Speaker 1: It’s the latest fight for transgender rights.
Speaker 2: Arkansas passes law blocking gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Speaker 3: Transgender children in Texas face new barriers to accessing health care.
Tulika Bose: Right now, you’re probably seeing the fight for gender equitable care for trans children across the country in your news feeds and across the internet.
Speaker 4: In 2022, the power of science and literature will crumble in the face of the translobby.
Jules Gil-Peterson: We’re seeing an ongoing kind of moral panic and attack on the idea of trans people right now, and so obviously science is becoming a weapon.
Speaker 4: At one point, biologists were allowed to determine what biology was, and there were two: male and female.
Angry: But there’s one thing that keeps coming up to discredit trans people’s rights: junk science. But first, what does junk science do, well, junk?
First you need to understand the role science has historically played in understanding sex and gender and how this is weaponized today.
Speaker 4: You can’t reply, “Oh, so men can become women” by just wishing. Tell us how this works.
Angry: I spoke to Jules Gill-Peterson, a historian of science and a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the history of trans children, about the actual history of research attempting to define sex and gender.
Gil Peterson: For a long time, the type of research on gender, sex and trans people has been incredibly poorly conducted. And that often happened with open prejudices. It was often done with very poor methodology. And it has often been done to increase social control over people, to force them to conform to a binary gender distribution.
Angry: Let’s rewind to the 1940’s and 1950’s and specifically to the history of the word gender.
Gil Peterson: The crisis for doctors and psychologists in the 1950s was that they had no idea what made people men or women. It wasn’t chromosomes. It wasn’t gonads, right? It wasn’t the hormonal composition. It wasn’t genetics.
They couldn’t find a single facet of biology that reliably predicted who would be male or female. And then they met all these people whose bodies didn’t match what they were feeling inside.
As I had discovered from reading the medical records, they assigned a gender to intersex children, right, and they forced them through surgery and hormones to achieve that gender. But then the child would not identify with that gender. And it would cause so much distress. And so gender was basically created just to make a conceptual distinction.
Angry: Peterson says the war on trans people actually has a basis in the same tenants who have historically enforced scientific racism.
Gil Peterson: We can talk about a kind of history of scientific racism that many people are familiar with, which basically consisted of projecting social hierarchies out into the world.
White northern European scientists kept discovering that they were apparently the superior race, right?
And you see that kind of shift after World War II, away from biological explanations around race to cultural explanations that still come to the same conclusions.
Interestingly, the history of gender in medicine and psychology is actually an important part of it.
Angry: And the thing is, a lot of outdated misinformation about sex, gender, and trans people continues to be cited today.
Gil Peterson: But I sometimes think that the line between junk science and legitimate science changes over time. So it’s really easy for people to pick and choose ideas that they might want to use out of context. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on, you know, someone reading a newspaper article or scrolling on Twitter.
Angry: And if you want to talk about data cherry-picking, the same psychologists who tried to force biological definitions of sex on children were the same psychologists who accidentally discovered something else.
Gil Peterson: Except the idea that gender is separate from sex, so separate from the body, they don’t always go together.
It’s a concept that we often take for granted because it was somehow associated with, or invented by, trans people. It was an invention of behavioral psychologists who worked hard on it
closely with researchers in endocrinology in the 1940s and 1950s.
But they could not force children to then identify as boys or girls. That was her big problem. The team talks about this in a series of articles published by Hopkins in 1955. They say that gender is basically just how you feel about being a boy or a girl.
Angry: And science has come a long way. It is now increasingly understood that gender is not binary.
Peterson says there are still many misconceptions masquerading as scientific consensus.
Gil Peterson: The biggest thing, right, is that there is a scientific consensus about what makes people male or female or transgender. The anti-trans side invokes really outdated scientific concepts.
The idea that “Oh, we know what makes people male or female. It’s either the genitals or our idea of chromosomes.”
Anyone worth their salt will tell you that XX and XY aren’t the only chromosome combinations for humans.
Angry: So how and why should we debunk junk science?
Gil Peterson: Before I even decide if I want to debunk anything, I just want to contextualize first: “Where did this data come from?”
Your work might have been peer reviewed 20 or 30 years ago, but not anymore.
Angry: And we don’t have to go far to see moral panic. A 2018 study by a Brown University researcher suggesting that peer pressure could turn children into transgender people prompted a journal to republish a corrected version.
But the same study is being used against trans children right now.
Gil Peterson: So I think actually the tools that we would bring with us, right, say, to debunk racial science or other kinds of just extremely unscientific but also extremely offensive weaponizations of scientific discourse,
I think we can apply the same principles. So if we’re starting from a vantage point where we’re not afraid to say, “Look, I don’t like junk science that’s aimed at trans people because it hurts trans people and it’s bad science,” right ?