Think gender is determined by patriarchal biological concepts like a chromosome? You’ll never make it in sociology thinking that way.
Instead, the social sciences are slowly overturning concepts like genital and chromosomes and other science, and it is being replaced by self-identity. The criteria for determining gender now, say Laurel Westbrook, assistant professor of sociology at Grand Valley State, and Kristen Schilt, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, have changed and self-identity is paramount. Only sex-segregated spaces believe that biology determines gender, they conclude.
If that becomes policy, it means that every female record in sports is going to be overturned soon. And that isn’t the only way women will be impacted in society. Right now, the sociologists argue, transgendered people are not allowed in female locker rooms or bathrooms or sports teams due to legacy understanding of gender as biological. Westbrook said as a result of these fears, transgender rights policies are often discarded or altered in ways that force transgender people to conform to normative ideas of gendered bodies in order to access public facilities and activities that fit their identities.
“We explore the criteria for determining who is a ‘man’ and who is a ‘woman’ in sex-segregated spaces,” said Westbrook. “We are at an interesting point in the history of gender, where people are torn between valuing self-identity and believing that biology determines gender. Our study explores that change in the gender system.”
They examined case studies involving 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.
“Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today, and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism,” said Westbrook. “In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term ‘gender panics,’ are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: a belief that gender is determined by biology versus a belief that a person’s self-identity in terms of gender should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have access to particular rights.”