Sex, gender, and assumptions: “Usually” doesn’t mean “always.”


This morning I read an article about a breast cancer survivor who, in the wake of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” now finds herself being mistaken for a transgender woman—and treated therefore as less of a woman—because of her mastectomy.

Her story reminds me of one of the big problems we humans often have when dealing with people who are different: We’re too quick to extrapolate from “usually” to “always”—to find patterns and make them mandatory. We go from “women usually have breasts” to “all women have breasts” to “if you don’t have breasts, you’re less of a woman” or even “you don’t count as a ‘real’ woman.”

We do this a lot with sex and gender. For example, I think it’s fair to say that American men are, on the average, more passionate than women about contact sports like football. TV shows and stand-up comedians make jokes about that pattern all the time; there’s a popular trope of men shouting at the TV during a football game while their wives roll their eyes and occupy their time elsewhere.

But that doesn’t mean it always works that way. There are plenty of passionate female fans of football. And there are plenty of men who couldn’t care less about it.


(The video is even funnier.)

Noticing patterns isn’t bad, but we shouldn’t make those patterns mandatory. In many “ex-gay” groups in the past, there was an assumption that all men had to like sports—that sports was an essential part of what it meant to be a man—so if you were a gay man and wanted to be more “masculine” (which supposedly got you closer to being straight), you needed to develop an interest in football. Essentially, the message was: Men like football. If you don’t like football, you’re not really a man.

But the truth is way more complex. Lots of men like football, but not every man does, and plenty of women do too. I’m not any less of a man just because I’d rather see a good movie than go to a football game. Everyone is different.

Men and women are different from each other in many ways. But no one of those ways is true all the time for everyone. It’s more complex than that.

Often, when LGBT activists say something like “the gender binary is a myth,” what others hear is something like, “There’s no real difference between men and women.” Well, that’s obviously not true. Anyone with common sense can look around and see lots of differences between men and women. Men have facial hair. Women have breasts. Men’s voices are deeper. Women’s hips are rounder. And so on.

These patterns are absolutely real. But they aren’t really absolute. Because none of these things applies to every man or every woman. A mastectomy is only one of several reasons a woman might not have noticeable breasts. There are men who don’t have facial hair, and women who do. The average man is taller than the average woman, but there are lots of tall women and short men.

Even the things we think of as most clearly delineating men and women aren’t always as clear cut as we imagine. Women generally have XX chromosomes and a vagina; men generally have XY chromosomes and a penis. But as any anatomy student can tell you, these two things don’t always match in this way, and some people’s genitals can’t be easily classified as either penis or vagina anyway. It’s complicated—and that’s before we even start talking about studies of the brain’s gender and what happens when it doesn’t match up with what we expect from the rest of the body.

Gender is more complicated than it seems at first glance. We can—and often do—create rules based on the patterns of the majority, but we need to remember that each of these rules has exceptions. And those “exceptions” are human beings.

Everyone deserves to be included in society. That doesn’t mean we ignore the differences between men and women where they exist. Those patterns of difference may not be absolute, but they are real, and that makes a real difference in our lives. The idea of simply “letting men into the women’s restroom” is a straw man; I don’t know of anyone asking for that.

But just as surely as those patterns matter, so do the lives of real people who don’t fit the usual patterns. So before we start making judgments about other people—or passing hasty legislation that bulldozes over people just because they don’t fit the pattern—we need to get to know them and understand them for who they are, not just as “exceptions to the rule” we can dismiss and ignore. Only then can we craft laws that protect everyone fairly, instead of sacrificing the minority to make things simple for the majority.

Because in God’s eyes, no one is an aberration.