Being Transgender in the Era of Trump: Compassion Should Pick Up Where Science Leaves Off

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n a divisive time, few issues are more polarizing than how Americans treat transgender (“trans”) individuals. Trans individuals make up 0.6% of Americans, or 1.4 million people. As states have passed conflicting legislation, some protecting trans individuals and others limiting access, the conversation has become increasingly polarized. Adding to this discourse is the recalibration of protections for trans individuals by the Trump Administration.

Recently, the larger debate over the status and protections of trans individuals has focused on whether being trans has any biological or genetic basis. A 2016 review article published by a pair of professors associated with Johns Hopkins University brought this question to center stage. The author’s essentially claim that there is no biological or genetic basis for being trans and thus they caution against any treatment for trans individuals. This controversial stance drew forceful criticism from the scientific community and advocates. At the same time, the paper has been used by legislators and the media to discredit the needs and experiences of trans individuals.

This Essay provides a brief overview of the debate, including a brief synopsis of the current status of science surrounding being trans. While the science is not settled, what is clear is that trans individuals face dramatically heightened rates of suicide, psychological distress, and other challenges. Most concerning, the suicide attempt rates for trans individuals have been reported as high as 41%--significantly outstripping the general population, which historically has hovered around 5%. Even at the lower end of estimates, the fact of the matter is that we are dealing with a public health crisis.

This Essay argues that the disagreement about biological explanations for being transgender misses the most critical point: trans individuals experience enormous psychological distress across their lives. An appropriate response to the difficulties facing trans persons should not become mired down in a scientific debate about causation. Compassion should guide the discussion.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)583-616
JournalUC Irvine Law Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2018


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