Are you a boy or are you a girl seems like a pretty easy question for most people to answer, but how easy is it to study? Similar to the search for the infamous "gay gene," to explain and scientifically validate homosexuality, the efforts to validate transgender experience are equally as difficult to pin down. Study of gender identity is complicated not only because of a low population to sample, but because what is being studied is not easily quantified or understood. It is my opinion that it simply cannot be effectively and scientifically studied at all within the current social and political discourse.
But I think it comes down to understanding a major factor that progressive LGBT advocacy and medical authorities seem unwilling to evaluate that makes a great deal of sense to conservative observers. Cultural influence is powerful in determining what gender identity is interpreted to mean by young people. To explore this idea I invite you to join me in a thought experiment to help illustrate what I mean by this.
Let's say that in 1987, when I was five years old, a study was performed questioning all children of the same age in various locations across the country. Sitting before the interviewer on my own I am asked along with all of my fellow 5 year old peers, "Are you a boy or a girl?" Having no other frame of reference I would answer that I am a boy. But if the question was shifted to, "Do you feel more like a boy or like a girl" my answer might be different. According to my family I was adamant that being a boy from a very early age was just not going to work out for me.
It is 1987, however, and absolutely everything in my culture tells me I am a boy or a girl and since I am a boy I must enjoy boy activities, colors and social behaviors. How would the adults in my world have responded to me stating that I felt more like a girl than a boy? Well I know how because they responded in my case to deny me any access to girl's toys, activities and even friendships and forced me to play sports.
A decade later in a follow up I am asked the same questions and now at age 15, having gone through most of puberty I would likely say I am still a boy. Its now 1997 and even though I still feel more like a girl than a boy, by then its viewed more as a consequence of my being gay, something else altogether an issue for the adults in my life.
Thirty years later, however, the world has significantly changed and if the study were to be repeated, the response would be very different. If a modern five-year-old is asked if he is a boy or a girl he is likely to have already encountered media and education that suggests this is not an unusual question to be asked. If he answers that he is a girl or feels more like a girl, he will likely be told by medical and/or school authorities that he is in fact actually, very literally, a girl. It is illegal in many states to tell him otherwise. His parents would be warned that failing to affirm his gender identity could lead to devastating consequences and they must allow him to be his "true" self. He may quickly find himself surrounded by adults who all affirm him as a girl who buy him girly things, use a girl's name he chooses and refer to him as "her."
As he, or now she, approaches puberty it will be recommended that she prevent puberty from making permanent changes to her body that do not affirm her gender identity and by her early teenage years will find herself excitedly taking estrogen, growing breasts, and being assured that the little discrepancy between her legs will eventually be resolved through plastic surgery. If asked a decade after the first interview if she is a boy or a girl, she will say she is a girl, a heterosexual girl who wants to date boys. LGBT activists and medical experts would say she is a success story proving Gender Affirmative Therapy works to resolve distress over gender identity.
The thought experiment here is: which study is a valid representation of transgender identity? Today LGBT activists would clearly view the 1987 and 1997 studies as evidence of ignorance, bigotry and a failure of the adults in my life to properly affirm me. But what they fail to consider is that in 1987 and 1997, I was never exposed to the idea I had gender options to choose from to best describe what it was I was feeling nor those gender options having social and medical consequences for my physical development. As such I didn't begin the experience knowing what I should experience and feel significant distress over what I now realize I lack.
In 2017, however, a child enters the equation with a full spectrum of gender identity options and social conditioning, not only with a vocabulary to associate feelings with labels but a worldview framework that asserts said associations are scientifically valid. The left argues that had I been given this same education and vocabulary to understand the reality of my gender identity, I would have been able to express it more clearly. But what if the education and vocabulary create the identity in the first place?
What if I developed into a confident homosexual male with a whimsical, but functioning gender identity because I grew up in a time before I would have been conditioned to believe those same feelings meant something profoundly different? What LGBT activists and medical organizations view as evidence of true gender identities being cultivated in young people free from the social limitations of a strictly biological binary framework may very well be the cause of this rise in identity in the first place. And while extreme cases of gender dysphoria in 1987 and 1997 existed and transition was pursued, it was rare and the decision came with adult perspective, decades of evaluation and a more significant investment by medical professionals in the long term success of the person undergoing it.
In this I argue that gender identity cannot reasonably be scientifically studied under the assumption that pre-defined behaviors and expressions associate with pre-determined gender identities and medical interventions. All we can measure is to what degree the influence Gender Affirmative Therapy has had on a generation of young people who have grown up in a culture that expects them to consider the nuances of their feelings about gender and make a decision which will dramatically alter their future.
I argue this for both sides of the argument as well. Understanding transgender transition even a decade ago cannot tell us what transition will mean a decade from now. We cannot prove transition is healthy or harmful in children based exclusively on self-reports and surveys, of which LGBT activists and medical authorities rely on almost exclusively. Whether addressing the success or failure of any form of transgender intervention.
I argue that we must remove ourselves from the validation of subjective emotions to the study of objective consequences in social and medical transgender intervention. Is it ethical to take action on a child's body that will remove agency to choose in the future? Is it ethical to critically risk fertility and sexual function as adults? Is it ethical to define for a child what they have only hinted as true for themselves? Has advocacy and overzealous medical intervention created the widespread distress felt by so many very young people believing their bodies are wrong and their only hope of happiness must come from surgery and hormones over feelings about gender my generation viewed as simply another part of growing up gay? We simply cannot define success based on criteria we set ourselves.