A colleague and I have had a long-running discussion about the nature of gender. She contends that gender is a social construct – that society creates gender, and agrees with gender feminists who believe that all distinctions between men and women are both culturally and socially constructed with biology playing a relatively minor role. We are engaged in the classic nature vs. nurture debate. If our discussion was limited to gender roles, I would agree with her – behaviors and expectations based upon sex and gender are indeed culturally imposed. However, it is difficult for me to accept that my gender, and hence my gender identity, is a result of the society in which I have lived.
I was recently invited to participate in a discussion of a draft version of a social statement on “Women and Justice” being written by a large mainstream church. It was encouraging to know that my voice as a transwoman was being valued and accepted and I truly expected to find no objections to the message contained in the document rejecting patriarchy and sexism. However, I was surprised to discover a statement buried within the document about the brains of boys and girls. It read that neurological research has indicated that our brains are not “hardwired” as either boy or girl brains – we learn the behaviors in which we engage. Indeed, this does make sense to a certain degree – we all learn the gender roles in which we participate. The concern that I expressed at the meeting was with the use of the term hardwired and how the statement might lead readers to believe that our gender-selves are products of society.
There is a growing body of research data that supports the notion of hardwired brains. Findings presented at the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting in Barcelona this past May suggest that “differences in brain function may occur early in development and that brain imaging may be a useful tool for earlier identification of transgenderism in young people” (Science News, May 24th, 2018). Additional research reported in Scientific American (January, 2016) indicates that “imaging studies and other research suggest that there is a biological basis for transgender identity.” These and similar studies suggest a degree of innate gender in each of us.
Writes Jane Brody (“Transgender Identity May Form in the Womb,” Herald-Tribune, June 21st, 2016) “All brains start out female; if the fetus is male, testosterone normally programs both the genitalia and the brain to develop as male.” Moreover, Georg Kranz, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of Vienna writes, “All available evidence points towards a biologically determined identity. In [transgender] people you would say there was a mismatch in the testosterone milieu during the development of the body and then during development of the brain, so that the body was masculinized and the brain was feminized, or the other way around.” (As reported in “Are the Brains of Transgender People Different From Those of Cisgender People?” The Scientist, March 1st, 2018.)
So, what does all of this mean? For starters, many in the transgender community reject any notion of a possible physiological diagnosis for being trans. No medical test can determine our gender identity and the lack of any particular physical indicators should never be used to deny someone the validity of their personal identity. Yet, the results of these kinds of studies underscore the fact that transgender individuals do not choose to be trans. We are born this way and any data that supports this fact can influence the way society accepts us and our identities.
But perhaps the most important point in this discussion is this. If our gender identities are a social construct – if society makes us transgender by the environment in which we are subjected, then society can attempt to unmake us. For those who believe this to be true there is the implied belief that conversion/reparative therapy is valid and appropriate – a frightening and dangerous concept widely discredited by a vast majority of the medical community.
Our debate will continue, most likely finding common ground in the understanding that there may be no nature vs nurture, but rather nature + nurture as we consider gender. The proportion of each will likely remain a difficult and unanswered question.
Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Her years teaching in public school classrooms as male provided the foundation for her more recent role educating future teachers. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held – both male and cisgender – privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.
- Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Her years teaching in public school classrooms as male provided the foundation for her more recent role educating future teachers. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held – both male and cisgender – privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.