The Research Validation Trap

There’s a perspective on being trans that is beginning to gain traction in activist circles—this idea that gender is visible in the brain, that there are “female” brains and “male” brains. It’s been popular because it seems to offer credence to trans people’s experience. Researchers are studying the brain functioning of trans people to try to prove that trans women, though assigned as men at birth, have brains that function more like women’s brains than men’s, and vice versa.

I’ve struggled with this perspective—or any perspective that implies gender essentialism through the argument that women’s and men’s brains function differently. It seems antithetical to so much of the work that feminists have tried to accomplish over the years to claim equality and access. So much of that fight has been targeting the stereotypes and rigid gender roles assigned to women to keep them suppressed, and I’m suspicious of the possibility of this research to reinforce oppressive structures rather than dismantle them.

But I only recently began thinking about another aspect of this argument that grates against me, perhaps one that is more important—and it’s an angst that I’ve carried for a long time as a bisexual person. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that a person’s stated experience of their attraction or identity needs to be corroborated by genetics or biological function.

Researchers have long used research as a means of erasing or denying the existence of bisexuality, usually by deliberately ignoring people’s expressed attraction to multiple genders in favor of an “objective” measurement of their sexual arousal. There was the infamous “gay, straight, or lying” study that perpetuated the myth that men are being deceptive if they claim to be attracted to multiple genders. More recently there was the reverse, in which women were universally declared to be bi regardless of how they identify.

I’ve written about my frustration with this attitude and these kinds of studies before over here, but the basic idea is that I find the attitude that the researcher rather than the individual is the most important thing in determining the existence and validity of someone’s identity horribly off-balance.

Now, though, I see it happening in a different way. While the female/male brain argument seems to validate trans people, it’s a validation with strings attached. It’s a validation that says, “I will acknowledge your internal experience, not because I respect and trust you to know yourself, but because it aligns with my current hypothesis and means of measuring.”

Similarly to the gay gene search, the male/female brain studies (or the reliance on them as “proof” of the existence of transgender people) seem to imply that the only reason why trans people should be respected and accepted in society is because they have a biological imperative.

But do we really want societal acceptance to be based on “well, they can’t help it”?

Do we want the autonomy to define one’s identity and gender expression to be taken away from individuals and handed to someone else who is evaluating whether or not they are legitimate?

Do we really want trans acceptance to be rooted in reinforcing gender binaries and biological essentialism? (And where do all the non-binary folks fit in with this model?!)

Or do we want to work towards a world where people are treated with dignity and respect, where they have the choice of how to express themselves, the freedom to explore their identity, and the access to civil and human rights because they are human?

I don’t know about others, but I want to live in a world where I can say, “This is who I am attracted to and this is who I am” without someone else saying, “Well, okay, we’ll see if your genitals respond a certain way or if your brain functions a certain way. If it does, then I’ll accept what you say about yourself and grant you the right to exist in my society.”

Because underneath that response is the implication that it’s okay to erase me, co-opt my voice, discriminate against me, or harass me for failing to comply with that other person’s boxes and expectations of who I should be in society.

Looking to research to justify one’s dignity or validate one’s existence is a trap of asking for permission to be. Choice or Imperative. Nature or nurture. People deserve equality, respect, and freedom regardless.

Note: I haven’t read the actual studies that have been referenced in this way, so I am primarily speaking to the way they are being referenced and used in society (for example, in the recent Katie Couric documentary “Gender Revolution.”) I would eventually like to find the actual research to do a more thorough critique of methodology, application, and interpretation of results, but that is beyond the scope of this post. 

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