National Geographic—both the magazine and the cable TV channel—have taken the plunge into the warm, politically correct waters of “gender identity.”
First, the January 2017 issue of the magazine featured a set of cover stories on “The Shifting Landscape of Gender,” also dubbed the “Gender Revolution.” News of this “Special Issue” broke with the announcement that the cover model would be a child who identifies as “transgender”—a nine-year-old boy who claims to be a girl. It turns out, though, that the cover with the boy in pink was only for the “subscriber’s edition” of the magazine. Perhaps they realized that this image would not sell well at the newsstand. For that market, the cover featured a posed assortment of young people in trendy clothing styles, identified (in small print) as everything from “male” to “androgynous” to “bi-gender.”
Then this month, a new special premiered on the National Geographic Channel: “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.” Full disclosure—I have watched most, but not all, of it. However, I have watched all of the video clips on the website for the show, and read most of the articles in the print edition of the magazine.
Here are three key facts to help the viewer or reader avoid being confused by National Geographic’s take on this “revolution.”
1) “Transgender” has nothing to do with “intersex.”
This is actually made clear in a glossary found in the magazine. Adapted from a publication called The Teaching Transgender Toolkit by Eli R. Green of Widener University and Luca Maurer of Ithaca College, the glossary features this definition of “Intersex”:
A category that describes a person with a disorder of sexual development (DSD), a reproductive, genetic, genital, or hormonal configuration that results in a body that often can’t be easily categorized as male or female. Intersex is frequently confused with transgender, but the two are completely distinct [emphasis added]. A more familiar term, hermaphrodite, is considered outdated and offensive.
This fact could not be any clearer. Yet often, people speaking in defense of the transgender movement will say something like, “Well, some people are born with ambiguous genitalia,” in an effort to persuade the listener that some people are “born” transgender—but “the two are completely distinct.” Couric falls prey to this in the NatGeo special, devoting nearly the entire first half hour (of a two-hour special) to the subject of “intersex” individuals—and then moving seamlessly into a discussion of transgender persons without clearly explaining that “the two are completely distinct.” Writer Robin Marantz Henig makes a similar error in the magazine’s article on “Rethinking Gender.”
The fact is, the vast majority of “transgender” people—people who psychologically do not wish to identify with their biological sex at birth—are not “intersex.” Their biological sex characteristics are 100% normal and of only one sex—their “gender dysphoria” is entirely a psychological condition, not a biological one.
2) Left to themselves, most children with gender non-conforming feelings and behavior will not grow up to be “transgender” adults.
The cultural trendiness of the transgender movement is leading increasing numbers of people to assume that if a boy declares at age 3, 4, or 5 that he wants to be a girl, he must “really” have a female gender identity and should immediately be given a new name, a new wardrobe, and new mandate that all teachers and peers must address him by feminine pronouns.
To suggest that gender non-conforming children are “going through a phase” is now considered offensive—yet many of them are in fact going through a phase. The magazine’s article on “Rethinking Gender” cites a 17-year-old biological female now called “Charlie” who
went through a process of trial and error similar to that described by other gender-questioning teens. First he [sic] tried “butch lesbian,” then “genderfluid,” before settling on his [sic] current identity, “nonbinary trans guy.”
In addition to this anecdote, the magazine includes “guidance” from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It includes this caution: “For some young children, identifying as another gender may be temporary; for others, it isn’t . . . There is no way to predict how children will identify later in life.”
The magazine article also cites an academic expert:
Eric Vilain, a geneticist and pediatrician who directs the UCLA Center for Gender-Based Biology, says that children express many desires and fantasies in passing. What if saying “I wish I were a girl” is a feeling just as fleeting as wishing to be an astronaut, a monkey, a bird? When we spoke by phone last spring, he told me that most studies investigating young children who express discomfort with their birth gender suggest they are more likely to turn out to be cisgender (aligned with their birth-assigned gender) than trans—and relative to the general population, more of these kids will eventually identify as gay or bisexual.
“If a boy is doing things that are girl-like—he wants long hair, wants to try his mother’s shoes on, wants to wear a dress and play with dolls—then he’s saying to himself, ‘I’m doing girl things; therefore I must be a girl,’ ” Vilain said. But these preferences are gender expression, not gender identity. Vilain said he’d like parents to take a step back and remind the boy that he can do all sorts of things that girls do, but that doesn’t mean he is a girl.
It is ironic—and tragic—that in a society which is already extending much greater latitude to young people in terms of “gender expression” (breaking gender stereotypes in preferred activities, for example), we should be locking them into a permanently changed “gender identity” at an early age. I would hope that even those who support “transgender” identities could agree—this is a decision to be made in adulthood.
3) There is no evidence that undergoing “gender transition” can be generally expected to improve someone’s long-term well-being.
This is perhaps the crucial issue. Some of us who are conservative may find a change in one’s public “gender identity” to that of the opposite biological sex to be morally problematic as a violation of natural law. But if there is clear scientific evidence proving that people who make such a change are physically and mentally healthier and enjoy a longer lifespan than people with gender dysphoria who do not publicly “transition” (or who seek therapy to help them feel comfortable with their biological sex), then that would provide an argument for supporting (or at least legally permitting) such “transitions.”
Such evidence, however, does not exist. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of individuals who will testify that they are happier after transitioning, receiving hormones, or undergoing gender reassignment surgery than they were before. But subjective testimonies of greater happiness in the short run are not the same as tangible evidence of greater physical and mental well-being in the long run.
For one thing, there are physical risks associated with transition-related medical procedures. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) has warned of some:
Estrogen has the potential to increase the risk of blood clotting, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and water retention. Anti-androgens such as spironolactone can produce dehydration, low blood pressure, and electrolyte disturbances. Testosterone, especially when given orally or in high doses, carries the risk of liver damage.
Some trans women want physical feminization without having to wait for the effects of estrogen. They expect injectable silicone to give them “instant curves.” The silicone, often administered at “pumping parties” by non-medical persons, may migrate in the tissues and cause disfigurement years later. It is usually not medical grade, may contain many contaminants, and is often injected using a shared needle. Hepatitis may be spread through use of such needles.
The inherent risks of substance use and abuse may be even higher in transgender people:
Alcohol combined with sex hormone administration increases the risk of liver damage. Tobacco use is high among all trans persons, especially those who use tobacco to maintain weight loss. Risks of heart attack and stroke are increased in persons who smoke tobacco and take estrogen or testosterone.
The GLMA also acknowledges that “trans people are particularly prone to depression and anxiety”—although it attributes this to a lack of social acceptance. LGBT activists often argue that transgender people may become suicidal if not supported in their efforts to transition—yet GLMA admits, “Suicide is a risk, both prior to transition and afterward” (emphasis added).
In fact, one of the most dramatic findings on transgender health after transition was found in a rigorous study—conducted on every single person in Sweden (324 in total) who had surgical sex reassignment in that country between 1973 and 2003. It found, “Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population.” In fact, it found the risk of suicide—after sex reassignment surgery—was 19 times higher than among the general population.
It is certainly important to have compassion for people who experience gender dysphoria. But it is hardly compassionate to encourage them to follow a course of action that not only requires denying biological realities, but also gives no realistic chance of improving their lives in the long run.