Sunday, January 19, 2014

All I Know Is That I Don't Understand; Am I a Boy, Girl, Woman or Man?

Laura Jane Grace:

MARTIN: Laura, these feelings that you were in the wrong body started a long time ago, when you were very young, right?

GRACE: My earliest memories are of dysphoria.

MARTIN: How did it take shape for you then?

GRACE: I vividly remember — I was probably about four years old, lived in Texas at the time — and there was a live Madonna concert being broadcast on TV. And I just remember feeling self-recognition: "That's me," you know? "That's me, and that's what I want to do." And, at the same time, realizing that there was a misalignment between recognizing yourself in someone and realizing, "But I'm a little boy." I don't think I ever heard the word "transgender" until I was way in my teens; the concept had never even dawned on me. But immediately, when you have those feelings, you feel shame. I'm not sure if I was taught that, necessarily, but it was an immediate thing: wanting to play with Barbie dolls when you're young, and knowing that your dad wants you to play with G.I. Joes. It was something that was immediately internalized.

I've always wondered about that "born in the wrong body" concept — is it just an clumsy metaphor, or do people truly believe it? This article by Robert Sapolsky adds a twist to the materialist perspective that "you" are indistinguishable from "your body":

In the 1990s, scientists began to compare these sexually dimorphic regions in the brains of transsexuals and the rest of humanity. Early work in this area required the examination of brains postmortem; recent studies use images of the living brain.

The results show that when individuals of Sex A—despite having the chromosomes, gonads and sex hormones of that sex—insist that they're really Sex B, the gender-affected parts of the brain typically more closely resemble what's usually seen with Sex B.

Consider an obscure brain region called the forceps minor (part of the corpus callosum, a mass of fibers that connect the brain's two hemispheres). On average, among nontranssexuals, the forceps minor of males contains parallel nerve fibers of higher density than in females. But the density in female-to-male transsexuals is equivalent to that in typical males.

As another example, the hypothalamus, a hormone-producing part of the brain, is activated in nontranssexual men by the scent of estrogen, but in women—and male-to-female transsexuals—by the scent of androgens, male-associated hormones.

Okay, but I still wonder, though — what does it mean to "feel" like a woman due to those brain differences? Does it result in a phantom-limb sort of sensation, where the brain discerns the presence of body parts that aren't actually there? Does it imply some sort of essential "feminine" way of experiencing the world? What would that be like, then? In Grace's anecdote, assuming it can be taken at face value, four years old would seem to be a little young to have already been indoctrinated with traditional notions of gender. What about Madonna would have triggered a feeling of recognition and identification, as opposed to any of the other women she would have already encountered? The part about favoring Barbies as opposed to G.I. Joes, as well as Grace's post-announcement choice to present herself in typically feminine ways (makeup, hair, clothing), presumably to make the "outer" match the "inner", seems to hint that such things aren't quite as socially constructed as a rival gender-studies perspective would claim.

As a lesbian friend said to me recently with a touch of weariness, "Trans is the new gay." Meaning, there's a lot more heat than light surrounding the subject right now, so it's probably best to step aside and just observe as the essentialists, social constructionists, progressives and conservatives all fight it out over what it all means.