Everything Is Just Dandy!

How Junk Science is Being Used Against Trans Kids

Scientific American Content
Tulika Bose
2022 04 08

Announcer 1: It is the latest fight over transgender rights.

Announcer 2: Arkansas passing a bill blocking gender affirming care for trans youth.

Announcer 3: Transgender kids in Texas are facing new barriers to accessing health care.

Tulika Bose: Right now you’re probably seeing the fight for gender affirming care for trans kids play out across the country in your news feeds and all over the Internet.

Announcer 4: In 2022 the power of science and literature crumble in the face of the trans lobby.

Jules Gill-Peterson: We’re seeing just sustained kind of moral panic and attack on the very idea of trans people, and so obviously science is being weaponized.

Announcer 4: One point biologists were allowed to determine what biology was, and there were two: male and female.

Bose: But there’s one thing that keeps popping up over and over and over again in an attempt to discredit the rights of trans people: junk science. But first, what makes junk science, well, junk?

First, you have to understand the role that science has historically played in understanding sex and gender and how that’s being weaponized today.

Announcer 4: You can’t respond, “Oh, so men can become women” just by wishing it so. Tell us how that works.

Bose: I talked to Jules Gill-Peterson, a science historian and professor at Johns Hopkins, who studied the history of trans children, about the actual history of research that’s attempted to define sex and gender.

Gill-Peterson: For a long time, the kind of research on, you know, gender, sex and trans people was incredibly poorly executed. And it was often done with outright prejudice. It was often done with very poor methodology. And it was often done in order to kind of increase social control of people, to force them to conform to a gender binary.

Bose: Let’s rewind back to the 1940s and 1950s and specifically to the history of the word “gender.”

Gill-Peterson: The crisis for both physicians and psychologists in the 1950s was that they had no idea what made people male or female. It wasn’t chromosomes. It wasn’t gonads, right? It wasn’t hormonal composition. It wasn’t genetics.

They couldn’t find any one facet of biology that predicted reliably, right, who would be male or female. And then they were encountering all these people whose bodies didn’t match how they felt on the inside.

As I had found when I was reading the medical records, they would assign intersex children a sex, right, and they would enforce surgeries and hormones on them to achieve that sex. But then the child wouldn’t identify with that sex. And it would cause so much hardship. And so gender was sort of created just to make a conceptual distinction.

Bose: Peterson says the war against trans people actually has a basis in the same tenants that enforce scientific racism historically.

Gill-Peterson: We can talk about a kind of history of scientific racism that lots of people are familiar with that was basically sort of projecting social hierarchies, right, out into the world.

White, northern European scientists just kept discovering that they were apparently the superior race, right?

And you see this sort of shift, after World War II, away from kinds of biological explanations around race towards sort of cultural explanations that still come to the same conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the history of gender in medicine and psychology is actually a really key part of that.

Bose: And the thing is: a lot of outdated misinformation about sex, gender and trans people is still cited today.

Gill-Peterson: But I think sometimes that a line between junk science and legitimate science changes over time. So it’s really easy for people to kind of cherry-pick ideas that they might want to use sort of out of context. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on, you know, someone reading a newspaper article or scrolling Twitter.

Bose: And if you wanna talk about cherry-picking data, the very same psychologist who tried to enforce biological definitions of sex on kids were the same psychologists who accidentally discovered something else.

Gill-Peterson: Just that the idea that gender is separate from sex, as in separate from the body, that they don’t always go together.

That’s a concept that we often take for granted as being either associated with or invented by trans people somehow. It was an invention of behavioral psychologists who were working very

closely with researchers in endocrinology in the 1940s and 1950s.

But they couldn’t force children to then identify as boys or girls. That was their big problem. The team talk about this in a series of papers in 1955, published at Hopkins. They say gender is basically just your sense of being a boy or a girl.

Bose: And science has come a long way. It’s increasingly understood now that gender isn’t a binary.

Peterson says there’s still a lot of misconceptions masquerading as scientific consensus.

Gill-Peterson: The biggest, right, is that there is scientific consensus on what makes people male or female or what makes people trans. The anti-trans side invokes really outdated scientific concepts.

The idea that “Oh, we know what makes people male or female. It’s either genitals or our idea of chromosomes.”

Anyone worth their salt will tell you XX and XY are not the only chromosomal combinations for humans.

Bose: So how and why should we debunk junk science?

Gill-Peterson: Before I even decide if I would want to debunk something, I first just wanna contextualize: “Where did this data come from?”

Their work may have been passed peer review 20 or 30 years ago, but it wouldn’t today.

Bose: And we don’t need to go far to see moral panic. A 2018 study by a Brown University researcher suggesting that peer pressure could make kids trans led a journal to republish a corrected version.

But that same study is being used against trans kids right now.

Gill-Peterson: So I think actually the tools that we would bring, right, say to debunking race science or other kinds of just extremely unscientific but also extremely objectionable weaponizations of scientific discourse,

I think we can use those same principles. So if we start from a point of view where we’re unafraid to say, like, “Look, I don’t like junk science directed at trans people, because it harms trans people, and it’s bad science,” right?