A new study out of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University sheds lights on the biological basis of gender dysphoria. Previous studies have pointed to a neurological basis for gender dysphoria due to differing numbers of specific neurons in cisgendered men and women with transgendered individuals numbers corresponding to their identified gender. This new study used whole exome sequencing of genetic DNA on 30 individuals to identify rare variants in genes associated with pathways of sexual differentiation in the brain in order to explore how they could contribute to gender dysphoria and transgender identity.
The genes identified play a role in the the stage of brain development around the time of birth where the brain is sprinkled with estrogen which – counterintuitively – is essential for the masculinization of the brain. The variants of the genes mean that in some individuals assigned male at birth, the lack of estrogen means that the brain does not get masculinized. For those assigned female at birth, this estrogen exposure happens when it normally wouldn’t, therefore leading to masculinization. The result of this dynamic possibly leading to an incongruence between an individuals sense of gender and their external sex, that is, gender dysphoria.
It has been estimated that 0.5-1.4% of natal (assigned at birth) males and 0.2%-0.3% of natal females experience gender dysphoria, according to DSM-5 criteria. A significant obstacle to acceptance of this segment of society has been the overall lack of understanding of a so-called “biological” basis of gender dysphoria. The authors describe the reason for the study as being “in response to inquiries by transgender patients from our clinics. Surprisingly, upon searching for formalized studies assessing these views, we were unable to find any.”
Right wing political pundits will use this gap in scientific understanding to attack the rights of transgender people claiming that mental illness, ptsd, or “indoctrination” are at the root of gender dysphoria, despite statements from the World Health Organization. But as our scientific understanding improves, it is more and more clear that there is a significant biological, even genetic, component to being transgender. That is – once the brain has been developed, its structure does not change. It is the body that must be changed to match the brain, not the other way around, if that is what the individual feels is right for them.
Now a word of caution at this point: just because studies are pointing to genetic and neurological causes to gender identity, multiple other factors such as environmental factors and events such as puberty will also play a role as well. We cannot simply scan a brain and determine whether a person is trans or cis. It’s much more complicated than that, a much research is being done. The authors of the study commented on the complexity of genetic contribution to gender dysphoria and transgender identity :
First, like many human traits, gender identity is unlikely to result from the variation of a single gene. Notably, even the binary categories of “transgender male” and “transgender female” are not sufficient to describe all members of the gender-expansive community, with some individuals for example self-describing as gender non-binary or agender. The broad spectrum that characterizes human gender identity suggests that, rather than being tied to variation within a single gene, an individual’s gender identity is more likely the result of a complex interplay between multiple genes as well as environmental and societal factors.
The study appears to be the largest to date, with 30 transgender individuals and data on 30 more coming soon. While the findings are preliminary, more science and information is always a good thing, and is a powerful tool in the fight against bigotry and prejudice.