December 3, 2022

Nature publishes vehement critique of anti-trans politics

The founding co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly has written an opinion piece in the leading journal Nature complaining that anti-transgender policies are not science-based.

Paisley Currah, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Brooklyn College, laments that while “It’s naive to think that politics and social mores have no place in lawmaking, but seldom has policy been so disconnected from science and data. The rights of trans people, including myself, have been weaponized in a culture war.”

It is only recently that the tide of trans rights began to ebb, he believes. From the 1970s on, state and federal policymakers were guided by science. More recently, however, this has changed. “The current spate of anti-trans positions has little to do with evidence-based research, science or data.”

Dr Currah selects several policy areas for criticism. One is the controversy around allowing transgender individuals to use toilets and locker rooms of the sex with which they identify. This is not empirically grounded, he says, citing two studies.

However, his own evidence is by no means above criticism. One of these studies, published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, examines safety and privacy in public toilets, locker rooms, and change rooms in Massachusetts. But Massachusetts is one of the most trans-friendly states in the US. It’s unlikely to be representative. The other, published in a leading journal, Pediatrics, was based on an internet survey, one of the weakest forms of data-gathering.

Dr Currah concludes that:

Much evidence-based research is already available. More is still needed, but it is either a lie or a cop-out to say that there’s not enough research to make informed policy decisions. Instead of whipping up arguments to churn culture wars, elected officials and those around them should look to the evidence.

But in social science research, the problem is seldom lack of research, but lack of sound research. A blizzard of evidence based on underpowered convenience studies can drift over the windows and keep policy-makers from seeing the landscape.

This is a problem with much transgender scholarship. As Hilary Cass, the chair of the UK’s Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People, noted a few months ago, in a related context, there are “gaps in the evidence base regarding all aspects of gender care for children and young people, from epidemiology through to assessment, diagnosis, support, counselling and treatment.”

Whilst anti-trans positions can be motivated by transphobia, this should not obscure the fact that opponents of trans-friendly policies could also have evidence-based arguments. Whilst anti-trans policies can be motivated by transphobia, this should not obscure the fact that opponents of trans-friendly policies also have evidence-based arguments. It’s odd that Nature appears to have positioned itself squarely on one side of this fractious squabble.