A friend on Twitter pointed out last night that I should probably make clear that biological factors aren’t the only possible causes of gender dysphoria. In fact, I would say based on my research (and many in the trans community would agree) that in most cases there are a variety of factors at play. It’s easy to speculate as to what those factors might be, but I’m very suspicious about this kind of speculation. When a radical feminist muses about the causes they usually find that it comes down to patriarchy and male entitlement. When a conservative Christian speculates, GD is usually caused by gay rights and feminism. It’s seems just a little over-convenient to me that the causes of gender dysphoria would just happen to be one’s personal pet bugaboos.
I’ve been researching this fairly intensively for several years and I’ll readily admit that I can’t be sure about causation. Below, however, are twelve possible causal factors that I’ve seen actual on-the-ground evidence for.
Vocabulary – This isn’t necessarily a cause of dysphoria as such, but I think it’s probably the most relevant factor in bringing about the “explosion” of gender dysphoria that some people are observing. My husband likens it to seeing mushrooms in a forest. If the average person goes walking through the woods they will probably see few, if any mushrooms. But buy yourself a good mushroom guide that shows the various different species in your locale, and suddenly you find that they’re everywhere. Up until very recently, we didn’t have much vocabulary for talking about transgender experience. It’s not necessarily that people experienced it less, but rather that they were more likely to suffer in secret. Having good ways for people to talk about, share and describe what they’re going through makes trans lives more visible.
Neurology – I talked about this yesterday, and one of my commenters – a mother with a trans child – helpfully supplied a little more detail: “there are 20+ sex dimorphic brain sites known to develop along a male-female spectrum. They tend to match a person’s identify, not birth assignment. As do certain skeletal system attributes and endocrine receptors, such as those that co-regulate serotonin.” Some people have argued that brain plasticity may cause trans people’s neurology to develop in sex-atypical ways after birth, and it’s possible that that’s true, but it seems highly unlikely in the case of trans children who often start to exhibit gender dysphoria as early as four or five years old.
Hormones – I mentioned the role that hormones seem to play in my own experience of dysphoria, and I’ve known other people who have actually been diagnosed with unusually high levels of sex-atypical hormones that are produced naturally by their bodies.
Patriarchy – This I’m including because I’ve heard if from several detransitioning women (that is, women with gender dysphoria who started on testosterone supplements and lived for a time as men but who decided to stop or cut back on hormones and to identify as women again). Their argument is basically that they experience gender trauma as a result of living in a society that consistently objectifies and sexualizes women’s bodies, and that restricts feminine expression in accordance with the needs of a male-dominated culture. Some (but not all) of these women report histories of male violence, abuse or rape. Since male oppression of women is a real thing, and injustice does tend to cause actual harm to its victims, I’m not inclined to dismiss their explanation of their experience.
Chromosomes – In some cases people with diagnosable chromosomal abnormalities (like androgen insensitivity) will identify as trans, especially if the gender that they were assigned at birth does not correspond to their felt or experienced gender. It’s possible that there are other chromosomal conditions that we don’t know about yet because our understanding of the human genome is still a work in progress.
Parental Rejection – This is an extremely rare one, but it needs to be acknowledged. There do appear to be occasional situations where a parent really wants a child of one sex, has a child of the other sex, and then either rejects the child or tries to deliberately raise them as the desired gender. Such parents suffer from a severe mental illness. However, most parents of trans kids do not.
Autism – Women with aspergers and other autism spectrum conditions often report that they find it easier to interact with males, and to fit in in male society. Some of the common symptoms of autism (lack of social awareness, a tendency towards more logical forms or abstracted forms of thought) may be experienced as “masculine.” Autistic people are also often asexual and may have a complicated relationship with their bodies. On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve found that gender-atypical presentations seem to be more common with autistic friends than among neurotypical folks.
Rigid Gender Roles – Trans people often report that their feelings of gender dysphoria intensify when they are in situations where overly rigid or arbitrary gender roles are strongly enforced. When this happens in a person’s formative years it may be especially damaging. Basically, if you tell a boy with an artistic temperment that he’s not a “real man” unless he plays rough and tumble sports, he’s probably going to internalize that to a certain extent. If you tell a gender atypical girl that being aggressive, logical or athletic is “masculine” she might come to feel that being masculine is the only way to be herself.
Sexual Abuse – Statistically, this is just a common factor in the histories of many trans women and some trans men. A Jungian friend suggested that people whose egos have been severely damaged may rely on other aspects of the personality to fill the ego’s role, and that in cases where the damage is sexual they might end up identifying with their anima/animus. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s also possible that trans kids are just more susceptible to abuse because predators will tend to gravitate towards people who are socially isolated or vulnerable.
Shell-Shock – Trans people, especially trans women, are much more likely to have seen military service than cisgender folks. Most trans women say that they joined the army as a last ditch attempt to prove their masculinity, and that sounds credible enough. On the other hand, it’s possible that war-time trauma (and especially being traumatized within a hyper-masculine environment) can cause damage to a person’s masculine identity, especially if that identity was already insecure.
Autogynophilia – Another rare one, but I do think it exists. Most of the time when I talk to a trans person their gender identity seems to be part of a complete and multi-dimensional personality. Every so often, though, I encounter someone who really does seem to be an overly-sexualized male with a feminization fetish. As many trans people have pointed out, most people with this condition will just enact their fetish in the bedroom and will have no desire to identify as female in public – in the same way that most people with a superhero fetish don’t want to be identified a Batman at work. However, there do seem to be extremely rare cases (especially with people who work in the sex industry) where this fetish takes over a person’s entire life. I wish to stress again that this is a minority: most trans people do not seem to be autogynophiliacs, and many are asexual.
The Unknown – The most important thing, I think, is to recognize that when it comes right down to it we don’t know what causes gender dysphoria or what makes a person trans. A lot of harm can been done by jumping to conclusions, engaging in hasty generalizations, and conflating correlation with causation. The list that I’ve provided above is by no means exhaustive, and it’s really important to acknowledge that for most people the development of a trans identity is going to involve a number of interlocking factors. At the end of the day, we don’t know. Even the individual him or herself usually doesn’t know. As I mentioned yesterday, I went through a number of different theories trying to explain the sudden increase in my own dysphoria several years ago – but until I got pregnant again, it didn’t occur to me that the cause might be partially hormonal.
The bottom line is that our obligation to love and support trans people and folks with gender dysphoria must include an acknowledgement that we don’t know what causes these conditions, and that we don’t have a “cure” for them. If we’re going to theorize, we should try to do so in a way that respects trans people’s actual lives and experiences and that reflects a willingness to listen and to learn from those who are dealing with this from day to day.
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