HILADELPHIA USED TO require every public transit pass to say whether a rider was female or male. For Charlene Arcila, a transgender woman, it didn't matter which option she chose; either way, some bus drivers deemed her pass illegitimate. Left to decide on the spot whether Arcila qualified as a man or woman, individual city workers would come to diffferent conclusions--but every one of them had the power to refuse to let her ride the bus.
Instituted in the 1980s as a protection against fraud, Philadelphia's sex-identifying transit cards didn't cause trouble just for transgender passengers. Plenty of cisgender folks--those whose gender identity conforms to the norm for their biological sex--fail to present as obviously male or female, and passengers of androgynous or ambiguous gender expression also found themselves at the mercy of the public transit sex police.
Following a lawsuit from Arcila and an outcry from local activists, Philadelphia removed sex identification from its transit passes in 2013. Harper Jean Tobin, policy chief for the National Center for Transgender Equality, followed this victory by pushing for mechanisms to make it easier for transgender Americans to change their sex identification on government documents. It's a popular idea in the modern feminist and LGBT movements. But for Heath Fogg Davis, a transgender man who teaches political science at Temple University, the strategy reflects a deficit in the way many activists think about gender liberation.
Instead of making it easier for individuals to move between two binary positions, Davis writes in his new book Beyond Trans, they should be "questioning our need for sex-classification policies" in the first place. What had made the Philadelphia case "so radical and important," he argues, "was the use of antidiscrimination law to challenge the need for bureaucratic sex classification itself." Beyond Trans is his comprehensive case that everyone--not just transgender people--"would be better off in a society with dramatically fewer sex-classification policies."
To be clear on terms, sex refers to your biological status as male, female, or intersex; it's the category that's determined by chromosomes and hormones. Gender incorporates the external fixings we attach to these biological categories--the bits governing our social expectations for how a man or woman should dress, look, talk, think, and act. Sex says men on average have lower levels of good cholesterol than women...