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The dangers of biological essentialism to the Transgender community
Queer Gaze LGBT+ History Month

The dangers of biological essentialism to the Transgender community

TL;DR: Scientists from Stanford University published study findings that an AI neural network model could tell male and female brains apart. Right-wing media outlets have covered the research as conclusive evidence that sex - defined as 'binary' and 'immutable' - does matter. Meanwhile, trans-sympathetic commentators have claimed it proves trans folk really are just "born in the wrong body". But this endless search for the origins of transness does more harm than good.

The Daily Telegraph recently reported – with an unmistakable air of jubilance – that scientists have proved "sex does matter" in breakthrough research which used artificial intelligence (AI) to tell male and female brains apart. 

Emphasis added, but the nod to anti-trans lobby groups like Sex Matters is difficult to miss if you've been following the paper's persistent platforming of such views over the last few years.

What’s more, the caption chosen to advertise the article on social media ("Academics have previously argued that it is society rather than biology that influences divergence") grossly misrepresented the study’s findings.

The scientists involved do not, in fact, weigh in “on whether sex-related differences arise early in life or may be driven by hormone differences or the different societal circumstances that men and women may be more likely to encounter." - Stanford University

As the study’s author Professor Vinon Menon of Stanford University told QueerAF, the research “could not directly address the question of whether brain activity aligns with gender identity” for the simple reason that they had no data on whether the participants involved were cis or trans. 

Nevertheless, the story prompted various trans-hostile responses to the study on Twitter/X. 

At the same time, India Willoughby, Britain's first openly transgender national television newsreader who delights in swatting away the most virulent of anti-trans trolls with her own fair share of insults, has seized on the study as a stick with which to do precisely the opposite – beat the so-called "gender-criticals" at their own game. 

Reposting the article on X, she celebrated its talk of male and female brains as “biological proof” of how trans people “end up in the wrong body”. 

The trouble is that it is very dangerous indeed to try to beat so-called ‘gender-criticals’ at their own game. 

Leaving aside the actual substance of the research – which, again, neither confirms nor denies the arguments of either ‘side’ – we have reason to be wary of ‘born this way’ origin stories. 

As Suzanna Walters, Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, pointed out way back in 2011, any whiff of the rhetoric of ‘choice’ when it comes to LGBTQIA+ identity and expression is "like Voldermort – dangerous even to be uttered" - The Chronicle of Higher Education 

We might succeed in placating those who would rather we didn't exist at all by reassuring them that we would never choose to be trans - or at the very least, simply can't help that we're trans. But by doing this we are only trapping ourselves in a liberal identity politics that limits trans to a special interest group. 

What we lose is an understanding of trans as a political force, part of a demand for a wholly different and beyond-the-binary world. 

Biological essentialism may give us trans folk something to cling to as an easy explanation of why we are the way we are. It may succeed in batting off reactionary talk of ‘social contagion’ and other nonsense – but only by silencing our collective voice and broader movement. 

Rather than looking to the past in the search for politically convenient origins, we should instead focus our efforts on building a future that is more liveable than the present.

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