Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Addendum: Grasping at straws

At this point, there is no definitive answer as to the cause of the congenital disorder called transsexualism. Even though there are only tiny differences between the brains of males and females, those differences are important, especially the one that tells us whether we are female or male. There is evidence that the brains of those born transsexual are more like those of the sex they say they are than those of the sex their anatomy dictates. And it's reasonable to assume that the brain and body in these cases were virilized (or not) differently, since hormone-induced changes to the brain happen at a different point in gestation than hormone-induced changes to the rest of the body.

Still, no one knows why this happens. And some are determined to find some kind of reason—or perhaps justification would be a better word.

So some look at chromosomes. Somewhere between one in 500 and one in a thousand boys is born with the karyotype 47,XXY or its variant 47,XXY/46,XY Mosaic (meaning some cells have 47 chromosomes while others have 46). Those with 47,XXY are anatomically male, except in extremely rare cases (which happen with 46,XY as well) in which the SRY gene is not expressed on the Y chromosome. It's the presence and activation of SRY that determines maleness. The extra X chromosome does not change this.

All boys born with a 47,XXY karyotype have certain characteristics that are not overt, such as lower fertility. Some also exhibit certain physical characteristics, which are called Kleinfelter Syndrome (Kleinfelter Syndrome is not a synonym for 47,XXY). Regardless of symptoms, which can include gynecomastia, those with 47,XXY (minus the rare exceptions) are all male. Even though it is usually classified as an intersex condition, it is not so in the same sense as something like true hermaphrodism is. There are no female reproductive organs present as a result of 47,XXY (although 47,XXY can be co-morbid with other intersex conditions).

Nonetheless, 47,XXY and 47,XXY/46,XY Mosaic are sometimes trotted out to explain transsexualism. The lack of correlation does not stop people who feel a need to justify their condition, nor does it stop certain media from taking such justifications at face value.

Some with 47,XXY are also transsexual and change anatomical sex from male to female. But most who change anatomical sex from male to female are 46,XY, and most who are 47,XXY are not transsexual and do not change sex. Whatever causes transsexualism, it is independent of the number of chromosomes or the presence of an extra X.

It is unfortunate that misinformation abounds—that 47,XXY males are "partly female," that 47,XXY males are more likely to change sex, that 47,XXY explains sex change. A woman born transsexual (male-bodied) whose karyotype is 47,XXY and who exhibits typical Kleinfelter symptoms such as broader hips, less bodily hair, and gynecomastia might well end up being pleased with those symptoms, but the characteristics are only coincidentally feminine. They neither cause nor compel a sex change. There are also 46,XY nontranssexual males who have gynecomastia, whose hips are broader than normal, who have less bodily hair, whose testosterone levels are lower than normal, and whose fertility is reduced.

Transsexualism, as rare as it is, exists in people with 46,XY, 46,XX, 47,XXY, various Mosaic patterns, and pretty much any other viable karyotype that exists. Just as most people with 46 chromosomes are not born with transsexualism, most people with other chromosomal arrangements are also not born with transsexualism. If someone born transsexual feels a need to justify changing sex, they should seek the justification elsewhere rather than promulgate harmful misinformation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Addendum: pronouns

Some people lament, or complain, that others won't use the pronoun of their choice to refer to them. They figure, what's the big deal? This is what I want, and it's no skin off your nose to comply with it. It's a matter of respect.

There's one problem with this: pronouns are not normally something we choose.

We go through much of life making snap judgments about the world around us. It's how we function. It's the part of our brain that uses heuristics—rules of thumb—to deal with information quickly. Sometimes, this intuitive system is wrong, but usually it's right, or at least close enough. Heuristics aren't much good at dealing with unusual or novel situations, but they work quite well for most of what we encounter on a daily basis.

When a person refers to another person as "her" or "him" or addresses a person as "sir" or "ma'am," that is generally coming from intuition. And it's an intuition about the other person's sex. The other person presents a number of clues—without any conscious effort—as to which sex they are, and the observer processes those in the blink of an eye, also without any conscious effort. A gendered term isn't about how we feel. It's about how others perceive us via the senses of sight, hearing, and smell.

Why gendered pronouns and terms? Because it's built into our brains. However primitive it might be, it's important to us whether a person is female or male, just as it is to any animal. The world is not binary with regard to gender. But there is such a thing as sexual dichotomy. No one can wish that away. It's fundamental to our species.

Some people have difficulty with sexual dichotomy and don't like the pronouns that automatically come their way. They don't feel like a "her" or a "him." They might feel the opposite. They might feel like a "they" or some variant on gender neutrality. And they want others to respect that.

Respect is good. But in this case, it is also difficult because it's counter-intuitive. And anything that's counter-intuitive slows you down and makes you work. It's not that this is a bad thing. It's just not the way we usually operate. If we always had to operate that way, we'd bog down completely. Life moves too quickly to ignore our heuristics.

If someone is a friend, we make the effort. We honor their choices and how they feel about themselves. We don't whine. We don't say how difficult it is for us. We don't make excuses. We just do as well as we can and get better at it over time. And if we can't, then maybe we and the other person are not such good friends.

Out in the wide world, it's a different story. Intuition and heuristics are still going to prevail. No one knows how you feel about yourself. No one knows what your preferences are. They will go by what they perceive. A person with thinning hair and a beard shadow who growls in a baritone voice is unlikely to hear "ma'am," regardless of how femme they dress, just as a person with a smooth face and broad hips who speaks in a gentle alto is unlikely to hear "sir," regardless of how butch they dress.

Sometimes, what a person wants is simply unreasonable.

There is one sure way to hear the gendered pronouns (and other gendered terms) that you desire—give off the clues that people expect. Make it easy for people's intuition. Be the sex that you feel you are—and that does not mean conforming to gender stereotypes.

Of course, this will not work if what you feel is not what shows, or if what you feel is something that doesn't fit with sexual dichotomy. If that's the case, you're in for an uphill battle, and it's likely that you will expend a great deal of energy fighting it. Choosing pronouns that are counter-intuitive means making other choices as well. Best wishes to you.