Is it too much to ask to be left alone?
Trans people have known what we’ve needed for 90 years. For just as long, cis people have told us they know better.
(This post originally appeared on Katelyn’s Substack on 5/20/2020 and has been moved here because her Substack no longer exists)
It’s difficult to establish where exactly my sense of self and my gender part ways within my self conception. To me, my being as a woman is as intertwined with my self conception as anything else; being tall, the scar on my left wrist that still aches, the freckles that dot my face and arms.
If that self conception were changed, either by choice or by force, would I even still exist as myself, or would I then be someone else completely?
The first known transfeminine gender reassignment surgery was performed on Lili Elbe in 1930. Given medical treatments available, many modern trans people have sought ways to physically change their bodies to ease their dysphoria, the clinical term for the distress felt because of a mismatch between an individual’s feeling of their own gender and their assigned sex at birth, and have a body that matched their gender identity.
As long as trans people have had the means to change our bodies, people who are not trans have stood in the way of doing so.
Cisgender people have burned our research, they’ve made us illegal, they’ve lobotomized and electroshocked us, they’ve psychologically tortured us, they’ve forced us to conform to gender stereotypes to access transition, and they’ve attempted to create tautologies to determine who was most authentic and deserving of transition, all in the name of limiting access to transgender healthcare. Most importantly, they’ve succeeded at holding up hoops for us to jump through to access gender-affirming care.
One of the most constant experience across many generations of trans people is cis people butting their noses into our gender identities and medical care.
In early December 2019, a physicist-turned-neuroscientist at the University of Michigan named Stephen Gliske published a paper titled “A new theory of gender dysphoria incorporating the distress, social behavioral, and body-ownership networks,” in the scientific journal eNeuro, an open access journal of the Society of Neuroscience. According to his university bio, Gliske has no apparent professional experience working with actual trans people. His paper used data from multiple other studies to propose a new “multisense theory of gender dysphoria” that “connects the experience of gender dysphoria with the function of the associated brain regions and networks.”
Gliske suggested that his findings could lead a new way of thinking about the concept of gender dysphoria, one that could lead to the idea of new potential treatments for dysphoria. “This paradigm shift — from fixed anatomical sizes to dynamic activity in brain networks — means that there may be many more options to decrease the distress experienced with gender dysphoria than we have ever realized,” he told Newsweek when his article was first published.
The paper, as do many studies proposing a new way to prevent trans people from transitioning, gained widespread media coverage. The National Center for Transgender Equality even approvingly tweeted the story out, before later deleting the tweet.
Initial excitement over the paper seemed to stem from the potential discovery of the cause of gender dysphoria. Such a discovery could be used to underpin the legal rights and social acceptance that trans people seek in modern society.
Instead, Gliske used his research to suggest that his potential discovery could lead to a “cure” for gender dysphoria, which could lead someday to wiping out the trans population altogether.
This leads me to ask, who benefits from this? Certainly not trans people. Our community, largely does not want, or need the idea that our existence could be purified and corrected by cisgender researchers.
The backlash was swift. After other scientists raised objections to the research, the paper’s language was corrected on December 12, with the journal saying:
Upon initial publication of the manuscript version of this article, several questions were raised about the validity of the conclusions, particularly the author’s proposed implications for clinical treatment. The editors conducted an independent review of the article in response to these concerns and determined that any clinical or treatment recommendations were, in fact, unsupported by the cited data, and therefore are inappropriate and should be removed. The author agreed with this conclusion and the final version of the article has been edited to remove these speculations, including the removal of the entire “Implications for Clinical Practice” section.
But that did little to quell protests. Eventually a petition to have the paper retracted was started on Change.org by one of the journal’s Editorial Board members, accumulating almost 900 signatures. The petition made the claim that the paper was designed to harm the trans community:
Beyond the numerous scientific and theoretical short-comings of this manuscript, the clear intent of the paper was to do harm to the transgender community, one of the most vulnerable communities across the globe. This was not only evident in the section on clinical implications that was removed, but in the basic assumption that transgender people are a deleterious deviation with a disordered network of brain regions which pervades the entire manuscript. This is not merely an example of difference in scientific opinion, but a direct attack on a vulnerable community.
Predictably, backlash emerged to the backlash to the paper.. Many media members who depend on stoking trans controversies were quick to seize on the retraction, painting it as activists erasing the work of “good” scientists.
It is important to notice who has been missing from this conversation. This is cis people talking to other cis people, about trans people, as if we are animals displayed in the zoo.
Gliske himself penned a brief post on Medium in response to the retraction of his paper. Among a few criticisms he addressed was one in which reviewers claimed it was “disrespectful” or “ludicrous” that he suggested “the experience of incongruence between one’s body and desired gender could be due to changes in an individual’s sense of gender, rather than an individual having the brain sex of the desired gender.” But his response to this criticism is particularly enlightening:
I recognize that it may appear disrespectful to scientifically study whether individuals with gender dysphoria have limitations in their ability to sense their own gender. However, since we do not know the true cause of gender dysphoria, it is not disrespectful.
I am not suggesting we disregard their experience nor the challenges they face. However, we cannot truly help all individuals with gender dysphoria in the best ways unless we really understand the underlying biology.
But who gets to be the judge of the “the best ways” to help individuals with gender dysphoria is left unsaid. Gliske goes on to share that he’s received correspondence from people who experience gender dysphoria and wish there were alternative methods of alleviating it. While I sympathize with that position, after all it was how I felt for the better part of 25 years of my life, I also understand that those thoughts are typically driven largely by fear of familial and professional rejection. If cis society treated trans people better more generally, if transition wasn’t really the big deal that cis people make it out to be, then this attitude would likely not be as pervasive.
Underlining Gliske’s paper and response, but left largely unsaid, is a belief that cis people are superior to trans people. The underlying assumption is that trans people need “fixing” for our own good. The implication of the trans skeptical and gender critical movement is that trans people are poor, unfortunate souls who would be better off accepting their birth assigned sex and living “superior” cis lives.
Living in our society with a trans perspective, these assumptions are painfully obvious to me. Cisnormativity has built a society that operates on behalf of and in benefit to cis people. That’s just the reality when approximately 99.4 percent of all people are not trans, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make room for those of us who are just…different. Even if we ever determine why trans people experience their gender identity and dysphoria the way they do, that doesn’t mean we have to change ourselves based on someone else’s idea of superiority.
The reality is trans people have little institutional scientific or academic power. What’s stopping the Gliske’s of the world from trying to rewire the brains of trans people? Shouldn’t trans people be involved in the process of conceptualizing our own treatments? We should at least have some autonomy over our care.
But the fact that all the usual suspects ignore is that trans people know what we need. Transition, in whatever way it works for an individual, is what trans people have known we needed for almost a hundred years now. But that’s apparently not good enough. We also have to convince the cis people with power over our lives, doctors, therapists, medical researchers, and even journalists, that we know what’s best for ourselves.
So my question then becomes, when will trans people be allowed to live without cis people questioning our existence? It’s tiring living under constant scientific scrutiny. Our real lives should not be career fodder for curious cis scientists and journalists who subconsciously or consciously feel that trans people can be “cured”.
If you were to remove my internal sense of my own womanhood, you would remove my whole sense of self. I will never consent to that, ever. To even theorize doing so is plainly unethical. No matter how much you study or read up on gender dysphoria, you’ll never know what’s best for me better than I do and to claim otherwise is an expression of your own feelings.
It’s a simple demand, to be left alone, yet it remains so impossible for many trans people.