Sometimes you have to shut up and listen

I’ve written a few times about how biology is more complex than people think, that all the people claiming that biology dictates that there are only two genders are liars and fools, and that we should be far more inclusive in our perspective. However, I am not a trans person; I’m a comfortable cis-het white man, ensconced in the most privileged socio-cultural group in the country, and that puts me in an awkward position. It means that by default, when I think about these issues, I lapse into thinking about them from an outsiders perspective, as someone who is safely above it all, and most likely, I’ll think about it as a science problem. The transphobes are abusing science and are citing bad science, and so what I need to do is hammer back with good science.

Riley Black corrects me.

Science isn’t going to win this one. When the argument turns to strangers trying to affirm or deny my identity on the basis of biological particulars, I head for the hills like the dinosaurs in Fantasia running from the T. rex. That’s because trans rights are not a scientific issue. They are a human rights issue. There is certainly a lot we could say—and that I would honestly love to know!—about human sexual variation, the effects of hormone replacement therapy, why hoped-for bodily changes are so emotionally fulfilling, and more. Some of these things might be wonderful topics for biology classes; imagine if every high schooler in America were educated to understand that human sex itself comes with a lot of variation. (Thinking back to my younger, closeted self, that would have helped!) But, in terms of deciding how I, as a trans person, am going to move through the world, all the information about hormones and biology affects three people, at most: my doctor, my partner, and myself. That’s all.

I see and respect the point. It would be easy to fall into the trap of cis boys shouting back and forth about the science, who is wrong, who is right, swapping journal citations and studies, and forget that all the rarefied pomposity is going on above the bodies of real people who are suffering. It’s easy for me to talk about the various tissues and organs of developing embryos and lose sight of the fact that I don’t have a direct stake in the game, and for the people who do, it’s not a game at all. It’s not something that can be settled with science!

All this time spent debating “the science” of where transgender people belong in society only confuses a truth many are struggling to accept. It is a distraction no matter which side of the argument you are on, because you are complicating and putting up for debate something that is very simple. Trans men are men. Trans women are women. Nonbinary people are valid. Trans people have always been here. We are here now. We will continue to be.

I’ll put that front and center in my head from now on. That’s the primary issue in this struggle. The transphobes are trying to abolish the fundamental equality of all people, and set aside a small group for discrimination and oppression, and the danger is that they can use the physical and psychological diversity of human beings as a tool to justify turning those differences into the basis of hatred.


  1. JoeBuddha says

    Thanks for this. I’ll try to adjust mine as well. It’s always fun to see another point of view and be shown to be wrong about something so you can get better,

  2. jellorat says

    I am a transgender man, and my wife is a transgender woman. We do not speak for all trans people at all, but are very science sided on a lot of things.

    That said, I think Riley Black is 110% correct, but I also think we need those people that are scientifically educated and savvy to bat down the bad science. I’m not sure it’s an either or. I think the problem as we get into the particulars of biology we need to realize at the end fo the day there is a very real human being that is being marginalized by people that would like to use us as the new flash point for their bigoted ideology.

    I think, like most things it’s about nuance. I have absolutely used biology in my arguments that sex is not an either or, binary, for mammals. Humans don’t come in just F or M. Sometimes, with face to face interactions, I am kinder, and I make headway with transphobic people that just are uneducated. My wife and my job’s take us all over and we run into a lot of people. She can’t hide she’s transgender, but me as FTM can, but don’t on principle. I’d like to think being very fact and science based in our way, has removed some of the less thought out transphobic ideas we encounter that come more from ignorance than malice.

    I think you can argue the approach based on facts and science, but your target audience needs to be more on the ignorant side, not the malicious bigot side. No science will ever win over an active bigot. The cruelty, bullying, and disenfranchisement of their targets are the point.

    I guess I just like seeing how you bat down a transphobic, becuase as a science fanboy it gives me another tool in my arsenal to fight transphobia with.

  3. says

    Hang on a minute, are you saying that trans people should set the terms and goals of trans activism rather than cynical upper-middle class radicals with sociology degrees? We are through the looking glass here.

  4. raven says

    I have the same problem that PZ has.
    Trans are after my time by many decades.
    In high school back in the Dark Ages, being gay was bleeding edge and very few were out.

    The best analogy or comparison I can make is to gay marriage.
    The fundie xian bigots lost that one big time for a good reason.

    Are their gay people living on my road?
    Sure, it is a long road.
    Are they married?
    Got me, don’t know, don’t care, it is none of my business, and it doesn’t affect me.
    The main point, it that whether or not two same sex people are married doesn’t affect anyone else.

    The SSMphobes say it does and that gay marrieds would do huge amounts of damage to our society including making jesus cry.
    None of what they said would happen, ever happened.

  5. says

    I agree with Riley Black in many respects–the case for trans rights does not and never did rest on any biological science. Even if sex really were a simple dichotomy, trans people would still deserve liberation.

    On the other hand, nobody really knows what arguments are or aren’t rhetorically effective. As the saying goes, “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people”. Talking about science is worth a shot as much as anything else.

  6. says

    Yeah, I think we need a lot of different kinds of arguments — I take the point as being that biology does not trump every other argument out there, not that it isn’t part of the mosaic.

  7. says

    I come at this from a mixed race individual’s viewpoint. Do you think it wasn’t worthwhile to say James Watson was a fool on the subject of race?

  8. raven says

    One of the places where science is useful for Trans is in their medical treatment. We use data to determine the best treatment at the best time. The current transphobe hysteria is about using puberty blockers in children. An example from the earlier thread is below.

    I’m not following this subject too closely but it is looking more and more like the transphobes don’t have a valid medical or psychological point.

    Porto Biomedical Journal
    Volume 2, Issue 5, September–October 2017, Pages 153-156
    Buying time or arresting development? The dilemma of administering hormone blockers in trans children and adolescents GuidoGiovanardi

    In their longitudinal study on the first 70 adolescents to receive puberty blockers, de Vries and colleagues37 reported an improvement in general functioning after two years, along with a decrease in depression and behavioural and emotional difficulties. Fifty-five of these 70 individuals were assessed later in early adulthood, after cross-sex hormones had been administered and gender reassignment surgery had been performed.
    Depressive symptoms had decreased, general mental health functioning had improved and no regret about transitioning was found.
    Many (about 70 per cent) reported that their social transition had been ‘easy’. Cohen-Kettenis and colleagues,38 in a 22-year follow-up of the first described adolescent treated with GnRH analogues and cross-sex hormones, reported overall improved psychological well-being and no clinical signs of adverse effects on the brain. An improvement in global functioning following puberty suppression was also found in the UK study of Costa and colleagues39 in their follow-up of adolescents at the GIDS centre in London.

    Consistent with the Dutch and British studies was Spack and colleagues’ report40 about their sample of 97 patients at a clinic in Boston, MA,
    in which no adolescents showed regrets regarding puberty blocking or subsequent cross-sex hormone use.

    One of their phobias is the use of puberty blockers so children have more time to decide what they really want and get to the age where they can legally make their own decisions. This is 18 in the USA.
    These are also given because trans children have problems with depression and suicide.
    “More than one in four (27 per cent) trans young people have attempted to commit suicide and nine in ten (89 per cent) have thought about it. 72 per cent.”

    Children take these voluntarily and the research studies show they work well and most importantly, “no adolescents showed regrets”

  9. Emily says

    Trans person here.

    I don’t think science arguments are necessarily bad, per-say. You can’t just let transphobes spout pseudoscience as much as they want, but to only argue the science is to fight on their terms and forget that at its heart, we’re talking about a human rights issue and that ultimately, the science of it has no bearing on whether we should be an accepted part of society. I feel like any argument that swats down their pseudoscience should at least try to take the extra step of shifting the framing away from the science and back to this being a human rights question.

  10. ardipithecus says

    There is a human rights struggle and there is good science. Good science can inform the human rights struggle but it cannot define it. All of us need to listen to those who are more marginalized than we are, for only they can inform us.

  11. raven says

    Another example of using science and research to inform our decisions.
    One of the main arguments of the Transphobes today is that Trans regret their transition. They reliably bring out Trans who explain that the hormonal and surgical treatment wrecked their lives and it isn’t reversible.
    Here is what research says about irreversible treatment and regret. Old post again.

    Google question: what percentage of trans people detransition

    A 2018 survey of WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) surgeons found that approximately 0.3% of patients who underwent transition-related surgery later requested detransition-related surgical care. Desistance rates among young children may be higher.

    Detransition – Wikipedia

    3 out of 1000 trans regret their transition and try to reverse it.
    That seems like a very small percentage of people.
    For pre-op Trans it is around 1%, still low.

    To put this in perspective, 50% of all marriages end up demarrrying, i.e. divorcing.
    I don’t have the percentage of people who regret dealing with Michael Shermer but I’m guessing well over 50%.
    And I and everyone have made decisions in our lives that we regret.
    (Anyone who hasn’t, feel free to mention that fact. We will be impressed.)

  12. says

    I find it’s easy for me to get lost in vague philosophical questions of ‘what is a man?’, ‘what is a woman?’, ‘what does it mean to experience gender?’ but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The only important question is ‘how do we reduce suffering?’ and that one really isn’t open for debate. It can only be answered by trans people themselves.

  13. Artor says

    As I understand it, “Trans regret” is as manufactured as “abortion regret.” Yes, it’s a thing, but it’s rare and blown way out of proportion by disingenuous fuckwits as an excuse to crusade for their bigotry of the day. Norma McCorvey, the woman behind the Roe v Wade decision, famously changed her mind and became an anti-abortion speaker. On her deathbed, she spoke out and explained that she was paid huge gobs of cash from anti-abortion hate groups, and she desperately needed the money at the time.

  14. PaulBC says

    It’s clear to me that many people are motivated by…. or in other words, their unalienable right to “pursuit of happiness” depends on things that I will never understand and that I don’t have to. It’s not like there’s anything new in this. I don’t get why people care about professional sports teams either and never have, but it appears that they do. That doesn’t bother me anymore, but it did once.

    I’m long past the idea that I should be concerned with a “scientific” or “rational” explanation of why people want anything in their life. I find the admittedly old-fashioned concept of live and let live to be a useful ethical principle. The last thing I want to do is separate anyone from their source of satisfaction in life–provided it is not harming others in the process or preventing their exercise of rights. Of course, rights do come into conflict, but I think “the right to have the rest of the world act in a manner consistent with my comfort level” is pretty low on the list and superseded by others.

    Science probably has something to say about trans people, but it can only be explanatory and not prescriptive. If someone is happy living a certain way, there is no proof, derivation, or statistical analysis that will demonstrate they “should” really be happy some other way.

    Note: over decades, the message has shifted from “tolerance” to “celebrating diversity.” This is great as far as I’m concerned, though I’ll add that I’m kind of introverted and don’t do a lot of celebrating of anything. I still think that many people haven’t gotten to the tolerance step and it’s not a bad starting point. Just let people do what makes them happy and mind your own business unless you have a very good reason not to.

  15. Mark Dowd says

    For a while I’ve had the same reaction to people asking me if homosexuality is inborn or a choice. It doesn’t matter. It’s an interesting academic question, but completely irrelevant to policy making.

  16. says

    @15 I think the “science says I was born this way” argument is essentially an excuse. It’s saying “Gosh, I really want to be normal and I’m sorry I’m not but I just can’t help it!”. We are who we are. It’s nice to have some scientific evidence as a backup but it shouldn’t be our first or only argument.

  17. lotharloo says

    @Susan Montgomery.
    I really don’t get this line of thinking. “They were born this way” is an argument that is convincing to a lot of people, especially to a lot of the religious people. Ultimately, what matters is increasing the acceptance of the marginalized people and helping them obtain equality. The distractions are high brow considerations of whether an argument is “kosher enough”.

  18. PaulBC says

    lotharloo@18 I agree with your point as a practical matter, and it does make a difference in the political sphere as well as shifting the dominant culture. As a stopgap, it is certainly better to convince people that something is “right” because it’s an intrinsic property. Sexual orientation, for instance, really does seem intrinsic, so if the facts are on your side, you should use them to your advantage.

    But I do see a serious limitation to this argument, which is that there are plenty of things people may want to do and they shouldn’t have to produce some evidence they were “born that way.” We should embrace a wider view that people are free to pursue that which brings them satisfaction in life–taking others into consideration–and should not be judging some things worthy and unworthy. E.g., someone’s going to listen to Barry Manilow whether you like it or not (as an aside, it’s not me, but what if?). You don’t need a “scientific” justification for this or even a musical one. Nobody chooses to be born into this world and we’re all entitled to get whatever joy we want from it.

  19. says

    The arguing with science was a means to an end. The means sucked. I knew the people I was arguing with had no science. I could see them starting with historical assumptions and narratives driven by vague negative feelings.

    I’m trying to go for the specific manner in which they aren’t operating in good faith now. It’s better. If I feel I can argue I’m planning on adding performative elements of disrespect towards the bigot in question. Relevant personal attacks with the content. It’s tentative though.

    I see the power plays more clearly and want to use the fact that they can’t hurt me with their language. Someone recently challenged me about more than 2 genders when I hadn’t taken a position anywhere yet in that political board. I was vaguely leftish with respect to LGBT+ issues. I called out the power play by bluntly pointing out something someone else said motivated them to attack me when I had no positions yet. I’ll let them challenge me when I want. I can use this. I just need to figure out how.

  20. PaulBC says

    Ian King@13

    I find it’s easy for me to get lost in vague philosophical questions of ‘what is a man?’

    “…what has he got?
    If not himself then he has naught
    To say the things he truly feels
    And not the words of one who kneels
    The record shows I took the blows
    And did it myyyyyyy way”

    Right. Also way too easy to trigger earworms in my head. (Gotta have that looked at some time.)

  21. says

    I learned a few things from reading papers on transgender research. First, the science shows that, like so many other ways of being human, being transgender is unusual but perfectly natural. Second, there are a LOT of ways to be transgender; one doesn’t even need gender dysphoria. Third, transphobes don’t care about science, and will make that stupid attack-helicopter joke anyway.

  22. DanDare says

    It seems to boil down to
    Science helps us to understand some things but is most useful in batting down bigots who use science/antiscience to support their bigotry.
    Science is not much help or a distraction if the discussion should simply be about rights and autonomy.
    The group being oppressed can use the science if it helps them.
    We should listen to the group being oppressed and understand their needs, and deploy ourselves in their service.
    We should not assume we know best if we are not a part of the oppressed group. We should acknowledge that there are many different such groups and many of us have experience of this in one form or another.
    That goes for women, gays, people of color, the aged, trans, and whatever else.
    Does that cover it?

  23. lotharloo says

    I 80% agree with you that “consenting adults” argument is really the strongest, from a moral point of view. However, there are a few caveats. First, most of the suffering is inflicted on those who really had “no choice” and “they were born that way”. I think there is value in emphasizing this. Second, these types of arguments are also used in direct retaliation against arguments used by the fundies. Think of “Trust the Science” plaque of that Green Q-anon senator or other shitty arguments against gay marriage. And third, I really think that the “consenting adults” argument is useless against a faction of the population and for them, “They were born that way” is more effective. Think of Limbaugh’s “Left is fine with everything unless there’s the magic word: consent”. What he means there is that essentially left does not have any moral boundaries. This is also a point that I have heard repeated by some of my very smart (think of full professor type with lots of high quality papers) but religious colleagues: that having all the focus on “consent” makes them uncomfortable because they think it implies there is nothing wrong with whatever adult kids want to do as long as there is consent; in other words, a lot of the religious folks don’t accept the “consenting adults” argument.

  24. says

    As I’ve said before, I think a key part of modern political discourse is that
    a)Rank-and-file conservatives fundamentally do not know what consent is
    b)The smart conservatives who craft talking points know point (a), and craft their talking points accordingly.

    If you ask folks on the left about abortion, for example, their position is pretty simple: anyone who WANTS an abortion can get want, anyone who doesn’t want an abortion can’t be forced to get one. But it’s only a simple position if you understand consent. If you don’t know what consent is, then you might fear that abortion being allowed means abortion is mandatory. McConnell, Cruz, and others know that, so they tell their base that the SCARY LEFT is coming to force you to have an abortion. Same goes for a lot of other issues: they tell their base that the scary left is coming to break up your marriage and force you to marry a black person. I mean, a gay person. I mean, a trans person.

  25. PaulBC says

    lotharloo@24 I concede almost your whole point as a practical consideration, but this the kind of thing that raises my hackles:

    What he means there is that essentially left does not have any moral boundaries.

    The fact that you said it isn’t the hackle-raising part, but the fact that it works as an effective talking point. I have moral clear boundaries, and the boundaries are based on conflicts arising from the exercise of rights. We can’t all get what we want all the time. It’s not usually because what we want is “wrong” but that our needs come into conflict.

    In a conservative, traditional society, there are accepted norms of behavior and a duty to conform to this behavior (often roles ascribed to particular groups of differing privilege). A lot of people are still living in that world mentally. As a practical matter, arguments that appeal to that worldview will give you strong short-term gains. But what I want to see is the end of that worldview. I want a world in which we’re all free to follow our passion, the caveat being that we show some consideration when actions come into conflict. That is a world with clear boundaries and an effective method for identifying the boundaries, though a harder one to execute than appealing to traditional.

    My question is how do we get to that world? We don’t get there by leaning heavily on the “born that way” argument. Look, I’m not gay but I’ve always been a nerd so part of my adolescence was spent having my masculinity questioned. I mostly brushed it off, but it did leave me with the strong view that you are allowed to do what you want to do with your life, and a world in which I’m “only allowed” to be a nerd because I was “born that way” is a patronizing one. Likewise for any trait. People should follow their passion, professional or personal, and nobody should judge them for it if they’re not harming or imposing on anyone else.

    To some extent, the left has to acknowledge that it is here to threaten traditional values. It is disingenuous to say that we’re going to demand a world in which people are treated with equal rights, independent of sex, race, or sexual orientation, that that this demand is not a threat to the existing, traditional order. Of course it’s a threat, and of course the traditional order is what we are trying to overturn.

  26. PaulBC says

    183231bcb@25 I also agree that what I described above, effectively that the left has to demand the right to be non-traditional is easily twisted into “The scary left will demand that you renounce your traditions and behave in reprehensible ways.” I don’t have an easy answer to this one.

  27. PaulBC says


    This is also a point that I have heard repeated by some of my very smart (think of full professor type with lots of high quality papers) but religious colleagues:

    And not to put too fine a point on it, but my gut reaction says that’s when you bang your shoe like Khrushchev and declare “We will bury you.”

    Because I don’t want a world that is run by the very smart people with a blindspot that makes them inflict their esthetic preferences on others as if it were a moral code. That’s a battle that needs to be won not by arguing with such people but by overturning culture and making them as irrelevant as any other form of antiquarian.

  28. lotharloo says


    My question is how do we get to that world? We don’t get there by leaning heavily on the “born that way” argument

    Why not use many different types of arguments? Logically, “born that way” and the “consenting adults” arguments are completely independent and none of them detracts from the other. My original point was a complaint against the mentality that using one argument somehow “weakens” the other one. It doesn’t.

  29. lotharloo says

    Also, about my colleague, they actually do much more good in the world compared to me, it is not even comparable, and they dedicate a lot of their effort and energy into giving back to their community as well as their ancestor’s country (even though they are born in the US). This again shows these things are complicated and you should not limit yourself to one approach because ultimately, we only make progress by having more people on our side.

  30. PaulBC says

    lotharloo@30 I think there’s room in the world for people who care about their own traditional values and attempt to maintain them through persuasion, cultural teaching, and upbringing, but not by attempting to codify them into law.

    Digression: my gut says it is “bad” to be a heroin addict, but someone could be addicted to heroin without doing harm to others. To be clear, I think in many cases, they’d find something else more satisfying to do with their life if they looked hard enough (assuming they were medically treated for addiction as well). But suppose that really is their big joy in life. Is it actually worse than skydiving, which we accept as an “extreme” recreation though it’s risky and very resource-intensive? I think we just get a lot of these things wrong, inevitably when we judge one way of life as more “worthy” than another.

    What I write above is undeniably offensive if it’s interpreted as comparing a clear choice, like learning to skydive, with an intrinsic property like sexual orientation. I’m not making that comparison, but I am comparing drug use with other dangerous hobbies, because I think that’s a fair comparison. Yet for some reason the law treats them differently. (There may be convincing reasons for this. I’ll leave that open, though I am skeptical.)

    So yes, the “born that way” argument does not contradict any others, but if I had to testify under oath as to what I want to see accomplished, it really is the overturning of traditional society. So I can use an argument that is acceptable to the nice people who want to maintain the social hierarchy with tweaks. But I can’t really look anyone in the eye and use that argument honestly.

    Finally, I have no doubt that people who believe a lot of different things may also do some good in the world and indeed a lot more than I do. I believe in a pluralistic society, and that includes the Amish as much as it includes atheists. In fact I find it more amenable to my pursuit of happiness than one in which people agreed with me on most things. By accepting that others live differently, I grant myself license to live as I please as well.

    So these “very smart people who do so much good in the world” can classify behavior as right and wrong all they want. What they must not do is apply the coercive power of government to enforce those preferences. I would be lying if I pretended to be finding common cause with them.

  31. PaulBC says

    lotharloo@30 BTW, I concede that laws that merely stop people from doing what they “want” to do, even without a clear justification are not human rights abuses. Society can apply the coercive power of government to stop people from merely exercising choice in small things without fundamentally harming pursuit of happiness. My happiness is going to conflict with yours in many cases anyway, and that’s a big reason we have laws. (So appearances aside, I’m not a nutty libertarian.)

    In contrast, it is a human rights abuse to tell an entire category of human beings that living according to their nature has been outlawed. To that extent, the “born that way” argument has significance. More directly, laws against LGBTQ people contribute to suffering in a way that a local restriction against painting my house bright orange does not.

    It is still a distinction that would be largely unnecessary if we were committed to a pluralistic society.

  32. says

    As with every discussion on any hot topic there is no right way to discuss it. Strong arguments will convince some people and turn away others. Virality of information sources today is a big enemy here, many of my friends who don’t really care will hear about trans rights only in the context of viral news of the kind “PC went mad” and get the association of all trans people being like most flashy and obnoxious types that media likes to cover.
    Too many discussions devolve into bashing the other side as hard as you can, which often causes a lot of collateral damage among people that are less invested in the topic or makes any nuanced discussion impossible.
    Riley Black may be right about what is core issue, but everyone should remember about picking the right tool for the task. White cis het biology professor is a pretty good tool to focus on talking about biology.

    Economy of everyday life causes a lot of people to have some costs associated with it. My 5’1″ friend always wears heels in kitchen, because in rented apartment it’s easier for her to reach the shelves. My 6’8″ friend always has to pay more for plane tickets with extra leg space and often has to ask in hotels for the size of the bed (not mentioning buying shoes or clothes). My left handed niece buys her own set of scissors and other tools for left handed people, paying more for them and smears all the notebooks with her hand when she writes.
    That’s unfortunate but that is the level of inconvenience we agree too. We (I mean society) decided to go against selfish economy when difficulties become bigger. We have handicapped bathrooms, parking spaces and access routes even if they are not used really often, we found solutions to help other people with their own problems to participate in life as much as possible.
    Why should anyone want to find any group to treat in opposite way, to make their life more difficult on purpose?

    Yeah, there are some hot topic issues where it is not easy to find a solution that will be good in every case.
    Transwomen in sports is one of them – banning trans women from sport is atrocious, but allowing everyone to participate in women sports based on simple declaration that may be retracted 5 minutes after competition isn’t a working solution either.
    Irreversible therapies to minors are other hot topics, on one hand it is better solution in many cases, on other hand, there should be some mechanism helping 12-year olds and their parents to avoid mistake that is possible they make.
    There are a lot of topics where science should prevail over other line of arguments.