The Trump administration’s newly proposed interpretation of Title IX, which would effectively cut transgender people out of existence in federal policy, is a fundamental perversion of science, medicine, and culture. Despite the language used in the memo, it is neither “grounded in science” nor “objective.” It is an ideologically extreme position that isn’t supported by biology or gender theory. Despite the president’s insistence that such a policy is needed to “protect America,” it is little more than an unjustifiable effort to inflict further suffering on the transgender community.
The memo calls on the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor to adopt a unified interpretation of the meaning of the word “sex” to mean “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence,” according to The New York Times, which broke the story on Sunday.
Roger Severino, the controversial head of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Civil Rights, is responsible for the move. Severino has a history of hostility toward the LGBTQ community. He has argued that protecting trans people represents a “radical gender ideology,” and virulently opposed recognition of same-sex marriage. Since joining DHHS, Severino has pressed for a rule that would allow health care professionals to refuse to treat transgender patients on religious grounds.
an ideologically extreme position that isn’t supported by biology or gender theory
It’s unclear how widely the rule will be applied outside of Severino’s office, but if it were applied across the executive branch, this change in interpretation could be devastating to the transgender community. Hundreds of thousands of trans people who have obtained a passport with a gender marker that matches their gender presentation under new Obama-era rules could see their documents revoked. Students at both the K-12 and college level could lose any legal backing to press for access to gender-appropriate bathrooms and locker rooms and for equitable treatment by educators and administrators. Federal transgender employees could be forced to de-transition or lose their jobs over their gender presentation. Transgender workers could be barred from bringing cases to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discrimination based on their identity or presentation. The policy could make it difficult for trans people on Medicare or Medicaid to access appropriate health care, and it could be used by insurers, hospitals, and health care professionals to deny important and needed care to trans people. In short, this effort represents nothing less than an out-and-out assault on the ability of the transgender community to participate in public life.
The administration’s definition of sex isn’t grounded in science. Even outside of transgender people, medical notions of gender rarely fit into two absolute, immutable, and mutually exclusive categories. There are lots of well-documented conditions where a person’s gender diverges from what their genes or genitals would indicate. In Swyer syndrome, small mutations in a gene on the Y chromosomes cause an XY individual to develop a normal vulva, vagina, and uterus, but with poorly formed gonads containing testicular tissue. Similarly, those with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome can be XY, but develop a normal vulva and vagina, but with no uterus and undescended, non-functional testicles because their bodies don’t respond to testosterone at all. Conditions such as Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, 5-alpha Reductase Deficiency, and Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia can all cause infants to be born with genitals that cannot be easily classified into “male” or “female.”
What’s more, it is nearly impossible to determine what these children’s gender identities will be based on their genitals alone. Intersex individuals have fought for years for the right to define their own genders and to change the practice of surgically altering ambiguous genitals during infancy. Though these conditions are uncommon, they aren’t that rare: they occur at a rate of 1 to 2 per 1,000 births. So there are at least 325,000 intersex individuals in the US. Newer research indicates up to 1 percent of the population may exhibit some form of intersexuality.
using the language and authority of science to justify old prejudices
As a result, experts in the field continue to make a strong push for considering the whole of biological “sex” to be viewed as a spectrum. As writer and scientist Julia Serano has argued, sex and gender are deeply multifaceted concepts that must take into account everything from hormonal biochemistry to neuroanatomy to genetics and more. The medical facts simply cannot be distilled down to the appearance of one’s genitals or possession of a specific set of chromosomes.
In fact, the existence and validity of transgender identities is settled medical consensus, and trans people now have the support of most major professional medical organizations. The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Endocrine Society, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Society, and the National Association of Social Workers have all adopted policies specifically supporting the rights of trans people to live as their identified gender.
The White House isn’t using science for its policy; instead, it’s using the language and authority of science to justify old prejudices. In fact, the Trump administration has made a habit of using genetics this way. Trump has repeatedly touted his belief that his own “superior genes” are responsible for his wealth and power. He has attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren and tried to bully her into “proving” her claims of indigenous ancestry through a DNA test, an idea that is both scientifically nonsensical and something Native Americans find deeply offensive. This strange focus on genes runs deep in the white nationalist groups where Trump finds significant support as well, where there is an obsession with proving one’s supposed “racial purity” through genetics, something geneticists soundly reject.
Unfortunately, the use of pseudoscience to further an agenda of hate is common throughout American scientific history. The entire field of genetics has had to work hard to dissociate itself from the now-debunked “race science” and eugenics movements of the early 20th century, and that work isn’t over. The LGBTQ community suffered for decades because bad science determined that they were inherently mentally ill, or worse yet, predators. Mentally ill and intellectually disabled people have been subjected to torture, confinement, and forced sterilization based on public fear and misunderstanding. Deeply skewed understandings of biology and obstetrics underpin efforts to restrict women’s access to both abortion and contraception. Poor public and scientific understanding of HIV led to years of rampant misinformation that pushed HIV-positive individuals to the margins of society out of unfounded fear.
This newly proposed redefinition of sex is a scientifically bankrupt idea that simply furthers the administration’s agenda against transgender people, and it can only be understood as a kind of cruelty. It runs counter to the well-understood realities of “biological sex,” and places the personal opinions of a few bureaucrats above the wide consensus of medical experts. Trans people are not a new phenomenon, and their existence is not an “ideology.” President Trump could not be more wrong. It is not our country that must be protected from trans people, but trans people who must be protected from the naked bigotry of this administration.