Order of Multitudes

Classification and Contradiction: Interrogating Sex as Category with Beans Velocci

Beans Velocci is a historian of knowledge production in the realms of sex, gender, and sexuality. Their research uses queer, trans, and feminist methods to interrogate how classification systems become regarded as biological truths. Currently a Postdoctoral Fellow (and an Assistant Professor effective July 2022) in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Velocci is at work on their first book Binary Logic, which looks at how sex emerged as a privileged way of sorting bodies not despite but because of its incoherence.

Michael Faciejew: How did you become interested in the history of knowledge generally and histories of classification specifically? How did your perspective evolve over the years?

Beans Velocci: I started out as a historian of sexuality unaware that I was really interested in classification. I stumbled into the history of gender and sexuality as an undergrad—because it sounded interesting—and I wound up having a personal revelation. I remember thinking: Wait—this whole system of sex and sexual categories that I’ve always struggled with is totally made up and I don’t have to comply with it? I came to my own sense of self through the histories of classification and categorization. At the time, I didn’t know what History of Science or STS (Science and Technology Studies) were. I didn’t realize that my interest in sexology was really about sexual ontology, or that my Masters thesis on the history of childhood was in many ways about the construction of childhood as a category, until my first year at Yale when I took Joanna Radin’s course “Problems in Science Studies” and found out that there were methods for what I was doing. It took multiple history degrees to arrive at the history of classification explicitly even though it was what I had been intuitively reaching for the whole time.

At that point, I realized that there was a disjuncture in histories of sexology happening in the History of Sexuality, which didn’t engage with theories of classification or histories of taxonomy. On the other hand, there was a fair amount of work on the history of sex in science, but it was all very heteronormative. None of these scholars were talking to each other, and it became my goal to make these people realize that they actually have a lot in common. In my journey from History of Sexuality to STS and History of Science, I also started to think about how people engage with practices, which is different from the literary methods of Queer Studies. With this shift, I realized the construction of binary sex through scientific practice would be the whole story of my dissertation and now book, instead of just one chapter.

The other thing that morphed over the course of the project was my argument; I came to understand that sex can be both a binary and a multitude of possibilities. These things sound like they’re mutually exclusive, but the whole point is that sex can be a lot of different things simultaneously, and that flexibility means it can withstand all kinds of anomalous forms. A big part of developing this research involved inhabiting this space of contradiction and letting go of the idea that knowledge, power, and precise definition inherently clump together.

Michael Faciejew: Do you see this multiplicity being enacted among the distinct actor groups that you study or is there a space of contradiction even within individual actors?

Beans Velocci: Definitely even within individual actors. One of the chapters in my book manuscript focuses on the gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, who worked in New York in the early 20th century. His writing explicitly frames sex as a spectrum, where people can be more or less female. He was very interested in the commonality of intersex traits and clearly thought that he was on the cutting edge of science by framing sex that way. But if you look at his clinical practice, which included over a thousand different patients, he never once concludes that a person could fall somewhere in the middle—that maybe a certain person wasn’t actually a woman, even if her body fit exactly the characteristics he described as intersex. So there’s an abstract understanding of sex that isn’t actually put into practice. There are many reasons for this contradiction, and one of them is that he’s a committed eugenicist who is very well aware that race was structured by sexual difference at the time. So, of course, he would never acknowledge that the white women he’s studying aren’t actually women because that would undo the whole system. He is just one of many people who can hold onto both of these possibilities at once.

Michael Faciejew: Can you elaborate on how the idea of the “spectrum” responds to the foundational literature in the history of classification, for instance the work of Geoffrey Bowker, Susan Leigh Star, or others that you’ve referenced in your writing?

Beans Velocci: It’s interesting to think about the “spectrum” because I actually haven’t been entirely sure if that’s the right word for that chapter. “Spectrum” seems too linear and too neat, and I’ve been trying to come up with a better metaphor. To stay with Dickinson for a second, he has this weird graph that he sketches out several times that looks almost topographic, with peaks for people who are “strongly sexed” and then this valley in the middle for less intensity of sex, corresponding to intersex—so it’s not so much a line you can slide gracefully along from one side to the other and more this kind of treacherous space of possibility. So I’m trying to think with Bowker and Star about the texture of classification, there. In addition to Bowker and Star, I’m also thinking more broadly with things like Annmarie Mol’s work on atherosclerosis, Michelle Murphy’s work on Sick Building Syndrome or even Julie Livingston’s work on disease classification in Botswana. These projects are helpful because they show how particular objects are constructed as coherent things with really material consequences. If anything, regardless of whether it’s the right way to think about Dickinson’s work, sex as a spectrum then would be only one iteration of sex as a thing. The multiplicity I’m interested in isn’t just like, there are many possibilities in between and around male and female—certainly that’s part of it—but that there are multiple ways of thinking about and working with sex that coexist and that scientists can pivot to depending on their needs.

Michael Faciejew: Does the specific category of sex allow you to uncover a different kind of history or methodology in relation to this literature? Can you talk more about what it means to do “trans as method rather than subject”?

Beans Velocci: It’s not so much the specificity of the category “sex”, because in many ways I’ve been trying to make sex into something that isn’t particularly exceptional. This is about taking away a little bit of the power of sex to define humanity and to function as a privileged site of power. In some ways I’m trying to get away from the idea that sex is a thing that exists at all. A lot of important feminist History of Science and STS work has been done on the construction of sex—and by that I mean how a binary forms to privilege maleness over femaleness—but all of that is still predicated on the idea that there is a biological reality of sex that cultural norms adhere to. I’m trying to start from a place where there is no such coherent biological thing that sex really is and to think about what would happen to the analysis without that assumption.

What I mean by trans as method rather than subject relates to a lot of the work on trans history that has come out in the past couple of years. A lot of this work has been really important for pushing back against the narrative that transness is a new trend, and it’s been really exciting to see the proliferation of histories of trans people. At the same time, this work says that in order to do trans history before the category trans is invented, we need to come up with ways to find people in the past who weren’t using the term. So we’ve wound up in a place where most works on trans history have a paragraph or page or two in the introduction explicitly defining who a trans person is and listing behavioral criteria about gendered labor, being arrested for cross-dressing, or changing a name, and so on—things that are familiar and useful but that also make doing trans history a classification project. And this has the unintentional effect of implying that a cis/trans binary has always existed, that there are people we can locate in the past with evidence of particular kinds of gender transgression, and everyone else more or less happens to fit into their assigned category. What I’ve been doing in my work is to look at all these people and sometimes animals who don’t fall out of normative gender categories at all but are not performing gender or sex as they’re supposed to, and make visible all the ways that that’s a really messy process.

Michael Faciejew: Do you consider History of Science to be a crucial site where trans as method can undo the solidity of these categorizations?

Beans Velocci: In the History of Science there’s an attention to the construction of knowledge itself and what it means to know something about someone. There’s a slightly different emphasis on who gets to make knowledge and how it’s structured. So in terms of method, yes, I think there is something really valuable to be gained by bringing the history of science and especially STS together with the history of sex and sexuality. But beyond that I think there’s still a bit of an unanswered question about the role of science and medicine in the creation of sexual categories such that I don’t think we’re done thinking about sex science even though a lot has been said. So it’s not only about what is happening differently in the History of Science, but why science has such influence in creating classes of people. In my work, I’m not trying to do the thing where doctors invented these categories and people absorbed them, but I am interested in whether this outsize power actually maps onto how people learn things about themselves or how they come to see themselves. It’s important to locate individual agency in trans people, but I’m also interested in understanding why science gets to be the privileged way of knowing sex, but in this incredibly abstracted way that doesn’t correspond to the deep complexity and uncertainty happening within science. Despite the fact that there are legal structures, ways of policing, and social worlds that dictate what’s possible, those things often still point to science for knowledge about sex as though sex science is monolithic. Which it’s clearly not, because it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the agility that it has to evade threats of contradiction.  

Michael Faciejew: How does the authority of language and scientific classification translate to contemporary categories of sex, specifically in terms of how people choose to categorize themselves today?

Beans Velocci: There has been a really interesting shift in the past ten or so years. Specific categories of gender and sexuality have begun to proliferate without coming from science at all. I’ve been curious about this because it seems like there’s a desire for taxonomic clarity in a way that feels very “sciencey,” but it isn’t science—if anything, it’s quite critical of science. In fact, it’s probably quite far ahead of scientific thinking in terms of what the politics of knowing about categories and sexuality are.

There are also many versions of language coexisting. On one hand, there is a desire for increasing precision in some taxonomies, and that feels very sincere to me. It’s not for me personally, but I also see how that helps people find community, or a political articulation of themselves, or even just a word that feels comfortable. But there’s also an ironic, meme-able use of categories, which is really fascinating and funny—I’ve forwarded many a tiktok about how today my gender is a subway rat eating pizza or whatever, and routinely refer to myself as a capital-T Tran. It’s a recognition that categories can be useful in group language, but they can never actually convey truth. It’s as if no matter how hard you try, no one can really be anything, and it’s funny to even try. The joke is in the recognition and rejection of the idea that anyone can be captured by a stable terminology even as we’re constantly categorizing ourselves all the time.

But this brings up some contemporary upshots that are a little more ethically fraught. These contemporary taxonomies are very different from the ones I research in terms of their power dynamics. Most of my work is on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a moment when science is more of an authority about what kinds of sexual beings can exist, often with eugenic goals. In one of my book chapters, I talk about a divergence of experimental views of sex in eugenics research in the 1910s and 1920s, where scientists tried to gain control of heredity by manipulating sexual characteristics in the lab—things like selective breeding for different sex ratios, or giving pigeons hormones. Yet in these same institutions, field workers collected family history data that they could only organize as a binary variable because of the filing cabinets that made individuals searchable. So in this case we have two forms of sexual multiplicity: one way with the idea that sex can be tweaked with scientific interventions, one way in that these two institutions are using totally different meanings of sex. But all of that multiplicity is for the purpose of racial violence! So like, systems that are not as strictly taxonomic aren’t necessarily aligned with any kind of social justice. At the same time, this points to how sex is an organization system—in a contemporary sense, it remains really hard to exist outside of bureaucracies that only recognize stable, binary sexes. In order for scientists, or anyone really, to take the multiplicity of sex seriously, we need to come up with a different way of organizing data or information. As long as things need to be stable to find them, the possibilities will be limited. In medical data now, you can tell your doctor that you’re non-binary and they’ll put that in your chart, but all the other organizational systems are still going to sort you in one bucket or another; I see this even in my current employer’s hiring system, in terms of how they track gender parity. I would argue that there is nothing consistent or precise about sex and gender. It seems like the only way forward is to come up with systems that are less systematic, where information isn’t so static.

Michael Faciejew: In your recent article for Transgender Studies Quarterly, you address a lot of these points by looking at the clinical practices of Harry Benjamin and his colleague Elmer Belt, whose work in the 1950s and 1960s determined—and continues to determine—who gets approved for gender-affirming genital surgery. What were your ambitions for this article, and what kinds of questions about certainty and uncertainty does it raise?

Beans Velocci: This was a piece that came directly out of my own feelings of rage—of sitting in the archive at the Kinsey Institute looking through Harry Benjamin’s correspondence and thinking: So you mean to say that all of the hoops I had to go through to get top surgery came out of this? The piece is less of a theoretical question about the category “sex” because it felt more important to do a kind of scholarship driven by trans rage than to say something about knowledge itself.

In studying Harry Benjamin and Elmer Belt, I made an Eve Sedgwick-like move, where I identified ignorance and uncertainty enabling action. Benjamin and Belt articulate themselves as having more knowledge about patients than the patients themselves, but they also lean into not having knowledge as a way to consolidate their power and authority. They put people in a category so that they could be in control of the situation, even if they admitted that they didn’t know what was going on.  I tried to suggest that it’s the construction of the category “transsexual”—not the category itself—that dictates what people can do with their lives and their bodies.

We see a similar logic in the attempted efforts to ban medical care for trans youth today. Some of these state Senate bills make choices for people based on a lack of scientific research.  But it’s clear in these cases that having more data would not change much. I wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post a few years ago, which said that this isn’t a good science-bad science problem. It’s not that these people lack scientific knowledge and they would have better trans politics if they just understood biology better. This is about trans life being bound up with science where science should not be dictating how people live their gendered and sexed lives.

Michael Faciejew: Do you see your role as a scholar working in tandem with forms of activism and advocacy in trans health?

Beans Velocci: This is something that I grapple with all the time. I do this work because I want to deconstruct the binary with history, and create tools and space for others to think more expansively about sex and gender. I also perpetually wonder if it’s actually possible to do anything remotely approaching an activist’s work when you’re ensconced in an Ivy League university. But then there’s also this real allocation of power and resources that becomes possible to wield by being attached to institutions like the ones I’ve been part of. Anyway, this is an ongoing ethical conundrum for me.

Beyond that, I’m doing some work with scientists who have sought me out, not so much to confirm what they’re saying, but to confirm that there’s something that science is missing that they need to attend to. It feels like there’s a real desire among many scientists to think about ethical dilemmas and social impact with historians. Part of this collaboration comes out of scientists wanting to do better science, because you’ll probably get more accurate information about the world if you think about the social and cultural context, but also because scientists don’t want their work to make people’s lives worse. And I think many are recognizing that they’ve been trained to separate science and politics in a way that is just not sitting well with them.

I’m really excited to be a part of these conversations because I can be a source of permission to think differently about something. I’m also trying to think outside my own discipline and ask what insights about classification can inform decision-making in policy and science. I would love for more scientists to consult historians. But it can also be frustrating: why are scientists consulting historians of science instead of historians of race when that might be just as relevant?

It’s also sometimes hard because, on a personal and professional level, I know about the damage that science has done and can do. I sometimes have to temper my own knee-jerk reaction to go to scientists and immediately shut down everything they’re doing and saying. And then there’s a negotiation of authority. That can work really well at times and at others scientists see the world in a totally incommensurate way—sometimes I find it hard to take their expertise seriously, and sometimes they dismiss mine. I’ve come to realize increasingly that it’s less about the incommensurability of knowledge systems and more about positions of power. It’s not just that we think differently, it’s that some ways of knowing are epistemologically privileged, not to mention way better funded. It’s still important to try to collaborate across disciplines. Luckily my training in history of science and STS is useful for figuring out how to navigate it.