I wanted to start this piece with a quote from a book called In The Wake, by Christina Sharpe. I read it when it came out in 2016, and there’s a part in it where she writes about the fact that when Africans were kidnapped and placed onto slave ships, nothing was recorded about them except for their relative size, whether they were small, medium, or large. It wasn’t until the ships landed in colonies and people were being unloaded that merchant representatives assigned them a sex: male or female.
Sharpe uses this as evidence for slave dehumanization. How much more evidence do you need of people being treated as objects, when they have no sex, no gender, and exist as mere cargo, as chattel? I agree that this is certainly the slaveholder intention—but I also think this moment is an incredible intervention opportunity for us to consider the purposes and possibilities of sex and gender assignation from a specifically located Black perspective.
I wanted to find the quote, but the version of the book that I marked up, where this passage would be easily identifiable, is with my friend in unceded Algonquin territory, in what is currently known as Ottawa—while I am in land that I understand to be either traditional territory or gathering place for Métis, Saulteaux, Nakota Sioux, Cree, Blackfoot, and Dene peoples, with many more often named, in what is currently known as Edmonton. I purchased a new copy, convinced I would be able to find the passage easily, but flipping through it fucked me up, and I don’t actually want to re-read the book right now. So instead, to start us off, you get a story about my memory of having read the book, the information it held, a story that involves two Black queer women sharing books and being unable to do our work to the standards we set for ourselves because of the fact that we’re too busy sharing and surviving, as Black women, in white supremacy.
It’s easy to imagine why slaveholders would not be interested in inspecting our ancestors’ genitals until they had survived the middle passage. As a state-sanctioned authority, you don’t have to be interested in people’s genitals unless you’re invested in controlling reproduction. Breeding. We know why.
What does it mean to say that someone has been assigned a sex? We think of the noun “sex” (as opposed to the verb “sex”) as being about how a person has genitals—whether those genitals are a penis or a vulva—in addition to how a person has chromosomes, secondary characteristics like body hair and fat distribution resulting from hormones, and internal reproductive organs, which are all kinds of sex characteristics. I am not calling anyone’s genitals “male genitals” or “female genitals” because there’s no such thing. We are taught that there are only two ways of having sex characteristics: that people with a certain kind of genitals always have a certain set of chromosomes, a certain level of hormones, and certain kinds of secondary sex characteristics.
This is a remarkably convenient taxonomical system for governments who are obsessed with identifying and organizing people into certain kinds of relationships, controlling who reproduces and under what circumstances: in poverty, under surveillance, under conditions of environmental genocide, incarcerated, or in privacy, with wealth, with tax benefits.
It is not true that there are only two kinds of genitals. It is not true that a person with any kind of genitals will always have a certain set of chromosomes, a certain level of hormones, and certain kinds of secondary sex characteristics. Intersex people have been doing the work of deconstructing these harmful assumptions for decades. However, people cling to sex assignation, calling it “biological sex,” sanctifying sex assignation as scientific and therefore incontrovertible, purporting it to be more real than people’s lived experiences and knowledge of their own bodies, validating it as the best we’ve got, insisting that sex assignation is important for two reasons: for people’s health, medically, and for the purpose of assigning gender.
The medical rationale has some logic, because we can certainly recognize that it makes sense that some parts of our bodies have an impact on the structure and function of other parts of our bodies. However, the theorizing around these relationships is muddied by centuries of cis supremacy—the overarching word for the system of oppression responsible for transphobia—and its investments in delineating a hierarchy between the two (false) sexes accepted as fact in science. Sex assignation in medicine is only ever used to establish some as “better than,” some as “worse than” and some as “non existent” or “aberrant” (in the case of intersex people, transgender people, and non binary people). This hierarchization is clear in one of my recent encounters with the medical system.
I am not here for the nonsense of gender reform, of doubling down, of trying to make sex and gender categories more real or more quantifiable, arguing for inclusion into or compliance with white binary genders to make us legible to those who would seek to have us for their convenience or destroy us.
I am a cis woman. That means that when I was born, doctors investigated my genitals, checked a box marked “female,” and from there I was presumed to be a girl who would grow into a woman. This cascade of assumptions turned out to be correct, because I am indeed a woman, but I am a woman because I am a woman, not because a doctor told me I am, or because of my body’s assortment of sex characteristics.
Because I have endured chronic insomnia for over ten years, I am currently in the process of undergoing sleep testing just to make sure that the reason I’m not sleeping is because of the state of the world, not because of anything physiologically off-kilter.
One of these tests is a breathing test, called a spirometer, which measures the movement of air into and out of our lungs. Spirometers were popularized in the United States by plantation physicians, who used them to fabricate data and say that Black people had smaller lung capacities than white people, and therefore were well suited for slave labour because the vigorous outdoor exercise would help keep us alive. Spirometers to this day use a race box as an input value to help physicians determine the maximum lung capacity a person ought to be measured against.
To help illustrate the implications of this racism, imagine that amongst all humans, lungs can be measured on a size scale that ranges from one to ten. White people, in this exercise scenario, are presumed to have lungs that are always a size ten in health, and Black people are assumed to have lungs that are always a size seven in health. If my physician set my healthy lung metric at seven, and I blew a six, that would be fine. I would be in great lung health. However, if the healthy lung size that I should actually be measured against is a ten, and I’ve blown a six, then there’s a larger problem at play that would go completely undiagnosed.
I asked the physician I saw for my spirometer testing to leave the race box blank, and he informed me that at that clinic they do so as a matter of course. “Race by itself as a category generally has no bearing on people’s baseline lung size,” he informed me. But when I asked what he would be using to determine my baseline lung size, he informed me that he would use my height, weight, and sex. This led me to give a workshop about how the sex binary is fake, provide some resources on competent transgender health care, and ask him to explain to me why the secondary sex characteristics he could observe on my body (I hadn’t shown any identification and I do not know my chromosome or endocrine profile, as I’ve never had testing done on this front) were being used to determine my baseline lung size. Like honestly, are my lungs in my tits? I don’t think so?
At this point he listened confused but carefully, kept “female” marked in the drop-down menu, and said “that’s just the way it is” to move on with the test. To return to our imagined scenario about the consequences of lung size assumptions, I cannot help but guess that the marking of “female” in this lung testing software perhaps designates that the maximum healthy lung size I could have is an eight, while someone who this physician assumed to have been assigned male at birth could have a maximum healthy lung size of ten. Again, if I blow a seven out of eight, that’s not too big of a deal, but if my maximum healthy lung size should actually be ten, and I blow a seven out of ten, then something potentially dangerous may be going undiagnosed. As it turns out, I have excellent lung function based on whatever oppressive, messy-ass metrics are being used to measure my breathing. I joked to my partner that my Women’s Lungs are Very Healthy.
This process, the process of sex assignation, is fraught because it ignores and antagonizes the existence of intersex, trans, and non binary people in the name of harmfully delineating a hierarchy between the two (false) sexes accepted as fact in science. Cis supremacy informs the way that doctors assign and classify literal infants as male or female based on genital assessment, even though genitals are only one of a whole host of sex characteristics. Only if there is ambiguity in a person’s genitals does the medical system decide to look into a person’s chromosomes and internal organ structures to try and assign them one of two sexes at all.
Who actually knows their chromosome profile? Who knows their relative endocrine levels? Sex characteristics exist as a galaxy. There is so much natural variation in chromosomes, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, genital configurations, and gonads, because this is how people are. The sex binary is absolutely fake, and the rationale that we must continue to rely on it for medical purposes is erroneous.
What of the use of sex assignation to assign gender? Each false sex category is associated with a host of various personality and social characteristics. The amalgam of these is what constitutes the common understanding of gender as a binary: this idea that female = girl = woman, or that male = boy = man. It’s vital to note here that certain genitals, chromosomes, secondary characteristics, and organs don’t determine people’s gender, because it’s not sex characteristics that determine people’s gender: it’s people themselves that determine their gender.
If a person is a woman, then they have a woman body. If a person is genderfluid, then they have a genderfluid body. Also, just because a person has sex characteristics in configurations that don’t comply with the sex binary, that doesn’t make that person non binary in terms of their gender. It’s a person being non binary that makes them have a non binary body. Trans people have been saying all of these things for an extremely long time.
This is a situation that requires creativity: what would the future look like, if instead, gender were something infinite to grow into?
The gender binary in western society is the most common way of understanding gender (male/female, man/woman, boy/girl), and some people understand their genders within this binary, but many do not. We can very easily list common words and phrases associated with what it means to act like each of the binary genders, and what feelings each of the binary genders are supposed to experience. Men are meant to be strong, tough, in control, smart, objective, dominant, confident, silent, and independent, to not show emotions and to not ask for or need help. Women are meant to be nice, kind, weak, gossipy, fearful, sad, cooperative, submissive, and maternal, to have low self-esteem, to cry, to get hysterical and emotional.
But what happens when we name these lists as applying specifically to white women and white men, and instead look at what the list consists of when we change it to be about Black women and Black men? Black men are considered strong and tough and dominant, violent, hypersexual, dirty, animalistic, and stupid. Black women are considered cooperative, submissive, aggressive, angry, hypersexual, dirty, animalistic, and stupid.
Even just within the binary—two of infinite genders—from these lists we can see that gender is mediated by racialization. “Black binary gender has,” as Hari Ziyad writes in “My Gender is Black,” “not been used to indicate a shared womanhood or manhood with people within white society, but to highlight how Black people are out of step with womanhood and manhood.” Ziyad continues: “Black gender is always gender done wrong, done dysfunctionally, done in a way that is not “normal.”” This is what Ziyad means, when, in the same exquisite article, he writes that “gender identity under whiteness is a tool, not an end.” Black men are kind of like white men, but more sexual, more aggressive. Black women are kind of like white women, but more sexual, more aggressive. Whiteness is the endlessly unnamed standard to which Black will always be measured for whiteness’ purposes.
Sex has been and continues to be not-assigned or assigned to Black people in accordance with the whims of slave masters invested in controlling our reproduction, in accordance with the medical industry’s desire to demonstrate our bodies’ higher capacity to tolerate pain or lower lung capacity in the name of deeming us appropriate for certain kinds of labour, in the name of deciding our futures. In the same way, gender identity as it exists under whiteness is a tool used to distance us from whiteness. The gendered characteristics for each of the assigned sexes is specific to Blackness and shifts according to white whim to be whatever is most convenient.
Take, for example, Black women who are spoken of as naturally subservient until we resist or refuse, at which point we are aggressive and in need of further discipline in the form of corporal punishment. This is the story of mediated Black womanhood during the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, which was a temporary work program instituted in Canada after World War II to bring single Black women from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados to Canada as domestic labourers. Once Caribbean women began organizing in resistance to workplace abuse, the federal government started targeting Filipina workers instead. Distance from whiteness would be fine, because who the hell would want to be white, except for the fact that under whiteness, whiteness is synonymous with empathisability, with being recognized as full and complex beings.
I am not here for the nonsense of gender reform, of doubling down, of trying to make sex and gender categories more real or more quantifiable, arguing for inclusion into or compliance with white binary genders to make us legible to those who would seek to have us for their convenience or destroy us. That has played out already: take, for example, the assertion from Black Nationalist leaders that queer women in the early 1900s were race betrayers for not “strategically hewing to Victorian gender roles in order to present ‘the race’ as fit for full citizenship”; or the framing of racial attacks on Black men as “feminizing” and subsequent insistences that Black men need to be “remasculinized” in order for anti-Black violence to end.
I am also not here for the cisgender nonsense of proposing that we abolish gender altogether as a viable response to learning that sex and gender assignation are violent practices. What I would like to propose instead is that we take the moment that Christina Sharpe describes, where sex is assigned to Black enslaved people upon their landing on stolen land in colonies, as a moment that perfectly demonstrates how anti-Black the assignation of sex is, how anti-Black the assignation of gender is, and ask and affirm the following instead:
- Why would we as Black people participate in systems that were only ever designed for our domination?
- Why would we as Black people participate in mediating others’ sexes and genders when sex and gender are tools constructed for our own domination?
- This is a situation that requires creativity: what would the future look like, if instead, gender were something infinite to grow into?
- Returning once more to Ziyad’s writing, how do we get to that end, that world in which all of our genders or lack thereof aren’t used as the basis for our inhuman treatment?
In duty of care and gratitude to NA for organizing; RW for sharing; JB, AB, VG, PL, & SR for being attuned to first drafts.
“Have We A New Sex Problem Here?” Black Queer Women in the Early Great Migration, Cookie Woolner, 2017
How Racism Seeps Into Medicine, Hamza Shaban, 2014
In the Wake, Christina Sharpe, 2016
Intersex Roadshow, Cary Gabriel Costello, 2009
Inversion and Invisibility: Black Women, Black Masculinity, and Anti-Blackness, LaKeyma King, 2015
My Gender is Black, Hari Ziyad, 2017
Policing Black Lives, Robyn Maynard, 2017
Transition, Akwaeke Emezi, 2018