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A sign denouncing transphobia is held up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court at a protest in June 2016. (Shutterstock)

Trump’s efforts to redefine gender and sex

Title IX was among the education amendments brought into law in the United States in 1972 and enforced by the Department of Education’s civil rights office. It ensured no Americans would be discriminated against based on their sex.

Donald Trump’s White House is now seeking to amend Title IX to define sex as immutable, determined by a baby’s genitals and unchangeable at any later point in life.

Efforts to change the law are just another attempt to fire up the Republican base for the mid-term elections, similar to Trump’s rhetoric against the migrant “caravan.”

Read more: Why does the migrant ‘caravan’ exist? And how did it come to be?

It’s all aimed at instilling just enough fear to energize Republican supporters and get them to the polls.

But the White House can’t just announce that gender (defined differently in different cultures) is now sex (genitals that appear to be male or female), irrespective of self-identity. What’s next? Will Trump soon declare that apples are now oranges?

Amending Title IX to require that everyone is either male or female is reassuring to those who want to protect the social-cultural status-quo, who are frightened or threatened by “the Other.”

Gender versus sex

This is wrong in so many ways. First, there is the basic physiological reality that one in 1,500 babies are born intersex. Intersex babies may be born with external genitals from both sexes, others have external genitals of one sex and the internal anatomy of the other sex (e.g. ovaries in a baby that otherwise looks like a boy).

Second, proponents of amending Title IX are missing the point of gender — that it’s socially constructed and fluid. Gender identity can be, and often is, independent of sex (male/female). So a person with the genitalia of a male may identify as a woman.

Gender cannot be rigidly defined by external signs and symbols. It is deeply integrated in the culture we are raised in, the historical period we are living in and our personalities.

Gender was developed to describe self-identity in people who did not identify with their biological sex. John Money, a pioneering gender researcher, explained:

“Gender identity is your own sense or conviction of maleness or femaleness; and gender role is the cultural stereotype of what is masculine and feminine.”

People now define gender is many ways: “Feminine,” “masculine” and “androgynous,” “bi-gender,” (expressing two distinct gender identities), “gender fluid” (adjusting gendered behaviour to suit the situation) and “agender” — or “undifferentiated”(genderless), among others.

The Trump administration is hardly the only entity to try to use sex and gender as synonyms. Many health researchers have equated them in their studies – claiming to be measuring gender when they are actually referring to sex. By forcing people into limited categories of sex as male or female, there’s an assumption that these are homogeneous groups, that males will all be similar to one another and females will be alike.

Gender affects health

My research and that of many others demonstrates that gender plays a different role than sex in our health outcomes. For example, males (their sex) who are more feminine (their gender) are less likely to get coronary artery disease; people of either sex who are more masculine have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease than those who are more feminine; and gender, not sex, can predict quality of life for androgynous men and women with Parkinson’s disease.

Read more: Sex and gender both shape your health, in different ways

So why now, and why gender?

The Republicans’ mid-term campaign efforts, with an anti-diversity, anti-immigration and anti-media rhetoric promoted by Trump, have catered to the extremists among the base and their need for a predictable world.

Protesters in Asheville, North Carolina, demonstrate against a North Carolina law in April 2016 that restricted the rights of transgender people. (Shutterstock)

Trump’s supporters are often people with a high need for closure, meaning they want things to be predictable with clear answers. They dislike ambiguity and frequently express right-wing attitudes.

The Trump administration’s efforts to amend Title IX to equate sex and gender with genitals at birth is comforting to those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity. People who challenge the notion of absolute, fixed gender identities (i.e., transgender individuals) make them very uncomfortable.

Ironically, the most effective way to change these deeply held attitudes is for people to have positive experiences with “the Other”, suggesting that the best way to evolve towards positive change is to get to know those who are different from us.

This fear-based rallying cry by Trump Republicans — focused on keeping out migrants, refugees and immigrants and ensuring that transgender people are forced into strict sex-based categories - seems intended to drive Republican voters to the polls. We’ll know soon if it was successful.

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