Genes for gender identity?

I find the implications of this research (Scientists find a gene for the transsexual experience) absolutely fascinating, but can also already see how it’s going to be spun by the evpsych pseudoscience brigade in their continual battle to tell women that biological differences should determine social roles.

Am I at all surprised that there appears to be a genetic component to gender IDENTITY? No. We are a biologically dimorphic species, it makes sense that our genes influence our alignment along the dimorphic divide.

Does gender IDENTITY constitute a written-in-stone determinant in prescribing gender ROLES in our societies? I don’t see that this necessarily follows at all.

What’s your take?

Categories: gender & feminism, Life, Science

Tags: , ,

28 replies

  1. I think we should keep in mind that scientists, particularly nowadays, tend to find precisely what they want to find. Can anyone remember the last time that a survey found a particular aspect of gender roles to be invalid? If you go out looking for “differences” of course you are going to find them.
    I’m not trying to say that genders aren’t different biologically; maybe they are. But the same is true for black and white people. Black people tend to be great singers. Should we start assigning them a clearly determined place in society just because of that (minor) difference?
    Mary Tracy9s last blog post..The Zero Sum Job Game

  2. Well, first of all, all that this says is that in a certain amount of males, this gene exists which causes a feminisation of the brain at a foetal stage. It doesn’t define masculinity or femininity itself since there are normal males who have it, but it is just more prevalent in transsexual women.
    However, there are risks galore in the interpretation of this gene’s expression. Yes, there are some who will pseudo-science it into a ‘femininity gene’ and that’s going to be dangerous. There are also going to be others in the TS world who will declare themselves ‘better’ than other TS women because they have the gene and others don’t.
    The biggest risk is with our highly transphobic (and patriarchal) medical establishment who may find this a very easy gatekeeping tool (they like to simplify their lives and reduce their risks).
    Trust me, the TS community is taking this news with a great deal of interest (we want to understand what left us in this middle ground) but with a lot of trepidation since it is exactly the sort of thing which too many people will want to misuse.

  3. Mary Tracy9: There is plenty of research that demonstrates that commonly assumed gender differences aren’t really true. Examples of this are recent studies that show that women and men actually talk the same amount, and that girls do as well as boys in math. They don’t get as much play in the media, though, as studies that reinforce gender stereotypes. The media also plays up evo-psych type of commentary (often from economists or other non-behavioral scientists) that isn’t based on anything but stereotypes and speculation.
    It’s like the idea that “black people tend to be great singers”. Is that based on anything other than the fact that the music industry is a field where black people have been successful? I’ve never heard of a study that actually demonstrated differences in singing ability between the races and that ignores the whole problem of defining “black” in a biologically meaningful way.
    There are absolutely biological differences between male and female humans. I find it really interesting that there might be a genetic component to our sense of gender identity that’s decoupled from our biological sex. I couldn’t find the actual article, though (maybe it’s not published yet?), so it’s unclear to me what “more likely” to have a genetic variant actually means. Is the variant found in half of transsexuals but only a third of people with cis gender identity? or is the difference greater than that? and while the genetic differences are a matter of statistics, the actual biological effect of those differences is clearly speculation. There is a great leap between “we found a genetic variation” and actually understanding what that variation does.

  4. Wow, that was longer than I planned. Sorry to run on.

  5. Hey, you stuck to three paras, and all of them were packed with info too. No problem.

  6. Not to disrespect trans* friends, but I’m hoping that anything that comes of this may go the way of the ‘gay gene’ controversy of years back, namely because I hardly want to see there being a genetic determinant for gender reassignment of any kind in the future. (As Emily S noted above, a lot of the medical community is lazy when it comes to dealing with trans* people.) While it seems fairly obvious that one would find a higher rate of feminization of the fetal brain in the MTF community, it can’t ever be turned into a black and white issue, and that’s what I’d fear would be done with it.

  7. I pretty much agree with everything you say there, Tigtog.
    I’m not at all opposed to the idea that our biology can have some influence on our gender identity, just so long as that isn’t translated into prescriptive statements about how we should perform our gender, and so long as evidence of that biological influence isn’t used to suggest that gender must be set in stone, rather than something fluid.

  8. I haven’t seen the actual science yet, but it’s also important to remember that a lot goes wrong between research > publication > press release > newspaper > public imagination.
    A borderline finding suggesting a slight statistical correlation between a gene and a phenotype often translate, through this process, into the ideas that
    * They’ve Found The Gene For X!,
    * that 100% of X people carry that gene and 0% of non-X people don’t carry it,
    * and that we’re on the verge of providing prenatal testing and gene therapy.

  9. #Lauredhel: “* and that we’re on the verge of providing prenatal testing and gene therapy.”
    And that’s terrifying. I don’t want to be cured… Being TS can be a rough thing, but it is who I am. I may wish sometimes that I were just born a normal woman, but I wasn’t and that’s life and there’s a reason to my life.

  10. I find it a bit concerning that they are talking about using the gene to determine what sex a gender ambiguous child, I’m assuming they mean hermaphrodite, should be brought up as. I’m not an expert at all in this, but shouldn’t the child be allowed to be a child and choose how they feel when they can articulate it for themselves? I know they like to operate early and so on, but is there a medical reason for that?

  11. @Mindy,
    Unfortunately, that isn’t the way that the medical community works for the intersexed and transsexual people out there. There’s too much ego and too much protection going on on behalf of the doctors for such decisions to be left in the hand of the people actually with the condition.
    One just needs to look at the work of Dr. Zucker who is trying to ‘force’ transsexual children back into their assigned gender with frankly barbaric techniques to see just how the community works.
    Luckily, there are a lot of doctors who try to understand us and our needs, but the medical system in general is very biased towards protecting the doctor and not meeting the needs of the patient.

  12. That’s what I was worried about Emily S. I had visions of children being told to conform to a sex that had been chosen for them, on the basis of some dodgy scientific fact. Pretty much what they do now I’m guessing.

  13. @Mindy: “Pretty much what they do now I’m guessing.”
    Yes… Pretty much. It’s amazing the hoops one has to jump through to be allowed to get treatment (and even treatment one has to pay for oneself).
    It’s even worse for the intersexed community in a lot of countries… When my endocrinologist suggested testing for intersexuality because of some morphological issues, the gender specialist told him not to do it since if it were proved, I would be refused treatment as too old (they only treat intersexed children). Can you imagine that the medical community bars certain intersexed people from treatment because they didn’t find out early enough?
    If the medical community latches onto this gene and the other more easily identifiable markers which are being found, I fear that a lot of intersexed and transsexual people will find themselves trapped in the wrong gender with no way out.

  14. I was planning to not post a comment on this particular post, coz my view kinda diverges, but what the hey, hey? 🙂 I’m always intrigued when people refer to ‘biological sex’ as if biological sex were self-evident (this is a general thing, tigtog, not a shot at you!). The variety of bits and pieces which need to line up in order to produce (what we’ve identified as) an ideally-dimorphically-sexed individual is kinda amazing (including chromosomes, genes, hormones (at particular stages of development), hormone receptors, as well as primary and secondary phenotypical attributes (girly bits and boyish bits)). And what’s particularly interesting to me about this stuff is that unless something is visibly or experientially ‘wrong’ (e.g. (some) intersex conditions), we all just run around assuming that everything lines up properly. We assume that people who look like women have particular chromosomes, genes, etc. There are numerous differences that we never know about, because they don’t come with a reason to find them. (Interestingly, though, prenatal genetic diagnosis, which is supposed to pick up Down Syndrome, in fact picks up what’s called aneuploidy, of which Down Syndrome is just one manifestation. A particular ‘intersex’ condition is another (I use the scare quotes because often this one is never even picked up coz it doesn’t manifest in a visible way).)
    There’s also an intriguing tendency to treat genes as “the given”: the ground upon which all else is built, the substrate that cannot be altered; that genes carry around with them an ‘ought’, which is ‘meant’ to be manifested through the individual. (This, of course, is used to suggest that anything that’s not ‘biologically given’ is a choice, which is a bizarre leap). But as genetics gets more and more sophisticated, geneticists are finding that in fact genes don’t quite work that way: epigenetics (and ecogenetics, too) suggest that genes do not have a singular form of expression, as pop sci, working in with a contemporary cultural anxiety to find out why we are the way we are, tends to suggest, but in fact that expression is shaped by context. They’re also finding that it’s all a bit more complex than we thought: there isn’t, in fact, a single gene for IQ, which is sensible to me because IQ is a highly contextualised and historicised measure. And I’d add to that that what is meant by ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ is massively contextual. Gender identity and gender roles have shifted throughout time, and to me, attempts to define some ‘core attributes’ of each fails to negotiate with the differences between different historical (/geographical/cultural/etc) moments, primarily because it assumes there must be some commonality.
    But to me, the weirdest bit about all of this is the astonishing power that is given to scientific explanations. Most of the commenters above have expressed concern about how such information would be used to devalue particular styles of being-in-the-world. It’s totally true, it happens all the time, but it weirds me out: why do we think that (or, rather, behave as if) science can tell us what ought to exist? (the ‘we’ here is a general ‘we’; obviously most people here don’t think this). But when science is used (and it is used; most scientists tend to be fairly circumspect about their claims) to tell people that particular ways of being-in-the-world are genetically given and therefore, as Beppie put it “set in stone”… well, it just makes me wonder why a discourse that was meant to help us understand the world became the tool to tell us what the world ought to be. (Or to let us hide our contemporary obsession with normalisation, IMO).
    And also, (tongue in cheek, kinda): what about teh (trans*)menz? Or more pointedly, what about trans* folk who really have no desire to ‘transition’ from one sex to another, but want the space to live ‘between’?
    WildlyParentheticals last blog post..Champagne Days…

  15. Ooh, wow, so sorry; I am very bad at being succinct 😦 I’ll stay away unless I can be brief in future!

  16. The occasional lengthy comment from a regular is fine, WP. I only frown on people who post screed after screed after screed.

  17. Do I count as a regular, then? 😉 I think I’m touched!

  18. possibly related to the end of WP’s post, i was thinking about how the people studied in this research seem to be a particular subset of what we might call all ‘trans’ people (or maybe gender queer people or some other broader term, to include all sorts of people who don’t want to or perhaps are conscious of not fitting the gender binary)
    (tangent – i guess it’s important to note that no-one ‘fits’ the gender binary since it’s a construct that people have to make themselves fit, if that makes sense. which kind of makes it hard to define who’s trans and who’s cis and who’s in between, when you come to the crunch… anyway!)
    it would be interesting to know more about the history of the gender identities of people who participated (the way they tell their histories, i mean).
    the research was conducted at the ‘monash gender dysphoria clinic’ – possibly a hint that it was geared towards people who feel there has always been something ‘wrong’ with their assigned gender. but some transgender/genderqueer people have different experiences, and I wonder how many of them participated.
    i’m also intrigued by the article using the word ‘transsexual’. i just finished telling someone the other day that you never hear people use that to describe themselves – of course i could just move in the wrong circles. can anyone enlighten me on the use of ‘transsexual’?

  19. @Daiskmeliadorn: “i’m also intrigued by the article using the word ‘transsexual’. … you never hear people use that to describe themselves … can anyone enlighten me on the use of ‘transsexual’?”
    There are plenty of people who define part of their existence as being transsexual. When it happens to you, it’s a pretty major thing, so it’s difficult for it not to define a part of your life at least until you have followed the necessary steps to allow you to feel cured/happy with the level of congruence between your mental/identified gender and your body.
    There’s the medical definition which comes up with a lot of prescriptive definitions to gatekeep treatment. Unfortunately, this is a very unclear line with some doctors accepting people as transsexual which others would refuse to treat.
    More importantly, I think, is the definition adopted by the person with the condition. Barring a very few people, following transition is not something one does unless one is very sure that one actually is transsexual, and in that case, I would define it as having a mental gender different from the physically expressed genital gender and from the ‘allowed’ social gender.
    The transition may or may not include surgery. I think that for the majority of us, the part of the transition which has the biggest impact is the social transition. Some, especially in the case of transsexual men, don’t go for surgery because of its risks (it’s more difficult for transsexual men than transsexual women). Some are happy with the level of congruence the social (and most often, hormonal) transition allows. Some are, of course, just not able to have surgery (for example, if one has haemophilia).
    I don’t view being transsexual woman as a definition of who I am which is why I prefer to use it as an adjective. It’s a condition which I am under treatment for (yes, I’m one of the lucky ones who falls into the medical establishment’s definitions) and I hope to be able to put the active description of transsexual behind me at some point when my treatment has progressed to a point giving me that body-brain congruence. It’s getting there! 🙂
    I hope that helped to give a view from this side of the fence. 🙂

  20. emily s – I was more wondering about ‘transsexual’ vs ‘transgender’. i hear ‘transgender’, i hear ‘genderqueer’, but i don’t think I usually hear ‘transsexual’ – except for you, now! 🙂
    i kind of knew about it being hard to get treatment from doctors because of them not agreeing with your view about what your gender (sex?) is/should be. i assumed the problem was that they were basing their decisions on the definition of gender dysphoria in the DSM (not that i’ve read that, either) – where does the medical definition of ‘transsexual’ fit with that?

  21. daiskmeliadorn – Oh… Well, with regard to transsexual vs transgender, MY take on this (which as always with the trans community is a warning that there are differences) is the following:
    Transgender – An umbrella term covering the range from transvesitite/crossdresser (the terms differ depending on where you are in the world) to transsexual. Some people use this as an identifier in its own right, especially where they don’t feel they fit transvestite or transsexual. Considering the very different motivations and potential causes between the different people in the transgender world, there is some fragmentation going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if the links between the TS and TV worlds become weaker, especially as a real TS community seems to be starting to appear.
    Transsexual: A person who has a need to live in a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth (different from their genital gender). I guess that maybe the reason you’ve not heard the use of transsexual too often is that it’s pretty much limited to the TS community and a lot of us spend a lot of time trying to keep below the radar screens (going stealth). However, once my blog’s up and running again (my server’s down), I have a blogroll of quite a lot of TS blogs where transsexual would be a normal word to use.
    With regard to the medical definition, that’s something which is incredibly problematic. First of all, the DSM defines it as a mental issue, which is terribly stigmatising and can really damage some people’s chance of a successful life. Secondly, the fact that people like Ken Zucker (a guy who is neither a doctor nor a psychologist, but who actually gets to try to force children into their assigned gender) and Anne Lawrence (a transsexual woman who believes in a trans hierarchy where some people are ‘real’ TSs and some aren’t) means that the DSM is being heavily influenced by people who disagree completely with a large majority of the TS community.
    I don’t think there are many of us who use the medical definition to define ourselves, most of us come to the medical profession with a long history of having thought this out over several years, with a large amount of us having first memories of this being an issue in very early childhood.
    The medical definition is used more by the medical establishment for their protection and for gatekeeping purposes and isn’t something which changes the self-identification in any meaningful manner. It just affects us through through the difficulty of finding treatment and through the discrimination the ‘establishment’ show us thanks to it.

  22. I’m sorry for writing so many long comments today… It’s just a bit of a complex subject. I hope this isn’t a problem!!!

  23. emily s – thanks for that. i’d def be interested in checking out your blogroll when it comes back!
    i for one can’t imagine your comments on this thread would be a problem! 🙂

  24. Not at all, Emily. Have I been too much of a tiger on this – everybody seems so nervous?
    There’s a very big difference in context between long constructive comments which provide information that furthers a friendly discussion such as is happening on this thread, and long combative comments which throw out a slew of challenges on an antagonistic thread. It’s very much the second sort that are a problem.

  25. I’m glad! 🙂
    No, I don’t think anyone’s being a tiger (except in the nicest ways!), but at least in my case I just wanted to make sure I didn’t seem to be hijacking the thread.
    Thanks for making it clear! 🙂

  26. On this topic, I find that the most irritating of ‘evpsych pseudoscience’ can be found in Satoshi Kanazawa’s blog over at Psychology Today.
    Unfortunately,despite his lack of credibility, he was cited by Janet Albrechsten in the Australian as some form of justification for the Mayor’s comment that “the beauty-disadvantaged women should proceed to Mt Isa”. Not that I want to dredge that one up again!

  27. No, exceptionally non-tiger-like, Tigtog. I just have an overactive imagination, in which I am understood as that antagonistic person! 🙂
    WildlyParentheticals last blog post..Champagne Days…

  28. I’m always amused (and vaguely horrified) at the number of people who seem to think that Psychology Today is some sort of reputable scientific journal.

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