Intersex Conditions within the Transsexual Brain / Why “Born This Way” Is Not the Point

A bit of point and counterpoint here, to provoke some thought.

I thought this portion of a lecture given by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University, given in 2010, would be worth posting for folks who found this blog recently, and/or aren’t familiar with some of the medical discoveriess since the late 1990s.  It gives a very quick overview of some of the developments that have been happening in studying transsexualism.

This comes via Transadvocate, and h/t Zoe Brain.

As a counterpoint, I was going to link to an article I wrote called Why “Born This Way” Is Not the Point, only to discover I’ve apparently never archived it on this blog (either that, or I’ve written so much that I’ve lost the ability to keep track of it all).  So here it is.

Why “Born This Way” Is Not the Point

In her anthem coming soon to an ear near you, Lady Gaga asserts that whether “black, white, beige, chola descent” or “gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgendered life,” we should all be proud, because we’re just “Born This Way.”  The song was unquestionably well-intended, but there is a danger in basing the acceptance and validity on whether or not characteristics can be attributed to an inborn trait.

“Born This Way” is the inevitable product of an ongoing debate where legitimacy hinges on whether or not something is biological and intrinsic, or perceived to be a life choice.  For those of us who are trans or queer, the far right version of the birth versus choice narrative claims that we are trans, lesbian or gay purely by choice. Underscoring this is the implication that if something is based on choice, then it is not something the right needs to accept or respect.  From the perspective of someone who is part of both the trans and larger lesbian / gay / bisexual / trans (LGBT) community, I understand when we react to this debate to point out that we never chose to be as we are, and that it’s not something we can switch on or off like a light.  But doing so misses the point entirely.

There is certainly reasonable precedent to believe that biology is a factor in shaping LGBT people.  In the case of transsexuals, a growing volume of science since the mid 1990s has demonstrated frequent and repeatable higher-than-typical occurrences between some genetic characteristics and transsexuality.  Brain structure studies have yielded results in which transsexuals’ brains far more often resembled those of their identified gender than their birth sex, even though there is still wide-ranging debate on how much difference that really causes between men and women.  And research into phenomena like phantom limb syndrome has uncovered the likelihood of the brain having a “body map,” which has been proposed as an explanation as to why transsexuals strongly believe that their birthed sexual characteristics aren’t what they’re supposed to be.

Yet something that bothers me (and isn’t mentioned much in the quest for biological legitimacy) is that clear proof of a biological origin would not only fail to convince those who hate LGBT people, it is also not the holy grail it’s made out to be.

There is ongoing debate about how much of human behaviour stems from biology, how much from conditioning and socialized expectations, and how much from choice.  It’s probably not a good idea to dismiss any of the three.  Although they are vastly different from being LGBT, Bipolar disorder and some forms of autism have been demonstrated to have some form of biological causation or linkage, so there are certainly precedents.  So we play the opposite response: “it’s genetic.”  Well, maybe it is, at least in part, but neither chosen lifestyles nor biologically-driven identities of themselves validate or disqualify value in a human being.  In the long run, we might not exactly be comfortable with the implication of imparting all things biologically-connected with legitimacy.  Imagine a finding in which pedophilia is shown have some genetic trigger.  Certainly, many predators describe a compulsion they feel is intrinsic and beyond their control, so it’s not unthinkable that there could be a biological component.  But it would be repulsive to excuse the molestation of children for this sort of reason.  And at that point, consistency fails.

So biological causation only proves that we exist.  We cannot depend on it for rights or to change hearts and minds.  We cannot rely on it to find pride in our lives.  It’s fascinating, marginally validating, but it does not provide the standard against which we measure ourselves as humans.  Biological predestination is a poor measure of who is entitled to human rights or whether or not someone has a legitimate right to be.  We recognize that people deserve respect, freedom, access to employment and services, and to be treated as equals regardless of any disability, poverty, class, body image, level of education, faith and several other factors that are not inherently predetermined.  The “choice invalidation” argument seeks to undermine far more than the acceptance of LGBT people.  Discrimination does not occur purely because of the colour of someone’s skin — rather, colour is one of many indicators that are used to trigger presumptions about an individual’s culture, lifestyle, behaviours and tendencies.  You hear this excuse all the time: “I have nothing against them, but you know what they’re like….”  Prejudiced people are blind to their prejudice because they’ve seduced themselves into believing that what they’re reacting to are associated choices and not really the trait itself, when they’re acting on the unspoken and often inaccurate smorgasbord of inventions that go with it.  When we insist on biological validation, we are playing along with an ideology that makes soft excuses for bigotry, rather than confronting the impulse to discriminate.

And for that matter, how much of the “born this way” argument boils down to people feeling like they have to make excuses and seek societal forgiveness for existing, rather than pointing the finger back at bigotry?

The concept of human rights, of course, was supposed to address the extent to which hatred between diverse human communities manifested.  Human rights legislation was a response to the dramatic and horrific manifestation of hatred during the mass genocide that occurred in Nazi Germany — but it also recognized that mass extermination is not a new phenomenon, and that modern society cannot be fooled into believing that it would never occur again.  The principle is that all people should be treated as equals, but we know from experience that if we leave it up to everyone’s discretion, enormous imbalances happen.  Even with human rights legislation, there are glaringly different ways that privileged and non-privileged classes are treated.  So human rights legislation is structured in a way that identifies various classes that should not be used as bases to include or exclude — to accept or to hate — people.  The classes are, of themselves, neutral (for example, “race” covers white people as much as anyone else), so contrary to another modern myth, there are no “special rights.”  It becomes the role of the judiciary to balance the rights of the minority with the rights of the majority.  In an ideal world, of course, we would all realize that all are created equal, but in practical reality, reminders have to be codified into law, because there is always disagreement about who should be treated fairly and what the limit to fairness should be.  At the furthest extreme, without rights legislation requiring the legal system to take occurrences seriously, it becomes common for people to excuse violence or murder of minorities as being somehow justified or inconsequential, thereby devaluing the lives of the victims.

At some point, we need to realize that risk-conscious, responsible, respectful and genuinely consensual behaviour need to be the standards by which we measure people — by their actions, rather than any assumptions associated with any traits… even those that are not necessarily intrinsic, genetically-determined ones.

  1. Good take on a complex issue…Food for thought. Thank you!

  2. Well and good but perhaps there are other points. As far as acceptance of trans identities is concerned you’re probably right that biological determinism is a poor basis. Practically though, can’t see a case against it. Surely it’s better for Tourettes syndrome to be widely known about in that consequent behaviours aren’t subject to the social sanctions that would otherwise happen. Can’t see why trans people wouldn’t benefit by such an objectification of cause also.
    Far more importantly, though,it’s significant as a partial frame for all of us in understanding gender dimorphic cognitive differences. It’s relatively obvious that there isn’t a part of the brain that sends a signal saying ‘yay, I’m a man orwoman or whatever’. Rather it seems that, however it’s mediated, identification is based on a recognition of commonality with those who’s brain structures, and therefore cognition, are similar to ones own, as evidenced in gender dimorphic behaviour. That’s the bedrock of my transfeminism, that in understanding the recalcitrant cognitive architecture of gender that I’m aware of in myself as a trans woman I’m able to forge tools that don’t come from the masters house.

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