In 1859, Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution. The guy was onto something, but his peers weren’t. The theory quickly evolved, so to speak, into “social Darwinism,” a pseudoscientific movement which claimed certain races had evolved to be biologically superior to others. Politicians used it as justification for imperialist, colonialist and racist policies, twisting a supposedly scientific concept to fit their own political ambitions — and marginalized people were forced to bear the consequences.
The New York Times announced Oct. 21 that it had obtained a memo from the Trump administration arguing for a federal redefinition of gender under Title IX. The proposed definition equates gender with sex, claiming that it can only fall under the categories “male” or “female” and that it is biological, determined from birth and unchangeable — which legally erases the identities of the 1.4 million transgender people in the United States, as well as those of non-binary people. The administration’s justification for this proposal is that it is “clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
While I appreciate that President Trump has suddenly decided to care about science, his definition of gender is scientifically inaccurate. His proposed change is motivated not by a quest for objectivity, but by a desire to revoke transgender and non-binary people’s political rights.
I’ll start my scientific “Mythbusting” by looking at the definition of gender that Trump’s administration outlined in its memo. Even if you accept the idea that genitalia and genetics should determine one’s sex, the existence of intersex people — “people born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” — complicates Trump’s neat, binary definition of gender.
According to the Intersex Campaign for Equality, up to 2 percent of the population is born intersex, but their specific medical conditions vary. For example, some intersex people have genitalia that does not clearly resemble a vagina or a penis. That disproves Trump’s idea that “sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits determined by or before birth;” the distinction is often not so clear. Even the administration’s disturbing call for genetic testing to determine a person’s sex is problematic. Some intersex individuals have chromosomes that don’t match their external sex, such as people with Swyer syndrome. These people are born with XY chromosomes, but have female reproductive structures and often identify as female.
Under the Trump administration’s new definition, intersex people cannot exist. But their condition is biological and determined from birth. Social psychologist Suzanne Kessler puts it well when she discusses how intersex babies are often assigned genders through “corrective” surgery: “If authenticity for gender resides not in a discoverable nature but in someone else’s proclamation, then the power to proclaim something else is available.”
Trump has that power, and he is misusing it. His memo privileges external biological traits over people’s internal sense of their own gender, oversimplifying our current scientific understanding of gender. According to The New York Times, there is a “significant, durable biological underpinning to gender identity.” While scientists are still examining all the forces that go into forming gender identity, they have discovered a genetic component: studies of twins have shown that when one twin is transgender, the other is more likely to be transgender as well if the two are identical twins.
Scientific accuracy was never Trump’s goal. He revealed his own political motivation when responding to protests against the proposed change Oct. 21, saying, “I’m protecting everybody. I want to protect our country.”
But this proposed change would harm, rather than help, thousands of people. Title IX is a federal law preventing gender discrimination in any institution that receives federal funds, including both public and private schools. A Title IX change would affect young transgender people in those schools, who are at particular risk for mental illness. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 56 percent of transgender youth have reported suicidal ideation and 31 percent have reported a previous suicide attempt (compared to 20 percent and 11 percent rates for cisgender youth). The article clarifies that mental illness is not inherently connected to being transgender; instead, it stems from social factors such as discrimination, stigma and lack of access to physical and mental health care. Trump’s proposed policy change further endangers the health and safety of thousands of his own citizens.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been privately arguing that “the lack of clarity [in Title IX’s wording] allowed the Obama administration to wrongfully extend civil rights protections to people who should not have them.” To me, this is the article’s most chilling sentence. It reveals the Trump administration’s true beliefs: not everyone deserves civil rights, and “protecting our country” really means excluding the vulnerable. If you disagree, be vocal about your support for transgender people; protest this legislation; and please, for the love of God, vote. Otherwise, history will look back on Trump’s twisted science like it looks back on social Darwinism — as just another prejudiced mistake. By then, it will be too late.
Natalie Ray is a junior English major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.