We Are More Than Our DNA

Oct 23, 2018

In response to the Trump memo proposing to redefine gender, Lisa Kenney, Executive Director of Gender Spectrum released the following statement:

Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.

Leslie Feinberg

The New York Times reported Sunday that the Trump Administration has drafted a memo that would define gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by our genitals at birth. This limited definition of gender attempts to render many people, including me, invisible, and denies the experience of millions of people, throughout time and across cultures.

To be seen is a fundamental human need. We are relational beings. We learn about ourselves and the rest of our human community in relationship with one another. Being reflected in the people and world around me helps me to better see myself and to draw strength from our common human connection. And when I see you, I not only affirm you and your experience, but gain understanding of what it means to be human in a way that’s only possible by stepping, as best as I can, into your shoes.

This redefining of gender would not be a trivial act. It would harm many people already suffering from cultural bias, stigma and discrimination- particularly youth and people of color. It would also be detrimental to the self-esteem and well-being of many others.

The Times and others state that this proposed definition by the administration would have an impact on 1.4 million people who identify as Transgender. That number is misleading and minimizes the true impact of this action. First, that number reflects only a fraction of the people who identify or live their gender beyond the narrow definitions of the Gender binary. Millions more gender-diverse people claim a Gender identity other than transgender and millions more than that express their gender outside of traditional gender expectations. With evolving cultural norms regarding gender becoming part of our everyday lives, it is no wonder that people in power are escalating attempts to render gender-diverse people invisible.  

The impact of the administration’s proposed definition, however, goes beyond the effect it would have on gender-diverse people, imposing government intrusion into individual liberties. The memo includes the provision that if a person’s gender is in dispute, the dispute will be resolved through genetic testing. Where are the thresholds that define a person’s gender, and who gets to decide? If transgender people are forced to have genetic testing to define who they are, who will be tested next to determine their humanity?

Anyone with a high school level understanding of biology can tell you that sex and gender are more complex than what is implied in the administration’s memo, or than can be determined through genetic testing. Sex and sex characteristics are not so clear cut. Genetically speaking alone, there is a lot of variation in humans. The administration’s definition of gender as nothing more than one’s DNA is an attempt to disempower a group of people that they feel threatens the world they want to live in.

Naming and defining yourself, creating language that reflects and communicates your experience to others, is essential to self-empowerment. Stripping that ability dehumanizes and marginalizes people, undermining their sense of self and limiting their connection to others. Our country’s history bears witness to the impact of this marginalization and dehumanization, whether it’s been along racial, ethnic, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic, religious or other lines. For a country whose fundamental principles are built upon the idea, if not always the practice, of equality, this should be an affront to us all.

I began with the quote by Leslie Feinberg: “Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” Rather than limiting the definition of gender by denying what we know to be true and has been borne out in decades of research, it is instead time to encourage language and definition that reflects a richer, more complex understanding of gender beyond the binary biology model we’ve all been taught. This administration’s proposed change around gender would not stop the movement our country is making toward gender inclusion and equality, nor would it undo existing case law. But it does have the potential to be insidious and destructive in the unique ways these kinds of dehumanizing practices have — to cause us to doubt ourselves, to retreat into fear, to silence ourselves. But silence will not protect us. Invisibility will not protect us. I know many are tired; the day-to-day challenges can be exhausting. But it is not yet time to rest. Use your voice. You matter.