By this time you may have already heard the news - it broke only days before press time. Mainstream media don’t seem to be interested in dignifying it, but coverage is still widespread, albeit with very few commentators and news agencies putting all the facts and facets in one basket.
On Monday, October 12th, researchers participating in an international study from Melbourne, Australia and Los Angeles, California announced that they’ve found a correlation between a variation in the androgen receptor gene and male-to-female transsexuality. This follows a lesser-known study done last June in Vienna, Austria, which identified a specific gene variant common in female-to-male transsexuals but uncommon in natal females. The Melbourne / Los Angeles study is the largest of its kind to date, with 112 transwomen and a control group of 250 natal males being tested.
Although this is an extremely significant finding for the transgender community, it is not the Holy Grail, and some of the facts need to be separated from the speculative extremes being disseminated. When the magazine Science published an article in 1993 about the discovery of a “gay gene,” the research had only begun - since then, several genes have been spotlighted and the studies continue today. Even so, the possibility of a genetic link to homosexuality has changed very little in the hearts and minds of the conservative western world - discoveries such as this are not the end of a struggle, but the beginning. What this study does is give a larger sample study to verify earlier studies, demonstrating that there are probably biological factors at play regarding transsexuality.
First, the specifics of the recent study: researchers found that a higher than typical number of transsexual volunteers (i.e. not all; plus, some males in the control group exhibited a similar development, with no transsexuality as a consequence) tended to have a lengthened androgen receptor gene. It is believed that this likely caused a decrease in testosterone levels in the brain during development, causing incomplete masculinization. Being that human development tends toward the female (XX) unless genetic triggers tell the body otherwise (XY), this would result in at least some female brain development. This would seem to lend causality to findings by Zhou et al. in 1995 and Kruijver et al. in 2000 that demonstrated general structural differences in brain development between males and females; that transsexuals’ brains tended to more closely resemble those of the gender to which they identified, rather than their birth sex. These differences are very slight, but enough to generate questions.
Putting this into perspective, there probably isn’t a single “trans gene,” but perhaps a number of them, similar to the study of homosexuality. There may also be other routes outside of genetics (studies are still being done on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals like DES, for example). And characteristic of genes in general, having a specific gene will not automatically make one trans, there are always other biological factors at play. I’d also tend to believe that this unpredictability of genetics also means that while one person may develop as a classic surgically-oriented transsexual, another may experience things to a lesser degree, and be more comfortable as a cross-dresser, expressing dual genders or being gender-queer. However, the current study doesn’t say that: only transsexuals in transition were accepted as volunteers; cross-dressers and others were not involved in the study, so we still don’t know. Either way, what we don’t want is for these types of discoveries to become exclusive determinants of treatment. In other words, this girl can transition because she has the elongated androgen receptor gene, but this one can’t because we haven’t found anything that might cause her to be transsexual, yet. Findings like this can just as easily be used to invalidate people as validate them.
Also, one study does not equal evidence. This will need to be replicated by others and tested with various other elements taken into account, in order to be developed further. It is a start, a piece of the puzzle. Also, many transsexuals have been pushing to have transsexuality (“Gender Identity Disorder”) delisted as a psychiatric issue and categorized as a medical issue - although this is a relatively small discovery, it may provide direction for science to do exactly that.
What this means to the transgender community, of course, is that it helps make the case for broader acceptance, although it is a little bit dubious to say that anyone has to be “validated” by medical discoveries. Even so, transgender people, especially transsexuals, depend on the medical system - it certainly doesn’t hurt if those medical professionals gradually move toward a better understanding of the biological model of transsexuality, and shift away from the psychiatric model that may grow more restrictive and stigmatizing in coming years... although riding the process of change of any sort does tend to be a little rough at times. Additionally, what it can provide to many who are struggling with self-acceptance is valuable.
This news has also caused some to speculate about the possibility that this discovery might later be used in a trend toward eugenics. This is not as farfetched as it sounds, as some of the follow-ups to Rev. Albert Mohler’s “Is Your Baby Gay? What If You Could Change It?” article, last year. Still, that is a question for the future. I would hope society would have evolved past its terror of diversity somewhat by then.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is being commemorated on Thursday, November 20th in Edmonton (Old Hudson’s Bay Building, 10230 Jasper Ave., 7:00pm), and Saturday November 22nd in Calgary (Old YWCA Centre, 223 - 12 Ave. SW, 1:00). Please join us.
”Mercedes Allen is a writer who blogs at http://dentedbluemercedes.wordpress.com/, has been featured on bilerico.com, PageOneQ and others, and has also developed the website at AlbertaTrans.org as a resource for transgender information and support.”