A lot of recent discussion about the scientific basis for transsexualism has gotten me in the mood to write about that topic. It’s not the first time. Last summer I wrote three posts as part of an ongoing series, “Transsexuals – Facts Not Opinions.” (For those who missed them, here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
I left off part three with the following statement:
“Next post, I’ll start to explore some of [the] research attempting to describe the mechanisms involved in organization-activation within humans, and how this relates to transsexuals, intersexed people, and everyone else.”
In case it’s not self-evident, that was a rather ambitious goal for someone on the cusp of some fairly major life-altering events. Check that. It was a rather ambitious goal period. It became a laughably unrealistic goal considering said life-altering events. Or at least it was for a time.
But now that my life has calmed I’m starting to regain my capacity for digging deep into complex and unfamiliar topics. And wow, does this topic ever require that capacity!
When you look into the science underlying gender identity you get into areas which lie at the cutting edge of current scientific understanding. There is very little written for the easy consumption of the general layman with an interest in this topic. To get far beyond your high school biology basics – and this topic requires that we do – you’re mostly dealing with sources that involve scientists writing for other scientists within very specialized areas of research. It’s incredibly interesting but it’s also extremely difficult to assemble into any kind of “big picture,” which is the goal of my narrative.
I tried to rely upon the narrative instincts of Dr. Veronica Drantz as my unofficial guide. Dr. Drantz is a physiologist who put together a series of presentations (including this mega-presentation) attempting to address this topic for general audience, and in my opinion she does an excellent job of it. However I ran into a problem trying to draw from her approach. Drantz’s presentation relies heavily on visual illustrations to address some of the baseline physiology. When writing in narrative form I need to accomplish the same thing with words… and the words in question are things like “bipotential primordium,” “dihydrotestosterone,” and “5 * reductase receptors.” Since I can’t translate those into pictures I need to translate them into more easily understandable text.
To perform this textual translation I looked for assistance from two other sources. One is a journal intended for medical students, from which I identified a “Beginners guide to genetics: sex and genetics.” The other is a recent article about “sex determination and gonadal development in mammals” from the American Physiological Society.
One thing you’ll notice about both of these articles is that neither one is intended to speak specifically about gender identity, or transsexualism. These sources are focused, instead, on the basic mechanisms underlying sexual differentiation in mammals. In trying to build this narrative it became clear that in order to understand the discoveries speaking to gender identity formation in trans people, we need to understand how it appears to be like or unlike what we know about sexual differentiation in the “standard” model. And, in case you didn’t know, the standard model of mammalian sexual differentiation is WAY more complex (and more of a mystery) than anything you learned in high school biology.
This is a long way of explaining that I am once again intending to put together, in as many posts as it takes, the promised narrative covering current understanding about the physiology underlying transsexualism. Right now I have something in my draft folder called “Big Ol’ Physiology Post” containing a lot of bullet points and quotes and a semi-coherent narrative sequence. Given enough time and cursing I should be able to turn that into some kind of post within the next week or two.
In the mean time, if anyone knows of other good examples of such work I might be able to draw upon, please let me know.