On Causes and Cures

As a member of the trans community, I often encounter people who desperately want to know why people are transgender. What happens to ‘make’ people trans. The same root search for a cause also comes up with asexuality, with cognitive disabilities like autism. Huge amounts of money and time are dedicated to asking ‘why,’ and it all leaves me feeling rather cold.

I’m interested in an abstract, academic kind of way in learning more about how people develop into who they are, what shapes people, how people relate with the world. But I don’t really want to know, on a deep level, if there’s a ’cause’ for things that are an integral part of people’s identities. Because along with the idea of finding a cause usually comes the desire to find a cure. People who say they want to know the cause of asexuality don’t just want to know because they think it’s interesting and they want to learn more. They want to know because they think it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed.

Sometimes this is very evident in the way that people who champion cause research talk about what they do. This is perhaps most transparent with autism, where cause crusaders nakedly state they want to ‘spare the children’ and find a way to ‘stamp out autism.’ To me, this rings as eugenics, because what these people are talking about is erasing people. Human beings. ‘Curing’ autism is not like setting a broken leg, it requires a fundamental shift in who a person is. How that person identifies and relates with the world. It is a complete destruction of identity.

Cause crusaders like to talk vaguely about looking for causes and identifying prevention methods, but they don’t delve very deeply into how that prevention is supposed to happen, because it brings up a lot of ugly and unpleasant things. If things like a trans gene, or an autism gene, are identified, how many people are going to choose prenatal diagnosis and abortion? How many people are going to decide they don’t want to bring ‘a child like that’ into the world? This is an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people because many see it as treading on reproductive rights, but these are questions that need to be asked.

The cause model presupposes that there is something wrong and bad that needs to go away. It assumes that people who are living, right now, don’t want to be alive. People talk about ‘curing’ like you can cut things like a trans identity out and leave the same person behind, but you can’t. That identity is so integral to personal identity that, to make a trans person not trans, you would fundamentally change that person. And in a world where people can identify ’causes’ before people even have a chance to live and decide for themselves…

We already see this happening. Historically, the standard of care for intersex children has been to assign them a gender and force them to conform to it. Only recently has there been an increased push to allow children to grow up without being mutilated at birth, without being forced to take hormones, so they can choose for themselves. Maybe some are trans, and want to transition to a different gender. Maybe some are happy to remain intersex. There’s no way to know until they are able to choose for themselves.

If we could live in a world where people were capable of studying and talking about causes without wanting to eradicate people, I’d be down with cause research. Because I think this stuff is interesting; it is interesting to look at demographics and populations, it really is. But when cause research starts with the basis of identifying something as wrong and working to fix it, it’s the wrong way to go about things.

And it leaves out the people who need help and support right now. All those people who pour money into finding out why people are trans are definitely not offering support to the trans community. They’re not paying for trans health services. They’re not supporting people through transition. They’re not working to reduce violent crime and sexual assault against trans people. They appear to have given up on living, breathing, actual people in the interests of preventing more people like them from appearing, which sickens me. Truly, it makes me feel nauseous to know that most people who want to know why people like me exist want to do so explicitly with the goal of preventing the world from containing me.

One of the things people don’t talk about very much is that in many preindustrial societies, there was much more room for gender and cognitive variance. Many people with cognitive disabilities lived as integrated members of their communities. While the concept of being transgender was not widely accepted, there was more variance in gender expression and much more open acceptance of people with different sexualities, including asexuality. Many people believe all cultures prior to this one were prudish, but that’s actually not the case. Even the Victorians weren’t nearly as prudish as we think they were.

It is an interesting conundrum, to note that one of the effects of industrialisation was more oppression for people with disabilities, for trans people, for queer people. People think of this as an enlightened era, but in many ways, it’s not. People may have had dubious explanations for the ’causes’ of things like cognitive disabilities in earlier eras, but at least they let their crips live in their communities, encouraged them to contribute and participate, made them members of the family. Unlike now, in this ‘enlightened’ era where people search for ways to eradicate us by making it was though we never were.