Though heated debate about gender is ubiquitous in politics and social media, the real human suffering exacerbated by that violent and dehumanizing rhetoric is rarely acknowledged. Transgender people are four times more likely than cisgendered people to be victims of a violent crime. According to a 2015 U.S. Transgender survey,
- 46% of respondents were verbally harassed for being transgender within the past year.
- 47% were sexually assaulted at some point in their lives and 10% within the past year.
- 65% reported having experienced homelessness.
- 54% experienced intimate partner violence.
The exact death toll often goes unreported, as people from marginalized communities are less likely to report violence for lack of support and fear of re-victimization. And the toll keeps rising, as 2020 saw the most recorded transgender people killed since HRC began keeping track in 2013 — until 2021 broke that record and became the new deadliest year.
Misinformation justifies hate, hate begets malice, and malice spawns violence. The power to end the violence lies in the facts of the transgender experience — scientific, historical, and personal.
What Is Gender?
A transgender person has a gender identity that differs from the sex that was assigned to them, usually by a doctor, based upon their genitalia at birth. A trans person may realize this at any point in their life.
In today’s culture, gender is generally broken down into male or female with no regard for the possibility of a middle ground. Individual experience aside, this purist dichotomy is not scientifically accurate. Despite widespread insistence that gender is “basic biology,” science has long known that the nuanced complexities behind DNA, sex, and gender are a poor fit for the strict binary model of male and female.
When people discuss gender, they are often talking about a combination of complex factors, such as:
- Genotype: The genetically defined chromosomal karyotype of an organism (XX, XY, and all variants thereof).
- Phenotype: The observable primary and secondary sexual characteristics (genitals, fat and muscle distribution, bone structure, etc).
- Gender: The unobservable sexual characteristics, the internal mental model of a person’s own sex and the way that they express it.
Many secondary school biology classes teach that genotype is binary, either female (XX) or male (XY), but chromosomes are complicated. Chromosomes determine chromosomal sex, but that does not always correlate to primary or secondary sex characteristics. Reproductive organs and sex characteristics are no different from any other organ; just like someone might be born with only two wisdom teeth instead of four, they may have a divided scrotum that formed more like labia, or a noticeably large clitoris, or any number of other organ variations.
Biology classes rarely discuss the fact that around 1% of the population is intersex, a description of a variety of conditions in which one’s sexual anatomy differs from the expected male or female. In fact, intersex conditions such as numeric sex chromosome variations may be more common than widely believed, because “whether there are associated signs or symptoms, as well as severity of features, can vary greatly depending on the variation present.” Most people have not verified their own chromosomes, and in some cases, someone’s intersex condition may not be discovered until they are autopsied.
Phenotype is also often spoken of as a binary despite the many variations described above, but for centuries, biology has shown that plotting out a population’s sexual characteristics results in a curved bimodal distribution.
Contributing to this culture-wide denial of the existence of intersex people is a history of medical cruelty. In the 1950s, a team of medical specialists at Johns Hopkins University developed what has come to be called the “optimum gender of rearing” system for treating children with intersex. Under this model, doctors were encouraged to decide, as soon as possible, whether a baby’s physical differences would be tolerable or whether they should immediately pursue surgical manipulation to reshape the baby’s body—even including sex reassignment surgeries on newborns—to ensure that the child could be trained to fill an acceptable gender role as they grew. Many people who were subjected to this invasive medical process as babies were not informed about it and discovered it later in life due to complications, questions, or feelings of not fitting into their body.
This practice is not yet the outdated atrocity of days gone by that it should be. “Normalizing” surgeries on infants with intersex conditions, made without their input or consent, are still performed today. Unlike gender reassignment surgeries discussed and requested by the transgender person undergoing the surgery, these irreversible procedures are the sole verdict of physicians and parents, designed to force someone into a box before they ever have the chance to decide what they want for themselves.
Biology is not “basic,” and trying to force it to be so for the sake of upholding cultural expectations and enforcing social norms is inappropriate and harmful; the myth that gender is always a simple matter of chromosomal male or female, nothing else, is what perpetuates the practice of performing sex reassignment surgeries on babies and lying to them about their own bodies.
Spreading awareness of the complexities of biology and gender is an increasingly important issue. Every year, studies show the number of transgender people increasing. It is estimated that almost 1 million Americans identify as transgender, with 18% of the population reporting knowing someone who is trans. Transgender people’s safety depends on updating the modern narrative about sex, gender, and biology.
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This is the first in a series of informative articles about transgender topics. The next will explore a history of genders across the world.