This opinion-editorial was written by Sam Sharpe, graduate student in biology. If you would like to write an op-ed with the Collegian, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Despite President Donald Trump’s allusions to supporting the rights, lives and personhood of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community during the 2016 presidential campaign, the administration of the 45th president of the United States has continually attacked, invalidated and legislated against these individuals, especially those who are transgender.
This administration has already targeted protections that exist for transgender students and the right of transgender individuals to serve in the military. Over the past weekend, a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services proposed further marginalizing both transgender and intersex communities by changing the definition of sex under Title IX, a law originally passed in 1972 that prohibits gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance.
According to an article in The New York Times, “The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’ The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.”
In addition to explicitly legalizing, encouraging and protecting the ability of “key government agencies” and the institutions they govern to discriminate against and erase transgender and intersex individuals, this proposed redefinition fundamentally misunderstands human biology.
The idea that biological sex exists as a simple distinction between male and female is scientifically inaccurate. At least 1 percent of people are intersex, which means that they are born with “reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” as defined by the Intersex Society of North America. This is about the same as the percentage of the U.S. population that has naturally red hair.
Biological sex exists as a genotypic and phenotypic continuum, and is influenced by genes, chromosomes, hormone levels and the interactions of all of these with each other and the environment. There is no single test that can conclusively, objectively or administratively assign a binary sex designation to all people.
Variations in sex chromosomes, external genitalia, gonadal tissue, sex hormone levels and other characteristics all occur across human populations, and historical efforts to pin down a single, overriding determinant of sex have consistently failed.
Gender is not the same thing as sex, and to declare them synonymous would be to assume we can tell what a person’s genitals look like as soon as we meet them (that is also not how sex works). Gender is best defined as an individual’s social perception of themselves as masculine, feminine, both or neither. While hormones and other biological factors play a part in gender identity, it is not intrinsically tied to biological sex.
Mandating that sex determines gender and that there are only two genders denies intersex people access to gender expression and denies the existence of transgender individuals, whose sex assigned at birth is different from their gender identity.
There are currently estimated to be 1.4 million transgender individuals living in the U.S., though this is likely an underestimation because many transgender individuals are reluctant to report their identities in the face of ongoing discrimination and violence.
There is no scientific evidence discrediting the validity of transgender identities, and multiple studies have demonstrated that personal acceptance, social support and access to social and medical transition as needed consistently improve the lives of transgender people.
Due to the already hostile legal, social and medical climate experienced by transgender individuals in the United States, this population is at a much higher risk than cisgender individuals (those whose assigned sex is the same as their gender) for employment discrimination, homelessness, sexual assault, violence, homicide and other comorbidities of marginalization.
The proposed change in the definition of gender under Title IX would further condone legal discrimination, which, combined with the elimination of protections from violence, harassment and transphobia, will further endanger and erase transgender and intersex people.
This may seem like an overreaction to the changing of a single definition, but words, and the way that we use and define them, have the power to dramatically influence the course of our lives. As a student of science, I care deeply about acknowledging and respecting the inherent diversity of our species, which includes individuals with biological sex characteristics that cannot be accurately described as male or female.
As a transgender biologist, it is fundamentally important to me that my field of study is not erroneously used to invalidate my lived reality of gender, or that of millions of others like me whose gender is not the same as their assigned sex.
I therefore invite you to challenge your assumptions about sex, gender and science, and to consider the harm that will be done to students on this campus and people in this country if the proposed change goes into effect.
And then I invite you to talk to those around you, to contact your elected officials, to vote and vote thoughtfully, and to use your words and your actions to defend the biological reality and self-knowledge of those with whom you share the world.
Sam Sharpe is a graduate student in biology. The views and opinions expressed in this opinion-editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to email@example.com.