Gender Identity and the Brain
Over the summer, I struggled with gender identity issues—though I hate to describe it that way, both because it sounds like I’m pathologizing myself and because it felt less like a “struggle” and more like a long-needed exploration of some aspects of my identity that I’d heretofore neglected or perhaps repressed. I talk to some friends, did some research, and eventually “came out”—if that’s what it was—to a few people. Towards the end of the summer, I felt fairly certain that I wanted to be—would be happier as—a woman.
One night, a friend from out of town visited me, and we got into a pretty heated argument about gender identity. At the center of this argument was a simple question that he posed to me: how was it possible that I “felt like” a woman?
I wasn’t sure how to answer. The truth was, I didn’t “feel like” a woman. For me, that kind of a statement seemed to bring with it a host of theoretical assumptions I wasn’t sure I felt comfortable making. What does it mean to “feel like” a person with a particular gender? Do most men “feel like” men? Do most women “feel like” women? Are these even meaningful questions? What does it mean, after all, to “feel like” anything? In this paper, I hope to take a neurobiological and philosophical approach to these and other related questions.
I want to briefly consider whether what seems to be the currently predominant model of transsexual identity—colloquially, the idea of being “born in the wrong body”1—makes sense from the perspectives of neuroscience and feminist theory.
I’d like to start with an overview of neurological gender differences—of both the differences themselves and the difficulty of interpreting them. If transsexual people truly are “born in the wrong bodies,” it seems reasonable to turn to the brain/mind as the locus of that born-in-the-wrong-body feeling.
As Anne Fausto-Sterling explains in her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, scientists have done extensive research on brain differences between men and women. However, she argues, these differences are often blown out of proportion by the popular media.
Discussing the average morphological differences between the male and female corpus callosum, for example, she writes, “Callosal narratives become colossal, linking the underrepresentation of women in science with hormones, patterns of cognition, how best to educate boys and girls, homosexuality, left versus righthandedness, and women’s intuition."2 Crucially, she ties such narratives to past studies of the corpus callosum, which, since the early 20th century, have been used to “explain” differences in intelligence between Caucasians and people of color, for example. Such “explanations” often resulted from the application of physical measurements about the size and structure of the corpus callosum to abstract ideas about mental function.
Today, Faust-Sterling suggests, the process is not much different. Every attempt to measure the corpus callosum is difficult, she writes, as “the ‘real’ corpus callosum ... is a structure that is difficult to separate from the rest of the brain, and so complex in its irregular three dimensions as to be unmeasurable.”3 What I draw from this statement is the fact that it is impossible to make any kind of “objective” evaluation of brain structure, for even the simplest steps necessarily involve bracketing certain parts of the brain—including naming and defining them as separate structures—and ignoring others. “The neuroscientist who wants to study the [corpus callosum] must first tame it—turn it into a tractable, observable, discrete laboratory object,”4 Fausto-Sterling writes.
My take on all this is that most “observations” of differences in brain structure in fact involve a number of arbitrary decisions, making them difficult to interpret. A crucial example of this state of affairs is the jump from physical measurement to evaluation of mental capacity, a jump that invokes what Donna Haraway calls “the technoscientific body”5—using physical data as an alibi to justify or explain far more complicated sociocultural phenomena. Furthermore, as we’ve discussed in class, these comparisons are always descriptive and never prescriptive—they cannot predict how any particular person’s brain will look.
There are some gender differences in mental function that seem inarguably biological in basis. As Simon Baron-Cohen explains, for example, one-day-old male babies prefer to look at mechanical mobiles (which have predictable laws of motion) than faces (which do not), whereas one-day-old female babies prefer the opposite.6 In older children, such distinctions only increase. However, are these really the distinctions on which we want to rely as we try to evaluate whether there is a biologically based, early-onset gender identity? Certainly, those who identify as a gender other than their physical sex do not mention a preference for mechanical models or for faces, or a particular aptitude for rotating three-dimensional objects in their heads (a task at which men seem outperform women).
Such data can hardly account for the idea that there is a particular feeling of “being a man” or “being a woman.” The descriptive rather than prescriptive nature of the data further calls into question the legitimacy of a model of transsexual identity that would describe a female-identified male, for example, as a woman in a man’s body: as Ray Blanchard argues, that model assumes that there is a single kind of woman and a single kind of man, neurologically speaking—something that by no means is the case.7 Again, data on gendered brain differences only presents an average portrait, and cannot possibly represent the mental diversity that exists from man to man or woman to woman.
Overall, it seems clear, then, that there is little scientific basis for the “born in the wrong body” model of transsexual identity. We should not reject it completely, however, for at the very least, as a narrative, it provides structure and meaning to many transgendered people's lives as they navigate their own gender identities. But its acceptance by the medical community is troubling, as it likely forces some transsexual people to define their lives in terms of an idea they may not personally accept in order to receive hormones or surgery or other medical treatments.
Finally, the model appears to make little sense from a feminist perspective. By reinscribing the idea of transgressing or transversing gender within a traditional gender binary—man in a woman’s body, woman in a man’s body—it contradicts goals shared by many transgendered and transsexual people: to live their lives as they desire, free of the gender binary.
As for me, I initially found the phrase “born in the wrong body” deeply troubling. I had difficulty seeing myself in that way, and so I began to doubt my feelings. I started trolling my past, searching for hints at my future gender dysphoria that would more closely align me with what seemed to be the story that everyone was telling about transsexual identity. I imagine that this process is similar to the one transsexual people may face as they contemplate reaching out to the medical establishment for hormone prescriptions or approval for genital reassignment surgery.
I eventually decided I didn’t want to take such drastic action myself. No matter how much I’ve doubted my gender identity, I’ve never felt depressed or even particularly unhappy about it. I think my struggle was illuminating and productive, as it provided me with firsthand experience of something I'd long believed: that the gender categories to which we so strongly cling are in fact little more than the result of years of socialization. Undoing at least some of that socialization can have only positive benefits for societal gender relations, not to mention personal wellbeing.
1 Quoted in Alissa Quart, “When Girls Will Be Boys,” The New York Times, 16 March 2008, http://nytimes.com/2008/03/16/magazine/16students-t.html.
2 Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 119.
3 Fausto-Sterling, 120.
4 Fausto-Sterling, 120-121.
5 Quoted in Fausto-Sterling, 119.
6 Simon Baron-Cohen, “Why So Few Women in Math and Science?,” The Science on Women and Science (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2009), 18.
7 Ray Blanchard, “Deconstructing the feminine essence narrative,” Arch Sex Behav 37.3 (June 2008), 434.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. “Why So Few Women in Math and Science?” The Science on Women and Science. Ed. Christina Hoff Sommers. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2009: 7-21.
Blanchard, Ray. “Deconstructing the feminine essence narrative.” Arch Sex Behav 37.3 (June 2008): 434-438.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Quart, Alissa. “When Girls Will Be Boys.” The New York Times. 16 March 2008.