The debate over transgender rights is heating up this election year in places like North Carolina. It has become the new front on the gay rights fight after the Supreme Court legalize gay marriage. The North Carolina law is a thinly veiled attempted to spark controversy. There’s a perverse glee that can be see all over the face of Gov. McCrory every time he’s interviewed on TV. His delivery has a patronizing smarm as if he just can’t believe what all the fuss is about. This is the same half-cocked attitude employed by all manner of racist southern governors during the Civil Rights movement not to mention small town principals and coaches. His complete misunderstanding of other people’s needs, the complexity of human biology and the shifting tides of culture, has given cover to flat out discrimination. And he’s grandstanding on top of it.
One could do worse than to point Gov. McCrory to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book about genes. Mukherjee is the best-selling author of the Emperor of All Maladies, a history of cancer. He’s also working oncologist whose latest book is about genes. Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air and one exchange might serve useful if you ever encounter someone who is scared by trans-people or doesn’t understand the why it’s important for people to go to the bathroom where they want.
GROSS: So let’s talk about gender identity – what are genetic scientists learning about people who have the discrepancy between their gender anatomy and their gender identity?
MUKHERJEE: So for the large part, gender anatomy, whether you’re male or female in terms of the sexual anatomy, is determined really by one master regulator gene. It’s a transcription factor, as you can imagine, one of these master genes. And unsurprisingly, it sits in the Y chromosome. If you have the Y chromosome and then therefore inherit the gene, then you will be born a male. You will have, for the large part – for most people, you will have the gender anatomy of a male. If you don’t have the gene, you will be born female and have the gender anatomy, for the most part, of a female.
– Now, but once in a while, this pattern is changed. Occasionally, there are people, rare human beings, where you inherit the Y chromosome, but you don’t – you have a mutation in that X or Y gene. So essentially you are born with the Y chromosome. But essentially, your anatomy, and for the most part your identity, is female. That teaches us something very important. That means that as far as gender anatomy is concerned – as far as even gender identity is concerned, there is one master regulator. So it tells us that it’s a single master regulator, and we know what that master regulator is.
What it also tells us – and this is where things get most interesting – is that that master regulator, we now know, begins to recruit downstream things. It’s not – it doesn’t act on its own. It’s sort of like the commander in the army. But the commander in the army still has to have recruited its deployment of all the other troops, all the other – you know, the hierarchy, as it were. And there are infinite variations along that hierarchy. So you could still have, as it were, the master regulator, a commanding male gender anatomy and a different hierarchical organization flowing down from it, which would lead to slight different variations or radically different variations in gender identity. In other words, you’ll have male anatomy, but you may not have all the same aspects – or people have different aspects of male identity.
So the point here being is that genes can sit at peaks or at pentacles of cascades or hierarchies and command things in an on-and-off manner – female, male. But the way that these genes – this genetic information percolates down into the individual, the way this hierarchy percolates down into an individual might be very different from one person to another and therefore create the kind of infinite ripples or variations in human identity that we experience in human life.
In other words, one’s identity is a complex army of biological factors and your genetic sex is a strong, but not the only, determining factor in what makes you, you. Gender identity is a destiny and biology is merely one part of a large tapestry of life. These bathroom laws are aimed at a cultural understanding of gender, dresses verses neckties. The need for two bathrooms isn’t based on science, it’s based on society. The truly sad part of these laws is that the people they are hurting would rather lead normal lives out of the spotlight, but discrimination has forced them to face a culture that rejects it. While the governor uses the bathroom where and when he pleases thousands of North Carolinians live in fear. All because of simple misunderstanding of biology.