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The Mass Media

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Sex, gender and why they don’t actually matter

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Olivia Reid
A trans flag and a progress pride flag hang outside of the Campus Center food court. Photo by Olivia Reid / Photography Editor.

UMass Boston prides itself on being diverse and inclusive, but unfortunately, the administration’s efforts tend to feel more like posturing than like commitment. It’s true for how they’ve handled Israel-Palestine, the Africana Studies Department and, topically, gender identity and transgender students. UMass Boston seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of sex, gender and sexuality—something that the existence of the Queer Student Center alone can’t fix.  

My issues here as a transgender man, thankfully, have been relatively minor, especially because I had already transitioned prior to coming to UMass Boston. Certain forms and websites mix up sex and gender. Just in the past couple of months, UMass Boston’s general merit scholarship application asks you to input your sex, then displays this as gender. On the Housing website, earlier in the year when I applied to live on-campus, the same thing happened: Despite my gender being listed as male, it displayed my gender as female for my roommates because my legal sex at the time was female. UMass Boston also falls into the all-too-common trap of listing “transgender male” and “male” as two separate genders, as if my being transgender makes me an entirely separate, not-quite-male man. Anecdotally, I know other transgender students have had it much worse. 

Sex and gender are two of the most confused concepts in conversations about queer people—sometimes intentionally so—and assigned-sex-at-birth language was invented to help with this distinction. Sex is a person’s physical sex characteristics, and gender, a complicated mixture of identity and presentation, is something entirely different. To say someone is “assigned female” or “assigned male” at birth is usually to discuss what sex characteristics they were (outwardly) born with: If someone is assigned male at birth and their gender is male, they are cisgender, and if someone is assigned male at birth but their gender is female, they’re a transgender woman.  

Easy enough—but of course, people aren’t that easy. Besides the multitude of intersex conditions and nonbinary genders that complicate the ease of simple categories, assigned-sex-at-birth language oftentimes conflates sex and gender all the same. People defy categorization, especially nonbinary and intersex people who, by definition, fall outside the box. There are times when these categories are useful; for example, it’s useful to discuss the ways in which trans women are treated as “scary men” invading bathrooms, or the ways in which trans men are derided as “confused girls.” That conversation, however, is an entirely different setting than a DMV or admissions office.  

Unless you’re my doctor or we’re in a relationship, you don’t need to know my assigned sex—simple as that. If the situation calls for it, use the medical terms for anything you need to, and if you don’t need to use the medical word, then it’s none of your business anyway. Confusing gender and sex can be a genuine issue for any number of reasons, and most of the time, whoever’s asking doesn’t even need to know either. More than anything, mixing up sex and gender and even using assigned-sex-at-birth language contributes to the subtle, pervasive idea that transgender people aren’t “actually” their gender, or are “choosing” to be transgender. The implication that transgender people are “lying” or “tricking” people is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and purposefully or not, UMass Boston is adding fuel to that fire.

Like it or not, people will always do whatever they want with their gender, and yes, with their sex. Trying to pin someone down based on their assigned sex at birthmore accurately, their perceived sex at birthis messy, complicated and ultimately fruitless. With states across the country passing dozens of anti-transgender laws, UMass Boston has a duty to provide as best they can for their transgender students. While it’s certainly better than Florida, the bare minimum simply isn’t enough.

About the Contributors
Elijah Horwath, Opinions Editor
Olivia Reid, Photo Editor