Babies are born all over the world every second of every minute of everyday and from that moment almost all cultures stick the baby into one of two pigeon holes – Male or Female?
From that day on, the way we are parented, schooled, treated by peers, work colleagues, employment opportunities, were we shop, what we buy, what items are sold to us, even how we are treated often in law, is determined by what was seen between our legs the very moment we where born. That moment of inspection determined so much of our lives, and for some can cause so much pain in so many ways. For instance for those people in the UK who identify as female, the very is fact is you could be part or the statistic that states – “A woman is raped every 9 minutes in Britain” (Source: http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk). Don’t think you get off lightly if you identify as male – statistics show that, Men are nearly three times more likely to take their own life than women. In men under 35, suicide is the second most common cause of death in England and Wales. (Source: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/suicide/Pages/Malesuicide.aspx)
Note that I used the words ‘identify as’, because although the day we where born we where all squashed into a binary set of pigeon holes, that forced categorisation alone doesn’t simply determine the gender you end up identifying as. There’s much more to gender identity than meets the eye.
The term gender slowly began to make its way into scientific usage in the 1960’s, only recently in the last 20+ years has it become a popular term that is known to be different from the term ‘sex’
The current easy way to understand the difference between gender and sex is –
- Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs.
- Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.
But! It isn’t always as simple as that. The above is the current medical science definition of gender and sex, but medical science is primarily the study of humans from the outside it doesn’t take into consideration what is actually going on in the brain from a neurological perspective. Neuroscience does exactly this and this new form of science uses state of the art technology to try and understand what exactly happens in the brain.
For natal born Two Spirit/Transgender people the need to understand what defines gender is an important part of gaining true scientific and sociological acceptance and understanding. The early research studies into how our brains gender works seem to show that gender and sex is far more than the above definition.
In 2004 a study was conducted in Amsterdam by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience.
By staining the nuclei of the hypothalamus, scientists were able to determine that ‘male-to-female transsexuals’, had the same size and number of neurons as females considered to be ‘normal’. Further more they determined that this similarity was present prior to the administration of estrogen based hormones. The researchers reported that these findings point towards an understanding that gender identity is part of a complex network involved in various aspect of the hypothalamic nuclei.
Another study, the largest study of ‘transsexualism’ to date, was conducted on 122 male-to-female ‘transsexuals’ that found there are three genes known to be associated with sex development: androgen receptor, the estrogen receptor, and an enzyme which converts testosterone to estrogen.
In the subjects they found that the androgen receptor was longer than that of typically genetic males which causes a weak testosterone signal. This weak signal can have integral effect on gender development in the womb. It’s important to understand that in the early stages of gestation in the womb, prior to gender and sex development we are all described by medical science as asexual, in fact some say female. It is only at a specific point in gestation that gender and sex development occurs.
Lauren Hare from Henry’s Institute of Medical Research, who headed the study says this
“We think that these genetic differences might reduce testosterone action and under masculinize the brain during foetal development “
The co-author Professor Vincent Harley added:
“There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support that a biological basis of how gender identity develops.” (Hare. 2008)
Another research study shows that the corpus callosum, which is the portion of the brain that connects and facilitates communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is opposite shaped to that of person born with the same genitalia and considered ‘normal’ in terms of sex. This study was done through the use of MRIs on ‘normal’ males, ‘normal’ female and transsexuals of both kind. This evidence further supports the existence of a bio-psychological sex along side the physiological sex we are given the day we are born.
So people are born with non specific genitalia and described as hermaphrodite, others are tested for chromosomal irregularities such as those found in people with Klinefelter’s syndrome, Turner syndrome to name but two. As neuroscience begins to discover how our brain works and how gender variance manifests we slowly begin to understand scientifically what Two Spirit and Gender Variant people in general have known innately all their lives – that gender isn’t just binary, its linear. Indeed it’s a series of linear scales across many levels, from physiology, social psychology and neurological to name but a few.
Now, I am no scientist but this little insight in to scientific understanding supports what I personally have felt for many years – who we are is individual to us. Just as no snow flake is the same, we are all different in so many ways. It isn’t as easy as pigeon holing people in to tight categories, yes it’s important to identify what we see at birth but it’s far more important to embrace the many aspects of gender in us all. Maybe if we did men wouldn’t commit rape as much and equally would stop killing themselves too. Maybe if men embraced gender diversity more, understood and where truthful about who they are, instead of sitting in the tight constraints of 21st Century conformity they would be freer and live life, more contented and who knows longer. Maybe ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘Two Spirit’ people a like need to work to help each other to understand … what gender are we really and why, more over, does it really matter? As long as we appreciate each other as individuals.