Grey Matter Episode 10: Othering The Trans Community

Othering The Trans Community
by Kaitlin Puccio

There are some questions that are difficult to answer because they deal with abstract, moral issues rather than fact-based issues. While questions that need to be answered with science can also be difficult to answer, there is at least an objective answer. Ethical questions, which may not have a definitive answer, often have scientific components that can help harness and guide what would otherwise be a fully abstract analysis. And scientific questions, which do have a definitive answer—at least, as “definitive” as can be in accordance with our limited man-made logic and equally limited powers of objective and complete observation—often have ethical components that complicate what would otherwise seem to be an obvious conclusion. In either scenario, it is insufficient to rely solely on either scientific analysis or moral abstraction to support a conclusion. Science without ethics is inhuman, and morals without science are noumenal (or, metaphysical).

When discussing real-world moral issues with real-world moral consequences, we need to rely on the science that is available to us to support our ethical conclusions, given that we intend for our ethical conclusions to be effectuated in the practical world rather than in the abstract world. If we ignore the science, hurling weightless moral conclusions at intellectual opponents will leave no impact.

For example, the discussion about whether transgender women—biological men—should be allowed in women’s sports has stalled because the argument starts and ends with ethics. If we are fortunate enough to be faced with an ethical question that has a clear scientific element, we cannot ignore the science, even if it is inconvenient to our ethical argument.

Science is limited. It is limited because humans are limited. The science that we know and rely upon is the science that is available to us, and that we can comprehend. It does not necessarily mean that we understand it correctly, or that what we know is all there is to know. But to function, we must rely on the science that we know until we know more or differently.

In this instance, we know that the male and female genome differ in that men have one X and one Y chromosome, and females have two X chromosomes. That is, a human egg contains only an X chromosome. A human sperm contains either an X or a Y chromosome, thereby determining the biological sex of the offspring after fertilization. The offspring will have one pair of sex chromosomes in each cell—again, with the Y chromosome being present in males.

This biological distinction has traditionally been sufficient to define the terms “male” and “female,” or their counterparts, “man” and “woman.” Chromosomal abnormality, or chromosomal aberration, can occur, including in intersex individuals who may have a mix of chromosomes such as XXY, or some cells that are XY and some that are XX, or similar. The specific type of aberration has traditionally determined the sex of the individual, based in some cases on other biological indicators.

Given that the contemporary, colloquial definition of “woman” is currently under review by the general public, it is best to move forward with the argument without using the term at all. That is, whether or not it is appropriate to use the term “woman” to refer to transgender women is not the issue, and it is getting in the way of the true question of whether such individuals should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, where “women’s sports” has traditionally been understood as using the chromosomal definition of “female.” To move forward, we must ensure that terminology is not a hindrance, and must remove all potential issues regarding defining the term “woman” in a way that is understood and accepted by all parties. Consequently, the term “woman” itself cannot be used, nor can any of its substitute terms, such as “birthing person” or “person with a uterus,” as these substitute terms give rise to definitional issues themselves.

Thus, the argument should start at a chromosomal level, even if it means temporarily dehumanizing individuals. The analysis would then be:

We have XX sports teams and XY sports teams. Should XY individuals be permitted to play on XX sports teams?

There is no question of gender identity here, because at a chromosomal level, no gender identity exists. In essence, it is the ultimate equalizer.

XX and XY sports teams came into existence as separate and distinct teams because of the differences in the physical capabilities of XX and XY individuals.[1] Using traditional terms, men have a biological advantage over women. They tend to be bigger, faster, stronger, etc.

The immediate reaction is either to attack the definition of “men,” or to say that the idea that they have a biological advantage over women is false. To respond, we must again reduce the terms: XY individuals are bigger, stronger, etc. than XX individuals.

The Y chromosome in XY individuals contains the SRY gene. This increases testosterone (and aggression), which contributes to the development of muscle mass and strength, stronger and more robust bones and joint surfaces, and more bone development at muscle attachment sites. It is in this sense that XY individuals have a biological advantage over XX individuals. Even if XY individuals take hormones that block testosterone, the developmental advantage—for example, the physical formation of muscle attachment sites—remains, and thus the hormone levels at the time of competition are not the only consideration.

If we accept from this that XY individuals have this kind of biological advantage over XX individuals in a sports context, then XY individuals should not be permitted to compete on XX individuals’ teams.

However, the discussion does not end there. If we bring the human factor back in, it becomes a social issue once more instead of a detached scientific analysis. If an XY individual—who should not be permitted to compete on XX individuals’ teams, according to the scientific argument—identifies as a “woman,” using the malleable, contemporary definition of “woman” that includes how one feels rather than using the scientific definition, that individual should be able to join in the societal function of a sport comprised of other individuals of the same “kind.” This is a human argument rather than a scientific one. This argument moves us from the purely scientific realm to the ethical realm.

If our science tells us that this female-identifying individual has a biological advantage over other females, and the conclusion arrived at by applying that science to real-world issues is that such an advantage is impermissible, the question becomes: “What do we do about it?” If we allow the individual to compete, we are knowingly disadvantaging competitors. Granting a transgender woman the right to be competitive in a certain scenario should not come at the expense of other women’s right to be competitive. If this is the case, do we allow the transgender women to instead compete on a separate team for transgender competitors?

The argument against this is that we are then “othering” transgender women—by giving them their own team, we are saying that they do not belong on the women’s team because they are not women. The issue with this is that it is a question of terminology. We are already “othering” by referring to transgender women as “transgender women” instead of “women,” but we need to do so in order to be able to have the necessary conversations surrounding trans rights. And if transgender individuals state themselves that they are part of the trans community, and refer to themselves as trans men and trans women, then there should be no issue with referring to them as “trans women” instead of women when having these conversations, and in doing so, recognizing that there is indeed a distinction between trans women and “women” in the traditional sense of the term.

Admitting that an XY individual has a biological advantage over an XX individual is not conceding the entire ethical argument about a female-identifying XY individual’s rights in sports. It is getting us to a point where we can actually start to have the ethical discussion about trans rights and women’s rights.

If we are able to agree that XY individuals have a biological advantage over XX individuals, we will be able to discuss how to proceed so that no individual’s rights are trampled in an effort to make way for or preserve another individual’s rights. If we remain stuck arguing about settled science, no one’s rights will be protected.

If we are not able to agree that XY individuals have a biological advantage over XX individuals, it is imperative to understand and explain where the science is wrong, or why the interpretation of the science is incorrect. If an individual does not accept the facts as the first step toward the ethical analysis, then the science is what is really at issue, and not the moral question of whether or not transgender women should be permitted to compete in women’s sports.

[1] Understanding the history of women’s sports up to and including the introduction of Title IX is crucial to understanding this statement.

Copyright © 2023 Kaitlin Puccio