In a memo leaked to The New York Times, the Trump administration revealed its intent to define ‘transgender’ out of existence. Under new rules, a person’s sex would be forever defined by “biological traits identifiable by birth”, removing the legal path to self-identifying and denying them protection under discrimination laws.
The Department of Health and Human Sciences justifies this proposal with the need to define gender “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” But here lies the problem: there is no scientific grounding for an inflexible definition of gender, based on only anatomy or genetics.
This idea was abandoned by researchers and healthcare providers decades ago. “I can tell you this is ludicrous,” writes Jack Turban, a resident psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, “There is no scientific definition of gender.” The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasises a “gender-affirming approach” to children struggling with dysmorphia, which encourages respect for their preferred gender identity. Furthermore, over 1,600 scientists have signed a letter opposing the U.S. government’s proposal, labelling it “fundamentally inconsistent [with] science”.
Gender is a complicated concept – a combination of sociocultural conventions and personal identity, as well as biology. Sex hormones, which bring about sex-specific changes at puberty, have been suggested to affect gender identity and expression of gender-stereotypic traits. But girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a genetic disease which results in unusually high exposure to male hormones like testosterone, are less likely to show stereotypical female traits *.
Why the gender of some people gender does not align with their physiological characteristics is not clear. What is, however, is that it is neither a choice nor a trend. About 1.4 million individuals identify as transgender or gender non-conforming in the USA, and records of gender-diverse individuals go back centuries.
Even within more progressive circles, however, there is often a prevailing assumption that while gender identity can be fluid, biological sex is binary and unchangeable. The reality is not so simple. Some estimates put the number of individuals born with ‘differences of sex development’, aka ambiguous external genitalia, as high as 1 in 1,500. Genetics can also leave room for contention. Some people with XY chromosomes can develop female traits due to an inability to respond to testosterone.
Others with XX chromosomes can develop male traits as a result of accidental transferral of some Y chromosome genes onto an X chromosome. Furthermore, some individuals have XX chromosomes in some cells and XY chromosomes in others, a condition known as chromosomal mosaicism. For these reasons, no genetic test currently exists that can unambiguously define a person’s sex or gender anyway.
Evidently, the idea that penis equals male and vagina equals female, while generally true, is an oversimplification of current scientific knowledge that ignores a not insignificant proportion of the population. It seems clear that, here, the U.S government is using false assertions about biology to push an agenda – an all too familiar tale. Fascists have historically used skull measurements to make erroneous claims about the relative intelligence of different ethnic groups – termed ‘scientific racism’.
Drafting legislation that will only increase discrimination towards an already vulnerable group, under the pretence of ‘scientific fact’ is a devastating, if unsurprising, step backwards. History tells us we need to oppose attempts to force people into strict dichotomies with no scientific justification and remain sceptical of the motivations of those who endeavour to do so.
* It should be noted that they may still identify as female.
Photograph: torbakhopper via Flickr Creative Commons