Expertise’s place

Over 1,600 scientists have signed a letter of protest addressed to the White House against its proposed definition of ‘gender’ that purportedly disidentifies transgender and intersex people. According to a press statement issued alongside the letter,

The letter was a grassroots effort. Immediately following the publication of the New York Times article about the administration’s proposal, with its “grounded in science” claim, scientists began voicing their objections on social media. Twenty-two biologists and other scientists in related fields planned and wrote the letter collaboratively.

The letter asks for the administration to withdraw the draft policy and for the petitioners’ “elected representatives to oppose its implementation”. It has been signed by over 1,600 people working as “biologists, geneticists, psychologists, anthropologists, physicians, neuroscientists, social scientists, biochemists, mental health service providers,” and in other fields.

However, subject expertise has little role to play in the context of the letter, and certainly shouldn’t let the Trump administration off the hook simply because it believes only ‘scientific things’ are entitled to legal protection.

If technical expertise were really necessary to disabuse the Trump administration of its misbelief that gender is a biological construct, the experts at the forefront should have included those qualified to comment meaningfully on how people build and negotiate gender. But even this wouldn’t save the letter from its principal problem: it seems to be almost exclusively offended by the Trump administration’s use of the phrase “grounded in science” over anything else, and devotes three paragraphs underlining the lack of empirical knowledge on this count. This is problematic.

In transgender individuals, the existence and validity of a distinct gender identity is supported by a number of neuroanatomical studies. Though scientists are just beginning to understand the biological basis of gender identity, it is clear that many factors, known and unknown, mediate the complex links between identity, genes, and anatomy.

In intersex people, their genitalia, as well as their various secondary sexual characteristics, can differ from what clinicians would predict from their sex chromosomes. In fact, some people will live their entire lives without ever knowing that they are intersex. The proposed policy will force many intersex people to be legally classified in ways that erase their intersex status and identity, as well as lead to more medically unnecessary and risky surgeries at birth. Such non-consensual gender assignment and surgeries result in increased health risks in adulthood and violate intersex people’s right to self-determination.

Millions of Americans identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, or have intersex bodies, and are at increased risk of physical and mental health disorders resulting from discrimination, fear for personal safety, and family and societal rejection. Multiple standards of health care for transgender and intersex people emphasise that recognising an individual’s self-identified gender, not their external genitalia or chromosomes, is the best practice for providing evidence-based, effective, and lifesaving care. Our best available evidence shows that affirmation of gender identity is paramount to the survival, health, and livelihood of transgender and intersex people.

A socio-cultural description of some of the ways in which Americans interpret gender, the challenges they may face and what they believe could be the appropriate way to address them are all conspicuous by absence. People are not rallying to this cause because science doesn’t yet know; that would be disingenuous. Instead, they are speaking up because the cultural experience of gender is missing from the White House’s articulation.

Finally, more than following Trump’s draft policy into its hole of cultural elision, the letter itself seems to fail to distinguish between sex and gender. It says:

The relationship between sex chromosomes, genitalia, and gender identity is complex, and not fully understood. There are no genetic tests that can unambiguously determine gender, or even sex.

The relationship between sex chromosomes and genitalia is much better understood than the relationship between the two and gender identity. Further, sex can indeed be determined to a large extent by genetic tests. It is gender that is harder to associate with one’s genes because it is a social/cultural/political construct and genes aren’t its sole determinants. Sex is entirely biological and doctors around the world routinely determine the sex of newborns by studying their chromosomes.

The following para also notes:

In transgender individuals, the existence and validity of a distinct gender identity is supported by a number of neuroanatomical studies.

It is doubtful if these studies demonstrate causation together with correlation.

Notwithstanding the legal protections afforded to people of non-binary gender and the terms of their provision, the letter would have benefited by calling the policy out for framing it as an insular problem of science, not putting up an equally insular counter-argument and by being more wary of the language it employs to defend its stance. But as it stands, it proves to be by itself controversial.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.