Gender & Society

Opinion | Sex Does Not Mean Gender. Equating Them Erases Trans Lives.

Last week, the judiciary offered trans people some relief. The Supreme Court ruled, “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII,” which prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex. Aimee Stephens, a trans woman and a plaintiff in the case, was fired after notifying her employer she would be transitioning. As the court argued, she was fired because of her sex. The logic is impeccable. The only difference between a trans woman and a cisgender woman is the sex assigned to her at birth: Firing a trans woman but keeping a cis woman must be discrimination based on sex, which is illegal.In finding for Aimee Stephens, the Supreme Court reinforced the centrality of bodies to the word “sex,” while undermining the patriarchal belief that our bodies should determine our gender. Unfortunately, the protections depend on the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and remain as limited as the imaginations of its authors. While male and female people are protected classes, nonbinary or genderqueer people may not have enforceable rights — say, to a gender-neutral bathroom — under the act.Clarity in language provides social and linguistic accommodation for those of us traditionally denied both. The battle for civil rights is the battle over words. Denying trans people passports because our gender doesn’t match the sex assigned to us at birth limits freedom of movement. For trans immigrants and asylum seekers, this restricts access to families abroad. Denying trans people access to bathrooms on the basis of sex denies us access to public spaces. (Can you imagine spending a day at school or work without using the bathroom? If you can’t pee, you don’t have access.)When you use words like “male” as shorthand for those privileged by the patriarchy, you leave trans women uncertain whether you have our backs or — like the Trump administration and J.K. Rowling — you are trying to write us out of existence. It’s impossible to dismantle the patriarchy while wearing a “pussy hat.”The anti-trans clique would pursue legal restrictions where nature has concocted something more anarchic. But we are already here, being trans, at your job, on your block, in your bathroom. And we deserve no less. Rooting our social possibilities in our bodies is an abandonment of our humanity in favor of mere anatomy.Devin Michelle Bunten (@devin_mb) is a writer and an assistant professor of urban economics and housing at M.I.T.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

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