“I don’t think you chose to experience gender dysphoria,” I offered slowly, looking at Jeremy who had been looking away ever since he explained how long he had felt different from other boys he knew. He hadn’t held eye contact once since he began talking about the time his mother caught him dressing in his sister’s clothing one day after school. He wouldn’t look at me when he shared how his father confronted him that same night when he came home from work. After I spoke, he turned toward me to catch my eye, as if he wanted to confirm I wasn’t just saying this to make him feel better. You see, he had been told by Christian leaders just the opposite—that he had indeed chosen to feel like a girl; that his experience of gender dysphoria was an act of willful disobedience to be confronted by his parents if they hoped to help him, if they hoped to save him.
It is a remarkable claim to declare that an adolescent is choosing gender dysphoria to make life difficult for his parents or to essentially thumb his nose at God as Creator and at his own body as a part of the creation.
In this blog post I want to introduce the topic of etiology or causation. The question is: What causes someone to experience gender dysphoria? Recall that gender dysphoria refers to the incongruence between one’s biological/birth sex and one’s psychological and emotional experience of gender identity. One possible benefit to discussing causation is to improve the exchanges between Christian leaders and someone like Jeremy.
Let me first acknowledge limitations to research in this area. These limitations should help us take a posture of humility toward the topic of gender dysphoria, toward what we know and what we do not know.
When we discuss who is transgender, we quickly realize that while this is an umbrella term, there is not consensus as to who is transgender. Put differently, there is great heterogeneity among these different phenomena. A range of people may identify as transgender. In a chapter he wrote on the topic, Richard Carroll recognizes “transsexuals, transvestites, she-males, queers, third sex, two-spirit, drag queens, drag kings, and cross-dressers.” Not all of these folks will experience gender dysphoria, and many would not feel comfortable including everyone else under the umbrella of “transgender.”
How this is related to research on causation? The heterogeneity represented under the transgender umbrella makes it difficult to conduct research on causation. We have to begin by identifying the key variables and then finding ways to operationalize and measure those variables. If we are trying to explain cross-dressing behavior, for example, we have to acknowledge that not everyone who cross-dresses experiences gender dysphoria. Not everyone who identifies as transgender either cross dresses or experiences gender dysphoria.
Most of the research on causation is limited to transsexuals. In some ways this can be helpful, as most transsexual persons presumably experience sufficient gender dysphoria such that they form a cross-gender identity and may pursue hormonal treatment and/or sex reassignment surgery. However, the experience of diagnosable gender dysphoria is rather rare, and finding a sufficient number of transsexual persons for research purposes can be problematic. Most of these studies are conducted with small samples, which is just one of many potential limitations to research in this area.
In any case, the most popular theory of causation today is called the brain-sex theory. The brain-sex theory holds that transsexuality is essentially biological in origin. It might be thought of as (in the words of Milton Diamond) an “intersex condition of the brain.” The theory is based on the understanding that sex differentiation of the genitalia and sex differentiation of the brain occurs at different stages of fetal development. The idea is that perhaps in rare instances the genitals develop in one direction while the brain develops in the other direction.
In support of this theory, the most widely-cited studies have been on neuroanatomical structures of the brain. Proponents believe that differences in size and volume of cells in specific regions of the brain suggest a biological basis for etiology. Other studies in support of the brain-sex theory have been conducted as well, and I discuss these in greater detail in the book that will be out in June.
There are other theories of causation that do not receive as much attention. They tend to be multifactorial models with more consideration given to psychosocial factors. Proponents of these models suggest there are–in addition to prenatal/biological considerations–differences in areas such as temperament, level of anxiety, sensory reactivity, same-gender parental identification and modeling, and early childhood trauma that may also be part of the picture.
I also want to acknowledge that research is not conducted in a vacuum. It is conducted in a sociocultural context. Today that context is one in which identity has emerged as particularly salient. It has figured prominently in what Cressida Heyes refers to as the “gay liberation movement,” which focused historically on equality for gay and lesbian persons: “Visible early lesbian and gay activists emphasized the immutable and essential natures of their sexual identities. For some, they were a distinctively different natural kind of person, with the same rights as heterosexuals (another natural kind) to find fulfillment in marriage, property ownership, and so on.” This kind of focus on identity can also be part of the motivation to conduct research with a focus on biological bases for gender dysphoria. That is, there would then be a more identity-focused discussion of transgender kinds of persons that can be distinguished from cisgender kinds of persons. My sense is that in the minds of many proponents of transgender interests, research on biology lends itself to the kind of argument in favor of an “essential nature” related to gender identity.
I think the most accurate answer to the question of causation is this: We don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. While the research in this area has been going on for many years now, there just is not that much data to point to for a final word on causation.
When I think of Jeremy, the person I was talking to who had been told by Christian leaders that he chose his experience of gender incongruence, I have to urge those who minister to people like him to resist the pressure to have the answer at that moment. It is okay to not know what causes a person’s experience of gender dysphoria. I say this to people all the time. I have found it much more helpful to take a posture of humility about causation and to focus on care. To do this, you could always ask the person, What would it mean for you to know what caused your experiences of gender dysphoria? This question may open up a more helpful discussion of meaning and purpose that may guide efforts to provide support as the person navigates questions of gender identity.
Note: This blog post is Part 3 of a series. If you found this interesting, you may want to read Part 1 and Part 2. Also of interest may be a recent talk I gave at Calvin College titled Understanding Gender Dysphoria. The book I mentioned can be pre-ordered through IVP or Amazon.