The causes of the transgender condition

As a civilization, we have definitively detailed and deconstructed millions of physical processes: everything from photosynthesis to fertilization, nuclear fission to solar power. However, there is one physical structure which we are nowhere near understanding: the human brain and its principal interface – the mind.

Many processes which involve the human brain cannot be categorised or described in simple terms. In fact, there are many elements of our mental life that we are so far from understanding we do not even have the vocabulary with which to discuss them. I will illustrate this with an example from the animal kingdom.

We are all familiar with nature documentaries that show thousands of beach nesting birds such as cormorants packed together on a remote strip of coast. Sometimes on these beaches a female hatches her eggs, but unfortunately, all the chicks die. When this happens she will start scouring the beach for any chicks that have been ejected from their nest or who have lost their parents. Upon finding such a chick she will adopt it and raise it as her own.

Now, I’d like to ask you…


Why does the bird – a being with no words or concepts or ideas – move its legs and body in a search for an abandoned chick? What is directing that behaviour? Living beings are not randomly moving automatons – there is something inside their CPU (the brain) which is compelling them to execute a specific behaviour. But what is it?

Now, of course, you will answer with the only word we have to describe such behaviour: … instinct.

‘Instinct’ exemplifies the poverty of our understanding with respect to the brain – be it human or animal. It’s the sort of cause we attribute to behaviour, nodding our heads in agreement, but don’t actually know what we’re talking about. How, in physical and neurological terms, does instinct work? How does the brain indicate to the being that situation A has occurred and in situation A an animal with gender B must execute behaviour X? And if you know the answer then you better start booking your flight to Oslo to receive your Nobel prize.

And the point for transgender people is?

You may be wondering what this all has to do with notions of transgender. I will tell you. Our belief that gender is all about genitalia is really just down to our ignorance of the human brain. Just the same way we describe an animal behaviour as instinct because we don’t really understand it, we fix on the genitalia because we don’t understand the science of gender (and, as creatures who practice and seek sexual reproduction we are intrinsically drawn to genitalia, whatever the issue.)

But all it takes is deductive reasoning to see that there must be an extra component of gender we haven’t yet discovered, and that this component must be situated in the brain and be unique to each gender. And I don’t mean what has long been known – that male and female brains are different – I mean that there is a part of the brain responsible for that being’s sense of gender, and its function is to ensure that instinctive behaviors belonging to that gender are carried out.

So, if we return to the sea bird, both parents have lost their young… but does the father go trawling the beach looking for a lost chick? No. Why not? Because he is male, and male cormorants are not programmed to do that. And how can we describe that programing? It’s not like his genitalia are pointing him to walk in the opposite direction from the search for the chick… it is clearly a brain process: if you are female then behaviour x is executed, if you are male then behaviour y.

This means that the brain, in order to ascribe the correct behaviour, must have a part of its structure that recognises the rest of its body is male. And let’s face it… it’s not going to be a system of recognition that involves looking down and seeing its own genitalia and then executing behaviour x because, having seen its genitalia it now realises it’s a male and must do x. Much more probable is a hardwired neural structure we shall call the gender core. It is here that the various peripherals of gender (amongst them – the genitalia) are directed towards the uses for which they exist.

Another tantalising indication of gender core are sex steroid experiments on animals in fetal life and early infancy (Hormones and the development of sex differences in behavior – Elizabeth Adkins-Regan 2007). By depriving the animal of androgens at this key stage, the animal then goes on to develop behaviours of the opposite sex with respect to reproduction (for example, the male will not mount but instead try to receive). This may lead you to think that behavior is all in the hormones… but here’s the fascinating thing: … even if you ensure adult levels of androgen are correct, the animal still displays the anomalous behaviour. What does this tell us?

This tells us that it is not the hormones alone affecting behaviour, but the hormones in conjunction with an unknown agent. If it was the hormones alone then the correction of hormonal levels would restore the appropriate behaviour. But it doesn’t. Something in the animal was irreversibly affected in fetal development by the manipulation of hormone levels – some biological mechanism related to gender induced behaviour. That is what we call the gender core.

If you immediately cry foul then I would remind you there are many precedents for theoretical mechanisms which have never been located or definitively proven to exist – but are treated with the utmost seriousness by academics. These range from imaginative concepts such as ‘the subconscious’ all the way to neural networks such as ‘facial recognition software’. Science advances by educated leaps of the imagination which inspire a theorist to formulate the existence of a causal mechanism. Later researchers prove (or disprove) the theory… but if people don’t hypothesise first we have nothing to test.

I hypothesize that the causal mechanism in gender variance is the gender core, and as soon as you accept the high probability it exists, it is easy to understand what transgender is. Just as nature can produce intersex individuals with two genitalia or people of either hetero or homo-sexual persuasion, it can produce humans  who are born with a gender core that is different to the gender which their genitalia suggests. That is why they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

If you are skeptical, then the principle evidence we have for the gender core is the existence of transgender infants. With late onset transsexuals and gender fluid individuals it’s easy to argue that the origins of their condition is some kind of faulty thinking – a delusion without physical basis. However, children are not delusional. They are crazy, they believe in imaginary friends and all kinds of shit, but they are not delusional. Delusions are an affliction of adult minds because they require language and concepts and chains of logic (albeit fuzzy logic) which the child does not have. Thus, when a four year old boy proclaims that he is a girl or suddenly appears in the lounge wearing a dress, it is not the result of some long, complicated chain of thought; it is, like the bird’s behavior… instinct… and it must be caused by some kind of brain function which involves gender identification and gender directed behavior. What else could be motivating this behavior?

Should you point to something I just said – imaginary friends, and try to put their conception of gender in the same category, I would point out that kids always grow out of their imaginary friend and understand he doesn’t exist. Evidence shows that the transgender child does not ‘grow out’ of the idea they belong to a different gender. Both the persistence and duration of their gender identification suggests this is an integral part of their being, hardwired into their brain, which will last until the day they die… and that is because it is not an idea or a delusion… but a physical phenomena in which their body does not match their gender core.

A summary of the argument

  1. There are certain behaviors which are instinctive in living beings.
  2. Some of these behaviors are gender specific.
  3. In order to execute these instincts – the brain must have an ability to recognise and direct gender driven behaviour.
  4. That ability is not going to be based on a visual recognition… ‘I have a vagina therefore I am a female and will execute behaviour X.’ Neither can it be sexual attraction/instinct (ie. I am attracted to the bull I must be female) because animal homosexuality is rife and well documented.
  5. While we can not say with certainty the process involved, it is probable that it involves a physical part of the brain we call the gender core.
  6. The transgender brain contains the gender core of a gender different than that associated with their genitalia.

This essay is part of ‘The Felix Conrad Collection.’ Buy it now….

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  1. Fascinating discussion, and yes, I believe you are onto something important here.

    Often gender identity is reduced to a function of:

    1. Sexual orientation
    2. Interests, temperament and abilities

    But we know that there is no one to one relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation, and we know that men and women share all types of interests, temperaments and abilities. If there is any difference at all between the genders as regards psychology, that is on an aggregated statistical level. None of these factors explain gender identity.

    This leaves us with two possible explanations:

    1. Gender identity is the end product of a mix of a large number of factors and we have no way of determining what causes what. This would explain why some people fall between the chairs of male and female.

    2. We are instinctually wired for experiencing our lives as men or women, but this instinct is open to different cultures and different environments. This instinct would be a bit like our ability to learn a language. We have a drive towards orienting ourselves as men or women, but what this entails is not rooted in biology.

    The fact that some people identify as nonbinary is no more of a mystery than bisexuality. Even in this model the instinct will be determined by a large number of factors of various intensity, resulting in much diversity, also as regards experienced identity.

    I must admit that the very existence of severe gender dysphoria makes me conclude the way you do: There is a biological component to gender identity.

  2. Vulcan Princess Reply

    I agree, this is a fantastic post and one I needed to read. I doubt myself and my identity often, exploring my foggy, repressed memories in search of a reason to prove to myself and to the world that I am really a woman (in the body of a male-at least in terms of genitals and sex characteristics). But far too often, I find myself believing that I’m a male who somehow twisted a fetish into the desire to be female. Its difficult when memory is so subjective.

    There are studies that show trans women’s brains functioning as their experienced gender, meaning they function more as women than as their “actual” gender, according to their genitals, and the complimentary conclusion for trans men.

    If only we could convince the rest of the world that it is they who are being inconsiderate, not us. We do not force our identity on them, as they claim when they refuse to accept us as valid and real, instead they deny us our rights and freedom of expression, in a way similar to the women’s and civil rights movements of the past.

  3. I am in fundamental agreement with you on this Felix. There is such a thing as a gender core and it is irrespective of physical sex. It would help explain why young children insist they are girls when they are physically boys (and vice versa). But I do think that gender core exists likely on a spectrum where some individuals are between genders and others more solidly oriented towards one gender of the other. This would help explain why we see such varied behavior out there.

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