An open letter that denounces attempts to define gender as a binary trait based on anatomy or genetic tests has gathered signatures from more than 1,600 scientists.
The letter, which includes the signatures of eight Nobel laureates, was written in response to a memo drafted in spring of 2017 by the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the New York Times. The memo reportedly urged government agencies to adopt a legal definition of sex “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,” according to the Times.
The memo also reportedly stated that any disputes over a person’s sex would be clarified using genetic testing, a claim that scientists say is unscientific and unethical.
The Trump administration has not confirmed the memo or issued any statement — or proposed regulation — that adopts the views in the memo.
The report incited much debate on Twitter, and today more than 50 companies, including Apple, Google, and Facebook, released a letter condemning it. It also prompted 22 scientists to put together an opposition letter, addressed to “our elected representatives.”
“This proposal is fundamentally inconsistent not only with science, but also with ethical practices, human rights, and basic dignity,” the scientists wrote. “Though scientists are just beginning to understand the biological basis of gender identity, it is clear that many factors, known and unknown, mediate the complex links between identity, genes, and anatomy.”
The letter stressed that both biological sex and gender fall on a spectrum. Roughly 1 in every 2,000 babies in the US are born with what are called intersex traits: anatomy, hormone levels, or chromosomes that fall somewhere between what’s typically defined as male or female. An estimated 1.4 million adults in the US identify as transgender, meaning their gender identity does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth.
“As a geneticist and as someone who studies reproduction on a biological level, I can safely say that their scientific reasons are simply not based in science,” Mollie Manier, an assistant professor of biology at George Washington University and one of the coauthors of the letter, told BuzzFeed News. “The science on gender is very much still in development, but more importantly, the lived experiences of transgender and intersex people should not be co-opted by a genetic test.”
Others pointed out that genes and chromosomes alone can’t predict someone’s sex or gender.
“The relationship between someone’s genotype, or their DNA, and their phenotype, or their traits, is very complicated, and sex and gender are no exception,” said Russell Neches, a postdoc studying the evolution of genomes at the Joint Genome Institute at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. “These are human beings we're talking about, so it's not enough to have a concept of sex and gender that only works for the majority.”
For transgender scientists, the letter was personal.
“As a trans woman and as a scientist, it’s inherently an attack on my humanity, my ability to exist in the world, and to safely navigate certain spaces,” said Mika Tosca, an assistant professor of climate science at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It was really important that we gather as many scientists as we could to say that so scientists ourselves were not complicit in promoting this wholly flawed nonscientific effort.”
The letter also emphasized the dangers of any policy forcing medical professionals to stray from recognizing an individual’s self-identified gender. “Our best available evidence shows that affirmation of gender identity is paramount to the survival, health, and livelihood of transgender and intersex people,” the letter states.
Mollie Manier’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.