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Gender: Beyond Binary


Transgender people have been in the spotlight quite a bit lately, and not always for positive reasons. Whatever one thinks of recent developments, it is evident that the landscape of gender is changing. We don’t know what it will look like in the future, but a peek at what’s happening in the present might help.

When most people think of transgender, they might think of someone like Caitlyn Jenner: born with a male body, grew up and identified as a man for most of her life, and eventually transitioned to living as a woman full-time. Jenner, though, isn’t typical, and is certainly not definitive. The median age for a male-to-female transition is 20, though some begin around (or before) puberty and others may transition much later. Female-to-male transitions skew a bit older.

But what about people who identify as either men or women? Rejection of binary gender takes many forms and so it also has many names: genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, non-binary, agender, and numerous others. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which is conducted annually in the United States, shows that about a third of individuals who identify as transgender do not identify solely as men or women. They may present (or identify) as one gender or the other at different times, or reject binary gender distinctions entirely. This may seem counterintuitive if your only exposure to transgender issues has been people who have transitioned fully from one gender to another. After all, isn’t the whole point of being transgender is that you are “trapped in the wrong body”?

This simplistic expression, while popular and certainly accurate for some individuals, does not reflect the nuance and complexity of gender identity. It is also assumed that the end goal for a transgender person is to undergo surgeries and hormone therapies that modify their bodies to be more aligned with their identified gender. That is the prescribed medical treatment for Gender Identity Disorder, after all. But the medical field lags well behind, here. Some trans individuals may want hormone therapy; others may not. Some may seek surgeries to remove (or add) breasts, or to modify their genitals, or alter other physical features–and others may not. Such physical changes may be pursued in an a la carte fashion short of a “full” transition. It varies from person to person, and this is key. There is no one right or wrong way to “do” gender, and so there is no right or wrong way to transition, either–only ways that suit each individual according to their needs and desires.

The idea of “male brains” and “female brains” has been discredited for years, which has led some to assume that transgenderism is entirely a psychosocial phenomenon rather than a condition with a biological basis. But the most current research indicates that the brains of trans people are, indeed, structurally different from the brains of cisgender (non-trans) people:

Male and female brains are, on average, slightly different in structure, although there is tremendous individual variability. Several studies have looked for signs that transgender people have brains more similar to their experienced gender. Spanish investigators—led by psychobiologist Antonio Guillamon of the National Distance Education University in Madrid and neuropsychologist Carme Junqué Plaja of the University of Barcelona—used MRI to examine the brains of 24 female-to-males and 18 male-to-females—both before and after treatment with cross-sex hormones. Their results, published in 2013, showed that even before treatment the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender. For example, the female-to-male subjects had relatively thin subcortical areas (these areas tend to be thinner in men than in women). Male-to-female subjects tended to have thinner cortical regions in the right hemisphere, which is characteristic of a female brain. (Such differences became more pronounced after treatment.) “Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” Guillamon says. “It is simplistic to say that a female-to-male transgender person is a female trapped in a male body. It's not because they have a male brain but a transsexual brain.” Of course, behavior and experience shape brain anatomy, so it is impossible to say if these subtle differences are inborn.

There is likely a complex interplay of genetics, biology, and childhood development at work here, and it is clearly not as simple as there being “male” and “female” brains. Rather, every brain is distinct and unique, even if there are patterns that correlate with one gender identity over another. Given that infant and childhood brain development is heavily influenced by experience, and how early gender coding is introduced into most children’s lives, it is difficult to say how much of one’s gender identity is informed by inborn biological processes and how much is the result of developmental and environmental factors.

I would dare say that, in terms of the validity of transgender identities, it doesn’t matter which it is. Gender constructs being what they are–largely limiting stereotypes that prescribe particular behavioral patterns, aspects of one’s appearance, and long-term aspirations–deconstructing and repurposing them is wholly appropriate. Other countries may socially code less rigid gender roles, but in the US, gender remains largely paramount. Men and women are expected to look, behave, and progress through life in predetermined molds, and while some deviation is tolerated, too much deviation is punished, sometimes violently. I suspect that the slow but apparent erosion of binary gender concepts is a response to these constraints. There are those for whom neither of the main available choices feels right, and so they are forced to look elsewhere, to forge their own paths. And they are doing so, developing their own terminologies and approaches to live in an overwhelmingly binary society.

There’s also the curious correlation between autism and gender non-conformity. That association is mostly anecdotal at this point–formal research is needed–but the two appear to coincide regularly enough that study is warranted to define and understand that relationship, if one truly exists.

19Much of the backlash against transgender people, and efforts to systematically discriminate against them, seems to be driven by fear of decaying traditions and a changing reality. Gender is not the only frontier upon which are seeing rapid change. Our concepts of sexuality in general are being challenged, perhaps most visibly by recent pushes to allow same-sex couples to marry. The neurodiversity movement asks us to view autism and other neurotypes as not defective, but merely different. Shifts in these ways of thinking are linked: they all throw into question what it means to be human, here and now. It denies our concepts of “normal” and “typical” and invites us to not just accept, but embrace the wonderful constellation of human experience. What if there weren’t just men and women, but an infinite variety of people who cannot be so pigeonholed into box A or box B? Would that really be the end of the world? Or the start of a newer, livelier, better one?