Going beyond the binary in historical explorations of sex and gender

Beans Velocci of the School of Arts & Sciences explores how sex and gender have been shaped and categorized through history—and the consequences of those constructions taking on the guise of scientific and medical fact.

Faculty member Beans Velocci
Beans Velocci, a faculty member in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, studies the complex and conflicting ways gender and sex have been investigated and represented by scientists and medical professionals.

It was during an undergraduate course on women and gender in modern Europe that Beans Velocci, who joined Penn’s faculty this summer, shifted their academic—and personal—journey.

“We were reading the book ‘Herculine Barbin’ that has this introduction by Foucault,” says Velocci, describing a 19th century memoir of a person described as a “hermaphrodite.” “And it was in that moment that I was like, ‘There’s not something wrong with me. The issue is that gender is constructed!’ That led me to my own articulation of myself as trans and the recognition of that as something I could not only understand for myself, but I could understand historically—why my experience with gender was what it was.”

At the time, Velocci wasn’t familiar with history of science as an academic field but began plotting a career path based on their newfound perspective. They wryly recall the plan: “To be a historian and destroy the gender binary with history and primary source analysis.”

In the years since, Velocci has used the lenses of history, queer studies, and science and technology studies to explore how sex and gender have been shaped and categorized through history—and the consequences of those constructions taking on the guise of scientific and medical fact. Now an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of History and Sociology of Science following a year as a postdoc in the department, Velocci is also the first departmental hire to be a member of the core faculty of the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.

“I saw the job posting and thought, ‘This is my dream job,’” Velocci says. “To bridge history of science and women and gender studies is really the embodiment of the work I want to do.”

Velocci’s pioneering scholarship has garnered them attention and honors, including the 2022 John D’Emilio LGBTQ History Dissertation Award from the Organization of American Historians and, just this month, the Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize.

“Beans’ work is path-breaking and people are really starting to notice,” says M. Susan Lindee, chair of the Department of History and Sociology of Science. “They show clearly how what we once took to be the ‘familiar’ story of biological sex looks exceedingly strange when the actual scientific results are taken completely seriously, on their own terms. That is what I love about this work.”

Building the field

Following the Herculine Barbin-induced epiphany during their undergraduate years at Smith College, Velocci explored questions around social construction of gender through a master’s degree in history from the University of Utah, then began a Ph.D. at Yale University, planning to become a historian of sexuality.

“But in my first year of my Ph.D. I stumbled into a class called Problems in Science Studies with Joanna Radin, who turns out to be a Penn alum,” Velocci says. “I realized that there were all these questions in history of sexuality that were kind of these unsolved problems that the field didn’t have the tools to figure out. But the fields of history of science and STS [science and technology and society] did have ways to think about classification, knowledge transfer, and knowledge circulation. So, I jumped ship.”

In their dissertation, Velocci discussed four case studies. Each, concerns how clinicians and researchers have struggled to uphold the binary classification of sex, male or female, even when evidence pointed them to consider more nuance.

“At the time I was starting this work, in 2017 or 2018, there were a lot of historians doing this cool and important work of trying to trace out trans people before the category trans existed,” says Velocci. “For this they had to come up with a definition of what they were looking for—gender deviance to an extreme, a name change, people seeking out some sort of medical or social transition.”

Examining 19th and 20th century constructions of sex and gender is complicated by the lack of consistency in language in the historical record. This difficulty could, Velocci says, make it seem like trans people were a tiny minority. Velocci’s work challenges these limiting definitions, looking for people who “exhibit gendered and sex characteristics that don’t fit binary gender norms, but who don’t get kicked out of those categories.” For example, a woman with masculine traits who is still “allowed” to be considered female by society.

Faculty member Beans Velocci

The case studies included an examination of how 19th and early 20th century zoologists connected sexual dimorphism in animals with racial hierarchies; a look at two eugenics laboratories that existed at Cold Spring Harbor, one with a malleable framing of sex and one that stuck firmly to a binary definition; another on an early 20th century gynecologist who held an expansive notion of sex in theory but not in practice; and a fourth on trans medicine and access to medical transition through the mid-20th century.

Still in progress for their upcoming book (with the working title “Binary Logic”) is a chapter on the infamous Kinsey studies of sex and sexuality, focusing on the statistical methodology used to categorize study subjects.

“Beans is helping us see how scientific results that literally undermined placid notions of sharp sexual boundaries could be incorporated and accepted, somehow without undermining anything,” Lindee says. “It is fascinating work, and a novel way of understanding historical questions about sex, gender, and evolution.”   

Velocci says they dove into their dissertation project looking for a moment in history at which sex and gender were defined as binary, then never found it. Instead, they found that researchers’ and clinicians’ desire to define these categories has long existed in tension with a reality that is far more complex.

“It wasn’t until I was nearly at the end of working on my dissertation that I realized the whole reason that sex was able to function as a system for categorizing bodies and people was because it could be anything,” Velocci says. “At times sex could be a binary, allowing scientists to do the research they wanted to do and make the claims they wanted to make. Other times it worked better for it to be a spectrum to make certain claims. All of this was coexisting at the same time.”

Representation both inside and outside the classroom

These explorations of history are particularly relevant today, when trans people are under attack physically and legislatively, says Velocci. Connections to current events come up frequently in the courses they are teaching at Penn.

Some students show up to classes like Trans Methods or Queer Science with a basic understanding of how gender and sexuality are socially constructed, Velocci says, but it may be the first time students have encountered these issues in an academic setting. And Velocci doesn’t shy away from bringing their personal identity into the discussion.

“One of the most gratifying things is that, for most students, this is the first time they’ve had a trans teacher or professor,” Velocci says. “For me, all through undergrad I didn’t know how to be a trans adult—how to not only just exist but be successful and do the work that you want to be doing. So, it’s felt really important to do that work of mentorship.”

This open discourse and education happen outside of the classroom as well. Velocci has been cited as an expert on trans history in outlets like The New York Times, while student group Penn Non-Cis invited them as a guest speaker earlier this year, to talk about their career trajectory and experiences navigating academic spaces. Velocci has also consulted with Perelman School of Medicine clinicians to incorporate an inclusive approach to gender in their spaces and practices.

Finding the relevancy of their work to the real world is not a challenge for Velocci.

“I don’t have the privilege to not be relevant; state legislators are making it impossible not to be,” Velocci says. “I hope the conversations we have in class help my students think about and make sense of what’s going on in the world right now.”