This Is Us

Cutting to the Bone of My Transition

If future anthropologists believe I was a man, it’s because their discipline is broken

Riley Black
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readJun 3, 2020

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Manipulated image of shadow of human skeleton.
Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images

I know the bones are there, even though I’ve never seen them.

By themselves, they’re not very remarkable. The paired combinations of ilium, ischium, and pubis make up the bowl of my hips that cradles my guts, an evolutionary echo of a distant time when our ancestors began walking upright. So far as I know, I don’t have any pathologies that would be of special interest to a doctor, archaeologist, or paleontologist, depending on the circumstances of how my bones might be visible.

All the same, my hip bones lie.

I was born with the standard male anatomical setup. I lived with it for 36 years. That includes the arrangement of my hip bones. The sciatic notch, a U-shaped indentation on the sides of my hips, is narrow rather than wide. That’s the typical male configuration, the one osteological factor that is relatively reliable in determining someone’s sex from their skeleton.

So, let’s dig in a little further. Let’s say I wind up as a forgotten skeleton in a museum’s anatomical collection, as many other people have. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say there’s no data about who I was in life — no notion of name, pronouns, gender, or any of that. A researcher who looked at my remains would likely designate me as male, and therefore a man, perhaps envisioning what I would have looked like in life. And they’d be about a country mile off the mark.

In the introduction to my book Skeleton Keys, I said that bones don’t lie. They are records of history, both personal and evolutionary. And, in a literal reading, that remains true. My bones simply exist and there’s no arguing with a rib or ulna.

But bones have their limits. A skeleton alone cannot tell you someone’s gender or identity. We know that sex and gender are not the same, and yet anthropology seems unfazed by how it reconstructs entire narratives about ancient and Indigenous people who have been uncovered without any cultural clues about who they were, their role in their culture, or if they had a different understanding of gender than our modern Western expectations…

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Riley Black
Human Parts

Distant cousin of T. rex. Author of Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Laelaps. http://rileyblack.net