Anthropology Conference Drops a Panel Defending Sex as Binary

For a big annual conference on anthropology, Kathleen Lowrey, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, put together several panelists around a controversial theme: that their discipline was in the midst of erasing discussions of sex, which they believe is binary — either male or female.

Dr. Lowrey invited a slate of speakers and called the discussion, “Let’s Talk About Sex Baby: Why Biological Sex Remains a Necessary Analytic Category in Anthropology.”

Let’s not talk about it, conference organizers said this week, removing the panel that was accepted preliminarily in July.

In a joint statement on Thursday, the two sponsors of the conference, the American Anthropological Association and the Canadian Anthropology Society, said that they wanted to protect the transgender community: “The session was rejected because it relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline, framed in ways that do harm to vulnerable members of our community.”

The statement also compared the panelists’ views to eugenics.

“The function of the ‘gender critical’ scholarship advocated in this session, like the function of the ‘race science’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is to advance a ‘scientific’ reason to question the humanity of already marginalized groups of people,” the statement said.

The headline read: “No Place for Transphobia in Anthropology.”

Discussion of sex and gender has become a fraught and politically charged topic, especially in the context of transgender rights. Anthropology, as a discipline, is particularly sensitive to such conversations because it studies both culture and human evolution. In recent decades, many anthropologists have moved to a more nuanced view of sex, one that often rejects it as simply binary.

Dr. Lowrey said that she and the other panelists were blindsided by the decision and that none of them had been contacted about any concerns from the anthropology groups since the panel received its July approval. In a statement, the panelists said that it was a “false accusation” that their ideas were intended to harm the transgender community.

The move was criticized by some academic freedom advocates who said that the two anthropology groups had caved to political pressure and proved the panel’s point: that the discipline was unfriendly to dissenting views on sex and gender.

But Ramona Pérez, the president of the American Anthropological Association, rejected the attacks. She said the decision had “no impact” on the panelists’ academic freedom, because the association was a professional group, not an educational institution.

She also rejected that idea that the discipline was removing the discussion of sex, noting that there were more than 30 events at the annual program, set for November in Toronto, that would discuss the subject.

The panel was nixed, she said, only after complaints that it did not have scientific merit and that it was harmful to some of the association’s 8,000 members.

“This was an intention to marginalize, not engage scientifically,” Dr. Pérez said.

Agustin Fuentes, an anthropology professor at Princeton, was consulted by the American Anthropological Association about the panel and supported the group’s decision. He said current research in anthropology had shifted toward the term “gender/sex” instead of “sex.”

Biological sex, he said, is itself fluid, citing those born with XXY chromosomes, for instance.

And anthropology, he said in a statement with two other academics, “tends to resist universal arguments in favor of understanding humans in all of their variation. Therefore, the over-prescription of the idea of a biological binary for something like sex not only ignores the evidence, but goes against the most basic empirical underpinnings of our field.”

The would-be panelists represented women from four countries, mostly anthropologists, coming from diverse viewpoints, Dr. Lowrey said. Several have been at the center of controversies, on this topic and others, and the speakers said they would have had a lively debate even without an audience.

One of the panelists, Elizabeth Weiss, a physical anthropologist at San Jose State University, said her position was that sex is binary but gender is not.

Her plan was to deliver a presentation titled, “No bones about it: Skeletons are binary; people may not be.”

In an interview, Dr. Weiss said that while discussions about both sex and gender were important and valuable, “our panel’s unifying theme was that it was important to treat them separately sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.”

She cited cases where an anthropologist might be interested in the biological effects of being female — for instance, looking at sex preferences in infanticide of past populations.

Dr. Pérez said in a letter to the panelists this week that her association needed to take a closer look at how panels were vetted, and that it hoped for a “more unified” group.

Dr. Lowrey’s panel received preliminary approval based on a relatively anodyne abstract, reviewed by people without subject-matter expertise, Dr. Pérez said. It was later, when others took a closer look at more detailed plans for each presenter, that the association started receiving complaints by biological, evolutionary and cultural anthropologists, Dr. Pérez said.

“We looked at who was actually in it,” she said, and “we began to see that this really was one of those times where people who have an alternative agenda come into professional associations, try to get into these conferences, in order to push an agenda that doesn’t actually match up with the discipline.”

The American Anthropological Association’s executive board voted unanimously to remove the panel from the program. Monica Heller, the president of the Canadian Anthropology Society, said her board voted unanimously to support the American group’s decision.

Dr. Pérez said that she was not aware of another instance when the executive board had stepped in to remove an accepted panel.

For her part, Dr. Weiss said that Dr. Pérez’s call for unification was “chilling” because unity was not necessarily good for a scientific conference.

“Today it’s the trans issue,” she said. “Tomorrow it might be something else. We’re on a slippery slope of starting to basically censor disagreeing viewpoints. And some of those disagreeing viewpoints might actually be right.”

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