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Being transgender isn’t a mental illness. What’s sick is a society that treats it that way

Forget science – a Kansas lawmaker thinks he knows what makes people transgender: mental illness.

In a speech attacking the Obama administration’s support of trans students, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald dismissed the entire idea of a trans identity. “You’re either male or you’re female, and it’s not changeable,” he said. “It’s reality. Inability to deal with that reality, or to recognize that reality, is disoriented, and can be disoriented to the point of insanity.”

Fitzgerald isn’t alone in his diagnosis. In February, Tennessee House Rep. Susan Lynn put forward an anti-trans bathroom bill based in the idea that transgender people are dangerously mentally unstable. Lynn wrote on her Facebook page, “[N]o one should be forced to entertain another's mental disorder, and it is not healthy for the individual with the disorder.”

In a May letter to Tennessee Atty. Gen. Herbert Slatery, state Sen. Janice Bowling agreed with Lynn, accusing the federal government of “[accommodating] students with gender identity disorder at the expense of the mentally healthy enrollment.” Bowling’s letter was cosigned by 13 senators and 20 House representatives — all of whom, thus, endorsed the idea that being transgender is a disease.

The idea that being transgender is a mental illness is a common one among Republican lawmakers — and has served as potent ammunition in pushing anti-transgender bathroom bills across the country.

It is also completely untrue and based on outdated, inaccurate science. Medical opinion on the LGBT community has shifted dramatically in the last few decades, and continuing to treat transgender people as a suspect, afflicted population is the real threat to public health.

Although homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Assn. in 1973, the medical community’s progress on trans issues was much slower. Until 2012, transgender people were classified as having “gender identity disorder.”

But the APA amended that classification four years ago. It’s now known as “gender dysphoria.” As Mother Jones put it, this change to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was intended to show that “being transgender is not a disease but a human variation—more like being left-handed than schizophrenic.”

The APA’s Jack Drescher further stated that the goal of the switch was to end the medical practice of pathologizing transgender people, simply because their existence made others “uncomfortable.”

The APA declassification also reflects the evolution of how science is coming to understand trans identity. A 2008 research team from Prince Henry's Institute of Medical Research argued that gender dysphoria is a product of biology — specifically development in the womb.

“It is possible that a decrease in testosterone levels in the brain during development might result in incomplete masculinization of the brain in male to female transsexuals [sic], resulting in a more feminized brain and a female gender identity,” the study’s authors claimed.

Researchers in Spain further found that the brains of trans men and those assigned male at birth are nearly identical.

Dr. Johanna Olson, who serves as the medical director for the Transgender Clinic at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, told Rolling Stone in 2014 that it’s unlikely there’s any single reason that people are trans. Instead, the development of gender identity is likely a result of both nature and nurture.

Clearly, science and psychology have come a long way from the old Freudian-based notions of gender identity as a product of childhood trauma.

That hasn’t stopped right-wing advocacy groups like the American College of Pediatricians ACP from comparing gender reassignment to genital mutilation. The ACP has further advised that school administrators “reject all policies that condition children to accept as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.”

Bear in mind, the ACP is a political lobbying organization, and not a legitimate medical group. As ThinkProgress’ Zach Ford explains, “Its name is designed to be mistaken for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is a national organization with some 60,000 members.”

Yet ACP misinformation continues to find traction in the national push for anti-trans bathroom bills. In Georgia this year, Republican politicians wrote a letter urging Gov. Nathan Deal to cosign an 11-state lawsuit against the Obama administration, arguing that its trans student policy amounts to “child abuse.”

The ACP’s studies were cited in the letter.

Conservative groups opposed to trans rights aren’t going away. Unless they are challenged, their views will continue to underwrite bigotry in the name of science — supported by a public that might not know the difference.

The continued pathologizing of transgender people continues to make it easier to legally discriminate against them. Over 30 European countries still have laws on the books that require the forced sterilization of trans people in order to apply for gender-affirming legal documentation. These states include Italy, France, Germany, and the U.K.

Being transgender isn’t a mental illness. What’s truly sick is a society that continues to treat them that way.

Nico Lang is the East Coast reporter for the Advocate. You can also read his work on Salon, Onion A.V. Club and the Guardian. Find him on Twitter @nico_lang.

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An earlier version of this piece misidentified Tennessee House Rep. Susan Lynn as being from Oklahoma.
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