Gender Journey: Trans Rights and Activism

Photo source: Human Rights Watch/Reuters

President Trump’s controversial transgender military policy just came into effect, coinciding, somewhat ironically, with a Russian court ruling in favor of a transgender woman who claimed she was fired because of her gender identity. As often happens, historic firsts like this get my mental cogs turning in a stock-take of my general knowledge on a topic, in this case, the T in LGBQT. This is of course a broad church, rich in both dogma and doctrine about everything from gendered brains to structural sexism, not the kind of terrain to tread flippantly through.

I was reminded of this in a recent conversation where I was presented with an opinion that vexed me. It went like this: sex reassignment surgery and/or transgender hormone therapy is problematic because just like changing the color of your skin doesn’t change systemic racial inequality, changing your anatomy and/or secondary sexual characteristics doesn’t address gender discrimination. The logic was that, like race, oppressive systems drive the distress that people experience in relation to gender. They argued that permanent hormone treatments or surgical procedures are potentially harmful for the collective good, as a kind of quick win that doesn’t dig deeper into the societal issues causing gender dysphoria (the distress a person experiences as result of the sex and gender assigned at birth not matching their gender identity). Key to this thinking was their central hypothesis: there is no such thing as a gendered brain.

The evidence in support of this argument was Rippon’s The Gendered Brain, a careful demolition of the myth of the “female brain” tracing the origins of the conviction that the female brain is “different” (inferior), how this misconception persists, and how breakthroughs in neuroscience can, and should, dispel such fallacies. While I appreciated historical-scientific evidence confirming that there is nothing to justify the ongoing gender gap, I was thrown by how easy it is to rationalize discriminating against trans people under the auspices of body politics in a broader societal context. Of course, calling someone transphobic seldom goes down well, especially because, to be frank, neither of us were especially informed on either trans experiences or clued up on related taxonomy. This is one of those dangerous identity politics arenas, where everyone thinks they know what’s up until elbow deep in an argument, a labeling faux pas gets you cancelled for bigotry. So, a quick glossary:

The World Health Organization defines gender as “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.” Transgender people have a gender identity different from their assigned physical sex, sometimes called natal sex, the one that they were born with. Some transgender people identify as transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another. Transgender is also an umbrella term: in addition to people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), it may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine (genderqueer or non-binary) and infrequently (and, some would say, incorrectly) the term transgender is defined very broadly to include cross-dressers, regardless of their gender identity. The term transgender is also distinguished from intersex, a term that describes people born with physical sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. The opposite of transgender is cisgender, which describes persons whose gender identity or expression matches their assigned sex. Being transgender is independent of sexual orientation since transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or may decline to label their sexual orientation. Not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria and/or desire medical treatments; but many do and cannot undergo them for financial or medical reasons. Most transgender people face extreme discrimination in healthcare, the workplace, in accessing public accommodations, and, in many places, they are not legally protected from discrimination.

Our conversation coincided with a few things. First, a top court in Japan unanimously voted to uphold a law that effectively requires transgender people to be sterilized before they can have their gender changed on official documents. This means that people wishing to register a legal gender change must have their original sex and reproductive organs, including testes or ovaries, removed. More than 7,800 Japanese have had their genders officially changed. The implications of this horrified me until I learnt that Japan is one of many countries with this sterilization requirement. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights said 22 of the countries under its jurisdiction still required sterilization as part of legal gender changed.

Second, actor Don Cheadle’s “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt on “Saturday Night Live.” Cheadle has been a long-time activist, advocating for climate change reform and against global genocide, but this well-received public show of support served as a reminder of trans activism’s astonishingly rapid advance. The National Center for Transgender Equality claims trans activism has made “faster progress than any movement in American history.”

That pop culture moment coincided with South African Double Olympic 800 meters champion Caster Semenya challenging controversial measures proposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The rules would force so-called “hyperandrogenic” athletes or those with “differences in sex development” (DSD) to seek treatment to lower their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount if they wish to continue competing as women. A torrent of opinions from fellow athletes ensued, revealing the complexity of biology, gender and ignorance; and the issue was discussed at the UN Human Rights Council’s 40th session in March. The council said it wanted governing bodies “to refrain from developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures in order to participate in women’s events in competitive sports.” Writing in the British Medical Journal, experts recently claimed the IAAF’s regulations risked “setting an unscientific precedent for other cases of genetic advantage.” Jonathan Liew does a good job teasing out the “feverish hysteria characterizing the debate over transgender, intersex and DSD athletes in sport,” sharpening the idea that “the very notion of women’s sport, perhaps even the very notion of gender itself, is on the cusp of being ruptured beyond recognition.”

Moving from sport, another study, by economists Falk and Hermle, examined gender-associated differences in preferences such as the willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust. Using responses from 80,000 random people from 76 countries they observed that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences. Since gender is a social construct, one would expect men and women’s preferences to be more divergent in places where gender roles are traditional, but their study suggests the opposite. The researchers do not try to explain their findings, but instead extend them as more evidence showing that higher standards of living in conjunction with social equality offer people of both genders more opportunity to be independent in the choices they make as they live their lives.

This isn’t a novel finding: studies on gender difference abound but this one is interesting as it relates to recent debates on self-identification in the United Kingdom where the Gender Recognition Act, the first law in the world allowing someone to change their gender without surgery, is being revised. Since 2004, trans people in the UK have been able to legally change their gender with a Gender Recognition Certificate but the debate on the revision turned toxic quickly, with trans rights activists and feminist campaigners taking opposing sides. The intertwining of transphobia and misogyny was striking, and dangerous for both trans people and women. Like the undisputable physical basis of women’s oppression by men, the reality of anti-trans violence cannot be denied. Unfortunately, trans activism has been accused of being focused on feminist spaces and services designed for women. Often, gender neutrality has been accomplished by neutralizing services or analyses centered on women, leading to worry that increased visibility of trans issues can eclipse women’s concerns.

As I try to make sense of all of this, I am both comforted by experts agreeing that every child takes a gender journey (as should we all) and curious that a substantial proportion, perhaps even the majority, of children who experience some form of gender identity challenge, later come to endorse the gender they were raised as. I assume this means that early identification of gender dysphoria is the game-changer. Maybe more time and freedom to explore gender roles outside of pink and blue boxes, before the discomfort of puberty, helps trans children to understand that perhaps they are not uncomfortable with their body so much as in need of redefined gender roles. But maybe, hopefully, its simpler than that.

My favorite study so far is an investigation of brain structure and function in individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria by neuroscientist Judy Bakker. It revealed trans people’s brains – including those of trans children – more closely matched those belonging to other members of the gender they identified with than with members of the gender associated with their sex at birth. This suggests that because our brains learn to develop certain patterns in line with the gendered expectations and norms of the world around us, the brain itself is malleable – how it develops is determined by an interaction of how we interpret ourselves and how others treat us. I’m quite into this idea of neuroplasticity as the cure and the cause, “the biological basis of identity and selfhood being as complicated and rich as the diversity of every human being who walks this planet.”

Sindi-Leigh McBride is a researcher and writer.