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Apr 19 2012

Born This Way: A Skeptical Look At The Neurological Theory Of Gender Identity

Sorry, everyone! No posts today. I’m terribly, terribly exhausted, as a result of falling way behind on my schedule, overextending my commitments, and having a friend from Kelowna staying over. I need sleep! So here’s a repost from Skepchick- one that is in desperate need of a follow-up, as I no longer entirely agree with the concepts and arguments I advanced in this post. My thinking on this issue has changed a lot over the past five months. So feel free to use the comment thread for helping expand the conversation, and move it forwards towards something a bit better, a bit broader, a bit more inclusive, and a bit more useful. Cheers!

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.

50 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    Sleep well and don’t worry about us. We’ll be here when you wake up. Oh, and have an *Internet cookie*.

  2. 2
    Cynthia

    Enjoy your rest! And, after reading this post, I’m really looking forward to seeing what ideas you’ve changed your thinking about.

    And now you’ve inspired me to go take a nap, too. See you when you wake, sleeping beauty!

  3. 3
    BecomingJulie

    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.

    I think it would be much more instructive to compare the brains of baby boys and girls. We know that events in childhood shape brain development, and that boys and girls are to all intents and purposes raised in different countries. That surely is a phenomena worth controlling for.

    Come to think of it, there might well be some merit in testing subjects from different cultural backgrounds to determine whether, and to what extent, culture influences brain development.

  4. 4
    kagerato

    Do we have anything even resembling a definitive third-party measure for sexual orientation? No, as far as I’m aware. (As to what ‘definitive’ means, I would say ~95% accuracy to some reasonable level of precision. Tossing weighted dice based on statistical data gathered from self-reporting doesn’t count.)

    If we can’t successfully measure sexual orientation except by asking, why would we expect to be able to measure the even more deep-seeded gender identity?

    Too many neurological studies seem to take a deeply reductionist view of behavior and identity. I am skeptical that we will ever find a functionally independent region of brain (or self) which clearly reveals these kinds of emergent properties. Yet if we don’t, there are guaranteed to be significant degrees of uncertainty in any measured analysis which has to consider the totality of the brain. Complex systems are not amenable to understanding through simple models.

    Some may respond that we can measure certain properties like consciousness through MRI, but that’s a facile understanding. We have not analytically deconstructed consciousness itself; we have merely identified a general trend that correlates very strongly to it. The sense of consciousness is not explained by the observation, only the fact of its presence or absence. By the time we can do the more complicated of the two, we would be well on our way to building self-conscious machines.

    1. 4.1
      BecomingJulie

      Indeed. Cordelia Fine calls it “neurosexism” when fancy-looking techniques are combined with the flimsiest of evidence to reinforce existing prejudices.

  5. 5
    Sarah

    There has been some recent follow up work that has supplied new information on the fetal hormones / finger length thing. If I’m interpreting it correctly, they have identified a specific mechanism of action which suggests that perhaps it should no longer be considered “just a correlation”:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110905160922.htm

    And here’s another interesting result along similar lines, though possibly more epi-genetic? Prenatal stress crosses generations in mice – disrupts masculinization of males:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110817101946.htm

    There was also an “in your genes” study that has been pretty well hashed over by now, but may still be interesting to consider:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7689007.stm

    Personally, I don’t think that the question of etiology bears much on how we as individuals should respond to our situations, nor does it really speak very strongly to how a compassionate and enlightened society should respond to us. But even so, any thoughtful person confronted with such a painful quandry has to sometimes wonder “how?” and “why?”

  6. 6
    Laura-Ray

    Sleep is good :)

    From what I’ve been kicking around in my head for a bit is that perhaps it’s both a genetic predisposition and a choice, or rather- sexuality is an identity, sexual expression is a choice. Gender and sexuality are complex issues that society tells us are black and white. From what I’ve read, all forms of sexuality have existed, all forms of gender identification have existed, at some point in the past. People are too quick to define “Normal” or “Abnormal” when talking about something incredibly complex. Consider the way same sex relationships worked among women in the mid to late 19th century: “normal” women were asexual, although the evidence supports most women engaging in same sex romantic relationships. These relationships ranged from platonic to erotic, but all of the evidence (letters, diary entries) points to the fact that women generally had very deep and loving relationships with other women, even though they were married to men, and had sexual relationships with them. And that was considered natural and necessary, up until Psychopathia Sexualis came out and then society decided that women who were in love were not acceptable.

    I believe that the sexual niche that someone occupies is indeterminable to anyone but that person, who is subject to the influence of society in how they are allowed to express their sexuality (and in this case, I use sexuality to mean sexual preference, gender identity, libido, romantic love, and erotic love). It’s just that some sexual niches cannot be expressed in a way that society says is okay (ie homo- or trans-sexuality). That’s not to say it’s the fault of the individual, nor are they “abnormal”; I believe that sexual innate normalcy as society defines it at one point in time is inconsistent at best, and therefore normalcy is not a good baseline for sexual identification or expression.

    Mostly what I’m saying is the inbred part of us, the part that resists conditioning, is our sexual identity, and the choice is our sexual expression. Thing is, no one is going to yell at you if you identify as a sunny person for expressing yourself by wearing neon yellow leggings. Sexual expression should be absolutely no different from what clothes you wear, what profession you choose, or what car you drive. And for some reason that’s the sticking point- that sex is fundamentally different from all other activities.

    Uh. I think I oughtta stop there and maybe write any more thoughts about this in my own blog XD sorry for lack of brevity!!!

  7. 7
    mck9

    Sexual dimorphism in the brain is not confined to the cerebral hemispheres.

    In rodents there are distinct differences in the anterior hypothalamus. In one sex (and I don’t remember which way it goes), the neurons are clumped more tightly together, and in the other sex they are scattered more diffusely. It is plausible that these differences could be related to sex-related differences in hormones or behavior.

    I don’t know whether these findings have been replicated in humans. Our brains are harder to work with than rodent brains, even when you can get them, because they’re so much bigger. You can’t fit them on a microscope slide without chopping them up into smaller pieces first, and even then, there’s a whole lot of slides to go through. Subtle differences in cytoarchitecture can be harder to spot when they’re spread out over more tissue.

    I also doubt that this kind of dimorphism would show up in MRI scans. The MRI study you cite apparently looked at the sheer sizes of various parts, not at the subtleties of cytoarchitecture.

    There have been reports, since disputed, that human females have a thicker corpus callosum, the thick band if fibers that connects the two cerebral hemispheres. I don’t know what the current consensus is on that issue.

    Finally, male brains are on average a bit bigger than female brains. That doesn’t mean that males are smarter; it just means that males have bigger bodies generally, on average. It would be surprising if the brains weren’t bigger too.

  8. 8
    Arctic Ape

    The question whether sexual/gender expression is a (free) choice is only politically relevant if you believe that LGBT expression is harmful AND you want to develop rational policies for deterrence, prevention and harm mitigation of said expression.

    In the early days of gay rights movement, such views apparently existed since even many reasonable and compassionate people were convinced that homosexual behavior was harmful. If this behavior was psychologically persistent in certain individuals, then it wouldn’t make much sense to just ban it. It also made sense that homosexual behavior would be slightly more acceptable if people really needed it to be happy.

    Of course, nowadays most remaining anti-gay people are gut-feeling conservatives who believe their moral duty is to spew whatever restrictions at gay people, no regard whether those restrictions mitigate the alleged harm or even reduce actual homosexual behavior. Some conservatives repeat the old “choice” argument out of habit and some liberals respond to it, out of habit. However, nowadays even most conservatives admit that sexual orientation exists.

    (I’m not sure if the historical development works the same way with trans rights movement.)

    1. 8.1
      Movius

      I suspect the subject of ‘choice’ persists because New Testament theology requires a cisgender hetereosexual “nature” for the sinner to turn against. If the abnormal gender and sexuality are not the conscious choice of said disgusting sinner, then he or she goes uncondemned by Christ* and we can’t have that.

      *or at least uncondemned by someone pretending to be Paul pretending to represent the views of a hypothetical god

  9. 9
    TBS

    Garfle narfle narb… this is one of those topics that I have difficulty commenting on as my thinking is not clear.

    I kind of wish I was a neuroscientist, and could comment scientifically. But trust me, if you have an MFA in creative writing , even if you have an awesome research idea, they no matter how much you beg dont let you use the MRI, ever. Academic Diciplinist Fascists!

    So nothing but what I think, no objective data, but as Natalie points out just because I would like to think something, doesn’t make it true.

    As a cis guy engaged to a trans girl I would love to think there is something neurological at the core. It lets me say to self, R is just a girl, with some messed up genetic screw up that was awful and needed surgery, but now girl. I can totally reinforce this all day long with awesome applications of selection bias, cherry picking research, and cognitive disonance. She had tea parties for stuffed animals at age three! She can’t read a map and gets lost! She is much more emotionally empathic than I! What a GIRL.

    Then I realize I wouldnt allow that logic from any of my comp students, and I’m being kind of a huge arse. But what really to do? I mean we don’t really want our relationship to be one long gender studies class (should we have sex tonite? Hmnnnn lets break out Butcher and maybe Kristeva and workshop the gaze a bit), or just sit around reading situationals and comparing index/ring finger ratios, measuring the distance beteen our eyes, and casting our big toes in plaster.

    I look at it this way. I dated the woman R presents herself as fell in love and proposed to the person R is, and as I learn a bit, she opens up, and I examine my conceptions R as a transexual comes into some focus, along with our relationship.

    But I think I am too close to have great answers to the neurobiology question, it frustrates me a bit, and they still won’t let me use the MRI (I would just break it), so I’m falling back on my gut response.

  10. 10
    Dalillama

    I’m inclined to hold that the complete failure of every effort to change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity is in and of itself a pretty strong indicator that the primary factors are congenital, whether genetic, epigenetic, or some combination thereof.

    1. 10.1
      kagerato

      To be fair, it’s only every externally imposed effort that has failed to change sexual orientation. Internally desired changes can and have succeeded. For whatever reason, though, the cultural narrative then changes to declare that your current orientation was always the “true and original” one — even if we can find functional or behavioral reasons to think otherwise.

      Gender identity is more difficult. I think you have to look at some extraordinarily rare edge cases to find an example of someone who successfully changed gender identity. More likely, you will find people who either identity as neither of the base polarities, or who oscillate between them.

      1. Dalillama

        To be fair, bullshit. People who are not 100% hetero/homosexual (which is a lot of people, but not near everyone) can sexually function with members of genders to whom they are not primarily attracted, and may choose to do so exclusively due to social pressure and/or a deep emotional attachment to a particular member of an ordinarily non-favored gender, but this does not represent an actual change in frequency of attraction/content of fantasies, etc. Claiming that someone who e.g. denies themselves homosexual activity even though they desire it has changed their sexuality and is now straight is as absurd as claiming that someone who took a vow of chastity has changed their sexuality and is now asexual.

        1. Sarah

          It’s unclear to me exactly what kagerato is suggesting, but the change from gynephilic to androphilic orientation reported among some trans women appears to be an example of a real change in sexual orientation, and not a matter of, re-activating, as it might be termed, any sort of “true and original” orientation, nor merely a change in behavior, but a genuine and sometimes quite unexpected change in preference. This could be viewed as an example of real plasticity in sexual orientation, but even if we grant the premise, it doesn’t necessarily follow that sexual orientation is not congenital, or that orientation or gender identity are in any way volitional.

          1. Dalillama

            I was not actually aware of those cases, although as you say that does not conflict with the idea that orientation is largely congenital. Presuming, as some research seems to indicate, that one factor in sexual orientation is hormone balance in the womb during gestation, it’s entirely possible that the changes in the brain/brain processes due to hormone therapy could have a similar effect.

          2. Sarah

            Sandra Samons is an interesting source for information on this. Her interpretation of her findings was that changes in orientation occurred without relation to hormonal status, and instead were likely actuated by, paraphrasing very loosely now, some effect of consolidation of gender identity occurring in the course of transition.

          3. Natalie Reed

            It seems far, far more likely to me to not be an issue of actual change in orientation, but opening up in terms of how sexual acts are mentally conceptualized and categorized, and what they represent, in terms of personal “totems” / signifiers of gender and identity. It seems to me that we have a bit of a bad habit of viewing sexual orientation as wholly sacrosanct and occurring within a vacuum, wherein one’s preferences “just are” and more-so are wholly innate and immutable, but in actuality it seems far more likely that they are socially and psychologically mediated, and these mediations are fluid and may change, especially during as significant a restructuring of one’s identity (gendered, sexual, and otherwise) as in transition.

            http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/03/22/un-gendering-sexuality/

            Also, I’ve known very, very few trans women actually reporting changing from gynephilic to androphilic. What’s more common is people who previously openly identified as straight but held androphilic desires letting go of the mask, or women who’d previously been celibate or asexual due to dysphoria now feeling able to act on androphilic desires, or women who’d previously identified as bi now experiencing notable preferences one way or the other. I’ve ALSO known women who’d previously identified as androphilic or bi gradually becoming gynephilic or lesbian.

            IDENTIFIED is the key term here. Identification isn’t necessarily true to actual desires.

            If we can hide our gender, even from ourselves, why couldn’t we also hide our orientations? ESPECIALLY when accepting those orientations might pierce the armour of masculinity and denial we’d erected around our inner desires and feelings to prevent us having to confront the T word.

            One thing worth bearing in mind:

            Women like me, who identified as gay men prior to transition, are very, VERY rare. Much rarer than straight (androphilic) trans women in general.

          4. Sarah

            Thanks for the link to un-gendering sexuality. Another very interesting post and the comments are great, too. Sometimes I feel like I came too late this party: this group has already explored finer nuances of every topic in greater detail than I could ever have imagined. OTOH, it’s also very nice to be able to read through it all retrospectively.

        2. kagerato

          Claiming that someone who e.g. denies themselves homosexual activity even though they desire it has changed their sexuality and is now straight is as absurd as claiming that someone who took a vow of chastity has changed their sexuality and is now asexual.

          First, I’d like to say that I do not appreciate having my nuanced position replaced with a right-wing trope. You should know that the typical reader and commenter here isn’t going to be advancing such a view.

          The analogy you present is precisely the opposite of the correct analogy. The proper (and relatively common) case to examine is someone who identified as straight but later came out as gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, or something else. There are also the transgender accounts of changes in sexuality, but clearly there is something more involved in transition — namely hormonal replacement therapy. That makes those cases very difficult to causally determine one way or the other, so I wouldn’t rely on them to prove a point.

          Either way, I knew someone would take offense at my comment. The idea that sexuality is in any way less than completely determined by biology is highly controversial, sometimes even in academic circles. As far as I can tell, though, it is entirely impossible to account for each person’s journey without admitting very substantial environmental influences. Simply put, it is easy to explain through socialization why a gay person would think they were straight, but biological reasons are not at all forthcoming.

          The number of people for which every aspect of their sexuality is actually wholly volitional appears to be vanishingly small. However, even so, I would not try to disclaim or discredit a person who identified as pansexual or even omnisexual. Though I do suspect that this kind of understanding would tend to occur relatively later in life, well into adulthood.

          As usual, Natalie does an excellent job explaining complicated topics like this. I probably should have referenced that post in my original response.

          1. Dalillama

            I was not speaking of right-wing caricatures. If one is a part of a monogamous relationship, then one is denying oneself access to sexual partners outside that relationship. I have known a number of e.g. bisexual people who are in such relationships with members of another sex, and therefor they are not indulging their desire for homosexual sex, even though they still look at members of their own sex and think “Oh, I’d like to go to bed with them.” As far as how one identifies, IME that has only limited relationship to one’s actual desires, and is largely culturally mediated. Many people who identify as ‘straight’ experience limited but still present degrees of homosexual desire, usually defined as ‘experimenting.’ For that matter, quite a few people who are primarily attracted to their own sex but still sometimes are attracted to the opposite sex also identify as straight. They identify as straight because that is construed as the default and there are significant social consequences for not identifying as straight. Similarly, many people who have limited, but still present desire for members of the opposite sex will commonly identify as ‘gay,’ because that’s society’s pigeonhole for people who primarily prefer their own sex. In reality, sexuality in the sense of sexual desire and practice is a broad and complex spectrum, and one with only a passing relationship to people’s sense of identity. Gender is also a spectrum rather than a set of points, although the interaction with one’s sense of identity is rather different and I’m not in a position to speak to it.

          2. kagerato

            If you didn’t mistake my position, I am at a loss to explain why you took such strong issue with my statements. I agree that sexual behavior and sexual orientation can and do differ in practice. The former is a matter which can be observed and subjected to facts and analysis, whereas the latter is almost entirely subjective (as nearly all matters of identity are).

            The difference between the two is of no strict relevance to the cases I was referring to. Since orientation is measured through self-reporting, if an individual reports a change then it is typically safe to say there has been a change. I don’t discredit any particular account merely because it might have been influenced by strong environmental and social factors; any personal attribute might fall into that category.

            As far as I can tell, the only possible point of contention here is whether sexual desires and sexual orientation can be two different things. I don’t think they can be properly separated into two fully distinct categories, because any complete exclusion would necessarily create some logical paradoxes where an explicit desire contradicts stated orientation. To be more precise, the definition of orientation rests in part on the exact desires (or lack thereof) present in the individual.

            It’s not the same thing as asking about any arbitrary preference such as favorite color. With that trivial non-identity characteristic, there is no expectation that one would desire most or all of one’s clothing, belongings, and so forth match that preference. Personality, desire, and behavior are assumed to be independent there, and so we would be talking about a separate class entirely.

          3. Dalillama

            Essentially, I am taking issue with what appeared to be a claim that individuals could change their sexual orientation, defined by their internal sexual desires, through an act of will. This does not appear to be possible, based on the evidence which I am aware of, any more than ‘ex-gay’ practitioners are able to change those desires by external means.

          4. kagerato

            I didn’t (and don’t) claim that people generally could change orientation — or any other deeply seated identity trait — by an act of will alone. It is merely that I wouldn’t bother arguing with someone who claimed that they did, because I see no useful avenue by which such a subjective claim can be falsified.

            What I took issue with was the idea that orientation (or any other aspect of sexuality) is first and foremost determined by genetics, with no clear environmental or volitional aspects. That hasn’t been demonstrated scientifically. It doesn’t make much sense due to the substantial genetic variation within the relevant sub-populations. It doesn’t explain any reported changes in sexuality throughout life. Even if the result of those changes is regarded as a “true and original” orientation, clearly such cases demonstrate that environmental influence can cause a person to completely deceive themselves about their “true” identity.

  11. 11
    Anders

    If the body map theory of transsexualism is right then it would probably be situated in the right parietal lobe. It would be interesting to see if stimulation of that area produces different results when compared to cis people. Such stimulation would be part of the treatment for epilepsy or tumor removal – I’m not suggesting that we take trans people and chop them apart for fun.

    However, I think there may be a different body man as well, a body map of the chemical composition of the blood. There are many parameters – blood pH, glucose, oxygen and carbon dioxide content, etc. – that must remain within a rather limited interval for us to survive. These are monitored and mapped in the hypothalamus. What if sex steroids are mapped there as well?

    Maybe the best way to describe HRT is as treating a congenital estrogen or testosterone deficincy?

    1. 11.1
      Natalie Reed

      Well, yeah, I think there’s definitely something to the idea of brains “expecting” certain hormone levels and not being fully functional with the wrong levels in place. For instance, it’s very, very, VERY common for trans women to feel IMMENSE relief and calm after a week or two of starting blockers and estradiol, this preceding any physical effects. Some might say it’s placebo effect, but a) it’s very strong, palpable and occurs almost universally, even amongst trans women who, like myself, weren’t really expecting any such difference, and b) changes in mood and emotions as a consequence of hormonal shifts are very well known and documented. In contrast, cis men placed on either anti-androgens / blockers or female hormones, which was a common practice for treating various forms of “sexual deviance” such as homosexuality or, presently, pedophilia, will report VERY different changes in mood. Instead of suddenly feeling a calm, contented sense of inner peace and “rightness” they’ll instead experience intense depression and lethargy, often resulting in suicidality (see Alan Turing). This similar contrast exists in how trans men respond to testosterone vs. cis women. Such a MAJOUR difference in how the brain responds to hormonal levels strongly suggests a neurobiological issue. That certain kinds of brains require high estrogen and low testosterone to function properly, while certain kinds of brains require high testosterone and low estrogen to function properly, and that this pattern strongly associates with gender identity and dysphoria in the case of people’s whose hormonal levels (and consequent morphology) is inconsistent with those neurological “needs” or “expectations”.

      1. Anders

        And in fact there are cells in the hypothalamus that react to sex steroids – a loose network of cells in the preoptic area that produce Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH). That’s the system that Lupron short-circuits although it does not act there but in the pituitary. And there are differences in how GnRH is released in cis-men and cis-women. And there’s an influence from the cortex on these cells, which almost certainly means there are connection from them to the cortex. These connection could inform the cortex that “something’s wrong”.

        And as it turns out, this hypothesis is being tested. Most gratifying. It’s always nice to know that your ideas aren’t completely silly. :)

        http://faculty.bennington.edu/~sherman/sex/male%20to%20female%20trans-odors.pdf

        They screwed up in the definition of heterosexual, but as long as they tell everyone how they defined things it’s not a disaster. I would have to have some time to judge the article.

        1. Natalie Reed

          They use those stupid definitions of homosexual / heterosexual all the time in academic and scientific papers, as they’ve become the accepted standard thanks to idiots like Bailey, Blanchard & Lawrence.

        2. Anders

          I also wonder how people from the non-binary versions of transgender would react. Especially genderfluid.

      2. Sarah

        I’ve wondered whether a differential response to hormones is both evidence of a brain difference, and maybe also a practical diagnostic, as in, “If your brain runs better on estrogen, it might be female.”

        1. Anders

          Not a practical diagnostic yet. It’s difficult to determine – you have to have a PET-scan and radioactive oxygen and stuff. Much, much easier to just ask.

          1. Sarah

            Interesting paper. I wonder what they’d find if they went back and repeated the tests (ideally with the same subjects) after hormones?

          2. Anders

            That would be very interesting, yes.

            However, the hypothalamic network can’t be the whole truth because it doesn’t really kick in until puberty. And we know that trans people experience gender dysphoria before then.

          3. Sarah

            Uh, maybe I have misunderstood, but I read the paper as saying that male and female brains respond to certain particular smells in ways that are measurably different between the sexes, and that trans women’s brains respond in a way that is similar to female brains and dissimilar to male brains. So it’s not an explanation of origin, just an indication that MTF brains do have some measurably female traits – even if these particular systems may have developed after other signs of female gender identity would likely already be apparent. Of course, if these particular differences are not apparent until after puberty, that is too late to be useful as an early diagnostic (in addition to the other practical issues that you already pointed out there).

          4. Anders

            You’re right. I was jumping ahead of the story a bit. I tend to do that. Bad Anders! :)

      3. kagerato

        Turing’s case was a crime against humanity. To destroy anyone like that is horrible enough, but the loss of his genius was a second tragedy for the rest of us. I heard that the UK government finally apologized for this atrocity a few years back, but that should hardly be considered sufficient atonement. At the very least they should have issued a complete pardon. The government seems to have dodged the issue with the old “the law was the law” excuse, which seems to be some kind of cross between “might makes right” and “shut up, that’s why”.

        However, if they wanted to do something substantial, starting an educational program on sexuality and identity issues would have made a lot of sense. It’s not as though everything is sunshine and roses these days.

  12. 12
    Ben

    Ah, good old fetal testerone. Promoters of this idea of sex differences need to read Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm:
    http://beckjordanyoung.web.officelive.com/Documents/Kessler%20Book%20review.pdf

    1. 12.1
      Sarah

      Ben, thanks for the pointer to Brainstorms. I am reading it now – not sure what to make of it yet.

  13. 13
    Anonymous

    I can’t remember where, but i remember an analysis being done on the number of trans people compaired to the general population and they came up with something like 1 in 250-500 were trans.

    1. 13.1
      Anders

      I’ve seen figures of anything from 1:100 to 1:30 000.

      1. Natalie Reed

        I can say with a pretty strong sense of anecdotal certainty that it’s definitely neither of those extremes. If it were the latter, there’d be no such thing as trans support groups or trans-activism. If it were the former, I’d have a lot more friends.

    2. 13.2
      kagerato

      If you (or anyone else) locates that study again, it would interesting to have a look at their methodology. Did they just go around asking people on the street, for instance? Did they sample from a relatively isolated population, like college students, as a lot of studies do?

        1. kagerato

          Interesting. To summarize, a lower bound can be determined by looking at the SRS statistics. Counting post-op women at 32,000 and taking entire 18-60 population of AMAB people as 80 million, the basic minimum comes out to around 1 in 2500. This is obviously far more common than 1 in 30,000 or 1 in 100,000 (figures that have apparently been used in the media for decades).

          Obviously, that isn’t counting trans men, but there’s also another huge accounting problem. Clearly, the number of people who actually transition all the way to the point of SRS is much smaller than the total population of transgender people, and even merely those who would want to go through with SRS if it were an option (money may be the most common reason why it wouldn’t be, but social stigmatization might be second). Considering this, the prevalence has to multiplied several times over. In light of this, 1 in 500 is probably much closer. Even then, that is still looking at lower bounds.

          The article goes on to cross-check this estimate using several other methodologies, which all end up somewhere in the same neighborhood. It’s also relatively clear that apparent prevalence is increasing over time due to greater access to hormones and SRS, but this doesn’t say anything about whether transgendered people are any more common than they ever were.

          Perhaps the most important part of the article is a discussion about why the reported prevalence rates would be so underestimated. This explains a decent segment of the gate-keeping phenomenon.

          All in all, a good read. Thanks, Natalie.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Yeah, it’s good work. Did I tell you guys about how Lynn Conway friended me on Facebook last week and sent me a little message? I was so stoked!

  14. 14
    Anders

    Did you know there’s all kind of stuff on the net? Interesting stuff, although their terminology is poor.

    From Scholarpedia (peer-reviewed articles by experts):

    Some subjects report a phantom arm even if their arm has been missing from birth; suggesting that in spite of its extreme malleability there must also be a genetic scaffolding for body image (La Croix et al., 1992). The same might be true for transgender female to male; they often report having had a phantom penis from early childhood (Ramachandran and McGeoch, 2008). We postulate that this genetically specified scaffolding is present in the right Superior Parietal Lobe.

    A “mirror image” of phantom limbs may be the curious syndrome known as apotemnophilia. In this condition a person who is otherwise completely normal experiences an intense desire to have a specific arm or leg amputated; a desire that begins in early childhood. Using MEG (magnetoencephalography) we were able to show that these patients have a body part missing from the body representation in Superior Parietal Lobe (McGeoch, Brang, and Ramachandran, in review).

    http://chip.ucsd.edu/pdf/occurence_phantom_genitalia.pdf

    There is one howler in the pdf, though.

    In the case of male-to-female transsexuals this gender reassignment surgery consists of removal of much of the penile tissue, in order to construct an artificial vagina [1].

    Ah, well…

  15. 15
    Anders

    Two things that I’m a little ashamed I didn’t noticing earlier.

    1) In the odor study (http://faculty.bennington.edu/~sherman/sex/male%20to%20female%20trans-odors.pdf) they used trans women who had never been on estrogen. Can someone tell me if that implies they weren’t on anti-androgens or GnRH-analogues as well? Because if that’s the case, they have a full androgen drive and the study just blithely assumes that this has no effect on their responses. This study showed that trans women are different from cis men, despite having a full androgen drive. To study if trans women are identical to cis women we need to redo the study after estrogen treatment has been initiated.

    2) All this is fun and good, but where does it leave those trans people who do not identify as men or women? Or who switch between the two (actually, Ramachandran has a theory on them as well but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Here’s the abstract if you want to have a go: http://www.medical-hypotheses.com/article/S0306-9877%2812%2900062-X/abstract)?

    1. 15.1
      Sarah

      Yeah the hormones question with the odor study (maybe we need another nick for it? :) seems like a huge limitation. After all, many people commonly report that hormones affect smell and taste, so there seems to be a lot going on with those systems. With anything question like this, hormones are likely to be a very significant factor that needs to be much better controlled.

      The Ramachandran article looks quite intriguing. The whole brain body-map thing looks like it may be a very fruitful area for inquiry.

      1. Anders

        At the very least they should have checked whether they were on anti-androgens and GnRH blockers (Natalie informed me over Twitter that there are people who go on them for some time before going on estrogen). And if you want to compare like with like they should really compare cis women with trans women who have the physiological levels on estrogen.

    2. 15.2
      A. Person

      I took a look at Ramachandran’s paper. His hypothesis seems straightforward to me, but I have the good fortune to have access to the full-paper. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the results from the full study.

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