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On Brains and Transgender Rights (2005)

On Brains and Transgender Rights (2005)

©2005, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2006, Summer). On brains and transgender rights. Transgender Tapestry, 108, p. 9.






On Brains and Transgender Rights

Dallas Denny


 Ten years ago marked a turning point in transgender activism. Most activists chose to abandon attempts to justify gender-variant behavior on grounds that there is something wrong with us, and to fight for our rights based on the assertion that transgendered people are not defective in any way. The political gains that have resulted have been remarkable. After decades of struggle that resulted in little impact on the political landscape, today fully one-third of Americans are either protected in some degree from discrimination, shielded by hate crime laws, or both.

For decades, transgender activists had sought our rights based on presumptions of deviance—to little avail. It was only when we divorced ourselves from our supposed pathology, only when we changed the ways we looked at ourselves and spoke about ourselves—only when we rid ourselves of our shame– that discourse reached a new level. Dramatic political change soon followed.

Certainly, not all activists have been on board with this change of viewpoint. Some long-term activists were vehemently and vociferously opposed, and remain so. Still, it became more of less the consensus of the transgender community, and we have profited from it.

Theories such as autogynephilia, the psychoanalytic nonsense of Colette Chiland and other psychoanalysts (see the review of Chiland in this issue), and arguments that transgender identity is due to chromosomal makeup, hormonal washes, unsuitable family dynamics, or other prenatal, perinatal, or early childhood causes presume there is something wrong with us—we deviate from “normal” developmental pathways. This word—deviation—when used in the purely scientific sense, has no moral connotations, but we all know that in society, deviation from the norm has an emotional loading that translates into persecution and discrimination. We do well to rid ourselves of this stigma.

Many transgendered people—and for that matter, many gay men and lesbians— direct enormous energy (and sometimes money)  to attempts to explain why we are the way we are. This is a guilt thing: if our hormones made us do it, if our chromosomes are the culprit, if our brains are female, it’s not our fault. We can’t help it. We’re not responsible, it’s our darn female brains. (My apologies to FTMs.)

Human behavior is complex, with multiple interacting causative factors. Gender variance is no exception. We will probably never know what—if anything—“causes” us to behave as we do. Chances are that biology—genetics and the hormonal state in utero—do play a significant role in gender variance. But chances are we’ll never know or understand just how. And while it’s always laudable to try to figure out what makes the universe run and what makes people tick, we shouldn’t hang our political futures on the unraveling of such complexities.

Despite all the efforts to date, the reasons for transsexualism, for crossdressing, for male homosexuality and lesbianism are not known. The evidence, despite those on both sides of the issue who claim a preponderance of data support them, is equivocal, and is likely to remain so. Building a case for our rights based on this shaky tower of reasoning leaves us in the wind, vulnerable to the next study; if it doesn’t support a biological reason for our differentness, our house of cards will collapse. If a favorable study appears, we can begin to reassemble our cards, but it won’t be long before they are toppled again.

Attempts to justify ourselves to others based on unconvincing biological or psychosocial data will ultimately not serve our common purpose—gaining human and civil rights. If we build a house on the sand, it will not stand. If we build it on rock—and here I am arguing that we must build our rights on the assertion that we are as we are because we are the way we are and causality is of no importance whatsoever—it will make for lasting change.

In the last issue of Tapestry I  wrote about my experience in dealing with thousands of MTF transsexuals and other MTF gender-variant people, myself included, I mentioned that I have observed a number of psychological traits in MTFs that are rare in women, but common in men. Such sex differences are, of course, an area of hot debate in psychology. We could argue about this in these pages for years—but whether we have male or female brains isn’t the real issue. The real issue, and the reason I threw out the gauntlet in Tapestry #107, is that we must rid ourselves of the need to justify ourselves by claiming something “made us do it.” I will leave it to each individual’s conscience to determine how much of their own self-image is rooted in shame, and I will say once again that basing our identities on any form of pathology is shaky ground on which to organize for political change.