Tumblr question: Have you seen studies that show that trans brains are different from other people’s brains and are more similar to the gender that they identify as? I’ve seen some (only in regard to male/female genders) and am curious of your opinion on them.

I have seen some of those studies. There are also studies showing just the opposite (that there is no such thing as a male/female brain). There have ALWAYS been women (and men) who embody characteristics traditionally considered to belong to the opposite sex, and in my view we should celebrate those outliers rather than pathologizing them.  But let’s assume there is some validity to the studies you mention. For me, the existential question is this: Which is the more compassionate, less risky, and more inclusive response: (1.) to DEconstruct gender (as we Second Wave feminists started to do) and encourage people to express themselves in (more conventionally understood) “masculine” or “feminine” ways as they choose, while accepting the bodies they actually are, or (2.) to leap to the conclusion that the one and only solution to the problem of “feeling” like the opposite sex is to attack it with a surgeon’s scalpel and steroids, which can cause serious health problems that must be monitored and managed? Just because the medical profession CAN create a facsimile of a male from a female body, should it? For me, the choice is clear (except in a few rare cases, primarily intersex people).

I fully understand WHY a person feels they need to change their body to match their mind, but the very idea that there is such a thing as a male or female brain is really just that—an idea. If a female dog behaves more like a male dog, does the female dog think about acquiring a penis? We can’t know, and of course, we aren’t dogs, but we ARE animals, exquisite products of evolution. I resonate with the poet Mary Oliver’s advice: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

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4 thoughts on “

  1. The brain is a complex and very plastic organ. There are some general differences that distinguish the brains of males from those of females, but males who live as transwomen still have “male brains.” Google this article by a reputable brain institute: Cereb Cortex. 2011 Nov ;21(11):2525-33. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr032. Epub 2011 Apr 5 .

    However, the brain is a very plastic structure, and the activities of an individual will change some structures in the brain over time. The studies claiming “female brains” in males who present as transwomen, and “male brains” in females who present as transmen, are examining these areas of plasticity; these are not inherent differences. Just as some activities are more typically engaged in by one sex or another, certain characteristics of these structures will more typically be found in one sex or another. A male who spends a lot of time thinking about fashion and makeup will have some microscopic brain characteristics similar to females who spend a lot of time thinking about fashion and makeup, and a female who spends a lot of time fixing cars will show some characteristics similar to a male who spends a lot of time in similar pursuits. This does not mean that the man who likes makeup has a “female” brain or the woman who fixes cars has a “male” brain. These are differences in the plastic areas of the brain after years of activity, not the areas we believe to be inborn.

    Furthermore, the brains of transwomen often also show hyper-male areas (structures with measurements in the opposite direction of females). This is consistent with my experience of many transwomen whose behaviors toward females seem over-the-top male-typical in the realm of demanding agreement and compliance from females. These hyper-male areas could also just be poorly understood abnormalities which might eventually provide more insights into treatments.

    There are also, unsurprisingly, areas not associated with sex differences that show abnormalities in adult males who present as transwomen and are consistent with other disorders which involve self-perception, such as anorexia and schizophrenia. This may mean that new and more effective treatments for transgender individuals may be possible which would help people be more comfortable with the body in which they were born.

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