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  • Sat, 8, Dec, 2018 - 5:00:AM

Trans and non-binary people won’t be erased through the miscommunication of science

Trans rights have been in the news a lot lately. The Auckland Pride Parade board’s recent decision to ask police not to march in the parade in uniform out of respect to the trans community and the resultant fallout has generated an enormous amount of bigoted, ignorant commentary. It’s just the latest incident in a long line of set backs that continue to have a significant negative impact upon trans people.

Earlier this year the world woke up once again to the news from the USA of an attempt to walk back transgender rights. This time, the news was on a leaked memorandum from the US Department of Health and Human Services on their plans to establish a legal definition of gender, based narrowly on “a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable”. 

The simplest interpretation of this statement is that they aim to create the shortest and the most devastating route to policing gender and gender-specific privileges according to the individual’s anatomy, as recorded at birth. The most immediate impact would be the denial of healthcare and social inclusion for people who are either transgender or non-binary. Others effects include the roll back of anti-discrimination policy and access to safe spaces for these people. This is just one of many efforts both in the USA and other developed countries to evoke a moral panic about transgender, queer and non-binary communities. 

It is not a major leap for the Trump administration to base outrageous and inflammatory decisions based on fabrications of the reality. However, this is one scenario where they picked the wrong scapegoat – science. As a transgender woman and a biomedical scientist, I have watched in awe how my peers have risen against this misinformation of the truth about a battered minority which includes me. To me, this has underscored a few problems with the way scientific facts get twisted and kicked around like a political football. It is symptomatic of an increasingly orchestrated effort to demonise transgender people, which the wider community must overcome.

We have always been here, but why the moral panic?

Trans and non-binary people have existed throughout human history. Many cultures, including Polynesian cultures, have embraced inclusivity of these people. They were perhaps never equals, but certainly valued members of societies. New Zealand certainly has led the way in showing the world that trans people are not the victims that popular culture would have you believe, but that they can serve and inspire society just as well as cisgender people. Geogina Beyer was perhaps our most famous transgender leader and led the way with the 2003 reforms to the Prostitution Act that have saved the lives of so many women in the last decade and half. 

Influential and inspirational transgender people around the globe have become numerous over the last decade or so. New Zealand perhaps has more than its fair share of trans and non-binary role models; among them are scientists who have led the way in both their scientific disciplines and societal change. Those who specifically inspired me include Dr JJ Eldridge who has led the queer inclusivity in the University of Auckland and Prof AW Peet who has taken on the Trump-admiring Jordan Peterson. Isn’t it therefore a little ironic that sometimes it is under the same banner of science that we are criticised, belittled and marginalised, particularly via mainstream media?

It will come as no surprise to the readers of Villainesse that trans people are over-represented in suicide, self-harming and mental illness. New Zealand is not immune from these problems, which stem from poverty, social exclusion, the lack of systematic healthcare and counselling or awareness on how to go about transitioning (both legally and, if necessary, medically). By international standards, New Zealand is a very inclusive and progressive society – I have learned this from having lived in four countries, including New Zealand. 

But even we sometimes do so poorly when it comes to recognising how hard life is for trans people. Two years ago, I was stunned to hear the story of “Ally” (pseudonymised for privacy), a trans woman who arrived in NZ as an asylum seeker. Whilst here as a refugee, her doctor diagnosed her with gender dysphoria and helped her start her medical transition, but Ally still needed to acquire accreditations on language skills in order to apply for work or university qualifications in NZ. She quickly found that her lecturer(s) and fellow students, in the English Language course of a major NZ university refused to acknowledge her gender and denied her access to the women’s restrooms. For the sake of her own sanity and safety, Ally was forced to drop out and had to start a life of unemployment and hunger. 

As a university academic I was appalled by this, but not surprised. Today’s world has even the most educated people second-guessing about what is right and what is not. Misinformation of the scientific research on trans people, the law, the statistics and the news relating to gender is rampant. Even the most mainstream of media revel in sensational anecdotes and fabricated stories spun as scientific facts. It is increasingly becoming difficult, even for the most well-educated and progressive people, to separate fact from fiction on this subject.

Many different social facets have found it convenient to target the transgender community. These include far-right groups with an anti-feminist agenda, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, religious groups that find gender variance not agreeable with their respective doctrines, and anyone else who sees an easy opportunity to gain a temporary moral superiority from attacking minorities. The rhetoric adopted by all of these groups often follows the same strategy. They generally attempt to quote “scientific facts”, either taken out of context, exaggerated or fabricated, to justify their belief that gender is locked in with reproductive anatomy.

Scientists making a stand against misinformation

The latest stunt of the Trump administration has galvanised a large cross-section of the scientific community. The #WontBeErased movement has prominently featured a statement signed by 2,617 scientists who have summarised the scientifically-established and peer-reviewed facts. Recently, an editorial of Nature, one of the two most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in science, made a clear stance against the false ‘scientific facts’ on which the planned legislation is based. 

Both statements of support for the trans community cited the limited but conclusive scientific evidence that rejects a deterministic link between genitalia at birth and gender identity. Also cited were the studies that show that physiological distinctions in the brain determine gender identity of individuals independent of external anatomy, and the psychological and physical damage done to intersex children who are subjected to non-consensual gender assignment surgery. They went on to cite scientific evidence that effective healthcare and social support are the most effective ways to save the lives of transgender and intersex people – a community that makes up at least 1% of the human population. With a unified voice, they refute the idea that genetic and anatomical testing as a means of gender recognition. 

Why should these scientific facts hold greater truth than what we read on news sites or watch tele? We must take assurance from the fact that peer-reviewed scientific literature, although not completely flawless, presents a rigorous forum to evaluate the evidence and debate their interpretations. It is by no means a place free of prejudice or errors. However, peer-review is a place where social conditioning is overcome to make evidence-based conclusions – just the same way that we have debated and established the composition of sub-atomic particles, the role of greenhouse gases in climate change, or the routes of HIV infection, none of which is intuitive to us as human beings because of our cultural conditioning. Only when there is consensus between the authors of a scientific paper, editors of the journal and the expert reviewers, will the article be accepted into publication. Even if the conclusions of the paper are flawed, the paper documents the context in which the evidence was interpreted. This leaves the door ajar for new, more conclusive evidence to emerge as we deepen our understanding of what determines gender. 

It is normal to have disagreement on hypotheses among research scientists. However, the media has a significant power in communicating the science and factual research, free of bias and misinterpretation. We must therefore be careful about credibility of a report and the overall agenda of the journalist before they claim to be conveying scientific fact. 

The solution is not straightforward

The solution to the specific problem of misinformation is perhaps two-fold. Firstly, it requires creating more credible information, research and policies. Scientists who are experts on the topics must be careful about how this knowledge is disseminated. They must be sensitive to the fact that their words can be quoted out of context or have the power to harm marginalised trans and non-binary people. They must be prepared to call out anybody who is using it to disadvantage anybody, recognise the limits of the scientific understanding, and avoid making sweeping generalisations about the trans and non-binary people. They must accept that science does not yet have the technology to measure every single determinant of gender and that it is bad practice to extrapolate from the evidence that they do have.

Secondly, we must learn to see through the agenda of those reporting it. It is perfectly reasonable to publish opinion pieces, however using poorly founded science as a platform for opinion writing is wrong. The scientific community should not, and will not tolerate it. 

One way to be certain whether you are reading a journalist’s personal agenda or an unfiltered peer-reviewed scientific conclusion is to search the original research papers that present the evidence (and if a writer doesn’t provide any specific evidence, be VERY sceptical). Searching for the scientists’ name, the name of the article and/or the journal are good starting points to this. This is easy to do these days through Google Scholar and many of the highly respected journals that allow open (public) access to the original research papers. 

The true solution to this problem however is one that we can all contribute to. Simply put, it is a politics of kindness, as advocated by Jacinda Ardern in her recent speech at the UN General Assembly. It requires a basic belief that allowing trans and non-binary people to exist as equals will not deny others of their rights or their fair share of equality or their own gender identities. As the science already shows, trans people are neither super-beings nor are they sub-human. Once society gets over this moral panic and is unified on the idea that all LGBTQ+ people are equals with everyone else, the solutions to our unanswered questions will come naturally. 

 Izzy is a Lecturer of Cardiovascular Sciences in the University of Leeds. Her academic training was in Auckland, New Zealand and she is actively researching in the disciplines of heart and exercise physiology.   


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