Origins of gender identity

One thing that I do not understand re transexuality is the concept that gender identity is an inborn trait. It seems to me that gender identity is something that is slowly ingrained into a person as a result of existing in our mainstream culture.

It starts very early, with babies with a penis being associated with the color blue, while girls are associated with the color pink. But many, many things, over the early part of a person’s life, help shape their identities, including gender identity. Our culture sees most things thru a bilinear gender lens. School activities, sports, professions, even the food we eat are separated by some form of gender divide. Being in our society, it would be pretty hard to not internalize and identify with all these external cues.

Transgendered people, OTOH, experience this gender identity innately and despite being constantly bombarded by the myriad gender cues that fill our world. Where does this come from? I feel like gender identity is learned behavior and is not a predetermined part of a person’s brain. If my parents and society at large had somehow raised me/recognized me as a girl, I think I’d learn to identify with this gender and ultimately “feel” like a girl.

Is there actual scientific evidence supporting gender identity as an inborn trait? Or any evidence that its learned? I hope my desire to understand this issue is not shut down or hampered by intolerant people who yell “bigot” anytime anyone questions any part of transexuality. I am not claiming anything, Im simply desirous of knowledge re this issue.

There is the David Reimer case, although that’s just one data point.

But scientific evidence, as far as it’s currently understood, indicates that gender identity is at least to a large extent a predetermined part of a person’s brain. This classic 1995 article on the subject states:

A more recent (January 2016) expository article brings out more of the nuances:

There’s a ton of research on this that can be found by googling “transgender brain structure”.

Science suggests that if you have characteristically male brain structure, you would not. Instead, you would be persistently frustrated and distressed by your inability to reconcile your being assigned the gender of a girl with your “feeling” like a boy.

The case of David Reimer suggests that gender identity cannot be learned, (although the odd and ethically troubling behavior of Dr. John Money does confound drawing any straightforward conclusions).

I think there’s a lot of value to be gained from recognizing that not understanding something isn’t a barrier to it having a concrete basis in objective fact. Feeling like, or it seeming to you, or thinking that, it would work a certain way is every bit as susceptible to cultural conditioning as any other belief.

I mean, I don’t understand what biological processes would produce homosexuality, or left-handedness, or face blindness, or dyslexia, or pedophilia, or the ability to believe that cilantro tastes good, or schizophrenia. None of those are things that I would think or feel like were real, just based on my own experience. But intelligent people describe having those experiences, and my internal model of the universe doesn’t account for that. If homosexuality or gender identity are choices, then how does my understanding of the world account for all of the subjective accounts of all the people affected by those things? It just doesn’t; meanwhile taking them at their word that these phenomena exist, whether they’re disadvantageous or not, isn’t something that there’s any evidence other than my confusion to refute.

I don’t mean to discount the question entirely, as it’s obviously a worthy thing to look into. And my understanding is that there is a scientific basis for the belief that gender identity is hard-coded, although I’m not enough of an expert to be comfortable asserting it. I just mean to say that maybe not understanding it isn’t really that big a deal, considering the piles of anecdotal evidence that are really hard to make any sense of at all if you’ve had the opportunity to actually speak to a person whose experience it actually is, unless you accept that OK, this thing exists and I don’t have an explanation for it.

I only said I didn’t understand, then I articulated why. I was not asserting or implying anything (at least not intentionally). Obviously transgenderism is real and I believe they are who they say they are. Im only trying to understand.

Thank you for the information.

Well, you did clearly assert what your own uninformed perception was: namely, that you personally “feel” that gender identity is not innate but is somehow learned from social “gender cues”. You feel that you could have learned to identify as a girl if you had been given those “gender cues”. I don’t understand why you feel that way, but okay, you say you do.

Perhaps a way to move forward on understanding would be to consider whether you feel that you could learn to identify as a woman now. If you were constantly addressed and treated as female by everyone around you, and expected to wear dresses and makeup and so forth, would that change your identification as a man? Would you say “Oh I see, it appears I’m actually a woman”, or would you continue to think of yourself as a man?

Children are inexperienced but they aren’t stupid, and they aren’t completely blank slates for parents to fill in at will with selected “cues” about their identity.

There are many things I do not understand. Therefore I must remind myself to really listen to the people who experience these things, and realize that my understanding is not a prerequisite to emphasizing.

Well, once when I was only three years old, one of the slightly older kids in the neighborhood told me it was possible to become the other “sex” (her word). She said I could wake up one morning and discover I’d become a boy. I found the idea terrifying, and I wasn’t a girly girl. I was a tomboy whose interests and pursuits would have changed not one bit in order to be “acceptable” as a boy. I still remember thinking I’d rather die than have that happen. I didn’t really believe her, but a bit of assurance from my mother was necessary anyway. And I was three. My identity as a girl was very strong by that age, that even though I liked boy’s toys, preferred jeans to dresses, and was very rough-and-tumble, I still was a girl, and knew it.

Just one data point again, I know.

Something I have wondered about, since learning about the existence of chimera syndrome (where a person starts out as two blastocysts with two different genomes, but one absorbs the other, and they develop as one person, who has two different DNA profiles, depending on where you take the sample) is whether this syndrome could explain at least some cases of gender dysphoria. If a person has to different genetic profiles, one could be XX, and one could be XY. If the XY one expressed itself in forming the person’s gonads, while XX expressed itself in forming the person’s cranium and primary neuronal system, then you could quite literally have a woman’s brain and a man’s body in one person.

Knowledge of the existence of chimera syndrome is relatively new, and no one knows how common it is. I have no idea what sorts of work-ups are done on people who ask for treatment for gender dysphoria, although I expect that doctors do look for chromosomal abnormalities, but I think they just look for things like XXY, and mismatches between gonadal sex and genetic sex; I don’t think they take DNA samples from different parts of the body to look for chimera syndrome.

At any rate, it’s pretty well ingrained in very small children that they are either boys or girls, and that was true back in the 1970s, when I was a little kid, and many, many parents were going to great lengths to raise “free” children. To the extent that they raised little girls who happily played with toy tucks, they were successful, but each one knew she was a girl.

People have found differences between men’s and women’s brains over the years-- not great one, but there are a few.

Imaginative exercises are always vulnerable to preconceived notions. However, I’m pretty sure that if I woke up tomorrow in a woman’s body, I"d adjust pretty quickly to thinking of myself as a woman: for myself, gender identity is not very important at all, and to the extent that I feel any, it’s tied up in the shape of my body. The adjustment would be about as tricky as it is for me to remember that we keep the coffee mugs to the left of the sink now, not to the right.

I know that some people don’t experience it that way.

I don’t understand this response. I am listening to those who experience these things, it’s because Im listening that I have these questions at all.

This is hard to know, though – maybe your brain would experience trouble having to cope with a whole new, unfamiliar set of hormones secreted by your body. Plus, unless it were the body of a female athlete, you’d probably feel uncomfortably weak.

If I woke up tomorrow as a man, I’d kill myself. Seriously. I’d be about as much fun for me as waking up and being a giant cockroach.

I don’t dislike men. I’m married to one, and I have a son, who I love more than I love myself, but the idea of being in a male body is repellent to me.

Not necessarily directed at you or your OP, just my musing on current social issues and the “debates” I am seeing everyway.

Maybe part of the problem the OP is having is that gender identify often surfaces in young children who insist, for example, on dressing as the opposite biological sex. Surely “pants” vs “dresses” is not innate, but cultural.

After a thread a while back where one doper seemed to be arguing a sort of gender essentialism, I went out internet spelunking for answers as to whether transgenderism is essentially essentialist.

Gender essentialism is the idea that men and women have unique attributes, strengths, skills, ways of being, and that leads to ideas like “Women are nurturing and mentally weak and irrational” and “Men are logical and mentally tough and bad with emotions.” Gender as destiny.

It’s easy to see how thinking about transgenderism ends up in this sort of essentialist space. How can you say you “feel like” the other gender unless the other gender has a specific “way of feeling”?

And if you listen to someone like Caitlyn Jenner, she appears to believe that women are like this and men are like that and she’s more like this than that so she feels more like a woman.

I found these articles/threads really useful.

The first one just lays out some basic arguments and problems. I honestly felt this led to more questions than answers. The conclusion is that it’s both physical and social.

This one really challenges the Caitlyn Jenner perspective, but it doesn’t really allow for a different way of thinking about transgenderism than purely essentialist.

This reddit thread has reactions to the NYT piece, and I found a few of the comments really made things make sense in a much different way, especially a post by Sykoyo. She is not attempting to speak for anyone else, and I am not claiming her way of thinking is the only one or the most accurate or anything, but I felt like it gave me a much different insight by linking the discrepancy with the brain’s expectations to the experience of the physical body. She wasn’t trying to say “I’m a really good cook and I hate confrontation, therefore I’m a girl.”

Hope this is useful.

There’s not anything that can be described as a characteristically male brain:

Even if we do identify differing brain structures between men and women there is a chicken and the egg problem. Are men’s brains different than women’s because of inherent biological reasons or is a response to the different social environments men and women experience?

But isn’t there research showing that the “flood of hormones” that ensues at some point in the latter part of pregnancy influence brain development?

Fetal brain development is influenced by sex hormones. And that is distinct from the process whereby gondal tissue develops into either ovary or testicle under the influence of sex hormones.

So a developing brain could receive a level of fetal testosterone that tells that brain to masculinize while the developing gonad does not. The brain becomes more masculine but the gonads develop as ovaries. Externally the child appears female but the child’s brain is more consistent with a male. The child grows up feeling male despite external appearance of a female.
Also within that brain, somewhere in the deep dark synapses, there is a default body plan that a person may sense even if, due to congenital condition, a particular body part is missing.

For example, people born without part of a limb may nevertheless experience phantom limb sensations of having a full limb. (Cite) These sensations can persist for decades. So even though the person never had a lower leg, his brain may believe otherwise.

In short, the brain has an idea of what it thinks the body should be, regardless of what the body appears to be.