What Does It Mean to be an Ally? 

by Micah J. Fleck

I walk in some pretty indecipherable political circles these days– I care very much about progressive social promotion and science literacy, but I’m also not exactly a “progressive” by one’s modern standards of what a progressive must stand for and believe in. For instance, I have fiscally conservative views for the most part, and believe that less regulations on marketplaces tend to lead to greater opportunities and prosperity for all (though I make exceptions for forces of nature like climate change, which frankly don’t care about following classical economic rules, and advocate for green energy subsidies and caps on pollutants).

What this amounts to is the following: I actually relate to multiple different political outlooks and have no single circle of like-minded types with whom I can have conversations without ruffling at least a few feathers. Normally, this amounts to clashes of personal opinions regarding which mechanisms are the best for social change. And that’s fine– I can deal with honest debate. But one of the brick walls I continue to be run up against with my more conservative-leaning and libertarian friends is the issue of the transgender experience.

What I mean by this is not a mere disagreement on positive vs. negative rights regarding trans bathrooms; I literally run into people who feel that trans individuals are suffering from a mental disorder and deserve to have their self-identity belittled. For many of those who call themselves conservatives (and more ironically, libertarians), there is an apparent desire to not just personally disagree with the trans perspective, but deliberately and outwardly make a mockery of it.

This is, unfortunately, not a fringe belief, even in the early Twenty-First Century. A recent poll has revealed that a staggering 21% of Americans still believe that being trans makes one mentally ill. Think about this for a moment: the common argument against declaring trans rights as a serious civil rights issue is the citation that trans individuals make up single digits of the overall population, percentage-wise; but when nearly a quarter of the country believes the exact wrong thing about trans people themselves, the odds of a transgender American being discriminated against in everyday life go up dramatically. Who am I, as an ally, to buy into the argument that trans rights issues are “exaggerated” in the face of this data? Who are any of us? Fools, if we buy the lie, and unworthy of calling ourselves “allies” if we can just stay silent when we witness a friend or acquaintance perpetuating the ugliest of the preconceptions about our trans sisters and brothers.

Well, what about the “not so bad but still ignorant” views of trans people that are out there? Surely, we can forgive our “lovable bigot” friends and families for simply being ignorant, right? Well, the same poll that revealed the much-too-high number of Americans who saw transgenderism as a mental disorder revealed another cold truth: nearly 40% of Americans– double the number of those who see trans people as mentally ill– believe that transgenderism is “a choice.”

So we are faced with a grand total of ~60% of Americans who believe trans people are either one of two things: crazy or lying. This is the false dichotomy that the majority of our fellow Americans has dreamt up for themselves. And it’s terrifying.

I submit that as long as such utterly untrue beliefs about the mental states of trans individuals persist in such high percentages across this country, the only way we can call ourselves true allies of our trans friends, family members, lovers, spouses, children, etc., is to stand our ground and fight back against the falsehoods. It is not enough that we merely show support in certain venues, during certain days of the week, and within certain hours of the day; we must actively respond to any and all instances of ignorance and bigotry (even of the “soft” variety) that we come across.

How do we do it? Well, there are several ways in which one can make the argument in favor of the normalization and demystification of the trans experience– I intend on writing a series of articles doing just that. But for the time being, as a start, we must get it out of people’s heads that being trans is a delusion. For better or for worse, the “reasonable” transphobe’s argument amounts quite often to the appeal to “science” as his getaway car. We’ve all heard it at least once: “look, I’m not a bigot, but it’s just science!” Now, I’m going to write an entire piece addressing this claim from more that one angle, but for now I want to present the simplest argument: “science” is more than just biology. It also encompasses the fields of psychology and neuroscience. If one is going to appeal to scientific determination as a means to argue the “truth” of trans people’s mental states, then one must stay intellectually consistent and embrace the latest scientific findings and conclusions across all the scientific fields– otherwise, the person is picking and choosing what science to believe and what science to discard. The sure fire way to expose someone of doing this is to appeal to another scientific field that contradicts an anti-trans claim.

So let’s start with psychology. Here is what the official APA website’s most up-to-date (as of this writing) section on transgender mental health has to say on the matter:

 

“A psychological state is considered a mental disorder only if it causes significant distress or disability. Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder.”

 

This distinction is very important: simply being trans does not guarantee one will experience gender dysphoria; gender dysphoria and being trans are not one and the same. But furthermore, gender dysphoria itself isn’t a mental disorder, either, as “mental disorders” are colloquially seen as synonymous with delusion or worse. But dysphoria is not dysmorphia; there is no warped perception of one’s own body or reality occurring even in the minds of those who are afflicted by GD. Instead, these individuals merely feel out-of-sync with the world around them due to the clash of public perception of gender and the person’s traditionally “opposite” outward presentation. But that is where the issue of perception begins and ends, and its origin point is with the onlooker; not the trans person herself.

“But psychology isn’t real science,” the transphobic critic might say. As much as this is already something akin to a fast-approaching no true Scotsman fallacy, let’s indulge this claim for a moment and dig into a field that is undeniably a hard science– even for the naysayer who might be resisting thus far. I’m referring, of course, to neuroscience.

Neuro researchers have been able to determine for some time now that men and women seem to possess, on average, distinct and recurring brain structures that are more or less exclusive to their gender. Does biological sex predetermine this? There are prominent naysayers in the scientific field today, such as Cordelia Fine and Victoria Pitts-Taylor, who argue that it does not, and that assuming so without digging deeper is not only unscientific, but prejudiced in its own right. While the neologism “neurosexism” is often cited as needlessly incendiary, it isn’t without merit. It is very unscientific to simply stop the inquiry after an initial finding only seems to confirm a preconception. And with the emergent discussion in neuroscience regarding brain plasticity’s potential susceptibility to external social experience, the book is far from closed on this.

Furthermore, there have been some exciting findings as of late regarding the brains of trans people: they, too, seem to possess their own unique brain structures. Since most trans people are, strictly biologically speaking, either one sex or the other, this would seem to put a pig hole in the assumption that men and women have the brains they do because they were simply born that way, predetermined by biology to think, feel, and perceive as strictly male or female. But despite this, when there are similarities seen to the more binary brains of men or women (and there are some), such similarities are aligned with the gender that the trans person identifies as. So when a trans woman calls herself a woman, her brain, unique in its own right, still has more traditionally female physicality than a cisgender man’s does.

How can this be? I think I have a good idea: what if factors other than mere biological predetermination are coming into play? What if one’s self-perception of gender truly is a result of social construction? What if brain plasticity (the ability for the brain to physically change yet still retain its solid qualities) has something to do with gender identity? Would this not line up with the scientific findings cited above? And would this not mean that a physical, tangible, scientific example of gender identity being tethered to one’s brain structure has been found?

Why does this matter? Must we cite scientific evidence of the reality of the trans experience in order to trust the sincerity of trans people themselves? Well, the truth is, we shouldn’t have to; but the numbers at the top of this article tell the story as to why we do. A great number of our fellow Americans still fail to understand that for trans people this is not a choice, preference, or delusion; it is the very identity of self. And that needs to be respected, delineated, and above all, protected. Protected from the bigotry and discrimination; protected from the rapes and murders; protected from the shortsighted legislation attempting to police where transgender people can go to relieve themselves. And as self-identified allies, this is not our time to pipe down or “let it slide” when yet another perpetuation of a falsehood slips by our ears or across our social media feeds. I believe that the mightiest weapon is the truth, and the best convoy for its application is the well-placed argument. Please, all of us allies, we must present our own arguments for the sake of truth, and for the protection of our trans loved ones. Hopefully some new truths were introduced to you today; place them well.

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