Breaking news: Ben Carson said something upsetting again. Sometimes these things are best ignored, and other times, like this one, insight can be coaxed from the seemingly somnambulant neurosurgeon's unfortunate utterances. Attorney General Loretta Lynch compared pieces of legislation like North Carolina's "bathroom bill" to Jim Crow laws, and Ben Carson thinks that comparison is "a bunch of crap."
The statements came as Lynch announced on Monday that the Justice Department will launch a counter-suit against North Carolina, whose governor, Pat McCrory, sued the Justice Department over threats to cut state funding should he implement House Bill 2, CNN reported. The bill is one of several around the nation that has been proposed in recent months to restrict trans people's access to public facilities that correspond with their gender identity, not their assigned-at-birth sex.
Lynch said that this is a reaction to progress we've seen before: "We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation." Jim Crow laws legalized segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks on the state and local levels across the South for about 75 years. Politico reported Carson's response to Lynch's comparison:
That's what they always say. Everything is like Jim Crow. Everything is like racism and segregation and slavery. What a bunch of crap. You know, they want to do that so that they can always gain the sympathy, but thinking people know better.
OK, so the bathroom bills don't take away trans people's rights to vote or make them eat in different restaurants than cisgender people, but is the comparison really that hyperbolic? Transphobia is a real thing, and bathroom bills that force trans men who present as men to use women's rooms, and trans women who present as women to use men's rooms, put trans individuals in immediate danger when using restrooms — places that are already fraught with the threat of harassment and violence for trans people.
When we put pieces of legislation that subject trans people to danger in the broader context of U.S. legislation, the picture is grimmer; it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against trans people in the areas of housing and employment in half the states. Comparing the situation of trans individuals to another prominent historical civil rights abuse doesn't really sound like a "bunch of crap" to me.
But, as I often find when someone diminishes the problematic nature of these bathroom bills, or outright supports them, Carson went on to express an underlying disbelief in the legitimacy of trans people's experience. Politico reported Carson's statements:
You know, we need to go back to recognizing data and science. You know, we know what men are, and we know what women are, and we’ve known that for thousands of years. You know, if there are some people who are confused about it, we can make some accommodations for them, but it doesn't have to involve everybody.
The ideas that trans people are just "confused" and that gender identity is a simple matter are, unfortunately, still prevalent. But Carson's appeal to "data and science" here is uninformed — yes, I'm saying that a neurosurgeon is expressing an oversimplified concept of science.
Actually, the science around gender and sex is extremely complex. If Carson was up on his "data and science," he might know that, in February of 2015, Boston University School of Medicine researchers published a review article showing that there is increasing evidence that gender identity has biological, not psychological, sources. He might know about the incredibly detailed article in Nature that digs into the myriad factors that go into determining sex, including hormones, chromosomes, genes, gonads, and genitalia, all of which don't line up to indicate the same sex in some individuals. He may have read trans writer Kat Callahan's excellent piece on her own experience, in which she describes empirically observable "mapping" issues between her brain and body related to gender identity, as well as androgen receptivity issues.
We can't conclude that all instances of transgender identity are biologically rooted, but what is clear at this point, based on "data and science," is that gender identity and sex itself are anything but simple in some cases. As with many things we thought we knew thousands of years ago, Carson's idea that trans people are just confused really is a bunch of crap.