Saturday, November 8, 2008

Refuting Medical Claims on Transgender Identity

Pop science sources have been slowly buzzing with the news that scientists may have found a link between transgender women who seek sex reassignment surgeries and their genes. This follows on the heels of a highly popular theory that the brains of transgender people are washed in either extra testosterone or extra estrogen while en utero.

Many people are excited about this, and I can understand why. In many ways, to have a biological basis for your identity makes it theoretically more difficult to discriminate. It suggests a fundamental physical proof of identity. Being transgender can no longer be seen as a choice, and medical access should no longer be denied due to the “cosmetic” nature of hormones, surgeries, or therapy. We can prove that we are who we say we are, and that our lives are pre-determined.

However, before we get too excited I’d urge transgender people who might not be as directly involved in these groups to recall the struggles of folks in disability communities and in LGB communities. We might belong to both these groups, but for trans folks who don’t know these histories as well, it could be prudent to review them.

Certain folks with disabilities have the physical proof of their disability readily available, yet that doesn’t mean that folks with disabilities have an easier time when dealing with medical procedures, in fact from what I’ve come to understand most folks have a more difficult time as doctors are resistant to doing any more than the bare minimum to ensure health and comfort. Moreover, medical professionals are inundated with the idea of “normal”. Many try to “fix” things that might not actually need to be touched, resulting in multiple surgeries for an issue that isn’t an issue for the patient. Folks in the disability rights community can show trans folks (who can of course belong to the disability community too) that relying on science to justify your existence is a dangerous and stigmatizing route.

LGB rights advocates suffered from the search for “the gay gene” back in the early 2000s as studies began to suggest that pre-natal searching for this supposed gene might result in targeted abortions. In the end, any possible gain of proving we exist by finding a gay gene was dismissed by the potential of seeing the gene as either an unfortunate detriment or a reason to target pregnancies.

Moreover, for me at least, I dislike this emphasis on scientific “proof” of transgender identity as it implies that out mere existence isn’t enough, the world needs proof that we are who we are. It takes our stories and puts them in the hands of other people. I understand the immense privilege that comes from working for an LGBT organization. I don’t need to justify my existence quite as often. I don’t need to hide who I am for fear of violence. I still need to constantly educate and correct. I still fear for my job, as many people don’t seem to understand why my position is important. I worry about what is said behind my back, and I grimace at the complete lack of understanding most of my colleagues have on transgender issues.

Understanding the privilege of being employed, and being employed in a mostly affirming environment, I still feel strongly that there is no true need for an explanation of transgender existence. Maybe our brains are washed in hormones. Maybe we are born with a gene predetermining our identity. Maybe it’s part of a supreme creator’s plan. Whatever. For me, the important thing is that we do exist. Folks who doubt our existence will not be swayed by science or theory as their doubts are based in prejudice and ignorance, not in any need for logic. From the 2008 book Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power:
“If geneticists find a variety of genes that they have been hunting for some time now – the genius gene, the criminal gene, the gay gene, the mothering gene, the super-athelete gene, the warrior gene – will this really put a smooth end to a variety of ideological and sociological debates..?”**
Until we are free from discrimination on the job, violence in the streets and at home, bigotry on all levels, ignorance and malice in medical establishments, and a lack of understanding or care in the criminal justice system, until all these things are carried away I really don’t care why I am the way I am. Moreover, I don’t need to justify it to anyone else. I don’t need to prove to you that I do exist, because I am right here in front of you. And hundreds of thousands of my people have stood here before me and will continue to stand here after me.

It’s tempting to desire a certificate of identity, a “proof” that our struggles are real, but we shouldn’t be looking for this acknowledgment outside of ourselves.

** Unger, Donald N.S. “Judging Fathers: The Case for Gender-Neutral Standards.” Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power. Ed Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 210


Zoe Brain said...

You might not care, but some of us are interested in determining Reality.

The fight for human rights is a separate issue, and one that is in most ways more important.

I've encountered remarkable resistance to discussing the biological basis of transsexuality. Many think that it could be used for a eugenic campaign to eradicate us. Well, it might, but the antidote to that is to fight it, not pretend the science doesn't exist.

You see, if we ignore it, others won't. And they may not be so friendly to us.

Doing Ostrich impressions is not an option. Moreover, the currently fashionable alternative to the biological causation theory is not that it is a "lifestyle choice", but a mental illness. And that means removing our rights and giving us aversion therapy, ECT, or even lobotomies - "for our own good". Not that it works, but it does allow our voices to be silenced.

Just Jennifer said...

A small, but important correction. These studies do not address "transgender" but are about transsexuals. There is a difference. Many, perhaps most, transsexuals do not necessarily identify as "transgender." In fact, many of us have come to prefer the term Harry Benjamin Syndrome. In any case, "transgender" is a very vague, essentially meaningless, term that attempts to unite a variety of behaviors and conditions under one term. These studies specifically address the condition of transsexualism only.

Mik Danger said...

Hi Zoe and Jennifer. Thanks for dropping by my blog.

From reading both of your blogs, I'm pretty certain we have some fundamental disagreements - but I think that's great. There are a million ways to live and I'm glad you shared your thoughts on this with me.

I think my post speaks for itself, so I won't be explaining myself here. Thanks again.

nixwilliams said...

heya mik, as you probably know, i couldn't agree more with you. for me, the possible benefits of discovering some kind of 'trans gene' (although it is far more complex than that, as zoe's blog often shows) are not worth the time, energy and resources spent on the search. likewise, i find it incredibly disturbing how much importance is placed on any such findings - especially by cis people, but by trans people also. to me, the the desire to explain our existence (especially as some kind of aberration - nobody is looking for the 'cis' gene!) is quite problematic. as you said - we exist. i think the resources would be better spent on educating other people so as to lessen discrimination.

zoe, i don't think mik mentioned eugenics, and i think the argument you set up isn't entirely fair. you are arguing that we can't ignore the research that's been done, whereas mik (and i) are questioning why we need to have that research done at all. those opinions and beliefs are not entirely antithetical, although obviously there is going to be some tension there. for us 'reality' is our lived experience, rather than scientific findings. sure the latter might impact on the former, but educational work to lessen prejudice and discrimination would impact far more.

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It's interesting to me to look at the parallels to, say, what we know about Down Syndrome and how it's identified in utero, and what people then decide to do about it. I mean, no one is advocating we research the causes of Down Syndrome less (which is an interesting topic just in itself, I think, how obsessed we are with that particular human variation that pregnant women routinely do tests that could cause miscarriage in order to know if it's an issue for them).

And yet look where our knowledge leads: directly to the issue of whether or not a woman with a Down Syndrome fetus should abort, if it's her duty to or not to, etc. The knowledge is applied immediately to the debate of who should be here among us, how useful and independent they can be, what they will cost society, if they'll fit in, and what's their inherent worth?

I certainly share your philosophy and concern.

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