Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System

Westbrook L, Schilt K. Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System. Gender & Society. 2014;28(1):32-57. doi:10.1177/0891243213503203

This article explores the practice of determining gender across different contexts for transgender people. It focuses on three contexts: "public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights, policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, and proposals to remove the genital surgery requirement for a change of sex marker on birth certificates." These scenarios show that criteria for determining gender differ across different social spaces. Determining gender, they say, is the response to one's "doing gender." They show that gender-integrated spaces tend to use identity-based criteria, while gender-segregated spaces use biology-based criteria. In situations where "biology" is not seen as relevant, like the workplace, identity-based determinations are more relied on. In settings where male-female difference is seen as integral, people turn to biology-based definitions. Meanwhile, women's spaces and men's spaces are enforced differently due to the belief that women are inherently vulnerable to men, who are dangerous.

They point out that in court cases about gender determinations, "a great deal of biographical and bodily knowledge is known about the person whose gender is in question, as well as how gender is determined in imagined interactions—namely, cis-people’s imagined interactions with trans-people, where the knowledge about the person’s body and identity are hypothetical." They label struggles of ideological collisions around identity- and biology-based gender determinations as "gender panics," where people react to disruptions in biology-based gender ideology by dogmatically assering the naturalness of the binary.

While genitals became the source of gender panics, and were often then included into policies in sports and gender marker changes, chromosomes were rarely required to prove one's gender. The only time chromosomes are references are when cis people imagine interactions with trans people and seek to invalidate identity-based gender determinations. However, many institutions are leaning into identity-based determinations, even while relying on biology-based logic like genital surgeries. The authors argue this is an attempt to balance these two ideologies, and using chromosomes in biology-based policy would eliminate identity-based gender determinations entirely and so they are viewed as unreasonable.

Even so, while sports policies require trans women to remove both the testes and penis to participate in women's sports, the authors note that the reliance on the penis is tied to cultural beliefs more than biological ones. Given the penis provides no hormonal advantages in sports, this requirement is more aligned with ideology about what makes or does not make a woman. Meanwhile, trans men are allowed to inject testosterone and do not require a penis to compete as men. This is also due to the perceived danger of a penis to cis women.

The authors argue these ideologies around trans people upholds gender inequality. It views women as weak and at constant risk of sexual threats and it views men's sexuality as natural and uncontrollable. Women, as inherently weak, must be protected from those with "stronger bodies" (AMAB) while cis men do not need to be protected from competing against AFAB people.