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Teaching UBC Medical Scholars that Biological Sex is a ‘Colonial Imposition’

How to identify a male research subject? At the University of British Columbia, it’s anyone who “resonates with masculinity.”

· 5 min read
Teaching UBC Medical Scholars that Biological Sex is a ‘Colonial Imposition’
Photo by jesse orrico / Unsplash

You can study HIV in gay males—but your research sample must include females who have anal sex. You can study health outcomes in new fathers—but only if you agree that some fathers gestated and birthed their offspring. You also can study sexual violence inside of women’s prisons—but you must include those who currently, formerly, or occasionally “identify” as a woman.

Each of these examples reflects actual guidance for researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Medicine, one of Canada’s top medical schools. The document in which they’re contained, Gender & Sex in Methods & Measurement: Research Equity Toolkit, offers a case study in the process by which ideologically-driven pedagogical mandates associated with DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—are metastasizing throughout STEM.

There are probably few regular Quillette readers who haven’t already read indictments of overreach in the DEI field—or, as one Harvard Business Review headline writer calls it, “the DEI-Industrial Complex.” At best, dubious DEI practices are merely ineffective. At worst, they’re an outright scam. We’ve been forced (or “voluntold”) to sit through so many DEI seminars and Zoom sessions that we can recite the often-religious-seeming mantras by heart. No, I will not ask a non-white person “where they are from”; yes, I will announce my pronouns every time I step into a room. Hail, Mary, full of grace, they/them is with thee.

Like other critics of DEI, I had long assumed that this ideological movement would stop at the gates of medical and engineering schools. After all, it’s one thing to affirm the existence of 37 genders when you’re writing an Intersectional Feminism midterm. It’s another thing when you’re training to become an obstetrician. It’s one thing to insist that “Indigenous ways of knowing” are just as scientifically valid as, well, science, when you’re composing a long-form land acknowledgement. It’s another thing to explicitly denounce the scientific method so that you can make sure no one gets their feelings hurt by the reality of human sexual biology.

But the ideologically constructed fables of progressive activist subcultures are now penetrating even the most important (and formerly) scientifically rigorous disciplines. At UBC, whose Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) produced the above-described “Equity Toolkit,” researchers studying male populations are instructed to expand their outreach to anyone whose identity “resonates with masculinity.”

What does this even mean? Does watching the Super Bowl at Hooters now make you grow a prostate? According to the CGSHE, it’s all very complex, since a person’s masculinity may come and go like a summer breeze: “If your research is interested in men’s sexual risk taking, consider that a prospective participant may have identified as a man last year, but not today, or might identify as a man as well as non-binary.”

UBC’s past medical glories are symbolized by such institutions as the Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, a world leader in developing best practices for the prevention of HIV transmission. (This is a cause the school has pursued since the 1980s, leading to the eventual development of what the university proudly touts as “a made-in-BC medical application [called] Treatment as Prevention, [which] has the potential to stop a global epidemic in its tracks.”) By contrast, UBC’s more recently conceived CGSHE was created with a mandate to “advance research, evidence-based policy, and practice responses to gender equity and gender-based violence among women and LGBTQ/2S+ people using an intersectional feminist lens.” Many of the CGSHE’s projects read like Vice article pitches, such as one that involves investigating the state of healthcare for “trans, Two-Spirit, nonbinary and gender diverse individuals” (a project made all the more challenging by the fact that no one, even LGBT advocates themselves, seem to have any idea what “Two-Spirit” actually means).

UBC’s insistence on erasing the reality of biological sex will inevitably compromise the ability of researchers to advance public health and save lives: One does not have to be a physician researcher to understand that we cannot effectively study an at-risk population—such as gay males—while being required to gerrymander one’s research sample on the basis of self-identified criteria that have no medical basis. AIDS, cancer, and other diseases that exhibit sex-specific risk factors don’t care about your pronouns. Certainly, one cannot properly study medical risks that track (female) lesbians if one heeds the CGSHE’s admonition not to “assume that lesbian women are people with vulvas who have sex with other people who have vulvas.”

Lesbians do not have penises. Men are not women, nor vice versa. Do we really want to end up with a generation of physicians who pretend—and I pray that it is only pretending—not to know this?

The authors of Gender & Sex in Methods & Measurement presented it as a scientific (or at least science-adjacent) document. Yet despite this conceit, they couldn’t help but lapse into cultish slogans at many points in the text—never more so than in this space-time-continuum-warping flourish at the end:

Sex and gender binaries, along with endosexnormativity, cisnormativity and heteronormativity, are colonial impositions, which are entangled with white, Western and Christian worldviews and then treated as ahistoric, universal truths. One component of decolonizing research praxis is recognizing the complexity of gender, sex, sexuality, etc. and refusing the universalization of binaries and dominant ideologies about these facets of personhood.

(Even within avant-garde gender circles, “endosexnormativity” seems to be an obscure term. According to one scholar, writing in 2020, “endosex is a rather new word and used in this article to refer to persons with sex characteristics that fit medical norms for female and male bodies.” As for “praxis,” it’s literally just a pretentious academic synonym for doing stuff.)

Incredibly, the authors insist that their descriptions of human bodies are “precise” and “clearly communicated” (which would suggest they are unfamiliar with the humble mirror, a home-use technology that typically provides extremely “precise” information about who we all are). In fact, much of what they write is utterly meaningless. What does it mean, for instance, to “decolonize” one’s “research praxis”—especially in the context of, say, genetic sequencing or the development of mRNA-based vaccines? Is there a “decolonized” way to construct an MRI scanner? And if sex isn’t limited to the “binary,” then how come humans produce exactly two kinds of gametes—sperm and ova? Have CGSHE investigators discovered others? And if so, why are they withholding this groundbreaking scientific discovery from the rest of us?

I contacted CGSHE officials for comment. Alas, whatever their communications “praxis” happens to be, it didn’t include returning my call.

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