The Trend of Transgender Identity (Part 1)
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
In my last post I mentioned that there was another trend I wanted to cover, and that trend is the increase in the number of people with a transgender or gender non-conforming identity (TGNC). Part of the reason why I didn’t cover it in the last post is that it’s something of a minefield, and if I’m going to get blown up (which I suspect I am) I want it to be after a full and complete explanation of my position, rather than a paragraph tossed in together with a discussion of CPUs and heroin. Also I, probably naively, assume that if I really explain things in a calm, dispassionate fashion that I won’t get blown up, period. Recent events have left me less sure of that, but I persist in believing it nonetheless.
I’ve actually been thinking I needed to write a post on this subject for a long time, but earlier this month I read something that really struck me. It was a report by The Associated Press, on a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. (Being syndicated, I came across it in US News and World Report.) The study they were reporting on claimed that nearly 3% of high school students identify as TGNC. Specifically from a group of 9th and 11th graders in Minnesota.
The study is an analysis of a 2016 statewide survey of almost 81,000 Minnesota teens. Nearly 2,200 identified as transgender or gender nonconforming.
I thought it’d be nice to know the exact numbers rather than “almost 81,000” and “nearly 2,200” and after some digging I found the original study. It was 2,168 out of 80,929 meaning it was closer to 2.7%. Accordingly I’ll be using that number. But regardless of whether it’s 3% or 2.7% that would appear to represent a gigantic increase in just the last few years. The AP article mentions another study out of UCLA which claims that 0.7% of teens aged 13 to 17 identify as TGNC. Which I would argue, even if it’s closer to the mark is still a large increase. Also it should be noted that the 0.7% was an extrapolation of teen rates from adult answers, meaning that if the trend has recently spiked it might explain the discrepancy.
It has been many, many, many years since I was in high school, but in spite of that fact, and the fact that it’s only a single data point and all the other reasons which make it not a very good comparison for Minnesotan high school students in 2016, I’m going to bring it into the discussion anyway.
My high school was a three year high school that had, conservatively, 1700 students attending. If we apply the 2.7% number to that student body we get 46 TGNC students. Now as you might imagine we didn’t have even a single openly transgender student back then. An experience I imagine most people from my generation share. And any attempts on my part at guessing how many closeted TGNC students there were is going to be wild speculation, but having come this far down the road I might as well continue and guess that maybe there was a couple? Certainly I haven’t heard of anyone coming out later, even in these more tolerate times. If, for the sake of argument we take my number and extrapolate from that we get a compound annual growth rate of nearly 11.5%. Which as I pointed out in the last post does not have to go on for very long before it’s 100% of people. Also I don’t think the rate of growth has been constant since the late 80s, I’ve talked to people 10 and even 20 years younger than me and they report the same basic impression of their high school that I had of mine. Which would mean that it could be a lot higher than even 11% which is already pretty high.
One of the reasons I used my high school experience as a baseline, is that I didn’t find a lot of good numbers on growth in TGNC individuals. And the one thing I did find was in Swedish, that said it’s dramatic enough that I’m going to reference it anyway. It’s a chart of referrals to a clinic specializing in gender dysphoria among children. From 2000 to 2006 the number of yearly referrals is in the single digits. After that it starts to gradually increase, but stays below 20 until 2011. 2012 and 2013 both look to be around 25, but then in 2014 it starts skyrocketing and by 2016 it’s gone all the way up to 197 referrals. Basically an eight-fold increase in the space of three years. I understand this is a report from a single clinic in Sweden, but I think it matches my assumption that the growth rate has largely spiked only very recently.
This aside, for my purposes it’s sufficient to know that it’s a trend and that it’s growing very quickly, which everything seems to indicate. From this, hopefully, safe assumption, I want to spend this post examining the various theories for why this might be happening:
1- The transgender and gender non conforming have always been with us they’ve just been hiding. Accordingly it’s not the number of TGNC individuals who are increasing, but only our awareness of them
Under this theory the number of high schoolers who are TGNC has always been around 2.7%, and it is only now in this more tolerate and enlightened time that they finally are free to express their true selves.
My sense is that this is the current conventional wisdom. Though that may be putting it too strongly. But you can see evidence of it in the AP article:
Dr. Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote in an accompanying opinion article in Pediatrics that the study supports other research suggesting that earlier counts of the trans population "have been underestimated by orders of magnitude." He said that the higher numbers should serve as a lesson to schools and physicians to abandon limited views of gender.
Notice that he doesn’t say that the numbers are increasing but that earlier counts were “underestimated by orders of magnitude.” Leading one to assume that the numbers and percentages are static, we’re just getting better at counting.
For my part, I tend to be skeptical that this is the case. For all the issues I have with full normalization of homosexuality, they can at least point to a fairly deep historical precedent. With gay communities in times and places even when persecution and repression were at their most severe. While there is some evidence for historical TGNC you get the sense that it mostly was present when it was required by culture, rather than existing in spite of culture, like homosexuality.
That said I’m not ruling it out. In this post I’m not ruling anything out. It’s entirely possible that this is exactly how things are.
2- TGNC numbers are increasing, but that’s a good thing, and it goes hand in hand with progress elsewhere
Last year I attended the Mormon Transhumanist Conference (and I intend to be there again this year). One of the talks was about the gender spectrum and the speaker gave, as her opinion, that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing. That one of the abilities we’ll have as our power grows and as we draw closer to Godhood will be the ability to change our gender as we desire. While I continue to argue that this bears no resemblance to any LDS doctrine I’m aware of, it does fit right in with transhumanism.
To put it another way, this theory holds that the number of TGNC people is increasing because technology in general is increasing, and with it an ability to throw off shackles and restrictions which previously would have been unthinkable. An idea that’s at the core of Transhumanism. And, If we consider just what we can now do in this area, then this is obviously true. If we consider what we should do, then the situation becomes a lot murkier.
There is certainly a way in which this works together with the first theory. Previously people who felt that their gender was different than the body they were born in had very little recourse. Now through the marvels of technology we can offer them hormone treatment and gender-reassignment surgery. But beyond that, I get the sense that there’s also a way in which people feel there’s a moral or even spiritual arc to the whole thing, that the freedom to choose your gender goes along with all the other freedoms progress has brought us. That certainly seemed to be the sense in which the MTA speaker meant it.
Under the first theory, the 2.7% of people who have always been TGNC are driving the development of this technology, but under this theory if technology enables transition might it also be encouraging transition?
As I already alluded to, I freely grant that increased availability may lead to an increase in identification, what I’m not sure about is whether it’s a good thing. And you’ll have to wait until part 2 before I tackle that question.
3- TGNC numbers are increasing because of hormones and other chemicals being introduced into the environment
You don’t have to look very far to find people speculating that there has been a definite decrease in masculinity over the last several decades. Some of this is ascribed to the softening of the culture in general, which we will cover in a moment, but some of this has been tied to hormones in the environment or endocrine disruptors like BPA. If it’s the chemicals that are responsible for depressing masculinity, then it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it might get so low that it flips things over to femininity, or just mixes things up entirely, giving us the genderqueer designation. This explanation would be more plausible if the transitioning were all in one direction, but it’s not. That said, there are more male to female transgendered individuals than female to male. With most people estimating the ratio at around 3:1. Also it’s not like we have a smoking gun of causation, so hormones in the environment could be causing all manner of changes in both directions.
It is widely recognized that pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply, included in this are things like birth control pills and testosterone replacement pills. The presence in the environment of chemicals has been a concern for the environmental movement since at least the time of Rachel Carson if not before, one which hasn’t gone away. The question is, is anyone concerned that hormones or other chemicals in the water supply might be contributing to the increase in the number of people who identify as TGNC?
If you search the internet for any support for this theory you immediately find an article titled Fish becoming transgender from contraceptive pill chemicals being flushed down household drains. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a Smithsonian article which explains that the word “transgender” was never used in the original article, the article was about fish becoming intersex, which is not the same, and that it’s not clear that it was contraceptive pills causing the problems it could easily have been caused by other chemicals in the water. In other words still likely something humans are doing, but not something you can blame entirely on birth control pills.
My own sense of things, is that while something along these lines might be a factor in the increase, if it is, it’s a small one. If you could draw a clear link between some chemical or hormone and an increasing number of people identifying as TGNC, then I think people would have done it already. There would be a larger pattern in how and where it happened. Also most of the candidates under discussion have existed in the water supply for a lot longer than just the last few years, which is when, according to the numbers from our Swedish clinic, most of the increase has happened. At least as I read things. But maybe I’m being naive. The same kind of people who worry about chemicals in the water are the same kind of people who are proponents of theory one, that the underlying rate has not increased at all. Accordingly it might not be in their ideological interest to point out any possible connection.
4- TGNC numbers are increasing because of mutational load
I talked about this in a previous post. The idea of mutational load is that every generation a certain number of negative mutations are introduced. In the past these mutations didn’t accumulate because individuals with negative mutations were more likely to die without reproducing. As such the mutation load was kept in check because most of these negative mutations did not get passed on. With the advent of modern medicine, the number of people who die before getting the chance to reproduce is very low, regardless of any negative mutations they may be carrying. As such more get passed on, and the overall level across the entire population begins to rise.
As I mentioned in the previous post this idea provides a potential explanation for many troubling modern trends. The increase in autism, low sperm counts, allergies and possibly even suicide risk. If, and I grant that this is a big if, we decide that these things can be explained by increased mutation load then it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t consider adding the increase in people who identify as TGNC to the list as well. Also it should be noted, while we’re discussing this that evidence is growing for a link between gender dysphoria and autism.
I suspect that saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation is going to upset some people. (I suspect that everyone will be upset by at least one thing in this post.) But it’s important to clarify, again, I’m just trying to make a comprehensive list of explanations that are at least somewhat plausible. I don’t have a horse in this race. (Which is not to say that some horses don’t look better than others.) Also as you may have noticed the theories have moved from least upsetting to more upsetting, so at least I’m trying to ease you into some of the more controversial theories.
As I said, saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation may be upsetting, but in a sense everyone who argues that TGNC individuals were born that way, are also arguing for a genetic explanation of the condition they’re just not arguing for a recent genetic explanation. Which is what separates that theory from this theory. Also they may object to the application of the “negative” label. But this is something else I’ll be covering in part 2.
As to my own probability assessment. It’s hard to say. It makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s also a terrifying possibility. Also it’s hard to square it with a dramatic spike in the last couple of years.
5- TGNC numbers are increasing because of cultural changes
As I mentioned above, my sense is that historically homosexuality was present regardless of how oppressive the surrounding culture was, but that TGNC traits seemed to mostly be present when it was integrated with the culture. In more modern eras, we have the example of drag shows. In ancient Assyria, there were parades. And then there was a cult in ancient Greece who worshipped Cybele, and as part of that worship men castrated themselves, and thereafter dressed and identified as females. If you toss in examples of TGNC among the Native Americans, you have mostly covered the historical examples, at least those listed in Wikipedia. And I’m confident if there were any other large historical examples that they would have found their way into the article, but I’m not any kind of expert.
Based on these limited examples, as I said, it’s my sense that culture may have pushed TGNC rather than the other way around. If that’s the case, and given past trends that have run through society and in particular taken hold among teens, it’s not inconceivable that the increase in TGNC teens could be because of a subconscious sense that it’s now cool.
While TGNC advocates may take issue with the “coolness” theory, they appear to acknowledge that culture is playing a big part in things, such as allowing previously closeted TGNC individuals to out themselves. The question is, if the changing culture is having such a massive effect (once again refer to Swedish Clinic chart) is there any way in which culture may be driving the increase?
All of this is to say that culture is definitely changing, but how much culture is following and how much it’s leading is a very complicated issue. But one thing is clear, culture is definitely contributing to the increase, if for no other reason that people feel far more comfortable identifying as TGNC.
6- A desire to identify as a different gender than the one you were born with is a sin, and it’s increasing because sins of all kinds are increasing.
As you might imagine, I’m not going to shy away from an explicitly religious theory. Which is not to say that I believe it’s a doctrinally correct theory. (For Christians in any case.) Also before we can do anything else, it’s important to identify whether sin in general is increasing. If it’s not, the theory is considerably weakened. My guess is that most people belonging to any of the Abrahamic religions have no doubt that it’s increasing. And many of the irreligious, though perhaps unwilling to use the term “sin”, would say that the world is getting worse as well. (Pinker would disagree of course.) Given that this is a religious theory, the attitude of the believers is probably sufficient for our purposes.
With the other theories, certain consequences and actions naturally follow, but with this theory they’re a little bit more opaque. If unhappiness with “the gender you were assigned at birth” is a sin, than what should be done about it? It is true that many activities identified as sinful take the form of giving into what have historically been identified as “baser” urges. From this you could imagine classifying the urge to be transgender as no different than the urge to have sex before you’re married, with a similar exhortation to resist it, and for some people (not me) that’s as far as you need to go. For others, the idea of repressing the urge to have sex before you’re married is one they don’t even consider. (They may resist the urge to have sex, but their marital status has nothing to do with it.) And in fact outside of dieting, and exercise, the idea of suppressing urges has to be at some sort of historical nadir.
And this gets more into what I feel the LDS position is on TGNC, that it’s more akin to homosexuality, being gay isn’t a sin, it’s acting on it that’s a sin. Though with TGNC acting on it is a little less clear. Gender-reassignment surgery certainly counts (and is explicitly mentioned in the LDS handbooks) but what about wearing women’s clothing if you’ve previously identified as male all your life? What about binding your breasts if your a woman who feels like man?
I am sympathetic to those who find this theory horribly offensive, or those who aren’t offended but still think it comes across as both bizarre and unlikely. Beyond that even if you could get on the same page, I think many people would point out that being TGNC is tied to people’s identity in a way that being horny (regardless of orientation) really isn’t.
In other words this theory, even on it’s on terms, is kind of messy. And I’m not a big fan, particularly since it so easily slides into mistreatment of the TGNC, when people confuse the sin for the sinner. (Particularly, since, as I pointed out, the sin is actually somewhat unclear.) This sort of mistreatment is something I feel there is far too much of, even now.
That’s where we’ll end for this week. I had intended to cover everything in a single post, but I haven’t even covered all of the different theories yet, so you’ll have to come back next week for part 2.
There are also many theories for why people blog. One theory is that they are motivated by the money they can earn. If that theory seems at all likely to you, consider donating. (My own sense is that this theory is not very likely.)