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Responding to the conservative tyranny of the gender-typicals

MIT Media Lab

by Joi Ito

Oct. 25, 2018

In September, I wrote "The Educational Tyranny of the Neurotypicals," a WIRED Ideas column about neurotypicals and neurodiversity. In it, I explained that our education system is designed for those people who fit a fairly narrow spectrum of “normal” thought processes, behavior, and social skills. Yet if you add together everyone in the US diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, and ADHD, they comprise about a quarter of the population. Ignoring neurodiversity in our educational practices, I argued, is a systematized way of making life harder and less productive for a huge number of people.

The Trump administration is now considering establishing a legal definition of sex under Title IX as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” a binary definition—motivated by politics, not science—that would effectively eliminate federal civil rights anti-discrimination protections for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. This move would be the gender equivalent of what my WIRED piece pointed out about our education system: it would put into place a system that narrowly and inaccurately defines what is normal and who is typical, and these types of definitions inevitably play into who succeeds and who doesn’t.

An (underestimated) 1.4 million people in the US don’t easily identify as strictly male or female. We’ve made great strides toward making the world more inclusive for these people, but laws and technologies continue to make it difficult for them to do things that many of us take for granted.

Take, for example, the simple act of creating all-gender restrooms at the Media Lab. We had the support of the Institute and a team of informed people working to make it happen, but, due to local ordinances, it took over a year to finally get the signs changed and equipment installed. (If this is the first time you’re hearing about these restrooms, that’s because nothing bad has happened and it should be a complete nonissue.)

Outdated and rigid ordinances and rules, and the design of forms and laws, make life difficult for all non-cisgender people and anyone who identifies outside of the gender binary. Laws, policies, and technology tend to be designed by and for the social version of the majority, at the expense and to the exclusion of people in these other spaces. In the case of this Title IX memo, HHS is effectively designing discrimination into a political system intended to protect people from discrimination. It would invalidate trans men and women’s claims to discrimination, and would also deny the existence of many real people who don’t identify as either male or female.

The notion that this is based on “science” is as farcical as it is discriminatory. Throughout human history, there are countless examples of intersex, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and trans individuals and populations. They’ve been here with us all along, as much a part of the fabric of the human story as any other type of human. We’ve made progress recently in making our society and social norms more inclusive, but this administrative change would set us back and so we have to resist it.

At the Media Lab, we work continuously to be more inclusive and to be proactive in finding ways to make everyone feel welcome and valued. In the grand scheme of things, all-gender restrooms seem like such a small gesture—literally the least we could do—but in a recent introduction, I listed it in my bio as probably the most important thing I’ve done in the past few years.

At the Media Lab, we celebrate the “antidisciplinary"—those spaces in academia and intellectual discourse that lie between disciplines. I don’t think it’s a big leap to draw a parallel here and say point-blank that our fellow humans don’t need to be forced into categories, either.

And so, in the face of an appalling and nonsensical step backwards in government policy, I’d like to offer my support to all trans, gender non-conforming, and/or nonbinary members of the Media Lab and MIT community. More broadly, I’m calling on leaders of academic communities to speak out on this issue and be very clear that they see, they support, they affirm, and they will protect trans people in their communities.

To those who are looking for a way to show their support: if you’re in Massachusetts, you can start by voting yes on question 3 on November 6. Everyone can make their voice heard using #WeWontBeErased and/or #WontBeErased, and we all can take the time to learn how to support and protect trans and nonbinary people.

Update: On October 29, 2018, interim Institute Community and Equity Officer Alyce Johnson spoke to MIT News about MIT's commitment to protecting the rights of the trans community at MIT. 

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