Institutional Science Has No Place in Trans and Intersex Rights

A Free Radicals Statement Against the Administration’s Gender Definition Memo

As members of the Free Radicals collective, we are writing in response to the recent U.S. government memo that attempts to define gender and sex as binary. We voice solidarity with the truth of trans, gender nonconforming (gnc), and intersex peoples’ lived experiences over allegedly objective science. Not only do we assert that the memo goes against prevailing research, but we also denounce the weaponization of science to justify oppression. This is a tactic repeated throughout history, and reflected in how institutional science is funded and who gets to perform and access it.

The memo peddles biological determinism and falsely suggests that there is consensus within institutional science on what constitutes gender and sex. In fact, existing science challenges the widespread belief that there are two discrete categories of people: female and male. Research demonstrates that gender and sex consist of multiple biological and psychological dimensions, each of which exist dynamically in a continuous range. Importantly, no scientific metric to date (i.e. chromosomes, bodily characteristics, hormones, brain structure, behaviors) can determine one’s sex or gender in a reliable manner. Despite this, clinicians insist on gender and sex assignment at birth based on arbitrary standards for genital anatomy, beginning the societal policing of gender and sex that can culminate in interpersonal, medical, and political violence against those whose do not conform strictly to the binary model.

Furthermore, science has historically been and continues to be a flawed measure for “truth,” and what does gets published as scientific literature is by no means a comprehensive authority on human experience. Science as we know it today developed in tandem with European imperialism: imperial powers backed experiments justifying racialized and gender-based violence that increased their profits. The legacy of this relationship still permeates institutional science today. For example, the majority of research relies on normative assumptions about gender and sex that perpetuate stereotypes about the myth of the gender/sex binary. What we consider to be sociocultural (gender) and biological (sex) are in reality both influenced by social and biological factors. But scientific research largely groups people into “male” or “female” categories without nuanced evaluation of each of these dimensions, leading to limited knowledge about the true range of gender and sex diversity in humans. Indeed, hundreds of thriving human societies around the world and throughout history have recognized more than two genders.

Normative biases also extend to the systems that govern the production of scientific knowledge: between 1989 and 2011, 0.03% of the 127,798 published NIH-funded studies specifically focused on trans people. Within the scientific community, senior scientists actively discourage research on LGBTQ health, contributing to hostile environments for trans, gnc, and intersex scientists that place limitations on research by and for trans, gnc, and intersex people. Even when research studies include trans, gnc, and intersex people, cisgender scientists are often at the helm, leading to damaging mischaracterizations and misconceptions that validate dangerous tropes and gatekeeping of trans identity. Those who fund — and therefore get to do — institutional science ultimately shape the curation of ‘facts’ and ignorance about trans, gnc, and intersex people.

Thus, institutional research is only one, imperfect methodology for studying the world, and should not be required to validate people’s humanity and fundamental rights. Given the dearth of institutional research by and for trans, gnc, and intersex people, many communities have conducted their own research (see resources below). We assert that trans, gnc, and intersex people are the experts of their own bodies, lives, and identities. We all understand our bodies in different ways, and these understandings influence our definitions of wellness, health, and how we need to exist in the world. Biomedical research institutions and healthcare providers must start with empowering folks to achieve their unique needs. People’s lived experiences, after all, are empirical data. They *are* science.

The stakes are enormous. Violence against trans, gnc, and intersex people occurs in all contexts — at home, school, and work, on the streets, in the doctor’s office, and in the hands of the state. Trans people, particularly Black and Brown trans people, face disproportionately high levels of physical and sexual violence. So far, at least 22 murders of trans folks have been reported in 2018. The majority of those murdered have been Black women. Further, intersex people have been excluded and deeply harmed by unethical and dehumanizing research and medical practices that are nonconsensual, unnecessary, invasive, and traumatizing. Institutional science does not exist in a vacuum; it plays a role in perpetuating violence against trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex people by upholding societal beliefs that certain bodies and identities are more real than others.

We must not lose sight of what’s most important: the rights of trans, gnc and intersex people to be safe, to thrive and to define who they are and what they need for themselves. This is a matter of being on the side of oppression or being on the side of those marginalized by violent power structures. It is a matter of believing in the agency, wisdom and full range of beauty in fellow humans.


Immediate actions/ ways to engage:

Community-led/based research:

  • It’s War In Here: A Report on the Treatment of Transgender and Intersex People in New York State Men’s Prisons by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project
  • We deserve better: A report on policing in New Orleans by and for queer & trans youth of color
  • Coming out of concrete closets: A report on Black&Pink’s national LGBTQ prisoner survey
  • A Census of Our Own: The State of Queer Southeast Asia America by the Providence Youth Student Movement
  • What’s Your Issue? Participatory Action Research done by folks at CUNY with LGBTQ & GNC youth

More on sex/gender and science:

History of science/science as a tool of oppression:

August Guang is a genomics data scientist at Brown University and healing coordinator at the Providence Youth Student Movement. Both their research practices and organizing work are guided by the belief that crisis and uncertainty are a gift (credit to Chhaya Chhoum) and that we must be involved in shaping how change happens.

fèini yĭn is a loving crab/crabby lover and child of immigrants living on lenape land currently known as philadelphia. as a science journalist, they aim to bring forth perspectives not traditionally heard in science stories and expand society's definitions of words like "expert," "scientist" and "facts." they have a dog and strong fine motor skills, which they put to use in embroidery, origami, veggie chopping and other persnickety tasks. kids at school used to taunt them with the nickname "chinese barbie" but joke's on those bullies because that's a badass (and accurate) character assessment!

Sophie Duncan is a queer robot beep-booping her way through grad school one rusty, robot heartbeat at a time. She likes plants (ALOT ALOT) and dabbles in the sophisticated science of caring for pet-rocks. When she’s not making weird things with glue and paper, she thinks about how shooting stars are the universe’s garbage. or something.

Yiran Liu is a smol human with big feelings. She daydreams about how anti-oppressive, community-based science can mitigate, rather than perpetuate, social and political inequities. Her favorite human-made wonders include live music, spicy food, fuzzy socks, and compassion. She is a grad student in the bay area.