announcer 1: It is the latest battle over transgender rights.
Announcer 2: Arkansas passes a bill that blocks gender-affirming care for trans youth.
announcer 3: Transgender children in Texas face new barriers to access health care.
Tulika Bose: Right now, you’re probably seeing the battle for gender-affirming care for trans children across the country in your news feeds and on the web.
announcer 4: In 2022, the power of science and literature will crumble in the face of the trans lobby.
Jules Gill Peterson: All we see is continued moral panic and attacks on the idea of transgender people, and it’s clear that science is being weaponized.
announcer 4: At one point, biologists were allowed to define what biology was, and there were two: male and female.
Bunch: But there’s one thing that keeps cropping up in an effort to discredit transgender rights: junk science. But first, what makes junk science, well, junk?
First, you need to understand the role science has historically played in understanding sex and gender and how that is weaponized today.
announcer 4: You cannot answer, “Oh, so men can become women” just by wishing it. Tell us how that works.
Bunch: I spoke with Jules Gill-Peterson, a science historian and professor at Johns Hopkins who has studied the history of trans children, about the actual history of research that has attempted to define sex and gender.
Gill Peterson: For a long time, the kind of research on gender, sex, and transgender people was incredibly poorly done. And that often happened with outright prejudice. It was often done with a very bad method. And it was often done to increase social control over people, to force them to conform to a gender binary.
Bunch: Let’s go back to the 1940s and 1950s and specifically to the history of the word “gender.”
Gill Peterson: The crisis for both doctors and psychologists in the 1950s was that they had no idea what made people male or female. They weren’t chromosomes. They weren’t gonads, were they? It was not a hormonal compound. It wasn’t genetics.
They couldn’t find any facet of biology that reliably predicted, right, who would be male or female. And then they ran into all those people whose bodies didn’t match how they felt inside.
As I had discovered when I was reading the medical records, they would assign intersex kids a gender, right, and they would put surgery and hormones on them to achieve that gender. But then the child would not identify with that gender. And it would cause so much trouble. And so gender was created to make a conceptual distinction.
Bunch: Peterson says the war on transgender people is actually rooted in the same tenants who historically enforce scientific racism.
Gill Peterson: We can talk about a kind of history of scientific racism that many people are familiar with and that basically projected some kind of social hierarchies out into the world.
White, Northern European scientists kept discovering that they were apparently the superior race, right?
And you see this kind of shift, after World War II, from kinds of biological explanations around the race to kind of cultural explanations that still come to the same conclusions.
Interestingly enough, the history of gender in medicine and psychology is actually a very important part of that.
Bunch: And the point is, there’s still a lot of outdated misinformation about sex, gender, and transgender people being cited.
Gill Peterson: But I sometimes think the line between junk science and legitimate science changes over time. So it’s very easy for people to pick ideas that they might want to take out of context. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on, you know, someone reading a newspaper article or scrolling Twitter.
Bunch: And if you’re going to talk about data-picking, the same psychologist who tried to impose biological definitions of sex on children, 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 we often take for granted as either associated with or invented by transgender people. It was an invention of behavioral psychologists who worked very well
worked closely with researchers in endocrinology in the 1940s and 1950s.
But they couldn’t force children to subsequently identify as boys or girls. That was their big problem. The team talks about this in a series of articles in 1955, published in Hopkins. They say that gender is basically just your feeling of being a boy or a girl.
Bunch: And science has come a long way. It is now increasingly understood that gender is not a binary number.
Peterson says there are still many misconceptions masquerading as scientific consensus.
Gill Peterson: The biggest, right, is that there is scientific consensus about what makes people male or female or what makes people trans. The anti-trans side really conjures up 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 it will tell you that XX and XY aren’t the only chromosomal combinations for humans.
Bunch: So how and why should we expose junk science?
Gill Peterson: Before I even decide if I want to disprove anything, I want to contextualize: “Where does this data come from?”
Their work may have been peer reviewed 20 or 30 years ago, but that wouldn’t be the case today.
Bunch: And we don’t have to go far to see moral panic. A 2018 study by a Brown University researcher suggesting peer pressure could lead children to become trans led a magazine to republish a corrected version.
But that same study is now being used against trans children.
Gill Peterson: So I think the tools that we would use to disprove racial science or other forms of just extremely unscientific but also extremely reprehensible weaponry of scientific discourse are actually
I think we can use the same principles. So if we start with a point of view where we’re not afraid to say, like, “Look, I don’t like transgender junk science, because it harms trans people, and it’s bad science,” right?