The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act signed into law by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant protects people from state sanctions when they act on “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” The bill makes it lawful for people (whether judge, florist, limousine driver, or disc-jockey) to refuse to participate in same-sex marriages. Religious organizations can refuse employment, housing, and services to LGBT persons. Doctors can refuse certain treatments for transgender individuals. Employers and schools can require transgender individuals to dress in ways and use restrooms that do not match their gender identity.
Many have rightly denounced the bill. Yet its most dangerous aspect has not been highlighted: it clothes discrimination against transgender people in the authoritative garb of science. In so doing, it raises some of the ugliest specters in the history of modern oppression. Eugenics, racism, slavery, sexism – science has long been used to justify dehumanization and discrimination.
One of the beliefs protected by this law is that “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” With this appeal to the scientific terms of biology, genetics, anatomy, and objectivity, the bill seeks to accomplish the old sleight of hand whereby nature displaces politics. The Mississippi legislature has not decided who shall count as male and female – they are only the modest witnesses to what Mother Nature has already unalterably inscribed!
Inconveniently for them, this sincerely held belief about the ‘immutable’ binary of sex is wrong. Indeed, it’s just as wrong as Ron Burgundy’s blithe pronouncement that women have brains one third the size of men. “It’s science,” he says with that lovable confidence of a dunce unaware of his own density.
Like the chauvinist 1970s anchorman, the people behind this bill don’t really care or know much about the science of sex. They just want a sledgehammer to put an end to an argument that has gotten too complex for them and pushed them out of their comfort zone. As we all know, “It’s anchor-man, not anchor-lady. That is a scientific fact!”
Still it’s worth pointing out just how much evidence there is against the belief that male and female are objectively determined by biology. There are human chimeras like one pregnant woman who found out in her forties that a significant portion of her body is actually chromosomally male. Nearly everyone is a mosaic of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that doesn’t match the rest of the body. Roughly one in 100 individuals has some form of differences of sex development (DSDs). Some of these people have a sexual anatomy that says one thing and chromosomes that say something else. There are individuals who are genetically XX but who develop as males if they have a copy of a certain gene.
Men often carry cells from their mothers and mothers carry cells from their sons, which might actually integrate into their tissues and adopt a working role in the body. Then there are those cases where grown men who are XY with normal external male genitalia discover they also have a fully functioning uterus and ovaries. And of course all of this is not even to mention that gender is the quest for personal identity, a moral and psychological saga that overlays its own intricacies atop this jumbled biological bazaar.
That announcement at the time of birth (It’s a boy!) is not an objective determination based on the dictates of chromosomes and their anatomical expression. It’s a snap judgment based on a first look – in many ways, the opposite of science. Our bodies are not blank slates, to be sure. We each have a nature that we spend a lifetime responding to – refining, resisting, seeking, exploring. We don’t determine our chromosomes. But neither do they determine us. Our personal identity, including our gender identity, is a personal project shaped, but not fated, by our biology.
“He created them male and female, and he blessed them and called them human” (Gen. 5:2). There are two poles, male and female, that anchor a stable cosmic order where one can feel at home. That’s the basis of this sincerely held belief. I understand the urge to ward off the disorienting thrust of what seems like a nihilistic culture. And I can see the strategy of trying to galvanize deeply felt intuitions (what Aristotle called nous, or worldviews) with science, which is the authoritative voice of that culture.
But this isn’t just dangerous and wrong; it’s nonsense. For science, no belief, no matter how sacred or ensconced in tradition, is beyond critical examination. Science is the last place to look for refuge. All convictions live with their necks in the guillotine. Objectivity is not a shield to guard established truths, but the shining blade poised overhead. And science is beheading old beliefs about immutable sex and gender binaries.
Religious liberty has become the conservative flavor of PC culture – a censorious wall protecting beliefs from the harsh light of examination. It’s state sanctioned confirmation bias, as if we don’t have enough of that in the age of personalized media. We don’t really know what’s going on with sex and gender. We just know it is more freaky and complex than we once assumed. Insofar as science can inform our policies, it can’t be as a brine to pickle outdated ideas, but as a model of humility in the face of a changing world.