Skip to main content

That's a question I have been asked dozens of times.

And other questions pop into my head.  Why is water wet?  Why are blueberries purple?  I spend about as much time considering each of those queries.

I've written about this in the past:  Layers of Why.

After extensive introspection I basically came up with this:

If I had to pick a single step in my growth process as a human being, it would be the moment when it occurred to me that it didn’t matter why I was the way I was.  What mattered was that I existed, that I was a human being and I was living my life the best way I knew how.
But that is not good enough for some people.  That set would especially contain those who exhibit little respect for science, but still demand a scientific explanation for the existence of transpeople...which still probably wouldn't be good enough, because, you know, God.

Recently Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone took a stab at the science.

Once upon a time, the thought was that transgender was caused by childhood trauma of some sort.  Our families were dysfunctional or we were sexually abused as children.  But while our families may or may not have been dysfunctional, that is not how we came to be who we are.

That is absolutely not true at all.  But I still get people in my clinic who are trying to unravel what the traumatic incident was, that caused their kid to be trans.

--Dr. Johanna Olson, medical director of the Transgender Clinic at Children's Hospital Los Angeles

The "childhood trauma" that most transfolk suffered, in my not inconsequential experience, was having nobody around who understood how we felt.  

More recent research is pointing the finger at biology, rather than childhood trauma.

In 2008 researchers at Australia's Prince Henry's Institute released the results of a study of the genetics of transsexual people.  The scientists compared the length of the androgen receptor gene in 112 male-to-female transsexual people with the AR gene in a control group of 250 cisgender men.

A lengthy AR gene is known to make testosterone less effective at signaling and circulating...and just plain functioning.  Less potent testosterone could, it was thought, affect the development of the brain in the womb...creating a brain that was "under-masculinized" and more structurally similar to a female brain.

What they found was that that the AR gene tended to be longer in transsexual women than it was in cisgender men.

This new evidence is supported by a few previous studies that have found that male-to-female transsexuals have other biological similarities to women; they tended to have fewer somatostatin (growth regulating) neurons than the average man, for example, and the ratio of their index and ring fingers (also known as 2D:4D, a common proxy for androgen exposure in utero) was higher than it usually is in men, closer to the average female ratio.
Studies in cells show the longer version of the androgen receptor gene works less efficiently at communicating the testosterone message to cells. Based on these studies, we speculate the longer version may also work less efficiently in the brain.

--Professor Vincent Harley, lead researcher

The results were not conclusive:  not all transsexual women had the longer AR gene and some men with a longer AR gene did not have known gender identity issues.  That suggests that perhaps another gene is also involved...or that there is a combination of genetic and psycho-social factors.
It's a very tough condition.  These people are often on the margins of society, are ostracised, poor, unemployed.  It's not something you would want to choose yet still some people think it's a choice when it's more likely transsexuals are born like that.


This study appears to reinforce earlier studies which have indicated that, in some trans people, there may be a genetic trigger to the development of an atypical gender identity.

However, it may be just one of several routes and, although it seems extremely likely that a biological element will always be present in the aetiology of transsexualism, it's unlikely that developmental pathways will be the same in all individuals.

--Terry Reed, Gender Identity Research and Education Society

People develop an inner sense of being male or female from an early age but transsexuals identify with a physical sex opposite to their biological sex.  Some theories suggest some causes that include psychosocial factors including dysfunctional family dynamics and traumatic childhood experiences.  But research is increasingly implicating biological factors including family history and genetics.

The present study would disapprove the social stigma that trans-sexualism is simply a lifestyle choice; the findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops.

--Ground Report

Erdely also notes that recent Spanish brain scan studies have shown that the white matter in non-treated transmen looks much like that of birth-assigned males.  They also found that the amount of white matter of transgender women fell about halfway between that of birth-assigned male and birth-assigned female control groups.

Olson warns that since "those parts of the brain are shaped by performance and experience" the results may be a result of nurture rather than nature.  Since a recent survey of identical twins found that only 20% of cases resulted in both twins turn out transgender. so it is unclear what the precise role of genetics is.

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.


But no matter what, we are still valid human less deserving of equal treatment than other humans.

But this is not a valid assessment for some people.  It's time to quote myself again.  From an old column I wrote in the mid-90s for Triangle Rising newsmagazine:

Western society, particularly the North American brand, has come up with the idea that life is some sort of contest in which there are winners and losers.  At the same time, we are inculcated with the belief that is important to always strive to win in any contest.  So people feel they need to prove that their way of living is a winning strategy.

Too many people believe that the only way to do that is to 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.

There is a large group of people who believe that other people should be forced to adopt their life strategy (what they would call "be normal").  Any deviance from their "normality" is viewed with anything from disdain to hatred and may cause them to react with rumor, innuendo, discrimination, verbal, sexual, physical and/or emotional harassment or abuse and, in some cases, even violence.

All this is because it somehow is supposed to make them feel better about themselves and their lot in life.

Originally posted to TransAction on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Voices on the Square and LGBT Kos Community.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Meteor Blades, Ducktape, Bill in Portland Maine, Odysseus, Powered Grace, Bob Love, surfbird007, ChicDemago, mzinformed, Heart of the Rockies, susans, indybend, cskendrick, mik, ehavenot, oceanview, Farugia, brainwave, Lawrence, Steven Payne, exlrrp, Diana in NoVa, Josiah Bartlett, Sassy, G2geek, marina, Skaje, HudsonValleyMark, Alice Venturi, terrypinder, Laurence Lewis, fixxit, cfk, GreyHawk, lotlizard, sunbro, not a lamb, begone, tobendaro, koNko, MargaretPOA, kck, blueoasis, JVolvo, joe shikspack, NearlyNormal, unclebucky, middleagedhousewife, NancyK, One Pissed Off Liberal, dov12348, BeninSC, jessical, Richard Lyon, Cofcos, flumptytail, Dave in Northridge, shesaid, joedemocrat, Assaf, gizmo59, 6412093, Sixty Something, Youffraita, bythesea, skohayes, Lujane, petulans, wyldraven, JBL55, legendmn, greengemini, Tara the Antisocial Social Worker, Remediator, ArthurPoet, rebel ga, commonmass, smileycreek, FogCityJohn, janis b, mookins, BenderRodriguez, renzo capetti, JoanMar, cordgrass, pixxer, Puddytat, addisnana, Actbriniel, annieli, kerflooey, slowbutsure, FarWestGirl, badscience, thomask, merrily1000, tardis10, shaso, enhydra lutris, myrmecia gulosa, randomfacts, Dbug, Sarsaparilla, Hayate Yagami, SteelerGrrl, Mortifyd, Take a Hard Left, hulibow, anodnhajo, Flying Goat, SilverWillow, 2thanks, congenitalefty, peachcreek, doroma, LoreleiHI, Glen The Plumber, Chaddiwicker, nomandates, koosah, Joy of Fishes, Aunt Pat, Mannie, Avilyn, BadKitties, sjburnman, librarisingnsf, Darwinian Detritus, thanatokephaloides, Kasoru, AJayne, CindyV

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site