Biologist Rachel Levin Talks Transgender Research, Scientific Literacy, and Being an Activist-Scientist

levinRachel Levin is a professor at Pomona College, where she teaches classes about ecology, animal behavior, and the intersections of biology, gender, and society. Her research career has spanned studying bird song in the Amazon to investigating the biological basis of transgender identity. Rachel was my undergraduate thesis advisor, personal mentor, and a big inspiration for this blog, and this article. I spoke with her about how she understands the intersections of science and activism through her work.

What was your experience as a scientist before starting the trans project?

I first started working in animal behavior with chimps at a facility that [Jane] Goodall started. My interest was in social behavior and communication, and one of the windows into both of those things is language. I quickly realized it would be difficult to continue with primates because you can’t fool primates very easily with tape recorders; they find play-back tape recorders and take them apart.

In graduate school I switched to birds, where most of the communication work had started. At the time, we only studied the 15% or so that are up here in the North temperate zone, where only males sing. I basically invented the project on dueting birds, studying birds in which both males and females sing, which is typical in the tropics where over 80% of the birds of the world live. I was interested in vocal duets where males and females intersperse elements of a song and sound like one bird singing. That immediately got me into sex differences where I swore I would never go. I swore that, as a woman in animal behavior, I would never work on sex differences, gender differences, or mother-infant behavior because that’s what women did when I started working and I found that offensive. And here I am.

I was accused of feminist leanings consistently throughout my graduate career when I reported that females were starting all the duets. They said, “Of course you’d be the one who found that” and I said, “Are you saying that my surgical sexing was wrong? That my tape recorder was wrong? What are you implying here?”

How did you transition into studying trans identity?

A former student came back to visit who was doing a Masters in Public Health who said, “Oh I’m doing it on transgender health issues” and I thought, “Is this about the effects of cross-sex hormone treatment or surgery?” He pooh-poohed me and said, “You don’t know anything.” And I said “No, I don’t. Educate me.” And that was the roots of the trans project.

I read the science that had been done on trans identity, which was primarily started in the mid ‘80s, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with it as my awareness about trans identity increased. Initially, it struck me as not well-designed science and that some of the analyses were flawed. There were a lot of problematic assumptions in the way the experiments were designed that I became more aware of the more involved I was in the trans community.

The more I read the science, the more disgruntled I became and thought somebody should do this right – it’s not rocket science – or at least do it consistent with current cultural and scientific understanding. The bell went off in the shower one morning and I said, “I could do this,” and in 2009 we launched the trans project. I was terrified of doing the project coming from the outside looking in and feeling like a scientist in a white lab coat looking at the freaks under a microscope. I was terrified of casting that impression, of misspeaking, of being uneducated.

What questions were you asking at the beginning of the project and how has that changed over time?

At the time I wondered what would happen if you took a more inclusive, respectful approach to the topic and subjects with whom you are working. What would happen, and what kind of results would you get? In addition, asking questions in a setting where nothing was at stake and everything was confidential — and by that I mean [doing research] outside of gender identity clinics where subjects could be playing a game to get access to medical treatment that they wouldn’t get if they didn’t pass the trans test.

In this current phase I’ve just finished the primary analysis of over 1300 subjects – what they said and how things align or don’t with what our previous understanding [of trans identity] was. A lot of the results of that huge study suggested that we are asking the wrong questions and using the wrong metrics. My work in the coming years is: where do I want to go with this?

I can give you a quick example. People often use a Kinsey-like scale to ask about a subject’s sexual orientation in which sexual orientation ranges from 0 to 6, in which one end is homosexual and the other is heterosexual. First of all, that’s a confusing scale to use if you’re trans or if you’re genderqueer or genderfluid, because the term homo and heterosexual are sort of confusing if not meaningless. Sometimes they give you several Kinsey scales asking: who are you attracted to, who do you have sex with, who do you fantasize about. Somehow,  [scientists] come up with two groups: a gay and a straight group of subjects. But they never tell you how they used all that information to discern who got to be in which group and who got completely thrown out. What do we mean when we say gay or straight and how do results vary depending on what metrics we use? For example you could say I’m a lesbian, but really I’m a Kinsey 3. Kinsey 3 would get you thrown out as not being gay or straight but you say and know that you live your life as a lesbian. What does your label mean and what does a Kinsey scale mean? And what does it mean to have a third person impose their knowledge and their definitions on you? So that’s just an example of where it could go.

What are questions we should be asking?

I think the questions have to do with – why are we asking these questions? If you look for differences you will find them, so then you have to ask yourself why are you looking for differences? Should I be looking for similarities? Or should I change the way the question is asked?

When I talk publicly, I often talk to non-science audiences about how you ask the question really dictates the answer you’re going to get. So if you say, “How might hormones influence the development of gender identity?” – that’s one question. Instead of saying, “What are the differences in male and female gender identities in terms of prenatal hormone exposure?” and you know you’re looking for it and if you look hard enough you find something – finger ratio for example if it’s going to confirm what you’re doing. It’s really the hidden assumptions of questions.

Do you think science can or should be answering questions about identity?

I think a lot of people are worried if we find a cause for trans identity, a single biological cause, that the reason we’re looking for it is to get rid of it. As scientists who ask those questions, we do bear a responsibility for what happens, although we can’t control it. I think we should ask [identity] questions. Everybody should ask questions. I think you need to realize that your work can be abused and take whatever stand you can to put it in the proper perspective.

How do you think you’ve handled that responsibility in terms of your role in this particular project?

I spent a lot of time doing public speaking at conferences by and for the trans community and am now branching out to a broader scientific audience as well as the project will be coming out in publication. And my goal in doing this public speaking is two-fold: one is to give back to the subjects who so graciously gave up their time and their souls and entrusted us with intimate details about their lives. The other is because I think that all of us give too much power to science.

So many times when a paper comes out, I hear from parents of trans kids or members of the trans community, “This proves I’m legitimate!” What worries me is that science will never prove that anything is legitimate. I like to do scientific literacy talks that focus on trans identity with the trans community, family members, and allies so that people realize that they are the experts of who they are, regardless of what their blood, or spit, or genes might tell people.

What do you feel like is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in tackling political work as a scientist?

It’s difficult to be heard as a woman. It’s difficult to be heard when you’re going against what people want to believe about identity, especially scientists, and it’s very difficult to go against a triumvirate of white male scientists who have established the paradigm that is used in research on trans identity. I am in some ways very glad that I’m cisgender and not transgender because horribly enough, I think I might be heard more because I’m not trans than if I were and I was accused of having an agenda.

Simon Levay published the study in the mid ‘90s finding that the brains of gay men and straight men were different in a particular area. One of the first questions everyone asked in the public media was whether Levay was gay – and he is – and why that would be the first question is beyond me. I mean it’s irrelevant to whether the science was done well or not.

What do you think has been the most surprising thing about doing this project for you?

How it changed my life. It really was transforming and I have told the students who worked in the lab on this project, especially those involved with data collection, that it would change their lives as well. It radicalized me in an area that I knew nothing about and it met a very fervent need of mine to be able to make a difference with my science. I’m also able to learn from and with other people, change how people think about science, and put science in the proper perspective.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexis Takahashi (aka ATAK) is a multiracial organizer who loves plants, sushi, and disrupting capitalism. Her personal superpowers are cat whispering and laying in trees.