You know what this world needs more of? Misconceptions about transsexuality.

Wait… I think I got that backwards.

Right… there is absolutely no dearth whatsoever of misconceptions people have about transsexuality. Sometimes I feel like a sort of trans-advocate Sisyphus, perpetually pushing a boulder of education up a hill of myths, stereotypes, fear, hatred, ignorance, disinterest and general laziness. And really, I could spend the rest of my life just trying to debunk a small sub-set of the mistaken beliefs about us held in the mind of the general public.

Quite often, people tell me to pick my battles. So in the interest of actually listening to my friends for a change, that’s what I’m going to try to do today. Pick a battle. In this case, something that I really need to get out the way if I’m going to keep at this whole “discussing trans issues in the skeptic community” thing, something that I’ve come to regard as by far the most common misconception about transsexuality within skepticism: the belief that transsexuals are and always shall be “objectively”, “scientifically”, “biologically” members of their assigned sex.

I’ve noticed it repeatedly. Sometimes it is explained in a very condescending fashion… being told that my little definition of gender is simply brushing aside the science. That I’m pretentious to ignore the empirical reality and ask everyone to simply go along with my version of reality. Sometimes people can get very, very worked up about it, as though I’m threatening some extremely important fundamental framework upon which they’ve built their worldview. And I am, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong to do so.

It’s probably better if I not try to think too much about what exactly makes this belief so prevalent amongst skeptics, but the basic foundation of this belief starts with the assumption that the primary or best definition of sex is genetic. On the one side we have males, who are XY, and on the other we have females, who are XX, and sometimes we have various intersex conditions. It’s a tidy and unambiguous definition that provides comfortably hard answers. One’s DNA can’t be changed by current medical science, so under this definition a man will always be a man and can only be superficially changed to resemble a woman, and vice versa.

Of course, the first issue one takes with this view is that it is treating sex as being the same thing as gender and not really paying due consideration to that distinction. To put it briefly, sex is the physical body, while gender is identity, presentation, self-expression, interpersonal relationships, socio-cultural role, etc. The common phrase (which is a tad inaccurate but gets the job done) is  “sex is between your legs, gender is between your ears”. An imperfect but fairly good and very readable breakdown of the basics of sex and gender can be found here.

However, we can go further with this. Even if we are looking at sex specifically, and disregarding gender with all its relative, subjective, soft-science-ness that is often so unappealing to some skeptics, we still find that the genetic definition of sex is not necessarily the best way of looking at things.

In truth, sex is a loose aggregation of a variety of variables. Chromosomes, yes, but also hormonal levels, genitals, secondary sexual characteristics, skeletal structure and so on. We consider each of these traits to be male, female, or not quite either, then collectively make some kind of rough, relatively subjective determination as to whether it is a male body, a female body or an intersexed body. This is not unlike the daily process of gendering we engage in every time we come across another human being. We make a quick, subconscious, intuitive weighing of the feminine cues against the masculine ones and make a judgment call on how we should mentally categorize that person. But even in a medical situation, where we are strictly looking at an individual’s anatomy, it can still be just as much of a subjective judgment call based on the relative weight being given to individual traits, and there’s no real reason to say the karyotype gets the final say.

If one makes the declaration that my genes are the “biological reality” that makes me “scientifically male”, it implies that things like my skin tone, my lack of body hair, my hormone levels, my breasts, my scent and all the other female or feminized aspects of my body are all somehow just in my head, figments of my imagination or “my version of reality”, or are merely cosmetic despite the fact that my breasts, for instance, are exactly as real, and developed through the exact same physical processes, as any other woman’s. Meanwhile saying that my completely invisible, anatomically irrelevant Y chromosome trumps everything else and dictates what my body really is. Pardon me if I don’t find that to be a terribly objective way of looking at things.

I’ve heard as an argument to prove how I’m really ‘scientifically’ male the hypothetical situation in which my horrifically disfigured, mutilated, unrecognizable corpse turns up in some abandoned building. A forensic pathologist, in an effort to determine my identity, conducts a DNA test and comes to the conclusion that I was male. Therefore, goes the argument, since the scientist using her scientific tests came to the conclusion that I’m male, that’s what I ‘scientifically’ am. But that’s only one particular inaccurate conclusion, made from the results of one particular test, that one particular type of scientist would make in one particular situation that has been contrived specifically to provide incomplete information. It’s easy to imagine another hypothetical: a doctor is trying to ascertain my identity based solely on a blood sample. He checks the hormone levels and comes to the conclusion that I’m a cisgender (not trans) woman at the mid-point in her cycle with a slightly low testosterone level. By that scientific test I’m ‘scientifically’ female. What makes the one inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information more scientific and correct than the other inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information?

I could stop here, since I feel I’ve made a fairly good case for why it doesn’t really make much sense to privilege genetic sex as being more objective and real than the other variables involved in sex, but I believe I can actually go further and make the case that chromosomes are actually less relevant for defining sex than other characteristics.

The truth is chromosomes don’t really play all that much of a role in human sexual differentiation. That work is done by hormones. Basically, all of our cells (and tissues) carry the genetic potential to express themselves in either female or male ways. Hormones come along and send a little message to activate certain genes or deactivate other ones. Estrogen comes in and says, “Okay, ladies! Time to do girl stuff!”… or testosterone struts on in and says “Listen, dudes. It’s time to man up. Hoo-hah!”.

I’ve also come across the misconception that there are such things as “male cells” and “female cells”. It doesn’t work like that. The Y chromosome doesn’t really do much. Basically, it only has one real function, and that’s to transform the embryonic ovaries into testes, which then triggers the cascade of hormones that signal the necessary mutations and cellular functions that create a male body. The rest of the Y chromosome is mostly just deteriorating junk DNA. And in the case of XX cells, one of those X chromosomes is deactivated. This means there is pretty much no functional difference between an XX cell and an XY cell at all.

We all start out as a sort of proto-female fetus. While an XY fetus is in utero, prenatal hormones trigger a series of changes that cause the developing fetus to acquire male characteristics. The proto-clitoris/proto-penis grows and fuses with the urethra. The testes descend. The vaginal canal closes. What would have been labia becomes a scrotum. The fact that male genitals are created out of the same tissues that would have been female genitals is precisely why MtF sexual reassignment surgery, vaginoplasty, is able to produce the highly functional, virtually indistinguishable results it does.

The only thing having “normal” XX or XY chromosomes is truly essential for is fertility, having functional ovaries or testes, and being able to have or produce ova and sperm. But we don’t go around claiming infertile men aren’t really men, or that if a man loses his testicles to cancer that he suddenly ceases being a man. Nor do we claim that a woman who has a hysterectomy or goes through menopause suddenly ceases being a woman. So fertility seems like a silly thing to suddenly consider all that important in determining the sex of a human being.

There’s an interesting intersex condition called CAIS, or Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The cells in someone with this condition are completely unresponsive to androgenic hormones. Therefore, despite having an XY karyotype, the aforementioned sequence of physical changes that causes the fetus to become male never occur, and the infant is born being phenotypically indistinguishable from any other girl. They are assigned female, socialized as female, and pretty much lead completely normal female lives, with the only differences being that they are infertile, do not menstruate, have a slightly shallower vaginal canal, and may actually be somewhat more physically feminine than other women, given that almost all women do have a small amount of testosterone in their bodies.

As a contrast to this condition, I’d like to describe one of my all-time favourite biological weirdnesses: bilaterally gynandromorphic chickens. These are chickens that are, quite literally, split right down the middle of their bodies, being a rooster on one half and a hen on the other. Cool, yeah? This could never happen in humans.

This is caused by chimerism. Chimerism is when two embryos with unique DNA will fuse together and develop as a single fetus, resulting in an individual with two sets of DNA in a single body. This can occur in humans as well as chickens.

Sometimes a chimera will have one set of DNA be male and the other female. This is what happens in the case of our avian gynandromorphs. Since chickens don’t have as efficient a system of sexual differentiation as we do, and don’t work from a blank template that can express as either male or female depending on hormonal signals, their sexual differentiation actually is all about the genes. So the female DNA will express as hen and the male DNA will express as rooster.

Back to this not happening in humans: yes, intersexual chimerism can happen in humans. You can even end up with human beings who have one ovary and one testicle. But given that almost all sexual differentiation is a result of hormones, which are more or less evenly distributed throughout the body, you would never see any kind of stark split down the middle of a human with, say, a breast on one side and a flat chest on the other. Soft, hairless skin on one side and hairy, oily skin on the other. Instead, whatever secondary sexual characteristics were expressed would be expressed throughout the body. Some interesting patterns may develop, but that would be simply due to the difference in other genes between the two strands, not the difference in sexual chromosomes.

So please, I would ask all skeptically minded people everywhere: please educate yourselves about the science of sex and gender before making claims about it. And especially try to make sure you know the actual science involved before assuming that trans people are ignorant of it, or that we’re brushing it aside in favour of a purely relativistic, subjective, sociological approach. And please don’t tell us what aspects of our bodies are and are not a biological, objective reality. Thank you!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the mood for some KFC.

Natalie

Natalie

Natalie Reed now writes at http://www.freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed

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47 Comments

  1. Avatar of NoAstronomer
    December 14, 2011 at 10:43 am —

    ‘Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens’ – another item for the ‘you learn something everyday’ file. Interesting read, thanks.

    One thing I’ve noticed about people who tell me to ‘pick my battles’ is that they never, ever, stand up for anything. They always surrender.

    Mike.

  2. Avatar of mraby
    December 14, 2011 at 11:04 am —

    Natalie, I love your posts! This is really interesting stuff, and you’re a great writer. Beyond the bilaterally gynandromorphic chickens (totally rad), I’m so glad to see a more complex (and accurate!) view about what counts as scientific being expressed on a skeptic blog. Reducing reality to one science (genetics) is not more scientific. We need to integrate all relevant scientific disciplines––reality is complicated and interesting! And we need people with many different perspectives and life experiences to remind us of this, sometimes. Thank you!

  3. Avatar of Luke
    December 14, 2011 at 11:05 am —

    A combination of CAIS and tetragametic chimerism, or an early loss-of-function mutation, (plus the “right” distribution of cell types) could create individuals with cells that react differently to hormones and could create different tissues with different secondary sexual characteristics. Bilateral (or at least bipartitioned) gynandromorphic humans may be able to exist.

    Not really a constructive comment, I know…

    • Avatar of Natalie
      December 14, 2011 at 12:49 pm —

      Not constructive, but really cool! I hadn’t thought of that. But that would be like lightning striking a winning lottery ticket. ;)

  4. Avatar of joelklinepeter
    December 14, 2011 at 11:22 am —

    Great article! I’ve always enjoyed destroying cissexist jerks who try to appropriate science for their nonsense. It’s been pretty clear for a while now that a comprehensive understanding of biology and neurology falls heavily on the trans-positive side of things.

  5. Avatar of dr. dr. professor
    December 14, 2011 at 11:34 am —

    Interesting, do you have any links to literature on this subject?

    • Avatar of Vene
      December 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm —

      There’s a nice compilation of studies related to trans and intersex issues here: http://aebrain.blogspot.com/p/reference-works-on-transsexual-and.html

      Also, Natalie, as a biology person, thank you so much for this. I loathe it how people think chromosomes mean so damn much. There is so much more to sex than XX or XY. Actually, this makes me think of a “rule” in biology, there is always an exception. Men are always XY and women are always XX, except when they’re not like with transsexuality and CAIS and (potentially) chimerism.

      • Avatar of dr. dr. professor
        December 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm —

        Thanks.

        • Avatar of Zoe Brain
          December 6, 2013 at 6:10 am —

          Glad you found it useful.
          There’s rather more embedded in the blog – I should update that page.
          Examples of some common misconceptions, and counterexamples:

          One pair of chromosomes is known to determine an individual’s sex.
          Counterexample: J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jan;93(1):182-9
          A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis.

          The biological sexual constitution of an individual is fixed at birth (at the latest)
          Counterexamples : Bone marrow-derived cells from male donors can compose endometrial glands in female transplant recipients by Ikoma et al in Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Dec;201(6):608.e1-8 & Transplanted human bone marrow cells generate new brain cells by Crain BJ, Tran SD, Mezey E. in J Neurol Sci. 2005 Jun 15;233(1-2):121-3 :
          These show that a bone-marrow transplant recipient’s entire bodies gradually become genetically identical to that of the donor due to cell turnover. Even the brain. Even the reproductive glands. Not the hair though, oddly enough.

          The biological sexual constitution of an individual cannot be changed by the natural development of organs of the opposite sex
          Counterexample : Imperato-McGinley J, Guerrero L, Gautier T, Peterson RE. Steroid 5alpha-reductase deficiency in man: an inherited form of male pseudohermaphroditism. Science 1974 Dec 27; 186 (4170): 1213-5

          In an isolated village of the southwestern Dominican Republic, 2% of the live births were in the 1970’s, guevedoces (actually male pseudohermaphrodites). These children appeared to be girls at birth, but at puberty these ‘girls’ sprout muscles, testes, and a penis. For the rest of their lives they are men in nearly all respects. Their underlying pathology was found to be a deficiency of the enzyme, 5-alpha Reductase.

  6. Avatar of GideonBanner
    December 14, 2011 at 11:43 am —

    I think that you’re completely over looking the role of the Y chromosome in really hairy ears! :P

    Ok bad joke aside, I just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed your posts and look forward to seeing more of them.

    Lurker field reactivate!

  7. Avatar of Erin W
    December 14, 2011 at 11:57 am —

    I think I’ve shared every post you’ve written since you joined Skepchick. Thanks for helping me explain my life to my friends.

    Also, great appearance on Godless Bitches!

  8. Avatar of daedalus2u
    December 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm —

    Very nice article. It illustrates the lengths that bigots will go to in order to justify their bigotry. In this example, you have people who have never had a scientific thought in their life and deny science in every other context, trying to use “science” to justify treating people they hate in certain ways.

    It is unfortunate that science gets abused by bigots to try and justify their bigotry.

    • Avatar of Natalie
      December 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm —

      To be fair, a lot of the times I come across this kind of thinking isn’t really from “bigots” or people who really have any pronounced hatred towards trans people. I’ve even seen this stuff expressed by people who fancy themselves trans allies. The belief may often be clung to, against the evidence, due to bigotry, and transphobia can be part of why people get so stubborn, defensive, condescending or angry about it, but in most cases I find it’s simply due to people being misinformed, or thinking they know more about the science of sexual differentiation than they really do.

      • Avatar of dr. dr. professor
        December 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm —

        //thinking they know more about the science //

        I think skeptics in general tend to over-assert their knowledge of a lot of different scientific disciplines. Which is contrary to skepticism, because at the heart of skepticism lies actually trying to understand the science or facts behind things fully and then evaluating a claim based upon that.

        I think we need to advocate more actual skepticism in the skeptic community.

        I’ll take a look at the articles Vene posted.

      • Avatar of daedalus2u
        December 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm —

        Yes, but the non-bigots are educable, the bigots don’t even want to consider that they might not have it right.

        It is only pseudoskeptics who think they know more than they do. Real skeptics know the limits of their knowledge. That happens to be the definition of a real skeptic. If you can’t personally derive something from observations, facts and logic, then if you are a skeptic you have to default to “I don’t know”.

        You can’t default to someone else’s position and be a skeptic unless you understand that position yourself.

      • Avatar of TheNerd
        December 15, 2011 at 10:01 am —

        “Sometimes I feel like a sort of trans-advocate Sisyphus, perpetually pushing a boulder of education up a hill of myths, stereotypes, fear, hatred, ignorance, disinterest and general laziness.”
        and
        “I’ve even seen this stuff expressed by people who fancy themselves trans allies.”
        It is so exhausting. Every single person who starts a conversation with me about this has the advantage of a fresh burst of energy, against which my years of banging my head against a wall cannot compete. That’s the one thing I wish everyone knew about trans people: we’re tired. Well-meaning questions aren’t forbidden, but should be preceded by lots of caring and encouragement.

  9. Avatar of sivivolk
    December 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm —

    THIS.

    A friend of mine helped trans-educate (transucate?) me largely by pointing out that even physical sex isn’t as set scientifically as you’d think if you just had a fairly superficial scientific education (which includes, by the way, most undergraduate science degrees not specifically focused on sex or endocrinology).

    It’s now frustrating for me to see skeptics making the same mistakes I did, especially on the chromosome thing. Thankfully, it’s just frustrating for me, rather than an omnipresent attack on my identity. Thanks, cis privilege!

    Cheers for the post.

  10. Avatar of BeccaTheCyborg
    December 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm —

    This post is all kinds of excellent. And will be bookmarked for linking others to.

  11. Avatar of Felicia
    December 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm —

    When I studied biology I learned one basic rule: an individual is considered female if it produces relatively large, non-motile sex cells (ova) and male if it produces small, motile ones (sperm or pollen (well, that’s an extreme simplification of plant biology but it’ll suffice)). The thing is, this doesn’t tell you ANYTHING about secondary sexual characteristics. Females TEND to invest more (time, energy, resources) in their offspring, since they already do so from the start, and males TEND to invest less, but there are plenty of species that share the burden equally or do it the other way around entirely. Just as an example (which I’m guessing many skepchick readers are familiar with), there’s sea horses, where females deposit eggs in a pouch on the male’s belly and then bugger off, the male then carrying them to term.

    Basically what I’m trying to say is that those using biology to support sexist bigotry haven’t even come close to understanding how biologists use the term “male” and “female”. It’s a very crude classification which really says very little about the individual in question. As Natalie brings up, there are plenty of cases in which an individual might not be producing any working gametes at all — does that mean they don’t have a sex or gender at all? So in the end, turning to basic rules of biology to figure out if a person is “REALLY” male or female is pretty much pointless.

    • Avatar of SaraDee
      December 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm —

      Not to mention, for the rest of the animal kingdom outside of mammals, the karyotypic marker of sex varies. From my memory of The Extended Phenotype, the Lepidopterae are male if they’re haploid, female if they’re diploid, and birds are male if they’re XX and female if they’re XY. I’m sure fish and the assorted invertebrates do other things entirely.

      I do like to go outside the animal kingdom to get my appeal to “biology” on, personally – If plants make it weird with their triploidy and more arrangements, the fungi have far more interesting arrangements that suggest if they can be differentiated by sex, they have way more than just two.

      • Avatar of Felicia
        December 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm —

        Interesting! I had to go look up sex chromosomes in Lepidoptera, knowing next to nothing about it. I couldn’t find any references to Lepidopteran males being haploid, though? Did you mean that the females are the heterogametic sex, like in birds?

        Now Hymenopteran males certainly are haploid, they have a system in which being heterozygous for a particular allele on a particular chromosome results in a female. Since males are haploid, they’re automatically homozygotes. Severe inbreeding by humans has the interesting effect of causing even some fertilised eggs to be homozygous and thus develop into males, but because they’re diploid, they’re infertile. Usually the workers will kill off the deficient brood before it develops so you end up with combs that look like someone fired a shotgun at them. Yet another example of how chromosomal make-up isn’t sufficient for sex determination!

        It’s amazing how divergent sex determination is in the insect world alone; goes to show how much older insects are than mammals I suppose.

        • Avatar of dr. dr. professor
          December 15, 2011 at 12:11 am —

          Well I think the holy grail would be to completely grow new working reproductive organs of the opposite sex right?

          I’m not a biologist, so I’d like to ask, what actually stops placental mammals from making this change? Or what for that matter, stops regeneration of say a finger?

          • Avatar of Natalie
            December 15, 2011 at 1:00 am

            I’m not a biologist either, but… based on what little I know of the subject:

            The one real function the Y chromosome really does have is causing ovaries to become testes. So even if we used stem cells to regrow the ovarian/testicular tissue (and other genital tissue), and used anti-androgens to suppress the androgenic hormones that would trigger the masculinization process, they’d still end up developing into testes (even if they were undescended ones).

            UNLESS we were to use stem cells from a female donor, perhaps?

            I could see it being a possibility some day down the road. But it would be something that wouldn’t come until we’d already figured out how to go ahead and use them to regrow tissues.

            I think I heard somewhere that it’s partly a stem cell thing, and partly an environmental thing related to amniotic fluids and stuff, that causes regeneration and the development or healing of certain kinds of tissues to be possible in the fetal stage but impossible shortly after birth?

            I have absolutely no idea why we lose this ability after birth, or why its loss was selected for.

            Maybe its related to cancer? I think I heard somewhere that genetic predisposition to cancer is related to cellular aging and apostosis… like cells that are more genetically robus, and less prone to apostosis, such as in people with webbing between their fingers or toes, are much more likely to be cancerous. Unchecked growth and all that.

            But again… I’m not actually a biologist or oncologist or anything, and this is just pure speculation.

  12. Avatar of dysomniak
    December 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm —

    Thanks for the post Natalie! I’ve been thoroughly enjoying all your contributions to Skepchick and truly admire your courage. I know that blogging about your experiences so openly couldn’t have been an easy decision to make and I thank you. I’ve always prided myself on being open minded and informed about these sorts of issues but you continue to post thought provoking insights on an almost daily basis. Did i mention thank you? Keep it up!

  13. Avatar of skeptikem
    December 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm —

    Hi, I’m so glad to find this issue being discussed because I’m confused.

    Here’s my problem – I’ve always assumed that I was female because I’ve got ovaries, a womb – all that, but now I understand that those features are not conclusive evidence of femaleness and other factors have to be taken into consideration.

    I have never ever identified with the conventional model of what a woman is. I never for a moment wanted a big wedding or to get married at all – a wife seems to me the lamest thing ever to want to be! And no way would I ever cook and clean for others as a “role” in life.
    I love to be in the driver’s seat in life, in fact it’s what makes life worth living for me :D

    I love cars and couldn’t give a shit about shoes! lol

    What am I???? LOL

    Please help :D

    Thanks
    Em

    • Avatar of Natalie
      December 14, 2011 at 3:22 pm —

      You’re probably just a woman who happens to not find the socially constructed model of what a woman is “supposed” to be very appealing.

      Gender identity is about the sense of who you fundamentally are, beneath your skin, beneath all the trappings of social expectations and “masculine” vs. “feminine” and all that stuff.

      Are you comfortable with having the womb and ovaries and vagina and breasts? Do those feel like they belong to and aren’t alien?

      If so, that’s ALL that is necessary to count as a real woman.

      If not, and they feel alien and wrong or disgusting or disturbing and uncomfortable, then you might be trans… possibly a trans man, possibly genderqueer, possibly bi-gendered… you’d have to work that out for yourself through a whole lot of introspection. I can’t tell you what you are. Nobody else can.

      However…

      Lately I’ve been seeing the terms “trans-masculine” and “trans-feminine” being used a lot. These seem to refer to people who although being happy and comfortable with their physical sex feel a very strong alienation from their assigned gender role. They don’t want to behave or express themselves like “normal” members of their sex, but they also don’t really feel the need to transition or change their bodies. Perhaps the term “trans-masculine” might be useful for your self-identification?

      Best of luck with figuring this out! It can be tricky and scary, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

      • Avatar of skeptikem
        December 14, 2011 at 5:34 pm —

        Hey Natalie,

        Thanks for the reply!

        This is me!! –

        “These seem to refer to people who although being happy and comfortable with their physical sex feel a very strong alienation from their assigned gender role.”

        And I actually think it’s quite a lot of people…

        Aren’t we passed the stage of “assigning gender roles”? Well no, I suppose not, but we can certainly challenge them vigorously when they crop up and ask the question – who exactly is perpetuating these gender stereotypes and “roles” and why?? … I’m interested to know how you, as someone who has made a conscious decision to take on the physical nature of a woman, feel about being assigned a gender role.

        I haven’t always been at all comfortable with my physical sex. As a child I totally did find the whole idea of having a womb, giving birth and all the rest quite disgusting and alien and it’s something I did struggle with as a young adult. I’ve got a 15 year old daughter now and I’m very happy as a woman and a mother – but I’ve never wanted more kids, I’ve never changed my mind about marriage and I’ve been single by choice since my daughter was about a year old although I’ve only ever been attracted to men sexually. It does make me wonder if my earlier feelings about being female were influenced by the cultural pressure I was subjected to – was I rejecting my female functions because I had learned subconsciously to associate them with an identity identity that I found alien and threatening?

        In my case there was a point early on in childhood where I developed the certainty that it was society, not my biology that was wrong about who I was. I’ve lived by that principle ever since – and I think it’s a founding principle of feminism that “woman” is not a predefined construct on which to model oneself, or a scripted role but a potential for every individual to realise according to their own lights.

        It’s for women to demonstrate to the rest of society what a woman is, not for society to instruct us on how to be ourselves.

        Some individuals can never truly be themselves with the sexual characteristics they were born with, and I don’t presume to know how another individual feels – but just hypothetically, do you think it possible that for some, the disconnect between feelings toward their body on the one hand and sense of self on the other, is imposed on them by external factors – the expectations and responses of parents, siblings etc., and at an age when they lack the degree of cognitive development to understand or articulate to themselves that that is what is happening.

        Instead this sense of disconnection is built in to the foundation of the personality and goes unacknowledged while the individual outwardly accepts and struggles to comply with their “assigned gender role” all the while suffering the underlying sense of being ill at ease in their own body characteristic of trans gender experiences.

        I hope you’re not offended by my speculating here, but every time I’ve read stories by trans gender people recounting their experience they all seem to have in common a willingness to accept and try to comply with existing gender roles/stereotypes, first (ultimately) unsuccessfully as the birth sex, and subsequently, with varying degrees of success as the reassigned sex.

        Again, please don’t think I’m being dismissive of your experience, trying to tell you what is or isn’t real about your body or any such thing – I just feel very strongly about sexual bigotry and the injustice practiced in it’s name.

        It would be tragic if any child were effectively bullied by sexual bigotry (whether deliberately or inadvertently) within the family, school etc. into hating their body so much they were prepared to have it surgically altered to comply with their tormentors demands for conformity – not only for that individual, but for a society in which the bigots could claim another victory.

        I guess the point I’m trying to make is – respect people’s decisions with regard to sexual identity, but don’t let that obscure the need to challenge bigotry, – gender stereotypes, the idea that there are male personality traits or female personality traits, male or female lifestyles etc. – and those who practice it.

        • Avatar of Natalie
          December 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm —

          Well, a lot of your questions there are really very complicated and philosophical and not something I can really make any conclusive statements about. At least not without writing another essay.

          But I would invite you to take a look at the link I provided in the post to the Center For Gender Sanity’s diagram on Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sexual Orientation, and particularly read about the distinction between gender identity and gender expression.

          I believe that gender identity is mostly innate, a fundamental aspect of a person’s inner being. It concerns primarily the relationship to your body and physical sex. Gender expression, on the other hand, which is what involves gender roles and “masculine” / “feminine” and things like that, is largely socially mediated and culturally relative.

          The two do NOT determine one another. There are trans women who are very butch or tomboyish, and trans men who are quite effeminate. We don’t transition because we are uncomfortable with our gender role, we transition because our gender identity doesn’t match out physical sex.

          So my relative comfort or discomfort with the accepted male gender role and the accepted female gender role was really quite irrelevant to why I transitioned. In fact, it took a lot of efforts to try to find ways to be a “feminine man” thinking that would “suffice” that made me realize that that wasn’t really the problem, the problem was being a man itself; no matter what KIND of man I tried to be, or how much I challenged social conventions of gender, I would never feel comfortable so long as I was still stuck being a man.

          Does that help at all?

        • Avatar of Natalie
          December 14, 2011 at 5:57 pm —

          P.S.

          Given the IMMENSE social pressure against transition, and the huge stigma attached to it, I don’t think anyone in our culture has ever been bullied INTO transitioning. To come to that conclusion would require the assumption that transsexuality is considered more socially acceptable than femininity in men or masculinity in women, which plainly isn’t the case.

          • Avatar of freemage
            December 14, 2011 at 6:21 pm

            Natalie: Never say never. I’m not saying it’s typical or even common, but I have encountered individuals who insist that, for instance, homosexuals are actually undiagnosed transsexuals who should be pressured into gender-reassignment surgery. (Bisexuals, of course, don’t register on these folks’ radar at all.) So I would not, sadly, be shocked to find that someone was actually pressured in that fashion.

          • Avatar of Natalie
            December 15, 2011 at 12:51 am

            I didn’t say never. :P

            Actually, Iran has a weird policy where homosexuality is illegal, but they have a strangely tolerant view of mtf transsexuality (but not ftm transsexuality, for reasons that are fairly obvious). Iran performs the 2nd most SRS procedures of any country, behind Thailand. And, in fact, they will often give men who’ve been convicted of the “crime” of homosexuality the choice between prison and forced transition.

            Given my experience of living in the wrong sex? I’d take prison.

            But yeah, it has happened. It just hasn’t really happened in our culture, and I certainly don’t see any reason to assume that the motivation of trans people is ever a case of being shamed into transition due to wanting to have their physical body conform to an expected gender ROLE rather than their own gender IDENTITY.

      • Avatar of Felicia
        December 14, 2011 at 5:50 pm —

        Very much identify with this. I have absolutely no issues with having ovaries and boobs and stuff, but I hate, hate, HATE the expectations society has on me just because I’m female. Fuck gender norms. *raeg*

  14. Avatar of BeardofPants
    December 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm —

    Nice post, Natalie. I have a social sciences background, and it’s always bugged me how polarized the notions of gender and sex seem to be. This post confirms thoughts that I’d already had coalescing around in my noggin, so thanks!

  15. Avatar of zeroanaphora
    December 14, 2011 at 9:43 pm —

    Fantastic post. Never realized how little genes actually do.

    • Avatar of zeroanaphora
      December 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm —

      erm, I mean the XX/XY genes in this context. Genes in general do their fair share!

  16. Avatar of James K
    December 15, 2011 at 1:27 am —

    I’ve heard as an argument to prove how I’m really ‘scientifically’ male the hypothetical situation in which my horrifically disfigured, mutilated, unrecognizable corpse turns up in some abandoned building. A forensic pathologist, in an effort to determine my identity, conducts a DNA test and comes to the conclusion that I was male. Therefore, goes the argument, since the scientist using her scientific tests came to the conclusion that I’m male, that’s what I ‘scientifically’ am. But that’s only one particular inaccurate conclusion, made from the results of one particular test, that one particular type of scientist would make in one particular situation that has been contrived specifically to provide incomplete information. It’s easy to imagine another hypothetical: a doctor is trying to ascertain my identity based solely on a blood sample. He checks the hormone levels and comes to the conclusion that I’m a cisgender (not trans) woman at the mid-point in her cycle with a slightly low testosterone level. By that scientific test I’m ‘scientifically’ female. What makes the one inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information more scientific and correct than the other inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information?

    This really does betray an ignorance of science (not on your part, but on the part of your interlocutors). Science is not just a truth-generating apparatus like some kind of divination spell that actually works. It is a question-answering mechanism. The answer you get is dependant on the question you ask. And since masculinity isn’t one thing, the question “is person x a man?” will vary depending on what you mean by man. In short, this is an issue where it seems Rationalist Taboo would be helpful.

    Furthermore the question “are you really male?” seems to be a case of epically missing the point via the Naturalistic Fallacy. Even it it were true that you were in some sense “really” male, so what? From your writing it is clear that you are a much happier person as a women than you were as a man. How is that not the end of the argument? This may just be my transhumanist sympathies talking but I find the notion that we somehow owe it to nature to be what it made us to be absurd.

    • Avatar of James K
      December 15, 2011 at 1:28 am —

      Sorry, it seems my blockquote didn’t work, that first paragraph was me quoting Natalie.

  17. Avatar of pandamonium
    December 15, 2011 at 3:30 am —

    skeptikem: I don’t know if this helps answer your question, but I’ve balked at assigned gender roles (the feminine ones) my whole life; I consider myself female, in the sense that my gender is female. I express myself as a tomboy. I guess you could call that trans-masculine? I don’t think I understand the word, though, and will stick with tomboy (girl who dresses like boy). At the very least, people who aren’t familiar with the language of gender identity won’t be confused.

  18. Avatar of andiis
    December 15, 2011 at 8:15 am —

    Another thought provoker Nat..I didn’t read all the comments and I just wondered if you’d heard of Norrie.

    http://may-welby.blogspot.com/

    Norrie has forced our govt’s hand and now is known as gender neutral. A legal first any where. We are all so proud of herm.

  19. Avatar of anon1974
    December 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm —

    Wow, Natalie, thanks for that excellent post.

    I’ve had trans friends for many years, I have no difficulty accepting and treating them as their presented gender, but I have to admit there was a bit of… hm… “go ahead and pretend to be whatever keeps you happy/sane, why should I care”? “Pretend” is much too strong a word, it implies deception which I certainly did not believe to be there. But if you’d pinned me down in private and asked “is [X] a woman, or a man who has been modified to resemble a woman”, I wouldn’t have had an unequivocal answer.

    Reading your post, I could almost hear the “click” of a light going on over my head. No, really, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is not the be-all end-all of biological sex, it’s a continuum (albeit one where most people are at one of the extreme ends), and the process of transitioning really is about *changing your sex*.

    (Posting anonymously because I would be mortified if any of said trans friends were to read that second paragraph and attribute it to me.)

  20. Avatar of schwarzwald
    December 21, 2011 at 10:46 pm —

    Was this posting directed towards the stuff that comes out of my fingers through the keyboard and onto the interwebs? Because if it was, then either I have utterly failed to communicate my views or that the things I have said were not listened to properly.

    Either way I’ll state it now that I think the entire concept of gender needs to be redone and that our ways of identifying these complex topics cannot simply be done in some standardized form which boxes male or female. In fact its some wacky crazy sliding scale which might just possibly go into 4 dimensions.

    My personal opinion is that we shouldn’t even assign genders to children and just let them flow with what ever they go with, like toss them in the river and see which bank they end up on. The problem is mainstream societies (in western herp-derp america) constant need to have things filtered down to 2 options or have it digested into a simple sound bite that is easy to understand.

    In my views attempting to define gender as an entity would be as complex as trying to define what color is. Sure its a wave length of a particle that hits my eyes and sends some action potentials, but there is not objective color to reality. Our brain just makes it all up, and there isn’t really any way of proving if the orange and greens that I subjectively experience is a different color in someone elses head.

    If something cannot be simply explained and described in a simple fashion, then why attempt to assert more labels onto something that will just eventually get rewritten. Why not just see them as human. Sure maybe in todays society where people struggle because their identity is hated upon or something, but whats the point of

    Sex and gender is this giant amorphous blob of concepts and ideas constantly mixing and changing and is entirely based upon biology but our subjective evaluation of those concepts are always changing.

    Which is why, when I stated, that this mishmash of chromosomes, wacky regulations of gene expression and hormonal axis, that they are infact, all that you are. Its some crazy color pattern flung against a wall, but its constantly changing in both color and texture. And thats where our disconnect comes in. When I say, that is all you are, it is me telling you, thats you, that crazy changing picture that is manipulated by some elements in one spot and then others in another. My statement was not to say that you are a biological man or woman, its that our entire ideas and concepts of sex and gender do not fit/conform to what the modern science tells us.

    The science tells us that we are some multitude of crazy molecular machines which form up macro machines which all do these other crazy things but can change at any time when certain things are altered. Its what you are. The only reason why these things are considered disorders is because they require medical intervention to fix. But really, the gradients and scales of ‘sexuality’ in my mind are just as wide and diverse as disorders in brain function, like from ADHD to autism to asbergers. What determines if you have that label is just an incomplete and bunk list of symptoms which add up to some ‘condition’. It would be like trying to consider cancers to be one type or another, when really its just a state of condition in the way the cells operate, and the ways in which it can reach that state are many.

    so, from a societal standpoint, does it serve any purpose to try to independently label every single type of phenotype and take into consideration each and every way that the phenotype was achieved? That is what I have been trying to state all along. Its that the biology and science tells us who and what we really are, not subjective assertions by a brain which is controlled by those very laws of nature and tricks the consciousness into some egotistical ability to control what it is.

    The point is, the human brain is what it is, despite what the human brain likes to think it should be. And adding a few more boxes to fill in the ‘gender’ category isn’t going to fix anything in my opinion other then give more pointless categorizations.

  21. Avatar of elissa
    January 14, 2012 at 7:58 pm —

    It was nice to see an informative and in depth explanation about the science behind being trans. As a trans woman myself I’ve struggled to come up with explanations/arguments for who I am, and I’ll definitely be using this as a resource for the people in my life!

    I love all the whovians I’ve met in the queer community!!! everybody I know are all gigantically awesome nerds!!! Pony Pride FTW!!!!

    P.S. Don’t Blink…

  22. Avatar of Stephen Foster
    February 19, 2012 at 3:21 pm —

    I suppose the part that chaps my hide is the idea that someone else gets to tell me who I am.

    Now, don’t think for a minute that i get the kind of flack that Natalie, as someone shaking up perceptions, gets; I’m just a white old fart with all the biological and identity factors in alignment. But, someday, somewhere, some pest will try to tell me how i have to feel (or be) and I don’t want him (likely) to have any more ammunition.

    My family does have the privilege of telling who I am, but their comments are more about how I’ve behaved. Unfortunately, they tend to be too often right; *sigh*.

  23. Avatar of Zoe Brain
    December 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm —

    Two minor cavils – both reinforcing your thesis.

    “One’s DNA can’t be changed by current medical science, so under this definition a man will always be a man and can only be superficially changed to resemble a woman, and vice versa.”

    Nope.

    Bone marrow-derived cells from male donors can compose endometrial glands in female transplant recipients by Ikoma et al in Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Dec;201(6):608.e1-8

    Transplanted human bone marrow cells generate new brain cells by Crain BJ, Tran SD, Mezey E. in J Neurol Sci. 2005 Jun 15;233(1-2):121-3

    These show that a bone-marrow transplant recipient’s entire bodies gradually become genetically identical to that of the donor due to cell turnover. Even the brain. Even the reproductive glands. so yes, DNA of one’s body *can* be changed. That doesn’t affect one’s sex though,even if your ovaries end up being XY rather than XX.

    “A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis. ” — The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism January 1, 2008 vol. 93 no. 1 182-189

    So it’s not just Trans, CAIS and Swyer Syndrome women who have XY chromosomes. Some of the more usual kind do too.

  24. Avatar of Zoe Brain
    December 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm —

    To really blow some people’s minds – some humans naturally change sex.

    http://www.usrf.org/news/010308-guevedoces.html

    That’s 5ARD syndrome. 17BHSD syndrome has similar effects, though not as complete. The 3BHSD form of CAH can cause a change in either direction, MtoF or FtoM, though usually before birth, rarely afterwards.

    I speak from personal experience – it cured my Gender Dysphoria, though did rather turn my life upside-down in the processs,

    It can cause GD though. See
    http://home.vicnet.net.au/%7Eaissg/2010_FamCA_237.pdf

  25. Avatar of George Woodruff
    July 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm —

    Wonderful article Natalie, thank you for clarifying and bringing the science in to substantiate your exposition.
    I also enjoy your use of language and articulation, I discovered this article while reading another that you posted in Everyday Feminism, I’m finding that one interesting and motivating.
    Thank you

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