Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post, by Hel F. Kiernan, is what should’ve been published in the Chicago Sun-Times instead of the transphobic and bigoted nastiness that was.
The anti-transgender screed, “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” recently published in the National Review (and briefly republished in the Sun-Times before it was pulled due to entirely reasonable public outcry), is strangely subtitled (for a thesis contrary to scientific consensus), “facts are not subject to our feelings.” That maxim being perhaps the only thing I agree on with its author, Kevin D. Williamson, I’m sure he would appreciate a response correcting his article with some actual scientific facts that support respecting the choices of transgender people.
(1) Men & Women are Not a Separate Species. Williamson’s lack of scientific knowledge seems like it could go pretty deep, so I thought I’d start with the basics. Human men & women are not a separate species; if they were, they would be unable to breed offspring that were also capable of reproduction; males and females being mostly technically capable of reproduction is kind of the whole thing that makes animals the same species.
No; men do not truly originate on Mars, and women do not come from Venus (that was a metaphor–a poor one). In fact, women and men both develop from variations on the same biological material. In the womb, the human fetus begins life the same regardless of sex, and doesn’t develop external sex organs until roughly the twelfth week (and every so often, a baby is born intersex, with androgynous genitalia and/or a chromosomal variation that make it not quite fit into our standard categorizations of male and female).
Even IF women and men were a separate species, however, that would not mean they would be vastly different with nothing in common and no possible overlap, because:
(2) All Life on Earth Originated from a Common Ancestor. Again, basics. Even animals that are a separate species from humans have a lot more in common with us than we might assume; we all evolved from the same ancestors (and are even all made of the same material as the stars). So actually, “the phenomenon of the transgendered person” has a history going back beyond humankind itself to the first organism to reproduce asexually. Variance in gender and sex is not unnatural—rather, the assumption that sex and gender must be a strict static binary is an assumption that does not actually match anything in nature.
People arguing against respecting transgender identity often say things like, “if a cat thinks it’s a dog, should you treat it like one?” The answer to me seems so obvious; a cat and a dog may have evolved along very different paths, but they share a common ancestor, and if a cat was born with a very dog-ish personality, yes, I would treat her like a dog if that’s what worked with her. I certainly don’t see any possible harm to it.
(3) Gender & Sex are a Spectrum, not a black-and-white, static, opposite binary but a spectrum, light divided into rainbow shades that mix and bleed into each other. The human brain loves to oversimplify things, but our perceptions are not necessarily reality.
Gender and sex vary not just from species to species, but also within those species, amongst individuals. The evolutionary process is not smooth and perfect—many variations, for better or worse, frequently occur.
Just as humans can be intersex, in some other species (notably certain butterflies and birds) some individuals will be gynandromorphs, precisely half female and half male, literally and physically.
(4) Gender & Sex are Two Different Things. Well, three. I mean, obviously there’s “sex” as in the fun consensual act of sweaty passion. We won’t be talking much about that (sorry), because sexuality is not necessarily tied to gender or biological sex.
An individual transgender person, exactly like any cisgender (or non-trans) person, can be sexually attracted to:
(c) Gender non-conforming people
(d) Some combination of (a), (b), & (c )
(e) None of the above.
So sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether someone is transgender.
More to the point, there is also “sex,” the biological distinction between a female, a male, & an intersex person. This is a designation regarding genitalia and reproductive ability. As infants, we are all assigned a sex based on how closely we appear to be male or female. What determines an individual’s sex is a combination of their chromosomes (XX, XY, or another variation) and primary sex characteristics (development of genitalia); later, during puberty, secondary sex characteristics develop.
Gender is not sex or sexuality. Gender is how an individual’s overall personality conforms—or doesn’t conform—to society’s expectation based on their assigned sex; how masculine, feminine, or androgynous an individual might be. Various scientific studies have shown that some aspects of a person’s gender may be influenced by biology, which explains why environment doesn’t seem fully capable of perfectly shaping every individual’s gender performance (as many case studies of individuals like David Reimer show); some people raised as girls still want to live more like a man when they grow up, and some people raised as boys feel more like women, no matter how society may threaten them for crossing gender lines.
(5) Gender and Sex Vary a lot across animal and plant species; some species have more than two sexes, some have only one, and many species are able to transform from one sex (or gender) to another. Hyena females dominate males and have external genitals resembling a male member to prevent unwanted intercourse. Some species of clownfish begin life male until the most dominant member of the school transforms into a female. Less dominant male cuttlefish trick more dominant males into mating with them by changing their apperance to seem female as part of an elaborate way to get females to mate with them as well as the more dominant males.
Asexual reproduction was the original, OG form of reproduction—the whole hetersexual thing is a newer invention. So when evolution started producing sexes via mutation, the materials for both sexes had to come from the same place—that’s why the Y chromosome in human males is essentially a shortened X chromosome. Evolution, by its nature, is never perfectly uniform, and if it were, humans—the products of billions of years of variation and mutation—would not even exist. Diversity is not only a scientific fact, it’s also the key to the survival of all living things.
(6) Gender Standards Vary by Society. Gender, too, is not only a range in itself, but how societies view and distinguish gender changes geographically and over time. You may recall that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. wore high heels, wigs, & make-up; in fact, high heels were once only for men. If you read classic literature, you may notice that men are often portrayed as crying openly when distressed, something our current society generally discourages. In some societies, women were expected to perform all the farming or the household math. History is full of examples of the fluidity of gender roles—for the most part it depends on what is useful to a society at the time, at least to their perception. In fact, many societies even lacked the modern phenomenon of transphobia:
(7) Transgender People Have Always Existed. In 2011, a 5,000 year old male skeleton was uncovered in Prague that had been buried in the manner traditionally observed to be designated to females. This means that not only did this male-bodied person probably identify as a woman, but her friends and/or family fully accepted and honored that choice. So transgender acceptance is probably at least 5,000 years old. There is plenty of further evidence of trans-positive societies, notably many Native American tribes who sometimes even had reverence for transgender people as having a special spiritual role in the tribe.
Given all this basic scientific and historical information, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that:
(8) The Scientific Community Supports Respect & Equality for Transgender People. The American Psychiatric Association, which is the largest U.S. organization of scientists and doctors who study the human brain, does not consider being transgender to necessarily be a mental disorder; they consider it a normal healthy part of a the human experience, and they advise others to support trans rights; among their advice: “Use names and pronouns that are appropriate to the person’s gender presentation and identity; if in doubt, ask.”
(9) Even if Being a Transgender Person Were Not Natural, That Wouldn’t Make It a Bad Thing. “Natural” and “unnatural” are somewhat arbitrary distinctions humans draw between things that humans (a type of animal) create (using materials found in our environment) and everything else in the universe that we haven’t directly messed with recently. For some reason, people like to imply that anything our species creates from our environment (such as hearing aids, medicine, and electric guitars) is evil, and anything unaltered by humans (such as cyanide, lions, and hurricanes) is good.
And really, even if we didn’t have plenty of science on the side of respecting transgender people, is it so hard to have some feelings of empathy for them, to treat people the way they would like to be treated, considering it doesn’t actually cause anyone any harm to just let others be happy being themselves?
In a world where transgender women are too often the victims of legally sanctioned violence and abuse (yesin the U.S. too), coming out as transgender is an exceedingly brave act, and it shouldn’t have to be. So if you find yourself wanting to post a screed questioning whether it’s OK for people to disrespect transgender people just because they are transgender people, please do yourself and the rest of us a favor and start with some basic research and human decency.
Hel F. Kiernan is a gender non-conforming human freelance writer working in Chicago & the internet.