On the Science of Changing Sex

(Cherry) Picking The Transgender Brain

Posted in Brain Sex, Editorial by Kay Brown on May 31, 2018

27867072_1811649452220144_4426664495691531655_nOr, How To Ignore Brain Science That Tells A Story You Don’t Like

Psychology graduate student and computer coding instructor Sophie Searcy, responding to the recent over-hyped study of transkids brains (mentioned in previous post) has produced an excellent example of transgender brain science cherry picking.  The one that REALLY stands out as egregious is that she cites the Joel study that she claims… well… let Searcy tell it,

“Indeed, not only is the existing literature on sex differences in brain imaging likely biased, but recent work does significant damage to the idea that there are distinct, separate, “male brains” and “female brains” at all. A research group led by Daphna Joel summarizes the findings of their meta-analysis that included brain images from 1,400 participants: “Brains with features that are consistently at one end of the ‘maleness-femaleness’ continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.”

So what’s the problem?  Well, it’s dishonest cherry picking to cite a study that another group (Chekrouda, et. al) responded in the same journal with a similar study that showed that if Joel had conducted a multi-variate analysis they would have found out that male and female brains scans WERE in fact differentiable by a mathematical model at 93% accuracy.  As I explained previously I did a bit of calculation and found much to my amazement, that to “guess” the sex of the brain to 93% accuracy means that the effect size (Cohen’s d) would, if it were a single dimorphic feature, be a whopping 3.0 !!!!  That’s an over the top value.  Thus, as we get better imaging tools to see the fine details, we are learning that the human brain, in terms of multivariate statistics of multiple measurements at all points of the brain, is in fact extremely sexually dimorphic.  The problem is that no one area is all that dimorphic, but in aggregate, they are quite dimorphic.  That is to say, if one area is slightly dimorphic, giving a small statistical clue as to the sex of the individual, and a second area is also slightly dimorphic, giving a small clue as the sex of the individual, the two can be used together to give a medium-sized clue to increase the accuracy… and with many many areas, each additively pointing towards one sex or the other, the accuracy gets quite good.

Searcy should have noticed this second paper which shows that Joel’s paper does NOT debunk the hypothesis that discernible male and female brains exist.

So, why did she write this article and cherry pick the science?  Perhaps we can get a clue from another statement she makes,

“In a 2017 paper, Bakker and colleagues summarized similar work on adults as finding that “adults with GD [gender dysphoria] differ from both cis-gender [sic] men and women.” In other words, adult trans brains appear to be distinct from adult cis brains of either sex. Should trans adults be worried? In that same paper, the researchers actually found mixed results for adolescents. They looked at nine brain regions each for trans girls and trans boys. Of those 18 regions, the researchers reported significant differences in only four out of 18 areas. One area where trans girls differ from both cis girls and cis boys, two areas where trans girls are similar to cis girls, and one area where trans boys are similar to cis boys. What does this mixed bag suggest if we are to believe that trans brains must be similar to cis brains in order to be seen as legitimately transgender?

Ummm… this result is in complete agreement with another hypothesis that many transwomen find uncomfortable, one made by Ray Blanchard, in which he hypothesized that late transitioning transwomen would have brain structure differences from both men and women that would NOT be sexually dimorphic; while young (“homosexual”) transsexuals would show shifts in sexually dimorphic structures toward female morphologies.  There was an earlier review of previous studies (which I also wrote a post about) that had shown that hypothesis to be supported.

Searcy is likely to have written her article in an attempt to discount the growing evidence from transgender brain scan research that shows that the two type taxonomy for transwomen is supported.  Where once older transitioning transwomen cherry picked the brain structure research in an attempt to spin it such that all transwomen had female brains.  She is spinning the science to lead us to believe that brain structure research is unimportant and should be ignored, first by saying that there is no brain structure sexual dimorphism of any consequence and then say that what differences between transgender folk and nontransfolk is unimportant anyway.  I believe it represents a growing fear by autogynephilic transwomen that the brain scan science will undermine their own identity as transwomen if the public were to become aware of what the evidence means.

Further Reading:

Essay on Chekrouda paper

Essay on Transgender Brain Sex Review

Essay on Cherry Picking Brain Research to Prove All Transwomen Have Female Brains



Chekrouda, et al., “Patterns in the human brain mosaic discriminate
males from females”  http://www.pnas.org/content/113/14/E1968.full.pdf


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Transgender Teens Brains Crossed-Sexed

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on May 25, 2018

Teenage-brainBreaking News

A study out of the Netherlands (our favorite clinic where science is still happening) showed that adolescents with Gender Dysphoria, both MTF and FtM, have brain structures and activation like that of the opposite natal sex:


Please remember, this data only applies to “early transitioners” / “early onset”…. NOT adult “late onset” / “late transitioners”.  Given earlier studies which show that late transitioning transwomen do NOT have cross-sex brain structures we don’t expect to see the same results in adults.  I will follow up when I can find more information.

(Update 5/27/2018:  I still haven’t seen that paper, but I did learn that the adolescents in the study were taking Triptorelin to suppress puberty.  Some wags have already claimed that this effect was caused by the drug.  But, this is very unlikely as puberty suppression means that the activating effects of testosterone should be suppressed to allow us to see the earlier organizing effects or the lack there of more clearly, if only we had controls who were not gender dysphoric.  Someone else pointed out that sexual orientation is a known confound and was not controlled for.  This IS a concern if one believes that gender identity is potentially an atomic / neurological difference between gays & lesbians and transkids… which many of us, including myself, do not believe.)

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Autism and Transgender

Posted in Brain Sex, Female-to-Male by Kay Brown on May 24, 2018

critical-thinkingCo-Morbidity of Gender Dysphoria and Autism Spectrum

More studies show that there is a higher than expected by random chance of co-morbidity of gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorders.  It’s seems to be true for both MTF and FtM.  There are hints that it may be more likely in “nonhomosexual” individuals.  The question not yet answered is whether this is an independent path to gender dysphoria in adults or is co-morbid with autogynephilia and autoandrophilia, though we have seen adolescents with and without autogynephilia in earlier studies.

From the Shumer study abstract:

“There is evolving evidence that children and adolescents with gender dysphoria have higher-than-expected rates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)… We conducted a retrospective review of patient chart data from 39 consecutive youth ages 8 to 20 years (mean age 15.8 years, natal male: n = 22, natal female: n = 17) presenting for evaluation at a multidisciplinary gender clinic in a large U.S. pediatric hospital from 2007 to 2011 to evaluate the prevalence of ASD in this patient population. … Overall, 23.1% of patients (9/39) presenting with gender dysphoria had possible, likely, or very likely Asperger syndrome as measured by the Asperger Syndrome Diagnostic Scale.”

From the Pasterski study abstract:

“The current study examined this co-occurrence of GD and autistic traits in an adult population, to see whether this heightened prevalence persisted from childhood as well as to provide further comparison of MtF versus FtM transsexuals and homosexual versus nonhomosexual individuals. Using the Autistic Spectrum Quotient (AQ), 91 GD adults (63 male-to-female [MtF] and 28 female-to-male [FtM]) undertaking treatment at a gender clinic completed the AQ. The prevalence of autistic traits consistent with a clinical diagnosis for an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was 5.5 % (n = 3 MtF and n = 2 FtM) compared to reports of clinical diagnoses of 0.5–2.0 % in the general population. In contrast to the single previous report in adults, there was no significant difference between MtF and FtM on AQ scores; however, all of those who scored above the clinical cut-off were classified as nonhomosexual with respect to natal sex. Results were considered in the context of emerging theories for the observed co-occurrence of GD and autistic traits.”

This was not a very large enough sample size given the small number of individuals found on the spectrum, but note that all five were nonhomosexual.

Further Reading:

Autistic Sky

Further External Reading:

Why we need to respect sexual orientation, gender diversity in autism by John Strang

Large study finds significant overlap between “transgender” identity and autism


Pasterski, et al., “Traits of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Adults with Gender Dysphoria”, Archives of Sexual Behavior (2013)

Shumer et al., “Evaluation of Asperger Syndrome in Youth Presenting to a Gender Dysphoria Clinic”, LGBT Health (2016)

van der Meisen, et al., “Prevalence of the Wish to be the Opposite Gender in Adolescents and Adults with Autism Sprectrum Disorder”, Archives of Sexual Behavior (2018)

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Historic Transphobia in the Gay & Lesbian Communities

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on May 20, 2018

The Gay, Lesbian, and “Feminist” Backlash Against Transgender Inclusion

Kay Brown{I originally wrote this essay as supporting material for my TransHistory Class at the Harvey Milk Institute twenty years ago.  There were a number of minor historical errors which I have attempted to correct here.  I am republishing this material because I have been disturbed at the level of historical amnesia and because someone recently made a “both sides” criticism regarding transfolk and the so-called “TERF” war.  It is my contention that the animosity between the two groups was essentially one-sided from the 70’s until the 90’s and that intelligently and strategically confronting transphobia in the gay and lesbian communities, while discomforting in the short term, led to GREATER support within the LG&B community, not less, in the same way that gay and lesbian protests of homophobia helped us all earn greater support from the straight community in the long term.  All comments in curly brackets are modern.}

{Addendum 6/2020:  With the recent publicity surrounding JK Rowling’s transphobic screed, repeating lies and tropes that she presents as original, but aren’t.  It is more important than ever to learn the early history this hatefulness.  Sadly, my personal memories of taking my daughter Liz to every one of the Harry Potter movies as she grew up and nearly the same rate as her heros has now been deeply poisoned and ruined by Rowling.  The personal is political… and the political is personal.  This is personal.}

The modern era of the gay & lesbian rights movement is usually marked as starting on a hot June evening at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The New York police, as many city police departments across the United States did, made period raids on sexual minority bars to harass and arrest the patrons. On this particular night many resisted arrest touching off a riot that continued for three nights running.

In the next year, three transgendered people, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Angela Keyes Douglas would play pivotal roles in organizing the emergent Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. The goal of the Gay Liberation Front was complete acceptance of sexual diversity and expression. But by 1971 the gay men’s community had returned to the assimilationist strategy as the lesbians, in 1973, turned to separatism and radical feminism. There seemed to be no room for transgendered people in either camp.

In 1971, the GAA wrote and introduced a bill to the New York City Council that was the first omnibus anti-discrimination bill to protect homosexual people. However, in spite of early and avid support of the GAA by transgendered people the bill completely ignored transgendered people. Silvia Rivera, disgusted by the betrayal, said to the leaders of the GAA, “It’s not us that they are afraid of — its you! Get rid of us. Sell us out. Make us expendable. Then you’re at the front lines. Don’t you understand that?” This marked the first serious betrayal, but certainly not the last.

Disillusioned by the GAA’s betrayal of transgendered people, Angela Douglas attempted to form the Transsexual Activist Organization along the same lines as the GAA, with some of the loftier ideals of the GLF. She began publishing MoonShadow, a quirky newsletter for and about transgendered people and the struggle for legal rights.

In early 1970’s, Beth Elliott was active in a number of organizations including the Alice B. Toklas Gay Democratic Club, which she co-founded, the Board of Directors of the California Committee for Sexual Law Reform working to repeal California’s anti-sodomy laws, and the Daughters of Bilitus. The Daughters of Bilitus had been a pioneering lesbian organization during the 1950s and ’60s, but was losing membership in the ’70s as the lesbian community turned to more radical organizing. In ’73 Ms. Elliott was asked to stand for election as the Vice-President of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitus. Late in her term of office her transgender status became a point of contention at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, where she was outed and vilified for being a MTF transsexual. The complaint was that Beth Elliott had insinuated herself into a position of power over women as a patriarchal man, a propagandist ploy that was to become common when attacking other transgendered people . At the conference she was forced to stop her music concert due to the catcalls from the audience by women that knew nothing more about her than that she was transsexual. She was required to sit through a popular vote of the attendees to determine whether they would let her finish her set. In the weeks and months to follow she was further vilified and even betrayed by women who had once called her friend. The treatment she received led her to become “stealth” for many years after.

In July of 1973, during a “Gay is Good” rally, Sylvia Rivera was on the same stage as lesbian separatist Jean O’Leary. She denounced transgender people as men who, by “impersonating women”, were exploiting and mocking women. It was the beginning of a series of such high-profile transphobic attacks from the lesbian community.

In 1977, at the height of the Right Wing / Anita Bryant anti-gay rights backlash, the lesbian feminist separatist movement was busy attacking an even smaller community that only wanted to work within the lesbian community, lesbian identified transsexual women. Central to the conflict in ’77 was transsexual recording engineer, Sandy Stone, working at Olivia Records.

Sandy Stone was a recording engineer for A&M Records before her transition. Olivia Records needed a recording engineer with skills and experience to help their fledgling all women’s recording studio. They found it in Sandy Stone. She recorded a number of their early albums, training other women on proper recording and mixing technique. When word got around that Olivia had a transsexual in the company, lesbian separatists threatened a boycott of Olivia products and concerts. Olivia Records was on the edge of profitability. A boycott would destroy them. Olivia supported Stone at first but eventually crumpled beneath the separatists demands, asking for Sandy’s resignation.

Angela Douglas became upset at the vitriolic, absurd, and transphobic comments broadcast on listener sponsored station KPFA in Berkeley, California and letters published in the feminist journal Sister. She wrote a very tongue-in-cheek satirical letter to the editor of Sister, lampooning the fear mongering and hatred, the night before the 1977 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade.

{Personal Note:  I was physically there the night she wrote the letter, standing behind her shoulder as she typed it.  She pulled it out of the typewriter and asked me what I thought of it.  I advised her NOT to send it as it was too “filled with anger”.  She plucked it from my hand and sealed in an envelope with a dismissive ‘hurumph’.  I stand by my original opinion, her letter was a mistake.}

The next day, at the Parade, a “gender bending” gay man handed out fliers that was written in protest of the Parade Committee’s policy of exclusion of “Drag Queens, Transvestites, and Transsexuals” . The policy was formulated in the hope of heading off the media which tended to focus on the flamboyant, instead of the very serious issues of Gay & Lesbian community pride and efforts to fight homophobia in society. However, transphobia had operated in the Parade Committee to equate transgendered people with “flamboyant” social unacceptability and political liability.

After the parade, Angela Douglas wrote a short essay with photos for the Berkeley Barb, in which she decried the efforts to exclude transgendered people. She asked if there shouldn’t be a counter parade by transgendered people, to be held on Halloween, a day that one is supposed to be flamboyant!

{Personal Note:  One of the photos was of Douglas by me using Douglas’s camera, my very first publication credit.}

Two years later Janice Raymond in The Transsexual Empire, wrote of the events of 1977, casting Ms. Stone as an agent of the “Patriarchy” and “divisive”. The letter that Angela Douglas wrote as satire was quoted out of context, as an example of transsexual hatred of women, by Raymond. Her quoting out of context a letter written by Douglas was tantamount to intellectual dishonesty, with scholarly repercussions.

Janice Raymond was a professor at the University of Massachusetts. She is infamous for having written her post-modernist doctoral thesis attacking transsexuality, denying its medical reality, and for viciously attacking individual transsexuals, notably Sandy Stone and Angela Keyes Douglas in her book, based on her dissertation. The book uses insensitive and transphobic language throughout, while vilifying feminine MTF transsexuals as tools of patriarchy for upholding stereotypes of women, and vilifying androgynous lesbian identified MTF transsexuals for being tools of patriarchy, fifth columnists infiltrating women’s’ space and “raping womens’ bodies”, a typical ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ trap. She dismisses FTM transsexuals as deluded and misguided lesbians, afraid of the label “homosexual”. Her thesis rests entirely on arguments that sex/gender identity are fixed within the genitals at birth, an essentialist theory that excludes the possibility of transsexuals being a form of intersex, a topic which Raymond never addresses.

The book, while it did not create the transphobic attitude in the lesbian community, did tap into and ‘validated’, at least for the transphobes themselves, the discrimination they practiced. Thus, what began in the ’70s, occasional attacks on individual transsexual women, became institutionalized discrimination against all transsexuals in the ’80s.

The Transsexual Empire, was not the most damaging writing that Raymond penned. Far worse was a United States federal government commissioned study in the early 1980’s on the topic of federal aid for transsexual people seeking rehabilitation and health services. This paper, not well publicized, effectively eliminated federal and some states aid for indigent and imprisoned transsexuals. It had a further impact on private health insurance which followed the federal government’s lead in disallowing services to transsexual patients for any treatment remotely related to being transsexual, including breast cancer or genital cancer, as that was deemed to be a consequence of treatment for transsexuality.

{Personal Note:  As a member of the ACLU Transsexual Rights Committee in the early ’80s, one of my tasks was to read Raymond’s government reports and respond to them.}

Ms. Raymond is closely associated with another noted transphobic writer, Mary Daly, who described transsexuals as “Frankenstein’s Monsters” in her book Gynecology, which Raymond quoted in her book.

Transgender participation continued to be controversial in the Gay & Lesbian Community. Transsexuals taking leadership positions in the community were especially subject to attack.

Ms. Carol Katz was on the Christopher Street West Gay Pride Parade and Festival Committee, serving as Security Coordinator from ’79 through ’81. However her position on the committee was a controversial one as many gays and especially lesbians objected to the presence of a transsexual. She recruited a number of transgendered people, both MTF and FtM to work as volunteer parade monitors and festival security each year . Her background in law enforcement facilitated greater cooperation between the Committee and local law enforcement organizations, LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

{Personal Note:  I was one of the parade monitors one year.}

In 1980 Ms. Katz was asked to serve as Security Co-ordinator for the “Women Take Back The Night March” in Hollywood. She agreed to help. However… lesbian feminist separatists threatened to boycott the march due to her presense. Carol offered to step down in the interests of the larger community, with some private bitterness. The Committee accepted her resignation. But at the very last-minute, due to overwhelming details in doing the job without her… and perhaps a realization that it was wrong to push her out of her participation… the committee asked her to take back the job the very day of the march. The controversy over Ms. Katz’es leadership role lead to the effective banning of broad transgender community participation in event planning and execution in other events during the ’80s.   However transgendered people did march that night.

{Personal Note:  I marched that night.}

It should be noted that the memory of the gay & lesbian community is short, as demonstrated by the efforts of the transgender community in Los Angeles to win inclusion in the Parade and Festival in 1995; Transman, Jacob Hale faced a Festival committee that believed transgendered people had never been participants before. The work of the transgendered community in ’79-’81 had been completely forgotten, erased by the silence of the 1980’s.

In 1991 Nancy Burkholter was ejected from the Michigan Wymyns’ Music Festival at 1:00am by security staff suspicious that she was transsexual. She had done nothing to warrant eviction. She was forced to find transportation back to town to fly home, a holiday trip ruined by transphobia.

Unknown to the transsexuals who had been quietly attending the festival for years was an unpublished policy of the festival organizers that transsexuals were not welcome “on the land”. The policy was written out in the material for the next year that only “Wymyn Born Wymyn” may attend. The language was clearly designed to exclude transsexuals while avoiding debates regarding whether MTF transsexuals were “Wymyn”.

The next year, in 1992 TransActivist Anne Ogborn began organizing a protest to be held at the Festival, unable to go herself, she enlisted Davina Anne Gabrielle to attend. Davina and non-transsexual woman, Janis Hollingsworth handed-out buttons to women reading “I might be transsexual” at a table to enlist festival attendees in a dialog over the transsexual exclusion. Davina was ejected from “the land” in accordance with the written policy.

In 1993, the transgender community pitched CampTrans outside the main entrance. Jessica Xavier, Leslie Feinberg, among others attended to protest the Festivals’ “Wymyn Born Wymyn Only” policy. “Woman Born Transsexual” read a new button worn by CampTrans inmates. At the camp, workshops and concerts were presented as an alternative to the Festival. A number of women came out of the festival to participate in discussions. Notable was the participation of younger lesbians, especially members of The Lesbian Avengers. TransActivist volunteers stood outside the gate taking a poll of the festival attendees attitudes toward transsexual exclusion at the festival. The poll revealed division on the issue, but the majority of the women attending indicated that they would welcome transsexual women.

Participation in CampTrans and the results of the poll energized the transgender community to become active once again, after the community’s silent withdrawal from the larger gay & lesbian community the previous decade.

National and local transgender activist worked for months to gain inclusion in the 1993 March On Washington. Transgender volunteers aiding in organizing the March, notably Jessica Xavier, worked with March organizers for months trying to gain inclusion in the name of the March. There was a ‘divide and conquer’ politicking by transphobic gays & lesbians that pitted bisexuals against transgenders. They told the bisexual community members who were also working toward official inclusion that it was either transgender or bisexual, but not both. To their credit the bisexual members did not buy into the ploy. However, the issue of inclusion was still couched in such terms by the foes of transgender inclusion. When the issue was put to a vote by the organizing committee the bisexuals won inclusion easily. The vote for inclusion of transgender was divided. There were actual cheers from the gay and lesbian community when the committee announced their decision to exclude transgender which deeply dismayed the transgender community volunteers.

A new pattern emerged in the mid 1990’s. The generation that had grown up since Stonewall welcomed transgender people without reservation, perhaps even with a tinge of adulation for their contribution to the struggle for Queer Rights. The older generation, those who had struggled just after stonewall, those who had read The Transsexual Empire when it was new, had not changed their minds significantly. Those that had been accepting during the 1970s remained so, those that had been sitting on the fence now came down on transgender inclusion. But those who had adamantly opposed trans-inclusion in the ’70s still fought against it in the ’90s. In 1994 The Transsexual Empire was reprinted and used as a textbook in transphobic “feminist” classes once again.

{Note:  The original publication in ’79 was by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  But by ’94, the Unitarians had a change of heart, now understanding that supporting lesbians does NOT mean supporting transphobia after a number of grassroots meetings with transfolk who were dismayed that the UUA had published Raymond’s hateful screed.  Raymond had to find another publisher.}

In 1994 CampTrans was pitched again with Riki Anne Wilchins taking a leading role. The turn out was smaller than expected. It was not due to a feeling of failure, but rather a feeling that the issue of transgender inclusion in “wymyn only space” was being by-passed by larger and more important issues.

Also occurring in 1994 was the Gay Games. When transgendered people wished to participate they discovered similar transphobic attitudes that the International Olympic Committee held . The Games organizers refused to allow transgendered people to participate except under very restrictive rules, namely that had to prove that they had surgery or at least lived two years full-time, with hormones, in their gender of identity. Bi-gendered individuals were completely excluded. This reliance on rules that on the surface seem to come direct from the HBIGDA Standards of Care, offended the transgendered community.

Transsexual Menace of New York organized to protest the restrictive and discriminatory rules. In street protests the group held up a banner that read, “Gay Games to transgendered: DROP DEAD!!” The uproar and embarrassment forced the organizers to drop the rules and allow unrestricted participation.

Some gay columnists were calling the events the “transgender Stonewall”, comparing 1994’s protests to ‘the gay riots of 1969’, totally ignoring the historic irony that Stonewall itself included transgendered people and that if anything, the Compton Cafeteria Riot of ’66 in San Francisco meant that the Stonewall should be called the “gay Compton Cafeteria”. This lack of historic recognition sparked another protest in New York, demanding inclusion in planned events to mark 25 years since Stonewall.

In 1994 the issue of discrimination against sexual minorities became the biggest issue. The gay & lesbian community was working towards passing a bill in Congress, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA);. Transgender activists worked with the gay & lesbian community and the bill’s sponsors in Congress on transgender inclusive language for the bill, only to discover that the language was removed before the bill was introduced. When the issue was researched by Phyllis Frye, she discovered that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had objected to the language. Once again transphobia in the gay community had resurfaced as betrayal.

The betrayal by the HRC was echoed at the local level. In 1995, transactivists in Oregon worked with gay & lesbian activists with the Right To Privacy Political Action Committee (RTP) for a state version of ENDA. Once again language was changed at the last-minute by RTP, behind the back of the transgender community. Later, RTP board members denied this fact when charged by transactivists, claiming that it had been the sponsors who demanded the change. However, transsexual law student and legislative intern, JoAnna McNamara was in the meetings that were held with RTP and the bill’s sponsors. RTP representitives did not know that Ms. McNamara was transsexual, who later provided information to the local gay press regarding the betrayal.

{Personal Note:  I co-chaired the Ad Hoc Committee of Transsexuals to Recognize Alan Hart which sought to convince RTP to stop misgendering him, using him as a mascot, refered to by his dead name and calling him an “historically oppressed lesbian”, for the RTP annual fund raising dinner… and to work with RTP to include trans in the local ENDA and to stop sabotaging trans rights efforts.  We were actively supported in our efforts by the local chapter of the Lesbian Avengers.  I later worked closely with Joanna McNamara to directly lobby the Oregon legislature to protect employment protection that she had earlier won in court.  See my “about” page and the previous essays for more info.}

The transgender community lobbied the HRC and other organizations to amend the language to include transgender and gender variant gay & lesbian protection. Each year saw organizations that had previously supported the bill, drop its support in sympathy with the transcommunity. Each year of the second half of the ’90s saw organizations officially add transgender to their mission statement. Each year saw what started as inclusive lip service become real support until finally even HRC came to support transfolk.

{Harvey Fierstein took a New York state G&L organization to task for the very same backroom betrayal of the transgender community on an episode of In The Life in the early ’00s.}

In 1998. the Gay Games was held in the Nederlands. Ironically, while transsexual pop singing star Dana International performed at the opening festivities, the transgender community protested the reinstatement of the same restrictive rules that had excluded some transgendered people in New York four years earlier. However, European officials of the Games were unmoved.

In 1999, five years after the disagreement between the HRC and the transgender community over inclusion in ENDA surfaced the controversy continued, one of the bill’s Congressional sponsors, openly gay Representative, Barney Frank, played the “Bathroom Card”, saying that employers will not accept transgender people as employees since they won’t be able to convince their other employees to tolerate transgender people in the restrooms. This was quickly denounced by transgender activists as truly expressing transphobia, though Frank’s supporters countered that he wasn’t transphobic in that he had earlier voiced his concern regarding violence and discrimination against transgender people in the wake of the death of Tyra Hunter.  Transactivists then pointed out the irony as the “Shower Card” was used against the gay & lesbian community in its fight to gain the right to serve in the armed forces earlier in the decade.

{Frank’s public comments of “support” for murdered transfolk while simultaneously working against trans rights in Congress could be seen as morally the same as today’s “thoughts & prayers” for mass shooting victims at schools.}

In 1999, at the close of the 20th Century, the gay & lesbian community was still divided over transgender inclusion. Camp Trans was once again pitched in front of the gate of the Michigan Wimmins’ Music Festival. This time post operative male to female transsexuals were allowed ‘on the land’, but pre-operative MTF women and post-operative FTM men were not. The issue had now come down to possession of a penis. Although they were now allowed on the land, vocal transphobic lesbian separatists menaced transsexual women, while members of The Lesbian Avengers supported them.

{Working to confront transphobia should be done intelligently… NOT with violent words on internet fora.  In fact, forward thinking transactivists should work to calm the war of words and focus on results.  The so called “TERF” are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public.  Don’t feed the trolls.}

Further External Reading:

Article by the non-trans woman who is credited with coining the term “TERF”

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Invisible Transgender People: Stolen History

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on May 20, 2018

Stolen History — Secret Lives

{Note:  I wrote this essay nealy twenty years ago as supporting material for my TransHistory class at the Harvey Milk Institute.}

Transgender people are often disrespectfully addressed by the wrong gender pronouns. It should come as no surprise that historical figures are wrongly assigned to their birth sex, their gender identity ignorantly or deliberately disregarded. The reason that this is done bear examining. One clue to the possible reason is found in the glaring disparity in gender vector of those whose identity is stolen. It is far more likely that a female-to-male transgendered person is to have his life misinterpreted.

The explanation is that those who willfully steal FTM identities hold to the Oppression Theory to explain the presence of transgendered people. Oppression theory relies on historical oppression experienced by homosexual people and women in many professions. The professional discrimination theory does not have any explanatory power for the presence of male-to-female transgendered people, but the gay oppression does. However, a woman is still more likely to experience greater discrimination in most professions than a closeted gay man. Thus Oppression Theory is easier to apply to FTM people as it easier to imagine a ‘woman’ to be willing to hide her sex to gain entrée into a profession than for a ‘man’ to hide his sex to gain access to male lovers, though it is sometimes applied.

Dr. Joshua Gilbert, who assisted Alan Hart with his transition, published Hart’s case in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders in 1920, but kept his patient’s identity a secret. The fact that Dr. Gilbert’s “H” and Dr. Alan Hart were one and the same was first publicized by Jonathan Ned Katz in his Gay American History (1976). Katz portrayed Hart as a victim of internalized homophobia, who assumed a false identity as a man to love whom “she” chose and who even had surgery to lessen her “guilt” about her Lesbianism. Katz says of Hart, “The story of [Hart] illustrates only too well one extreme to which an intelligent, aspiring Lesbian in early twentieth-century America might be driven by her own and her doctor’s acceptance of society’s condemnation of women-loving women.” But the facts of Hart’s life clearly show that he was not a victim, but rather a transsexual man who had the courage to be true to himself, who sought help to live in his gender of self-identity.

It is perhaps revealing that the gay historians who revealed Dr. Hart’s secret life were unable to interview his widow, “Ruddy” Hart, because they had alienated her by referring to her dead husband as a lesbian, and by association calling her a lesbian. Mrs. Hart insisted to her dying day that Alan Hart was a man.

Some historians dispute applying the term “transsexual” to Hart since he himself did not use the term. But why should he? The term was not coined until 1923 and not widely used until the 1960’s, around the time of Hart’s death. Although, according to Dr. Gilbert, Hart “accepted [his] condition as one of abnormal inversion,” it must be recognized that in the early 1900’s the concept of sexual inversion blended aspects of what today are considered entirely separate issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. After his transition, Hart had no desire to identify himself as anything other than what everyone accepted him to be: a man. Thus he was a transsexual — a true pioneer — one that is seen as a hero by today’s transsexual community.

In the 1980s, a Gay and Lesbian political action committee in Oregon, the Right to Privacy PAC (RTP) , named an award and annual award dinner after Alan Hart… or rather after his birth name, Lucille Hart. While there were occasional complaints from transgendered people they were ignored. It took united transgendered community protests at the dinner in 1995 to force the board of RTP to listen to the Ad Hoc Committee of Transsexuals to Recognize Alan Hart. In early 1996 they dropped all reference to Dr. Hart.

{Personal Note:  I co-chaired the committee with Ken Morris, himself a transman.  Misgendering and stealing our history wasn’t the only issue the trans community had with RTP.  They had repeatedly thrown transfolk under the bus in political maneuvering in lobbying the state government.}

Transgendered man Billy Tipton died in 1989 and was ‘outed’ by the coroner. Soon after, non-transgendered people speculated as to why a “woman” would live fifty-six years as a man, not telling even his wife and kids! The notion that he was transgendered did not often enter their thoughts…. Columnist Clark Humphrey however quipped, “… only wish Billy Tipton, the deceased Spokane jazz “man” who wasn’t, had recorded a duet with Wendy Carlos.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, an english professor at Stanford University, wrote a well researched book, Suits Me, on Mr. Tipton’s life and times… unfortunately, she is unable to acknowledge Tipton as a transgendered man, taking great pains to ‘prove’ that this was a woman who needed to present as a man in order to survive… and failing miserably. Middlebrook’s thesis is that Tipton began ‘passing’ as a man to play jazz in the ’30s, was trapped by his success at passing as a man, and would have ended it if he could. However, Tipton had many opportunities to step back from his life as a man, and refused to his dying day. Many of Tipton’s friends, his ex-wives, and his children, now knowing full well that he was female bodied, insisted that he was a man in the psychological and spiritual sense. His friends spoke for him… when he could no longer speak for himself.

Brandon Teena who was murdered along with several roommates, because he was transgendered, became the subject of an independent film by two women. The women consistently refered to Brandon as a lesbian, thus stealing even a contemporary transgendered man.

While FTM transgendered people are usually usurped by those who want to use their putative victim status to make a political point, MTF trangendered people are usually belittled and denied their accomplishments, sometimes their very existence.

In Out For Good, the authors usually mention transgendered people only by their description, their names are lost to history. The only two transgendered people mentioned by name are Beth Elliott and Silvia Rivera. Ms. Elliott is mentioned only in connection with her appearance at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973, and her subsequent transphobic expulsion from the Daughter’s of Bilitus. No mention is made of her work to reform California’s anti-sodomy laws, or her work in founding the Alice B. Toklas Gay Democratic Club. Nor are her years as a columnist in a gay & lesbian newspaper mentioned. Her life and contribution to the formation of the Gay Rights Movement is conveniently ignored. Sylvia Rivera gets more mention, but with a knife that is twisted, as she, along with Ms. Elliott, is constantly referenced by masculine pronouns. Ms. Rivera is further denigrated by reference to her attire as campy and slovenly. No surprise, not one FTM person is mention in the entire book!

Thus, are transgendered people made invisible.

Addendum 6/24/18:  Interestingly we now have a mea culpa from the lesbian who broke the Brandon Teena story in the Village Voice and set the tone of misgendering him and stealing our history,

“It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing. Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated “her” body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. … I saw this youngster’s decision to lead a life as a straight man as incredibly bold — but also assumed it was a choice made in fear, motivated by internalized homophobia.

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.”

“How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story”
The original writer of the Village Voice story that inspired “Boys Don’t Cry” looks back on her reporting — and the huge error she still regrets

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An Old Essay

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on May 19, 2018

TransGender Theory

{Note:  I wrote this essay twenty years ago for my TransHistory class website.  I believe it is useful to look back and see where we were and note how much more we have learned.}

To understand the history of transgender people, one must also understand how both transgendered people themselves, and non-transgendered people explained the presence of such apparent misfits in the otherwise neat binary sex/gender social fabric. One can understand how law, medicine, and society in general treated transgendered people only within the context in which the transgendered person fit into a theoretic framework. If transsexuals were a medical entity, one still needs to know if it is a psychiatrically pathological entity, or a developmentally intersexed entity. If the former, one would expect that “cures” would be attempted, if the latter, then compassionate, though not always welcome, medical treatments might be applied. The law could see the transgendered person as a civil identity question, a criminal pervert, or as a medical entity. The law’s treatment very much depends on the explanatory world view surrounding the transgendered in society.

Judeo-Christian-Moslem culture, drawing on a single verse in one old testament book, Deuteronomy 22-5, held that cross-dressing was an “abomination in the sight of the Lord”. Some biblical scholars hold that this line refers to a prohibition of the Hebrew people from participating in religious practices of the neighboring cultures, which included the followers of Cybele whose priestesses were post-operative male to female transsexuals. This single edict, surrounded by edicts that are seldom if ever followed today, save for the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, is sometimes quoted as sanctioning the worst transphobic treatment of transgendered people. Other old testament laws detail the status of “eunuchs”, males whose genitals have been surgically removed. Primarily these laws prescribe a second class status to the eunuch, since they are no longer “men”, they do not have male privileges, including the right to “testify” in court… since they no longer have the required equipment, testicles. (This is not a pun, but literally the origin of the words… one needed testicles to testify… and the old testament really does refer to the story, or testimony, of patriarchy.) Thus, built into Judeo-Christian-Moslem is the assumption that MTF transgendered people are untrustworthy abominations. This explains why Judeo-Christian-Moslem cultures have mistreated transgendered people while other cultures have either tolerated, or sometimes, venerated transgendered people, why Joan d’Arc was burned at the stake for wearing men’s vestments as well as armor, while the hijra of India have houses that have been in existence for hundreds of years.

Early in this century, as the United States population moved to the cities, transgender people, though extremely rare, started finding each other, just as they had in other city cultures in more populated countries as China and India. These gatherings of transgendered people were noted by their neighbors. These good people, educated in Christian values, complained to the civil authorities, who duly passed ordinances outlawing transgender expression, society, and existence. It was the cities who passed the laws against transgendered people. It must be noted that these laws were passed in the same climate and time that produced laws prohibiting citizens of African descent from owning property in the city limits, or of Catholics to operate schools. It should be noted that while the cities passed ordinances against transgendered people, the States were concerned with criminalizing homosexual conduct. City police, when they wanted to harass homosexuals, used the ordinances against the transgendered as more visible targets. Thus, the Stonewall riots of 1969, naturally began with the standard sweeping arrests of transgendered people. The ordinances began to be repealed in the 1970s. It is perhaps fitting that the first governmental bodies to atone for past discrimination by passing anti-discrimination measures in the 1990s should be the very cities that once had laws designed to expose them to criminal sanction.

Laws criminalizing homosexuality were also used to incarcerate or force medical treatment on the transgendered. In the name of eugenics, homosexual and transgendered people were sterilized against their wills. Later, when hormones became available, various medical treatments were devised. Some sought to reduce the libido by suppressing natural hormones, others sought to replace putatively low hormones. These actions were done under the theory of enlightened criminologists that many lawbreakers were rehabilitatable using modern medicine. It was rarely questioned in law enforcement that the law itself was in need of rehabilitation. But there were movements to do just that, lead by social reforming physicians such as Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany.

There were times, when the transgendered person came to the attention of the courts through the medical establishment, rather than the police, when compassionate justice prevailed. Until the mid to late century, the prevailing mechanism for transgendered people to gain protective legal status was to seek a change of sex status through correction of birth certificates or registry in the same manner as was done in cases of intersex, where physicians provide for a ‘second opinion’ as to a person’s sex later in life. The law literally saw transsexuals as a form of intersex and helpfully corrected sex designations when asked. It was not until the popular press created the myth of “sex change” that the law began to see transsexuals as separate from intersexed people. Only after this change in perception was it necessary for specific statutes needed to secure a mechanism for transsexuals to change birth certificates and identification cards. Even then it was done as an extension of the intersex theory, a reaffirmation, to counter the “sex change” paradigm.

At the turn of the century, the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity were conflated. One was either a normal man or woman, or one was an abnormal psychosexual invert. In some respects this concept is closer to the modern concept of the classic transsexual in that it was conceptualized as a person who both identified with and shared the same sexual object as a normal member of the opposite sex. Only through education by the homophile community and open-minded sexologists such as Evelyn Hooker and Alfred Kinsey was the homosexual person viewed as having a congruent gender identity, merely finding one’s own sex to be the chief object of amorous affections. This left the concept of gender identity separable from sexual attraction, opening the door to conceptualizing the categories of the lesbian identified male to female and the gay male identified female to male transsexual. Still, it took the work of FTM transman Lou Sullivan in the late ’70s, early ’80s, to get the medical establishment to recognize the distinction.

{Read my 2009 essay on how this perception of separability of gender identity and sexual orientation actually works against understanding transfolk:  The Invisible Transsexual}

There are three main currents of thought on the origin of gender identity in humans, Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and PsychoSocialism. In academic circles these differing theories are hotly debated. But in the lives of ordinary people, especially transgendered people, the model that is applied by the medical, educational, legal, and even parental authorities that transgendered people interact, as individuals and as a class, deeply influence the interaction and the outcomes.

PsychoSocial Theories

Though Sigmund Freud was from Austria originally, his work influenced North American thought to a greater degree than European. His thoughts on the developing sexual identity and sexuality of infants and children profoundly influenced how transgendered people would be viewed in North America. Freud felt that gender identity was mediated by the existence or absence of a penis, directly. In the case of the owner of a penis the discovery that not all humans have one occasions deep anxiety lest that delightful organ of pleasure might be removed. This “Castration Anxiety” led to a distancing of the owner of the penis from the caretaker who did not own one… presumably because that person might want to steal it. While simultaneously, the owner of the penis wishes to emulate the other caretaker who by good fortune still owns a penis. Thus the owner of a penis learns to be a boy. Meanwhile, the infant who does not own a penis discovers that there are individuals who do own one. This occasions extreme jealousy. This “Penis Envy” leads one to court, and compete for, the affections of the caretaker who owns this marvelous appendage, while simultaneously emulating the caretaker who does not own a penis, who demonstrates ways of successfully courting the affections of the owner of a penis. Thus the one who lacks a penis learns to be a girl.

The existence of transgendered people brought the theory a serious challenge. How to explain people who end up having the exact opposite reaction to the presence or absence of a penis? The first answer of any theorist to such a challenge is denial, “transgendered people are psychotic”, likening the transsexual to a delusional man who believes himself to be Napoleon. This glib answer sufficed for those who had never actually spoken at length with transgendered people. But the diagnosis of psychosis failed to hold up upon examination. The challenge remained.

For FTM transgendered people the failure to resolve “Penis Envy” was enough explanation. But MTF trangendered people were still a mystery. The psychoanalytic theorists response was to posit a family constellation involving an overly close mother, who kept her son wrapped up in her emotional world, and a distant or absent father. The son could not make the emotional and subsequent identity break with his mother. Perhaps we can call this theory “Castration Envy”? This seemed at first glance to hold up well, since such family histories were indeed present in MTF transgendered people. Except it didn’t explain all of the cases since many profoundly transsexual MTF individuals had extremely good relationships with their fathers. The theory further broke down when comparing the statistics with non transgendered people. The were many families with an absent or emotionally distant father, the vast majority of single mothers, whose sons did not show signs of being transgendered. Though it remained popular to blame mothers, especially single mothers for all sorts of society’s woes, transgenderism was not able to hold up as being caused by family dynamics when tested statistically.

Still the psychoanalytic model held for most of the 20th Century, in spite of repeated failures of psychoanalytic therapy to dissuade transgendered people to abandon their gender identity. It is probably responsible for the prevailing attitude that Gender Identity Disorder is a psychiatric illness as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual.

Toward the middle of the 20th Century, as the psychoanalytic model for all mental illness began to be cast into doubt, a new model of gender identity came into vogue, “Imprinting”. One the chief proponents of the theory was John Money, Ph.D. Observing that intersex infants with the same physical features at birth who had been assigned to different sexes both seemed to adjust equally well, Money theorized that there was a critical period in the infant’s early life when the parents’ sexually dimorphic treatment imprinted upon the child a congruent gender identity. The notion of imprinting comes from observation that some animals imprint the image of a caretaker in infancy. The popular image is that of goslings first sight of a farmer’s child, who subsequently is followed around as “mother”. This lead to the standard procedure of early genital surgery for intersexed infants to unambiguously assign a sex, any sex, to child so that an unambiguous gender identity will be imprinted by parents and family who “know” the childs sex. It lead to a medical ethic of misinforming even the parents as to the intersexed nature of the child. It also resulted in sterilization of thousands of male children, who born with a phallus too small to be comfortably described as a penis were reassigned as female.

Transgender people were explained by the imprinting theory similarly to the psychoanalytic model, blaming the mother. Again, an overly emotionally close mother, and sometimes the father as well, coset and pamper a male child in a manner that the hapless male child gets the message that it is female. Sometimes it was noted that the feminine male child was “physically beautiful”, that is, like a pretty girl child, eliciting a response from adults in a manner that reinforces the mistaken identity as a female child. Similarly, a physically adventurous female child might elicit masculinizing responses.

Money’s hypothesis and recommendations lead directly to the tragedy and “experiment of opportunity” of John Theissen, a man whose penis was accidentally destroyed during circumcision. Mr. Thessien was later surgically reassigned as female. His parents then proceeded to raise him as their daughter, while his identical twin brother served as “control”. When the children we several years old the clinics declared that the reassigned child was accepting “her” gender as a girl. The case became known as that of John/Joan. Money published this case as proof of his hypothesis. Unfortunately, John Theissen as a teen refused to continue the program, insisting that he was a boy… he grew to be a man, obtained phalloplasty, married, and is raising three children from his wife’s prior relationships. It can be said that his is a case of surgically created transsexuality, as his personal gender identity was at odds with his sex assignment as an infant. Mr. Theissen’s story was published in Rolling Stone magazine in the mid ’90s after a scientific paper was published by Milton Diamond, a proponent of pre- and neonatal hormonal brain sex differentiation.

{Sadly, we later learned that “John”, actually David, committed suicide, a tragic end to an evil experiment conducted on an unwitting child.}

Social Constructionism:

As the Second Wave of Feminism grew in strength, criticism of discrimination against women led to a reaction to prescribed restrictive societal roles for the sexes. “Biology is not destiny” became a rallying cry. What started out as a criticism of socially constructed roles developed into a theory of gender which denied Essentialism in every form, stating instead that society took the biological differences of procreation, and instilled in them an artificial behavioral difference. The theory, thus expanded, denies that there is any natural basis for gender identity. Thus it denies to transgender people any rational cause… while at the same time, presenting no reason why not.

To some authors this meant that transgender people were free to express themselves in any manner they chose since all gender expression is as valid as any other. Only societal convention stands in the way of such freedom. Such conventions can be modified by the society as is deemed desirable. To some, all such restrictions are to be avoided, in a live and let live ethos.

Other authors, Janice Raymond and Germain Greer being notable examples, saw MTF transgender people as exploitive of women, aping the forms of femininity, supporting the artificial sexist forms that oppress women. It is interesting that in this regard they exhibit a hidden Essentialism, one that focusses on the genitalia as defining classes of human beings. They decried the restrictions on one class, while despising those of the other class when they break those very restrictions.

Still the existence of transgender people poses a challenge to the social constructionist theory. One must explain both why gender identity exists, how it is perpetuated, enforced, and why some rare individuals “chose” to express a gender identity at odds with societally prescribed gender expression norms.

Performance Theory has it that we are taught to Perform Gender, to act it out, in the same way that we learn to act out social roles like teacher, student, friendly store clerk, police officer, etc. One is said to “do gender” rather than “have a gender”. This is very similar in basics to the psychosocial theory of imprinting, save that there is no instinctual basis for having the ability to absorb a particular gender identity. We are taught a set of gender behaviors that become so ingrained as habit that we forget that we are merely acting them out.

Transgender people are explained by this as having been improperly instructed. Even among those inclined toward psychosocial models as one would expect physicians to be, one finds this theory in currency. It is the model used in justifying Behavioral Modification Therapy to treat Gender Identity Disorder in children. Under the assumption that even though gender identity is arbitrarily socially constructed and taught to children, one should not allow children to express gender behavior different from the norm. Some rationalize it on the basis of wanting the children to fit in, experience less rejection and bullying, a “blame the victim” mentality. Others are simply moralists that insist that God has ordained that we should all behave in a certain prescribed manner.

One Post-Modern philosophical theory, one that has a striking resemblance to the psychosocial theory that transgendered people are simply crazy, has it that transgendered people are suffering under a “false consciousness”. That they are not really experiencing a gender at all… but an alienation from their social and biological reality. This theory is perhaps the most transphobic of all theories in that it denies what is called in Post-Modern cant, “agency”, the characteristic of experiencing and expressing their existence and very real psychic pain.

Oppression Theory starts from the assumption that transgendered people are very much in command of their faculties and have made a rational decision to avoid societal restrictions on desires they experience. The usual script is that an ambitious woman noting that she is unable to succeed “in a man’s world”, dons mens clothes, assumes a fictitious identity as a man, in order to achieve career success. These “passing women” are the darlings of the feminist historian because they are revered as daring pioneers for women’s liberation, or they are held as examples, proof, of how horrible conditions were in some past epoch. To the feminist historian, modern FTM transsexuals are an embarrassing disproof of the theory. Similarly, Oppression theory is used to explain modern MTF transgendered people as being examples of internalized homophobia in gay men, too ashamed to live openly, and so have to “pretend” to be women in order to express their desire for same-sex relations. To such gay male chauvinists, the fact that half of transgendered people identify as lesbian or gay male after transition, are an equally embarrassing disproof of the theory.

Social Constructionist theories fail to note that ethnobiological studies of sexually dimorphic behavior in animals is not socially constructed for non-humans. Nor does it explain the cross cultural similarity and temporal stability of core gender identity throughout history around the world.


Essentialism posits that men and woman are “made that way”. It is a deceptively self-evident fact that most everyone accepts since, for over 99% of the population, there is a clear-cut correlation between genital morphology and gender identity. It is easy to for the average person to ignore the disquieting cases of intersex that cast doubt on the simplistic assumption of binary sex assignment. The question of which sex an intersex person “really is” demonstrates the essentialist bias through much of Western Society for the past two centuries. Historically, Essentialism divided on which of two somatic characteristics was indicative of the “real sex” of an individual, genitalia or gonads. For most people the genitalia, the presence or absence of a penis was the overriding feature. As medical science grew more sophisticated in the 19th century, the gonads came to be the indicative feature. But early in the 20th Century the newly discovered chromosomes, specifically the presence or absence of the “Y” chromosome, became the newly crowned final arbiter of “real” sex. The faith in microscopic examination to “scientifically” determine one’s sex was unquestioned.

In 1968 the International Olympic Committee instituted chromosomal karyotyping for all female athletes. Any that did not have the required 46,XX chromosome karyotype were disqualified from competition, informed that, scientifically speaking, they were not women. The demonstrable fact that they had female genitalia, had lived as female all of their lives not knowing that they did not have the officially approved karyotype for women, did not enter into the unfeeling officials minds. Reductionist Essentialism had no room for intersexed people. They were counselled to fake an injury, slink away into silence to keep their shame of being “not female” from becoming known.

In 1970, the Corbet vs Corbet decision to nullify the marriage of a MTF transsexual to a non-transsexual man used karyotyping as the “scientific” marker for sex and gender that the law was henceforth to follow in the United Kingdom, throwing the legal status of transsexual and many intersexed people into limbo, neither male nor female.

Although essentialism has often been used as a philosophy to ‘prove’ that transsexuals and transgendered people do not have a valid claim to their identity, Essentialism still has explanatory power. If the locus of gender is found, not in the genitals or chromosomes, but elsewhere, transsexuals could be rationally described as “men trapped in women’s’ bodies” or “women trapped in mens’ bodies”. There are several loci that are, or have been proposed as the Essential Seat of Gender, but they come down to two main categories, “Brain Sex”, and “The Soul”.

Many religions have a concept of an essential self, separable from the body. In Judeo-Christian-Moslem belief systems one’s soul separates from the body after death. This soul retains the sense of self, including gender identity. Some religious thought includes the concept of the soul entering the body at some point in becoming a living being… and therefore must become, or always have been a gendered self. For religions that included the concept of reincarnation, the notion that a being always returns to the same-sex body suggested an explanation for transgendered identity. Once in a while, a soul finds itself in the wrong sexed body. This idea was openly discussed in newsletters published in the ’60s and ’70s by the Erickson Education Foundation, as this was the personal belief of Reed Erickson, the Foundations benefactor. The Church of latter-day Saints (Mormon) debated the issue of pre-born souls finding themselves in the wrong body with Kristi Independence Kelly in 1980 at her excommunication. The Church held that, though the pre-born souls did have a gender before birth, God did not make mistakes: “There is no such thing as a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body” was declared, ex-cathedra by the leader fo the Mormon faith. Apparently, intersexed people must have also intersexed souls?

Some non-Judeo-Christian-Moslem cultures held that transgendered people were indeed gendered souls in the wrong body. Some believed that this juxtaposition have the transgendered person a special status with the spirits of nature or the powers. In ancient times in the mediterranean culture, MTF transsexual women became priestesses, Galla, of the goddess, Cebele. The Hopi Nation held that a transgendered spirit, or katchina, sent visions to transgendered people. In India, the hijra, transgendered and intersexed people are both reviled and revered, given varying circumstances. Mystical Essentialism has played an important role in various cultures, including our own.

The early 20th Century european researchers and medical practitioners believed that gender and sexual behavior in general are the result of a sexually dimorphic brain. That is to say that the brain itself has a sex. This sex usually conforms with the chromosomal and the genital sex. However, just as there can be chromosomal and genital intersex conditions, the brain might also exhibit intersex morphology leading to behavior and that elusive personal experience, gender identity, at odds with either somatic or chromosomal sex. Magnus Hirschfeld, a leading early researcher described the entire spectrum of what today we would call Queer expression, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, as forms of “Sexual Intermediates”, or intersex. This was not a metaphor or a rationalization. Instead it was an earnest theory, based on careful observation and scientific generalization, understanding the then current lack of neurological science. Hirschfeld and his colleague, Harry Benjamin believed that as our understanding of the brain grew we would discover just where and how the brain was organized to produce sexual orientation and gender identity. For Hirschfeld, there was no major divide between non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity, they were simply different forms that intersex could take. Thus for Hirschfeld, the late 20th century division between the concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation, the great political divide between the gay & lesbians and the transgender community would be meaningless. To Hirschfeld, we are all transgendered, gay and transsexual alike.

In the first decades of the century, experiments with cross sex gonadal implants in animals suggested that there was a connection between hormones and gender specific behavior. This lead to horrific experiments in humans during the NAZI era and beyond as hormones became available as a common pharmaceutical. Testosterone was administered to gay men and MTF transgendered people in an attempt to ‘cure’ them. The hormone treatments had no effect on the sexuality or gender identity of the experiments. No lasting harm was done to the gay men. But the supermasculinizing effects on the transgendered victims was severely traumatizing.

In the later decades of the century, neuroscientists found significant sexual dimorphism in microstructures in the brains of animals and humans. Experiments on rats indicated that hormone levels during a period in late gestation and early post-natal development to be critical to the development of these structures and subsequent behavior. Gorby was able to create what he described as a laboratory model of transsexuality in rats. He demonstrated this in both MTF and FTM cases. When he introduced them to each other, the FTM rats mounted the receptive MTF rats.

Using human children to explore gender identity and sexual orientation would be extremely unethical in the laboratory, but science often uses “experiments of opportunity”. Simon La Vey used autopsy material from straight and gay men who had died from aids to find that a small microstructure of the brain differed in the two populations, suggestive of a sexual orientation controlling microstructure. The same technique of using autopsy was performed by Swaab to discover a different structure associated with gender identity. Shaffer, in an as yet unpublished study, used MRI data from a large pool of controls, MTF and FTM transsexuals to demonstrate that the corpus collosum showed sexually dimorphic structures that, on a statistical basis, correlated with gender identity. Both Swaab’s and Shaffer’s work ruled out effects of hormones in adulthood.  {Note: We have since learned that this was simply not correct.  HRT was indeed the cause of these effects.}

The early data is tantalizing, and agrees with laboratory findings using animals. However, it is also known that experience can shape the brain. Lack of sensory stimulus and a chance to work out problems leads to dramatically less brain development in infantile rats. In humans there is a suggestion that early musical training affects the shape of the corpus callosum, building greater connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain. These early experiences suggest that early gender experiences could also lead to sexual dimorphism in the human brain by a similar mechanism. This would agree with Dr. Money’s imprinting hypothesis… But would be at odds with Gorby’s work with rats, and the results of the case of “John/Joan”.

Science could very well demonstrate that the seat of sexual orientation and gender identity is located in the brain. How that arises developmentally is still open for further research.

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