Science

Stop Trying to Out-Science Transphobes

It’s painful to watch people who purport to care about us attempt to dissect us.

The transgender flag (blue, pink, and white lines) against a sunny blue sky.
Getty Images Plus

Watching your body and identity get dissected on the public stage wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone, but it’s become the status quo for transgender people. Even as the Equality Act passed the House last week, offering hope that the Civil Rights Act can be expanded to protect people’s sexual orientation and gender identity, some took the opportunity to weigh in on whether people like me do or should technically exist at all.

That same Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul subjected assistant health secretary nominee Rachel Levine to an offensive and transphobic tirade, which purported to be out of concern for our medical well-being. This probably didn’t gain more attention because Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene proudly posted a sign outside her office announcing that there are just two genders. That’s what sparked XX and XY to trend on Twitter and, infuriatingly, a wave of “gender critical” and hateful comments lobbed at trans people like me. Over the weekend, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens and ex-President Donald Trump tried to position themselves as defenders of women by ranting about “manhood” and “biology.” Meanwhile, multiple states are still mulling over copy/paste legislation created by the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom that would ban transgender girls from playing on sports teams matching their gender and, even worse, would criminalize health care for transgender children.

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Through it all, whether they’re self-proclaimed feminists who never embraced inclusivity or conservatives looking to give their base something to chew on, bigots keep talking about “the science.” “Trust the science!” said Greene’s sign, without a touch of irony. That “science” involves the kind of third grade biology basics that supposedly provide evidence that there are only two sexes and that those sexes are fundamentally different. Women make eggs and men make sperm, they tell us. They have taken to rhetorically asking what the “third gamete” is, as though conflating biology and gender will—I don’t know—make transgender people instantly disappear? Sometimes it’s hard to know what these people actually want out of all their vitriol. But regardless of their aims, transphobes of all stripes appeal to the authority of science—science that is pretty easy to refute.

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This is a trap. Allies fall for this time and again. The same conservatives who try to deny my rights based on “science” have also denied that cigarettes cause lung cancer, that humans are driving global climate change, and that evolution is real. They are not dealing in facts. Still, allies respond to inane and hateful transphobic statements by trying to talk about the science themselves. They will often point out that people can have chromosomal combinations other than XX and XY, that hormone replacement therapy leads to significant physical change, and that producing particular gametes is not the sole definer of biological sex. All true, and all playing into the idea that transgender people can have their bodies scrutinized, poked at, and talked about as a set of constituent parts instead of being treated as people first. By engaging in the back-and-forth at all, allies are buying into the idea that there needs to be a scientifically justified reason for trans people like me to have the same rights as everyone else.

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Spending so much time trying to scientifically justify the existence of trans people can inhibit our ability to go about our lives and, as writer Katelyn Burns put it, enjoy a “trans day of leaving us alone.” Take sports, for example. People have been arguing over how transgender athletes should fit into sports for years, with much of the discussion centered on scientific-sounding arguments around testosterone levels, muscle mass, win-loss records, and the like. People—who often are not trans—throw out possibilities for what would acceptably allow a trans person to compete, like chromosome testing, hormone-level checks, a third sports league for gender nonconforming people, and other bad ideas. These may be well-meaning attempts to normalize trans participation, but what they signal to me is that only those of us who pass or become adequately akin to cisgender people are acceptable. It’s a move that lets cisgender people set the standard about who is acceptable and who is not, based on the intimate biological workings of our bodies. It also still does not stop all the pseudoscientific hate.

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Science isn’t going to win this one. When the argument turns to strangers trying to affirm or deny my identity on the basis of biological particulars, I head for the hills like the dinosaurs in Fantasia running from the T. rex. That’s because trans rights are not a scientific issue. They are a human rights issue. There is certainly a lot we could say—and that I would honestly love to know!—about human sexual variation, the effects of hormone replacement therapy, why hoped-for bodily changes are so emotionally fulfilling, and more. Some of these things might be wonderful topics for biology classes; imagine if every high schooler in America were educated to understand that human sex itself comes with a lot of variation. (Thinking back to my younger, closeted self, that would have helped!) But, in terms of deciding how I, as a trans person, am going to move through the world, all the information about hormones and biology affects three people, at most: my doctor, my partner, and myself. That’s all.

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What we’re living through is a trans panic akin to the satanic panic of the ’80s and ’90s, when parents and police were convinced there were devil-worshipping cults infiltrating every facet of society. It is not logical. Going over, yet again, how hormone levels, chromosomes, skeletal features, and more vary in many complex ways is not going to make a lick of difference to people who see me and others like me as an abomination, a threat to the nuclear family, or somehow capable of ruining their day because I need to use the women’s room.

All this time spent debating “the science” of where transgender people belong in society only confuses a truth many are struggling to accept. It is a distraction no matter which side of the argument you are on, because you are complicating and putting up for debate something that is very simple. Trans men are men. Trans women are women. Nonbinary people are valid. Trans people have always been here. We are here now. We will continue to be.

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