Does This Put The Transgender Debate to Rest?

Groundbreaking study shows that transgender people’s brains are wired like those of gender they identify with.

Science is a powerful ideology and the most reliable paradigm we have for accurately describing reality. Having a veracious description of the universe is important if one is attempting to change it in predictable and beneficial ways. Unsurprisingly though, given that humans are not entirely rational animals, for every scientific breakthrough that is made, there are people who reject that reality and substitute their own.

Often touted as “free thinking”, rejecting science in favour of some other path to knowledge should be acknowledged as a flagrant, insidious assault on reason. This is a problem transcending political distinctions, although maquisards on both sides of politics are attempting to paint their opponents as the sole perpetrators. The Left accuses the Right of anti-scientific sentiment when the Right challenges the validity of human-caused climate change, and rightly so. But the Right accuses the Left of failing to think scientifically when the Left are found uncritically adopting critical gender theory.

Whatever your political bent, it is clear that we are shamefully prone to comporting our facts to suit our ideological predispositions. Into this maelstrom of motivated reasoning, a recent study on children and adolescents with gender dysphoria has been injected.

The 2017 study, led by Julie Bakker, PhD, and conducted at VU University in the Netherlands, examined the neurological activity of 160 young transgender people (those who have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex) – both children and adolescents – using magnetic resonance imaging. The MRI was used to observe the reaction of the subjects’ brains to a pheromone known to elicit a gender-specific response. The study found that cisgender boys (those whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth) and natal girls who identified as male exhibited similar brain activity. This was replicated in the inverse group: cisgender girls and natal boys who identify as female.

The brain activity and structure of gender dysphoria patients resembled that of their identified gender CREDIT: ALAMY

This is not an entirely revelatory finding. Dr Bakker was part of a team that published a study in 2016 in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience examining sex differences in the brain activation patterns of young transgender people. The study  used functional MRI to examine how 39 prepubertal and 41 adolescent boys and girls with gender dysphoria responded to androstadienone, an odorous steroid with pheromonelike properties that is known to cause a different response in the hypothalamus of men versus women. They found that the adolescent boys and girls with gender dysphoria responded much like peers of their experienced gender.

Astute readers will realise that this isn’t quite the same as saying that the neural activity of girls with gender dysphoria is correlated with that of cisgender boys, so the study doesn’t directly corroborate Dr Bakker’s later work. Further circumspection is warranted, considering the 2 studies had a combined sample size of 220. However, when read in conjunction, the two studies tentatively point to similarities between cisgender people and their opposite-sex, gender dysphoric counterparts.

The two studies tentatively point to similarities between cisgender people and their opposite-sex, gender dysphoric counterparts.

I do not want to be construed as someone who denies the validity of gender dysphoria. The science is strongly in favour of gender dysphoria being a real and measurable condition. We may still have terrain to traverse before it no longer merits a mention in conversation, but we should not allow our desire for such a characteristic to prevent us from exploring the underlying causes and features of the condition, as well as prospective treatments. While much valuable scientific work is being done and remains to be done, this seems to go unacknowledged by those who advocate most stridently for the transgender movement.

I am not the first to notice the contradiction in thinking of many activists. Despite all his philosophical and ideological failings, British commentator, writer and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos hit on a key hypocrisy undergirding the whole project by pointing out that advocates were asking us to simultaneously agree that gender is purely a social construct with no biological constraints and that it is possible to be born with the wrong brain and suffer from gender dysphoria. Conveniently for most activists, their reasoning seems to incorporate these two ideas without reconciling them. The obvious conclusion to draw is that gender dysphoria is a real condition and gender expression has biological underpinnings.

Contemporary debates concerning transgender people focus on whether gender is purely a social construct or whether gender has biological constraints

In his book The Gene: An Intimate History, physician and oncologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee, says:

“It is now clear that genes are vastly more influential than virtually any other force in shaping sex identity and gender identity—although in limited circumstances a few attributes of gender can be learned through cultural, social, and hormonal reprogramming.”

Even if opponents take umbrage at that statement, upon closer inspection, they can only do so as a matter of degree. What else could be the case? Could gender and gender expression be a wholly socially and culturally confected con? No, not even in a purely theoretical sense. Are we to believe that culture and society simply apperated?

It is obvious that gender and gender expression developed from a complex calculus of the environment, humans’ interactions with it, and our interactions with each other. Culture and society are, at least in part, products of our biology. It logically follows therefore that gender expression must be substantially biologically determined, too, which is confirmed by the very research that serves to validate the similarities between cisgender children and their self-identified transgender counterparts. Gender dysphoria is a biological condition and, as such, must be treated and researched with the same cogency and respect for evidence as any other scientific endeavour.

Gender dysphoria is a biological condition and, as such, must be treated and researched with the same cogency and respect for evidence as any other scientific endeavour

Increasing the opacity of the subject further is the fact that there are different types of gender dysphoria, which is not something most people know and is definitely not something that activists point out. I do not propose to canvas these presently (you can refer to this excellent blog by Michael Bailey, PhD for a full dissection), but the fact that there is significant variation in the types of gender dysphoria that occur should give you pause, if only for the reason that they can and should be treated differently.

This cuts against the one-size-fits-all narrative that we receive from the usual suspects in the media. Testosterone injections, a double mastectomy, and genital surgery are life-changing events that should not be undertaken lightly. But how can they be given any gravity if the mere questioning of them is met with a hail of abuse and vitriol? The fact is there are children whose parents think they are transgender but turn out to be cis; and there are adolescents who think they are trans, but the passage of time reveals a transient, common, and natural anxiety over pubescent biological and psychological change. The phenomenon of de-transitioning is real and must be taken into account when considering permanent changes to one’s body and people who point this out aren’t bigoted. When such an enormous change is involved, measured reflection and counselling are imperatives.

The only answer to the complex, multi-faceted issue of gender dysphoria that must at all costs and without apology be resisted is the one that advocates for wide-ranging, invasive, and permanent alteration to the bodies of young, especially adolescent, transgender people. There is a grotesque asymmetry between the research that has been conducted on the effects of gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy, and the certainty with which these solutions are proffered by certain sections of the community. Their conviction is even more lamentable when the fact of de-transitioning is accounted for. The least society can do for transgender people is advocate for evidence-based interventions, not an ideologically motivated travesty.

Tom Adamson

Writer and lawyer based in Australia. Areas of interest include politics, philosophy and science.

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Tom Adamson

One thought on “Does This Put The Transgender Debate to Rest?

  • July 2, 2018 at 4:29 am

    A touchy topic but you dissect it fairly and present a reasonable argument of better understanding before rushing to conclusions that might irreversibly affect personal livelihoods


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