Participants at a recent youth gathering were asked to finish the sentence “Equality is…”
Gender equality requires removing and redefining labels, not narrowing them.
The latest news about the Administration’s plans to essentially erase the concept of transgender represents a devastating blow to transgender rights—and to gender equality and human rights for everyone. According to the New York Times, the Department of Health and Human Services is moving towards defining gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
“Objective, science-based…”—what could be wrong with this approach?
Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Labeling of girls and boys at birth is anything but a clear, objective endeavor. Because gender identity and expression may not align with this sex label assignment at birth, the consequences may be dire and far-reaching, particularly for transgender people.
Since the memo calls for a scientific basis, let’s explore the science of gender. Contrary to the Administration’s policy, research in neurology, endocrinology, and cellular biology paints a much more nuanced picture of gender, which runs along a spectrum of conditions that are not always clearly labeled as male or female.
At a molecular biological level, the determination is not always that clear-cut. Yet it is on this basis that babies have traditionally been assigned a gender, based on the sex determination. Even chromosomal sex alone is not always neatly defined as girl (XX) or boy (XY)—take the occurrence of XYY phenotype, single X, or triple X. Moreover, sex hormone levels and appearance of internal organs and external sexual characteristics vary such that they are usually, but not always, readily identifiable by or before birth.
Neurological findings suggest that gender identity is also very distinct and empirically support the concept of transgender identity. For example, in a study of transgender youth, there were brain structural changes that were distinct to the transgender youth; they also found brain activation patterns more closely resembled those of adolescents’ desired identity than the one assigned at birth. This area of research is relatively new, but researchers are building a growing body of empirical data that identify structural differences in the brain that are even more nuanced than differences in genitals. These studies support the idea that gender identity is much better represented along a continuum.
Social science provides an understanding of gender expression, distinct and different than gender identity, though societal expectations may encourage them to align in a particular way. Transgender people can have a sense of gender identity that differs from sex label assigned at birth (which as we’ve seen above is not objective), and this may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine.
Progress towards gender equality requires first and foremost an understanding of gender. Eschewing science and assigning labels that may be narrow, fixed, or false ignores the rights and reality of transgender identity. Yes, labeling may be inevitable. But labels should be inclusive and reflective of the increasingly nuanced, complex understanding of gender identity. Gender equality is about valuing everyone, and ensuring that aspirations, needs, and opportunities are accessible to all—regardless of gender. Advancing transgender and gender identity rights are core to gender equality.
Policies in the 21st century need to reflect 21st-century science. Let’s use this knowledge to deepen our shared understanding of one another and this beautiful diversity that we all bring. We know that we share a unique combination of myriad characteristics, including some that are not even known. Instead of focusing on oversimplifying or removing labels to marginalize or devalue some, we should instead deepen our understanding and commitment to inclusion to expand opportunities for all. Humans will always create labels and categories, but let’s ground policies, laws, and—if we must—labels, in science and human rights principles that enhance inclusion and equality for all.
Science reflects our natural human diversity. Now more than ever we have an opportunity to promote a more inclusive society that values human rights and equality for everyone. If we have to use labels, let’s use them for #equality.