The Skin We’re In

How can science inform the debate on gender?

Mar 1, 2018
Bob Grant
Gender has become a hot-button issue. Some politicians and their supporters see gender as a way to divide people, limiting the rights of transgender individuals and therefore encoding a particular moral judgment into law. Across the political spectrum, lawmakers seek to enshrine their own beliefs, with some championing equal rights for all people, regardless of their relationship to their natal sex.
 
As with any other tangled sociopolitical matter, it’s unlikely that an entirely satisfactory solution will ever materialize. When politics, religion, and culture intertwine to complicate such issues, teasing them apart to arrive at some objective truth becomes a tall order. We human beings, if nothing else, are good at clinging to our preconceived biases.
 
But science, as ever, can serve as an important guiding factor in these types of controversies. And gender is no different.
 
That is why the research that we highlight in this issue of The Scientist is important beyond the quest to understand the biological underpinnings of humans’ sense of self. The scientists in our feature story on how transgender people’s brains might (or might not) differ from those of cisgender people strive to disentangle the physiology underlying the mismatches people experience between the gender they perceive themselves to be and that assigned at birth. Several of the researchers interviewed by Associate Editor Shawna Williams express frustration at seeing results from the field frequently interpreted through a political lens; at the same time, they are well aware that seeking objective truths could, and perhaps should, inform the broader debate over transgender rights. Ivanka Savic, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, tells Williams: “This is just part of the biology, the same way as I have black hair and somebody has red hair.”
 
Although scientific fact can be, and too often is, eschewed or distorted in the political arena, I hope that uncovering the roots of gender can serve as a bulwark against unfair, unkind, unwise, and inhumane policy decisions.
 
A clear picture of the biological contributions to gender dysphoria (or to gender itself, for that matter) has yet to fully emerge, but it heartens me to know that researchers are expending their efforts to increase our dispassionate knowledge of these phenomena.
 
For me, the singular, undeniable truth that underlies this and many other complex societal and cultural upheavals is that people are people, pure and simple. And the mere act of being born should ensure that one is treated with respect. Time and again, science has supported this universal right, despite seemingly ceaseless attempts to deny it.
 
We are living things, and an intricate interplay of biological components informs all that we are and do. From a scientific perspective, it behooves us Homo sapiens to understand that physiological contribution as fully as possible. This obligation seems even stronger when the accumulation of such knowledge might inform debates over how we treat each other.