provide the right genitals to go along with socialisation’
(Kessler, 1990: 17).
Whether genitals, hormones or chromosomes are preferenced in ‘deter-
mining’ an infant’s ‘sex’ is debated.
Given the salience of visual cues, the
‘abnormal’ appearance of a newborn’s genitals most often initiates medical
intervention. In the ﬁrst instance, then, genital appearance is privileged
over hormones, chromosomes, gonads and internal reproductive structures
(Hausman, 1995). Garﬁnkel and Stoller argue that the ‘natural, normally
sexed person [as] cultural object’, must possess either a vagina or a penis
and where nature ‘errs’, human-made vaginas and penises must serve
(1967: 122). A newborn with ambiguous genitalia is thus considered a
‘medical emergency’ (Pagon, 1987) and surgeons are roused from sleep to
decide the child’s ‘best sex’ (Feinberg, 1996).
Chromosome tests determine the genetic make-up of the child: if they
reveal an XX conﬁguration, genital surgery is usually performed without
delay (Kessler, 1990). Where tests indicate the presence of a Y chromosome,
surgery may be delayed while further tests determine the responsiveness
of phallic tissue to androgen treatment. Such treatment serves to enlarge
the penile structure to the point where it can pass as a real penis:
Since . . . reproduction may be disregarded, the most important single consider-
ation is the child’s subsequent [hetero] sexual life. . . . If there is little or no penile
growth the male sex will be out of the question and the female sex should be
chosen; with good penile development the male sex may be appropriate.
(Dewhurst and Gordon, 1969: 45)
The old trope proves true as penis size ultimately dictates whether the
child is reconstructed as male or female (Grifﬁn and Wilson, 1992; Pagon,
1987). Surgeons consider the condition of a micro-penis so detrimental to
a male’s morale that reassignment as female is justiﬁed on this basis alone.
The implication here is that male ‘sex’ is not only, or most importantly,
deﬁned by chromosomes or by the ability to produce sperm. Rather, mascu-
linity is determined by the aesthetics of an appropriately sized penis:
If the subject has an inadequate phallus, the individual should be reared as
female, regardless of the results of diagnostic tests. In the patient with an adequate
phallus, however, as much information as possible should be obtained before a
decision is made. (Grifﬁn and Wilson, 1992: 1536)
Consequently, it is common for infants with an XY chromosome conﬁgu-
ration to be assigned and raised as female.
Further illustrating that nature does not itself provide sufﬁcient material
from which ‘sex’ can be read, the medical literature and the treatment pro-
tocols explicitly privilege maleness and devalue femaleness. Delays in
‘corrective’ surgery to reduce (or remove) phallic tissue of an XY infant
beyond the neonatal period is to invite ‘traumatic memories of having
been castrated’ (Kessler, 1990: 8). Clitoroplasty, on the other hand, is
undertaken when the child is anywhere between seven months and four
years of age, and sometimes as late as adolescence.
Further, little atten-
tion is paid to aesthetics in the creation of a vagina. The sole requirement
is that the vagina be able to accommodate a penis.
Scar tissue is often
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hyper-sensitive, resulting in extreme pain during intercourse. Because of
the lack of elasticity in scar tissue, a daily regime of dilating the vagina is
required to prevent the vagina from closing. The vagina is often con-
structed using bowel tissue, which lubricates in response to digestion
rather than arousal (Laurent, in Burke, 1996).
The high-proﬁle John/Joan case through which Money ﬁrst argued for the
necessity of surgical intervention illustrates many of the contradictions in
the modern two-sex model of sexual difference. After a bungled circumci-
sion during infancy, John eventually found himself in the hands of Money’s
surgical team, who reassigned him as female. John’s case was particularly
important because he happened to have an identical twin brother. Money
argued that if John ‘lived’ the experience of ‘femaleness’, then sociality, not
chromosomes, determines ‘gender’ identity. Whereas Money repeatedly
detailed the success of Joan’s living as woman, interviews with John since
he became an adult reveal this success to have been greatly exaggerated
(Colapinto, 1997). Despite Money’s assurances that Joan would live com-
fortably as a woman, John now lives with his wife, three adopted children
and a reconstructed penis, adamant that he is a man. While John and
Money would seem to disagree on just about every ‘fact’ of this case, they
concur as to the constitution of femininity and masculinity. Money argued
that the identical twin brother was ‘male’ because he preferred playing with
‘cars and gas pumps and tools’ whereas John was ‘female’ because of his
preference for ‘dolls, a doll house and doll carriage’. John himself says that
he ‘knew’ he was not a girl because, among other signs, he did not like to
play with dolls, preferred standing while urinating, and daydreamed about
being a ‘21-year-old male with a moustache and a sports car, surrounded
by admiring females’ (Colapinto, 1997: 69). The various psychiatrists who
eventually examined John also used similar markers to deﬁne his ‘under-
lying’ masculinity. One psychiatrist, for instance, described seeing John
‘sitting there in a skirt with her legs apart, one hand planted ﬁrmly on one
knee. There was nothing feminine about her’ (1997: 70). Paradoxically, at
the same time that the medical community strongly requires a biological
deﬁnition of an intersexual’s ‘sex’, the surgeons, endocrinologists and psy-
chiatrists themselves clearly use a social deﬁnition.
A growing political intersexual community identiﬁes many of these
problems: the variability of sexual identiﬁcation, the a priori assumption
of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour, the phallocentric bias in sex-reas-
signment, and the problem intersexuals often experience in ‘belonging’ to
sexually identiﬁed communities. The Intersexual Society of North America
(ISNA) presently lobbies to abolish all unnecessary surgery and ensure that
what surgery is still performed is with the full understanding and consent
of the intersexual individual involved. In making these claims, the ISNA
necessarily keys into the wider debate about the ‘nature’ of ‘sex’.
The modern medico-psychiatric response to intersexuality operates a
self-referential process of creating, reﬂecting and reinscribing ‘sex’ on to
the body (Hird and Germon, 2001). This socio-political belief ‘is main-
tained and perpetuated by the medical community in the face of over-
whelming physical evidence that this taxonomy is not mandated by
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biology’ (Hausman, 1995: 25). Thus, Money discursively reﬁgures the
natural provision of more than two sexes as a ‘handicap’ and ‘birth defect
of the sex organs’ that surgery will ‘repair’ (1985: 280). What incites the
medical community to favour extremely intrusive surgery for anatomical
conditions that doctors themselves admit present no functional or medical
dangers? The authenticityof ‘sex’ resides not on, nor in, the body, but rather
results from a particular nexus of power, knowledge and truth. As Garﬁnkel
and Stoller argue, surgeons can substitute for nature when they ‘provide
what nature meant to be there’ (1967: 127). That something as ‘natural’ as
‘sex’ can be, or indeed needs to be, produced artiﬁcially is a paradox that
seems to have escaped the medical fraternity (Hird and Germon, 2001;
Intersexuals’ experiences of ‘sex’ challenge both the medical community
and feminist theory, to the extent that both are predicated on the
‘sex’/‘gender’ binary to operate. To effect the incorporation of an intersex-
ual surgically assigned as ‘female’ involves a determination as to the con-
stitution of femaleness. Any deﬁnition of ‘woman’ that retains any
corporeality must be able to deﬁne that corporeality, and this is exactly
where the problem begins in deﬁnitions based on ‘sex’ (Hird and Germon,
1998). An intersexual will have any combination of partially or totally sur-
gically created vagina, labia and breasts. She may or may not be able to
sexually reproduce. If being female does not entail the possession of par-
ticular anatomical parts, then the artiﬁcial creation of these body parts is
inconsequential. But our current assumptions about the constitution of
‘sex’ struggle with such a reality. According to Raymond’s criteria for
womanhood (quoted previously), one criterion is the presence of ‘female’
chromosomes. I do not agree that ‘we’ know we are born with ‘female’
chromosomes. Most people do not bother to have their chromosome con-
ﬁguration checked for authenticity, so there are likely to be many more
individuals with ‘ambiguous’ chromosome conﬁgurations than we cur-
The adult(s) present during our births took a cursory
glance at our genitals and deﬁned our ‘sex’.
This ‘materialist’ recourse to ‘the body’ based on chromosomes, repro-
ductive function, genomal makeup and genital appearance turns out to be,
after all of our efforts, quite superﬁcial. Beneath the surface of our skin
exists an entire world of networks of bacteria, microbes, molecules and
inorganic life. These networks take little account of ‘sexual’ difference and
indeed exist and reproduce without any recourse to what we think of as
reproduction. To this life beneath the surface, our ﬁxation on the ‘body’ is
Not that it really matters whether or not he [sic] ever knows about the vast popu-
lations of inorganic life, the ‘thousand tiny sexes’ which are coursing through his
veins with a promiscuity of which he cannot conceive. He’s the one who misses
out. Fails to adapt. Can’t see the point of his sexuality. Those who believe in their
own organic integrity are all too human for the future [to come]. (Plant, 1997: 205)
This ‘body’ is not immutable in any biological sense. The skin on which
we deﬁne the body’s border is much more like a porous membrane, a
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network of holes held together by a system of threads. Through these per-
forations all sorts of things ﬂow. More than 50 synthetic chemicals from
products we use daily (including tinned vegetables, cigarettes, chemical
detergents, makeup, DDT) ﬂow into our bodies and alter our endocrine
systems (Colborn et al., 1996).
The ‘sex’ on which we base our discussions of ‘sexual difference’ is no
less immutable. There are many variations of ‘sex’: XXY, XXXY, XXXXY,
XXYY, XXXYY to name only a few. All foetuses spend their ﬁrst six weeks
in an XX womb and her amniotic ﬂuid, undergoing the same development
until the release of testosterone for most XY foetuses.
Yet while the
genome (chromosomal makeup) of no two people is identical (except for
identical twins), the genomic makeup of all people is identical to within 1
percent (Rothblatt, 1995). The differences which we hold so dear (hair
colour, skin tone and so on) and on which so much of our social organiz-
ation is based (‘sex’-segregated sports is an obvious example) are minus-
cule in comparison with our biological similarities.
The only thing that
does not exist is a pure (Y or YY) male. There has been a case of a boy born
with an XX conﬁguration, however. This boy’s ovum split several times
before being fertilized by sperm, providing further evidence that
parthenogenic reproduction extends to humans. Human imagination may
be limited to a narrow understanding of ‘sexual’ reproduction, but nature
persists in offering a variety of reproductive means (Cohen, 1995; Margulis
and Sagan, 1997). So human reproduction may yet resemble the kind of
‘reproduction’ most popular on this planet, which requires no sense of ‘sex’
I am not arguing that bodies are unimportant, immaterial, mere chimeras
or that all is ‘surface’ (indeed, the surface of the body is least important,
biologically speaking). Bodies are important and certainly ‘material’, but
not necessarily in ways that justify continued emphasis on sexual differ-
ence. Rather than turning away from the ‘materiality’ of the body, I suggest
that we step up to the body and look below its surface to its matter.
‘Knowing’ our socially inscribed gender
If intersexuals raise sticky questions about ‘sexed’ bodily materiality, at
least they have not chosen their bodies in the way that postoperative trans-
sexuals are often claimed to have done.
And if intersexuals challenge
feminist theory’s invocation of the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary, then MTF trans-
sexuals particularly highlight the assumption (recall Raymond’s second cri-
terion quoted above) that one needs a particular relation to patriarchy to
‘know’ oneself as a woman. Feminist theory particularly values the experi-
ence of living in the world as a female. MTF women claim gendered status
as women based on ‘knowing’ themselves to be women without the
accepted corporeal signs designated as ‘female’.
Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation in 1953 propelled MTF trans-
sexualism on to the modern public stage. The MTF transsexual narratives
of this time adhered strongly to the ‘woman-trapped-in-male-body’ trope.
Bolin (1994) argues that this narrative was performative, created out of the
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necessity to forge an ‘origin story’, required by the medico-psychiatric com-
munity who regulated access to surgery. That is, medical practitioners, psy-
chologists and transsexuals alike crafted a ‘transsexual identity’ based on
the sustained desire for surgery (Billings and Urban, 1982; Bolin, 1994).
Many transsexuals were also keen to differentiate themselves from pathol-
ogized ‘gender’ identities. Thus transsexualism was emphasized as tem-
porary identity, a pit-stop before permanent womanhood.
Given feminists’ commitment to illuminating supposedly innate ‘femi-
nine’ behaviours as socially constructed requirements of patriarchal
society, transsexual narratives unsurprisingly raise suspicions and rancour.
Raymond’s critique has been chorused by a number of feminists. For
instance, Jeffreys (1990) provides a critical review of early autobiographies
by Roberta Cowell and Jan Morris, whom Jeffreys claims are ‘typical’ trans-
sexual stories. Jeffreys argues that transsexuals choose to ‘imitate the most
extreme examples of feminine behaviour and dress in grossly stereotypical
feminine clothing’, in preference to feminists, who supposedly dress ‘in
jeans and t-shirts’ (1990: 177, 178).Jeffreys criticizes MTF transsexuals for
what, she argues, is an inability to understand supposedly ‘feminine’
behaviours and characteristics as those which women must adopt in order
to avoid punishment from patriarchy. What transsexuals consider indi-
vidual attributes, Jeffreys maintains are political signiﬁers of women’s
oppression. By donning stereotyped clothing and behaviours, transsexuals,
for Jeffreys, collude with patriarchy and further contribute to women’s
Jeffreys’s suspicion towards sex-reassignment as ‘transgressive’ is argued
from a feminist perspective, but scholars more generally share this scepti-
cism. Those opposed to sex-reassignment surgery argue that the medical fra-
ternity colludes with society to silence the cultural imperative of the
two-sex system. For example, MacKenzie (1994) argues that surgery main-
tains the current artiﬁcial distinctions based on ‘sex’, rather than challeng-
ing it in any way. In Sex by Prescription (1990), Szasz suggests that
transsexualism is a ‘condition tailor-made for our surgical-technological age’
– the desire to experiment with new technology ensures that critical reﬂec-
tion on the efﬁcacy of sex-reassignment is minimized (1990: 86). A number
of scholars argue that transsexualism is a conformist, inauthentic gender
expression, invented by a modern, medical community keen to experiment
with new technology (Sagarin, 1978; Socarides, 1975; Szasz, 1990). In
Changing Sex, Hausman (1995) argues similarly that transsexualism is a
product of a modern belief in technology as societal saviour. Transsexual-
ism, for Hausman, ﬁgures as a literal (embodied) privileging of gender iden-
tity over the sexed body (Hemmings, 1996). For this reason, Hausman calls
for a return to ‘bodies’ and ‘sex’ rather than what she sees as the reiﬁcation
of gender identity. Under Hausman’s gaze, medical discourse constructs the
transsexual, to the exclusion of transsexuals’ own subjective accounts. For
Hausman, transsexuals’ agency is limited to claims for sex-reassignment
surgery. As I have attempted to argue in this article, this return to ‘sex’ as
the arbiter of ‘real’ actually reveals the two-sex model and sex differences
more generally as no less discursively imagined than ‘gender’ identity.
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The opposition that Raymond, Szasz, Hausman and others express
towards sex-reassignment is challenged by emerging transsexual narratives
that suggest that many transsexuals choose sex and gender identiﬁcation
by default. As argued above, modern psycho-medical discourses compel
individuals to identify themselves as only one of two sexes and (corre-
sponding) genders. Until recently, transsexual narratives have been scarce
because transsexual survival has depended largely on the ability to disap-
pear. In the 1990s a distinct set of transsexual narratives began to contest
the deﬁnitional status of ‘gender’ based on shared experience. These analy-
ses argue that if gender can be learned, then ‘womanhood’ is available to
anyone with the capacity to learn (Denny, 1996; Feinberg, 1996; Lewins,
1995; More and Whittle, 1999; Prosser, 1998; Rothblatt, 1995; Stone, 1991;
Stryker, 1994, 1995). These narratives reﬂect a tension in the transsexual
community between those who want to ‘pass’ as genitally ‘correct’ women
or men, and an increasing number of transsexuals who seek disruption of
the ‘sex’/‘gender’ system.
Transgender studies uses transsexualism as a key queer trope in chal-
lenging claims as to the immutability of sex and gender. As such, trans-
gender studies invests heavily in transsexualism’s ‘transgressive’ potential.
These emerging narratives, and recent transgender conferences, forecast a
coming of age for transgender studies.
Transsexuals agitating in the 21st
century against the two-sex and gender system are challenging their
‘deviant’ status in psychology in much the same way as homosexuals chal-
lenged their ‘disease’ status during the 1980s. For example, Feinberg (1996)
refuses to legally conform hir sex to hir expression of gender, instead direct-
ing hir efforts towards questioning society’s need to categorize by sex at all
– the requirement to ‘pass’ for Feinberg is itself a product of oppression.
Kris asks, ‘does the fact that everywhere I go everyone calls me “sir” make
me a man? Does the fact that I have breasts and a cunt make me a woman?’
(in Feinberg, 1996: 158). Bornstein remarks, ‘I know I’m not a man – about
that much I’m very clear, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably
not a woman either, at least not according to a lot of people’s rules on this
sort of thing’ (1994: 8). Bornstein argues that transsexuals cannot become
men or women, not because they are ‘inauthentic’ as Raymond and Jeffreys
believe, but because transsexuals who refuse to identify themselves as
‘female’ or ‘male’ radically deconstruct sex and gender. Bornstein’s auto-
biography highlights the fact that if transsexuals reveal anything at all, it is
how messy the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary really is.
As I see it, the problem with the ‘authentically experiencing woman’
argument is that, despite the emphasis on sociality, it nevertheless adheres
to sex as ‘real’. Mead (1934) forcefully argued that the self cannot exist
without society: the continuous interactive process between individuals
establishes and maintains conceptions of self by reﬂecting back images of
the self as object.
For Hansen, this is the ‘genius of our individuality, for
we are not born with individuality – we create it’ (1976: 21). The point is
not to determine whether transsexuals can or cannot ‘know’ that they are
the ‘opposite’ sex, or whether sex-reassignment surgery constitutes an
ethical resolution. As Goffman argues:
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Our concern . . . ought not to be in uncovering real, natural expressions, whatever
they might be. One should not appeal to the doctrine of natural expression in an
attempt to account for natural expression, for that . . . would conclude the analy-
sis before it had begun. (1976: 7)
Goffman (1976) notes that whereas gender identity does not, in any essen-
tial way, exist, the ‘schedule’ for its portrayal does, and is often mistaken
as ‘essentially real’. So, to the extent that transsexuals are able to ‘pass’ as
‘real’ women or men, ‘gender’ is revealed to adhere to particular bodies
haphazardly. Transsexuals, in effect, render visible the invisible signs on
which society relies to produce gender. These are pre-established per-
formances that transsexuals, like all other individuals, are confronted with:
The more closely the impostor’s performance approximates to the real thing, the
more intensely we may be threatened, for a competent performance by someone
who proves to be an impostor may weaken in our minds the moral connection
between legitimate authorisation to play a part and the capacity to play it.
(Goffman, 1971: 66)
Transsexuals wryly note that ‘however strange a cross-dresser looks, a
genetic woman can always be found who looks even stranger’ (Taylor, 1995:
On the one hand, feminist theory seems particularly cognizant of the
social aspect of ‘knowing’ gender – Raymond’s deﬁnition emphasizes
women’s identity based on social interaction with patriarchal structures.
Yet even though ‘there is nothing in [de Beauvoir’s] account that the “one”
who becomes a woman is necessarily female’, most feminist theory never-
theless makes this assumption (Prosser, 1998: 29). To reject MTF women’s
claims to ‘womanhood’ is to lay claim to the constitution of ‘knowing’
gender, which cannot be done without recourse to biology – antithetic to
the whole point of sociality arguments.
Emerging transsexual analyses contest this explicit emphasis on social-
ity, for its implicit reliance on ‘biology’. For instance, Prosser (1998) pre-
sents a compelling theory of the mechanisms through which transsexuals
‘feel’ themselves to be the bodies of the ‘opposite’ sex. Interestingly, it is
precisely the psychic investment in the materiality of the body that enables
the transsexual to ‘imagine’ surgically constructed genitals as ‘real’. In the
same way that people who have lost limbs maintain the ‘feeling’ of those
limbs phantasmatically, Prosser argues that transsexuals are able to recog-
nize the postsurgical constructed body parts as those same parts ‘felt’ phan-
tasmatically before surgery. This is materiality without ‘sex’.
The major mechanism of this phantasmatic ‘feeling’ is narrative. As
Shilling points out, modern subjectivity is increasingly situated in embod-
ied biography, ‘a project which should be worked at and accomplished as
part of an individual’s self-identity’ (1993: 5). Narrative restructuring is a
constant process, usually beginning years before the transsexual is con-
structed through medical technology, contrary to Hausman’s claim that
transsexuals are a medico-technical creation. This narration is an inher-
ently interactive process (Gagné and Tewksbury, 1998). What Hausman also
fails to recognize is that narrative restructuring is a process common to all
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individuals. How else do girls learn that their vaginas place them in a par-
ticular relationship with patriarchy, if not through social interaction and
Differentiating between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ narratives is a moral
exercise, and calling for a return to ‘bodies’ and ‘sex’, as Hausman does,
provides no more reassurance of authenticity than ‘gender’. Moreover,
Hausman invokes a literalizing (transsexual)/deliteralizing (gender) binary
that reinscribes the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary. The entire purpose of transsexual
autobiography is to tell the difference of gendered embodiment, and to
make this difference processable. Therefore, the enterprise is ambivalent –
‘in coming out and staking a claim to representation, the transsexual
undoes the realness that is the conventional goal of this transition’ (Prosser,
1998: 11). While Hausman diverts the literal creation of sex into a culturo-
technical creation, I suggest that the transparency of transsexual creations
of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ makes theirs perhaps the more honest representation.
A feminist movement based on biology is hazardous: ‘to accept that bio-
logical boundary would mark a deﬁnite break with the key principle of the
second wave of women’s liberation . . . that biology is not given’ (Feinberg,
1996: 110). Consolidated social identiﬁcation, however, is often bought at
the expense of experienced variation. Reliance on a notion of ‘shared
experience’ subsumes variations of class, race, ethnicity, age and sexuality
that poststructural feminists have so powerfully highlighted. If it is shared
experience we are after, then carrying ﬁrewood, hauling water and working
on assembly lines unite most women on this planet.
Theorizing intersexuality and transsexualism involves a fundamental
challenge not so much to understandings of ‘gender’, but to the fact that we
rarely contest the constitution of ‘sex’; and in our discussions of ‘gender’,
‘sex’ remains concealed, but present nevertheless. In other words, we have
relied on a particular set of assumptions about the materiality of bodies and
the relation this materiality has to gender. How might feminist theory
proceed from here?
Feminist theory offers two broad responses to this critical reﬂection,
which I will examine only brieﬂy here. One feminist response argues with
queer and transgender studies for the multiplicity of ‘sexes’/‘genders’
(Butler, 1990; Feinberg, 1996; Grosz, 1994; Rothblatt, 1995). For instance,
in an effort to propel transgressive politics, Rothblatt suggests the use of a
colour scheme with which individuals term their ‘sex’ identity. The ques-
tion immediately raised by Rothblatt’s chromatic identity is why use any
categories at all? Surely it is the very regulation of individuals into increas-
ingly detailed divisional categories that has produced the sexism, racism,
ageism, nationalism and trans-phobia that Rothblatt’s schema clearly seeks
to oppose. Replacing a two-‘sex’ model with a 10-sex (or 20 or 30) model
does not in itself secure the abolition of gender discrimination, only
perhaps that the mental gymnastics required to justify such discrimination
becomes more complex.
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Although queer theory contests the attribution of any particular charac-
ter to masculinity or femininity, performing or ‘doing’ gender seems to
consist principally in combining or parodying existing gender practices.
Queer theory presumes that transgressing boundaries will subvert, and
eventually dismantle, hierarchies based on sex and gender. But subversion
can lead to unanticipated outcomes that may not be transgressive at all. By
forging a ‘third’ sex, transgenderism may leave unchallenged the two-sex
All modern expressions of sex and gender identity depend on the current
two-sex system for their expression. The trouble in accepting male lesbians
is precisely that lesbianism, homosexuality and heterosexuality are deﬁned
by a particular morphological base (Zita, 1998). That is why two men in a
loving relationship are not typically deﬁned by themselves, or others, as
lesbian. In other words, queer theory might be able to produce interesting
cakes, but it uses the same ingredients every time.
The second response calls for the ‘end’ of ‘sex’/‘gender’. Jackson (1999)
asks, ‘why not think instead of the end of gender, the end of the
hetero/homosexual division?’ (1999: 182). Jackson criticizes Butler and
Grosz’s almost exclusive focus on ‘bodily aspects of gender’ (1999: 176).
She is wary of accounts that purport a deﬁnitional separation between ‘sex’,
‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ – emphasizing instead their ‘exceedingly complex’
interdependent deﬁnitional status. Jackson’s aim is to deconstruct how
these divisions are made meaningful, rather than to join the effects of these
categories in new combinations to ‘do gender’.
It is difﬁcult to imagine, let alone practise, subjectivities without ‘gender’
or ‘sex’, and appealing to a multiple gender schema may be an attempt to
forestall, or at least tread softly towards, such an eventuality. I think this is
why theories of multiple gender have garnered such appeal of late. Con-
fronted with analyses of heteronormativity, marginalization in lesbian and
gay communities, and the general fragmentation of identities, multiplying
sexes/genders seems to offer a way to express a variety of sexed and gen-
dered identities without anyone actually having to give up their ‘chosen’
identity. There is also the tendency of transgender theory to use transsex-
uality as metaphor for multiple sex/gender ‘best practice’. As Prosser notes,
‘queer theory has written on transitions as discursive but it has not
explored the bodiliness of gendered crossings’ (1998: 6). Intersexuals and
transsexuals themselves may not seek at all to ‘transgress’ sex/gender
boundaries and the ‘end’ of gender has major implications for continued
access to hormones and sex-reassignment surgery, which must be con-
This is why I think that intersexuals and transsexuals offer such valuable
insights into contemporary dependence on the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary. Inter-
sexuals and transsexuals who attempt to ‘ﬁt’ into a sexually divided world
reveal the regulatory mechanisms through which sexual difference is
enforced; whereas intersexuals and transsexuals who refuse an either/or
‘sexed’ identity disturb the infallibility of the binary.
tions about ‘sex’ are all too often either invisible or posed in the abstract.
Credit where credit is due, intersexuals and transsexuals live the internal
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instability of the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary. Rather than exploring how success-
fully intersexuals and transsexuals may deﬁne themselves as ‘women’ or
‘men’, the foregone analysis suggests that all recourse to ‘nature’ to deﬁne
either the constitution of ‘sex’ or how we ‘know’ our ‘gender’ is problem-
atic. If our understandings of nature continue to reveal the focus on sexual
difference as politically derived, feminist theory will need to ascertain that
the artiﬁcial emphasis on sexual difference, contra nature, is better able to
effect social change than conjoined efforts to expose ‘sex’ as a construction
intended to ground divisions.
The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments received
from the anonymous reviewers and editors on an earlier version of this article.
1. For a useful summary of feminist critiques of the ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary, see
Sedgwick (1991), especially pp. 27–35.
2. The priority accorded reproduction as the ‘source’ of sex differences has
been argued elsewhere (see Delphy, 1994; Hird and Abshoff,
3. Sedgwick (1995) makes the point that the rhetorical use of binaries not
only designates two discrete opposites, but also organizes the multiple
differences between the two axes of any binary.
4. Shildrick seems to sidestep the question of sexual difference altogether as
she lengthily quotes Haraway’s (1990) work on cyborgs and then
concludes ‘whether a cyborg has a sex is perhaps rather more
complicated’ and ends the article by stating ‘there remains also the issue
. . . of what becomes of sexual difference’ (1996: 10, 12).
5. For a discussion of the emergence of the current two-sex system, see
6. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has continued to exclude
transgendered women from the physical space of the festival since 1991.
The current policy is to include womyn-born-womyn-only, but the
festival organizers have dropped the physical examination required for
admission to earlier festivals [http://www.camptrans.com].
7. My thanks to the anonymous reviewer whose critical questioning of an
earlier version of this article helped reﬁne my argument here.
8. I defer to Kessler’s (1990) distinction between genital ‘variability’ and
‘ambiguity’. See pp. 8–9.
9. Accounts differ as to the statistical frequency of intersexuality. The
Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) states that one in every 2000
infants is born with some form of intersexuality, from approximately 14
different causes (Nataf, 1998).
10. Money’s management philosophy is almost exclusively adopted, and the
vast majority of published literature has been written or co-written by
Money. Very few physicians seem prepared to contradict Money, or
provide alternative management theses; notable among the exceptions are
Diamond (1982) and Diamond and Sigmundson (1997).
11. It is further testament to the variability of ‘sex’ that several factors can be
360 Feminist Theory 1(3)
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used singly or in tandem to ‘determine’ an individual’s ‘sex’:
chromosomal sex, hormonal sex, gonadal sex, genital sex and
12. Despite increased risks of stenosis or injury that accompany early vaginal
construction, some physicians ‘prefer’ to complete all surgical procedures
before the child reaches 18 months of age (Perlmutter and Reitelman,
13. Indeed, surgical teams consider that one of the worst mistakes that can be
made is to ‘create an individual unable to engage in genital [that is,
heterosexual] sex’ (Kessler, 1990: 20).
14. Kessler quotes one interviewed endocrinologist as saying ‘why do we do
all these tests if in the end we’re going to make the decision simply on the
basis of the appearance of the genitalia?’ (1990: 13).
15. Many intersexuals do not become aware of their condition until
16. Testosterone is also released in other chromosome variations.
17. Rothblatt (1995) points out that the average Japanese man and American
woman share the same weight and height, although we would not
organize international sports tournaments such that Japanese men
compete against American women, or that Asian men compete as a
18. Among postmodern feminist scholars who are accused of ‘abandoning’
the materiality of the body, but who do, in fact, attend to this materiality,
are Angier (1999), Probyn (1993) and Riley (1989).
19. Physicians are more likely to endorse surgery for intersexuals than
transsexuals, even when they are behaviourally indistinguishable (Green,
20. Whittle (1998) points out that male-to-female transsexuals seek inclusion
within the group (that is, women) that patriarchy oppresses, leaving
behind whatever beneﬁts they derived from their male status.
21. The Renaissance Transgender Association will host the 4th International
Congress on Crossdressing, Sex and Gender in May 2000. GENDYS 6th
Gender Dysphoria Conference will be held in September 2000.
22. For further disruptive transsexual narratives, see Ekins and King (1996)
and More and Whittle (1999).
23. What now might be termed the ‘performative’ aspect of identities, Mead
emphasized as the continually renegotiated character of social action,
which produces malleable identities, and which allows for the possibility
of contradiction and conﬂict.
24. Hausman was pregnant during the writing of Changing Sex and expressed
her terror at the thought of having an intersexed child. The desire to have
a ‘normal’ child reveals much about Hausman’s own normative
positioning with regard to transsexualism.
25. Fausto-Sterling (1993) offers a variation on this theme by arguing for a
26. ISNA and the Intersex Society of New Zealand lobby against compulsory
sex-reassignment surgery. Both organizations recognize, however, that
individual intersexuals may wish to undergo surgery.
27. Interpretation of the public effects of revealing the internal instability of
the ‘sex’/‘gender’ system vary. Butler (1993), for instance, interprets Venus
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Xtravaganza’s life (in Paris is Burning) as ‘sex’/‘gender’ transgressive in
that she is incoherently female. This transgression is sustained, for Butler,
as long as Venus does not undergo the sex-reassignment surgery she
seeks. The ‘sex’/‘gender’ binary is violently reinvoked by Venus’s death,
as in the similarly violent death of Brandon Teena. Their deaths produce
for Prosser, contra Butler, ‘not the revelation of the ﬁctionality of gender
categories but the sobering realisation of their ongoing foundational
power’ (1998: 11). This is not to say, however, that such power cannot, or
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Myra J. Hird is a lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, at the
Queen’s University of Belfast. She is the author of several articles on
sexuality. She is co-editing Sociology for the Asking (Oxford University Press)
and completing a sole-authored book on the relationship of intersexuality and
transsexuality with feminist gender theory.
Address: Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Queen’s University of
Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK. Email: M.Hird@qub.ac.uk
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