"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." - Darrell Royal
Question #92474 posted on 07/26/2019 9:54 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

In 2016, the Utah Democratic Party made history by nominating a transgender candidate to the US Senate. Despite this historic step, Misty K. Snow suffered a 41-point landslide defeat against incumbent Senator Mike Lee that November.

In my view, it's inappropriate to refer to Snow using female pronouns because he is still biologically male. He may want to be identified as a woman, but a routine physical or DNA test would tell a different story.

Do you think my view is accurate? Or do you think I'm being rude by referring to a transgender person by their biological sex instead of their assumed one? Is there a legitimate scientific argument for calling Misty Snow a woman? So far all I get is "it's none of your business" or "don't be rude", which aren't scientific.

Thanks,

Sentinel


A:

Dear Sir,

There are several scientific arguments for referring to her as a woman, but for me they mostly center around two facts:

  1. Language is a human construct used to communicate ideas.
  2. Scientific grouping can validly be done in several different ways.

The first argument states that while there may be physical phenomena for which one could identify someone as either a man or a woman (DNA, reproductive organs, hormone levels etc.) the main purpose of using the term man or woman is to communicate an idea with someone that they can understand and connect with. Whether you use the pronoun him/her, the important thing is that people understand you. Misty would certainly identify more with being referred to as a women, and there are people that would identify her as a women instead of a man. Scientific identification is at its heart about identifying things correctly. You could refer to Misty Snow as a Homo sapien and while that would be technically correct it wouldn't be the best way of identifying her because there are ways that provide better, more relevant information.

The second argument hinges on the fact that there are many ways to group things scientifically. A famous example of this is whether Pluto is a planet or not. There are several different definitions of what constitutes a species, varying methods on splitting maps up into climates and biomes, and how to classify diseases. Often times there are several correct ways to do things. Back to the climate example, whether you classify an area based on climate conditions or plant life depends on whether you are a meteorologist or a biologist. One being correct in a certain context doesn't invalidate terminology used in other contexts.

Now the classification of Misty Snow as either a woman or man can be made based on several different criteria. Possible criteria include DNA, reproductive organs, hormone levels, other physical characteristics, behaviors, and what the person themselves identifies as. There are several scientific fields where DNA would not be the most important factor. For example, her doctor would probably care more about her hormone levels than her DNA when deciding on what type of medication to prescribe. I would further argue that if you were to take a group of people and ask them how they would identify a man or a women that DNA would not be a factor listed. People don't go around giving people DNA tests or physicals to decide whether to refer to someone as a man or woman. In the most literal definition of the difference between a man and a woman is whether a person has two X chromosomes, or an X and a Y chromosome, it isn't the only or most descriptive way to do so.

Finally, I would like to add that our language has gender neutral pronouns to refer to people. If you don't want to call Misty Snow a woman, you can use the word person. They can be used in place of she. And you can always just refer to her by her name as Misty Snow. This is a way to refer to her that is sensitive to her without calling her a woman.

Peace,

Tipperary

A:

Dear Sentinel,

You are absolutely being rude. Your "view" is to routinely insult people who have probably gone through a lot of personal turmoil in trying to figure out their identity. Whether or not you agree with their conclusion is irrelevant, as it's a basic human courtesy to refer to people the way they prefer. My younger brother was ridiculously easy to tease as a child, because he hated being called anything other than his name. Even calling him something innocuous like Charles would drive him up the wall. Even as children, the desire to be treated respectfully and referred to accurately is deeply ingrained.

There is plenty of evidence in support of the idea that gender isn't binary - I suggest you read this article that discusses the biology of sexual development. One of its startling points is that as many as one in a hundred people has some disorder of sexual development, meaning that 1% of people can't easily be categorized as wholly male or wholly female. Plenty of those people may not even realize that the biology of their cells or their hormones may be in contrast with external genitalia.

I don't know how much overlap there is between people with disorders of sexual development and people who identify as transgender. It could be that many transgender people have intersex characteristics that aren't externally visible. Plenty of transgender people themselves probably don't know why their sense of identity doesn't align with their perceived biological sex. But the fact is, biology and sexual development are different for every single person.

I don't have access to scientific data on Misty Snow's genitalia, cellular makeup, or hormone levels. You don't have access to that data. There's a chance she herself doesn't have access to or knowledge of that information. And that lack of hard data is true of every single person you meet, male or female or intersex or non-binary or transgender. Just because someone physically appears one way doesn't mean their biology is necessarily in line. We can't force everyone to undergo testing to evaluate their sexual biology.

With that lack of scientific data, the question remains of why we refer to people the way we do. And the ultimate answer is one of respect.

Treat people respectfully. It's a basic human courtesy.

Love,

Luciana

A:

Dear Sentinel,

"Don't be rude“ is very much a valid reason to call Misty Snow by her preferred pronouns, even if it’s not scientific. It's not that hard to just treat people kindly and with love, even if you don't understand them or all the reasoning for their decisions. If you're a man, how would you feel if someone refused to ever call you by "he" or "him" or "Mr." or "sir" or any of the other various words associated with men? And then how would you feel if it wasn't just one person who adamantly refused to call you by whatever gender you are, but a fairly large percentage of the population? Would it be insulting and derogatory? Most people would probably say so. Not because it's inherently insulting to be called by "she" or "ma'am" or anything, but because you feel those words don't describe you. You may say this isn't an accurate comparison because (I'm assuming) you're not transgender, but my point here isn't about genitalia or chromosomes, my point is that our words can have a huge impact on others. We shouldn't purposefully say things that are insulting and derogatory to the people we're saying them about. That's just part of being a decent human.

But if you want science, here's some for you. First of all, there's some evidence that the brains of transgender people may actually be more similar to the brains of the gender that the person identifies with, rather than their biological sex. Second of all, transgender people who are misgendered by those around them have higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide (source, source). So one scientific argument for calling Misty Snow a woman would be that if we could scan her brain, that might be a more accurate description of her neurological makeup. And another scientific argument for it would be that not doing so could contribute to her developing mental illness and suicidality, and that's a terrible thing to contribute to.

-Alta