Soon after Caitlin Jenner transitioned to female, The New York Times published a thought provoking column by Elinor Burkett called What Makes a Woman. Ms. Burkett has brought to the forefront many issues regarding what makes a person male or female by asking and answering questions such as: Are the brains of men and women different? Are the experiences and privileges of one gender over the other the differentiating point?
I personally believe that I was born into the privileged male class. and as such, have not walked in the shoes of a biological female. I have not suffered wage discrimination, pain from menstruation, fear of being raped or sexually assaulted, or having my self worth based solely on body appearance. Neither has Caitlin Jenner nor have any transgender female friends of mine.
Is the manner in which I think, emote, walk, dress driven by something beyond life experiences? A very close transgender male friend of mine has stated that he is planning to have a hysterectomy. Will that make him less female and more male? I do not know.
I am sure that sexual identity is a wide spectrum since how we identify is not simply identifying and being comfortable with the way our body developed. Research has shown that the sexual differentiation of the brain happens during the second half of pregnancy, later than sexual differentiation of the genitals and body, which begins during the first two months of pregnancy. Since these two processes can be influenced independently of each other, it may be possible to have a mismatch between gender-specific brain development and that of the body.
Recent neuroscience research suggests that gender identity may exist on a spectrum and that gender dysphoria fits well within the range of human biological variation. For example, Georg S. Kranz at the Medical University of Vienna and colleagues elsewhere reported in a 2014 study in The Journal of Neuroscience that individuals who identified as transsexuals — those who wanted sex reassignment surgery— had structural differences in their brains that were between their desired gender and their genetic sex.
Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Each of us has a biological sex, whether we are female, male, or intersex. Our gender a socially and legally constructed status as man or woman. Sexual orientation is the term used to describe whether a person is attracted towards people of another gender, the same gender, or both genders.
Each of us has a gender along with a gender identity. Our gender identity is our deepest feelings about our gender. We express our gender identity through physical cues, appearances, and mannerisms that are constructed and, usually, considered acceptable by the society the individual is in. Some people feel that they are transgender — which means that their biological sex and gender identity do not match up. Each of us also has a sexual orientation which can be categorized as bisexual, homosexual, asexual, or heterosexual. Or you may be “questioning”, which just means that you are unsure about your sexual orientation.
What Dr. Kranz found was intriguing, in several brain regions, people born female with a female gender identity had the highest level of diffusivity (also known as diffusion coefficient), followed by female-to-male transsexuals. Next came male-to-female transsexuals and then the males with a male gender identity, who had the lowest levels. In other words, it seems that Dr. Kranz may have found a neural signature of the transgender experience: a mismatch between one’s gender identity and physical sex. Transgender people have a brain that is structurally different than the brain of a non-transgender male or female, someplace in between men and women.
I know many women who are only attracted to men yet they dress and act in ways that are not considered ‘feminine’. These women dress more ‘butch’ (hope that does not offend), are not ’emotional’, play physical sports, have no interest in cooking, etc. As far as sexual orientation they are straight, as far as gender identification are not exactly as society has defined being a female. They and all people need to be comfortable with how they gender identify.
Is it really not surprising that gender identity might, like sexual orientation, be on a wide and diverse spectrum? After all, one can be exclusively straight, exclusively gay, or anything in between. But variability in a behavior shouldn’t be confused with its malleability. There is little evidence, for example, that you really can change your sexual orientation. Sure, one can change his or her sexual behavior, but one’s inner sexual fantasies endure. In fact, attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, through so-called reparative therapy, have been debunked as quackery and rightly condemned by the psychiatric profession as potentially harmful. All too often we hear people say, “Act like a man” or “Act like a woman.”
The comfort level of our identity is up to each of us and not what is placed on a birth certificate or what society expects.