Monday, May 23, 2016

Do You Know What Makes a Person Transgender? Exploring New Ground


Everyone has an opinion on transgender people. Arguments about who they are, what they think, what they do, and where they belong are now raging in almost every social media circle. One question dominates the conversation, and answers to this question frequently find their basis in religious beliefs or in personal opinion based on various environment factors. The question many want to know is “What makes a person transgender?”

Scientific theories of both psychological and biological causality have been forwarded. One cause held by many is childhood trauma – now that is widely disputed. In truth, no one knows exactly what makes someone transgender. We do know there are transgender children, not just transgender adults.

No one knows why children are transgender -- there are only theories. Through the first eight weeks of pregnancy, all fetuses' brains look exactly the same: female, nature's default position. Only after testosterone surges in the womb do male brains start to develop differently. Some scientists suggest that a hormone imbalance during this stage of development stamped the brains of transgender children with the wrong gender imprint.

Being transgender is not a disorder in itself: Treatment is considered only for transgender people who experience gender dysphoria — a feeling of intense distress that one's body is not consistent with the gender he or she feels they are, explains Walter Bockting, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the LGBT Health Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center.

Treatment? It has been standard practice to treat the client for any psychiatric conditions that might be present before starting a medical transition. After that, medical treatment may include hormone therapy to diminish unwanted secondary-sex characteristics and produce or enhance secondary-sex characteristics of the desired gender.

A 2011 study led by Colt Meier, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Houston (Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health) showed that hormone therapy was associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as increased quality of life in a sample of more than 400 transgender men.

(Eve Glickman. “Transgender Today.” American Psychological Association. April, 2013.)

But, Dr. Eric Vilain, assistant professor of human genetics and urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a pediatrician at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital, found that hormones alone are not answers to why people have sexual identity issues. "Our findings may help answer an important question - why do we feel male or female?" Vilain believes sexual identity is rooted in every person's biology before birth and springs from a variation in our individual genome.

Vilain explained since the 1970s, scientists have believed that estrogen and testosterone were wholly responsible for sexually organizing the brain. In other words, a fetal brain simply needed to produce more testosterone to become male. Recent evidence, however, indicates that hormones cannot explain everything about the sexual differences between male and female brains.

"Our findings may explain why we feel male or female, regardless of our actual anatomy," said Vilain. "These discoveries lend credence to the idea that being transgender --- feeling that one has been born into the body of the wrong sex -- is a state of mind.“

"From previous studies, we know that transgender persons possess normal hormonal levels," he added. "Their gender identity likely will be explained by some of the genes we discovered."

Vilain's findings on the brain's sex genes may also ease the plight of parents of intersex infants, and help their physicians to assign gender with greater accuracy. Mild cases of malformed genitalia occur in 1 percent of all births - about 3 million cases. More severe cases - where doctors can't inform parents whether they had a boy or girl -- occur in one in 3,000 births. 

"If physicians could predict the gender of newborns with ambiguous genitalia at birth, we would make less mistakes in gender assignment," said Vilain.

(Eric Vilain. “Is Sexuality Hard-Wired by the Brain?“
Molecular Brain Research. October 2003.)

A new study cited in Psychological Science provides strong evidence that trans children's understanding of their own gender identities is indistinguishable from that of their nontrans (cisgender) peers and siblings.

Lead researcher Nicholas Eaton, Ph.D., of Stony Brook University and colleagues at the TransYouth Project say that the trans kids they studied showed a clear, deeply rooted understanding of what gender identity means, running counter to common assumptions that trans kids are "pretending" or "confused" about their gender.

"Across all these tasks, across the more and the less controllable measures of gender development, our transgender participants look just like other kids, but in the direction of their gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth," said Dr. Eaton.

“The data reported in this paper should serve as further evidence that transgender children do indeed exist and that this identity is a deeply held one,” the researchers concluded.

(Nicholas R. Eaton, Kristina R. Olson, and Aidan C. Key. “Gender Cognition in TransgenderChildren” Psychological Science. April 15, 2015.)

 Candis Cayne is making TV history by becoming the first transsexual 
to play a transsexual on a primetime show.

Causes Explored

Basic human nature is to shun what is not understood, and this often turns to fear of the unknown. Dating back to the late 1950’s and 60’s the train of thought was that the cause of transgender children was psychological -- that it was a choice and as such the “cure” was through psychiatric means that today would be abusive. Forced behavior modification was usually the treatment including electro shock therapy and drugged detention. At its worst, people were lobotomized.

Conventional wisdom is still that gender is some kind of inalienable property of individuals – as something they either are or have. Tristan Bridges, Assistant Professor of Sociology at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, said decades of scholarship on gender have uncovered a perspective at odds with the conventional wisdom.

Bridges claims it is much more accurate to talk about gender as something we “do” than as something we simply “are” or “have.” He cites a new study by sociologists Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt on how the media manages moments of conflict over who “counts” as a woman or a man, and they’ve uncovered new reasons why we ought to care more about this distinction than you might have thought. Their study of how media navigate transgender individuals tells us more than why transgender people challenge conventional wisdom on gender.

Using the findings of Westbrook and Schilt, Bridges writes ...

“This research explores “determining gender,” the umbrella term for social practices of placing others in gender categories. It draws on three case studies showcasing moments of conflict over who counts as a man and who counts as a woman:

(a) public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights,
(b) policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, and
(c) proposals to remove the genital surgery requirement for a change of sex marker on birth certificates.

“We show that criteria for determining gender differ across social spaces. Gender-integrated spaces are more likely to use identity-based criteria, while gender-segregated spaces, like the sexual spaces previously examined (Schilt and Westbrook 2009), are more likely to use biology-based criteria.

“In addition, because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable and men are dangerous, 'men’s' and 'women’s' spaces are not policed equally—making access to women’s spaces central to debates over transgender rights.

“This cultural anxiety provoked by penises in 'women’s' spaces belies a larger investment in a twin set of cultural ideals: the belief that all people with penises are uniquely capable of violence and the belief that those without penises are uniquely vulnerable. While this anxiety might be easily upset by recognizing that transgender women are most often the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence, This fact is less publicly recognized than it should be.

“Our collective failure to recognize violence against transgender women is a testament to the power of conventional wisdom about gender. While transgender people have a unique capacity to help us understand gender as more flexible than we often imagine, the research illustrates the ways that the challenges brought about by transgender individuals are often dealt with in ways that have the effect of shoring up our faith in gender as innate and gender inequality is inevitable.

“This research helps us learn more about some of the most deeply held beliefs in our culture about gender. The findings show that, despite the many gains toward greater gender equality, we still fervently hold onto a set of beliefs that speak to the endurance of inequality and just how difficult it will be to overcome.”

(Tristan Bridges.What Research About Transgender People Can Teach Us About Gender and Inequality.” Huffington Post. March 26, 2014.)

(Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt.“Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System.” Gender and Society. February 2014.)

Trying to identify causes, whether they be genetic, hormonal, 
or something else entirely, those studies are underway. 
The question is, what contributes to the formation of gender identity? It's really complex."


Exit Thoughts

If you subscribe to the simple acceptance of “You are who you are,” you should acknowledge that trying to change your gender identity can cause a great deal of harm. In turn, that would mean that you also believe those who try to change the gender identity of another – in this case, that of a transgender person -- are wrong.

Still, that simple acceptance is not good enough for some people. Some demand a scientific explanation for the existence of transpeople, and some simply say they are “abominations” because they claim to know the will of God.

One astute observer posited that in place of broad acceptance, Western society has “come up with the idea that life is some sort of contest in which there are winners and losers.” Thus, people need to prove that their way of life is a winning strategy. Some of these people then claim that any life that is not lived in accordance with their strategy is the life of a loser. Then, they set out to make their belief a reality by making the lives of those they have labeled as losers more difficult and forcing them to adopt a “normal” life strategy. These “normal” people do this because “it somehow is supposed to make them feel better about themselves and their lot in life.”

(Rserven. “Why are some people transgender.” Kos Media. August 05, 2014.)

"'Normal' is a setting for machines."


Labeling transgender folks as “losers” and forcing them into boxes of normality is very close-minded and judgmental even if your beliefs are based on a personal rapport with the Almighty. What makes a person transgender? I don't know. Did you ever think that perhaps it is enough to use your faith and to understand that he or she is a beautiful creation of God.

 On Gender
extraordinary – weird
unconventional – odd
exceptional – queer
peculiar – strange
gifted – outlandish
outstanding – bizarre
special – eccentric
curious – atypical
unusual – abnormal

Why is "normal"
the objective?

There is
a broad horizon
of possibility
for the human

Rather than circling
our wagons
to protect and defend
only one or two
or even just a few
acceptable ways
of living,
shouldn't we
begin the exploration
of those other

Why isn't it possible
to expand  the definition
of woman
and expand the definition
of man,
while simultaneously allowing
people to claim neither
or both or even
to develop
whole new categories
of gender?

What does
society have
to lose?
What does
society have
to fear?

Once again, I  ask:
Why is normality
the objective?

--Robyn Elaine Serven
--November 9, 2005

No comments: