On Sept. 26, I received an email notifying me and my co-presenters that our panel, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: Why Biological Sex Remains a Necessary Analytic Category in Anthropology,” would be removed from the schedule of the November joint meetings of the American Anthropological Association and the Canadian Anthropology Society, to be held in Toronto. Ramona Pérez and Monica Heller, the presidents of AAA and CASCA, respectively, explained: “The reason the session deserved further scrutiny was that the ideas were advanced in such a way as to cause harm to members represented by the trans and LGBTQI of the anthropological community [sic] as well as the community at large.” The panel, it was subsequently explained on the AAA website, “relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline,” especially by assuming that “sex and gender are simplistically binary.”
This latter statement could be read in two ways, both of which misrepresent our panel. Did the AAA intend to suggest we think sex and gender are “binary” in the sense of being two entirely distinct things—sex or gender—with no entanglements? Or does the AAA mean to suggest we think sex and gender are “binary,” in the sense that sex is male or female, and gender is either masculine or feminine? The one way you cannot interpret the sentence is in a manner that conveys what we actually do think: that biological sex is binary, because humans are a sexually reproducing, sexually dimorphic species; and that gender is, of course, not binary, because it comprises the partially biologically and partially culturally constructed set of systems through which people experience many of the facts of life.
That gender systems are cross-culturally varied isn’t a surprising new fact of which anthropologists have only recently become aware. It has been studied and documented for many decades. Most often encountered in the ethnographic record are third-gender categories into which some boys and men may identify by choice or into which they are categorized by social convention, sometimes forcibly. Other varieties of gender systems exist, but these are rarer, and only a few apply third-gender categories to girls and women. All gender systems are hierarchical in conception and practice; nowhere do they offer open-ended rainbows of possibility to all comers. In this, they differ markedly from human sexual dimorphism, which is inherently complementary and non-hierarchical. Thus, while it is sensible to be a “gender-critical” feminist, it would be silly to be a “sex-critical” one (which is why you never hear the latter phrase).
According to Pérez, the AAA president, ours was the first panel in 122 years of annual meetings to be excised from a conference. The presidents of AAA and CASCA suggested in their public statement that our panel had only been “provisionally” accepted, because they hadn’t looked at it closely, and anyway, we had submitted a deceptively “anodyne” panel description. There is no polite way to put this: That’s a lie. I initially organized the panel in response to a conference call for “executive-panel” proposals. This had a January 2023 deadline, and required a full package (panel abstract and paper abstracts for each panelist), plus some extra justificatory language because the slates chosen as “executive panels” are headlined as especially timely and relevant to the discipline. I was motivated to propose the panel by my concern that anthropological publications increasingly deploy “gender” in a manner that implies gender systems are neutral manifestations of human diversity. Second, more and more anthropological literature seeks to reverse-engineer “sex” as if it takes the form of a “spectrum,” while presuming that “biological sex” is possessed of no independent analytic utility.
These developments have generated a conceptual tangle in desperate need of unraveling. Happily, this is a task at which anthropology should excel: spotting where the preoccupations of one cultural order—in this case, that of a late-modern, mostly Anglophone, very-online ecumene—are fervently insisted upon by members of that order as constitutive of reality itself. The women I invited to present, each of whom has demonstrated courage in pointing out various subsnarls of this disciplinary jumble, avowed themselves ready to take on the job.
Ours was not selected as an executive panel, but not necessarily for political reasons: The competition is no doubt fierce. Nonetheless, I wanted to know whether one member of the three-person selection committee had recused herself when our panel came up for judgment. This was Sarah Shulist, an anthropologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who had published two denunciations of me on an anthropology blog (of which I had been a founding contributor) in the aftermath of my 2020 dismissal as chair of undergraduate programs in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. The committee wrote back to assure me the selection process was rigorous and thorough. I responded that I had no doubt at all that it was, but only specifically wished to know if Shulist had recused herself during deliberations over our panel, given that I was its organizer. To date, I haven’t received any response to this follow-up query.
At this point, panel co-organizer Elizabeth Weiss, who has faced worse in her professional life, suggested we re-submit the package as a regular conference session for the March deadline. Our panel was accepted, although we were slotted for Sunday afternoon, a conference dead zone. Again, there was nothing necessarily malicious at work here: Lots of people want to present, and not everybody can have a sought-after berth. We received notice of our acceptance in July and set about reserving hotel rooms, booking flights, discussing overlaps and the possibilities for socializing outside the panel itself. Then came the Sept. 26 email letting us know we were removed.
Not for the first time in my experience as a canceled feminist, I feel I have gained some insight into how humans have, at many points in history, managed to gin one another into activities like burning heretics at the stake. Such outcomes cascade from the unreality of an initial premise. The proposition that “some lesbians have penises” requires showy demonstrations of faith. To balk is to suggest you might not think that assertion is true after all. No one wants to be the person who says the next punitive step is a step too far, as there is never a shortage of fanatics eager to make the point that the hesitant must be those whited sepulchers we have all been warned about.
This is my third cancellation in as many years. The first, as mentioned, was my dismissal from an administrative role in my department at Alberta over complaints from students and colleagues about my criticisms of gender ideology and trans activism. (I remain a tenured professor there.) The second came in 2022, when I was notified of an abruptly reversed acceptance of a paper I had submitted to the journal Anthropology Today. After a fuss was raised on my behalf, the paper was re-accepted but with a proviso from the journal editor that it be accompanied by a piece from two scholars invited to rebut it. I was permitted a reply in a subsequent issue. Round One of cancellation was terrifying: I feared I would lose my job and my home. Round Two left me indignant. Round Three has fostered my sense of the absurd.
For nearly four years now, I have felt as if I were the inhabitant of a living-history diorama, albeit one dreamt up by a satirist of the George Saunders variety. At my workplace, I lead a semi-zombie existence. I turn up at department meetings with a wooden stake spectrally hanging out of my chest; my colleagues now treat me with a combination of embarrassed politeness and distinct resentment. Sure, perhaps they didn’t behave quite as they ought, but isn’t it also a bit rude of me to still be hanging about above ground, rather than staying decently buried?
Just last week, I had a cordial exchange with none other than Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, who, along with two other anthropologists, wrote a letter supporting the AAA’s removal of our panel. The exchange was spurred when a senior anthropologist wrote to us both simultaneously. I replied to say I would welcome an exchange of ideas, perhaps at some future conference from which I haven’t been removed. Fuentes responded that he felt sure it would happen someday, and that he has always “found my takes intriguing” (presumably not the ones he alleges are eugenics-adjacent).
I don’t find this sort of thing all that strange anymore. Exactly such sorry for running over your dog, backing up and doing it again several times, see you at the raffle! “neighborliness” characterizes many of my professional interactions. I can’t tell you the number of people who have denounced me as something approximating a Nazi on the internet who nevertheless smile gamely, if a little wanly, when we cross paths on campus. Allow me to confess that I almost always return a feeble smile of my own. What’s the alternative? Fisticuffs?
All of this diminishes my ability to crank up the machinery of high dudgeon upon the occasion of the people in charge of an august scholarly conference running the thing as if it were a blanket fort for big babies. The ridiculousness of it all ripples along my ribs, reminding me of my anthropological avocation: my duty to try to understand the odd things people do.
Our panel pretty faithfully reflects our discipline: a mix of people who try to make sense of human biology and people who try to make sense of human society. While it is possible, although not strictly necessary, to be pretty buttoned-up most of the time if you have hold of the biology end of the human species, the socio-cultural end is awash with delirious excesses of every variety. Socio-cultural anthropology loses one of its most sensitive analytic instruments—a sense of humor—when it succumbs to the current fashion for po-faced earnestness about all the foibles to which human beings are heir.
For examples of such folly, we need look no further than the measures taken by the anthropological tribe itself, and the broader left-academic milieu of which it is part, to maintain and enforce a cultural order that solidified not so long ago. These days, once you start living as a “TERF,” you can get punched in the face, hit with projectiles, hung in effigy, face masked mobs at your workplace, lose your livelihood, lose your children, lose your liberty, be inundated with rape and death threats. At the same time, you are engaged in battle with opponents so outré, many respectable people refuse to believe they truly exist, and you can end up looking like the crazy one if you try to explain it all. I think this, more than any fundamental cowardice, explains the evident relief of members of academic or medical associations when the leadership assures them it’s an issue no one should be talking about anyway—that “the science is settled.”
Through the good offices of Weiss, currently a fellow at Heterodox Academy in New York City, we are going to hold a virtual version of our panel on Nov. 8. Still, I lament the lost chance of shaking hands with the women to whom I reached out last year, and I particularly regret not being able to laugh with them about this entire sorry affair. I hold out hope it will happen someday, possibly even at an anthropology conference.