Today, the rigid view of a binary biological sex (male and female) and the vitriol of hatred aimed at the LGBTQ+ community is plain to see. While the hatred is unjustified, the cornerstone of the argument around ‘only’/’real’ men and women is fundamentally incorrect. Anti-trans legislation and policies rely on the limited understanding of biological sex and the dismissal of genders and sexes that exist outside of the binary male/female construction in the western world.
Not only does this affect the living, but it also affects how we view individuals in death. Many trans bodies are ‘lost’ within systems that ignore all aspects of biological sex and gender.
*Trigger Warning: Some links contain graphic medical images.*
Necropolitics and the Erasure of Trans and Non-Binary Bodies in Death
People are reported missing across the globe, and many are found without an identity or without the ability to prove their identity (alive or deceased). When a body is found, trying to figure out who they are (their identity) is a priority in order to inform and return them to their loved ones and prevent them from becoming unidentified or unclaimed. As a part of their identity, forensic experts try to assess their biological sex in order to significantly narrow down the missing persons search. For example, if the body was estimated to be the body of a woman, all missing person’s reports of men can be excluded.
This does not take into account the person’s gender identity. A person’s gender refers to characteristics that are socially constructed, including norms, behaviors, associated roles and relationships. Gender, as a construct and concept, can vary between societies and can change over time. While gender is deeply personal and integral to a person’s identity, it does not directly interact with a person’s biology or anatomy, and rarely features when searching for missing persons.
When searching for a missing person, the focus is on their biological sex, especially if they are found dead and can’t tell us who they are. As you can imagine, this is where identification becomes complex. Forensic experts can only estimate a person’s biological sex (not their gender) based on previous peer-reviewed research by other experts. Biological sex is built on the combination of sexual characteristics (their hormone levels, chromosomes (XX etc), do they have breasts?, etc).
In order to communicate what biological sex is, the textbook ‘sexes’ – male and female – were created. The sexual characteristics each must have is then applied to the majority of humans, even though this binary is a fallacy. There is a fundamental lack of understanding that what may fit the majority does not represent the entirety of the human species (not to mention the animal kingdom).
Further problems arise when binaries are applied to forensic science. In research and practice, estimating the biological sex of a body is determined by whether the person belongs to a male, probable male, probable female, female or indeterminate (unable to determine male or female). This contributes to the notion of a biological sex binary, and is reinforced by having the outcome only focused on achieving a male or female result. Hinging the identity of an individual on a binary spectrum for biological sex not only affects the missing persons and their identification, but also the greater understanding of biology in the living.
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF BIOLOGICAL SEX FROM CIS PERSONS?
Those who are cis or cis-gendered, a large portion of the population, feel that their personal identity and gender corresponds with their biological sex. That does not exclude them from having their biological sex differ (slightly) from the ‘textbook’ expectations.
Seeking procedures to confirm gender and biological sex- altering biology to ‘fit’ an ideal -are common trends among cis people. Individuals within the cis category may seek cosmetic surgery, or hormones, to improve their appearance or performance. Last year in the United States, surgical procedures increased 54% and non-surgical procedures were up 44% as according to the Aesthetic Society’s annual report. This came to a total of over 11 million procedures across all categories. This number includes those who may not be cis, but the majority of these procedures are gender confirming for all patients. Men may seek to create a stronger jawline through surgery, implants, or exercise, while women may seek to have their breasts augmented to fit a desired shape or size.
Alternatively, there are rare accidents where cis people are left without features from the ‘textbook’ biological sex, albeit temporarily. There have been a number of incidents (the link contains graphic images) where a young boy’s genitals (or a part of) have been severed during an accident. In these cases, surgeries during childhood focus on saving their life by providing something functional until the child is of adult age and can seek corrective and cosmetic procedures. These examples are of children who are biologically male and identify as a man, but temporarily exist outside of the ‘textbook’ male biological sex. Based on how policies are written and how they are searched for, missing persons are directly affected if they do not physically represent the ‘textbook standard’ at every moment in their life.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO ARE INTERSEX?
When we step out of the cis umbrella, we can begin to recognize other biological sexes and gender identities, including the sexes that form our understanding of Intersex. Intersex people have one or a range of variations in sexual characteristics that fall outside of the ‘textbook’ male or female body. Close to 2% of the population are estimated to be intersex – that’s about the same percentage of redheads in the world – with many individuals not knowing they are intersex until they seek genetic testing.
Intersex is not a ‘third’ sex, but an umbrella term for multiple biological sexes that fall outside of the ‘textbook’.
For babies who have external characteristics that represent a ‘textbook’ sex, they are assigned that sex at birth and its recorded on their birth certificate. It’s usually not until puberty or later when it’s realized that they are not cis after all. Those who have Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome are born with an underdeveloped or absent vagina and uterus which can go unnoticed until puberty or adolescence. Some individuals with MRKH identify as women and seek surgery to gain the missing organs, but due to the ‘textbook’ expectations, nearly all individuals with MRKH are pressured to seek surgery and surgeries are often performed without consent (especially in children). This ‘textbook’ sex concept is harming the lives of these individuals, the understanding of their biology, and many have spoken out about their experiences.
In some cases, intersex persons have given birth to children. There is one instance where an intersex person was assigned female at birth, had XY chromosomes (assumed to be ‘male’), developed breasts, and lived their life as a woman and gave birth to two children. Only during their child’s puberty, did they seek genetic testing and found the child and birthing parent to be intersex as well. Hypothetically speaking, if an intersex person with a similar experience was to die and was found as a skeleton, experts would not know if their biological sex was male (based on genetic testing) or female (based on their lived biological experience as a woman).
Recently, a grave found in Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Hattula, Finland dated to 1050–1300 CE was re-analyzed. The ancient DNA (aDNA) genetic analysis was focused on determining the chromosomes of the person and resulted in an XXY result (most likely as the limitations for this testing were high). This result was outside of their expected and assumed chromosome analysis of ‘textbook’ male and female, and this person’s gender has been estimated by two teams as female and non-binary. Intersex individuals with XXY chromosomes continue to exist today and can identify their gender as they wish.
This archaeological case raises many questions, including if the bones of a person are degraded enough that only aDNA is possible for estimating sex, will they be incorrectly estimated because our models don’t include intersex persons? It would be ideal if intersex persons were included or considered in research and forensic practice – but this is not quite the case.
HOW IS THAT RELATED TO TRANS PERSONS?
Trans is an umbrella term for all individuals whose gender identity does not (or did not) align with the biological sex that was assigned at birth. This can include some intersex persons, those who don’t alter their sexual characteristics to align with their gender, and those who are agender or non-binary.
Many trans persons seek to alter their biological sex to confirm their gender. There are many sexual characteristics that can be altered pre and post puberty, for example, hormones such as testosterone or estrogen with an anti-androgen can be prescribed to trans persons as hormonal therapy to alter their hormonal levels to assist with their transition. This would affect the body of the person, specifically the sexual development of their skeleton, if these hormones are received before or during puberty.
The bones of an individual can express sexual features, such as ‘wide hips’ to assist with birthing, and these features become significant after puberty. Those who transition after puberty, may seek to alter the bones that express sexual features through surgery or hormones. These changes can be detected in forensic analysis, which can assist with the identification of individuals post death.
Unfortunately, many trans individuals go missing and struggle to be identified after death. The Trans Doe Task Force is a Trans-led nonprofit organization that assists with identifying missing persons and returning them to their loved ones. As one of the only organizations focused on trans and gender diverse missing persons, their work is incredibly important in highlighting the fallacy of a ‘textbook’ biological sex when it comes to missing persons.
Transgender and gender-diverse people are disproportionately present in the medico-legal systems around the world and due to the misunderstandings around ‘textbook’ sexes, they can slip through the cracks and never be found. The case of Julie Doe from Florida is one of many examples. Julie Doe’s case remained without progress for 27 years because her body was deemed as cis. During the missing persons search, investigators ignored the possibility that Doe was a trans woman, and it wasn’t until genetic testing that her trans identity was confirmed, although her identification and case is not yet solved. This is sadly the case for many trans individuals.
DISCUSSION / CONCLUSION:
Biological sex is not as clear cut as many people believe, and this belief (not based in science) harms the living and the deceased. For example, the living are held to standards and ideals that can be unachievable – such as having a certain level of testosterone in their body. This is the case even though no sexual characteristic applies to just one biological sex.
A large number of the trans and intersex community are murdered for simply existing. By not having an understanding and the research to correctly estimate a body’s biological sex, the dead are unseen and/or can remain as a missing person indefinitely, which compounds the feelings of grief and loss for their loved ones and communities. By not finding and recognizing the dead for who they are, they remain invisible.
As a non-cis forensic expert, the pain of invisibility is too real. Many in my community may never be found due to misunderstandings around the meaning of biological sex. The fact that the dead may never return home to their loved ones is an additional pain that we shouldn’t have to face. Work and research in trans and intersex death care should be led by those of us who understand the challenges from both perspectives and are impacted by the work directly and indirectly. Trans and intersex voices should be heard. Our bodies are just as valid in life as they are in death.
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