Born This Way? a Skeptical Look at the Neurological Theory of Gender Identity

For some reason, political debates concerning LGBT rights and issues like same-sex marriage often end up getting caught up in the question of whether or not being gay, lesbian, bi or trans is a choice. I’ve always considered this to be something of a red herring. Why, exactly, does it matter? If it were a choice, is there anything to justify treating it as anything other than a choice someone has the right to make? Any reason other than “Because The Bible!”, that is?

It’s certainly an interesting question, though. What exactly does cause variance in sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression? Why do these traits seem to be so fixed and innate? Why are they so unresponsive to attempts at re-conditioning and reparative therapy, even when the individuals involved are genuinely committed and would give anything to be “normal”? And of course there are tons of important medical and bioethical considerations when dealing with transsexuality, which requires medical intervention. If it’s a choice, then those treatments can theoretically be considered elective or cosmetic, but if it’s an innate characteristic, then they’re medically necessary and deserve to be covered by insurance or national healthcare. That particular issue becomes pretty controversial when conversations come up in the trans community over whether or not Gender Identity Disorder should be removed from the DSM.

The hypothesis that most people in the LGBT community run with these days is that it’s some kind of inborn facet of our neurological wiring, rather than a psychological issue or socially constructed predisposition. A simplified version of the theory runs something like this: in utero, prenatal hormones are sort of washed over the developing fetus, and these help steer the child, both physically as well as mentally, towards one sex or the other. The different sexes needed to evolve some differing behavioural characteristics as well as physical ones in order for our whole sexual reproduction thing to work out. As a very basic example, the females needed to mostly be attracted to the males, and the males needed to mostly be attracted to the females. There are all kinds of other behavioural differences too, but I’m usually pretty uncomfortable getting into evolutionary psychology applied towards gender. People always seem way too quick to use it to justify 1950s gender roles or hard gender-essentialism, so I’ll just leave it at the basics. Anyway, we suppose this prenatal hormone thing doesn’t always go quite to plan, and sometimes certain cross-sex neurological or behavioural differences can be triggered without any noticeable physical changes occurring. Perhaps our brains, being as complicated and subtle as they are, are more likely to manifest noticeable differences from subtle changes than other organs and tissues? Chaos theory complicated systems single variables butterflies and hurricanes somethingsomething?

The theory is appealing for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there are the political, ethical and medical considerations above. But it also speaks to and matches our personal experiences of being gay, bi or transgender… that these things are a deep, innate, unchangeable aspect of who we are. Something we never chose, that we usually didn’t want (even if eventually we learned to accept ourselves or even embrace those aspects of our identity), and that feels like it was always there (even if we’re sometimes the last to really know). It’s a belief that meets our social, personal, political and cultural needs, and a belief that feels true.

But as a skeptic, I can’t simply believe something because it feels true, or because it’s convenient to do so. What is the actual science? Is there any hard evidence to support this theory?

Unfortunately, not quite yet. We’re getting there, bit by bit, and certainly a lot of good research is being conducted. But nothing really conclusive has yet come around. You might hear people mention David Reimer, the boy who lost his penis during a botched circumcision and was raised as a girl while his identical twin was raised as a boy. Reimer proved extremely resistant to the efforts to socialize him as female (which were more than a tad unethical… see As Nature Made Him by John Colaptino for the story), and  he ultimately chose to live as male. Tragically, he eventually took his own life a few years after his story became public. You might say this provides a strong case for the argument that gender identity is an innate characteristic that can’t be socially reconditioned. His experiences growing up in the “wrong” gender also ring profoundly true for many transgender people. But one case can’t provide a scientific conclusion. There are too many possibilities, too many variables to isolate the actual causal factor. Like perhaps it was the unusual ways in which they attempted to condition him as female that failed, not the concept itself. I don’t really buy the idea that gender identity is a social construct and can be conditioned, but I can’t write it off based on one man’s story, either.

  You might also occasionally hear people describe correlations between finger length ratios and sexual orientation, and how this ratio has been conclusively linked to prenatal hormones. But that’s a correlation, not a causal relationship, and there are many people of every possible combination of sexual orientation, physical sex and gender identity who exhibit ratios that contradict the theory. I’m a straight (androphillic) trans woman who exhibits the straight (gynephillic) male ratio myself. I also tested with exceptional spatial reasoning skills! How incredibly macho of me. I guess I lose some tranny-cred, a few points on the COGIATI and my eligibility for “Harry Benjamin Syndrome”. Shucks. But so what? I think the aspects of my self and experiences that directly relate to my gender and orientation speak a lot louder than any random variables that happen to correlate more strongly with one sex or orientation than another.

I’ve been following a series of recent studies out of Stockholm, mostly involving Dr. Ivanka Savic, that have been using magnetic resonance imaging to study sexual dimorphism in the brains of gay men and trans women. There are several ways in which the brains of neurotypical cisgender men and women are noticeably dimorphic, such as hemispheric asymmetry. Men, for instance, display a slight asymmetry between the two hemispheres, with the left being slightly larger than the right. Women display more balance between the two hemispheres. Please, for the love of all that is good, do not take this as proof that men are more rational than women.

This particular study ended up showing that the brains of 48 trans women studied (all of whom were gynephillic- lesbian, and all of whom had not yet begun hormone replacement therapy), did not show the sexually dimorphic features of the cis female sample, but instead more closely resembled the brains of the 48 heterosexual cis men who participated. A few unique features were observed in areas that suggest possible links to things like olfactory sense and body perception.

There were some limitations to the study’s scope, however. For one thing, the sample of trans women were, as noted, entirely lesbian. This makes a lot of good scientific sense on the face of it. A previous study had shown some “female-like” dimorphism in the brains of gay men and it was necessary to control for that, eliminate sexual orientation as a variable and make sure what was being observed were dimorphic characteristics associated only with gender identity. That’s absolutely a good instinct. I’m just not sure they went far enough with it.

Although it seems to have been corrected in the abstract, on my initial reading I noticed that the study confusingly (and somewhat offensively) described the trans lesbian participants as “non-homosexual transsexuals”… and cited the somewhat loathed and discredited author of The Man Who Would Be Queen, and one of my impersonal intellectual arch-nemeses, Jay Michael Bailey, in the process. These are women who are sexually attracted to other women. How exactly is that “non-homosexual”? Rawr! This was the first thing that had me questioning whether the researchers were looking at this the right way and what biases might be in play. Given the earlier studies on how sexual orientation relates to this, and our knowledge that gender identity and sexual orientation do not have a strong or deterministic relationship (if I had a nickel for every time I came across the misunderstanding that trans women are just really, really, really gay, I could probably afford facial feminization surgery), wouldn’t this be a hint that maybe we’re looking for the answers in the wrong place? That the particular dimorphism we’re expecting is a matter of orientation and not identity? And wouldn’t the exclusion of straight trans women from the study be sort of deliberately excluding the group most likely to exhibit the hypothesized “feminine” brains? Why compare trans lesbians to straight cis women instead of lesbian cis women? Doesn’t that rely on the assumption that trans lesbians are “non-homosexual” in order to really make sense? How do we know that what the study didn’t actually prove was just that the brains of trans lesbians resemble those of cis lesbians?

 To be honest, although this study does an excellent job of indicating the issues involved are far more complex than simply a case of female brains housed in male bodies, I’m just not sure these kinds of set-ups can provide truly reliable answers unless all possible angles are explored. Rather than question whether the brains of trans lesbians resemble those of straight cis guys or straight cis women, why not also include cis lesbians and cis gay men? Then see which of those four groups the MRIs most closely corresponded to? And also note the various unique differences amongst the groups? This could actually teach us a lot about gender in general, not just trans women. Why not also include straight trans women and see whether their brains more closely matched gay cis men, straight cis men, straight women or lesbians? Why not additionally compare the brains of the trans lesbians to bisexual and straight trans women? Why not include trans men?

Yeah, I know that’s asking a lot, and it’s probably absurd to imagine anyone coming up with enough participants for such a study. It’s hard enough just finding a reasonable sample size of pre-everything gynephillic trans women (there’s not very many of us trans women in general… even the most liberal estimates place us at only around 1 in 2000 people). Having to double or triple that sample to account for other orientations, and having to take on the additional task of finding sufficient gay and lesbian participants, makes it incredibly hard. It would be a massive undertaking, and would seemingly require the entire Stockholm pride parade. But until truly rigorous studies start coming in, the questions still look vague and fuzzy, and we’re still not that much closer to understanding the origins of sexual orientation or gender identity, and we’re still stuck with the religious right condemning our sinful choice of lifestyle, still stuck with having no conclusive arguments to back up our claims of a biological or neurological origin, and those of us with a skeptical bend still end up feeling kind of dirty and ashamed whenever we find ourselves lured into this debate and get caught up in ferociously defending an unproven, albeit very appealing and reasonable, theory.

So what do we do in the mean time, while we sit around waiting for an actual answer to this question? Well, for one thing, we can respond to the “it’s a choice!” argument by saying “Even so, it would be our choice to make, not yours”. And we can listen to some Lady Gaga.


Edited to add some pretty pictures.


Natalie Reed now writes at

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  1. Fantastic post. Also, I’m a straight(ish) ciswoman with a largeish chin and ring fingers at least 5mm longer than my index fingers. We should start a club!

  2. “…and one of my impersonal intellectual arch-nemeses, Jay Michael Bailey…”

    *raises hand*

    Is this where we can sit around and bitch about Blanchard, Bailey, and Lawrence, with a dose of Kenneth Zucker? ‘Cause I’d be up for some of that.

  3. I remain very, very skeptical with regards to these studies. I think, first of all, that this is an overly-simplistic view of sexuality. It’s as if there were a switch: if its flipped one way, you’re attracted to men, if it’s flipped another, you’re attracted to women (and, I suppose, if it stays in the middle you’re attracted to both – ok, bad analogy). But sexuality isn’t just about who you’re attracted to, it’s also about how you live it, that is, what sorts of things you’re into. Do we believe that people are born kinky? Are specific sex acts codified in our DNA (or hormones)? And even if we just look at who a person is attracted to, the fact that I’m attracted to men doesn’t mean I’m attracted to just any men. There are socially established patterns of beauty and attractiveness which we can’t help but be aware of and be affected by in some way, even if we don’t subscribe to them. The truth is that all living organisms are a result of an interaction between their genes and their environment. Culture is a huge part of our environment, we’re immersed in it from the second we’re born. Even if there is a genetic or hormonal component,when it comes to something as complex as gender and sexuality, it is certainly mediated by culture. I mean, take the studies you cited in which the data comes from scanning people’s brains. Our brains are not fully formed when we’re born and they develop according to the stimuli they receive – which, in a gendered society, are different if you’re a girl or a boy. Using the brain’s structure as proof of innate characteristics is just silly, in my opinion, if that structure is obviously influenced by culture. Mostly, though, I think the nature vs. nurture debate asks all the wrong questions. We’re a result of both, in ways that are probably not quantifiable.

    1. Its not that you are attracted to men or women.

      Its the features that you find attractive. You would be more attracted to masculine features or feminine features. Its like those studies which show that women during estrous find ‘more masculine men’ attractive during their cycles then they would outside of their peak.

      Its not the brain can look at something an immediately go “YUP ITS A MAN, BONER MODE ON”. You have to take all that sensory information, filter it down into the brain which then goes through all the neurotransmitter and hormone filtering and what dictates that is the type of information that is taken in.

      Lets say you have that altered morphology in your brain to be gay, its not that cock and balls will set you off. Its not that you have the ‘sexual brain of a woman’. Its that a region in your brain activates and functions differently when working through stimuli. Its judging and rating features of the person you are looking at for a possible mate.

      Hypothetical Time bullshit theory crafting time.

      Gay man looks at man, sees general posture, haircuts and what not and all that info filters into the brain reading ‘this is a pretty masculine mane’ which then gets interpretted into being ‘this is a pretty sexy man’. Thus they like those masculine features.

      Although… Lets take a look at Shemale and Tranny porn shall we? Is a viewer of this stuff actually ‘gay’? It would have to depend on the specific models and such that this person is watching, but lets say a guy is watching and getting attracted to some very very feminine trans models, but she still has a dick. He is most likely getting a boner from the feminine aspects of what he is looking at, and the dick is somewhat there for decoration. The way the brain decides what is and isn’t sexually attractive isn’t boiled down to XX or XY, vagina or penis.

      1. Can we PLEASE avoid the terms “tranny” and “shemale”?

        Not cool, Schwarzvald. You can say what you want elsewhere, but this here is my thread.

        Anyway, I think the presence of penises in such pornography is obviously more than “decoration” in that no such market exists for pornography featuring post-op trans women. Something about it, whatever it may be, is actually considered especially attractive or exciting to some men.

        1. but it IS called shemale porn. Why don’t you start a letter writing campaign to pr0n websites so that they can use more politically sensitive wording for the models.

          And dunno where you are going with the last part. Obviously there isn’t a market for post-op women. because what straight sexually confused male would want to seek out post-op porn only to watch strap-ons and fingers. It would just be lesbian porn to the viewer. And really all the plot subtexts in all porn is just terrible so I really don’t understand that kinda stuff. But I’m pretty sure there is niche stuff like in in literature / manga form if you were to look for it. Rule 34.

          And yes, the penises are somewhat for decoration, but let me just elaborate on that. The penis is just the object, the vessel for what is getting acted on. It doesn’t seem to dicktate too much.

          hypothetical brainview time.

          Straight man look at tranny porn. His BRAIN sees feminine bodies, sexy lips and other features. Oh Look now all those features are worshipping a dick. my brain likes seeing dicks get good stuff done to them.


          In terms of this situation, the penis is irrelevant to what the rest of the brain is taking in. To the brain its watching shem…… PRE-OP MALES WHO STAY IN PRE-OP (see look I was PC! Just for you nat ?) It might as well be lesbian porn, the women with penis is just a novelty effect that somehow tricks the brain into incorporating a real penis into a girl on girl situation.

          The problem is that if you start taking this line of reasoning Toooo far, then you start getting into the realms of fetish and kinks which start to feed into that sexual instinct. I am trying to focus more on the biological things of what turns someone on, cause its just too much to start considering power roles, objectification and all that other kinky crap.

          1. The porn industry aren’t who I’m addressing right now. I’m addressing YOU and YOUR choice of language. If you continue using offensive terms, I will cease approving your comments. Simple as that.

            They are not, by the way, “pre-op males”. They are “pre-op trans women”. And the term for someone who does not intend to undergo SRS is “non-op”.

            Your argument seems to rely on the assumption that all trans pornography is lesbian in nature. That’s simply not the case. There is also a market for real life trans sex workers, and almost ALL trans women, particularly those of us who are young and/or fit reasonably well into the conventions of female beauty, have had to deal with “chasers”. The issue is FAR more complex than simply wanting a penis in your fantasy without a male present. There are many men who are specifically attracted to trans women.

          2. Natalie, you somewhere missed the part where I was GIVING AN EXAMPLE.

            can you please underline, highlight, bold and quote the part where I was speaking in universal truths?

            I was trying to elaborate 1 situation that when viewed from different brains can have different reactions depending on the functional processes of the brain. No where did I say that this is how it always is.

            I was giving one possibility out of many, it was just an example and the conditions of each situation could be tweaked to examine the outcomes in any subject.

            Also, what is the point of continuously trying to correct the wording I use? You take offense, I try to use a more objective classification and you take offense again. What gives?

            What is wrong about my statement? If its born male, takes hormones to look and be more feminine, but it still has the functional biology and the chromosomes of a male. So from this perspective, how is stating that they are a ‘pre-op male’ is wrong? I was stating that they are biological males undergoing a surgery.

            I don’t like using the term men/women when ADDRESSING BIOLOGICAL ISSUES because they are not accurate and do not define conditions properly. Also some people will use the terminology differently and get confused over the wording. Some one might think that ‘post op woman’ could mean a various number of things, so I described their SEX DETERMINING NAME. Not their gender.

            You wanted to speak about the biology of this, so that means you have to drop the social stuff. That is why I called them ‘pre-op males’. They still have sexually devleoped male organs. Their chromosomes are XY and the prenatal development all carried out under XY conditions. They are males. If you wanted to be super duper correct you could say that they are ‘males awaiting surgery so they can go from man to woman’ But you cannot change biological sex determination.

          3. Neither biological sex nor gender are determined solely by genitalia and chromosomes.

            The appropriate response when someone calls you out on offensive terminology is something along the lines of “sorry. I’ll try to avoid that use in the future”, not to get defensive and post big angry rants. It is inappropriate to use the terms “tranny” or “shemale” (give or take a few very rare exceptional circumstances), and is also inappropriate to describe trans people by their assigned sex, REGARDLESS of what subject is being discussed. If you need to specify chromosomes or biology or genetics, you go ahead and specify them. You don’t do so by labeling people with misgendered terms.

            I’m NOT going to argue this further with you.

          4. Additionally, using “it” to refer to a trans person is possibly THE most offensive and dehumanizing thing you can possibly do. That should be pretty self-explanatory, and I’m genuinely surprised you’d go there.

          5. “Neither biological sex hormones, sex organs blah blah”

            Holy crap, natalie. First, I have strictly been speaking on a biological basis here. I have tried leaving gender determining things out of it.

            Secondly, Holy fuck, go take an intro to biology course, then a cell biology course, then some developmental courses and some hormone courses like I have, then come back and comment on how biological sex is determined.

            This is just the basics, but this article might help you understand the angle I am talking about here.


            Your sex is 100% influenced by biology (which includes neurological development). There are several layers to determining sex. There is the chromosomal sex, your XX, XY and then all the crazy disorders like Turner Syndrome and what not. But chromosomes are just one anchor/layer. Sure you have the developing chromosomes, but they may have a deficiency in an enzyme called alpha-5-reductase, which is an enzyme that converts tesosterone into other forms of it like DHT. This hormonal imbalance and other imbalances can lead to outcomes in different functional regions of organs and such. Then you have to also consider the hormone balances of the mother and the epigenetics during development of the child. They all have a various output.

            A biologically determined sex determines the role they play in sexual activity. When you are in those wacky grey areas, its best to determine sex based on either what reproductive organs are most developed and if that is too fuzzy, then you can just go back to the genes. Its a classification. And your SEX is entirely determined by biology.

            If you want to discuss this stuff within the realms of science then you need to also use those basic identifiers to understand what is going on. Go to a college library and go on one of their research databases and look for sexual disorders. I’m sure you will probably be pretty offended by the wording they use there too.

            Also the ‘it’ was a typo because I am terrible at communication in general, I blame it partially on the ADHD in that I have a hard time communicating ANY idea I have. Hold it against me if you want, but it would be pretty dumb to do so.

          6. Wow, schwarzwald, you’re a dick.

            And speaking as somebody who does study biology (and has had classes in genetics, human anatomy, and cell biology), biological sex isn’t that simple and is a stupid point to bring up when discussing transsexuality.

          7. @Vene

            Another person who doesn’t seem to understand the angle I am coming from here.

            And thanks for the sexist remarks in your response, I guess that makes you just as terrible a person as I am? I mean, since we are on whole ‘lets nit pick every detail’. Using the word dick (in some alternate universe where I am hyper-sensitive) is very offensive to me and I request that you stop using it to describe my behavior.

            And really, both of you seem to think I am speaking in terms of truths here, which isn’t what I am doing. All I am saying is that it is sex is entirely determined biologically but there are many ways in which the final outcome it produced. Its the push/pull crazy graph type of thing where you go in one direction its ‘Pro-masc. De-Fem’ or De-masc. Pro-Fem’ Or its the both or the neither.

            Look into studies involving CAH or CIA as I linked wiki pages to in other comments. All of this is VERY relevant to sexual identity because it shows the various ways that hormones can influence the way someone can be classified in society and how there can be personal resistance to that classification for something else.

            You can infer a lot of information from other hormone disorders, is what I’m trying to say. If we know hormones in monkeys, rats and human can impact their preference for behaviors, then we can assume that hormones also play a heavy role in mate selection. This can be inferred from the studies of women finding masculine features more appealing during estrus. And since it has been established that prenatal hormone imbalnaces or genetic mutations can lead to a structural/organizational change in sex determining brain regions, then it is it is safe to say that much of this plays into the organizational/activational effects of hormones within individual. It cannot be studied too much in humans, but we damn well have observed these in MANY animal studies. We’ve studied the ‘4 sexual identities’ of goats, we’ve studied mating behavior in other mammalian animals. This information can infer and guide the hypotheticals so we can ask the right questions when we make it to human research.

          8. You’re both clueless and amazingly transphobic. Trans women who haven’t had SRS are trans women. You ass.

            STFU and educate yourself, seriously. This isn’t “PC”, this is not throwing around slurs while so full of shit, I’m guessing you squish when you type.

          9. schwarzwald said: “This can be inferred from the studies of women finding masculine features more appealing during estrus.”

            Think about this statement for a moment.

            You are claiming that sexual identity is determined biologically, but you are using culturally determined criteria (masculine features) to support your argument. Masculine and feminine are not biological traits, they are cultural ideas that people sometimes apply to biological traits. And they vary wildly cross-culturally.

            Also, in the future, instead of just saying “studies show this” and “studies show that,” why don’t you actually tell us WHICH studies so we can go look at them?

          10. I came here just to let you know, schwarzwald, that you are an (incredibly) ignorant crotch.

            And natalie, that you are a very patient and incredible person to keep responding, but this crotch really doesn’t deserve the time of day.

            schwarzwald, do a minimum of reading on the subject and come back when you have a grasp on the subject. I feel painfully sorry for any biology professor you’ve ever had, because your grasp of biological sex and chromosomes is as limited as your grasp of sociological gender.

        2. oh and just to state about the penis thing, I was agreeing with you. Its just in my example given, the penis would be filtered out as the sexual object that is being viewed. A straight man wouldn’t find the penis itself the be the object of desire, because in their situation its the penis being surrounded and acted upon feminine things.

          But for the brain of a gay man, that penis filtering works out to be completely differently, where if a gay man were watching that kind porn, then maybe the penis would be the only thing they would find attractive in it

  4. Hi there!

    I got into a lot of trouble (as I often do) on my blog once by questioning whether sexual orientation was in fact: “a choice”. Common sense says: “Of COURSE it isn’t. Why would anyone CHOOSE to be an object of derision among their peers and a target of homophobic neanderthals”? If being gay were a “choice”, then you could simply choose to NOT be gay. The implication being that, if homosexuality were a choice, then any gay person whose ever been beaten, ostracized, denied medical care, murdered, or forced into suicide has somehow “deserved it”. So only a heartless monster would imply that being gay is a CHOICE.

    But I think it goes deeper than that.

    I’ve never been gay. I keep telling people that I don’t know WHY I’m not gay. I’m effeminate, I have a high-pitched voice, I’m a little delicate, and I don’t know a damned thing about cars or sports. I can sing about a half dozen Broadway musicals from start to finish, and I’m well-versed in movie trivia. In terms of gayness, I should be on the fey end of the spectrum between Neil Patrick Harris and George Takei. Yet somehow, I’m barely even a “one” on the Kinsey scale. I just don’t like guys. I’d LIKE to be gay, just to piss off the Conservative Christians, but I just can’t.

    So being gay must NOT be a choice, right? I didn’t CHOOSE to be straight, so I couldn’t possibly choose to be gay. Not even if I wanted to. Right?

    What I AM, however, is a nerd. I love Star Wars and Comic Books and Dungeons & Dragons. I watch Doctor Who faithfully, and just started really getting into Torchwood. I’ve always been this way, even though it hasn’t always been easy.

    In high school, I used to get slammed up against lockers and tripped in the hallways. Why? Because I was a geek, a nerd, a dweeb. I couldn’t talk to girls, and they had no desire to talk to me. My parents didn’t raise me to be a geek, and I don’t think my dad ever understood why I was more concerned about whether Wolverine could take Batman than how to install a wall socket or replace a fuse.

    Did I CHOOSE to be a nerd? Of course not, why would someone choose to be alienated from your peers and parents and to worry every day that someone was going to stuff you into a gym locker?

    But no one writes articles in peer-reviewed journals about whether geeks are “born this way”, or if it’s a choice. And really, why should it even matter? If a girl decides to pick up scrapbooking as a hobby, do we wonder if she was “born” into scrapbooking? Do we question whether Rachel Ray somehow wound up with a “culinary gene”? Is Lindsay Lohan genetically a “Walking Tabloid Train Wreck”, or did she just decide that being a gorgeous young talented actress wasn’t doing it for her?

    I think that’s what worries the most about this topic. Nobody really questions the genetic, neuro-biological soup that makes a person who or what they are, unless they’re GAY. (or transgendered) It’s as if there’s an unspoken agreement that there must be something WRONG with the person, to have made them that way.

    Yes, it’s possible that no one really has a CHOICE in the matter, but … would it be so bad if that WAS their choice? :(

    — Craig

    1. One of the many complications with this, though, is that things like “geekiness” are highly socially and culturally relative. But variation in sexual orientation and gender identity seem to occur universally, or near-universally, across cultures. The precise *manner* in which sexuality and gender ultimately is expressed or performed certainly varies from culture to culture and is probably reactive to certain environmental or social factors, but there definitely seems to be some kind of constant at work in terms of the fundamental feelings about who you want to sleep with and who you want to sleep as.

      1. I have to go with Nat on this one.

        Social statuses and things like geekiness or jockiness are socially determined. Meaning what those things are and their degrees are determined by society. The only biological trait I can think of off the top of me head that could contribute toward being a geek is a high aptitude for inteligence, as most geeks tend to like things within that realm. But that is more correlational

        Biologically speaking, though, with sexuality, as pointed out in this article, there are regions within the brain that are involved in hormone axis’ and these axis’ operate on biological cues and external stimuli. We don’t quite understand what is the full picture of what causes people to be gay, but there is a lot correlational evidence seen in different morphology in brain regions. And typically when these regions are altered during development, the functional output of that region is also different / rewired.

        Now it is somewhat a stretch to say this, but if you wanted to make a theory out of the current evidence for being gay then it can be thought to be various epigenetic factors while the baby is developing. There is probably some strong factors like hormones in the mother and their levels which will effect the development of certain brain regions, and then later in life for this child, that brain region gets activated and which could extend to other possible unknown regions which allow for this sexual ‘confusion’.

        The difference between you being a nerd and someone being gay, is that there isn’t a series of mechanisms in your brain that makes you like a lightsaber, but there is a series of ones that when altered can make you like people of the same sex as you.

    2. Draconius, you totally sound like my straight boyfriend. He’s neat, he’s well-groomed and dressed (more than me a lot of the time), he sings showtunes with me, he loves decorating… and he didn’t notice when we were at Pride and some guy walked into a bench while checking him out.

    3. The conservative Christian “reasoning” seems to be along the lines of satanic temptation. Satan is working overtime to tempt us into sin in various ways. Some of us are tempted by the siren call of good old run of the mill adultery, whereas certain others are tempted into “unnatural” acts with people of the same sex. So I am sure that the practiced Christian apologist would probably use that sort of tact when faced with the question of why only certain people seem to be “tempted” by the homosexual lifestyle.

      Their whole goal is to hold onto the notion of biblical inerrancy at all costs. Thus, they can’t admit that the biblical admonishments about homosexuality that might have had more relevant justifications 2000 years ago in a close-nit nomadic tribe of uneducated animal herders, make absolutely no sense in the modern age of scientific understanding.

  5. Fantastic post, although I’m a little biased because I have articulated the first paragraph on my facebook many times in different ways. So that’s probably my male ego giving props.


    I have taken a few classes on the media and its effect on society, and from that, I also believe the idea of “choice” is a bit of a red herring as well. It implies that humans are raised in a vacuum, that we somehow make choices out of thin air. It ignores how much indoctrination from the media, our friends, and family we bring to every decision we make.

    I’m so glad you mentioned David Reimer, because that has been thrown at me so many times when I try to politely discuss the idea of gender identity being inborn. The case is so personal, which makes it simultaneously hard to argue against, and hard to scrutinize. But who knows what other sorts of conditioning he had?

    Thanks for the great article!

    1. What about personal responsibility? For any decision, if there is no “choice” then it is easy to state that the genes or upbringing made Dahmer a brutal serial killer. He should not be held responsible because of his bad childhood and/or that he had a variant of the monoamine oxidase gene that resulted in an inadequate lowering of his brain serotonin levels. He had bad genes and bad indoctrination? If he had no “choice” then I guess I had no “choice” in my decision to support his life imprisonment.

      1. Nonsense. If the threat of punishment deters brutal serial killings, then it is rational to punish brutal serial killers, regardless of whether it was philosophically a choice or not. If the threat of punishment does not deter brutal serial killings, it is still rational to punish brutal serial killers, as they will find it harder to brutally serial kill while in prison.

      2. When I talk about choices being illusions, that doesn’t mean I believe that there should be no consequences, that’s an enormous leap of logic. It’s easy for someone in a position of privilege to talk about “personal responsibilities.” To paraphrase Martin Luther King, “it’s awfully cruel to tell someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots.”

        (Not directly related to your point, but I’m getting there)

        Like everything else in society, cereal killers aren’t created in a vacuum, there are certain environmental conditions that lead to the creation of such a monster. If we want healthier humans who can make healthier decisions, we need a healthier society. It’s no coincidence that crime is statistically far lower in countries like Sweden that have a strong social safety net that helps poor people make ends meet, unlike in this country, which by the way has the highest percentage of cereal killers in the world.

        Personal responsibility only takes you as far as your environment will allow, and the playing field is not level. There are outliers, yes, but that is the general rule.

  6. Yeah, I’ve seen a few of these studies before. We really don’t know much about how hormones work prenatally in humans, atleast in extreme detail cause we can’t just go slicing their brains open and scanning brain slices!

    But I think the common public needs to start having an understanding for structural/activational theory for hormonal control of behaviors because there are several dimorphic regions in the brain that are found different in gay and straight males. Its not hard fact that this is the region that causes gayness, but we are on the trail to understanding the biological nature of it.

  7. The great fallacy is that the mind begins as a blank slate and only shaped by culture. The greater fallacy is that equality can only be achieved this way. Among religious conservatives and their polar opposites, the radical left, any mention that human nature in part is innate is met with hostility. This has got to stop.

    Indeed historically the blank slaters are equally guilty as the genetic determinists in oppressing certain groups. Yes, eugenic policies were in place in Nazi Germany to eradicate homosexuals. But did they have a better life in Stalinist Russia or China under Mao? In those totalitarian societies that denied genetics, homosexuals were equally oppressed. Homosexuality was considered a social construct as a result of western, bourgeois, capitalist ideology poisoning the human psyche.

    Who cares if various aspects of cognition are due to nature or nurture? Indeed, the truth is that nature and nurture interact and shape the mind. But it is politically incorrect to state that there are innate predispositions to gender or that there may be cultural factors shaping sexual orientation. Human equality and human rights are not predicated on these matters. Let’s take a classic example. If a person has Down’s Syndrome, do we not treat that individual as an equal despite the fact that he/she has an abnormal genotype?

    Every single human being wants to be treated fairly and justly and deservedly so. We all want the Golden Rule. That does not vanish whether a certain behavioral trait is a choice or not.

  8. “Although it seems to have been corrected in the abstract, on my initial reading I noticed that the study confusingly (and somewhat offensively) described the trans lesbian participants as ‘non-homosexual transsexuals’… and cited the somewhat loathed and discredited author of The Man Who Would Be Queen, and one of my impersonal intellectual arch-nemeses, Jay Michael Bailey, in the process. These are women who are sexually attracted to other women. How exactly is that ‘non-homosexual’? Rawr! ”

    This is one thing that really bothers me about the primary literature, I can never tell what they mean when talking about transsexuals. But, from the studies I’ve read (sorry, no citation because I’m too lazy to track a bunch of them down), there does appear to be a neurological difference in the genders and transsexuals tend to fit in the gender they identify as, but it’s not a hard and fast divide. I’ve read some which puts a lot of transpeople sort of in the middle region where they’re sort of male-is and sort of female-ish.

    The studies I’ve read on orientation are a bit more clear, there does appear to be genetic components to it, but there’s still quite a bit of environmental basis. What makes it even more fun is the orientation of males seems to have more genetic influence than in females (and I have no clue what this means for transsexuals).

    I can’t really say how conclusive any of this is, and I’ll agree that it’s somewhat of a red herring. Both same sex and opposite sex attraction are healthy. As far as transsexuality is concerned, whatever the etiology it’s a fact that transition improves quality of life and length of life. It’s far removed from the “experimental” stage and to say absolutely everything must be known is giving the condition special hurdles for no good reason. As far as “cosmetic” is concerned, it’s cosmetic in that it alters appearance, but it is also necessary treatment.

  9. Natalie said: “I don’t really buy the idea that gender identity is a social construct and can be conditioned, but I can’t write it off based on one man’s story, either.”

    I would like to point out a couple things about this. First, David Reimer had an identical twin who was raised as a male. That undoubtedly had an effect on Reimer’s gender identity.

    Second, a meta-analysis conducted by Meyer-Bahlburg in 2005 looked for cases similar to Reimer’s, and found six other cases. Of the seven total cases, five were living as females, and two (including Reimer) had transitioned to male.

    Lastly, there’s a large body of literature in medical anthropology that looks at embodiment, which is basically how culture is inscribed upon the body. Biology and culture have a deeply complex relationship that manifests in lots of different ways. Gender identity must be a cultural construction because it is the meanings we attach to our gender. Further, because something is culturally constructed does mean it is not real. The ways in which we construct cultural beliefs affects our biology *and* our biology affects our cultural beliefs. They co-produce each other. It can be biological without being inborn because the causes can be cultural.

    Ultimately, I do agree with you that this is an area that needs much more research. I just hope that research is interdisciplinary and avoids biological reductionism or cultural/social essentialism. The answer is going to be somewhere in between.

    1. The last bit of your argument though, about the nature v nurture stuff. I don’t think its still as easy as that. Because each one IMO has varying degrees of influence in different aspects of addressing this issue.

      My idea on this is shouldn’t be too hard to follow.

      There are 3 things that can be evaluated here, and each in a different way. There is your sex, your sexuality and then your gender. Your sex being the chromosomes and development of biological structures. Your sexuality then being how the accumulation of all that biological input/output filters into a sexual identity, that being what types of activities you like, male typical or female typical (And these activities are rooted in biology, there are several studies in which evaluated ‘male/female’ behaviors extend across many species. This is like rough and tumble play, spatial play or doll play). Gender identity is then how your consciousness interfaces between your sexual identity and environment. Its how you view yourself in terms of everything else around you, this view can be placed upon you by others.

      These subjects are all VERY relevant on how the biology works and I think they MUST be included in this discussion about gender identity and such.

      1. I am not talking about nature vs. nurture (please do not put words in my mouth). I do not know for the life of me how you think that what I said was meant to simplify or give an “easy” explanation, especially since I said “biology and culture have a deeply complex relationship that manifests in lots of different ways.”

        I think your explanation is overly simplistic and leans too much on biological determinism. How is “identity” determined or formed? What is it, exactly? What is sexuality, exactly? You don’t really explain it well, and you use sexual identity as the definition of sexuality (at least, that’s how I’m reading it). I must ask you to cite the cross-species studies on sexual identity. As someone who studies this area, I find it highly problematic to assert that non-human animals have sexual identities. The only study I’m aware of that remotely discusses this is a recent study on chimps playing with “dolls”; however, that study has some big problems, it was not conclusive, and it did not make assertions about sexual identity.

        I also find it problematic to say that gender identity is determined by sexual identity. Sure, they are related, but building a hierarchy is baseless. How do you know that gender identity does not determine sexual identity? More likely than not, they influence and co-determine each other.

        In the end, it seems to me that your explanation is the one that oversimplifies. Your entire evaluation of sex, sexuality, and gender is based on a heteronormative binary that you seem to believe is biologically determined.

    2. This is only tangentially pertinent to the topic (I think) but nevertheless I’m curious — why would having an identical twin have an impact on your gender identity? The only way we know who our family is is by paying attention to whom we grow up with; genetics doesn’t figure into it at all. I have three brothers, myself, and it feels like by this reasoning I ought to be at LEAST as conflicted about my gender as Reimer was.

      1. Because identical twins are the same sex. To be raised with your identical twin with the knowledge that you “should” look (and do feel) that way but you are being told not to based on your genitals (not your genetics) would definitely affect your gender identity. Your analogy does not work because your siblings are not your identical twins.

        Also, your assertion that genetics do not play into who our knowledge of who our families are is incorrect because most Western societies (including Canada, where Reimer was born and raised) generally base kinship around blood relations and genetics. Even kids who do not understand the genetic basis for identical twins understand what it means to have an identical twin.

        1. But Reimer was raised as a girl. Afaik, they didn’t tell him he was a boy. There was no reason he should know that’s what he “should” have been like. Other than perhaps subconscious clues from his parents and doctors. I don’t see why it should be any more confusing than having a non-identical twin of the opposite sex; children have no idea what genes they’re carrying.

          1. Reimer’s botched circumcision happened at 8 months old, and his testes were removed at almost two years old. His name was Bruce until almost two, and then his parents started calling him Brenda. He was taken to see Dr. Money (notorious psychologist who had theories of gender identity that were widely accepted in the late 60s), who used his twin brother as a control to monitor how Reimer would develop as a female. He had them engage in sex play together when they visited him on annual check-ups (Money thought this was part of how children learned to be sexually healthy adults). So the idea that he was “raised as a girl” is really quite simplistic. I don’t remember exactly if he stated he knew he was a twin at an early age or not, but he had adults (specifically Money) forcing him to compare himself to his brother (Money called them “genital inspections”).

            I raised the point that Reimer had a twin as one possible (not definitive) reason aside from biology that he struggled with his gender identity in order to point out how even Reimer’s case is not really an example that could disprove the social construction of gender identity as Natalie seemed to think it might be.

          2. Thanks for the clarifications! :) I wasn’t aware of all the details of the case. But I still doubt that them being identical twins is relevant to his issues gender identity; at least early on.

        2. And I was talking about who we FEEL are our family, not who we KNOW are our family. Take the revulsion most people feel against mating with one’s immediate family. If you grow up separated from your siblings, chances are you’ll fall in love with them if you meet. (In fact chances are quite GOOD that will happen, for various reasons.) Your feelings about them won’t necessarily change because you find out you’re related, because your brain determines siblinghood through “who did I grow up with?” not “who do other people claim I share genetic similarities with?”.

          1. I would argue that there is not much difference between who we “feel” and who we “know” our family is because family is culturally constructed. Kinship varies *wildly* cross-culturally, and many times has nothing to do with blood relations. The incest taboo you speak about could be absent between what we would call siblings (brother and sister) (ancient Egyptian pharaohs, for example) even when they are raised together knowing they are siblings. There could also be other types of incest taboos that we do not necessarily adhere to in this society (taboos against endogamy, for example).

            So, I would say that siblinghood is determined based not on who we grew up with (we can grow up with cousins and other kids who are not our siblings), but rather who our culture tells us our siblings are (in the case of most of the West, genetic relations are usually privileged).

      2. What makes identical twins special, is the fact that they come from the same egg, or embryo or something. I had this explained to me once, but I forgot the specifics (not a biology major). All I know is that there’s something biologically special about identical twins that makes it easier to find out what’s environmental, and what’s biological.

        1. Identical twins are more or less genetically identical, yes. That’s what the “identical” part pertains to. :P However, as I said, this has no impact on siblinghood. Children who are around when you’re a child and being raised by the same parents as you, you will see as siblings, no matter how closely or distantly related you are.

          1. I am no expert on monozygous twins, but my understanding is that many of them share a unique connection that is absent in fraternal twins and in siblings.

            Monozygous twins are likely the closest that two people can be. They share a genome, and an in utero environment, so they develop along very similar pathways. Since all communication is (to some extent) pattern recognition and emulation of the other’s thinking process, if you share highly similar neuroanatomy with someone, it would be a lot easier to communicate with them.

      3. Will explained it pretty well, but basically the relevance of David Reimer having a genetically identical twin, raised in the same household, was that he served as a “control group” for the utterly unethical “experiment” being conducted on David.

        I may be wrong, but I think the other Reimer brother also eventually took his own life. :(

        1. Yeah, his brother was schizophrenic and overdosed before David committed suicide. Really tragic stories for both of them.

  10. Natalie,
    Why spend your hard-earned fantasy nickles on facial surgery? You’re cute as a button right now.

    1. Heh. I actually have a button on my denim jacket that says “cute as a button”. My natural sense of self-deprecation causes me to constantly assure everyone it only refers to the button, not me.

      I’m actually quite lucky in that in my case FFS isn’t particularly warranted. I do have a bit of a rocky relationship with my nose, though.

  11. Wow, didn’t take long for the ugliness to come out. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am a bit disappointed.

    Anyways, I haven’t heard the terms androphillic and gynephillic previously, but they seem that they could be really using for cutting down on confusion in some areas.

  12. Natalie, Can I get some clarification on terminology please? If we’re going to discuss nature vs nurture (which is a BS dichotomy – it all works together) I need to understand what hormones are functioning in whom. For example “pre-everything gynephillic trans women” – does this mean one who was born female or one who was born male and has a female gender identity?

    I strongly suspect that the “cause” of gender and sexual identity is complex and different for different people. I also suspect that most of us are a blend of different identities.

    Myself? I’m a bit of a “tom boy,” born female and I see myself as female but I’d rather renovate the bathroom than go clothes shopping. I would love to build a “kit car” but I also love to garden and cook. I’m mostly “female” with a bit of “male” thrown in for spice.

    Sexuality? I’m mostly heteronormative. That means I like men. The mostly? I do find some women sexy and could imagine a relationship if the right woman came along but I wouldn’t go looking for that like I would go looking for a relationship with a male.

    I think most people are like that. We may lean in one direction or the other but we’re all mixed up. Homonormative people are just unfortunate that society likes to put people into boxes and some boxes are acceptable and others not so much. It makes life more complicated than it needs to be.

    Trans people are even more unfortunate for the same reasons.

    Personally I support equal rights for all humans. Period. So can we all grow up and quit caring who loves whom (so long as everyone involved is consensual) and whether they were born that way or chose that lifestyle?

    The conservative right says no?


    1. “Transwomen” refers to male to female transsexuals. Those born with male genitalia, but with a female identity.

    2. “Trans woman” refers to an mtf spectrum person, who was assigned male but identifies as female, regardless of qualifiers or how far along they are in the process of transition, or what treatments or procedures they may or may not have had or intend to have. Likewise “trans man” refers to someone assigned female but who identifies as male, in the same way as above.

    3. Terminology breaks down pretty easily.

      Pre-everything means pre-hormone replacement therapy and/or publicly living as the target identity. This is a very important category of discussion because the gatekeeper structure of medicine/therapy imposed mixed with the social pressure on CAMAB (coercively assigned male at birth) people in particular but not exclusively, but I can’t speak for trans men.

      Gynephilic/Androphilic…think about it like lipid bilayer of cells. The hydrophilic head is orientated toward the cellular fluids and the hydrophobic tail pairs up with the other hydrophobic tails to keep from mixing into the body fluids. By analogy, Gynephilia expresses attraction towards females/feminine without explicitly making objective to the person’s orientation. A straight man is just as gynephilic as a lesbian woman without the hierarchy of heterosexual or homosexual orientation.

      (okay, I hope I’ve got that right)

      For me, I’m a gynephilic trans woman. I’m not pre-everything because I’ve been on HRT and lived as a woman for 10 years. Before that, I was a gender bending androgynous crossdresser. My sexual orientation has never changed. I’m gynephilic, but my gynephilia is a spectrum of feminine and tomboyish/androgynous women (both cis and trans) to feminine/androgynous men. I usually just say lesbian trans woman, because it explains my interests in the broadest way.

      But my orientation is not limited to just the feminine/androgynous. I am attracted to witty, silly and geeky people. I could not find myself attracted to someone of an opposite political persuasion (I’m very much a socialist-independent in the spirit of Bernie Sanders). I work in a library, and I get really sick of books! I don’t want to talk about books ALL THE TIME. I like smoking pot once in a while but I wouldn’t want to date someone who was nothing but a stoner. I like a lot of things. Somethings people wouldn’t think I’m attracted to I am. I’m an old cranky Goth/Punk kid (an Old Bat in out lingo) who remembers when the Smiths were still together. But I also like Hip Hop, Mod 60s, Two Tone, etc. I can like an otherwise plain Jane more than a Dita von Tease. And just as I dislike high heels and perfume, I like skirts and tights. I hate pink, but I love dying my hair hot pink (though haven’t done that in a while)).

      All in all, just expressing my general orientation toward the “feminine” doesn’t express what I like in who I am and who I like. And being a trans person doesn’t make my idea of feminine any more simpler than it is for the average person.

      1. I agree with your point about “pre-everything” being an important category due to the difficulties of struggling through the gatekeeping process. To add a few thoughts, though, I think terms like “pre-everything”, “post-HRT”, “part-time”, “full-time”, etc. are also very important in that there’s a very common and very detrimental tendency for most people, in their understanding of transition, to sort of conflate that entire process, which can (or may not) involve SO many different steps, with SRS, which is simply one little step of the way that not even all trans folk even bother with.

        In fact, as a general thing, it’s very common for trans men to not bother with phalloplasty, as it’s not yet a particularly advanced procedure (at least compared to vaginoplasty). “Post-op” for trans men, at least in the circles I belong to, typically simply means having had top surgery and/or a hystorectomy.

        To sort of act like SRS, and the categries “pre-op”/”post-op” (usually conveniently forgetting all about “non-op”), are the end all and be all of transition, to always jump to the “so…have you had it? ‘The Operation'” question as soon as possible upon meeting a trans person, is to over-emphasise the role of genitalia in defining sex and gender, and to re-enact the very same reduction of identity to that particular aspect of one’s anatomy that has been a source of so much pain for so many trans folk. It is problematic in much of the same ways that describing a pre-op trans woman as “male” is.

        “So are you post-op?”

        It just doesn’t f-ing matter, does it? I’m a woman. I’m in the process of transition. I’ve done some things and haven’t yet done others. And what’s between my legs just isn’t anyone’s business but me, my doctor and whoever is lucky enough to sleep with me.

        1. Yeah, i hate the “op” question. It’s no one’s business.

          The classism surrounding “op” status in lgbt culture can be really disheartening. I can’t afford srs, he’ll I wish I could afford an orch. And even if i could afford srs, I couldn’t afford the downtime from work for healing. And as far as sex, I could never love someone who couldn’t love without a $20,000 vagina.

        2. Oh, and another thing about your use of androphilia/gynophilia.

          The reason I prefer gynephilia for myself is that I’m not a very sexual person, never have been. I am not asexual, but Im not particular motivated by sex and orgasm. I’m more motivated by intimacy of a different sort. I don’t think of the sexual part of words as dirty, guilt words that come from a repressive upbringing. But i don’t like the connotation of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual or even transsexual. I call myself transgender because it doesn’t feel as pathological as transsexual. There’s something about that word that makes me feel naked and vulnerable like I’m on display for a class of doctors to learn about this alien a,angst them.

          1. I absolutely understand some of that discomfort with the term “transsexual”, and IIRC that was the original intent of introducing the term “transgender”… but at this point in time we do have a clear and important distinction between the two terms, which relates to the distinction between “sex” and “gender”, and I worry about possibly exacerbating the already far too numerous confusions and misunderstandings cis folk have by using the terms inconsistently. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m transgender in a general sense, transsexual in a specific sense, and I’m just going to have to deal with those terms for the sake of clarity.

        3. Every single person I’ve come out to has asked me “so are you going to get the surgery?” as the first question. Every. Single. One.

          It hasn’t offended me, but it does make me thoroughly depressed at how little people understand what it means to be trans.

  13. The idea of nature vs nurture is so simplistic as to be completely wrong. The idea that hormones cause it is so simplistic as to be wrong. The idea that “genes do everything” is also so simplistic as to be completely wrong. Genes are important, but what results in a phenotype (i.e. the physical body that does everything including think, feel and express feelings and desires) is the interplay between genes and environment.

    Physiology comprises multiple non-linear coupled phenomena, like at least hundreds of thousands, per cell. When a person grows from a single cell to 10^11 cells in utero, a lot of stuff happens with those hundreds of thousands of non-linear coupled parameters per cell.

    Systems with more than a few coupled non-linear parameters are chaotic, that is they exhibit the butterfly effect where differential effects get amplified into macroscopic effects that are completely unpredictable. This happens for systems of 3 variables which are intractably complex to model.

    The level of environment that matters, is the level of stochastic noise that buffets the DNA as it is transcribed. That Brownian motion also sets the diffusion of signaling molecules, sets the affinity of receptors to signaling, sets the transport rate of diffusion and which molecule gets where first, second, … nth. This is why even monozygous twins can be discordant for neurodevelopmental disorders. A shared genome and a shared in utero environment doesn’t result in two phenotypes that are “the same”. The butterfly effect causes each to develop along a different trajectory.

    There is a lot of plasticity, so neuroanatomy is not completely immutable, but even as an adult, neurodevelopment (what changes neuroanatomy even as an adult) is differentially sensitive. That is why the very subtle physical effects of thinking one thought vs thinking another thought can differentially modify the course of neurodevelopment so in a few seconds your phenotype instantiates a memory of one thought vs a memory of another thought. Your thinking of one thought vs another has differentially directed the course of your neurodevelopment.

    There is very little understanding of how fundamental processes like memory work. We should try to understand them, but only because it helps us to understand what makes us human and how to help our fellow humans have better lives, not to beat the crap out of anyone with it.

  14. A couple of years ago, I had a monthlong obsession with DES (Diethylstilbestrol), a prenatal drug that my mother was almost certainly prescribed while she was pregnant with me. Between 1940 and 1970, it was prescribed for pregnant woman to prevent miscarriages. My mother’s previous pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage. I can do the math. One of the side effects DES had on male children was a higher than normal prevalence of gender identity disorders. We’re talking numbers as high as 20%, which is ridiculously high relative to its prevalence in the population at large. At the time, I thought: Yes! This is why I’m the way that I am! It all makes sense! But, well, after I thought some more about it, I decided that it didn’t really matter. So what if I chose to be trans? (I didn’t, by the way). What privileges someone’s choice of religion (which is protected by law) over someones choice in who they love or how they express their gender identity? It shouldn’t friggin matter. Lately, I’m really uncomfortable with the “born this way” rhetoric, because it’s entirely beside the point.

    Anyway, good article. I’m glad to see that you’ve hit the ground running.

    1. I have also tried to look for biological explanations for who I am. In my case I know I don’t have a lot of hormones going about doing their business. My body has a number of subtle androgynous traits. So there’s definitely some underlying reason.

      I also have the digit ratio, that Natalie mentioned, very close to 1. It is actually funny that. Since I learned about that ratio and the correlation with hormones, I have discussed it with many people in various settings. Some of my male friends have the high ration and these are the ones being the least masculine. In my family my sisters have the same ratio that I do, and my mother has the male ratio. So it doesn’t make much sense.

      Anyway. I’m currently half way through the book “Sexing the Body” by Anne Fausto-Sterling. I find it interesting. The first book I’ve read on the topic. I’d like some recommendations for more reading if any of you’ve got any suggestions.

      1. I highly recommend Fixing Sex by Katrina Karkazis. It’s a medical anthropology book about intersex, but it deals with a lot of these concepts and issues very well.

  15. Schwarzveld, I think I’ve been clear and patient enough. Tone down the hostility, condescension and offensive, transphobic language. That kind of thing may fly on other communities where we may have interacted in the past, but here, it’s my call. I would like for this site, or at least my comment threads, to be a safe space for women, trans people and other LGBT folk to be free from the kinds of hostility and bigotry that are entirely too pervasive within our community. This is your last warning.

  16. I have read the other posts but I am going to start a tangent because I am selfish that way.

    I’ve been wanting to talk to some trans folk about this since I heard a show on the radio recently where two trans folk and a psychologist were advocating for sexual reassignment to be considered necessary rather than elective. But I found that I could not agree with their reasoning.

    It seems to me there should be a simple standard: If it’s physically necessary, then it’s necessary. If you can go on just fine, physically, without it, then it’s elective. I realize that is deceptively simple, but for our purposes it should serve. It seems to me that sexual reassignment is elective surgery. You don’t need it, you want it. You might want it really, really badly, but you still don’t need it.

    Of course somebody called in and mentioned this, and the panel’s response was that the surgery does save lives, because often people who can’t get it kill themselves.

    But that just screamed even louder to me that we’re treating the wrong thing with surgery.

    I don’t know what it is like to be unhappy with your sex, but I do know what it’s like to not like things about your body that you can’t change without surgery. In my case I was lucky because there is nothing too extreme. I got over it, as it were, and learned to accept myself for what I am. Other people strongly dislike parts of themselves – they get nose jobs, boob jobs, whiten their skin. Now they can even turn brown eyes into blue eyes. I can sort of empathize with them – I get where they are coming from, but for me it was better to just look in the mirror and say, “This is what I am, and I would rather be the best possible me than change myself into somebody else.”

    I saw a documentary about people who wanted to have limbs amputated. They did things like bind their arms or legs so that they were unmovable, hid them under baggy clothes, etc. All things that trans people often do before they decide to make a more committed switch with chemicals or surgeries.

    I saw that documentary and I thought, “These people need counseling not surgery.” Their problem is a mental one. You shouldn’t treat a person’s leg for a problem with their brain. (And before somebody jumps all over me, problem = person is miserable with their body, not problem = trans feelings.)

    So I sort of feel the same way about transexuality. Transgender, gay, bi, transvestite, and probably a half dozen slighter variations on human sexuality and gender identity that I have never heard of, none of these things sound like disorders to me, but if you are so miserable with a part of your body that you want to lop it off then I have hard time just accepting that as part of a person’s sexuality. That seems too extreme.

    (I apologize if I am getting my terms wrong. My understanding is transgender means you live as the opposite gender, while a transexual actually uses chemicals or surgery to reform their body.)

    Anyway, I just can’t help feeling like what we should really be doing is teaching people to accept and be happy with themselves however they are. So you feel like a man in a woman’s body? OK, you are a man in a woman’s body. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s who you are. You have a precious and rare perspective that we should cherish, not denigrate.

    So my question is, how much would it reduce this feeling of needing surgery or artificial hormones if we were more accepting of transgender folk, if your desire to live as another gender wasn’t so demeaned? If gender was a more fluid concept, do you feel like (in some magical sci-fi world where the male/female dichotomy did not exist) you could find a comfort zone for yourself without artificial hormones or extreme surgery? Please believe that I ask this question in all honesty, seeking only to understand and not to belittle.

    Am I committing the naturalistic fallacy here by assuming that learning to be comfortable with your own body is “better” than surgery? If the surgery is available, maybe it is “better” to just go ahead and do the surgery rather than struggle through a long complicated psychological process with the risk of suicide as a possible outcome. I can put that argument to myself but I can’t make myself buy it on a visceral level. It sounds wrong.

    (One of the things about a precious and rare perspective is that you always have people asking questions about your perspective. I am fully aware that my question comes from a position of extreme overprivilege, being a straight guy, but hey I can’t find out about other people’s perspectives if I don’t ask, right?)

    And to further clarify, I don’t think that hormones or surgery should be made unavailable or anything like that. If you WANT the surgery, by all means. But when somebody says that they NEED surgery to feel like themself it sends up a huge red flag for me. If you feel like it’s get the surgery or kill yourself, then I definitely start to worry that we are treating the wrong end of you.

    1. lofgren, there are only physical effects. Everything that is considered to be “psychological” is still only due to the physical neuroanatomy of the brain. There is nothing non-physical. Every behavior, every belief, every instinct, every feeling, every thought, is only mediated by the physical neuroanatomy of the brain.

      Changing neuroanatomy is not something that is technically possible now. Even if it was, changing someone’s neuroanatomy is to fundamentally change who they are in ways that surgery on the rest of their body doesn’t.

      There is a great deal of misunderstanding of these things and there has been great harm done to some people such as David Reimer. Thoughtful and ethical medical professionals don’t want to do great harm as was done to David Reimer.

      Unfortunately there is so much cultural baggage around sexuality that most people can’t look at it objectively, including health care professionals. Instead of understanding a person’s sexuality the way the person understands it, they default to their own ideas and project them onto the other person via the Dunning-Kruger effect. Rather than defaulting to the skeptic’s “I don’t know”, they project their uninformed prejudices and biases.

    2. It’s great that you’ve come to those personal conclusions about what’s best for you and your body. Your thoughts about self-image should definitely inform your decisions and your actions.

      To suggest, however, that your personal conclusions should inform or constrain anyone else’s decisions is the height of hubris.

    3. Also, isn’t it revealing that these “accept yourself for the special person you are” pep talks from the gender police invariably come around to limb dysmorphic disorder?

      In what way is transsexualism analogous? I mean, it’s generally agreed that the optimal configuration for a human is one in which all four limbs are present. There’s no analogy there unless you believe that transsexual persons also wish to transition to a sub-optimal configuration.

    4. The line between “need” and “want” is often a very subjective one. Technically speaking, there is very little a human being actually *needs* for survival. But it’s entirely reasonable to expand that definition beyond the basics. There is for instance the whole “heirarchy of needs” thingy. Maslow, was it?

      The bulk of medical procedures in our current age are not simply about what is absolutely necessary for survival. The vast majority of treatments are about improving quality of life, and easing distress for the patient.

      Additionally, in the case of transsexuality, the consequences of the dysphporia can be very severe, to the extent that it is not only a plain and apparent detriment to well-being and quality of life, but even poses actual medical risk in the form of self-harm and suicide. As of yet, the ONLY treatment that has been shown to be at all effective in dealing with GID is transition.

      To imagine that if our society was simply more accepting of deviancy from gender roles there’d no longer be any need for transition is to make the very common misunderstanding of confusing gender expression (the manner in which one expresses gender- presentation, “masculinty” vs “femininity”, etc. – which is socially and culturally relative and moderated) with gender identity, which is the fundamental feeling of who one is. The latter can very much involve social issues and concerns about presentation, but it is also very fundamentally tied to one’s sense of the body. No amount of social enlightenment or freedom from rigid gender roles can make a man feel wholly comfortable with having breasts, a vagina and a head full of estrogen, or a woman feel totally content to have a penis, a flat chest, facial and body hair, and testes pumping her full of testosterone.

      In short, it’s NOT just about comfort with how one expresses one’s gender or is treated by others. It’s ALSO about feeling at home in one’s body.

      The degree of relative weight these things have can vary quite a bit amongst trans people, but a transsexual will always be experiencing significant distress about the latter, about their body. In my own case, that type of dysphoria was far more prominent than the social, expressive dysphoria. I like wearing dresses and make-up and jewelry, but I could live without. What I couldn’t live with was a male body.

      The kind of distress and discomfort a trans person experiences in relation to their body is of a much more intense and profound nature than that experienced by people desiring the kinds of procedures we consider elective cosmetic surgery. It has much more in common with what is experienced by someone who has been horribly disfigured in an accident, someone who has lost a limb, etc. We do not consider plastic surgery for burn victims “elective cosmetic surgery” do we? Or tell them they should “just learn to accept themselves?”

      I’m going to assume you’re male… my sincere apologies if that’s incorrect. But: if you lost or disfigured your genitals in an accident, how would you feel if someone described your desire for a prosthesis as “elective” or “unnecessary”, and said you should just learn to live with it? How about if you lost a limb or your face was severely disfigured?

      I think one thing that contributes to these confusions is that most people tend to rely on a fairly limited concept of what a trans woman or trans man is and looks like. When one thinks of a trans woman, one tends to imagine someone very femme who’s into guys and everything. That’s not always the case. In fact, the “classic” trans woman archetype is very much a minority. There are many trans women who are butch or tomboyish or androgynous in their presentation, and many who are lesbian or bisexual. There are also many trans men who are in varying degrees effeminate, and many who are gay or bi.

      There’s this tumblr I love called “Hormonal Trans Rex”… sort of a lovely little funny expression of every trans person’s pent up frustration. One goes:

      “So, if you’re into girls and are butch, why’d you bother transitioning?”
      “Um… cause I hate my cock?”

      I hope this helps explain things for you a bit.


      Vaginoplasty does not involve “lopping off” a penis. Female genitals are not simply the absence of male genitals. The only tissue that is discarded during the procedure is the testes. Everything else is used to construct the vagina, clitoris and labia/vulva. A loose, easy, simplified way of describing it without getting TOO squicky would be that the penis is basically inverted and the tip fashioned into a clitoris. As a whole, the genitals aren’t REMOVED, they’re RECONSTRUCTED.

      1. P.P.S.

        You say,

        “This is what I am, and I would rather be the best possible me than change myself into somebody else.”

        In the case of transition, you’re not trying to change into somebody else. You’re trying to become more yourself.

      2. I’ve always felt like my body experience was more akin to having a hernia, such that my entire living memory has been about trying to keep it all up inside of me. Had I not been coercively assigned male, I would most likely still felt this way because iwas trying to push it all up inside before I really knew about penises and vaginas. I really think the only thing that has been the moat distressful has been the hormonal effects of puberty. As a child, it felt like my female identity was being robbed from me by biology just as much as by the people telling me which line to stand in. If only I had the advantages of liberal parents, puberty blockers and all that, I wouldn’t live in this hulk of a body.

    5. I agree with ZenPoseur, and I would even go a step further.

      When you say, “I don’t know what it is like to be unhappy with your sex,” you should have just stopped there and asked your question. Realizing that you do not know what it is like and then proceeding to make judgments is bad form. You should be asking questions and/or reading about people’s experiences and not filtering that through your own experiences, which are admittedly different.

      If you do not know what it is like to be unhappy with your sex, then you have no means to judge whether or not people feel they need surgery.

    6. I think most have been covered by the other replies, but I’ll just add my own 2 cents anyway.

      There is a difference between not being happy with your body as it looks and the feeling transgender people have. I have often described it with the Matrix analogy where Morpheus explains to Neo first time they’re in a simulated environment that the self he sees is a projection of his inner image of himself. It is not about a wrong nose or bellyfat or whatever—it is about the identity mismatch. We humans are well programmed to look for gender identifying traits in each other. So much so that I always am a bit puzzled and confused every time I see an androgynous looking person on the subway or something. Identity is important, much more so than cosmetics. Your main error is equating the two.

      1. You know in the original script for The Matrix, the character Switch was one sex in the matrix and another in the real world? Just a fun little anecdote. Lana was probably dealing with those issues for a long, long time. It must be terrible to have to transition in the public eye in Hollywood like that. But the media has been fairly kind to her, it seems.

        1. Didn’t know about Switch. Interesting. I did know about Lana. I think there are a few recognisable trans elements in the movie. Like the point I made above.

  17. Natalie – I thought this was a great article, really interesting and on a topic I know nothing about.

    I have a couple of questions about some of the terminology. What is a ‘cis’, as in ‘straight cis female’?

    In the article you talk about a lesbian trans-woman, does this mean someone who was born with the physical body of a man, identifies with being female, and is attracted to females? Like I said – I know absolutely nothing about the trans-gender community!

    1. “Cis” is just short for “cisgender” or “cissexual”, which just means “not trans”, as in “gender and physical sex are in alignment.”

      It comes from the latin prefix “cis-” which means “on the same side”, as contrasted to “trans-“, which means “across”. It’s often used as an opposite for “trans”, like cis-acting and trans-acting molecules in bio-chemistry. Also in scientific naming conventions and stuff like that.

      It’s a preferred term for people who aren’t trans because it is value neutral. It’s not a loaded qualifier like “real”, “normal”, “biological”, etc.

  18. Actually, I’m not convinced it’s such a bad hypothesis — we don’t have a good *theory* (as in, model) yet, but how much do we really even know about the brain and how it contributes to identity? The subset of that that focuses on sex, and the subset of *that* that focuses on trans people, simply hasn’t generated enough data to start forming or winnowing specific model theories *based* on the hypothesis.

    But the hypothesis itself seems pretty sound — we’ve found evidence of transgender life and behavior in the Neolithic, we see it in all kinds of long-disconnected cultural contexts. The specifics different but the basic thread of “non-binary, non-assigned-at-birth” gender identity and behavior seems to be woven throughout the human tapestry.

    I don’t think we need to rely on isolating some brain or genetic marker to justify our right to inclusion and decent human treatment from others (anyway that opens a huge can of worms the first time someone who identifies as trans and doesn’t display that marker comes along), and to that extent I agree that political ploys based on it are self-defeating since haters are gonna hate anyway…but there are actually some pretty good reasons for thinking that being trans has some innate components.

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