Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.
There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.
My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.
But that isn’t the whole story.
The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.
We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.
We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.
As epidemiologist Shanna Swan writes in Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, “The changes in sexual development taking place all over the world appear to have been accompanied by an apparent rise in gender fluidity …”
Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.
Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.
We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.
But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.
Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.
Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.
I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.
Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.
The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
. . . .
Header image by Ted Eytan.
Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!