Neither will give way to lasting acceptance for LGBT people. And because there are bound to be outliers and exceptions to any rule, neither will ever definitively answer why some kids grow up straight and others queer, some cisgender and others transgender.
What’s more is that both have the potential to be exploited: One need only consult the history of doctors trying to lobotomize or shock homosexuality out of existence to realize the dangers of tying LGBT identity to a specific part of the brain or a stretch of DNA.
And yet, every time new research comes out claiming to have found a structural difference between cisgender and transgender brains, we pretend as if it could validate the existence of transgender people once and for all, ignoring the potential dangers.
Such is the case with a scientific presentation earlier this week at the European Society of Endocrinology that has since made the media rounds.
The science on this is very initial but, to put it briefly, Dr. Julie Bakker at the University of Liège found that the brains of some transgender adolescents in a small sample displayed activity that was more in line with their gender identity than with the sex they were assigned at birth.
“I hope that this kind of research will help the acceptance of people who are a bit ‘different’ than the norm,” Bakker told Inverse.
But in order to greet this research with such optimism, you would have to hold a fairly naïve belief in the persuasiveness of science when it comes to LGBT issues.
“Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, polling demonstrates that 21 percent of Americans think that this population has a mental illness, and 39 percent think being transgender is a choice,” the Inverse article begins. “Science repeatedly refutes these views, and new research… shows even further evidence that transgenderism has biological roots.”
But therein lies the problem: If science has indeed “repeatedly refuted” the idea that being transgender is a choice, and yet Americans still overwhelmingly have easily-disproven conceptions about transgender people, then more “evidence” probably won’t matter all that much when it comes to cultural acceptance.
As writer Parker Molloy put it on Twitter, “No amount of scientific breakthroughs will sway people who don’t accept trans people.” The science may be interesting, but its cultural impact could be minimal.
The science around possible genetic markers for homosexuality certainly didn’t play the decisive role in increasing public support for same-sex marriage, as I have argued previously.
Gallup opinion polling shows that just over 51 percent of Americans believed in 2015 that gay or lesbian people were “born that way,” and yet 60 percent of Americans that same year said they supported same-sex marriage.
That means there was a crucial cohort of Americans in 2015–about 10 percent of the population—who still thought homosexuality could be more “nurture” than “nature” and yet favored marriage equality anyway, tipping public support well over the majority threshold.
The explanation for that support should be obvious: By 2016, according to Pew, 87 percent of Americans knew “someone who is gay or lesbian”—and it’s harder, although certainly not impossible, to staunchly oppose the human rights of someone you’ve gotten to know.
These days everyone has a gay person in their circles, and only the third or so of Americans who remain dead set in their anti-LGBT beliefs still have the heart—or lack thereof—to oppose equal rights.
By the same token, consider that just 30 percent of U.S. adults told Pew that same year that they “know someone who is transgender.”
We don’t need another small MRI study to boost acceptance of transgender people—although scientists should, by all means, continue with their research.
We need transgender people to start being accepted in workplaces, in religions, and in families, until 90 percent of Americans can at least say they have a transgender second cousin or something. Only then will we see the scales tip as meaningfully in favor of transgender rights as they did for same-sex marriage over the last decade.
Besides, just how meaningful is the support of people who would only come out in favor of transgender rights after overwhelming scientific evidence talked them into it? Wouldn’t we rather have the support of people who don’t know and don’t care why people are transgender, but want to see equal treatment for all anyway?
That’s not to say that this science couldn’t be important. It could be. As Inverse correctly pointed out, it could theoretically be useful for brain imaging to help young transgender people consider transition-related medical care before puberty gets too far along.
There are potential positive applications of research like this, if used judiciously and morally—but those are big ifs. Indeed, if the idea of deciding whether or not a child is transgender based on brain imaging makes you nervous, it should. That could go very wrong.
When a news outlet asks “Can a Brain Scan Detect Whether a Person Is Transgender?” parents hear very different things: Supportive parents might see an opportunity to screen their gender non-conforming child in order to prepare themselves for the possibility that the child may want to transition.
But parents who are adamantly opposed to transgender rights might want an MRI scan so they can usher their gender non-conforming child into harmful conversion therapy programs, or worse.
Studies about the causes of LGBT identity can be put to truly awful use. As The Atlantic reported in a thorough and eye-opening 1997 article, various cruel and inhumane techniques were deployed in the post-war era to try to turn gays and lesbians straight: hormonal injections, hysterectomies, shock therapies, and even ice-pick lobotomies.
The lobotomies may have stopped but electroshock aversion therapy continued to be practiced into the 1970s, before being relegated to the fringe.
The theory behind each of these “treatments” was that a change needed to be effected in the body itself to get at someone’s sexual orientation: If homosexuality is caused by a hormonal imbalance, then correct the imbalance. If it lives in the brain, cut out a piece of the brain, or electrocute it into compliance.
It would be nice to live in a world where we could rest assured that increasing scientific knowledge about transgender brain structure wouldn’t lead to dangerous “reparative therapy” quackery, but we don’t.
Maybe we wouldn’t see ice pick lobotomies, but could we witness new wave of MRI-diagnosed transgender kids being ushered by transphobic parents to summer camps for “troubled” youth? Quite possibly.
Nor do we live in a world where transgender brain scans wouldn’t be used to “gatekeep” transition-related medical care, potentially leading people to believe that they couldn’t possibly be transgender unless their MRI proved it.
As several transgender critics and allies have pointed out on social media in response to this latest MRI research, the idea of a “transgender brain” could actually be used to deny medical care to people with gender dysphoria, in much the same way that some doctors currently require a transgender person to undergo a “real-life experience” as their authentic gender for several months in order to receive a hormone prescription.
Whatever we learn about the “gay gene” or the “transgender brain,” the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity are not going to boil down to singular and concrete bodily differences.
Biology and psychology are messy and intertwined. Whatever scientific test you come up with—whether it’s a chromosomal analysis, a brain scan, or a handedness survey—some LGBT people won’t meet it.
It doesn’t matter what causes people to be transgender, it matters that they are supported.
So, for the sake of every LGBT person who has felt like they couldn’t really be gay or bisexual or transgender based on criteria as stupid as finger length, we should quit pretending like these inconclusive studies of biological difference are a cause for celebration. We’re not going to find the truth about ourselves by looking through a microscope.