Born that Way: Yes and No

The warring voices of medicine, science, social policy, activism, LGBTQ, human rights groups, religion, politicians, and more continue their ongoing spats on the topic of transgender.

The rising visibility of transgender people and trans rights is a double-edge sword in some ways, leaving trans people who’d rather not be political objects in the cross hairs. On the one hand, more and more people are aware of transgender issues, and on the other, more people are angry who weren’t bothered before.

Recently we had the triumphant claim that people are born their sex, period, from Ryan T. Anderson, founder of Public Discourse journal where he presents doctor’s reports and philosophical diatribes on why transgender women aren’t really women. Although he claims to be a man of reason, he is hated by activists who believe him to be transphobic and homophobic. His book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment was recently published.

“The conceptual distinction between male and female based on reproductive organization provides the only coherent way to classify the two sexes,” Anderson writes. “Apart from that, all we have are stereotypes.”

On the other side, the media is touting its own triumph—transgender brains are different in utero. You’ve seen these headlines rippling throughout the LGBTQ media and some science magazines. The Pink News headline proudly declares, Transgender People Are Born That Way!

The story was flooding my Facebook feed and people were pointing told-you-so fingers at people they perceived as bigots, proclaiming that the proof is in, trans women are born with the “wrong” bodies.

That’s not really what the study shows, however. The study shows transgender people’s brains are different from cis people’s in utero, not that they are the same as cis women’s. This is an important discovery in the search for factors that might help explain or demonstrate being transgender.

Carmita Abdo, coordinator of the Sexuality Research Programme at the university of Sao Paolo said, “We observed specificities in the brains of trans individuals, an important finding in light of the idea of gender ideology.” These findings showed distinctions in the insula region of the brain, which incidentally plays a role in a person’s self-conception, body image, and self awareness.

All the backstabbing and squabble between groups whose opinions and inquiries differ needs to stop. There are a few things we can consider that might help us all find common ground.

What struck me about this latest dichotomy in the social sphere is that the views that seem opposite aren’t. For thousands of years, and today still in some cultures, transgender people have been viewed as a third gender. Rather than needing to make a scientific argument about biological sex versus social construction, trans people are perceived in a perhaps more mythic way. Can this benefit trans people and their rights as human beings to identify how they see fit? Can this model bring together those who insist biology matters and those who insist it has nothing to do with anything?

We are still unravelling the mysteries and the science of transgender. This is cause for celebration, not conflict and tearing each other down.

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