It’s a thing that happens in the cess pit of social media every day. Some anti-trans dipshit pops up with a declaration: “Science says there are only two genders!” (What they really mean is that there are only two sexes, which is wrong according to current science, and then conflating sex with gender, which is… also wrong according to current science.) The argument gets joined, most often by people who don’t fall into the cis binary, though I appreciate it when cis binary allies step up and start on a deluge of papers and evidence about how that definitely is not what the current science says.
This has also left me increasingly disquieted, and I want to try to articulate why. I want you to keep in mind that I am saying this as someone with a graduate degree in science, who has a deep love and appreciation for the great collective human endeavor that is the search for truth via the scientific process. At its absolute best, engagement with science is a deeply humbling experience that reminds us how small we are in the grand scale of the universe, how little we actually know, and how far we have to go. It reminds us that people working together, with open minds and honest intentions, can expand our understanding of the world around us.
That said, I frankly do not give a shit what the science has to say about my gender.
There’s a deep desire out there for us to be able to run our lives algorithmically, as if we are computers. I understand how that would simplify dealing with an extremely complex world, where sometimes there aren’t actually right answers. I see that urge every time there’s another spasm of what about-ism about “cancel culture” or some pop culture figure being thrown down off their plinth and revealed as a really terrible person. People struggle to build universally applicable standards and revel in pointing the finger at each other and screaming about hypocrisy when that universality breaks up on the rocks of humans being human. There’s always an edge case around the corner, just waiting to twist your mental ankle to the breaking point as you stumble over it.
So I get why it’s comforting to reach for science as a source of firm truths that should define “all” judgment. But frankly, that does ill service to science, when within our various disciplines there are things that defy simple classification (talk to me some time about mineral classification of sedimentary rocks, for example) or when the whole point is that there is always a window of uncertainty… though even that wiggle room we give ourselves for uncertainty isn’t a cheap algorithm for humans to run our brains on either, by the way. There are things so well-established by science that we get to say flatly they are true. Like gravity. Like climate change.
There are a lot of reasons I don’t particularly like my existence being boiled down to a game of who can find the most peer-reviewed papers to support or deny my self-definition. To start with, again as much as I love science, this kind of argument elides the hideous history of particularly the life sciences as tools to aid in oppressive social structures and deny the personhood of minorities. Science is still a human endeavor. It still suffers from the prejudices and quirks of the humans conducting it, and the incredibly faulty premises they can use as research foundations. For example, if you start from the assumption that there must be a reason some races are better than others and you’re just going to quantify it with science, your evidence and experiments are going to be bullshit from the get-go. And yet. (Or let’s talk hysteria, perhaps.) And this is not something that’s in the dark past of science, long forgotten; we’re talking the last fifty years, here. That’s not even touching the way non-scientists will happily mis-apply scientific concepts or simply borrow the language of scientific authority to justify the status quo–Social Darwinism, anyone? The cringe-y corners of evo psych? What sort of motivated reasoning about queer people has happened in the past and is still going on today?
Secondarily, I hate these arguments becoming a sort of quasi-scientific debate because the whole point, if you’re doing science right, is that given sufficient, well-support evidence, you will reconsider your position. Now, I don’t think that anyone on any side slinging links to scientific papers on Twitter or Facebook is coming from a position of good faith that means they’re willing to do that. (See.) But there’s still that breath of uncertainty that creeps in like horror. My friend, if you’re defending the existence of trans and/or nonbinary people with sheer weight of science, if that produced science were to turn against us, would you change your mind? Is my personhood conferred only by a weightier stack of new papers on one side of the scale than what the transphobes can put down on the other? Is my presence in your reality that tenuous?
And why does there need to be outside confirmation of my own words? I may not have a PhD in Alex’s Gender, but neither does anyone else. The life within my own skin is viscerally unknowable to anyone but me, which makes me the sole authority on who Alex is from moment to moment. It doesn’t matter what research comes out; there is no mass of evidence in the world weightier than the daily experiment of my own life and no instrument that can explore my understanding of myself except for my own mind. And perhaps because I am a scientist and I understand the limitations of my own knowledge and abilities, I can freely admit that the interiority of every other person on this planet is as alien and unknowable to me as mine is to them–whether they admit it or not–and I just have to take their word for it.
So no. I don’t give even the tiniest fuck if science says my gender exists or not. It exists because I SAY IT DOES. I am a person. And because I live and breathe, I deserve the basic fucking respect from other humans that the fact of my existence confers on me.
And if you say that’s not enough? You’re the problem.