‘Sex Is as Sex Does’ Examines the Tangled Rules on Transgender Identity

June 1, 2022

Professor Paisley Currah, the author of a new book, discusses the bureaucratic hurdles faced by the transgender community, and how these derive from larger issues involving gender.

Paisley Currah
Paisley Currah (Photo courtesy of Currah)

Who gets to decide whether a person should be classified as M, F, or X? For transgender people in the U.S., the answer depends on which particular government agency they are dealing with at the time, as Professor Paisley Currah (Political Science, Women's and Gender Studies) demonstrates in Sex Is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity.

Currah, who is also the co-founder of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, recently talked to the Graduate Center about his latest book, and why he thinks the ongoing battles over gender identity and rights aren’t matters of concern only to the transgender community:

The Graduate Center: Your book focuses on the government agencies and systems that decide sex classification rules in the United States. What led you to try to understand the reasoning — or lack of it — behind these policies?

Currah: I’ve been working on transgender rights issues since the ’90s. And as a transgender person myself, I have been impacted by these policies and experienced the Kafkaesque situations that transgender people often find ourselves in, where the government gets to say what sex you are — you might have an idea, but they actually get to say. And that is kind of confusing in itself. But what was especially interesting to me, and it was interesting in an academic way and also just as a person who has identity documents, was that one agency might say, You’re an M. And another might say, You’re an F.

A lot of people think that you have a “legal sex,” and for cisgender people, that’s true, sort of by accident, because the agencies are going with the sex that you were assigned at birth and cis people don’t change that. But for transgender people whose gender identity is different than their sex assigned at birth, every different agency has its own rules and criteria for making sex classifications, and they require different kinds of evidence to be presented. That means that a trans person can change their identity document at one place, but that [change doesn’t carry through to] another. 

I have been lucky. I’ve mostly caught up with everything, but there’s always some document you forget, and it’s this weird process to go through. In the book I talk about going to the DMV. I had a letter from a doctor that said I’d had all the treatment I needed. From the perspective of the trans person and the medical practitioner, trans health care is very individualized. Some people socially transition and have no body modification; other people have different levels of body modification. 

So I had one of these doctor’s letters, and I was questioned at the DMV, and experienced this weird thing that transgender studies scholar Ben Singer calls the “transgender sublime.” It’s when [a cisgender person] encounters a transgender person, and everything they normally know falls away because the category of gender has become unstable. At the DMV, a woman told me, “Oh, you need a letter from a physician, but the person who wrote your letter is a surgeon.” And she went to three different levels of authority to get the okay, and it wasn’t that she was being transphobic. But suddenly everything she knew was confused, including that a surgeon is a doctor. 

GC: Do you have any proposals for ways to reduce these sorts of bureaucratic hurdles and inconsistencies?

Currah: What I decided to do with this book was actually not to propose a solution. Because as an advocate, all we do is propose solutions. And the basic solution is that the government doesn’t really need to track people’s genders. Or, if they do, it should be that people can say what they are, M or F or nonbinary. But what I wanted to do with this book was to take step away from the advocate’s perspective and, as a scholar, to try to understand what accounts for the resistance to having classification policies that are good for transgender people. Is it because of transphobia? Or a certain kind of phobia about gender?

The more I delved into it, the more I realized that a lot of the obstacles for transpeople changing their gender identity on documents were accidental byproducts of the sex classification system in itself. The classification system originated because the government needed to have a distinction between men and women, because men got more rights and resources — or they used to — than women. So classification was built into everything from Social Security to identity documents. That was all baked into the architecture of governance. 

And then transpeople show up, and the classification system doesn’t fit us, because the system assumes that the sex you’re assigned at birth is your sex for life. A lot of the policies were created on the fly — maybe we’ll just say no to these people, or maybe we'll make them have genital surgery [in order to qualify for the classification they’re seeking]. The policies weren’t initially created to harm transgender people, even though transgender people were harmed by it. Of course, now we’re in a very different moment, with the political right wing actually intending to harm trans people, especially trans youth. 

GC: You’ve talked about the need for the trans community to challenge the larger asymmetries in gender relations. Why do you see the problems you’ve described as part of a broader issue involving gender?

Currah: There are a couple of related issues. One is that there’s been a kind of revolution in gender, and people understand that they’re not bound to live the gender they were assigned at birth for their entire lives, and that there are more than two genders and that people can be nonbinary and have lots of different gender identifications. I have a 12-year-old, and they know everything about gender from their peers and TikTok. And I tried to say, “You know, I know a couple things about gender,” and they’re like, “No, you don’t. You don’t know anything, there are all these new genders you've never even heard of.”

They don’t think I’m an expert in gender. And okay, probably I’m not from a 12-year-old’s perspective. But the point is that [this revolution in gender] is proliferating, and that’s really great. But one thing that’s dropped out of transgender politics and the celebration of all sorts of gender differences is a recognition that there is still a basic gender asymmetry. Certainly, the state doesn’t discriminate against women the way it used to. But there are still social norms and the organization of the economy and different kinds of work where women suffer, and especially women of color. So we still have gender asymmetry, and even though we live in this moment of gender pluralism, we still also have to look to the fact that gender still structures a lot of people’s lives in ways that are unjust. 

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