Matching Microbes, Outdated binaries


Microorganisms: bacteria, fungi and single celled archaea live all around, on, and in humans.To learn more about microbes check this helpful link out: What are Microbes?.

I came across this video interesting video (see below), which shows how after birth the microbiome of a baby’s gut resembles that of their mother’s vagina.

This video is a good starting point to start thinking about sex and gender in relation to babies. I think is video is important because it highlights how much of the popular science surrounding sex is based on the deletion of uncomfortable knowledge (Rayne, 2012).

The topic of and discussion surrounding sex and gender is a very complex one. The first section of Fujimura’s “Sex Genes”: A Critical Socio-Material Approach to the Politics and Molecular Genetics of Sex Determination lays out the history of debates within feminism regarding sex and gender  and the nature/nurture debate. If you feel like checking it out see the reference below.

Uncomfortable knowledge is knowledge that while known, is deleted or left out due to contradictions (Rayner, 2012). The hegemonic discourses surrounding gender and sex ignore the existence of people who do not fit into the “normative sex and gender constructs” and often use arbitrary and erroneous data to maintain the status quo (Shildrick, 2005).

The case of Caster Semenya comes to mind, who was forced to undergo sex  determining hormone tests in order to be eligible to compete as a woman in the 2012 olympics (to read more about how sex testing for the olympics was reported and discussed, see here: Gender Games).

Semenya’s eligibility to compete was questioned due to her “masculine appearance” (1)

Fujimura discusses the “awkward data” that is erased from popular scientific understanding; in this case, inconsistencies in the genetic and phenotypic distinctions between men and women (2006). The need to biologically differentiate between men and women as two distinct and all encompassing categories continues in the face of increased trans activism and intersex awareness. However, how does this relate to babies?

The topic of gender and sex binaries is integrally related to babies. For many people who elect to the know the sex of their baby before birth, their future children’s bodies are gendered and their behaviour policed to have a body of either a man or a woman, to have a penis or a lack of a penis, and to embody that gender identity (Irigary, 1977). This is not to say that parents or other well meaning individuals are to blame — habitus is not formed by individuals directly, as much as it is formed by their bodies, embodied practices, and socially constructed realities.

Surgeries aimed at “correcting” nontraditionally binary sex conforming people still occur today and doctors often keep information from patients and families (Shildrick, 2005). These procedures often happen to babies, before the intersex person has the agency to express their own gender identity (Shildrick, 2005).

Contrary to their aim these procedures often have very serious consequences for the person (Check out this Rolling Stone article: John/Joan.)

For a interesting novel I really enjoyed, check out Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides on this topic, see references below.

However, those who do not fit into binary categories of sex and or gender, possibly because of chromosomal or genital differences, are starting to have more of a pop culture platform, with videos coming out from the mecca of pop, Buzzfeed:

Despite this, non-binary  sex and/or gender  people still face very real barriers in access to health care, advocating their rights, and acceptance. The babies of today will grow up in a world where there are wars raged over the normativity and shame of their bodies. “Bodies are not born; they are made…their boundaries materialize in social interaction” (Haraway, 1991, p.208). In order to have a fuller understanding of these issues there must first be an appreciation scientifically and an incorporation into further research the fact that gender and sex binaries are insufficient to describe the diversity and spectrum of complexity of human experience.


Colapinto, J. (1997), The True story of Jon/Joan, The Rolling Stone, pp. 54-97.

Fujimura. (2006), Sex genes: a critical Socio-material Approach to the Politics and Molecular Genetics of Sex Discrimination, Signs Vol 32 No 1 pg 49-82.

Haraway, D. (1991), Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies, in Simians, Cybourgs and women: The reinvention of Nature, London, Free association Press, pp.208

Irigary, L.(1977[1985]) “This Sex Which is Not One”in This Sex Which is Not One, pp. 23-34.

Rayner, S. (2012). Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1), 107–125. DOI:10.1080/03085147.2011.637335

Shildrick, M. (2005), Ethics of the BodyPostconventional Challenges, MIT press.


(1)  Caster Semenya


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