Genetic link to gender identity?

October 26, 2008

An international study carried out by researchers at Prince Henry’s Institute, Monash Gender Dysphoria Unit, Monash University, Melbourne University and the University of California published this press release at 00.01am Monday 27 October (AEDT):

Genetic link to gender identity

In the largest ever genetic study of male to female transsexuals, Australian researchers have found a significant genetic link between gender identity and a gene involved in testosterone action.

From an early age people develop an inner sense of being male or female – their gender identity. Transsexuals however, identify with a physical sex opposite to their perceived biological sex.

DNA samples were collected from 112 male to female transsexuals and researchers compared genetic differences with non transsexuals. The results are published in the high impact journal Biological Psychiatry.

The researchers discovered that male to female transsexuals were more likely to have a longer version of a gene which is known to modify the action of the sex hormone testosterone.

“We think that these genetic differences might reduce testosterone action and under masculinise the brain during foetal development”, said researcher Lauren Hare.

For decades, there has been debate over the causes of transexuality. Early theories included psychosocial factors such as childhood trauma. More recent studies have indicated that family history and genetic aspects are linked to the development of gender identity.

“There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops”, said study leader Associate Professor Vincent Harley, Head of Molecular Genetics at Prince Henry’s Institute.

“As with all genetic association studies it will be important to replicate these findings in other populations? said Associate Professor Vincent Harley.

Researchers are now planning even larger genetic studies and are investigating a wider range of genes that may be related to gender identity.


Further Information

Androgen Receptor (AR) Repeat Length Polymorphism Associated with Male-to-female Transsexualism. Authors: Lauren Hare, Pascal Bernard, Francisco J. Sanchez, Paul N. Baird, Eric Vilain, Trudy Kennedy and Vincent R. Harley. The research will published in the Jan 2009 edition of Biological Psychiatry.

I have such mixed feelings about this kind of research into possible biological causes of transsexualism.

Yes, I want to know why this has happened to me, for ‘closure’ as much as anything – but I think pinning down a solely genetic cause would give a lot of ammunition to those who would rather trans people simply didn’t exist at all; or at the very least they would rather force us to be ‘square pegs’ in their beloved ’round holes’.

For sure, the eugenicists are going to love this – as are certain radfems of my acquaintance ;)

Personally, I’ve lately come round – at least in part – to Stephen Whittle’s view as outlined here:

[…] I do not care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’. The question of the ‘gay gene’ or the ‘tranny brain’ is a potentially frightening route to another eugenics programme to destroy the brilliance of difference in the world, and the sooner we reject these projects the better. Whatever made me, I am, and I can no longer say who the `I’ is […]

I’m not saying I don’t want to know about a possible genetic cause, I’m just concerned about what happens should scientific empirical evidence/proof be found. There will always be some do-gooder who decides s/he can then “cure” us – and that search for a cure will be funded by – whom, exactly? Not trans people like me, that’s for sure. And I can’t see those oh-so-knowledgeable do-gooders deigning to discuss things with those of us who, you know, actually live with the condition.

Also – and this is probably the most important thing of all for me – I don’t know if I would want to be “cured”. I’m well on the way to coming to terms with being trans – it’s an ongoing process, I believe – and if I can’t be ‘female-assigned-at-birth’ (which I can’t, obviously) – then I’m quite happy to be the trans woman I am.

Whoever she is…


17 Responses to “Genetic link to gender identity?”

  1. Sevesteen Says:

    If this (or something similar) turns out to be a way to reliably predict that someone is transgender, wouldn’t that be useful to try to deal with the issue earlier, rather than trying to change things?

  2. hinkycorners Says:

    Since I already pretty much gave my thoughts on basically the same response to the same news in a comment on another blog, I’m just going to copy and paste. Sorry for not being more original, but there’s only so much one person can say.

    I don’t think that you have much to worry about in finding any genetic markers.

    First of all, people who don’t want treatment won’t be forced to have treatment. Just to give one example, take a mastectomy patient. Reconstructive surgery is very optional. It’s not forced.

    Second of all, we’re not so far along yet where we can really “fix” genes. There’s no magic viral therapy to rewrite your genetics and force your body to then change according to those changed genes. It just isn’t done yet. And even if that could be done one day, again, see the first point. It’ll be optional, not required.

    Where as ANY ability to convince insurance companies to actually cover a needed medical procedure (as some trans REALLY reach a point where they can’t function properly in society without psych therapy, hormone therapy, and possible eventual surgery) is a huge step forward.

    ‘Tis my two pence anyway.

  3. Helen G Says:

    Hey Sevesteen…

    Good question… Which, in turn, raises a couple of other questions: if transsexuality really is genetic in origin, then (a) how is the medical profession going to recognize it in the womb (I guess it wouldn’t be visible in a standard scan)? – and (b) how are they proposing to treat it?

    But I admit that the ‘how would they change things’ question is tricky – with current technology, I guess they wouldn’t be able to change things. But, as far as I’m concerned, if I can’t be a woman who was female-assigned-at-birth, which would probably have been preferable in many ways, then that’s okay – I embrace my transsexuality and celebrate my humanity as the trans woman that I am.

    But the real problem in all this, which I’m trying to express (and failing!) is the way in which the medical profession would want to change things. Having experienced at first hand the current system, I know that it’s all about gatekeeping (looking after their own interests within their frames of reference) – and not about addressing my needs first and foremost. In other words, if I conform to their standards (regardless of whether or not I agree with them) then fine, I get my hormones, my recommendations for surgery, etc. If I don’t comply, then I don’t get.

    From my admittedly cynical and jaundiced viewpoint, the thought that they would be able to identify my “problem” and “cure” it in the womb seems to be aimed more at simplifying their lives, and reducing the discomfort of wider society than addressing my needs. And maybe I’m wrong, but that smacks of a pretty big breach of my human rights…

  4. Helen G Says:

    hinkycorners: You can keep your two pence. Copy/paste, my arse. As if your time is so much more valuable than mine.

    Explain it to me, why don’t you? You and your mighty brain. I love being patronised in such an arrogant and disdainful manner.


  5. drakyn Says:

    Lol. Optional. yeah right; tell me another one!
    Unless we fix the disease of hatred, a “cure” for trans*ism will be as “optional” as electroshock and lobotomies were once.

    Trans*ism isn’t cancer.
    Trans*ism is a natural variation in a normal human population. Trans*ism, like queerness, is also considered by transphobic/heterosexist society a disease and a stain upon humanity.
    Queer/trans* folk (no one differentiated at the time) were placed in concentration camps. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, planned on expanding the Final Solution to queer folks (according to The Pink Triangle by Richard Plant).
    Not to long ago, even in the “civilized” US, trans* people were given lobotomies and/or electro-shock “therapy”.
    Right now, as I type, Zucker is emotionally torturing young gender-variant children. Attempting to “cure” them from trans*ism, queerness, and even just being a feminine guy or a masculine girl. By the way, he was placed as the leader of the committee to revise the section of the DSM-V on Sexuality and Gender Disorders. Another quack, Blanchard, was also placed on the committee. Yeah, they’re totally gonna look out for us.

    If they find something that they think is 100%, they will commit genocide on all trans* fetuses. If there is a way to test for trans*ism, they will and anyone who doesn’t test positive will be denied transition.

    So please, don’t come here and lecture Helen on how gr33t the medical industry is; how they’re t0taly looking out for our best interest.

    PS: Its “trans* people“; not “trans”. Trans is not a noun.

  6. drakyn Says:

    Helen I totally agree with you. In a perfect world, I would be interested in why we are trans*. Because you know, I am interested in if we share dna with Neanderthals, how dinosaurs became extinct, all the different kinds of sharks that once existed (megalodon is t3h awesome! basketball players could stand up in it`s jaws)…
    But this isn’t a perfect world. In this world, there is no way this info could ever be neutral or positive.

  7. Helen G Says:

    Hi D

    Lovely to see you and thanks for commenting – those are excellent examples of why trans people should approach the subject of this kind of research with great caution.

    It’s not about where the research is now, it’s where it’s heading in the longer term – and who’s driving it.

  8. drakyn Says:

    Yeah, sorry for not commenting more, but its been a mixture of not being online and/or me being anti-social. -.-;;

    And yes, a number of the folks driving queer/trans* genes are for eugenics. Like doesn’t Bailey like doing “thought experiments” where people have the option to abort their queer fetus?

  9. Madcity Renee Says:

    Hello All,

    I feel that an “answer” is not necessary for me personally. I’m used to being myself. I just am. I am a woman with a different past than most women. I am a lot of things and trans, transsexual, or late-bloomer is the least of me. I’ve had “the surgery”, but I don’t feel superior because of it. My girlfriend is trans too but opting not to have surgery. I don’t love her any less for it. She still my girl. I value her because she is the woman she is. That I know her to be.

    The findings are “interesting” but I don’t see it making my life better, easier, or better understood by the people trying to off anyone who is- eeewww wierd- to them. Even if there is some evidence contrary to current social taboos, it does not change the minds of the zealots. Facts don’t matter to them, they manufacture facts to fit their story or myth. They disregard the facts because the Great Spaghetti Monster (GSM) says it’s true and only they can hear the GSM!! Read:GW Bush.

    They only thing that changes how we are treated is when we interact with people not like us. When people get to know you then it may be harder for most people to think you are some how lesser than they. Sure, some folks you can never reach, so don’t waste you time on them. Work with the resonable people. I do, however, realize that sometimes you have to deal with dumbasses and life isn’t always a choice of working with or in the ideal situation of being accepted and not having to think about it.

    I might be a DES child, my Mother took DES we’re both sure about that, so what! I’m not a chemical imbalance, I’m a repair contrator and nice gal!! Really I am! :)

    Renee from Wisconsin, USA (No, I’m not a cheesehead!)

  10. Helen G Says:

    Hello Renee, and thanks for commenting.

    Like you, and as I quoted earlier, I do not care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’.

    But my bigger concern is that, as and when the day comes that the medical research establishment actually can prove conclusively that there is a biological element (at least) to transsexuality, then trans people may not actually be given any choice as to whether or not we want to be “cured”. It will not be for us to decide – and that is what bothers me most of all, in these publications which seem to be appearing with increasing regularity. And yes, every time, the researchers deny that their work would ever be used in any form of eugenics – and every time, I have to wonder, do they think they will be given a choice, too?

    Despite my pessimism on the long-term outcome of this type of research, this thread over at Lisa’s seems to be tending to the view that this report is possibly less significant than I for one first thought.

    And, as important as these issues are, to my mind an equally significant question is that of how we negotiate our lives; possibly a far more interesting and productive line of thought to explore.

    And – “cheesehead”? I have no idea what that reference is about but – cheese, yum :)

  11. […] New Scientist and Bird of Paradox] SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “Genetic link to transsexuality discovered”, url: […]

  12. Madcity Renee Says:

    Cheseehead is a common nickname bestowed upon Wisconsites because of Wisconsins cheesemaking prowess.
    California beats us in production, but Wisconsin produces more goat milk and artisan goat cheeses than anyone in the nation. Fun facts a plenty here.

    I’m a city girl, not a farm girl, and I will admit that my blood tests reveal that my blood is comprised of 10% real wisconsin cheddar. Good thing I lowered my hormone dosage post surgery. My cholesterol must like a 1000mg/ml. I shit you not! I’m more of a cheese blood than a cheese head. Which could be convenient if I ever want nachos and I’m out of velveeta, I could my slash wrists, oh right I forgot I’m over all that now. Why did I say that? This coffee is good! Weee, I’m off to overthrow the goverment!

    Seriously Helen, I feel we should all keep an eye on this “scientific stuff” as I think you are right in that the eugenics people will get hold of it and when the techology becomes available they will try to use it on the most vulnerable of us.

    I am not so much worried about my welfare as far the eugenics crowd goes, I can handle myself just fine. I’m concerned for the trans kids and people transitioning after me. Who will speak for them? Who will defend them?

    (Cat name: Renaki Schmooku-Naki, tranlation: great bringer of treats!) I’ve really have to get out of the house more often.

  13. Helen G Says:

    Renee: “Who will speak for them? Who will defend them?”

    Those are the real questions, definitely. The heart of the matter…

    Thanks for coming back and – nag nag nag – you just watch out for that cholesterol level, mmkay?

    Oh, and love the cat name, btw ;)

  14. Michael Lee Says:

    Hi All,
    I’ve always look forward to news like this. I’ve always felt that as the research begins to show that we are NOT freaks, that we just happened to have a medical condition that makes us feel this way the insurance companies and the medical field will have to start changing (HOPEFULLy for the better). Now it may take a while, but I look forward to better support in those areas. I can undstand your concerns because there are a lot of bigots (I’ve delt with many) that will not even consider any research as evideance the this is a real condition. I beleive if it where not for some research that was able to provide to my wife, she would not want anything to do with me. With her and my 2 kids support I plan on hopely going fulltime in the next 2 years :)
    Keep up the great blog. I’ve enjoyed it so far and look forward to reading more or the older and future blogs.
    Hugs Michelle Lee

  15. Madcity Renee Says:

    Michael Lee,

    A few words of advice to you based on my experiences.
    Read:May or may not apply to you.
    I have found that after all the medical transition steps are over for me, I realized that I didn’t transition to become a woman, I already was one, I transitioned to become me.

    So, in essence I did not transition to some ideal of womanhood I had in my head when I started my transition. I transitioned to become myself, the self that got locked away as a child. Over the years I built a wall around that self and tried to be another self, still me, but less of myself than I feel I am now.

    Despite all the personal difficulties I had along the way I feel more comfortable as myself now. I don’t feel like I am hiding anything from myself or the world.

    My advice is this, transition to be YOU and not a woman. If you transition to be you and the result is a contented female person then you have done the right thing by gender tranitioning, if not, stop and ask yourself this, what kind of person do I want to be? (only you know the answer).
    Because after all the “excitement” of transitioning is over you be living as you and you will have to be OK with that.

    Take your time, ask yourself questions even if the questions make you uncomfortable and above all, take it easy on yourself. Nobody’s perfect, in fact your “imperfections” make you who you are.

    Good Luck to you!


  16. Madcity Renee Says:

    Helen you said :
    Like you, and as I quoted earlier, I do not care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’.

    Helen, the real question is not why I am the way I am, the real question is what am I going to do about it? Thats where rubber meets the road.

    The eugenics people don’t scare me personally, because they prey on the vulnerable and unsure folks who are just coming out. I fear or others.

    When I first came out I had some really wacked out ideas of who I was because I didn’t really understand the problem I had as I do now. hindsight=20/20. People look to the “professionals” to help them find the answers to their issues. I was in a very vulnerable place and my self esteem wasn’t all that good. Alot of people feel this way when they first come out and can be easily lead down the wrong path for them. Your helping professional should be helping you find answers, not telling you what to be or who you are, only you know the answers to those questions. You are not a medical condition and you should NOT base your personality on one.

    Par example, I don’t like the term transsexual, when I first heard the term I thought it had to do with being sexually versitile, like pansexual or bisexual. I just tell people, who really NEED to know, I am woman who was inaccurately assigned male at birth and I corrected that issue. I know it’s cumbersome, but life’s not simple either.

    Am I trangender? Don’t know that, I know I was at one point and I can never erase my past. I may or may not be transgender, depending on who you ask, but I will always carry the stigma of being so because of my past.

    Glad you like the cat name. I joke about changing my name to Renaki Schmooku-Naki, but I’m weird enough as Renee I think. And weird is OK for me only to the point people when people stop taking you seriously. Which is an unusual answer for someone who doesn’t like to take herself too seriously!
    I mean that, seriously!

    The cats say hi, be well.

    Renaki Schmooku-Naki, I mean, Renee..

  17. Helen G Says:

    Renee: Yes, agreed, the way we live our lives is a far more interesting topic.

    As for definitions – we have to be able to self-identify. I am a trans woman, trans – for me – is short for ‘transsexual’ and I accept it in its medical sense. Although male assigned at birth, I identify and live as a woman and have socially, legally and physically transitioned.

    But I also recognize that that definition is problematic in at least two ways:

    1. It objectifies me because it places too much importance on my body parts and

    2. It is classist because it assumes I can afford to physically transition (there is also the related question of whether medical transition is right for other people)

    But it works for me – for the moment.

    ‘Transgender’ I use as a catch-all term for people who are gender non-conforming. So, in addition to trans people, it might include cross dressers, feminine men, masculine women, genderqueer people and so on.

    But lots of people have different ideas, and that’s fine too – there’s no right or wrong, but it also highlights another problem area; that of the language we use to discuss trans related matters. My view is that we desperately need a much more trans-specific vocabulary – I can see that starting with a set of agreed baseline definitions might be useful, but regardless, it won’t happen overnight, I’m afraid.

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