Thought Catalog
March 15, 2017

How The Brain Builds A Transphobe

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What is the issue?
Chloe Smith

An early act of Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department was a rollback of guidelines meant to ensure unrestricted public access for transgender individuals. The move was met with approval within many conservative circles, where the assertion is often made that gender simply can’t be changed. Born a she, and a she you must remain.

Mental health professionals, such as members of the American Psychological Association, disagree.

Yet the doubters remain. What is it about gender identity that makes a state of being, one not considered a mental disorder by experts, up for debate by laypeople? Further, why are some individuals wary of expanding the rights of others? Answers may lie in both decades-old and contemporary research into human behavior.

Being male or female is an influential characteristic. We’re curious to learn the sex of an unborn baby and then we immerse children in a sex-typed world. Sex – and, by extension, the identity connoted in the term “gender” —  may seem immutable. This feels like truth, akin to the fact that Grandma can’t bend spoons with her mind. We just know it.

The twentieth century saw increased insights into the methods a person uses to process information and to formulate a response. We often rely on various shortcuts – predicting future events based on easily accessible memories, for example, rather than a review of data. This “availability heuristic” results in our overestimating the likelihood of events that are memorable. One might be more afraid of travel by air than travel by car despite the latter’s being more risky. Flying just seems more dangerous.

We’re essentially relying often on our hunches as a guide for making decisions.

We tend to base decisions on what we think is true, and we use the most readily available examples to guide our judgments. Gender conformity is the state that most people experience, so we expect it and interpret behavior based on that expectation. A bit further downstream, we may perceive that a deviation from that state needs to be corrected to return to a rightful baseline.

A newer area of research helps us understand a second factor that comes into play: why some individuals react with apprehension when accommodations are made for certain groups – what some may disdainfully call “special interests.” The growing field of social cognitive neuroscience looks for brain markers of social experiences. An early finding was that even a minimal amount of “exclusion”, such as believing that one’s partners in a simple video game have begun to respond more to each other than to oneself, leads to a neurological response akin to physical pain. Specifically, parts of the brain that are active during this induced social pain overlap with those active during physical pain.

In short, we find it aversive to be excluded, and it may not take much for individuals to feel they are being excluded.

One might first point to this as evidence of the harm of being bullied or otherwise ostracized. But here’s an intriguing possibility: these anti-bullying findings may also help us understand the motivation of the majority. Those individuals whose perspectives were long the cultural default may feel they are being excluded when previously marginalized voices are heard. Civil rights may be seen as a zero-sum game: when policy changes are made for a small minority, the majority may tend to view this as an inherent loss of their own freedoms.  

Take the case of a San Diego mom last year. After learning in early 2016 that a transgender boy was using the boys’ high school locker room with his peers, this mom’s concern was for the rights of her son. She asked the school district to alert parents to the presence of a transgender student. She further requested that the locker room be modified — the boy in question could be segregated into his own changing room, for example, or the school could provide everyone private changing areas because of the boy.

Her plea, voiced publicly at a crowded school board meeting, was to consider the modesty concerns of her cisgender, white, football-playing son.

The narrative promoted by this mom was simple: there are two competing interests in this story and her son’s are as important as those of the transgender student. With this emphasis, her position was that a long-favored majority viewpoint needs as much advocacy as does an ostracized group known to have a high rate of suicide. This lack of empathy for the mental health of her son’s peer is unlikely to have resulted from a general dearth of empathy on her part. Instead she may have simply been motivated by a fear of being excluded as a driver of cultural mores. Again, we humans disfavor being excluded, and may be quick to conclude that our interests are losing prominence.

Solutions may lie in education, both about the science of gender identity and of how our brains process information.

Insight may also be gained from studying those who react favorably to the civil rights gains of minority groups. Perhaps such individuals draw different in-group/out-group lines with wider perimeters.  Psychologists and neuroscientists have more to contribute to our understanding of bias and the behaviors that result. For now, we continue the work of illustrating a lesson of history: when we confer second-class status to some, we harm us all. TC mark