From the research I’ve read regarding gender, natal development and social gender, I assembled my own personal summary or explanation that I use when talking to others that are trying to grasp what transsexualism is about.
I’ll post some of the research links below and they are listed in the ‘links‘ tab as well.
The concept is this: at about the sixth week natal development stage, natal sex differentiation occurs. That is, we develop from a somewhat androgynous female precursor fetus into (normally) a male or a female depending on the constituent DNA (X’s and Y’s) expression. At this time there is a rush of androgens plus the differentiation. If the timing of these two events is correct, then it results in a ‘cis’ (the person’s natal-birth sex matches their internal idea of what sex they are) gendered fetus. There is also evidence of an altered gene found in transsexuals that prevents or diminishes testosterone’s effect on the brain.
Intersex’ed individuals occur when there are ‘extra’ X’s or Y’s in the DNA expression resulting in ambiguous or hidden sex organs.
But for transsexuals like myself, the theory is that this timing between differentiation and androgen rush is slightly off resulting in the body developing one way (male in my case) and the brain remaining female (not changing from the precursor female fetus). One study shows that a lower region of the hypothalamus is statistically larger in women than in men and that a M2F (male to female) transsexual’s hypothalamus matches a woman’s. And then there is a new study that found a particular gene in transsexuals that diminishes the male hormones effect on the brain – leaving it female.
Now, here is where I put a couple of things together ….
We are also born with a ‘body map’. There are many accounts of people who have lost a limb and can still feel it. Some can even articulate where their non-existent fingers or arm currently resides – as if it is still attached. This map has been located – you guessed it – also in the hypothalamus, although I am not sure if in the same part of it.
I contend that this body map is much more than a ‘map’ of where the brain thinks everything is and what it ‘has’. For sure it is a map of what it ‘believes’ it has. For one thing, this explains why my male organ “down there” did not belong. Even as a very young child (as one of my earliest memories) I knew that it did not belong on me. It also helps to explain bodily feelings etc. that I had that were definitely ‘not’ male. My partner is able to bring me to a ‘mild’ orgasm that is not centered there, is not male’ish but rather whole body-centered. It is obvious enough to my partner that she would mention it and be somewhat amazed by it.
But I think this map is much more. I think it encodes our general sense of who we are. It can still be thought of as a map, but with it’s functionality extended to encompass our internal concept of what sex we are (and I’m sure a host of other things as well). Notice I’m being very careful not to use the word gender ….
Gender is a very confusing term. From what I’ve read and people I’ve conversed with, it seems most of us that are transsexual agree that gender is just not ‘it’. We have a general feeling that gender is ‘not’ the defining ‘thing’ that differentiates a transsexual from a ‘cis’ (natal or birth sex matches their internal sense of what they are) person.
From Wikipedia: “Gender is the range of physical, biological, mental and behavioral characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, the term may refer to biological sex (i.e. the state of being male, female or intersex), sex-based social structures (including gender roles and other social roles), or gender identity.” It’s original use was to distinguish between biological sex and gender as a ‘role’.
In other words it’s a ‘role’ – a collection of traits, defined by society, that collectively on average define what it means to be either male or female. This falls apart rather quickly if you investigate individual traits – suddenly none of them are all that unique – and there are too many exceptions to allow any consensus. I found this out the hard way as I’m sure any transgender person does when they attempt to give example from their life history that would prove their situation. I even had people use this to attempt to prove otherwise: “Well, you fixed cars and are a scientist!” I gently explained that one of the best mechanics I know is a women and that many of the scientists I work with are women …..
My transsexualism is not a role. It comes from something inside, something deep that was always present. I did not learn it. It feels to me that gender is the match-up of how we express ourselves – it’s the cross between either our natal sex and society or our internal ‘body map’ and society or more likely all of the above. Roles, traits and behavioral characteristics are all interpreted by society – usually in a very binary fashion (male or female). Transsexualism is something underneath all that. It manifests itself perhaps as gender, as what society sees and interprets as male or female, but the underlying cause or force behind this is intrinsic, what I call part of the body map.
I just read “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano where she describes this as ‘subconscious sex’ which is very much where I am going with this. Julia has an entire chapter devoted to explaining the subconscious sex. It’s worth a read for anyone interested.
Well, all I can say is that was a very re-affirming experience. I hope this helps others understanding themselves and perhaps helps explain it to our friends, allies and families.
With much aloha,