All we need is more scientific evidence that transgender is a real condition and not some kind of warped choice and we can make a lot of progress with civil rights laws, says one trans commentator.
Having lived through a time when the holy grail was a perfect “differential diagnosis” which separated the real transpeople from the pretenders — the crossdressers, the transgenders, the drags, the genderqueer, whatever — I have to admit to believing the quest for a clean line in the brain that marks trans scares me a little bit.
I long ago realized that the search for “scientific evidence” to prove that trans is “real” was a dead end, for two big reasons.
The first reason is that our understanding of the brain is so limited that kind of understanding won’t come anytime soon.
There has been an enormous groundswell in support for lesbian and gay people, but can you think of any major “scientific evidence” that explains how we can tell they are born that way which has come up in the last twenty years? I can’t.
There have been sociological studies about their behaviours, sure, but those are soft social sciences which only reveal cultural patterns, not scientific origin.
The second reason is much more important. Science doesn’t convince people. Many of those who make claims about the fundamental truth of binary gender, that birth genital status is absolutely determinant to the true gender of a person don’t believe in the scientific truth of evolution, preferring instead to believe a biblical form of creationism.
There is no trained scientist who doesn’t believe in the basic truths around evolution, looking at the amount of time it took to create species and even in links between steps and blind ends in the process.
Still, that science it doesn’t convince all the population. They resist examining the evidence for their own reasons, preferring their own beliefs about a creator and “intelligent design” to the evolution they find challenging. They just don’t want to hear the details that might challenge their comforting understanding.
I spent the 1990s trying to make rational and logical arguments about gender in society. I engaged in lots of discussions that presumed to find a kind of scientific truth behind gender identity.
While I value my time doing that because it allowed me to clarify my own thinking and terminology, creating a consistent and defensible approach, soon after 2000 I decided I had hit a dead end.
In the end, it will never be logic, scientific or legal, that changes the way transpeople are accepted in society. It will be emotional understanding and compassion.
This is the big breakthrough with lesbian and gay rights, the fact that we know people who have that sexual identity and understand that doesn’t make them less than human, doesn’t make them filth, doesn’t make them fakers.
By accepting them for who they are, we have allowed new gender roles to emerge, roles of men who love men and women who love women. They have a space in society.
Sadly, much of that space has come by renouncing queerness, by creating fixed gay gender roles that still affirm binaries of both gender and desire. They identify as one or the other, inside the box.
For trans and bisexual people, we challenge those binaries, of gender and of desire. We demonstrate that the separations, the walls people think are protective and comforting aren’t really as solid as most would like to believe.
One big problem with science is that the preconceptions you bring to it colour your results.
One study looking at tactile sensitivity, for example, appeared to show that women could feel finer ridges than men. The authors could have stopped at that statistical finding, appearing to validate gender binaries again, but they didn’t hold that so they looked closer.
What they found was that tactile sensitivity is related to hand size. We all have the same amount of nerves, so when they are packed closer together in a smaller hand, the sensitivity is increased.
In general, females have smaller hands than males, but that is a crude generalization. They looked deeper and found that separation by sex was also wrong, but in earlier days, many researchers would have stopped at the simple results that met their own preconceptions of sexual difference, missing the deeper truth.
How do we change the preconceptions about sex differences that can keep researchers myopic? By changing the social understanding.
Back in the early 1990s, I heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say
In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous, common humanity.
I knew that instant that I had just heard my mission statement. This surfacing of connections and commonalities beyond social expectations of separation is what transpeople have always brought to human cultures, where we have existed for all time and been valued in many.
My work in the last decade has been much more personal and emotional. I write about the human experience of being trans in the world.
People who take the time and effort to engage my writing find resonance with their own experiences, no matter how normative they see themselves. As I speak truths that they understand, they experience our continuous common humanity.
I do understand that my work is challenging for many reasons. There is so damn much of it, it isn’t easily packaged and edited, it demands a lot of challenging thought to engage, and some of what I talk about just appears too damn emotional and messy to deal with. It is far from perfect.
My work is, though, very human.
I love science and the scientific method, was trained in that kind of thought. Logic, consistency, references and tested hypotheses run through all my writing.
I just believe that it isn’t our logic that will save us, no matter how much it well informs our choices. It is our belief, our feeling, our vulnerability, the deep human truth that connects us all.
Trying to sway the world with data and conclusions has many limits. Swaying the world with what touches the human nature we all share, though, seems much more effective.
That’s why I walked away from just logic and into experience, knowing that it is my vital humanity, not my mind that will save me.
And I believe it can save all of us, if we just open our minds and hearts to the connection.