9 min read

Dear Quinn: why do you describe your sex as 'male'?

I call myself male because I am not interested in upholding the false binary of ‘biological sex’ that is used to oppress and discriminate against trans people. 
Dear Quinn: why do you describe your sex as 'male'?
Hello! Welcome to Genderbent, a newsletter about gender, transmasculinity, and mental illness by journalist Quinn Rhodes.

A few months ago, trans writer and speaker Phil Hill posted a question about the language other trans people use to talk about their bodies and their sex on their Instagram stories. I replied, sharing that I use 'male' and they asked if I'd be comfortable explaining why. I didn't have the spoons to give them proper answer then, but they kindly agreed that I could answer in the format of a newsletter.

Before we dive in, it's important to me to state that I'm NOT saying that this is the "right way" for trans people to talk about their sex and gender. I don't think all trans people have to use language in the same way I do – I use this language because it works for me, not because I think other people should do the same.

Dear Quinn: why do you describe your sex as 'male'?

[CW: transphobia]

I describe myself as male because I am a man.

In some ways it’s as simple as that: ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ are the words we use to describe men. In others, it’s a lot more complicated. Even after I’d come to terms with the fact that I was a man, it still took me a while to claim ‘male’ as a word I wasn’t only allowed to use but actively wanted to. 

I describe myself as ‘male’ because I reject the idea that any part of me is female or woman-like. Not because it is bad to be female or woman-like – despite what angry people on social media have informed me about my own gender, I do not “think I’m a trans man due to internalised misogyny” – but because I am simply not those things. 

I feel like trans folks are often expected to tell people that we understand that gender is different to biological sex. We’re accused of denying the reality of ‘biological sex’, but honestly? The binary of ‘biological sex’ that we’re accused of ignoring is false.

Did you know that I might have a prostate? Research published last year in the World Journal of Urology showed that trans men taking testosterone had developed prostate tissue. While the sample size is small – with twenty-one men who underwent bottom surgery being studied – their length of time on testosterone varied between 1.4 and 12.1 years, and all of them “demonstrated prostatic metaplasia.” 

I’ve been on testosterone for 1.47 years; I might have prostate tissue. That’s not only incredibly gender affirming, but shows that most cis people and transphobes' understanding of ‘biological sex’ as something inherent, irrefutable, and unchangeable is bullshit. 

Setting my prostate aside, what we understand to be our ‘biological sex’ is made up of five main components: chromosomes, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, and internal and external genitalia. It’s a lot more complicated than our bodies just being ‘male’ or ‘female’. 

Let’s start with chromosomes. We’re taught that people with XX chromosomes are female and XY chromosomes are male, but you probably don’t know what chromosomes you have. People with XXY, XXX, XYY, or X chromosomes are quite common. 

The false binary of hormones is somewhat better understood. While testosterone is seen as the ‘male’ hormone and oestrogen as the ‘female’ hormone, most people have both testosterone and oestrogen in their bodies. Cis women typically have lower testosterone rates than men, but people with conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (which affects around 7–10% of people with ovaries) can have higher testosterone levels than ‘normal’ – though it’s important to note that ‘normal’ is based in white supremacy and transphobia.

I’ve been on testosterone for almost sixteen months now. My testosterone levels are undoubtedly higher than most cis women, and maybe even fall into the ‘normal’ range for cis men. Although my body isn’t producing those levels of testosterone naturally, do my testosterone levels mean my body is closer to ‘male’ if we were to use the false male-female binary of sex, at least in terms of my hormones?

Secondary sex characteristics, also referred to as hormone expression, refers to the physical effects of hormones on our bodies which start developing during puberty. For cis men, these include body and facial hair and a deeper voice – all of which I’m developing as I go through puberty for the second time. (My sideburns and the hair on my belly are bringing me a lot of gender euphoria right now.)

Again, the argument that our ‘biological sex’ is fixed is incorrect. When I get top surgery, my most visibly obvious secondary sec characteristic that leads people to (incorrectly) assume that I am a woman will be gone. My noticeable secondary sex characteristics will be those we associate with men. 

Cis people are constantly interested in trans people’s genitals, to the extent that MPs in the UK are being asked whether they think women can have a penis. (Obviously they can and do.) Internal genitalia include testes, vas deferens, fallopian tubes, uteri, and ovaries. It’s here where transphobes try (and fail) to create a definition of ‘women’ that excludes trans women but includes cis women who have had an ovariectomy or hysterectomy. (They can’t, because gender is not based on biology.) 

External genitalia are the parts of our junk that we can see: the penis, vulva, clitoris, and scrotum. This is what our sex assigned at birth is based on, depending on whether a doctor can see a penis or not. Despite the ‘F’ on my birth certificate, I do have a dick, even if it doesn’t look like what cis people might expect a dick to look like. When it comes to my body, when it comes to my junk, my internal reality and understanding of myself is far more important than other people’s assumptions about it.  

By the components on which we base our idea of ‘biological sex’, my body doesn’t fit neatly into either of the made-up binary categories. And I’m not going through these components to show that my body is more ‘biologically male’ than it is ‘biologically female’ – I reject that the idea of ‘biological sex’ is either accurate or important. 

Using ‘male’ to describe my sex feels similar to how I use ‘transsexual’ to describe my gender. I’ve been doing the latter since listening to Kai Cheng Thom’s Gender Reveal episode. I call myself transsexual because I love the idea that not just my gender but also my sex and my body is trans. Like ‘male’, I have called myself ‘transsexual’ before I began my medical transition, because I do not believe I – or any other trans person – needs to start hormones or undergo surgery to justify their gender or their sex.

And like ‘transsexual’, part of me likes the idea that cis people might not agree with or even be comfortable with how I’m describing myself. I do not think trans people owe anyone neat or easily understandable words to describe our genders. I do not think trans people need to stick to language that is strictly accurate when talking about our bodies. And I honestly do not care if using ‘male’ to describe my sex upsets or confuses anyone else. 

While cis people often insist sex and gender are different things, I feel separating them is a way to undermine trans people’s genders. The concept of ‘biological sex’ is currently used to attempt to deny trans people rights, and deny us services and spaces to which the law protects our access to. To say that my sex is female not only makes me dysphoric, but also suggests that my body in some way dictates my gender. (It doesn’t.)

I do not owe anyone information about what sex I was assigned at birth. The exception to this is in a medical setting, where accurate information about my body is pertinent to ensuring I receive the correct care. But even then, doctors and medical professionals need to know more than just the sex I was assigned at birth. 

There’s currently an ‘F’ on my NHS records, meaning that since turning twenty-five earlier this year I began receiving letters asking me to attend a cervical screening. But if I have prostate tissue, does that mean I also need to get checked for prostate cancer? If I have bottom surgery in the future, will I still need to get pap smears? 

The idea that our bodies should fit into a rigid binary is why I ended up taking a medication that actually changed my body and made me more dysphoric. I use ‘male’ as a rejection of the idea that ‘female’ describes anything about me other than the sex I was assigned at birth. I use ‘male’ as a fuck you to the false binary that says non-binary people cannot exist and intersex people must undergo non-consensual, invasive surgeries as infants to force their bodies to conform to an absurdly over-simplified understanding of sex. 

There is no such thing as an inherently ‘male’ or ‘female’ body. I describe my body and my sex as ‘male’ because that’s how we talk about the bodies and sex of men. I call myself male because I am not interested in upholding the false binary of ‘biological sex’ that is used to oppress and discriminate against trans people. 

I describe my sex as ‘male’ because it makes me feel good, and I will not apologise for prioritising that over everything else.

Links to what I've been writing, reading, and generally getting excited about recently – now with brilliant new artwork by @drawn.in.the.fog.
  • An article I've been working on for months about the barriers trans masculine people still face in trying to access PrEP is finally up! It's one of my favourite pieces I've ever written, and it even got a shout out in a Gender Reveal Patreon newsletter! "Taking PrEP connects me to the generations of queer and trans people who fought for queer rights and ensured that I got to figure out my sexuality and gender in a world that isn’t free from transphobia or bigotry, but where gay marriage has been legal and PrEP available on the NHS my entire adulthood."
  • I was honoured to be interviewed for Press Play, Turn On – an incredible, Audible-only podcast series hosted by Amelia Lander-Cavallo, and written and produced by Adam Zmith and Leeanne Coyle. I love audio porn, and I get frustrated at how it’s frequently framed as being ‘for women’. I’m proud that I got to contribute to an investigation into the accessibility and inclusivity of audio porn hosted by a disabled and non-binary person. (Ngl, I could have talked to Amelia for HOURS about sex and transness.)
  • I'm currently reading Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose* by Leigh Cowart and I absolutely love it. It's beautifully written, deeply nerdy, and it's left me viscerally squirming while they describes the ways our bodies can experience "the wet electrics of pain" in deliciously painful detail. Cowart isn't only a brilliant science writer but also a kinkster themselves, and their own masochism and hands-on research brings the exquisite intricacies of pain on purpose alive. (While I didn't take ballet to a professional level as they did, I do think my years of dance training impact my relationship to pain today.)
  • As someone who sometimes who is sometimes frustrated at the limits of 'visibility' when it comes to queer and trans rights, I love the idea of 'bisexual audibility' – as discussed in this Men's Health piece by Zachery Zane. "This Bisexual Awareness Week, if you have the emotional capacity and it's safe for you to do so, I encourage you to be audibly bisexual. I want you loud. I want you obnoxious."
  • Two weeks ago, The Dyke Project hacked ads across TfL tube, bus, and rail networks to share queer Palestinian stories, and to show that queers stand with Palestine:
*Links marked with an * are affiliate links, so if you click through and buy a book then I get a small commission at no cost to you.