Monday, 2 February 2009

On How Not to Study Transgender, or, Science: Ur Doin It Rong

So, for my work, I occasionally read journal articles. A pretty random selection of subjects, but one of the most interesting is neurology. I don't understand a lot of the finer scientific nuancess. I'm not a neurologist, and I haven't studied science since my Chemistry, Biology and Physics A-levels (I went on to do English Lit, mixed with feminism and queer theory - go figure). However, I am a big fan of science in general (a huge field, admittedly), although with the caveat that it needs to be engaged with critically. I'd like to point out right now that this could potentially be an upsetting read, as the nature of scientific studies of this kind is incredibly dehumanising. I do not want to erase the lived experience of trans lives - I merely want to point out how an understanding of these lived experiences is, in my opinion, a neccessity for studying transgenderism in any serious way.

A prime example of this would be the December edition of Brain, a leading neurology journal. Naturally, when I saw an article on gender identity, my interest was instantly piqued - as you may or may not have guessed from my blog so far, this is a subject close to my heart. Even better, the scientific commentary (an article discussing implications of new research at the beginning of the journal) was focussed on this particular piece of research. So, whilst I didn't expect the article to show any awareness of gender theory in particular, I thought that it was definitely good that this was being paid serious attention in a mainstream publication.

I was, needless to say, disappointed.

It was a reasonably orthodox piece of research - comparing the hypothalamic uncinate nuclei of transgender and cisgender brains to see if structural differences could be found between cis- and trans- subjects. The article throughout uses the term 'transexual' instead of transgender. It was briefly mentioned that 8 of the transwomen subjects had undergone surgery and hormonal treatment, one had been on hormones, and "one person with gender-identity dysphoria who had not undergone hormonal treatment" (the clear implication being that this woman was not 'truly trans'). This is exceedingly important, as hormonal changes can have an effect on the brain, as well as brain structure affecting hormone production. The authors of the research have this to say about transgenderism, which in my opinion speaks volumes about their underlying assumptions and lack of prior knowledge when they undertook this research:
"Transsexuality is the most extreme gender-identity disorder, distinguished by the unshakable conviction of belonging to the opposite sex, which often leads to a request for sex-reassignment surgery (Blanchard, 1993; Cohen-Kettenis and Gooren, 1999)."
The second major flaw was the sampling involved; 42 subjects in all, 14 control males, 11 control females, 11 MTF subjects, 1 FTM subject, and finally, 5 cismen who had been castrated due to prostate cancer.

You don't need to be a gender theorist to see the problems with this sampling. Firstly, there is no way to draw any kind of conclusion using only one transman in the study, and strongly implies a tokenism on the part of the researchers, which was also reflected in their single example of a woman who had not been on hormones. Once again, this privileges biological differences, rather than lived experience (arguably neccessary, but in my opinion, kind of missing the point about transgenderism. It's not about what's in your pants).

Secondly, transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria from a very early age, usually from childhood. To compare transwomen with men castrated after an illness usually contracted later in life is an outrage, and also pointless - unless you believe that 'maleness' lies in the bollocks (which, coincidentally, is the most concise way of describing my feelings on this theory). Once again, the research is undermined by a total lack of knowledge of the lives and experiences of trans individuals. Additionally, this implies that all transpeople involved in this study had undergone surgery, and by inference, that all transpeople have surgery, and if they have not, that they are not 'truly trans'.

The conclusion of this research? Considerable overlap between the subjects. We're apparently not actually all that different from each other, although, as expected, there were some similarities between cis- and trans- women. Clearly there was no meaningful conclusion possible between the single transman and the 11 cis-men, especially as their research was apparently confused by the fact that the transman was "homosexual" (I am going to be kind to the researchers, and assume they mean he was a gay man, rather than a lesbian), particularly as there have also been studies showing similarities between gay men and women in this area. So, all in all, there are more variations within a group than between them. Which is something I've always suspected. Who, after all, has a 'female' brain? Either all women, by virtue of being female, or none of them, as there is no such thing as a 'female' brain. Same for men.

The Scientific Commentary on this research was, if possible, even worse. After summing up the research, the author does something particularly horrible, and the saddest thing was that I wasn't particularly surprised. Shocked, yes, outraged, yes, but surprised no, as I think it's something we've all heard before. I will reproduce his final paragraph in it's entirety, as it can speak for itself. I have no comment (or at lease, I have plenty of comment, none of it printable, and any person reading this blog of a similar persuasion can probably guess the gist of it).
One day, someone may uncover a neural feature (which we might call an abnormality) underlying other, less acceptable, traits such as paedophilia: what then? There are already suggestions that head injury before the age of 13 years is more common than usual in paedophiles (Blanchard et al., 2003).
Actually, I do have a comment. A head injury is something completely different to brain structure, and any neurologist presenting this as a valid comparison should be immediately fired. Also, where did this guy get the picture that transgender is 'acceptable' in our society? Tell that to the living who, every single day, experience vile prejudice and violence. Tell that to our countless dead.

So why is this kind of research important, given the completely inconclusive results?

I think that the answer to this lies clearly in the Scientific Commentary's final paragraph. Research may be neutral - what is subsequently done with it is not. Already we have scientists trying to turn sheep gay, presumably in order to find a genetic 'cure' for queers. I personally don't believe that it is possible to isolate one cause for the magnificent spectrum of gender and sexuality. I don't think it's even desirable. If it were known what, precisely, lay behind our glorious diversity, it would be inevitable that someone would try and alter it, or prevent it, as there are so many out there who abhor our existence.

We are not problems, we do not need 'fixing'. We are you.


  1. I wish I had something more constructive to say besides "ARGH!" but, well, ARGH!

    I believe in the scientific method and its ability to discover things about our world, even things with societal aspects, but it only works if you're not an idiot when you set up your study. Seriously, who looks at that sample set and says, "yup, I've got all the important categories here"?

    That grant could've gone to somebody willing to do REAL science. *grumble grumble grumble...*

    In other news, hi, and welcome to the blogosphere! I'm from Gender Goggles and I've added you to my personal RSS reader. Looking forward to see what else you write!

    <3 eloriane

  2. Nice post. Without actually having read the study, I get the sense that you've hit the nail on the head. The sample sizes are ridiculously small, and the logic behind the comparisons seems a bit odd. The last paragraph is particularly odd-- how the hell did they get on the subject of pedophilia? I guess I shouldn't expect better from researchers that are citing Bailey and Blanchard as experts.

  3. Hi both! Thanks for dropping by. Eloriane, I've actually visited your blog before, and written bits and pieces on Itty Bitty Titty Committee (at least I'm pretty sure that as your blog - I recommended By Hook Or By Crook?)

    Eastsidekate, that was the part that most disgusted and confused me - there was no link whatsoever. The last paragraph was just tacked on, as if to link one 'abnormality' to another. This was, to me, a clear indication that the research would likely be used as a means of 'curing abnormalities', or at least, an extension of the old argument that "If you accept that trans/gay people were born like that, then it logically follows that we should accept other deviancies, such as adults molesting children as a 'natural sexuality'."

    Which is offensive to all of us, IMHO. GRRR!

    Why can scientists not even manage basic research? They probably think Sheila Jefferys is a respected researcher in the field.