Over the past few years, transgender issues have moved into the spotlight in a big way. Caitlin Jenner came out on prime-time TV. Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time. The White House appointed its first openly trans employee. These cultural changes, though, have led to an ugly backlash. States including North Carolina and Kansas have passed or are considering legislation that limits the rights of transgender people. And the political debates around these issues have perpetuated many myths.
1. Transgender people pose a threat in public bathrooms.
This is the central argument by supporters of “bathroom bills,” which make it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms that conform to their gender identity. “The danger is real from sexual predators in women’s restrooms,” Christian author Frank Turek wrote at Townhall. “I think any child or young adult has a right to have their privacy protected when they’re in various stages of undress,” Kansas state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook argued. North Carolina legislators defended their own measure by saying that it provides for the “protection of the women and children of our state.”
This is flat-out wrong. Many transgender people already use the bathrooms that fit their gender identity. The state of Maryland, hundreds of cities and dozens of schools ban bathroom discrimination. And there have been no reported cases of such laws leading to harassment.
In truth, “bathroom bills” might endanger one group: transgender people. According to one study, 70 percent of trans respondents had been harassed, assaulted or denied access when attempting to use a public bathroom. More than half reported suffering physical ailments, such as dehydration or kidney problems, because they were afraid to use the restroom while out.
2. A 5-year-old doesn’t know enough about gender to be transgender.
Every so often, a media outlet will publish a profile of a child who believes he or she is transgender, and the story will prompt disbelief. “Kids that age can only wear what you put on them, sport the haircut you assign them, play with the toys you give them, and mostly believe what you tell them they should believe,” conservative blogger Matt Walsh wrote about a case in San Diego. “Ryland, the 5-year-old girl who ‘transitioned’ into a boy, isn’t transgender, she’s confused,” Joshua Riddle, founder of the Young Conservatives site, declared about the same story.
On the contrary, children as young as 2 can present with gender incongruence. According to the American Psychiatric Association, cross-gender behaviors often start between 2 and 4 years old.
One study by the TransYouth Project found that kids as young as 5 respond to psychological gender-association tests, which evaluate how people understand their gender roles. Researchers have also found no relationship between gender incongruence and parenting styles.
Transgender children appear in the homes of parents who are Republicans or Democrats, in the military or in civilian life, and regardless of racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds.
3. Being transgender is relatively new.
Much of the coverage of the recent transgender debates describes the condition as nascent. LGBTQ Nation dates the movement’s start to the 1980s. Walsh argues that transgenderism was invented in the past few years by the left. Christianity Today calls it a recent “phenomenon.”
Certainly, transgender politics have shifted. But gender-bending has been around a long time. Ancient Greek mythology references feminine souls in male bodies.
In “Metamorphoses,” the Roman poet Ovid wrote about a man, Tiresias, who became a woman when he struck two copulating snakes. The Chevalier d’Eon, an 18th-century French politician, spent the second half of her life as a woman. (“Eonism,” a term for cross-gendered behavior, refers to the diplomat.)
In the United States and Europe, doctors have written about transgender patients since at least the 19th century.
By the middle of the 20th, physicians had concluded that a transgender person’s gender identity was deeply felt, unresponsive to efforts to change the person’s mind and not necessarily accompanied by psychiatric problems.
4. Transgender people often come to regret transitioning.
One of the most common and misleading tropes about transgender people is that many regret making their transitions. There are websites, YouTube channels and even books dedicated to the topic. One writer, Walt Heyer (who regrets his own transition), claims that 20 percent of transgender people regret transitioning, 41 percent attempt suicide and at least 60 percent suffer from some kind of mental illness. “Suicide and regret,” he writes, “remain the dark side of transgender life.”
These statistics and misstatements are based on outdated research. Morerecentstudies suggest that less than 4 percent of people who get gender-reassignment surgery regret it. Researchers have also found that the surgery dramatically reduces suicide rates among trans people. This makes sense — the surgery can improve self-esteem, body image and general life satisfaction.
This is why the international standard of care for adolescents and adults in many countries is to offer transition services. Of course, some people regret transitioning. A handful may even transition back. But the vast majority do not.
5. Male-to-female transgender athletes have a competitive advantage.
In January, the International Olympic Committee announced that trans athletes can compete as the gender they identify with, whether or not they’ve undergone gender-reassignment surgery. Columnist Janice Turner wrote sarcastically that the new policy was “great news — unless you are a woman athlete.” Trans athletes themselves have faced similar blowback. When mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox came out in 2013, competitors complained that she should be barred because of her “advantage.”
These critics argue that transgender women have all the biological strengths — more muscle mass, greater lung capacity — of male athletes. But in reality, most of that dominance is pegged to hormones such as testosterone, not sex organs.
Hormone therapy for trans women involves taking a testosterone-blocking drug along with an estrogen supplement. This usually leads to a decrease in muscle mass and bone density, as well as an increase in fat storage. “Together,” one trans runner and researcher wrote in The Washington Post, “these changes lead to a loss of speed, strength and endurance — all key components of athleticism.” To date, trans athletes have not won a disproportionate number of races.
Drescher is a New York-based psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who specializes in gender identity and sexuality.