Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia - Scientific American

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Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia

Actual research shows that sex is anything but binary

By Simón(e) D Sun on June 13, 2019

Antiscientific sentiment bombards our politics, or so says the
Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). Chief among these antiscientific
sentiments, the IDW cites the rising visibility of transgender civil
rights demands. To the IDW, trans people and their advocates are
destroying the pillars of our society with such free-speech–suppressing,
postmodern concepts as: “trans women are women,” “gender-neutral
pronouns,” or “there are more than two genders.” Asserting “basic
biology” will not be ignored, the IDW proclaims. “Facts don’t care about
your feelings.”

The irony in all this is that these “protectors of enlightenment” are
guilty of the very behavior this phrase derides. Though often dismissed
as just a fringe internet movement, they espouse unscientific claims
that have infected our politics and culture. Especially alarming is that
these “intellectual” assertions are used by nonscientists to claim a
scientific basis for the dehumanization of trans people. The real world
consequences are stacking up: the trans military ban, bathroom bills,
and removal of workplace and medical discrimination protections, a 41-51
percent suicide attempt rate and targeted fatal violence . It’s not just
internet trolling anymore.

Contrary to popular belief, scientific research helps us better
understand the unique and real transgender experience. Specifically,
through three subjects: (1) genetics, (2) neurobiology and (3)
endocrinology. So, hold onto your parts, whatever they may be. It’s time
for “the talk.”

BIOLOGICAL SEX: HOW YOU GET IT

Nearly everyone in middle school biology learned that if you’ve got XX
chromosomes, you’re a female; if you’ve got XY, you’re a male. This
tired simplification is great for teaching the importance of chromosomes
but betrays the true nature of biological sex. The popular belief that
your sex arises only from your chromosomal makeup is wrong. The truth
is, your biological sex isn’t carved in stone, but a living system with
the potential for change.

Why? Because biological sex is far more complicated than XX or XY (or
XXY, or just X). XX individuals could present with male gonads. XY
individuals can have ovaries. How? Through a set of complex genetic
signals that, in the course of a human’s development, begins with a
small group of cells called the bipotential primordium and a gene called
SRY.

A newly fertilized embryo initially develops without any indication of
its sex. At around five weeks, a group of cells clump together to form
the bipotential primordium. These cells are neither male nor female but
have the potential to turn into testes, ovaries or neither. After the
primordium forms, SRY—a gene on the Y chromosome discovered in 1990,
thanks to the participation of intersex XX males and XY females—might be
activated.*

Though it is still not fully understood, we know SRY plays a role in
pushing the primordium toward male gonads. But SRY is not a simple
on/off switch, it’s a precisely timed start signal, the first chord of
the “male gonad” symphony. A group of cells (instrument sections) must
all express SRY (notes of the chord), at the right time (conductor?).
Without that first chord, the embryo will play a different symphony:
female gonads, or something in between.

And there’s more! While brief and coordinated SRY-activation initiates
the process of male-sex differentiation, genes like DMRT1 and FOXL2
maintain certain sexual characteristics during adulthood. If these genes
stop functioning, gonads can change and exhibit characteristics of the
opposite sex. Without these players constantly active, certain
components of your biological sex can change.

There’s still more! SRY, DMRT1, and FOXL2 aren’t directly involved with
other aspects of biological sex. Secondary sex characteristics—penis,
vagina, appearance, behavior—arise later, from hormones, environment,
experience, and genes interacting. To explore this, we move from the
body to the brain, where biology becomes behavior.

THE BRAIN: WHERE STUFF GETS “MADE UP”

When the biology gets too complicated, some point to differences between
brains of males and females as proof of the sexual binary. But a half
century of empirical research has repeatedly challenged the idea that
brain biology is simply XY = male brain or XX = female brain. In other
words, there is no such thing as “the male brain” or “the female brain.”
This is not to say that there are no observable differences. Certain
brain characteristics can be sexually dimorphic: observable average
differences across males and females. But like biological sex, pointing
to “brain sex” as the explanation for these differences is wrong and
hinders scientific research.

Let’s just take the most famous example of sexual dimorphism in the
brain: the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area (sdnPOA).
This tiny brain area with a disproportionately sized name is slightly
larger in males than in females. But it’s unclear if that size
difference indicates distinctly wired sdnPOAs in males versus females,
or if—as with the bipotential primordium—the same wiring is functionally
weighted toward opposite ends of a spectrum. Throw in the observation
that the sdnPOA in gay men is closer to that of straight females than
straight males, and the idea of “the male brain” falls apart.

Trying to link sex, sex chromosomes and sexual dimorphism is also
useless for understanding other brain properties. The hormone
vasopressin is dimorphic but is linked to both behavioral differences
and similarities across sex. Simply put, the idea of a sexual binary
isn’t scientifically useful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in
the brain. It also happens that transgender people have the brains to
prove it.

It’s easy to see sexual dimorphisms and conclude that the brain is
binary; easy, but wrong. Thanks to the participation of trans people in
research, we have expanded our understanding of how brain structure, sex
and gender interact. For some properties like brain volume and
connectivity, trans people possessed values in between those typical of
cisgender males and females, both before and after transitioning.
Another study found that for certain brain regions, trans individuals
appeared similar to cis-individuals with the same gender identity. In
that same study, researchers found specific areas of the brain where
trans people seemed closer to those with the same assigned sex at birth.
Other researchers discovered that trans people have unique structural
differences from cis-individuals.

THE BODY AND THE BRAIN AND THE HORMONES BETWIXT

As if the brain and body weren’t complicated enough, another biological
factor influences the expression of biological sex in an individual:
hormones. Anyone who has gone through puberty has felt the power of
hormones firsthand. But like all things biology, hormones cannot be
limited to the pubescent idea of “estrogen = female and testosterone =
male.”

For one thing, all humans possess levels of estrogen, progesterone and
testosterone with sex differences not as prominent as is popularly
thought. During infancy and prepubescence, these hormones sit in a
bipotential range, with no marked sex differences. Through puberty,
certain sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone become
weighted toward one end of a spectrum. But in developed adults, estrogen
and progesterone levels are on average similar between males and
nonpregnant females. And while testosterone exhibits the largest
difference between adult males and females, heritability studies have
found that genetics (X vs. Y) only explains about 56 percent of an
individual’s testosterone, suggesting many other influences on hormones.
Furthermore, measurements of sex hormones levels in any one individual
wildly vary across the range of “average” values regardless of how close
or spread apart you take the measurements. The binary sex model not only
insufficiently predicts the presence of hormones but is useless in
describing factors that influence them.

Environmental, social and behavioral factors also influence hormones in
both males and females, complicating the idea that hormones determine
sex. Progesterone changes in response to typically male-coded social
situations that involve dominance and competition. Estrogen, typically
linked to feminine-coded behavior, also plays a role in masculine-coded
dominance/power social scenarios. Though testosterone levels are
different between males and females on average, many external factors
can change these levels, such as whether or not a person is raising a
child. Differing testosterone levels in both men and women can predict
certain parenting behaviors. Even the content of a sexual fantasy can
change testosterone levels. The fact is, behavior and environment—like
cultural gender norms and expectations—influence sex-related hormones,
and the biology of the body and brain itself.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: BETTER TOGETHER

While this is a small overview, the science is clear and conclusive: sex
is not binary, transgender people are real. It is time that we
acknowledge this. Defining a person’s sex identity using
decontextualized “facts” is unscientific and dehumanizing. The trans
experience provides essential insights into the science of sex and
scientifically demonstrates that uncommon and atypical phenomena are
vital for a successful living system. Even the scientific endeavor
itself is quantifiably better when it is more inclusive and diverse. So,
no matter what a pundit, politician or internet troll may say, trans
people are an indispensable part of our living reality.

Transgender humans represent the complexity and diversity that are
fundamental features of life, evolution and nature itself. That is a fact.

*Editor’s Note (6/18/19): This sentence was edited after posting. It
originally referred to participants as transgender.
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