The Role and Weaponization of Scientific 'Objectivity' in Gender Discourse and the Debate Over Transgender Rights

By Esme I. Smithson Swain
2022, Vol. 14 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Abstract

The label of ‘science’ or ‘biology’ can become somewhat of a trump-card in excluding trans people from civil rights, because many scientific (and pseudo-scientific) opinions are weaponized during transgender rights debates. This paper will therefore explore three dominant fields of thought in the gender/sex divide: biology, cognitive neuroscience, and queer theory. All three fields contribute immensely to our understanding of gender and sex, but the belief that any one discipline can objectively and unequivocally explain ‘gender’ can be dangerous. The theories specifically explored in this paper are no exception, and it is clear many have been used for political and ideological agendas. Hence, through an interdisciplinary lens I aim to explore the claims that have been made to an ‘objective’ construction of gender. This paper is not to suggest that our pursuit of a scientific construction of gender is futile, but rather that we cannot construct gender in a way that ignores the power structures at play. If left unchecked, or assumed to be unequivocally true, we can see any claim of ‘scientific objectivity’ overextended into prescriptive social and even legal norms.

Introduction

In an effort to establish a legal definition of sex discrimination, the 2016 Trump Administration claimed identity must be either male or female, and “determined by the genitals that a person is born with” (Green, Benner, & Pear, 2018). They advocate for categorizing civil rights on a “biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective, and administrable.” Through claims such as this we see that the relationship between biological and social constructions of gender is becoming increasingly contested. Hence, this paper will explore the allegedly ‘grounded in science’ perspective that both biology and cognitive neuroscience present, and discuss how these can contribute to a deeper understanding of gender and our bodies. However, the belief that any single discipline can unequivocally explain our gender can be harmful, and thus representing science as ‘objective’ and unquestionable can lead it to be weaponized as a justification for transphobic oppression. Through exploring the nature of scientifically ‘objective’ gender, this paper will suggest that interdisciplinary constructs might better encompass the subjectivity of experience and gender, and the way the ‘social’ and the ‘scientific’ are intrinsically interlocked in discourses about gender.

The Biological Perspective

As explored by Fausto-Sterling (2012), biology can aid gender understanding by exploring the characteristics associated with the XY/XX chromosome differentiation we call sex. One of these characteristics is testosterone levels correlated with XY or XX chromosomes. Biological investigations can easily determine that people with XY chromosomes tend to have testosterone levels within a certain bracket, and people with XX within another. This allows us to understand the differences that manifest as a result of these levels, such as faster muscle growth, increased red blood cell production, and stronger bone marrow (Pietrangelo, 2018). However, these are associated characteristics, and many scientists suggest the binary divide is far more complex. Fausto-Sterling also write that “the steps that actively lead to ovary formation [are] still poorly understood”(19), and that none of these associations are determinative nor prescriptive, because “in practice, Stuff Happens” (Fausto-Sterling, 2012, p. 15). This suggests that despite the insight into ‘sex associations’ biology can provide, the findings are limited to the label of ‘associations’.

Alternatively, Wu (2016) presents a biologist’s perspective which suggests transgender identity itself is grounded in biology too. She suggests transgender women have brain structures that best resemble cis women, not cis men, and that inadequate levels of estrogen during fetal development can lead a person to be transgender female-to-male (Wu, 2016). Wu’s construction of gender is ‘grounded in science’ (as the Trump administration calls for), but also suggests that transgender identity is ‘grounded in science’. However, not only has this paper been criticized for its small sample size (Dutton & Maddison, 2020), it has since been retracted by its publishers because its content was “being abused by those seeking to support their own beliefs” and “misappropriation by individuals and groups seeking to oversimplify this complex subject and promote views that lack a scientific basis” (SITN, 2016). We can see that the field of biology is not in unanimous agreement, because Wu’s perspectives contradict the narrative that transgender identities are a social phenomenon. However, this also demonstrates that interpretation and application of ‘biology’ is being expropriated for ideological agendas, and that Wu’s ostensibly objective investigation has been extrapolated outside of its motive.

Gender in Cognitive Neuroscience

Neuroscience investigations have also suggested that gender is physiologically discernable in our bodies. Smulders (2021) explores how brain size has a direct correlation with sex, because men tend to fall at the larger end of the spectrum and women at the smaller (Smulders, 2021, p. 15). Not only is this distinction “grounded in science” and “clear,” Smulders argues it is universal and timeless, and has been explored in many non-Western and indigenous communities. Futhermore, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, brain sizes correlates to chosen gender: Smulders writes that “cognitive type of gender atypical individuals align with their preferred gender” (Smulders, 2021, p. 17). Cognitive neuroscience therefore contributes to the debate on the gender/sex divide by suggesting the relationship between our bodies and preferred gender may be a symbiotic, rather than prescriptive, relationship.

Yet, Rippon (2017) claims the same study Smulders based his lecture on is irrelevant, even biased, because the 10% difference in brain size is because men are, on average, exactly 10% bigger (Rippon, 2017). Rippon reminds us that other vital organs such as hearts and lungs are 10% bigger in men too, but she suggests we do not fixate on these because they do not justify hegemony. She refers this branch of neuroscience as ‘Neurononsense’, claiming “society is prescribing these particular roles, and they’re using biology to make sure those roles which are currently inferior are what women fulfill” (Rippon, 2017). These differing interpretations (Rippon’s and Smulder’s) suggest that the scientific ‘facts’ upon which we may choose to base our constructions of gender are firstly disputable, and secondly intertwined with social norms and hegemony. Once again, we can see immense disagreement even within scientific disciplines about the notion of sex, let alone gender. This suggests, counter to the Trump administration’s claim, that what we know of biological sex is not so ‘objective’ nor ‘grounded in science’.

The Role of Queer Theory

From the Humanities, Harraway (1988) uses Feminist and Queer theory to question claims of scientific objectivity. She suggests we must acknowledge that any science is predicated by our position within the world, and consequently all science “is a contestable text and a power field" (Harraway, 1988, p. 577). Coincidentally, or perhaps for this exact reason, Michael Warner uses Harraway’s exact same words to describe gender and sexuality as a “power field” (Warner, 1993, p. 3). For Harraway and Warner, it is therefore only by dissecting the very notions of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that we rest our science upon do we come closer to true objectivity. Whether or not one believes objectivity is achievable, Harraway’s work suggests the first step in the journey to objective understanding is acknowledging that we have not yet reached it. The disputed, even contradictory, yet scientific conceptions of gender that this paper has explored naturally leads us towards Harraway’s criticism of objectivity - where we must acknowledge that no interpretation of gender is ipso facto ‘true’ or ‘false’. This prevents notions of ‘facts’ or ‘objectivity’ from being used as a trump-card in gender issues, and may therefore be an approach that stops ‘objectivity’ being weaponized as a justification for gender-based oppression.

Building upon Harraway’s criticisms, Mazurski (2021) wrote: “We speak of gender identity as if it is something essential, stable, or fixed. Instead it reflects cultures, time/space, history - […]it is something that is negotiated in our cultural and historical worlds.” This notion of gender as culturally contingent undermines the claim that ‘objective’ characteristics are discernable. Whilst Smulders suggested brain size, as an indicator of gender, is timeless, Mazurski suggests no element of gender is timeless. Judith Butler reinforces this, claiming “trans women are women, because ‘women’ is a social and historical category that gets expanded with time” (Butler, 2021). Mazurski’s and Butler’s perspectives on gender both account for, and explain why, radically different (yet equally scientific) perspectives can arise. Contrary to the trajectory of some scientific disciplines, we are encouraged to abandon our search for an ‘essential’ property of male, female or even transgender identity. Instead, according to gender theorists such as Mazurski and Butler, we should acknowledge that our, and the Trump administration’s, desire to find a stable/essential property is predicated by a fear of that very instability of gender. This fear of an instable and subjective gender must be wholeheartedly addressed before our understanding of gender can become anything near objective.

Conclusion

It is clear that biology, cognitive neuroscience, and queer theory all support and contradict each other, complicating the notion of gender. It should not be a matter of picking sides, but a matter of utilizing disciplines to better understand gender as a construct, and to understand the limits of each respective discipline. Biology can provide invaluable insights into our bodies, and consequently aid understanding of the variations associated with sex. Neuroscience provides fascinating awareness into the way preferred gender relates to brain chemistry, but it seems this relationship is symbiotic. Rather than biological/neurological features and social cues acting in a linear chain of causation, the two seem to be interwoven. Finally, Queer theory can explore these social cues, and question claims to objectivity. It is evident that there is no unanimous scientific perspective, yet without challenging ‘objectivity’ we see science used as a cloak for transphobia, such as in the case of the Trump Administration. Through a truly interdisciplinary exploration we can come far closer to understanding ourselves and our gender, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that our gender identities can be unequivocally defined by one discipline, nor by one person, and certainly not by one administration.


References

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1991). The Social Construction of Reality. Harmodnsworth: Penguin.

Bondi, J., & Davidson, J. (2005). Situating Gender. In J. Seager, A Companion to Feminist Geography (pp. 15-31). Blackwell Publishing.

Butler, J. (2021, January 1). Feminist icon Judith Butler on JK Rowling, trans rights, feminism and intersectionality. (O. Jones, Interviewer) Retrieved June 12, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXJb2eLNJZE

Dutton, E., & Maddison, G. (2020). Gender Dysphoria and Transgender Identity Is Associated with Physiological and Psychological Masculinization: a Theoretical Integration of Findings, Supported by Systematic Reviews. Sex Res Soc Policy. doi:10.1007/s13178-020-00489-z

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Of Molecules and Sex. In Sex/Gender Biology in a Social World (pp. 12-26). Routledge.

Green, E. L., Benner, K., & Pear, R. (2018, October 21). 'Transgender' Could Be Defined out of Existence under Trump Administration. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/21/us/politics/transgender-trump-administration-sex-definition.html

Harraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial. Feminist Studies,, 14(3), 575-599.

Humphrey, N. (2007). The Society of Selves. Philosophical transactions of the royal society b: Biological sciences, 745-754.

Mazurski, L. (2021, June 10). Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex & Gender. Amsterdam University College.

NCTE. (2020, August 7). Murders of Transgender People in 2020 Surpasses Total for Last Year In Just Seven Months. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from National Center for Transgender Equality.

Pietrangelo, A. (2018, September 17). How Testosterone Benefits your Body. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-testosterone

Rippon, G. (2017, April). Neuroimaging, Neurononsense and Gender Stereotypes. (R. S. Podcast, Interviewer)

SITN. (2016, October 25). Between the (Gender) Lines: the Science of Transgender Identity. Science In the News. Harvard University. Retrieved from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/gender-lines-science-transgender-identity/

Smulders, C. (2021, June 8). The Gendered Brain. Amsterdam University College.

The Local Sweeden. (2015, March 10). Swedish activists push for gender neutral toilets. Retrieved December 10, 2020

Warner, M. (1993). Fear of a Queer Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://books.google.nl/books/about/Fear_of_a_Queer_Planet.html?id=S58X00tIM6oC&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

Wu, K. J. (2016). Between the (gender) lines: The science of transgender identity. Science In the News. Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/gender-lines-science-transgender-identity/.

Zonneveld, C. (n.d.). Sex and Gender - A biologist's view. 2021: Amsterdam University College.

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