What Science Tells Us About Gender Identity

Mar 23, 2017

After state legislators passed House Bill 2 last year, transgender rights took center stage in North Carolina - and across the United States.


The question of bathroom access pushed transgender people and their advocates into the spotlight. This happened as other high-profile figures like actress Laverne Cox and retired Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner became increasingly public about their own gender identity and transition.

But for a lot of North Carolinians, understanding transgender rights, and forming opinions is complicated.

A State Divided: HB2 & Transgender Rights - A Special Report

“If the transgender is a woman that feels like a man and wants to go to the man’s bathroom, he should be able to go to the man’s bathroom without being harassed,” said Brisia Felix, 22, of Henderson.

Felix said she’s heard about HB2 and supports a repeal of the law. But, she’s also concerned about her son’s safety in public bathrooms. What scares her most is the moment she has to let him go into a bathroom on his own. Those maternal fears are not specific to transgender people, but of anyone taking advantage of the law to commit a crime.

“There are crazy people out there and I just have have the concern about other people acting up and being crazy about it and take advantage of it and then people get hurt,” she said.

Henderson resident Brisia Felix, 22, and her 2-year-old son, Miguel. Felix supports a repeal of House Bill 2, but also worries about her son's safety when she has to send him into a bathroom by himself.
Credit Elizabeth Baier / WUNC

For Many, HB2 Leads To Complex Conversations About Gender

Felix’s conflicting feelings about HB2 highlight some of the complicated conversations that have emerged across North Carolina this year. What it means to be a woman? What it means to be a man? And what science and our surroundings tell us about how gender identity develops through childhood?

For Felix, talking about gender with her young son, Miguel, has happened in small moments, like when he wants to play with dolls or other toys with a specific gender association. She lets him play with any. His gender also came up during a recent toddler milestone: potty training.

“Sometimes, either I take him or my husband takes him,” Felix said. “And he’ll see that my husband be standing up and I’ll be sitting down when I take him. But then, I started telling him ‘You’ve got to stand up.’ It took him a while to understand what standing up has to do with.”

For Miguel, being taught that boys stand up is part of beginning to identify as a boy. But for many transgender kids, it’s not that simple.

An estimated 150,000 teenagers ages 13 to 17 and 1.4 million adults ages 18 and older identify as transgender in the United States, according to a recent study released by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

And studies show transgender kids are more at risk for mental illness, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide than their non-transgender peers.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015 file photo, a demonstrator holds a sign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance outside an early voting center in Houston. The contested ordinance is a broad measure that would consolidate existing bans on discrimination tied to race, sex, religion and other categories in employment, housing and public accommodations, and extend such protections to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. The anti-bias ordinance was repealed in a November 2015 referendum.
Credit Pat Sullivan / AP

That transition is a couple years in the making for Luke Duwve, the transgender teen from Morrisville. Duwve is the youngest of four children. He’s now 18, a high school senior, and a percussionist in the school’s marching band.

On a recent evening, Duwve pulled up a YouTube video of one of his favorite band performances. In it, he was still a girl. His name was Carolynn.

“Watching the videos, especially because it’s so much in character with the performance going on, I don’t really see myself so much as Carolyn then, I see myself as part of the group,” Duwve said. “I think doing the percussion helped a lot because I didn’t have to change a lot who I was, especially during those moments we were all one in the same.”

Outside of those performances, however, Duwve was changing.

He was born a girl but as a child always felt more like a boy. He hated wearing dresses, preferred his hair short, and had to get lessons from his older sister on how to act more girlish. By his sophomore year in high school, he told his mom, Jeanne, he identified as a boy.

There were times that were really difficult. There was mourning the daughter that I thought I was going to have. - Jeanne Duwve, mother of a transgender teen

Jeanne Duwve embraced her son immediately, though it wasn’t always easy.

“There were times that were really difficult,” Jeanne Duwve recalled. “There was mourning the daughter that I thought I was going to have. You know, the white wedding, the being there when she was birthing children, so there were times I would have to cry.”

But then one day, that changed. Jeanne said she remembers her son coming into her room for a snuggle.

“It was still the same smell. It was still the same feel. It was still the same child,” she said. “And once I could work through and mourn the dreams I had of having a daughter and start to build dreams of having a son, then it was perfect.”

Jeanne Duwve speaks at a press conference at the State Legislature on February 28, 2017. Duwve and other LGBT activists continue to call on state officials to repeal House Bill 2.
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC

Luke and his mom became outspoken critics of House Bill 2 this year, attending rallies and calling for legislators to repeal the law. But for all the public attention they’ve put on themselves and the issue of transgender rights, they both still fear for Luke’s safety, especially when he walks into a men’s bathroom. While he looks like a boy now, he hasn’t had sex reassignment surgery yet.

“There’s always a little bit of fear,” Luke Duwve said. “Some of it’s kind of irrational, like what if I walk into a bathroom and someone is like ‘Hey, why are you going into a stall? Why were you in the stall for such a short time.’ There’s always little fears like that that I know really won’t go anywhere, but if they do, that’s always the terrifying part.”

Luke and Jeanne Duwve hope some of those fears pass when Luke has the surgery, which he hopes to do this summer. And despite their safety concerns, they and other transgender advocates say speaking out is something they have to do.

Terri Phoenix directs the LGBTQ Center at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Phoenix said transgender visibility goes a long way toward minimizing misconceptions.

Terri Phoenix directs the LGBTQ Center at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.
Credit Matt Couch / WUNC

“In some respects, the visibility of transgender individuals is going to help because if people start to get to know trans people are not this ogre that people are painting them out to be...I think people, hopefully, can learn if they’re open to that, I think that they can learn that there are differences,” Phoenix said.

Those differences, Phoneix said, are easier for some people to understand than others.

"People have been taught,  you are either a male or a female as if it's a very clean-cut absolute fact that is determined at birth and that there is never any variation on," Phoenix said. "And so, if you start from that perspective, the ideas as a spectrum ,or the idea that gender identity exists parts from you assigned sex at birth I think is really somewhat challenging to get your head around."

HB2 Fallout Continues To Hit NC Sports

The conversation over transgender rights and bathroom bills is far from over in North Carolina. This winter, lawmakers failed to repeal House Bill 2 after two attempts at the state legislature.

Last week, the Duke Blue Devils had to play in South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The game was initially scheduled for Greensboro but was moved in response to HB2.

UNC also played in South Carolina. Tar Heels basketball Coach Roy Williams, one of the most recognizable people in the state, repeated calls for North Carolina legislators to do something about HB2.

"I have a hard time figuring out why we think our law is what’s right when 49 other states don’t have that," Williams said. "Are we that much smarter than 49 other states?"

But North Carolina may not be alone for long.

Lawmakers Introduce 'Bathroom Bills' Across The U.S.

And across the U.S., lawmakers in 16 other states have introduced similar bills that would require people to use the bathroom of their sex assigned at birth. Legislation in 13 of those states is pending. In three others, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming, legislation failed to pass.

One of those high-profile bills is moving through the Texas state legislature.

There, lawmakers are in the midst of passing a North Carolina-style bathroom bill that would require people to use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificates. That bill has drawn backlash from big businesses including Google, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association… in much the same way that businesses criticized House Bill 2 last year.

For now, North Carolina remains the only state in the country to enact this type of legislation. But the controversy over public toilets will likely remain a part of America’s latest culture war for years to come.