Review: Beyond Trans, Heath Fogg Davis

So it used to be that I cared what words people used to describe their gender. Not a lot, but some. Enough to roll my eyes about this or that gender description that I suspected the youths had gotten from spending too much time on Tumblr. At some point, though, I stopped caring, and I have to tell you that it is a much, much better way of life. Society wants you to care a lot about gender, and my path as I have gotten older and older is to care about gender closer and closer to zero. Are women supposed to this? Are men supposed to that?


Heath Fogg Davis’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? is a refreshing reminder that many of the areas in which we think we care about gender could do with some reexamination. He’s not actually arguing that gender never matters, although as I get older and older I more and more think that it maybe does not. Does gender matter isn’t a rhetorical question for Davis; the book explores whether and how gender matters on personal identification documents, in various sports settings, bathrooms, sex-segregated schools, etc.

A government agency such as the CDC has legitimate public health reasons for collecting and maintaining sex-specific data. However, the agency should define its use of those terms and clearly articulate the “substantial” connection between its use of sex classification and its institutional objectives. Instead of using “female” or “male” as a proxy for particular body parts, the agency may find that the more targeted language of “people with uteruses” or “people with prostate glands” is more statistically inclusive.

That is just a really good idea? Because of trans and intersex people (intersex people are as common as redheads, a statistic I read recently in Hida Viloria’s Born Both and now can’t stop repeating to people), many of the common gender definitions turn out to be inadequate. Differentiating between sex classifications that depend on hormone differences, present or absent body parts, and present or absent chromosomes enables us to have clearer conversations about what criteria are being applied and why. As Davis points out, the alternative is that we depend on the discretion of individuals like TSA agents, bouncers, or bus drivers to determine whether a person’s gender/sex matches what’s on their documents. Which is unfair to the people whose gender is being policed, and also unfair to the people being asked to police gender without any clear definitions or guides on how to do it.

At a minimum, I would like to see individual schools clearly and publicly explain whether and how sex classification is related to their organizational aims.

This is basically what Davis is asking for: Not that organizations unilaterally eliminate gender as an identifier, but rather that they take a step back and ask themselves why they need to know and what goals will be accomplished by asking this question.

I don’t always agree with Davis’s arguments — at one point he makes the case for increased use of biometrics, which seems dicey as hell from a privacy standpoint — but Beyond Trans is an excellent book that asks its readers to stop taking gender for granted and instead to think critically about what gender differentiation is accomplishing in all the spheres where we think it’s important. Is it actually important? Davis asks, or is it just a habit? And if it’s the latter, why do we need to keep caring about it?

Thanks to the lovely Monika for reviewing this book recently and reminding me of how much I wanted to read it too!

  • Ceillie Simkiss

    I’m so glad you read this one! I discussed it a few months back, and I had some concerns about the biometrics issues as well. I don’t want the schools, a public organization, having my medical info, or my kids’ medical info. They had enough about me as an IEP student – they had all my diagnosis paperwork. This book gave me *a lot* to think about though!

  • Heather O’Roark

    This is really interesting and I’m with you in that I used to care more about gender than I do now. Does it matter at all? I am getting to the point where I really think it doesn’t. But in my younger years, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to ask that question – which is why books like this are so important, as is just having conversations about these topics. Very interesting!

  • I added this to my to-read list after Monika’s review and yours reminded me how awesome it sounds! Especially after reading Delusions of Gender, I do feel like we’re often making a big deal out of nothing. And, perhaps more to the point this book makes, we are asking a very poorly defined question when we just say ‘check male or female’. I should definitely pick this up 🙂

  • Alley

    “Not that organizations unilaterally eliminate gender as an identifier, but rather that they take a step back and ask themselves why they need to know and what goals will be accomplished by asking this question.” I really like this thought. Something I hadn’t really considered

  • *whisper-shouts* SELF IDENTIFICATION FOR THE WIN! 😉

    I’m cis-gender, but I really think everyone should have the right to their own labels. Until we all agree to believe what people say about something so personal to themselves, we’re not going to move forward. (And yes, that goes for sexuality labels too – I’m sick to death of people arguing labels with me. Other queer people are ironically the worst.)

    As far as forms of ID etc. – as long as your photo-ID matches your current face, we really shouldn’t give an ever-loving sh**!