This morning, I read a post on the blog, Disrupting Dinner Parties, that blew my mind. We all talk about gender as a social construct, but how many of us think of biological sex in those terms? The post talked of the need to recognize the complicated science behind the creation of genitals– the actual formation of what we recognize as ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a result of many intricate reactions of hormones, and there are as many instances where male and female, as we understand them, do not emerge from these reactions. We may understand the children born as being intersex, but medical intervention at birth often seeks to correct this perceived anomaly. Specifically, the post made the point:

“What the medical community designates as “intersex" or not is motivated by politics, not biological facts. The goal of the way variation in sexual development is defined is to label as few people “intersex" as possible, so they don’t have to live with the “shame" of the diagnosis. The only conditions that are called intersex are ones that can’t be explained away to a child’s parents as a “slight genital abnormality." Thus, doctors are able to claim that only 1 in 1500 babies is born intersex. A much more pragmatic definition of intersex, as proposed by Dr. Cary Costello at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is when a body does not fully differentiate into male or female."

Click here for the full post.

The story of Pinki Pramanik, Asian Games gold medallist, bears this out. Born intersex, Pramanik identified as a woman, and took part in track athletics for India as a woman. However, a case of rape registered against Pramanik led the cops to conduct an unauthorized hyperandrogenism test—the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) uses this to determine the eligibility of female athletes, not male— to assess the level of testosterone in her body. According to Indian regulations, an athlete is not permitted to participate in a competitive sports event if the androgenic hormone is found to be greater than 2ng/ml. While the AFI clarified that this is not to be confused with a gender test, the implications of ‘too much testosterone’ is clear—femininity is called into question based on an arbitrary amount of hormone in the body of the athlete; arbitrary, because the International Association of Athletics Federations, a world body on which the AFI bases its regulations, puts the mark at 3ng/ml.

Pramanik’s gender was called into question because of the supposedly scientific basis of biological sex, which was actually some arbitrary quantity of a hormone that as it turns out is produced by both, men and women. Sprinter Dutee Chand, who recently won a gold medal at the 100m at the National Games held in Kerala, was also a victim of this test, which saw her being banned from competing and dropped from the Junior Athletic World Championships team last July. (Indian sprinter dropped from squad)

What this really shows us is that there aren’t simply two kinds of biological sex. We conflate biological sex with gender, but the two aren’t naturally connected at all. For, if they were, why would girls climb trees? Gender is a performance that we learn and unlearn as we grow; biological sex is a scheme of complicated genetics that we are taught to look at through the lens of gender. Perhaps the biggest blindspot we can throw light on is this: if gender is a spectrum, so is biological sex. And this is the most natural thing of all.

A fortnightly blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots