It’s not “unscientific” to support transgender rights

For social conservatives, transgender sceptics and “gender-critical feminists”, claiming that science supports anti-trans rhetoric acts as a smokescreen. Put simply, it prevents such activists from having to admit their fondness for discrimination. Such a strategy is regrettably effective: in large part as a result of the tireless prejudice of anti-trans groups, open transphobia is prevalent in both right-wing and left-wing media (looking at you, The Guardian) and can be heard from all sides of the political spectrum. Organisations such as Britain’s “Women’s Place” have mobilised thousands of people willing to completely ignore modern understandings of sex and gender, preferring the XX/XY dichotomy for sexual characteristics and backing the absolute binary of high school textbooks. The modern advances of both the biological and social sciences indicate that such an approach is far too simplistic for such an extensive and complicated topic.

And yet, contrary to the insistence of the western world’s anti-trans figures, the existence of transgender people is neither new nor scientifically controversial. Various arguments in favour of transgender social acceptance are often derided as “unscientific”, with so-called “sex-based rights activists” insisting that gender is immutable (e.g. that “men cannot have periods”) and that the wider idea of transgender people being what they feel is contrary to scientific evidence. They’re lying: such basic, often transphobic categorisations of gender rely on either an accidental or malicious misrepresentation of scientific evidence as well as an outdated and obsolete binary definition of biological sex. In right-wing and left-wing media alike, their false assertion of scientific support is largely unchallenged, fostering anti-trans resentment and ludicrous fears of a shady “trans agenda”. The reality is simply that it is far less “scientific” to oppose trans rights than to support them.

An outline

I am not a biologist, nor am I a specialist in the science of sex/gender. However, I am capable of reading what experts have said and I’ve tried my best here to summarise/outline recent advances in our scientific understanding of sex.

Gender and sex are distinct and separate. Biological sex appears to be the result of hormone “washes” in early development, while gender is far more based on personal identification and social roles, often sorted into sexual categories (“male” and “female”) and – for the majority of the population – corresponding with one’s sexual identity. As a result, gender is considered far more a cultural construct as far as the social sciences are concerned, whereas biological sex is linked to a person’s genetic information.

For humans, sex is binary as far as the reproductive process considers (more on this later) – and yet, at the moment, there is a conflation of the male/female biology of sexual reproduction and the wider world where a similar sexual binary makes little sense. Where this is seen – in prominent figures such as J.K. Rowling – it is always made worse by odd decisions to ground understandings of sexual characteristics within high school textbooks: specifically, the notion that sexual characteristics are ultimately and only defined by one’s chromosomes. For 14-year-olds, this makes a lot of sense: it’s easy to understand an XX/XY dichotomy in which XX corresponds directly to female and XY to male sexual characteristics. But as human biology generally has deepened in understanding, such a binary is not only unhelpful but simply incorrect: firstly, binary models cannot be applied to attributes like sexual characteristics – a binary model does not even allow for a third option, nevermind the thousands of different sexual characteristics that humans across the world have. The current scientific understanding of our sexual characteristics – whether it be those that a person was born with or develops through puberty – revolves around the idea that sexual characteristics follow a bimodal distribution, with the majority of people having their sexual characteristics corresponding to their chromosomes.

Parents of a trans child show their support for transgender people during the 2014 Washington, D.C. Pride parade.
Part of the 2014 Washington, D.C. pride parade. Source: Tim Evanson

Secondly, the XX/XY sex selection system, long heralded by anti-trans activists as the foundations of sex and gender-based science, is also being constantly adjusted and reconsidered by modern scientific analysis: the sacrosanct XX/XY binary just does not account for the 1-2% of humanity that is intersex, nor does it account for those with only one X chromosome (Turner syndrome) or XXX/XXY/XYY chromosomes. Furthermore, rare cases of XY gonadal dysgenesis – also known as Swyer syndrome – result in people having female external genitalia, identifying openly as women and being raised as girls from birth, despite their XY (“male”) chromosomes – placing them at odds with the XX-female, XY-male idea that many anti-trans figures swear by.

However (as before mentioned), in terms of anisogamous reproduction, there does exist a binary system: “male” and “female” partners are both necessary, as the male produces the male gamete (sperm) and the female produces the female gamete (ova). Humans reproduce through anisogamous reproduction, and human reproduction, as a result, operates through a binary system – which some posit results in the bimodal distribution of sexual characteristics, with two peaks focused around this binary of anisogamy (although this could also be due to social pressures – or, indeed, a mixture of the two). But outside of mere reproduction, human sex seems to stray from a binary system – indeed, a binary of biological sex makes little sense as soon as you consider anything outside of gametes. For a wider binary to work, what would your two categories be? If human “sex” only has two categories (XX and XY), into which would you put someone with Klinefelter’s (XXY) syndrome? If the two categories are those who produce sperm and those who produce ova, how do infertile people fit into your binary? If the two categories of human “sex” are the arbitrary societal definitions of “male” and “female”, where would an intersex person go – and, at that point, is human “sex” more a biological aspect of life or a construct, similar to gender?

It isn’t 1905 anymore

There is an abundance of evidence showing that the science of sex is far more complicated than first meets the eye. Anisogamous reproduction requires the existence of a sexual binary in reproduction alone, but exactly what “sex” is outside of mere reproduction is uncertain – and doesn’t fit into the notion of a wider sex binary. It remains common, however, to those insisting on a sex-gender binary to accuse others of ignoring scientific or sociological evidence. For example, TalkRadio presenter and ardent Brexiteer Julia Hartley-Brewer this morning tweeted that “the only people who menstruate are women”, citing what she describes as “biological fact” to support her claim.

Once again for the people at the back who didn’t hear it the first time: the only people who menstruate are women. No ignorance, no outrage, no feigning. Just simple biological fact.Julia Hartley-Brewer

Modern biology is still advancing, and exactly what defines a “biological woman” is plainly not as clear today as it was a few years or decades ago. Sticking with a definition of “women are those who produce female gametes” doesn’t work unless you consider infertile women to not be women. Exactly what Julia Hartley-Brewer herself believes a “woman” to be is further unclear: if she believes that women are only those with the “female” XX chromosomes, she is – of course – incorrect: many of those with Swyer syndrome (and XY chromosomes) menstruate, just as many transgender men (who also have XY chromosomes) do. I doubt also that she believes that a “woman” is anyone with female sexual organs, some women are born without ovaries, apparently making them only “semi-women” (or something). Adopting such a position would also require her to embrace the idea that post-transition trans women – who have both female sexual organs and XY chromosomes – are biological women, which a person of her prejudices seems unlikely to do.

Furthermore, physical expression of one’s chromosomes (genitalia) appears to be one of the only things – if not the only significant thing – separating transgender women (assigned male at birth) from cisgender women. There does exist scientific research that supports the notion that “trans women are women” or “trans men are men”. For example, as Harvard microbiologist Katherine J. Wu noted in 2016, studies into sexual dimorphism in humans has found that the brain structures of transgender women are far more similar to other cisgender women than they are to cisgender men.

Transgender women tend to have brain structures that resemble cisgender women, rather than cisgender men … the general brain structure of these women is in keeping with their gender identity.Katherine J. Wu

The lie of the threatened bathroom

This debate keeps arising because public figures keep insisting that transgender men or women are “biologically” the sex contrary to that of their gender expression. For example, it arose a few weeks ago when J.K Rowling insisted that transgender women shouldn’t be allowed into “women’s only spaces” because they were still “biologically” male (whatever that means). Today, Rosie Duffield, the British Labour MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, expressed support on Twitter for the notion that only women have cervixes/cervical cancer. When trans activists asked to explain her views, as trans men can also have cervixes, she said (and I’m not joking) that activists were subjecting her to a “tedious ‘Communist’ pile-on”.

Both Rowling and Duffield alike appear to be of the opinion that trans men/women are not real men/women. At the time of writing, Duffield has not offered an argument for why she believes that (although she has clarified that transgender men should also get cancer screenings). Rowling, on the other hand, believes that recognising trans women as real women would result in the invalidation of “sex-based experiences” and endanger “natal women”, which – once again – is a term that means very little, and I (for one) would love to see what J. K. Rowling believes a “natal woman” is – is it chromosomes? Genitals? Size of the baby’s eyes/nose/lips? Rowling supports this idea through her dystopian vision that raging male rapists that will manipulate the law to secure unrestricted access to female spaces, such as female bathrooms or women-only domestic abuse shelters.

I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.J. K. Rowling

We’ve already established in our earlier outline of what “sex” might be (and what it isn’t) that anti-trans activists don’t massively care for scientific or sociological consensus, and so it’s no surprise that they also do not care for statistics. Once again, when an anti-trans activist talks about “the simple truth” (just as Hartley-Brewer talked about “biological fact”), what comes next is a blatant and wildly unsupported accusation concocted either through misunderstanding or active malice towards trans interests. Research from the Scottish government found that there was no research to indicate that men will “pose as transgender women”, nor was there any evidence found whatsoever that trans women would be more likely than cisgender women to assault other women.

Much of the literature suggests that there is inadequate justification for a blanket exclusion of trans women from services or spaces … This literature search did not identify any evidence supporting a link between women-only spaces being inclusive of transgender women, and cisgender men falsely claiming a trans identity to access these spaces2019 Report, Scottish Government

The Scottish government is not alone in that conclusion. US experts on both school safety and sexual assault, along with police departments across the entire United States, agree that allowing transgender people to use facilities of their gender identity has not compromised and does not compromise the safety of non-transgender people. J. K. Rowling – and those who support her – are liars. Their opposition to transgender women being recognised as the women that they are is based on nothing more than fearmongering. Furthermore, their objections to the inclusion of trans women in female spaces based on a supposed increased risk of assault is fucking ridiculous.

Assaulting women is already illegal. If a man is determined to assault a woman, he is already planning to break the law. Why on earth would he care about breaking the incredibly minor law of going into the wrong bathroom if he’s already prepared to commit sexual assault? Does J.K Rowling – or her supporters – seriously believe that a rapist is going to go through the entire process of securing a gender recognition certificate only to open a door that they could have opened anyway, to commit a crime that they were going to do nonetheless?!

In closing

There is a new ‘rule of thumb’ that can be taken from the events of recent weeks (and the decades before it): those attempting to mask their transphobia behind concern for women/gays/children will often attempt to invoke “science” to support their arguments, even when what they’re saying is at odds with our current scientific understanding of transgender people. Furthermore, they’re likely to care far less about the vulnerable and far more about preventing transgender people from living the lives they want to live.

Scientific – both biological and sociological – investigations into what it means to be transgender are continuing, and the “facts” on sex, gender, and being trans are far from settled. The more we learn, the more we realise how complex both biological sex and socially constructed gender really are. Furthermore, regardless of the biology behind it, the statistical evidence available leaves little room for doubt: it is easy to see that allowing transgender people to live as they identify is the option with the least harm attached. Transgender rights do not endanger anyone beyond the risks they already face – and, in return, transgender people are both happier and (crucially) are permitted to experience and enjoy the dignity that their cisgender friends, family and co-workers have had for all their lives.

At the forefront of this, transgender identity is complex – it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to attribute it to one neat, contained set of causes, and there is still much to be learned. But we know now that several of those causes are biological. These individuals are not suffering a mental illness, or capriciously “choosing” a different identity. The transgender identity is multi-dimensional – but it deserves no less recognition or respect than any other facet of humankind.Katherine J. Wu

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