by Caleb Luna
Frequently, articles circulate my newsfeed claiming to reveal a scientific correlation between a socially unacceptable habit and more favorable traits. I’ve seen articles assert that people with more belly fat make better lovers or that people who curse often are smarter. I understand why these conclusions resonate with us: they work to challenge preconceived notions of acceptable humanity and attempt to make those of us who challenge—or outright fail at—social norms feel better.
Especially as queer and trans people of color in a world that seeks to invalidate our existence, these articles can be comforting. We want evidence against the impossible and unrealistic ideals that were created to condemn us.
But, when reading these scientific reports, nothing is apolitical—even science. Science is yet another tool that benefits those who are in power to the detriment of those who are actively being worked to disempower. When we uncritically accept and circulate these scientific findings, we forget about whose standards are being appealed to, and worse, we ignore science’s fraught history within our own communities.
Medical racism began in an imperial context. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, white social scientists from the U.S. and Europe studied the bodies of Black and Indigenous people. Everything from cranium size, height, weight, fingernail size and even genital size were measured and compared to the white body. There wasn’t a real need for this information, as science and medicine had been studied on their own white populations, and should have easily translated onto an understanding of other human bodies. But this was not a science that was about understanding a Black and/or Indigenous body—it was about categorizing and classifying them as distinctly different and, thus, inferior to our white counterparts. Research of this genre further institutionalized, and continues to institutionalize, whiteness as the idealized standard.
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With the invention of sexual identity categories, came the potential to identify as exclusively attracted to people of the same gender, and scientists began to study this new phenomenon of ‘homosexuality.’ Rather than considering ways ‘homosexuals’ could be integrated into scientific understanding, scientists began to search for ‘cures’ to end the practice of homosexuality altogether. Torture and abuse regiments such as chemical castration and shock or conversion therapy became standard responses to these aberrations.
Now, with the discovery of the human genome map, there are scientists who seek a gene that informs sexual identities. Despite the fact that these identities are social and not biological, some advocates have appealed to biology to demand a biological basis for human rights. Meanwhile, others in the medical community responded by mobilizing an agenda to cure the ‘gay gene,’ even in utero.
The transgender community faces tremendous barriers to gender self-determination through scientific justification. Autonomy and innate understanding of oneself becomes secondary to the assumed objectivity of medical doctors—many of whom are not transgender, nor know or spend time with transgender people in any personal capacity, and thus have little to no understanding of a transgender experience. Many doctors still act as self-appointed gate-keepers to medicine, procedures and therapy that could not only assist in aligning trans peoples’ bodies with their gender and support their mental health, but would make their lives infinitely safer – services that are vital to the mental and physical well-being of trans folks.
Rather than provided as needed, medicine as an institution forces transgender folks to filter themselves and their decisions through medical logics to people with no understanding or authority of their experience. This process often reproduces the trauma of the larger world in wildly intimate ways, in a performance effectively reifying science as authoritative, doled only to those seen as ‘worthy’ of care.
Body sizes are another aspect that continues to be scrutinized socially and medically. We are told that it is best for bodies to be as small as possible—especially for women—and the medical community reflects that belief. Again, culture and medicine work in tandem to create previously non-existent norms and standards. In effect, this leads to a cultural-medical narrative that larger bodies lead to a laundry list of potential health issues. Body size is not an indicator of health, and choosing to focus on a specific embodiment that aligns with cultural norms is yet another way science serves capitalisms’ best interest.
There are countless contradictory studies that will prove or disprove the so-called inherent dangers of my fat body. For me, this does not necessarily make either stance factual or false; rather, it serves as evidence that there is no singular truth, and science can be used to any desired ends —for, or against, my favor.
Science cannot be objective when those who are creating it are produced by a society with predetermined ideas of which bodies are and aren’t acceptable, and ideas of who deserves to live and who doesn’t. Although some practitioners dedicate their careers to combating these structures, many are invested in replicating them. Even scientists who have the best of intentions might still produce science with really horrifying end results. When recent studies seek to find genetic origins of fatness, it might ease the minds of those of us who struggle with body shame, but it will also contribute to the continued pursuit of scientific ‘solutions’ (or elimination) of fatness altogether.
This is not to say that science is categorically wrong or evil and has never supported anyone. Many of us benefit from science and medicine. Medical achievements, and advancements have specifically impacted disabled and transgender communities, both of which frequently work closely with medical professionals in order to make their lives more possible. I do not want to undermine, minimize or dismiss that. The benefits gained from these communities within a larger society that otherwise actively oppresses them are very real.
I am a fat, queer, gender non-conforming person of color, whose own body as been manipulated by unethical medical practices. An unnecessary procedure as a youth has left me with stunted height and a disparity in the length of my legs that has resulted in a limp and back pains that worsen as I age. Given this, it is difficult for me to engage with science aware of its multiple histories, which have often been eugenicist in practice.
While it’s not currently possible to disavow science and Western medicine completely, I do wish we would be more critical of who these gains of science are meant to represent, benefit, or incorporate, because under the Medical Industrial Complex, I know it is not for us.
Caleb Luna is a working class fat, brown, queer, femme living, writing, performing and dancing in Austin. Their work explores the intersections of fatness, desire, white supremacy and colonialism. You can find more of their writing on BGD and Facebook and Tumblr at @queerandpresentdanger.
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