The Way We Think About Biological Sex is Wrong: Emily Quinn (Transcript)

Emily Quinn

[Warning: This talk contains mature content]

Emily Quinn – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I have a vagina. Just thought you should know.

That might not come as a surprise to some of you. I look like a woman. I’m dressed like one, I guess.

The thing is, I also have balls. And it does take a lot of nerve to come up here and talk to you about my genitalia.

Just a little. But I’m not talking about bravery or courage. I mean literally — I have balls. Right here, right where a lot of you have ovaries. I’m not male or female.

I’m intersex. Most people assume that you’re biologically either a man or a woman, but it’s actually a lot more complex than that.

There are so many ways somebody could be intersex. In my case, it means I was born with XY chromosomes, which you probably know as male chromosomes. And I was born with a vagina and balls inside my body.

I don’t respond to testosterone, so during puberty, I grew breasts, but I never got acne or body hair, body oil. You can be jealous of that.

But even though I don’t actually have a uterus — I was born without one, so I don’t menstruate, I can’t have biological children. We put people in boxes based on their genitalia. Before a baby’s even born, we ask whether it’s a boy or a girl, as if it actually matters; as if you’re going to be less excited about having a baby if it doesn’t have the genitals you wanted; as if what’s between somebody’s legs tells you anything about that person.

Are they kind, generous, funny? Smart? Who do they want to be when they grow up? Genitals don’t actually tell you anything.

Yet, we define ourselves by them. In this society, we love putting people into boxes and labeling each other. It kind of gives us a sense of belonging and teaches us how to interact with one another.

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But there’s one really big problem: biological sex is not black or white. It’s on a spectrum.

Besides your genitalia, you also have your chromosomes, your gonads, like ovaries or testicles. You have your internal sex organs, your hormone production, your hormone response and your secondary sex characteristics, like breast development, body hair, etc.

Those seven areas of biological sex all have so much variation, yet we only get two options: male or female. Which is kind of absurd to me, because I can’t think of a single other human trait that there’s only two options for: skin color, hair, height, eyes.

You can either have nose A or nose B, that’s it, no other options. If there are infinite ways for our bodies to look, our minds to think, personalities to act, wouldn’t it make sense that there’s that much variety in biological sex, too?

Did you know that besides XX or XY chromosomes, you could have XX and XY chromosomes? Or you could have an extra X — XXY or two extra — XXXY. Goes on from there. And for those “normal” people with XX or XY, what does that mean? I have XY chromosomes.

If my DNA is found at the scene of a crime — not saying it will, but, you know, we’ll see. If my skeleton is discovered thousands of years from now, I’ll be labeled male. Is that the truth? My balls would say so.

But what about the rest of me? And what if a woman has ovarian cancer and has to have her ovaries removed? Does she still qualify as a woman? What about other intersex people who are born without balls or ovaries or with just one or a combination of the two? Where do they go?

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