By SUZI CHASE
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Debra Soh challenges the contemporary wisdom that transition should be recommended for children who express unhappiness with their gender roles.
Soh’s opinion is only one in a series of high-profile pieces in national publications questioning the scientific basis for allowing children to transition. Eric Vilain and J. Michael Bailey made a similar point in the Los Angeles Times last May, followed quickly by a June Wall Street Journal opinion from Paul McHugh, where he advocates “striving to restore natural gender feelings to a transgender minor.” The common claim in all these articles is that scientific findings fail to validate the conclusion that gender transition is beneficial.
Soh argues that clinical practice has been shaped not by scientific outcomes but by pressure from social movements. She cites the closure of Toronto psychologist Kenneth Zucker’s Gender Identity Clinic by its parent organization based on findings of a review conducted there. She laments that science is being ignored because it is, “at odds with the current political view concerning gender development.”
She’s right. But that’s a good thing.
I’m not here to argue evidence for or against the benefits of early-age transition. That has been done more than adequately elsewhere. I’m here to ask why medicine and science even weigh in on whether children (or anyone else) be permitted to live as the gender they choose.
Yes, doctors and scientists have a place in helping those with gender issues. Understanding the obstacles, feelings and remedies associated with a gender transition would be impossible for the average parent without the help of a knowledgeable therapist. And a physician’s care is indispensable when choosing pharmaceutical and surgical treatments and administering them safely.
But living as your gender is a basic human right.
Although that may sound controversial, apply it only to cisgender individuals and it quickly becomes a no-brainer. What would we say about a culture that routinely forced those with male body and gender to live as female, or vice versa? Clearly that consideration has no lower age limit. Who would disagree that forcing a boy of 12, or 7, or 3 to live as a girl against his will constitutes egregious emotional child abuse? No reputable publication would give voice to such a suggestion.
Controversy erupts only when discussing transgender children. Then the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times would have us ask our doctors whether to allow the child to be who they are. The gender of a trans child becomes subject to scientific veto.
Behind that paradoxical thinking lies a toxic assumption — that cisgender people are capable of identifying and articulating their gender, whereas transgender people are not. When a trans person declares the need to change gender expression or gender role, we feel compelled to consult the scientific tealeaves to stave off possible regrets and second thoughts from their assumed ignorance.
That judgmental cisnormativity must go. Transgender people deserve the same presumption of knowing our gender and how to present it to the world. Such a presumption must not be based on the presence or absence of scientific evidence. At any age, forcing someone to live a gendered life with which they do not identify is cruel. We have seen what comes of valuing scientific assurances more highly than human rights. Eugenics was used as a justification for racial discrimination, children with Down’s Syndrome were said to be uneducable, and homosexuality was a sign of mental illness. Though normally beneficial, science becomes an instrument of oppression when scientific thought trumps humanity.
Once we accept the premise that children should be discouraged from receiving medical support for gender transition unless science proves it benefits them, we have already started a march down that dangerous road. The rights of children become a subject of endless argument over the reliability and interpretation of results, rather than an inviolable principle not open to debate.
Suzi Chase is a Maryland-based writer who focuses on transgender issues.