I knew from an early age that this Adam and Eve thing isn’t really working for me. I mean, what about all the kinds of people in between?
Andrea Gibson
Pin it
Jan 27

Transgender History: Trans Expression in Ancient Times

History is written by the victors so transgender history, unfortunately,  tends to mean that a lot of truth gets lost over the eons. Peaceful tribes can become demonized, portrayals of nature reverence can be twisted into “witchcraft” and a lot of the accurate documentation becomes lost over the years in intellectual pogroms, such as the burning of the library at Alexandria in Egypt by the Romans.

History was never meant to be that sort of boring “is there gonna be a test on this” sort of dry reading, but it often becomes so, because it becomes an onslaught of dates and peoples and events that we don’t recognize. It doesn’t help that with histories written by victors, many of the lives we might recognize ourselves in become obliterated from memory. Such is the case with most things transgender or homosexual, which at one time were seen to be rooted in similar human need. It was once said that there were three facets to our existence: survival, reproduction, and everything else — and to the person who made the case, “everything else” — which tended to encompass those things creative, imaginative and ingenious — could be classified as “art.” If ancient cultures bore understanding of this, then one wonders if transgender and same-sex love were seen as an art of their own… a creative exploration of love and affection.

It may sound far-fetched, but history (even if written by victors) offers little glimpses of reality at times, and many of these glimpses tend to indicate that the gender transgression and gay / lesbian / bisexual love that is often vilified today was once quite respected and at times even encouraged. As a transgender and bisexual woman, I’m not personally inclined to think of myself as better than anyone or to try to portray myself as such, but a careful look at history does provide a rewarding sense that I have something to offer, and am a being worthy of respect.

It is impossible to know the motives of the early civilizations’ approach. We can only see history in modern light and with our own experiences. Without the economic and socio-political backgrounds to some of these notations, we don’t know if transgender behaviour was any result of coersion, conspiracy or other motivations. I would like to think that much of the experience was genuine, although I’m not so naive to believe that accounts of castrated boys raised as wives of Roman or Turkish military leaders were consensual. History unfortunately sometimes can only touch the surface, not revealing the beauty and ugliness underneath.

Consequently, I can only construct a history that is dry and vague at times, and intriguing at others. I also have to rely heavily on a few selected texts at some points, as there is so little other information available on those periods of time. There may be the occasional inaccuracy but I have found that the exercise has unearthed some fascinating gems.

Dually-Gifted, Dually Respected?

What we understand as transgender (in its many different forms) has been understood quite differently at various periods of time. In the earliest ages, people who were seen to bridge the genders were quite often thought to possess wisdom that traditionally-gendered people did not, and were venerated for this. As civilizations transformed from matrilineal and communal societies into male-driven (patriarchal) societies with rigid class divisions and emphasis on property ownership, those male-driven cultures reduced the status of women… and because they were threatened by a persistent belief that those who blurred gender lines possessed some greater insight, they set out to crush gender-transgressive people most of all. Into the modern age, transfolk resurfaced, but it is a long climb back just to restore any sense of equality.

In earliest civilizations, throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, tribes of different types venerated what they often identified as “The Great Mother.” In nearly all of these traditions, MTF priestesses (often castrated or with some form of eunuching, which included a number of different body modifications of the time) presided, and the cultures were primarily communal systems which held women (venerated as a source of life) in high esteem. Matriarchal in nature, the cultures often espoused peace, but the realities of early civilization and tribal existence did not always allow for this.

The Great Mother

The Great Mother

Roman historian Plutarch depicts “The Great Mother” as an Intersex deity from whom the two sexes had not yet split. Trans-gendered depictions of The Great Mother and Her priestesses are found in ancient artifacts back to the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia and Akkad. Some historians portray MTF priestesses as being recognized as something sacred, while others portray them as undergoing castration in order to subvert matrilineal rule and wrest religious direction from the control of women. David F. Greenberg, however, concludes that records of trans priestesses do date back “to the late Paleolithic (if not earlier),” suggesting that the advent of transgender priestesses was not simply a later reaction to feminine leadership and veneration. In some regions, particularly the oldest European customs, it even appears that some form of gender transgression was almost considered one’s religious duty, at times (i.e. certain revelries).

Surviving Records

Displaying the earliest records of trans existence chronologically is virtually impossible, so I will sort them primarily by location.

The Middle East

In the Middle East (Cradle of Civilization), MTF (male-to-female) priestesses were known to have served Astarte, Dea Syria, Atargatis and Ashtoreth / Ishtar. Additional MTF “gallae” served Cybele, the Phrygians’ embodiment of The Great Mother. Trans expression was also present in the early genesis of the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahbad (India).

mukhannathun

mukhannathun

For centuries, Muslim tradition differentiated between MTF transsexuals who live as prostitutes or criminals, and those in whom femininity was innate and who lived blamelessly. The latter were called “mukhannathun,” and accepted within the boundaries of Islam. Mukhannathun could have relationships with either men or women, but only those who had been castrated or were exclusively attracted to men were allowed into womens’ spaces. Later, it was ordered that all mukhannathun undergo castration.

Africa

In Africa, intersexed deities and spritual beliefs in gender transformation are recorded in Akan, Ambo-

Heviosso

Heviosso

Kwanyama, Bobo, Chokwe, Dahomean (Benin), Dogon, Bambara, Etik, Handa, Humbe, Hunde, Ibo, Jukun, Kimbundu, Konso, Kunama, Lamba, Lango, Luba, Lugbara (where MTFs are called okule and FTMs are called agule), Lulua, Musho, Nat, Nuba, Ovimbundu, Rundi, Sakpota, Shona-Karonga, Venda, Vili-Kongo, and Zulu tribes. Some of this tradition survives in West Africa, as well as Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies that derive from West African religions. In Abomey, the Heviosso maintain trans traditions, in an area renowned for Amazon-like warrior women.

In seventh Century BC, King Ashurbanipal (Sardanapalus) of Assyria spent a great deal of time in womens’ clothing, something that was later used to justify overthrowing him. In Egypt, 1503 BC, Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut ascended to the throne, the second Egyptian queen to rule (the first was Queen Sobekneferu of the 12th Dynasty). Possibly learning from the disfavor shown to her predecessor, she donned male clothing and a false beard signifying kingship, and reigned until 1482 B.C. She had one daughter, Neferure, who she groomed as successor (male clothing, false beard and all), but Neferure did not live into adulthood. After her death, her second husband attempted to erase all record of her. And Nzinga ruled as King of Angola from 1624 – 1653, cross-dressed and led several successful military battles against the Portuguese.

Asia

statue-of-shiva-as-half-man-and-half-women-ardhanarishvara

statue-of-shiva-as-half-man-and-half-women

In Asia, Hijras persist even today, although their reverence is often limited to the belief that their presence at weddings is a good portent for the couple. They do tend to suffer in the modern Indian caste system, something that “eunuchs” of all types are banding together to work to improve (i.e. only recently was a Hijra able to vote, and now there have been Hijran elected officials). Historically, they have often worshipped the mother-goddess Bahuchara Mata, although some also worshipped Shiva in his half-man, half-woman persona, Ardhanarisvara.

Many early Indonesian societies had transgender figures in religious functions, including the basaja, from the island of Sulawesi (The Celebes). In ancient China, the shih-niang wore mixed-gender ceremonial clothing. In Okinawa, some shamans underwent winagu nati, a process of “becoming female.” In Korea, the mudang was a shaman or sorceress who was quite often MTF. In February 1995, archaeologist Timothy Taylor discovered evidence of transgender lives in the Iron Age graves found in southern Russia.

Fanchuan was a name given to stage crossdressing, such as male-to-female performances in Beijing opera, and female-to-male acting in Taiwanese Opera. Chui Chin, a cross-dressing Chinese revolutionary and feminist was beheaded in 1907 for organizing an uprising against the Manchu dynasty.

Europe

In Europe, MTF priestesses served Artemis, Hecate and Diana. Early traditions thrived longest in Greece, and the mythology of the day encorporated tales of cross-dressing by Achilles, Heracles, Athena and Dionysus, as well as literal and metaphorical gender changes. The blind prophet Tiresias is often mentioned as a figure who had lived many years of his life in each different gender, and was said to have possessed acute wisdom for it. The tale of an FTM character, Kaineus (Caeneus), who was viewed as a “scorner and rival of the gods” and was driven into the earth by the Centaurs, is an example of Greek mythology attempting to subvert earlier trans-oriented legends. And Cupid was a dual god/dess of love, originally portrayed as intersex. The child of Hermes and Aphrodite, one of Cupid’s variant names provided the origin for the term, “hermaphrodite.” Some time between 6th Century and 1st Century BC, in the Greek Hippocratic Corpus (collection of medical texts), physicians propose that both parents secrete male or female “bodies” and that if the father’s secretion is female (rather than male) and the mother’s is male, the result would either be a “man-woman” (effeminate male) or a “mannish” female.

In the later development of Europe, early alchemists borrowed from pre-Christian spirituality at times, and some of these mystics created the concept of the “chemical wedding,” a merger of male and female spiritual attributes to achieve perfection. Some alchemists saw this as a chemical concept that would lead to the process of transmuting lead into gold, while others touted that this was more of a personal, spiritual transformation. While much of this was later absorbed into secret societies such as the Freemasons and Rosicrucians, the belief hints at transformative and bigender-conscious reverence. Even the Bible has such “gender-wedding” imagery at times, in allusions to the “Bride of Christ” found in the Book of Revelations and some comments by later epistle writers.

Androgynae

Androgynae

The Amazons, a group of warriors often in conflict with Greeks and later mythologized, seem to have been thought of as trans, and Pliny the Younger referred to them as the Androgynae “who combine the two sexes.” They carried double-edged axes which may have been symbols of intersexuality, as were those carried by the South American tribe that inspired the naming of the Amazon River.

In the Klementi tribe of Albania, if a virgin swore before twelve witnesses that she would not marry, she was then recognized as male, carried weapons, and herded flocks.

Years later, Joan of Arc was said to have followed in the traditions of Gentiles and heathen. In France, “gens” referred to matrilineal farming communities, indicating some pre-Christian tradition that she evidently had stirred up, inspiring older values and explaining why she had become such a potent threat to the church while alive.

North America

In North America, as late as 1930 (with the Klamath in the Pacific Northwest), Two-Spirit Natives are noted among tribal communities. Originally called “berdache,” a name of largely insulting intent given by Europeans, Native culture adopted the term “Two-Spirit” as a blanket term — though in reality, nearly every tribe had at least one (often several) unique name for Two-Spirit peoples, with the names sometimes addressing different aspects of those populations. Two-Spirit actually covers the full range of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, as well as intersex and other gender-variant people. It was often thought that Two-Spirits had two spirits inhabiting the same body, and that Two-Spirit people deserved a special kind of reverence. Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette notes that in the Illinois and Nadouessi tribes, nothing is decided without their advice.

The sensational nature of reports of Two-Spirit peoples and the hatred they contained were used to try to justify genocide, theft of land and the dismantling of Native culture and religion. In Panama, explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa threw a King and forty others of a Native tribe to be eaten by his dogs, because they crossdressed or had same-sex partners. Spaniards committed similar genocides in the Antilles and Louisiana. In those areas where Two-Spirit traditions survived, they were later driven underground or supplanted completely by missionary teachings and residential schools, both of which were bent on destroying Native culture.

muxes

Jesusa Hernandez (L) and her nephew Julio Valdiviezo Hernandez (R) are muxe, or transvestites, in the Oaxacan town of Juchitan. Here they pose in Jesusa’s home, in traditional Tejuana clothing. Muxes are very common, and accepted, in this Southern Oaxacan region. The matriarchal society is still driven by women but in flux in the machismo culture of Mexico. (photo: Ann Summa).

In Mexico, the Zapotecs developed the concept of a third gender, which they referred to as muxe, as an intermediate between male and female who played both gender roles in everyday life. It is important to note that “two-spirit” (and similar native terms) refer to gender, not sexual orientation. “Two-spirit” individuals may be heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. To date, muxes still exist among Zapotec people and play a crucial role within the community.

Inuit FTMs serve White Whale Woman, who was believed to have been transformed into a man or woman-man.

South America

In South America, MTF priestesses have been found among the Araucanians (southern Chile and Argentina) and Mapuche, although after oppressive Spanish contact, they were largely replaced by female preistesses. Some females in the Tupinamba tribe lived as men, hunted and went to war. In 1576, explorer Pedro de Magalhaes recorded this, and recalling the Greek legend of the Amazons, named the Amazon river for these Tupinamba. For the Yoruba (Brazil), the deity Shango is represented as all sexes.

Unclear, But Present

Although it’s doubtful that all of these traditions had a common origin, and possible that some of these are trans only by coincidence, there do seem to be a number of similar themes tying them together. Sorting through them to find specific motives and beliefs is impossible, though, because so little of the original traditions was recorded or survived the various book purges over time. It is only possible to speculate.

Alas, history is written by the victors, and the victors were largely not transgender or homosexual / bisexual persons.

Reprinted from Bilerico.Com

Jan 26

Our Social Construction of a Sex and Gender Binary: The XX & XY Lie

 

Petite Bohème social world

Image credit: Petite Bohème at www.petiteboheme.com/Cosmic-Love

I’m a transgender woman living in a social world. Like many trans people I know, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life hearing from friends, family, and strangers on the internet about how my gender is “made up”.

These detractors always circle back to the same argument regarding biology, genitals, and the existence of only two “real” genders. They will tell me that it doesn’t matter what name I use, how long my hair grows, what surgeries I get, or how long I take hormone replacement therapy, I will always be a man, in their eyes, because one doctor 27 years ago looked at my penis and decided I was a man.

This simplistic explanation of sex and gender as a permanent division between someone being either a man or woman, having a penis or a vagina, and having XX or XY chromosomes may seem like solid ground upon which we’ve built our entire modern society, but the real story of where these categories come from, and how unscientific they truly are, is newer, and much more cloudy, than you may think. Before we go down the rabbit hole, we need to cover some basics first.

Social Constructionism and You

Social constructionism is the study of how identity categories, social groups, and even things that seem like solid biological truths, are actually systems of meaning that are built, maintained, and obscured from criticism by our social systems.

Social constructionism is created and maintained by many facets of society, including our education system, class hierarchy structure, political systems, and medical complex. (More about social constructionism here)

It’s important to note that just because something is socially constructed, or in a more blunt way, that it is “made up”, doesn’t make that thing meaningless or powerless. Money only exists and has value because we all collectively decide to continue believing that it has value, however once that social construction has taken hold, it becomes “real” in some sense of the word. The fact that money is an imaginary abstraction of labor and personal wealth onto colored pieces of fabric, paper, or metal doesn’t make its impact on our lives, or our struggle to live without having enough of it, any less “real” than something tangible like a rock or a tree.

As another example, racial divisions between human beings with different skin tones and body features are socially constructed and yet, also deeply important to understanding our world. These divisions were artificially created and continue to be maintained by white-dominant societies across the world in a way that produces real, daily harm for people of color.

Even though race is “made up”, so to speak, we can’t just completely dismiss it as a concept, or live in a “colorblind” society because the enduring legacy and impact of race as a social construction impacts the lives of every person of color. It is deeply important for us all to learn about the challenges of growing up in a society informed by slavery, scientific justifications for racism, eugenics, and many other real systems of oppression that were built on the very non-real and arbitrary divisions between humans of different physical appearances. In order to truly confront the issue of racism, we must first admit that race is both a social construction by scientific racists and also a real pattern of classification that has caused tangible harm despite it being “made up”.

In a similar way, our current system of assigning babies male or female at birth is a social construction based on assumptions about biology and body development that are now outdated. However, we must still grapple with the centuries of meaning we have attributed to the penis and the vagina.

Sex and gender as a binary structure are outdated social constructs that we must reform. When a so-called “scientific” system of categorization systematically leaves out millions of transgender and intersex people, we must ask ourselves: is the problem with the people who don’t fit, or the system itself?

Boys and Girls

In most current societies, when we’re born, a doctor or midwife looks at our genitals and declares we are either “a boy” or “a girl”.

This designation gets put on a birth certificate, which then transfers to a social security card, a driver’s license, a passport, and every other possible documentation of you as a human being. Even though most people never get their chromosomes tested, we also assume this sex assignment to mean that people with penises always have XY chromosomes and people with vulvas always have XX chromosomes.

We live in a world that is deeply invested financially, socially, politically, and scientifically, in reinforcing two categories defined by penises and vaginas. The sex and gender binary informs our medical research, divides our restrooms from each other, and prescribes everything from the hobbies you can access to the style of draping cloth on your body that is appropriate.

Our binary division of genitals, loosely based on being able to give birth or not give birth, signifies a fundamental difference between what we call “men” and “women”. From the assignment of your physical sex follows the assumption of your gender identity and gender expression to match.

If your gender happens to line up with the sex you were assigned at birth, this is an experience I will refer to as being “cisgender”. Conversely, this means that anyone whose gender is not the same as their sex assigned at birth would be “transgender”.

Cisgender people may have never really thought much about the medical process of sex assignment at birth and the subsequent social process of molding the expectations of a gender identity based on that assignment.

Even though sex assignment at birth, gender identity, and gender expression are all distinct categories that can be independent from each other, when they all “line up” with the expectation, we collapse those three things into one identity. We call someone a “man” for example, by which we actually mean a male-assigned-at-birth person whose gender identity (internal sense of gender) is a man, and whose gender expression (external choices about appearance to communicate gender) is also male/masculine.

Even though no one truly lines up with every expectation of being male or female, odds are that if you fit into a cisgender experience of your body and the world, our cultural process of assigning sex at birth and then assuming a gender identity and gender expression based on that assignment has been an invisible process for you. It may even feel like a “natural” process, or the only process by which we could ever structure our society in your mind.

For cisgender people, this medical process of assigning sex at birth and assuming gender identity and expression from that assignment is like tubing down a river. Depending on where you start, you may experience calm waters carrying you forward, you may have turbulent water that’s difficult to navigate, or you might have a mixture of both, but no matter what, the momentum of the water carries you forward and helps guide your journey.

For transgender people, whose gender is different from the sex we were assigned at birth, and intersex people, whose bodies do not fit cleanly into being assigned male or female, this experience is much more like being a salmon swimming upstream against the current. Even though it’s possible to do, it’s exhausting. We’re always pushing back against the expectations of our culture, our parents, our doctors, our religious leaders (if we’re religious), and practically everyone we interact with in person and on the internet.

Some of us don’t survive the journey. Some of us run out of energy and fall behind. Some of us, if we’re non-white, poor, queer, non-binary, living with a disability, living in countries outside of the US and Europe, living without access to healthcare, or navigating life through multiple marginalized identities at once, are forced to endure push back from the unstoppable flow of dominant culture that is more intense, more relentless, and much more exhausting.

This social process of “tubing down the river”, happens because of our social construction of the gender binary. While not everything in our modern society has a binary gendered aspect to it, many more things than you might think about actually do.

The gender binary is more than social expectations that women work in the home and men work in an office, or other broad cultural assumptions about men and women. Our gendered divisions assign different smells to different genders, make sure that our underwear is shaped differently, and use social norms about grooming activities like shaving body hair, doing makeup, and enforcing drastically different dress codes all serve to support divisions between what we call men and women.

We take small variations in body structure and amplify the natural variation of those bodies to maintain the idea that men and woman are not only fundamentally different from each other, based on their biology, but also based on their social expectations as well.

More and more people are beginning to see how our current gender binary is socially constructed. Parents are beginning to push back on the idea that only certain toys are for boys or girls, clothing stores are removing their distinction between men’s and women’s clothes, and California just became the first state in the US to recognize a non-binary gender on their state records.

Even though it’s becoming more common to hear people discuss the impact of our gender binary, we still seem to struggle when we apply the same ideas to the social construction of biological sex itself.

“I Wasn’t Born In The Wrong Body, I Was Born In The Wrong World” — Alok Vaid-Menon

Even the most progressive transgender allies, the ones who understand the nuances of gender identity, can struggle with the concept of trans bodies when it comes to the social construction of physical sex characteristics.

Many cisgender allies say things to me like: “I support your transition, but you’ll never be a ‘real’ woman because you were born a boy.” Statements like this illustrate how some people can understand our society’s need to expand beyond the gender binary, while still clinging to the idea that “biological sex” is something solid, real, and based on a purely biological difference between two types of genitals and having either XX or XY chromosomes.

Not only is the gender binary a social construction, but so is the very idea of a physical sex binary at all. We know this because millions of transgender people exist as women in bodies with penises, as do men in bodies with vulvas and nonbinary people in bodies with any genitals.

Those bodies cannot be cleanly sorted into a binary sex because our brain is just as physical a part of us as any other. We experience our whole body through electric energy that runs through every nerve and up into our brain seamlessly.

There is no such thing as being trapped in the “wrong” body, it’s the only body I have, and to say it isn’t a woman’s body when there is a woman living in the body takes some serious mental gymnastics and biological psuedo-science for people to justify their transphobia and declare otherwise.

Bigots and allies alike search high and low for every possible explanation to elucidate why millions of trans people exist, other than what we keep saying over and over again.

This world seemingly refuses to listen to trans people when we say that we are simply living as our truest possible selves. We are women, men, and non-binary people in bodies that you refuse to see as ours, but rather, you can only see through your projections onto us.

Transgender women are not “trying to be women”, “living as women”, “becoming women”, “choosing to be women”, or any other euphemistic phrase that essentially says we are impersonators trying to be something we are not.

As Sophie Labelle so elegantly put it: “I’m a girl, this is my body. Girls have all kinds of bodies.”

Assigned Male in a social world

Artist credit: Sophie Labelle, Assigned Male Comics

Additionally, some bodies cannot be cleanly sorted into “male” or “female” on sex assignment, and we categorize those bodies as “intersex”.

Intersex folks may or may not also identify themselves as “transgender”, but the existence of bodies that are on a spectrum between what we clearly define as male or female speaks to a more complicated truth of “biological sex” than you might have learned in school.

Even though we often think about physical sex being determined precisely when the sperm enters the egg, the actual development of our physical bodies follows the same template for the first few months of development, including the development of budding structures that would become the ovaries, labia, clitoris, and other body parts we currently see as exclusively “female”.

For some bodies where the SRY gene is activated, these existing parts transform themselves to a new genital configuration that will begin to produce testosterone. The ovaries descend and become the testes; the labia fuse together into the scrotal sack; the urethra fuses with the clitoris and grows out to become the penis.

The anatomy we see as distinctly “male” or “female” is all grown from the same root, and in our effort to make clear distinctions between men and women, the medical system creates collateral damage through forced genital surgery on intersex infants, defining our natural human variation as a disorder, and perpetuating a transphobic medical gatekeeping process that construes our most basic medical care as “cosmetic” and “unnecessary” medical procedures we must pay for out of pocket, while trans people are also twice as likely to be unemployed, and if employed, are twice as likely to make under $25,000 a year (from: http://www.one-colorado.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/OC_Transparent_Download2mb.pdf).

Even though we claim this division between “real men” and “real women” rests on the basic difference between XX and XY chromosomes, even the clean cut science of that divide is quickly becoming more and more muddled. It is possible, for example, to have XY chromosomes and a vulva or XX chromosomes and a penis. This article from Nature Magazine in 2015 outlines this process in greater detail:

“Gene mutations affecting gonad development can result in a person with XY chromosomes developing typically female characteristics, whereas alterations in hormone signalling can cause XX individuals to develop along male lines.

For many years, scientists believed that female development was the default programme, and that male development was actively switched on by the presence of a particular gene on the Y chromosome. In 1990, researchers made headlines when they uncovered the identity of this gene, which they called SRY. Just by itself, this gene can switch the gonad from ovarian to testicular development. For example, XX individuals who carry a fragment of the Y chromosome that contains SRY develop as males.”

By the turn of the millennium, however, the idea of femaleness being a passive default option had been toppled by the discovery of genes that actively promote ovarian development and suppress the testicular programme — such as one called WNT4. XY individuals with extra copies of this gene can develop atypical genitals and gonads, and a rudimentary uterus and Fallopian tubes. In 2011, researchers showed that if another key ovarian gene, RSPO1, is not working normally, it causes XX people to develop an ovotestis — a gonad with areas of both ovarian and testicular development.

These discoveries have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules (such as WNT4) in the networks can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it’s a balance,” says Eric Vilain, a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s more of a systems-biology view of the world of sex.”

Transgender people are a natural human variation of brains existing on a spectrum of identities, just like how bodies exist on a spectrum between what we designate as male and what we designate as female.

Both the gender binary and the sex binary are socially constructed. We first decided there was a difference at all in bodies on one side of the sex spectrum or the other, and then we maintain a system of strict division between physical norms, social norms, and gender expression norms that reinforce that original arbitrary division between masculine and feminine bodies.

We are led to believe that this “biological” division between men and women is tied to both the genitals, and having XX or XY chromosomes, however, most people never have their chromosomes checked. Instead, we just assume that the existence of a penis means someone has an XY chromosomal pair and the existence of a vulva means an XX chromosomal pair. But as we saw above, not only can someone be born with the “wrong” genitals for their chromosome pair, but also those with the “right pair” of chromosomes can develop traits of both genitals, including the full formation of both a penis and a vulva/vagina at the same time.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t observable differences between bodies, or that a division does exist in humans between the anatomy required to grow a child and those without the ability to do that, but it does mean that the actual biological differences between those bodies stops there. Even using birth anatomy as a binary doesn’t work, since we still see infertile cisgender women as women and infertile cisgender men as men.

Imagine a thought experiment: Due to an unfortunate accident, you were crushed above your hips by a massive object. In order to save you, the surgeon was required to remove your genitals completely. Do you stop being a man or a woman, in this scenario, just because your genitals are now gone? Of course not, because gender, the inner sense of who you are, exists independent of your genitals.

Instead of thinking about physical sex as two distinct categories with no overlap, I think it makes more sense to think of our categories of “male” and “female” as two bell curves centered around cisgender men and women. The majority of people who are born with a penis will identify as men, express themselves as masculine, and create the norm we have now, and the same for people with a vulva being women and expressing themselves as feminine.

However, there is a small chance on the edges of the bell curve that someone will be different from how they are assigned and expected to grow up. They may be a transgender woman, agender, gender fluid, or many other potential identity terms we’ve created to describe experiences outside of being cisgender. That doesn’t make the transgender or the cisgender person more or less right, just because it’s more common to be cis, it just means they are two very different experiences of being human.

Instead of seeing this natural variation within the bell curve as equally valid outcomes of the randomness inherent in human genes, we have medicalized, stigmatized, and pathologized these differences to say that less common experiences of gender are also somehow less “right” or less “natural”.

We’ve labeled these trans experiences as deviant, dangerous, and constructed them to be something wrong with the individual people, instead of an inherent flaw of our classification system.

If a so-called “scientific” classification system continues to systematically leave out millions and millions of people, we must ask ourselves: is the problem with those millions of people, or is the problem with our current classification system?

When the majority of people fit within the expectations of being cisgender men and women, we mistake something “common” for being something “normal”. In our current society, “normal” comes with all sorts of value judgements and safety systems that push us toward wanting to be seen as “normal” by others.

Additionally, having a category seen as “normal” for our gender fundamentally facilitates the creation of things outside of those expectations to be seen as “not normal”, or“other”. Our experiences precede our language to describe them. Trans and queer people who are naming terms to describe their gender are putting language to experiences of gender fluidity, non-binary gender, and other experiences outside of the historical categories of men and women.

Getting rid of those new identities, marginalizing them, mocking them, and ignoring them don’t make someone feel less like that identity, it just increases the social cost of coming out and staying out to a level where someone may feel hopeless enough to choose dying instead.

Our society constructs these transgender identities as being “abnormal”, “bizarre”, and defined by their defiance to the established norm.

Those who are hateful of trans people do all sorts of mental gymnastics to find other explanations for why trans people exist. These “explanations” are often way more complicated than the actual truth they refuse to acknowledge, that I am simply a woman who has a penis.

Instead, transphobic bigots justify taking our rights away and ostracizing us from society by saying that transgender people are sexually deviant, or that we are trying to trick people. They call our truest selves being “mentally ill”, and all sorts of other justifications for marginalizing and oppressing us without feeling guilt or shame for it. The people who truly cause harm to us are often telling a story in their own head about “saving us” from ourselves, but all they are really doing is using religious fundamentalism, TERF ideology, or other oppressive systems to attack an already endangered and marginalized group and endanger us further out of their own discomfort and fear.

Transgender People Have Always Existed

It is also important to note that even though trans identities and gender fluidity seems like something new, there is a long history of people who we would understand in our current context as “trans” throughout time and space. Many Civil War soldiers were discovered to be female assigned at birth in the US, Billy Tipton was a legendary jazz artist, who was also discovered to be female-assigned-at-birth only upon his death in 1989. There were also trans, genderqueer and gender fluid people living in a burgeoning queer movement in 1920’s and 30’s Berlin, until the Nazis came to power, destroyed the collected research of Dr. Magnus Hirshfeld, and the entire queer movement toward scientific understanding with it.

Trans women, transsexuals, and drag queens of color were also the first ones to fight back against police at Stonewall in June 1969, and also at the Compton Cafeteria Riots, in August 1966, almost 3 years before Stonewall.

Additionally, going back further than white European colonialism, there have always been communities of indigenous people who saw and respected people outside of a gender binary. While it’s impossible to paint the hundreds of indigenous groups in North America with a broad brush, many different traditions of indigenous gender and sexual fluidity are being illuminated by current tribal members, sometimes under the linguistic banner of “two spirit” people:

“Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few.

As the purpose of ‘Two Spirit’ is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa.”

Many of the colonial occupiers that traveled to North America were not only confused by sex and gender categories different from their own, but they used their lack of nuclear families and existence of trans and queer people as a sign of godlessness and weakness, as the same article continues below:

“The Jesuits and French explorers told stories of Native American men who had ‘Given to sin’ and ‘Hunting Women’ with wives, and later, the British returned to England with similar accounts. [portrait artist] George Catlin said that the Two Spirit tradition among Native Americans ‘Must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.’ In keeping with European prejudices held against Natives, the Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition.

In 1530, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing ‘soft’ Native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as women. Just as with all other aspects of the European regard for Indians, gender variance was not tolerated. Europeans and eventually Euro-Americans demanded all people conform to their prescribed two gender roles.

The majority of historical empires and colonizing powers across the world have been based on a combination of heterosexuality and a binary sex assigned at birth, partially because if you are a colonizing power that needs new people to be born in order to constantly grow your army and occupy your new territory, then creating shame and stigmatization around any sex that is non-procreative and punishing people for stepping outside of gender norms becomes a social adaptation that allows empires to grow through the assumption that all people must be straight and wanting to have children.

We are beyond a time when these desires need to be the sole focus of a society. When people fall in love and/or have sex with genitals where a child can be born, great! And also there are many more options existing in this world to create your own children with another person, or grow your family by adopting those who don’t have one.

When we create a system of strict gender policing and threats of violence, sexual assault, homelessness, and more for crossing those boundaries, it’s hard to say the choice to stay within them is a “natural” one.

To Infinity And Beyond

Our ever-expanding scientific, social, and cultural understanding of the world is pointing more and more to the system of a gender and sex binary being unable to describe the natural human variation that has always existed in gender and sex, and which will likely always exist, no matter how many times an internet comment is written that there are only two genders, only two sexes, and only one way to see the world.

Bodies exist on a spectrum just as our brains and identities do. There is no clear distinction between a man and a woman, no matter how many non-consensual genital surgeries we perform on intersex infants. In order to make it appear that there is a stark difference between these two, we enforce clothing standards, body hair standards, makeup expectations, and genital surgeries on intersex people to make the actual differences that do exist between those body types hyper-emphasized and seemingly impossible to mix.

However, it is possible to have XY chromosomes and a vulva. It is possible to have XX chromosomes and a penis. It is possible to be born with both a penis and a womb. It’s possible to be born with both a penis and a vagina. It is, therefore impossible for us to truly create a divide between “man” and “woman” as distinct categories, especially if we plan to use chromosomes and genitals to divide them. Nature doesn’t like cleanly divided categories.

There are certainly biological differences between bodies, and some of those differences can be traced back to different body parts, some of those differences may even lead to some differences in thought, experience, and interests, however we know better than to say that such a random cluster of similarities are so important that they are more important than allowing trans and queer people to live freely and safely as we feel the most comfortable in our bodies.

I believe we should consider alternatives like remaking our sex assignment system, and all of the connected documents and expectations, to be held by a gender neutral placeholder until the person can communicate their gender and sex clearly instead of creating years, and potentially decades, of collateral damage by assigning someone incorrectly at birth. We can no longer claim that having one set of genitals puts you automatically into any one social category of gender or biological sex.

Instead of letting our genitals define our gender, the more accurate thing to do is allow our gender to define our genitals. If you’re a cisgender man with a penis, no one is saying you shouldn’t identify that way or that it’s wrong, simply that we need to have a classification system that is granular enough to include cisgender men with penises, women with penises, and non-binary people with penises, vaginas, or both as well.

Despite being born with a penis, I am not a “woman with male genitalia” or a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, both of which are ways to acknowledge the existence of transgender women without actually validating our identity as women. As I said in my previous piece, trans liberation is very simple, as long as we hold this to be true: “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are whole and valid identities outside of our western colonialist sex and gender binary. Repeat this to yourself over and over. This is the root of all trans liberation.”

I am a woman, so I have a woman’s body. My penis is a woman’s penis. My voice is a woman’s deep voice. My body hair is a woman’s body hair. Sex assignment at birth based on a genital inspection is nothing more than a social construction that takes the complicated bodily experience of humans and reduces it into just two categories.

The gender binary and the physical sex binary are both made up and real at the same time, they are constructed by human beings, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important or impactful to everyone. Being a social construction means that we, as human beings, made this system and maintain this system. And if we made this system, it also means that we can remake this system to include the wide, natural variation of all human bodies and minds.

Sara is the host of the Queer Sex Ed Podcast. You can learn more about her work and listen to the show at www.queersexed.org or on any podcast app. You can also follow QSE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/QueerS3xEd and on Twitter @QSEpodcast. If this article has enriched your life, and you would like to support the continuing work of QSE to educate and create queer, intersectional spaces for conversations about sex and sexuality, please consider joining our Patreon community at www.patreon.com/QueerSexEd.

This piece pulls heavily from knowledge gained here, here, and here

Reprinted from Medium.com

Jan 10

The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism

Thomas Bevans book on transgenderismThis is a book review by Pat of the Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism  by Thomas (Dana) Bevin published originally on Crossdresser.com. Pat says, “The book, published in 2015, is a survey of recent research on transgender topics. The book covers too wide a range of information to squeeze into a single post and have it make any sense, so I just want to write about my take on a couple of “why” topics that we see come up on Crossdresser.com over and over again. (1) Why do transgender people exist? (2) Why do we do what we do?

The answers to 1 & 2 according to Bevan:
(1) Gender is biological. Scientific opinion is closing in on a two-factor explanation: genetics and epigenetics
(2) Biological ‘gender preference’ drives our choice of culturally-defined gender role.

Disclaimer: I’ve galloped through the information and simplified a lot of things based on my (probably iffy) understanding of what I read. I know we have real genetics professionals who come to this site who can feel free to correct me where I went off track. Please do.

In terms of nomenclature, anywhere you see me use the term “transgenderism” you can be pretty sure he used the term TSTG (transsexual/transgender.) It’s apparently the norm in his field. Since people on this site get cranky about new acronyms, I just replaced it with a more common word. He also uses the term HT where we use HRT. He explains that HRT is Replacing hormones that have gone missing, while Hormone Therapy is a treatment used in transgenderism. I agree with his reasoning and may start to use it in my own life, but I’m not going to try to convert the transgender community single-handedly.

Why do we exist?

We see a lot of origin stories on this forum with ideas from “exposure to environmental agents” to “because my Mom dressed me in my sister’s clothes when I was young,” to “I think it happened as I got older and my testosterone dropped.” All of which get a polite “no” from the research reported in this book.

The current thinking is that children are aware of “basic gender concepts” at 18 months and understand gender stereotypes by 2 or 3 years. If they are cisgender, they have a grip on their expected gender behavior by 3. Transgender children have the same learning milestones, but if they are not accepted as transgender, they learn to conform to the gender behavior that their parents expect of them to avoid rejection. (They become role-players.) If they understand their gender situation enough to verbalize it, they may voice it between 3 and 8 years (a common narrative of TS folks and the transgender kids we’re seeing in the news these days.)

Because children’s awareness of transgenderism seems to occur around 3 or 4, there are a limited number of things that could cause it. DNA, epigenetics and early childhood interaction are the factors that get the most focus.

Early Childhood Interaction

Early childhood interaction is basically dismissed as a cause of transgenderism. Scenarios that have specifically been ruled out: Emotional relationships with parents, prenatal sex preference of the mother, parental separation, parents/siblings dressing a child in wrong-gender clothing, parental abuse and violence (though it’s noted that TG children do get abused more, it appears the abuse is because they’re TG; they don’t become TG because of the abuse.) Studies are cited for all of these situations, if your favorite explanation of why you’re transgender shows up in this list, please refer to the book for details.

Genetics

There is a lengthy section summarizing results from twins studies from around the world and the upshot seems to be that transgenderism is “heritable” (i.e. can be passed along family lines,) and biological in nature with DNA as “a” (but not “the”) causal factor. The correlation is considered “strong.”

Finger length ratio between the index and ring finger (“2D:4D ratio,”) shows a high correlation to transgenderism in both MtF and FtM individuals. This ratio was already known to have a strong basis in genetics. The ratio is higher in MtF people relative to cis-males and lower in FtM people relative to cis-females. He says this with some confidence, however, the individual studies summarized in the book seemed to have conflicting results.

Another oddity present for both MtF and FtM is tooth diameter. In a cisgender population, male tooth diameters are larger, female tooth diameters are smaller. Amongst TS people tooth diameters follow the pattern for the person’s gender, not their sex. Again, tooth diameter has previously been linked to genetics.

A favorite meme of MtF transgenderism is that MtF people tend to have more male siblings. It turns out that result didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Male siblings hold for sexual orientation, but not for transgenderism. What did hold up was MtF people seem to have more maternal Aunts than Uncles. No theories on why.

A search for DNA markers is ongoing and some appear to have been found. It’s worth noting that most study is on transsexual (TS) individuals since they are considered the “most” transgender of all the people under the umbrella, but some/few also include folks who identify as TG, though what that means is vague (given that we can’t come up with a definition among ourselves, it’s not surprising.)

Bevan notes that markers have been found near the androgen receptor gene (AR) in male-to-female transgender folks and “a hormone metabolism gene” for female-to-male transgender folks. He cautions that a full genome scan has not yet been done and there probably are other genes involved. The multiple gene scenario has precedent — eye color in humans is the result of at least five genes at work, he says (despite what you may have learned in middle-school.)

There are two very interesting things about MtF transgenderism being associated with the Androgen Receptor gene — the first is that’s where an anomaly that causes Androgen Insesitivity Syndrome is located — AIS causes an intersex condition where female external genitals develop in people with XY (male) DNA. The author notes that if AIS only effected formation of genitals, then we’d expect the people to have a gender preference of male to match their DNA but in general they don’t — they’re very happy living as female. The other interesting thing is that anomalies on that gene also are associated with “non-right-handedness” — that is, the person is not necessarily left-handed, but tends to do some things with their left hand that a right-hander would normally do with their right. That particular trait has a strong correlation to MtF transgenderism. (There used to be an oft-retold story that there was a corelation between transgenderism and being left-handed. Now it may be that there’s a stronger corelation to being non-right-handed.)

He notes that the politics of research funding skews the research to MtF transgenderism because if the anomaly is related to the anomaly that causes AIS, then researchers can get money to study AIS, classified a disease, more easily than they can find money to study transgenderism (which is no longer considered a disease. It turns out *that* battle was a double-edged sword.)

It is not known yet if the DNA anomalies are strictly inherited (germ line,) are a mutation that happens spontaneously at conception (de novo mutations,) or occur because people have multiple DNA in a single body (mosaics.) But since a number of traits that are affected cannot be affected by purely psychological issues, there is strong evidence that transgenderism has a biological/genetic component. But it seems like there is another factor in play…

Epigenetics

Epigenetics are external factors that can change DNA or may change the way DNA expresses without changing the DNA itself. Different factors have been identified for study, but none have convincing results yet.

One popular epigenetic theory (which up to now had been my favorite) about MtF transgenderism is that it might be a response to an anomolous amount of estrogen (or failure to get sufficient amount of testosterone) at week 10 of gestation when neural pathways in the brain are being formed. The idea was that if there wasn’t sufficient testosterone to enable construction of the male neural pathways, female pathways would be created “by default.” However, research doesn’t bear this out: not only does neurological formation of sex-specific structures start before gonads are mature enough to produce sufficient testosterone, but a naturally-occurring condition, Kallman’s Syndrome, results in low testosterone, which should mean males who have it should largely be transgender, but they’re not. And further research on neural development has shown that the mechanism for creating the neural pathways is actually fueled by estrogen which is converted on site to testosterone as needed. So my favorite theory is on the floor.

The presence of DNA markers for transgenderism makes it less likely that epigenetics is the sole cause. However, there still might be an epigenetic factor…

Two-factor model

It could be that you need both an epigenetic event AND the specific DNA that makes you respond to it to create a transgender outcome. This is a “two-factor” model which seems to be leading the pack as an explanation at the moment. It would mean that without the DNA, the epigenetic event would not produce a transgender result. And without the epigenetic effect, DNA alone would not produce a transgender result. You’d expect a trait that requires both things to be true at the same time to be very rare, and it is.

So, no capital-A answers, but interesting advances in knowledge.

Why do we do what we do?

So if there’s a biological reason for transgenderism, how does that work? Isn’t gender a social construct? Here it gets complex. But actually it’s another two-factor model: Societies define gender roles, or what Bevan describes as “gender behavior categories.” We understand those categories at a very young age and in evaluating those, we are drawn to the one that best fits our biological “gender preference.” The idea is, that you are most comfortable/happy when doing the activities identified with the gender behavior category most closely aligned to your gender preference. You are less happy doing the activities of a gender behavior category that is not aligned with your preference (but the activities themsevles are, in fact, genderless. Girls can play with trucks, boys can play with dolls and nothing explodes.) So when the question is “why do I feel so right when I put on women’s clothes?” The answer is that doing that has nothing to do with the cloth or how it’s sewn together and everything to do with your recognition that this is a thing appropriate to your gender preference.

Long ago, I asked in a post if people would rather wear jeans bought in the women’s section of the store than the same jeans from the men’s section. And most of the answers (as I recall) were, yes, they would prefer them from the women’s section, though few knew why. Maybe now we do.

An interesting thing is that gender behavior categories are defined by cultures. In our culture, there are two (male and female.) In other cultures there are three, four or five. Cultures have created these categories throughout history and all over the planet. Asia and Africa have cultures to this day that have more than two roles. Tribes in the Pre-Columbian New World also had them. There is evidence of European cultures that once had such categories but somehow they (the categories) got lost.

Now, this is me speculating here, this is not in the book — those cultures that recognize the need for more than two categories certainly wouldn’t have developed them if there were no folks who fit into them, which I think could explain why we have the non-binary category of transgenderism in our community today. Our preferred category doesn’t exist, and so, like on a standardized exam, some people (TS) see a clearly correct answer. Some (non-binary/stable) pick the one that is most-nearly-correct. And, some (non-binary/fluid) oscillate back-and-forth between answers.

Anyway — the point is that science is marching on and we’re discovering new information that may or may not be welcome news. I know many people who hope for a day when you can take a “trans test” and settle the issue unambiguously. And I know folks who dread that day. And, of course, if new, verifyable evidence comes along that shows we’re just a biologically sound human variation, that has big implications in law, religion and sociology. No matter how you feel about it, it’s probably good to know where things stand and where they’re trending.

Again — keep in mind — this is my opinion of Bevan’s opinion of hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. If you’re interested look up the book. You might read the book and get an entirely different take-away. In which case, please come tell us about it.

I am not a woman; I don’t want to be a woman; I don’t want to be mistaken for a woman.
I am not a man; I don’t want to be a man; I don’t want to be mistaken for a man.
I am a transgender person. And I’m still figuring out what that means.

Follow Us