The Politics of Biology
Writing: Shin Woo Kim
Illustration: Isi Williams
Being an autistic trans biology student of colour means that you deal with a scientific community that’s biased against you. Society is hard enough to deal with, but the constant reminder that science negatively impacts your quality of life is also the reason my frangible mental health is deteriorating while I’m doing the course. Society is hard because despite being a man, I’m constantly called a ‘she.’ Why is it so hard to call me a ‘he’ when other guys get called ‘he’ effortlessly? I bind, I cut my hair short, what more do I have to do for people to call me a ‘he?’ Some people say that gender is down to genitals. Penis = male. As someone without one, I’m apparently not male. In fact, when I say I’m trans, people often respond with: ‘So you are biologically female?’ As if the word ‘biologically’ automatically makes it acceptable to misgender me in any way. Plus, the question is a very private one – why do they even want to know what genitals I have? The term ‘biologically’ female or male is a scientific binary that’s contradictory in so many ways. To prove my point, let’s take a look at spotted hyenas. The so-called ‘female’ spotted hyenas appear to have a phallus, which we biologists label a ‘pseudo’-penis due to minor differences like smaller size. It’s as if we are desperate to use these minute details to maintain a binary narrative of there being a ‘male’ and ‘female’ hyena, especially when the lines are blurred. In reality, the gender binary is neither natural nor universal. We, as a society, are led to believe that scientists produced by academia are to be trusted. But are we that reliable? As a biologist, one is taught to be critical of what other scientists write and I urge other people outside of the discipline to do exactly that.
Take for example, ‘pro-life’ Christian biologists who like to cherry-pick scientific information to prove that foetuses are ‘alive’ from conception. It is easy to spot bias in this extreme example. However, this bias has been there from the beginning of science and continues in ways both visible and subtle. I’m not only talking about transphobic bias, but also racist and ableist bias. Scientific racism unfortunately still exists. Meiners, a white German ‘scientist’, said that black people had smaller brains than any other race, effectively calling them intellectually inferior. Yes, we have come a long way since Meiners’ time; for example we have developed a peer-reviewing system as one way to reduce bias. However, that does not mean that a scientific paper is devoid of bias. As recently as 1998, Andrew Wakefield, along with 12 co-authors, published a paper to show that there is a causal link between vaccines and autism. The paper turned out to be fraudulent but just because it came from a scientist, anti-vaxxers believed and continue to believe this lie, impacting the lives of children and vulnerable people around them. Wakefield’s anti-autism research highlights the ableist bias present and perpetuated by science.
As an autistic person, I have complex feelings about this issue. Autism research has its benefits because it helps me to understand my behaviors, such as why I flap my arms when I get excited or why I hyperfocus on my special interests. It reassures me that I’m not some canker to society, I’m just wired differently. Autism research can also pave the way to accommodations for autistic people. Society was structured to accommodate for the dominant group, in this case neurotypical people, and thus can never be a place for autistic or neurodivergent people unless we adjust the system. It’s why I’ll never be okay with autism research meant to ‘cure’ autism. A lot of people are surprised to know that most autistic people do not want a cure. Why do allistic people not know? Ableist scientific bias favours autism cure research in response to negative portrayals of autistic people in the media.
We are sympathy porn, meant for allistic neurotypical eyes to feel sorry for us and our families who have to ‘deal’ with us. We are portrayed as a burden to our allistic family members, friends and coworkers. Since this mindset is heavily ingrained into our society, a ‘cure’ for autism will only cause harm. A ‘cure’ creates a solution for a society that dare not deal with us and creates an excuse for them not to accommodate for us. What scientists do and research is connected to the biases and oppressive structures they exist within. Academia is viciously linked to a society that discriminates against minorities, against trans people, against people of colour, and against autistic people. This is why I’ll always feel uncomfortable in biology lectures that perpetuate the gender binary. This is why lectures on autism cure research will eat away at my heart. Science has a long way to go. And I, a trans autistic biologist of colour, am about to change that from the inside.