Raiders of the Lost Etiology


One of the rather fun things about being trans is that you live in a world where doctors poke and prod you hoping to find deep answers about why you exist- deep, award-winning, and powerful answers that will at last enable them to explain what the hell is up with us; because it’s not like we’re authorities on our own lives or anything.

To set the snark aside, I’m of course talking about the endless quest to find an etiology- or medical explanation of origin- for trans existence, a recent example of which can be found here. It is a particularly transfixing matter that seems to occupy the place of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth in the eyes of our medical masters. A Lost Ark of the Covenant with which to at last claim final dominion over us. The ultimate Holy Grail being a “trans test” whereby folks in white coats will be able to objectively prove that someone is trans.

Yet like all the foregoing it is a myth, a legend. There is not likely to be any one coherent, purely biological/neurological explanation for our existence. The drive to research the matter is not inherently evil, mind, but the resources being dedicated to it come into question when studies of this sort appear to be to the exclusion of more directly beneficial research, like longitudinal studies on the long-term effects of hormone treatment on trans people.

Recent studies have been justified by asserting that they will benefit young trans people with early identification of trans-ness. But let us be as honest and realistic as possible for a moment, shall we? What would make things easier on young trans kids is not an MRI scan or some kind of trans test. It would be a world where having a trans child would not be a terrible thing, where bullying of children who defied gender norms would be frowned upon and actively discouraged, where parents raised their children to accept a multitude of gendered possibilities. A “trans test” would not even be a stopgap measure to help young trans people.

When I first came out to my father I naively waved studies in his face that spoke of this thing called “Gender Identity Disorder.” But his first reaction to me was not to say that my gender was valid. It was to say that since it was a ‘disorder’ there must be a ‘cure’- you know, one to make me into a boy again, like he wanted.

Transgender does not need a medical etiology in order to be accepted morally. The entire issue is a massive red herring that deflects a necessary moral and philosophical argument into whether or not we objectively exist by the standards of a game we are rigged to lose. We are already on the backfoot because we live in a world where our voices do not count, we merely concede more ground when we suggest that narrow, incomplete studies that reveal- at best- a small piece of the puzzle should speak for us.

The critical moral argument that we must never lose sight of is whether it is okay to discriminate against someone because there isn’t a biological explanation for their existence. For most any situation, the answer is a resounding “no” among decent people. We do not say that people of faith bring discrimination upon themselves because they ‘chose’ to be a part of a given religion, and when people do say this, they are rightly derided for being assholes. We do not get sidetracked into asinine arguments about how some people are born Jewish and have Jew brains and, y’know, they just can’t help it and that’s why we should be ‘tolerant.’

No, actually. You should avoid bigotry because it’s simply the right thing to do.

On top of everything else, this vexatious quest betrays another deeply rooted assumption about gender in our society that plainly reveals our position as The Other. Where are the studies that inquire why cis people are cis? Or why heterosexual people are het? Because this is the presumed, normal default of society it goes unmarked and unquestioned (although scientific forays into “male” and “female” brains are nothing new and I will revisit this shortly). Whatever the intentions of these scientists, some of whom I will even be generous enough to admit may want to do the right thing by trans folk, they are participating in a discourse that holds that we are invalid until proven to have a Cause that can be established scientifically and thus set in stone.

The reason that this is dangerous and more than simply a fool’s errand is nicely illustrated by one of the trans community’s leading scientific antagonists, Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey. The attendant quest to trans etiology is, of course, the crusade to find a ‘gay gene.’ Bailey has argued that if such knowledge is used to find and abort ‘gay foetuses’ it would be morally acceptable and a matter of “parental rights.” What would my father have done with me had a doctor told him I was trans while I was still in the womb? That grim scenario aside, however, it is also absurd simply because we have no way of pinning down a single neurological, genetic, or other physiological ‘sign’ of queerness and/or trans-ness. The number of false positives would be astonishing, I expect.

At the heart of this issue, however, is that simple question: do we choose to be trans or not? My answer is: the question is bollocks and so is your face. It is an overly simplistic binary question that does not account for the following realities:

  • Social construction of gender shaping how we all- cis and trans- learn about what is feminine, masculine, etc.
  • The fact that biological inclinations will differ from person to person and perhaps take wildly different forms in two trans people.
  • The agency of a trans person who shapes various aspects of their gender consciously, even if the “decision” to be trans, full stop, was not fully theirs. Some of us have seemingly natural preferences for things, some of us have red lines we will not cross, and some of us change things about ourselves all the time. Is there an etiology that can account for the wild number of variables in that equation? Unlikely.
  • The fact that there are several million different ways to be a man or a woman. Some trans women are very feminine, others are less so, others are outright butches. I myself am somewhat femme but lean heavily towards the Hillary Clinton end of the spectrum. Is there an etiology for that level of specificity about these things that comprise my gender and the genders of countless trans folk?

What it comes down to is that ‘research’ on trans origins is basically asking you to see only two types of people in the world: Men and Women. You are very subtly and tacitly asked to see these groups as wildly different from one another, but also to see men as being all exactly the same and women as being all exactly the same, and that “gender” only means your body. When you take a long step back from that to behold the riotous cacophony of beautiful gendered diversity in our world, the findings of these small scale studies on trans etiology begin to seem a lot less far reaching than they otherwise might.

What’s more, we are not going to be loved by people who presently hate us if, suddenly, a study came out tomorrow with The Ultimate Biological Explanation for Transness. The murders would not stop, the discrimination would not stop, the hate would not stop, the cultural exclusion and medical colonisation would not stop. We would be filed in a few cis scientists’ “Hmm, that’s interesting” cabinet and locked away while the beat goes murderously on. Proving ourselves biologically is not salvation, it’s a titanic straw man.

I know this: my growth into womanhood was necessitated by a powerful understanding that if I did not come out, death- literal or waking- awaited me. I was being compelled powerfully to live a lie not of my choosing. Accepting myself as a woman, as a person of trans experience, has had profoundly positive effects on my life. It would be a colossal misreading of my difficult and painful experience to say that I “woke up one day and decided to be trans” as some transphobes might have it. But that is not the only alternative to saying that I was ineluctably and unproblematically “born this way” with some purely biological cause that was not in some way socially and personally mediated.

I say this because this is true of absolutely everybody. Not just trans people. That is one of the critical distinctions to understand here that separates what I’m saying from the rest of the pack. Everyone’s gender is constructed, no one is born a man or a woman. The subtle implication of a lot of trans research is that there are male brains and female brains when reality proves to be far, far more confounding on that score than not. When we think we’ve found the key to gendered brain difference, we get tripped up. “Women have a bigger corpus callosum than men! Wait, no do they don’t. Wait, yes they do! Sometimes! Behold my small data set!” That particular merry-go-round was critiqued with true scientific precision by biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling in her 2000 book Sexing the Body, which also provides a good deal of data to buttress my points here more generally.

I do not have a female brain so much as I have a Quinnae brain, a lovely grey mattered lump of brainy loveliness shaped by my unique experiences, learning, and an ongoing dynamic life that alters those meandering curves with each passing day. There may be something biological that made my coming out all but inevitable, but a good deal of the shape my womanhood took had nothing to do with the brain I had when my mum bore me.

I should not need a certificate, or a study to tell people that I am who I say I am in terms of my gender. Transphobic people will not stop once an etiology is discovered. Let me make something abundantly clear:

The search for biological explanations is perfectly fine in and of itself. It is not fine for that to act as a substitute for real moral and political discussion. This research is an academic curiosity. It must never be the fulcrum upon which our rights and dignity as human beings rest.

In any moral, just world, the question of our humanity would be settled by the mere reality of our humanity, our existence as human beings. Whatever we “choose” or “don’t choose” is irrelevant to the moral and political questions about our rights. Such debates are really slam dunk arguments that get mired in false concern about scientific relevance that really has no bearing on how most people live their lives. For me, I have found who I am. Nothing will dissuade me from that. I do not, personally, care about the nature versus nurture question apropos which made me trans. If there is an answer it is “both/and with a lot of beautifully messy complications.”

But I am who I am, and I thankfully never needed a peer-reviewed study to tell me so.


Author/Editor/Dance-master Update: When I took a month off this Winter I thought I’d have plenty of time to blog and pick up the pace. But I forgot that being on holiday is fucking awesome and not terribly conducive to being productive. For those that appreciate regular updates here, I apologise for the massive orgy of RPG gaming, roleplaying, and assorted goofing off that came to define my January. I shall now resume accidentally destroying the world, we apologise for any inconvenience.