Gender Science, Censorship, and Power

In December 2017, I read with interest when the Washington Post reported that CDC officials had been barred from using a series of words in their budget documents. As a researcher who studies transgender health and the experiences of gender diverse people in the healthcare system, I was particularly alarmed to see that the term “transgender” as well as “vulnerable,” “science-based,” and “evidence-based” were among the ostensibly prohibited phrases. Although the CDC director later stated that there was never such a ban, the news prompted an outpouring of concern and outrage. Commentators interpreted the ban on the word “transgender” as the exclusion of transgender people from CDC research, part of an anti-trans effort to dismantle the fragile progress made by activists in health and policy spheres in recent years.

While I oppose any attempt to ban the word “transgender” (or any such linguistic censorship in science or public work of any kind, for that matter), and strongly support the inclusion of transgender people in health research, I think it is worth reflecting on the implicit assumption behind much of the public response to this news that science and evidence-based health practice are always in line with transgender people’s needs and interests. As Charles Briggs pointed out, the language of science and biomedical research are always political; we must be able to find ways to oppose censorship that do not depend on the assumption that defending science means defending something neutral or value-free and that science is inherently good or progressive.

In fact, the history of the relationship between transgender communities and medical institutions is long, complicated, and not entirely positive. Medical researchers have been interested in studying non-normatively gendered people since the early 20th century, which intensified in the mid-20th century (Meyerowitz 2002). This period witnessed the genesis of the basic conceptual language of gender and sexuality that frames how we speak about these dimensions of human experience in public spaces today. Yet, much of this science of gender was conducted from a perspective that viewed non-normative gender as essentially pathological. Though more recent scholarship has adopted less pathologizing models, even when aimed at securing trans people’s belonging in normative spaces of American society, research that was framed as neutral was built out of racial and class-based exclusions, as scholars such as David Valentine (2007) and C. Riley Snorton (2017) have shown. When we advocate for inclusive scientific practices, we should not forget this history in the process.

None of this is to say that science is inherently a violent practice. Trans people should be included in scientific and biomedical research, and certainly we ought to oppose efforts to remove terms like transgender from our vocabulary. But at the same time, it is important to reflect on the terms of this opposition. Both those who would exclude trans people from representation in public science as well as those who advocate for their inclusion implicitly recognize the fact that science is a form of power; evidence is produced and communicated in the context of certain values. Responding to such a situation raises the question: how can the case be made within scientific communities and in public institutions for more inclusive modes of research without resting on the belief that science always represents progress?

Works Cited:

Meyereowitz, Joanne. 2002. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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