CN: Transphobia, sexual and violent threats, suicide
I’ve written a few posts specifically on LGBTQ issues, despite not being queer or trans identifying. Sometimes I wonder if I should stay in my lane better regarding this topic, since I will never have to personally deal with the attacks such people face on a regular basis. They should be telling their story, while I support them on the sidelines, or get involved when they ask for help. For someone who advocates that people stay in their lane, I realize I’m susceptible to being a white knight more than I’d like to admit. However, since I’m known as a “science guy” in my circles, I’ll take this one up, and then do my job of sitting down and listening. I can’t do allyship wrong anyway, since my partner is trans. If I’m doing allyship wrong by addressing something so unsubstantiated and baseless and giving a modicum of credence to the idea that transgender identity is up for debate, I apologize up front.
Matt Walsh, professional Catholic and spinner-of-Conservative-narratives, recently wrote an article titled Liberals, You Can’t Pretend to Be ‘Pro Science’ While You Claim That Men Can Have Babies.The title sets himself up to be an arbiter of what the science actually says about transgender issues, pointing out that left-leaning people tend to be those who espouse the virtues of utilizing science to inform our worldview except in certain select areas. What he actually accomplishes in this piece does is nothing of the sort.
I probably wouldn’t feel the need to speak out against this, except it appears to be a relatively common objection to transgender people existing. Last Spring, I made a minor chink in the internet with a Facebook post that spread much further than I had intended. While I’m happy to have gotten overjoyed responses from people whose identities (or even better, their children’s identities) were supported, I certainly received some hate mail. A few of them brought up “biology” as an objection (one coming from a pastor, who as we all know may have few objections to biology in the first place). One objection to this was the following.
Oh keep cryin in your dress, buddy. Love how to have comments blocked for everyone but who agrees with you. For someone working towards their phD, you seem to be rather confused on what defines a gender. Oh wait, that’s probably has something to do with liberal university you attend, with an acceptance rating as high as Colorado’s pot smokers. Should have just attended phoenix university if you’re ready to believe genitals don’t define gender. Understand, every biologist in the world disagrees with you. How would you handle being in a grocery store, and seeing a man like you, in that dress, walk into a woman’s bathroom, after you saw a 14 year old girl walk in alone? You’re ignorant ass isn’t gonna try and tell me that not allowing that man into that bathroom is ‘hateful’ or is intended to establish fear in the contrarian? You obviously lack any parenting bone in your body, I really hope you’re not intending to be a family doctor. I’d really love to entertain your rebuttal to my question, without using the liberal rhetoric you so glad spewed all over social media. I contend you are NOT well read on the subject, if you are telling me your dick doesn’t make you a man. If you disagree, I have a few awesome friends that’d love to make you feel as pretty as I’m sure you felt in that dress.
Yes, even ignoring the grammatical and spelling errors, there’s much to address. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but here goes:
- Genitals do define sexual characteristics, which aren’t the same as gender identity.
- Every biologist disagrees with me? Clearly he didn’t google very well. (I sent him links before I blocked him, I didn’t feel like engaging with that rhetoric)
- Fun fact, both of my parents are Christian family practice doctors, and fully support trans identity (one is even politically centrist, and has voted Republican).
- Regarding the bathroom, it’s ridiculously rare that anything dangerous would happen in a bathroom like that, and even if it did, it’s already illegal to assault someone. Another law making it extra super duper illegal by banning the dick wouldn’t deter anyone.
- Is that a rape threat? I’m pretty sure that’s a rape threat of the “you’ve got a purdy mouth there” variety.
Clearly, though, this is a persistent meme among transphobes. They think that it’s a good gotcha against progressives who normally tout the benefits of science, yet fall short on this particular issue. It would be, but honestly, the transphobes don’t have anything to work with.
Surprisingly (maybe), while Matt Walsh’s entire point was that science was against transgender people, one thing he did not use to make his case in his article was any scientific evidence. Seriously! He shares a variety of links to stories he thinks are examples of transgender acceptance gone too far, such as a trans man giving birth, or tampons in the men’s restroom. The closest he comes to giving actual evidence is citing a report from The American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) titled Gender Ideology Harms Children. It looks pretty spankin’ cool and professional and shit, until you realize that the ACPeds is not even a formal medical organization. Rather, they are a conservative advocacy group and hate group as stated by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have been denounced through the National Institutes of Health by Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project* and a generally science-loving dude who is also famously a Christian.
The “report”, which has apparently undergone zero peer review and hasn’t been published in a scientific journal of any notability, even gets some easy things wrong. These are things that I, a cis man outside the field of medicine, could tell were wrong at first glance.
“Human sexuality is an objective biological binary trait: “XY” and “XX” are genetic markers of male and female, respectively – not genetic markers of a disorder”
I’m surprised that someone so invested against transgender identity would make this type of mistake, as it’s a pretty easy mistake to avoid. Of course, statistically speaking, you do see a large representation of XY and XX chromosomes. In the distribution of human genetics, you could very easily call it bimodal, or characterized by two peaks, meaning that there are two large populations**. However, you couldn’t even call it a strict binary. You couldn’t really characterize anyone solely based on their chromosomes, as this would cause people with extra chromosomes, such as those with Down syndrome or Klinefelter syndrome, to have an entirely different sex from those with the expected XX or XY chromosomes.
However, even if ignore those conditions and look strictly at XX or XY conditions, we run into problems defining sex by these characteristics. When a physician assigns the sex of a child at birth, they overwhelmingly do not even look at the chromosomes. Rather, they make a first glance of the primary sexual characteristics, the genitalia. This is a problem, particularly for intersex people, whose external genitalia do not necessarily align with what we would call “male” or “female”, or they do not align with what we would expect as a result of their chromosomes. You may come across a child where the clitoris is large enough to superficially resemble a penis. Or you may find a malformed or absent penis in someone with XY chromosomes, causing the child to be assigned female at birth. You may even find someone with both ovarian and testicular tissue, and they may even have both an ovary and a testis, and this could happen with either XX or XY chromosomes. A paper from the American Journal of Human Biology estimated that this condition may be more common than we think, as high as 2%, meaning that while humans will commonly have a phenotype displaying one of two common sexual characteristics, this dimorphism is not as common as one would think. These simple outward features may not get so much as a second glance from a physician, which could easily assign them something “opposite” their chromosomes.***
“A person’s belief that he or she is something they are not is, at best, a sign of confused thinking.”
Obviously the rhetoric used in this question, “belief that he or she is something they are not”, already assumes the conclusion that their identity is not valid. It’s not particularly compelling to someone who doesn’t already agree with them.
This bullet point cited the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) further down, making sure to throw in the outdated term “Gender Identity Disorder” before recognizing that it is now referred to as Gender Dysphoria. This is an important distinction, as the American Psychological Association (APA) has made it absolutely clear that, “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder.” The only reason that gender dysphoria is listed in the manual, as stated by the APA, is to increase access to necessary care such as hormone replacement therapy, counseling, and gender reassignment surgery, as insurance companies may be far less willing to provide coverage for patients without a diagnosis behind them.
It should also be noted that not all trans people experience this dysphoria. Since the defining feature of a trans person is that their gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth, this does not include gender dysphoria as a necessity.
“According to the DSM-V, as many as 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty”
This is based on flawed work by Zucker and Bradley in 1995 that purported to include a longitudinal study of gender nonconforming children. This study stated that a large number of trans children did not actually turn out to be transgender, implying somehow that this is something that people grow out of. Rather, this has since been dismissed as a flawed conclusion, as the category of children that were “gender nonconforming” in the study merely acted more feminine or masculine than expected. Girls would like more rough-and-tumble activities or boys would like playing with dolls. The study was based on gender stereotypes, not based on gender identity. Notably, when the children were asked at the beginning of the study what gender they were, 90% responded with their sex assigned at birth.
Yes, of the supposedly gender nonconforming children in the study, most of them explicitly were not transgender by their own admission. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has dismissed his work, which includes reparative therapy that, “may lead to increased self hatred and mental health problems”. His mental health center has been under review starting in 2015, and his collaborators have since expressed regret for working with him. This work is based on terrible, terrible science and has only survived as a result of reinforcing the heteronormative narrative preferred by the religious right. Hopefully the Largest-Ever Study of Transgender Youth, funded by the National Institute of Heath, will yield far more fruitful results.
“Rates of suicide are twenty times greater among adults who use cross-sex hormones and undergo sex reassignment surgery, even in Sweden which is among the most LGBTQ – affirming countries.”
Yet again, the ACPeds cite a study that is based on flawed science that has been blown out of proportion by conservative media. It has been used to prove that reassignment surgery doesn’t work. It states that the suicide rate is around twenty times greater for people who undergo transition therapies and treatments than those who don’t†. Of course, even the first author on the study does not agree that it indicates that the actual surgery causes trans people to be suicidal. Rather, she notes that the surgery cannot divorce a person from discrimination, bigotry, and social pressures that cause suicide in the first place, which will all occur with or without surgery. Of course, conservative media outlets, if they had good science communication skills would have probably known that if they had thoroughly read the paper. If they had, then they probably would have noted this paragraph within the article itself (emphasis mine).
“It is therefore important to note that the current study is only informative with respect to transsexual persons health after sex reassignment; no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment as a treatment for transsexualism. In other words, the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment. As an analogy, similar studies have found increased somatic morbidity, suicide rate, and overall mortality for patients treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is important information, but it does not follow that mood stabilizing treatment or antipsychotic treatment is the culprit.”
Ultimately, the only “science” source that Walsh uses within his post is a single, non-reviewed, highly flawed statement from a small, ideologically motivated advocacy group with all the scientific credibility of the Ghostbusters cast. It’s cargo-cult science. It doesn’t matter how fancy and dressed up it looks or how many apparent citations they have, it’s full of holes.
[Image: The Principal from Billy Madison. The text reads, “I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul!”]
At this point, I’m going to do something that Walsh failed to do, and admit that I am not an expert within the field of psychology or medicine. I can read academic papers and draw some very basic conclusions from the abstracts or the results sections in these papers. However, I will never have a thorough understanding of the methods that the researchers used, or how they got to their results. At this rate, considering the caliber of “science” that Walsh used in his article, I’m at least a step up from him in that I can distinguish a decent journal from nonsense, and that I have the ability to defer to the experts within the field instead of pretending that I know “the science” myself. With this in mind, recognize that I am a non-expert presenting some studies that indicate that yes, the science favors my side.
A study in 2009 showed that among 59 Swedish individuals undergoing surgery, 95% indicated a favorable outcome after undergoing treatment (with 62% of clinicians agreeing that these outcomes were favorable. Another in 2010 indicated that lack of facial feminization and gender reassignment surgery statistically diminished mental health-related quality of life in trans women compared to those who did undergo those procedures. There was also a meta-analysis in 2009 of 28 studies of people who underwent reassignment surgeries and hormonal therapies. This showed significant improvements in gender dysphoria, psychological symptoms, quality of life, and sexual function.
I’ve also come across a 2011 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that indicates that in sexually dimorphic regions of the brain involving white matter microstructure, trans people’s MRI results most closely resemble the microstructure of cis people with the same gender identities. This seems to indicate there is neurological support for gender identity, beyond simplistic notions of matching genitalia to gender. A 2014 article in the Journal of Neuroscience Appears to indicate similar findings.
My only qualm with bringing out these scientific findings is that it ignores the biggest point that transphobes seem to ignore. Even if we had none of this evidence to show off, and we didn’t have verified treatments for trans people, we still would have no reason to treat them as subhuman or somehow lesser. We have no reason to treat them different, period. We also have no distinct inherent link between genitalia and identity. There is simply no known mechanism that links the two. Physical characteristics such as body type and chromosomes are relatively easy to analyze, and we can point them out, but we still have so many questions to answer regarding identity. While we wait for neurologists and psychologists to discover these, treating transgender people as anything less than equal to the rest of us is being an asshole. Unfortunately, as the above science seems to indicate, this causes a ridiculous amount of undue stress and burden upon trans people, which we know causes mental health problems. Are 1.4 million Americans “pretending to be something they’re not” just for the attention? In today’s ridiculously transphobic climate, I have a hard time believing that.
To Matt Walsh, who’s trying to trip the left up on science issues, I would suggest something easier. If you want to call us out on science issues that progressives repeatedly fail on, call out behavior on GMOs. Call out progressives when they’re being anti-vaccine. Call out progressives when they think Wi-Fi causes cancer. But you can’t pretend you’re right on this issue. The science is not on your side, no matter what you pretend to say. And while you’re fact checking yourself and figuring out what science really says about the issues, start treating transgender people with some respect.
* Note for transphobes and Matt Walsh fans, this is a big science project. With fancy people in official lab coats and shit.
** I love statistics!
*** I credit learning most of this from my science segment on Episode 108 of the podcast, where Ari (whose surname has since been changed to Stillman) did a well-researched science segment on queer and trans identity. Yes, a science segment. Hmm. The point is, they did all the hard work here. There’s a lot more facts in that segment that are worth listening to, I learned a lot!
† I’m also leery of the control group, though since this is out of my field, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it within my article itself. Is the control group transgender people who don’t receive surgery? Or is it people in general who don’t receive reassignment surgery? If it’s the latter, then there’s no way you can draw that conclusion from this study. What defines a trans person isn’t that they get “the surgery”. It’s their identity.