Gender variance is an atypical development in the relationship between the gender identity and the visible sex of an individual. In order to understand this atypical development, it is necessary, firstly, to understand something of the typical development of these elements of our make-up. Many in the scientific and medical professions recognise the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ as having distinct meanings. ‘Gender identity’ describes the psychological recognition of oneself, as well as the wish to be regarded by others, as fitting into the social categories: boy/man or girl/woman. These social categories generate expectations of gender roles, that is, how we are expected to behave in society. ‘Sex’, on the other hand, is usually understood to represent the physical differentiation as male or female, indicated by the external appearance of the genitalia and the presence of gonads (testes in a boy/ovaries in a girl) which will determine reproductive function, and differences inbrain structure and function. Typically, gender identity, gender role and sex characteristics (known medically as the ‘phenotype’) are consistent with each other and with the underlying chromosomal pattern: 46,XX for a girl, 46,XY for a boy.
Typically, every fetus derives one sex chromosome from the mother; this is always ‘X’. The second sex chromosome is provided by the father and may be either ‘X’ or ‘Y’. Typically, a fetus having one X and one Y chromosome will develop as male because genes on the ‘Y’ chromosome play a vital role in triggering the complex cascade of hormones which masculinise (virilise) the fetus, ensuring that his brain, genitalia and gonads are congruent. Typically, a fetus having two X chromosomes will develop as a female so that her brain, genitalia, gonads and organs of reproduction are congruent with each other. So, the way the fetus develops and functions, in terms of sex and gender identity depends, in part, on its innate sensitivity to particular hormones, as well as the availability of the relevant hormones. These influence the sex development of the brain and other sex characteristics in a way that is consistent with, and typical of, each gender. Animal experiments have indicated that there may be, in addition, direct genetic effects on the brain development which are not mediated by hormone input. Whatever the various routes leading to differentiation, typically, an XY baby, showing the external characteristics consistent with the male phenotype will grow to adulthood identifying himself as a man. Conversely, an XX baby, showing the external characteristics consistent with the female phenotype will typically grow up comfortably identifying herself as a woman.
This scenario applies to the majority of us. Despite considerable gradations, we are close enough to one end or the other of the gender/sex spectrum that we never question whether or not our gender identity is consistent with our gonadal and genital sex. Since this is true for most, it is assumed to be true for all babies—that what you see is what you get. So, despite the fact that the baby’s gender identity cannot be discerned accurately at birth—since it depends, to a large extent, on the early development of the brain which is invisible—it is assumed to be consistent with the visible sex. So when ‘male’ or ‘female’ is entered on the Birth Certificate, a consistent and unchanging gender identity is inferred and, effectively ‘assigned’, at that time, on the basis of external appearance alone. Typically, this inference is accurate enough…
…but it is not always so. The gender/sex spectrum is complex. A few individuals do not fit comfortably into what we think of as typically male or female. For a variety of reasons, one in 100 or so babies is born with some kind of sex differentiation anomaly. This could be, for instance, because the pregnant mother has additional hormones in her system, which she has absorbed from, say, medication or the environment, and which she has passed on to the fetus, or the fetus, itself, may be insensitive to the influence of certain hormones. Occasionally, sex/gender anomalies may be associated with unusual chromosomal patterns, for instance, 47,XXY, 47,XYY, 45,XO, 49,XXXYY, or even a mosaic (more than one chromosome pattern in different tissues of one individual). The possible permutations are numerous. The degree of discomfort any resultant variation may cause to an individual depends on the nature and the degree of that variation from the typical. In a few instances, there can be a serious risk to health. On the other hand, in many cases the effect is so slight that the condition remains undiagnosed or, at least, requires no medical intervention. In some, the manifestations may not be discernible at birth or for many years, so diagnosis is delayed.
One example of such a condition will demonstrate just how complex this subject is. An individual with complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (cAIS) has XY chromosomes so one would expect the presence of a ’Y’ chromosome to be associated with an individual who has a penis rather than a clitoris, whose gonadal material develops into testes rather than ovaries and whose brain takes on ‘male’ characteristics. However, in the case of cAIS, despite the presence of the ‘Y’ chromosome, the fetus has a degree of insensitivity to androgens (testosterone, dihydrotestosterone) and is, therefore, not subject to their masculinising influence. The result is a mixture of female and male characteristics: the baby is born with the external appearance of a girl and retains female brain characteristics; she grows up identifying herself as a woman. It may be only at puberty, when the failure to menstruate is apparent, that the underlying condition is diagnosed. This XY female has no uterus, often a shortened vagina, or none, and undescended testes. ‘Partial’ AIS will lead to varying degrees of the condition, including one where assignment of sex (and, therefore, inferred gender identity) is not straightforward owing to the ambiguous appearance of the genitalia at birth. Some paediatricians would assign the baby as a boy, others, as a girl.
Gender Variant People
Many anomalies such as AIS can arise causing inconsistent development between the various elements by which we know ourselves to be either a man or a women. Among the larger group embracing all these varieties, there is a small subgroup of individuals who experience gender variance. The personal experience of this state is sometimes known as gender dysphoria (dysphoria means ‘unhappiness’). The impact of genetic and/or hormonal factors on their fetal development appears to cause parts of the brain to develop in a way which is inconsistent with their genitalia, gonads and, usually, with their chromosomes. This may give rise to another, rather different, example of XY women, that is, individuals whose visible physical sex appears to be that of a man, but whose brain has some female characteristics and whose gender identification is, therefore, that of a woman. Or, conversely, gender variance may occur the other way round. An individual having XX chromosomes and the visible physical sex of a female, may have some male brain characteristics and therefore, identify as a man. So the issue of one's gender identification, whether as a man or as a woman, or even neither (which occurs only rarely), is rooted in the brain, and is regarded by the individuals concerned, and is demonstrated by research, to be largely determined pre-birth and more or less stable thereafter.
Thus the experience of extreme gender variance is increasingly understood in scientific and medical disciplines as having a biological origin. The current medical viewpoint, based on the most up-to-date scientific research, is that this condition, which in its extreme manifestation is known as transsexualism, is strongly associated with unusual neurodevelopment of the brain at the fetal stage. Small areas of the brain are known to be distinctly different between males and females in the population generally. In those experiencing severe gender variance, some of these areas have been shown to develop in opposition to other sex characteristics and are, therefore, incongruent with the visible sex appearance.
Gender Variant Children
Very rarely, children may express this incongruence between gender identity and the genital sex, but their discomfort is not always easy to identify. Symptoms of unease with the assigned gender role and the visible sex appearance are often only apparent to the individuals concerned and may not be understood even by them. If these children are unable to articulate their unease, their discomfort may grow through adolescence and into adulthood, as their families and society, in ignorance of their underlying gender identity, relentlessly reinforce gender roles in accordance with their physical appearance alone. However, some children are able to express a strong cross-sex identification, and sometimes insist on living in the opposite role. In particular, the increasing disgust with the development of secondary sex characteristics experienced by young people during puberty may be taken as a strong indication that the condition will persist into adulthood as transsexualism. Therefore, in carefully screened individuals, hormone blocking treatment may be given, before pubertal changes become apparent, so that these young people have more time to decide in which gender role they can achieve lasting personal comfort. There is no evidence that raising children in contradiction to their visible sex characteristics causes gender variance, nor can the condition be overridden by raising children in strict accordance with a gender role that is consistent with their visible sex.
Those who are not treated in adolescence may continue to struggle to conform; they may embark on relationships, marriages and parenthood in an attempt to lead ‘normal’ lives by suppressing their core gender identity. Ultimately, however, they may be unable to continue with the charade of presenting themselves as something they know they are not. The artificiality of their situation drives individuals to seek treatment to minimise the mismatch between the brain and the bodily appearance. They experience an overwhelming need to be complete, whole people and to live in accordance with their internal reality. Until this is achieved, the personal discomfort is such that it leads to great unhappiness and sometimes to suicidal feelings.
For many, ‘Transition’ to live in the gender role dictated by the brain may be the only way forward if they are to avoid a life of psychological torment. This will often be assisted by treatment to achieve physical re-alignment of the sex characteristics, involving hormone therapy and corrective surgery. Transition marks the change in social status from man to woman or woman to man but the process does not change the gender identity of the individuals concerned, rather, it confirms their core gender identity by bringing their sex characteristics, especially their visible ones, and their gender role into line with it. Research indicates that this treatment is highly successful.
However, the level of discomfort varies widely from individual to individual, and personal circumstances also impinge on how those experiencing the condition respond: for instance, some may take hormones, but not have surgery or undergo transition of their gender role; some may become reconciled to their discomfort and learn to live with it. So, psycho-social factors may play a role in outcomes, though they appear to play no part in the causation, of the condition.
Gender variance, whilst it may be associated with a great deal of stress, is not caused by psychopathology or mental illness, rather, the stress may be understood to be a normal response to the internal biological conflict. The condition cannot be overcome by psychological or psychiatric treatments alone.
Sexual Orientation among Transsexual People
The term transsexualism does not indicate, or refer to, sexual orientation, i.e. a person’s preference for a sexual partner of the opposite, or of the same sex/gender. Trans people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual. Some trans people say that, until the process of transition is complete, they cannot tell what their future sexual preference will be. It may remain the same; it may change. A trans person who has always been attracted to women may remain so. Or not. A trans person who has always been attracted to men, may remain so. Or not. During the process of transition, the issue of sexual orientation may be of little interest to the individual concerned, since the issue of gender identity is uppermost in his or her mind.