22 September 2019

It may sound PC, but van Anders et al. is a Trojan horse of language politics.

An essay about how to talk about trans issues at professional conferences has just been circulated by a group of five academics: Sari van Anders, M. Paz Galupo, Jay Irwin, Markie L. C. Twist, and Chelsea J. Reynolds.  (The essay is downloadable at Talking about Transgender Experiences, Identities, and Existences at Conferences.) In it, the authors "wanted to provide some guidelines for discussing studies with trans and transgender people, experiences, existences, backgrounds, and identities, and related aspects of gender diversity, at conferences for those individuals unaware or ignorant of current best practices or approaches".

Although I am strong advocate of consistency in language, just so we can all be sure when we are talking about the same/different things, I am frankly uncomfortable when someone—anyone—tells me what I may and may not say.  This document adds to the long and growing history of activists silencing scientists on this and other controversial issues.  Although I share 95% agreement with the document authors on many of these issues, I find it helpful to apply this bias-detector to myself: What if the same/equivalent thing came from a couple of people who I generally disagree with?  For example (I’m a devout atheist), what if a group of radically religious people posted how I, a scientist, may refer to god (or God) and whatever beliefs in my work and presentations?  

In that context, the power dynamics are more apparent, but the principle is the same.  We either apply it equally to people we agree or disagree with, or we are merely hypocrites doing unto others exactly the crimes that have been done unto us.

The language around trans issues is more than highly politicized.  This is true not only for the language recommendations in the document, but also in their absence.  For example, despite that every follow-up study of gender dysphoric kids showed that they will develop into cis-gendered gays/lesbians, the word “desistance” does not so much as appear in the document, even once.  The entire concept is disappeared.  

The document’s authors do not include clinicians:  The fields of expertise of the document’s authors are: neuroendocrinology, sociology, human development, communications, and experimental psychology.  None of them—not one—has borne the diagnostic/clinical responsibility of clients transitioning or de-transitioning or undergoing the process to decide.  Their experiences are their personal experiences (to the extent that some are openly trans): perfectly valid, but no more so than other peoples’, including the people they left out.  For example, the authors of the document include no desisters…again consistent with the complete disappearing of desistance in the document, despite that all the evidence indicates that the majority of children desist.

The message in leaving out desistance in conference language recommendations is, of course, that we may not talk about desistance at all.

Although the authors’ experiences are perfectly valid, this was not merely the sharing of language suggestions.  This was a declaration that “Because my path was the right path for me, my path is the right path for everyone” or “I didn’t desist, so there’s no such thing as desistance” or “The door to diverse experiences must be opened up enough for me, but no further.”  

We must not do unto others as was done unto us.

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