Thursday, February 16, 2017

Transgenderism and Science

Liberals tend to think of themselves as belonging to the “party of science”. To justify use of this title, liberals will point out how conservatives tend to reject mainstream climatology (e.g. humans are warming the planet) and well-established biology (e.g. evolution). But conservative critics allege that liberals reject mainstream science too. Specifically, the science behind the safety of GMOs, vaccines, nuclear power, and most recently, transgenderism—the idea that gender and biological sex can come apart. I agree that anti-scientific views are held by both parties (perhaps even equally so), but I think it is a mistake to lump transgenderism into the anti-science bin. While I think transgenderism raises some scientific questions, I don’t think liberals, or transgender individuals, tend to believe things that are contradicted by well-established science.

At a recent event at Ferris State University, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro responded to a student who asked a question about transgender rights. A video of this exchange* was uploaded to youtube shortly after. Here are some of the central claims Shapiro makes in his response to the student:

(1) Transgender individuals are making claims that are in conflict with well-established science and deny basic biological facts (1:15).

(2) Sex and gender are coextensive. They cannot come apart (0:15).

(3) The high transgender suicide rate is to be explained by the condition itself, rather than by discrimination, rejection, and stigmatization (starts around 3:20).

In this post, I will argue that the first claim is false, that the second is not well-established by the science, and that justification for the third claims rests upon a misrepresentation of the evidence and faulty reasoning.

Early on in the exchange, Shapiro expresses his knee-jerk reaction to transgender individuals: “You are not the sex to which you claim to be” (0:59).

If taken literally, he is attacking a straw man, as that is not the claim transgender people are making. Transgender people are claiming that their gender does not align with their sex—not that their sex isn’t what the doctors determined at their birth. If you were to ask them about their chromosomes or sex organs, they would not say something false.

Transgender individuals insist there is an important distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Sex is to be understood as the possession of all or almost all of a number of biological properties (e.g. genetics, sexual organs, hormone production) associated with being either male or female, whereas gender is the possession of all or almost all of a number of psychological properties and behavioral dispositions (e.g. identity, expression, masculinity vs. femininity) that are typically associated with one’s sex. Put more simply, sex is what’s between the legs, gender is what’s between the ears. The distinction is made not only by transgender people, but can be found in any psychology or sociology textbook.

Transgender individuals are alleging that there can be a mismatch between one’s sex and gender profiles. That is to say, it’s possible that a man** can be born in a female body and vice versa. The American Psychological Association takes a similar stance, defining transgender as “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.”

I take it that Shapiro will either reject that there is a distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ or that the distinction doesn’t validate the beliefs of transgender individuals. I say this because, later in the video, Shapiro claims that, “Gender is not disconnected from sex.” (0:15) What exactly does he mean by this?

One interpretation is that he is claiming that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are coextensive. That is to say, anything that is a biological male or female must have the corresponding gender profile by necessity. If the two classes of properties always go together, the distinction between sex and gender effectively falls apart. But if Shapiro is saying that sex and gender are coextensive, then he is making a scientific claim, one that is by no means well-established science or a basic biological fact. His claim would then be asserting that a scientific hypothesis about the relation between sex and gender is true, without any evidence.

It is true that the coextension hypothesis is in direct conflict with what transgender people are saying. Transgender people believe that sex/gender mismatching is possible and that their life experiences attest to that fact. (In the scientific literature, the possibility of mismatching is treated as a hypothesis, known as “the brainsex theory of transsexualism”). At best, liberals and transgender individuals would be denying that the coextension hypothesis is true. But that does not amount to denying basic biological facts, as it would in the cases of identifying as a different age or species (Shapiro’s analogies to age and species start around 2:15).

If Shapiro is making a more semantic claim, that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are synonymous, then he’s just wrong. This would be true even if we assume that sex and gender are co-extensive. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ would still apply to different aspects of the same referent. The property of having a heart is coextensive with the property of having a kidney. But having a heart does not mean the same thing as having a kidney.

One might still argue that the coextension thesis is more plausible because it is supported by “common sense” intuitions about sex and explains why many use ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably. I think that most people’s life experiences are consistent with the coextension thesis, only because most people identify with the gender associated with their sex. If mismatching can happen, but very infrequently (0.3% of people), one would not expect many people to have encountered evidence contrary to it. Hence, the life experiences of most people cannot count as strong evidence in favor of the coextension thesis, as it is consistent with the possibility that mismatching occurs in rare circumstances.

I see no reason to think, from the armchair, that the coextension thesis is plausible. (Perhaps those who make certain theological assumptions might disagree.) To the contrary, I think there is evidence that provides some support for the mismatching hypothesis. Namely, the testimony of transgender people.

Imagine a world where the vast majority of people have observed time and time again that ravens are black. The common sense view would be that ravens are just black by nature and that they can’t come in any other color. But say that there was a very small group of people claiming to have seen a white raven. How should the vast majority of people respond to such claims? One response would be skepticism. Most people have only seen black ravens. Therefore, it is unlikely that white ravens exist and very likely that the individuals claiming otherwise are mistaken. Another response would be to accept that white ravens might exist, but not to take a stand on whether or not they do. I think the latter attitude is more justified than the former.

Similarly, I think accepting the possibility that mismatching is possible is reasonable given the testimony of transgender people. We have no good reason to think that they are lying about their subjective experiences. Additionally, the average person does not know enough about genetics or biology to determine whether or not mismatching is possible. The specific biological bases of gender (if there in fact are any) are still hotly contested, even among scientists who specialize in the fields relevant to these questions (e.g. endocrinology, developmental psychology, neurobiology).

Shapiro also draws attention to the fact that transgender individuals are at much higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders than the general population. Perhaps one way to improve their well-being would be to give them the benefit of a scientific doubt and accept them for how they express themselves and for how they identify. However, Shapiro takes issue with this suggestion, not only because he thinks trans people are fundamentally mistaken about the science, but because he thinks referring to them by their professed gender identity won’t do them any good (Starts around 4:04).

Shapiro argues that it makes very little difference to the well-being of trans individuals whether or not we recognize or respect their gender identities. To support this contention, he notes that transgender individuals commit attempt suicide at much higher rates than cisgender individuals (40% vs. 4%), and that a recent study found that “it makes no difference, virtually no difference statistically speaking, as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not, which suggests there’s a very high comorbidity between transgenderism, whatever that mental state may be, and suicidality, that has nothing to do with how society treats you” (3:44). If it makes no difference whether or not we recognize someone as transgender, then Shapiro reasons that their suicide rate must be due to the psychological condition itself.

The UCLA study does not say what he says it does. The study found that there were two closely related kinds of risk factors that lead to suicidality among transgender people: “rejection, discrimination, victimization, and violence related to anti-transgender bias and serious mental health conditions” (Haas et al., 2014). Furthermore, the authors conclude that, “Based on prior research and the findings of this report, we find that mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination, violence and rejection may interact to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.” I think there is an obvious connection between the negative societal effects and mental health issues: the former causes the latter. But claims of causation require lots of evidence. So, I will leave that up to the relevant experts to determine.

Shapiro follows up on this point by bringing up the low suicide rates among blacks (starts around 4:25). While Shapiro talks exclusively about bullying, I take it that he would maintain that even if you were to factor in any of the other negative societal effects (e.g. discrimination), you would still fail to account for the high transgender suicide attempt rate. He reasons that if things like bullying and discrimination increase the risk of suicide, blacks should be more suicidal than whites since they are bullied and discriminated against more often. But they’re not more likely to commit suicide. Therefore, the way society treats you has nothing to do with suicidality. This isn’t a very good argument.

First, blacks are not a very good comparison group to transgender individuals. Blacks do not face rejection from their families for coming out as black, they are not regularly accused of having a mental illness (or being delusional), and they are not denied health care or work because of their identity. A much better comparison group would be homosexuals, whom have been subjected to similar negative societal effects, albeit to a lesser degree now. Here, we see that the data undermines Shapiro’s argument.

The suicide attempt rates among homosexuals are now between ten and twenty percent, lower than the rates among trans people (Haas et al., 2014; King et al., 2008). However, the rates used to be much higher. For instance, in the 1970’s, a time when homosexuality was significantly frowned upon, a large-scale survey of over five thousand homosexuals found that 40% had attempted suicide (Jay, 1979).*** Since the 1970’s, homosexuals have become much more accepted into society and they are also now less likely to attempt suicide. Two questions arise. Why did the suicide rate of homosexuals decline over the past forty years? And why is the suicide rate still much higher than heterosexuals today?

Societal effects (esp. rejection and disapproval by close family and friends) probably play a significant role in explaining the suicide trends among these groups. A recent study in Canada found that transgender people who had supportive parents were 57% less likely to attempt suicide (Bauer et al., 2015). Those who experienced low levels of hatred and abuse were 66% less likely. Similar suicide risk factors have been also been found among homosexuals (Haas et al., 2010; Van Bergen et al., 2013). Furthermore, a recent study published in JAMA looked at suicide attempts among homosexual teenagers from 2004-2015 (Raifman et al. 2017). The study found that their rate of suicide attempts dropped by 14% in the states where gay marriage was legalized. In states where gay marriage was illegal, the suicide rates remained constant throughout this 11 year period. Again, these findings intuitively support a causal hypothesis regarding suicidal tendencies and social acceptance. Finally, to speak to Shapiro’s specific claims about bullying, a recent meta-analysis concluded that bullying, in general, is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideation and attempts (Van Geel et al., 2014).

Issues surrounding gender and sexual orientation will always arouse conflict between those on the right and left. We hold many opposing beliefs about morality, the existence of God, and how society should be structured, and those beliefs affect how we will respond to scientific claims. We will tend to either ignore findings that contradict our beliefs, or we will deny that they are true. In order to resolve our disagreements about science, we have to be honest about our own beliefs and motives, and be just as honest when we try to represent the views of those we disagree with. Building up straw men, misrepresenting scientific studies, and engaging in tasteless ridicule is not going to narrow the political divide.


Bauer, G. R., Scheim, A. I., Pyne, J., Travers, R., & Hammond, R. (2015). Intervenable factors associated with suicide risk in transgender persons: a respondent driven sampling study in Ontario, Canada. BMC Public Health, 15(1), 525.

Haas, A. P., Eliason, M., Mays, V. M., Mathy, R. M., Cochran, S. D., D'Augelli, A. R., ... & Russell, S. T. (2010). Suicide and suicide risk in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations: review and recommendations. Journal of homosexuality, 58(1), 10-51.

Jay K, Young A (1979). The Gay Report: Lesbians and Gay Men Speak Out About Sexual Experiences and Lifestyles. New York, NY: Summit Books.

King et al. 2008 King, M., Semlyen, J., Tai, S. S., Killaspy, H., Osborn, D., Popelyuk, D., & Nazareth, I. (2008). A systematic review of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. BMC psychiatry, 8(1), 70.

Raifman, J., Moscoe, E., Austin, S. B., & McConnell, M. (2017). Difference-in-differences analysis of the association between state same-sex marriage policies and adolescent suicide attempts. JAMA pediatrics171(4), 350-356.

Van Bergen, D. D., Bos, H. M., van Lisdonk, J., Keuzenkamp, S., & Sandfort, T. G. (2013). Victimization and suicidality among Dutch lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths. American journal of public health, 103(1), 70-72.

Van Geel, M., Vedder, P., & Tanilon, J. (2014). Relationship between peer victimization, cyberbullying, and suicide in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. JAMA pediatrics, 168(5), 435-442.

* Timestamps are for the video featured on the article linked to near the beginning of the article:

** By ‘man’, I mean an individual with all or almost all of the psychological properties and behavioral dispositions typically associated with being a male. While this may be contrary to ordinary linguistic practice, this is an accurate way of describing what transgender people are claiming.  

***Same suicide attempt rate as transgender persons today

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