#FactCheckNeeded: Non-human animals cannot have a gender identity

April 14th 2021
Kelsey Lewis, Allyson J. Bennett, Sangy Panicker, Amanda M. Dettmer, Jeremy D. Bailoo & Justin Varholick

A group of individuals, many of them self-identified as being opposed to animal research, recently signed an open letter to the Associated Press asking that animals with unknown sex be assigned “he/she” or “they” gender pronouns. These individuals argue that the AP—which already instructs writers to use “he” or “she” for animals with known sex—references animals too abstractly, rather than utilizing gendered terms used for people.

NPR headline on open letter

The letter, sensationalized perhaps because Jane Goodall was one of the signatories, states:

The Associated Press Stylebook instructs writers not to apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless their sex has been established, or they have a name. This is too limiting to writers as well as fellow nonhuman animals, most of whom are discussed abstractly and thus their sex is not established. We pay respect to humans whose sex is indeterminate or gender fluid by using he/she or the non-binary term they. That same courtesy should be extended to all animals, as they are gendered beings.” [emphasis added]

It is clear that Jane Goodall, as well as many of the signatories, either do not understand what the term gender means or are callously exploiting a term that has far deeper meaning to people—where the term applies—in advancing another agenda. If that is the case, the signatories should be deeply ashamed.

Co-opting a human rights issue and trivializing the appropriate use of gender pronouns for people is inappropriate for many reasons. It is consistent with similar campaigns that seek to equate human rights and human rights abuses with the treatment of animals in farming, entertainment, and research (e.g., here, here and here).

Whether intentional or not, conflating anatomy and gender mischaracterizes and minimizes those who are transgender and/or intersex and their experiences. The open letter misses the mark by advocating for gender pronouns to denote animal sex at a time when more anti-transgender bills have been introduced so far in the 2021 state legislative sessions than in any previous year. As of March 13, 2021, 82 anti-transgender bills had been introduced in 20 states (see here and here). These have included both medical bans and sports bans. Trans-exclusionary athletics bills have been introduced this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (see here). Medical care bans have been introduced in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Utah (see here). We know that gender-affirming care improves mental health and saves lives (see here and here). Sadly, while at least 14 states are trying to prevent bodily autonomy of transgender youth, there are still no legal protections to protect intersex children’s bodily autonomy by preventing irreversible and medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children in the United States. There is no better time to discuss gender and justice, and we can’t afford not to discuss these issues. Getting gender pronouns right is only a small piece of trans allyship, particularly in this political climate, but it is critical (see here). Using gender pronouns to denote animal sex does more harm than good, because it co-opts transgender activism without a full understanding of assigned sex and gender.

How do we define Gender?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender as:

“The characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time” [emphases added].

Correspondingly, WHO defines gender identity as:

A “person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.”

Gender has many more identities than woman, man, girl, and boy, and we recommend resources from Gender Spectrum, Trans Student Educational Resources, InterACT, and Planned Parenthood. In particular, gender can be conceptualized as socially, culturally, and societally constructed, and as a performance of masculinity and femininity (see here and here). Gender identities include woman, transfeminine, girl, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, transmasculine, boy, man, and many more.

By definition alone, non-human animals cannot have a gender identity, as the term is specific to humans. Moreover, it is not possible that non-human animals have any understanding of this human constructed concept.

How do we define Sex?

There is no one characteristic that can define sex. Sex is typically assigned based on assumed binary sex characteristics, and is socially, culturally, and societally constructed based on assumptions of biology. In people, sex is often assigned to us by others when we are newborns, or even before we are born. This is customarily done based on external genitalia and/or karyotype (an individual’s chromosomes). In humans, as in other mammals, we have many sex characteristics, and they can vary quite a bit. Just as there is no one trait to base a sex assignment on in people, there is no universally accepted standard to label sex in animals. For example, a study altering sex characteristics in rodents might assign sex based on chromosomes, whereas a study examining muscle regeneration might assign sex based on anogenital distance and/or external genitalia. In fact, those mice may not have been karyotyped, so the only sex characteristic information researchers have gleaned is based on external morphology. If an animal has XY karyotype and a vaginal pouch and phallus with hypospadias, how is that animal’s sex assigned? Sex isn’t as simple as a glance at anatomy (see here).

We can be compassionate without using pronouns

Credit: Pitch Interactive and Amanda Montañez. Source: Montañez, A. (2017, September 01). Beyond XX and XY: The Extraordinary Complexity of Sex Determination. Retrieved from here. Originally published in Montañez, A. (2017, August 29).

Pronouns are not necessary for being compassionate, respectful, and maintaining dignity. For example, some people may refrain from using pronouns because there may not be a set of pronouns that feels right for that individual, the person may still be figuring out what pronouns to use, that person may use different pronouns in different settings, or there might be pronouns that are appropriate but it feels exhausting to explain them. When people choose to refrain from using gender pronouns, it is important to respect their position. At first it may feel repetitive to repeatedly say “this person”, “my friend”, “colleague” etc. But it can be done without issue, and without compromising dignity. For example, PFLAG (the largest organization for LGBTQ+ people, families, allies) cites an example where a member of the organization wanted to use the correct pronouns for a director named Sam Feder—a name of many genders. What the author found to help determine the appropriate pronouns “was a delightfully descriptive, 150 word biography from the Queer Producers Network of Sam Feder that contains zero pronouns!” (see here further). In this example, Sam was respected without using pronouns.

Further, the authors of the open letter mistakenly reinforce the binary when stating we “pay respect to humans whose sex is indeterminate or gender fluid by using he/she…”. Such language is not only inaccurate with the definitions of gender and sex, but also distracting from the real issues that relate to gender pronouns: how others refer to us is a fundamental component of our existence in the social world, and when someone’s pronouns are mistaken, misused, or ignored, it is harmful (see Davey Schlasko’s Trans Allyship Workbook for a thorough discussion and practice exercises).

Some scientists are also guilty of using the term “gender” rather than “sex”

We would be remiss if we did not mention that some animal researchers often conflate sex (male, female, intersex) with gender (the social construct). It is unclear whether misusing gender is a conscious or unconscious error. If it were a conscious error it would be a clear demonstration of anthropomorphismthe attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a nonhuman animal—which can be harmful to science.

A Google Scholar search of the terms “mice” and “gender” yields over 1.4 million results

When considering this faux pas and reading some of these articles, it is clear that those researchers mean sex—whose classification is dependent on, for example, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs—not gender. While there is increasing evidence that sex, like gender, is multi-dimensional (and sometimes difficult to assign), careless anthropomorphism by (some) animal researchers is potentially harmful to science and inadvertently callous to humans who experience gender discrimination and inequality in their daily lives.

Conflating sex and gender benefits no one. We can value and respect animals without gendering them.

We can, and should, write and speak about non-human animals in ways that show compassion. As a society, we understand and embrace that an individual’s anatomy does not determine their pronouns. Animal welfare is of the utmost importance, but conflating anatomy and gender by co-opting a human rights issue and trivializing the appropriate use of gender pronouns for people is not—Jane Goodall and the signatories of that letter should be deeply ashamed.