The Origins of Transgender: Hormones and Gender Identity
Are hormones the determining factor in what makes us transgender? We previously gave you a primer on the subject in “The Origins of the Transgender Condition“. Now we are going to go into further detail while providing you with the best known information from some of the leading scientists and authorities on the subject.
Did you know that everyone is born with the neurological pathways to become both male and female? Did you also know that many of the parts for each sex are still inside us all? To further understand, we need to first take a look at some basic biology and chromosomes.
For this section we will refer to the research of Eric Kandel. He is a professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is also a Nobel Prize Winner for his research in Neuroscience.
We are all born with an undifferentiated gonad which is not yet male or female.
The Undifferentiated Gonad
We are aware there is a male gonad (testis) and a female gonad (ovaries). However we are all born with an undifferentiated gonad which is not yet male or female. This is where the chromosomes come in. If you have “XX” chromosomes, your undifferentiated gonad will develop into female ovaries. If you have “XY” chromosomes, your undifferentiated gonad will develop into male testis. In the interest of keeping things simple for the moment we are going to stay in a binary perspective and hold off on getting into the various intersex combinations of chromosomes at this time.
With “XY” chromosomes, male development (the formation of the testis) is triggered after 7 weeks in utero. At this point the testis send a massive blast of testosterone equal to that of puberty. This testosterone blast masculinizes the brain and causes the body to develop with male characteristics.
With “XX” chromosomes, female development (the formation of the ovaries) is also triggered after 7 weeks. The ovaries develop and begin to secrete both estrogen and progesterone. These hormones feminize the brain and cause the female body to develop.
At this point things get interesting. We will reference the work of Norman Spack, MD. He is the Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Clinical Director of the Endocrine Division at Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA.
Spack shows us that at birth, the male receives a second blast of testosterone which the female does not. After this phase there is no more hormone induced development until puberty. What is fascinating is that we do not yet know why the males get this second testosterone blast just after birth. The challenge is that we cannot measure the hormones without harming the patient. We also cannot measure the ability of the body’s hormone receptors to receive these hormones without also harming the patient.
So we are now able to establish the fact that though the chromosomes play the role of of the blueprint for the body, it is hormones that begins the development and effects of gender. At puberty, the hormone process starts up again. The hormone system works like a relay. You have the hypothalamus in the brain, which sends signals to your pituitary, which then sends a hormone to your gonads (ovaries or testes) which then secrete sex hormones (Estrogen or Testosterone).
Professor Hines found that the presence of testosterone plays a major role in the development of gender identity.
Professor Melissa Hines of Cambridge University researches gender development and the prenatal influences that affect it. Her research shows that both genetic factors and hormones during early development affect gender identity. She also found that social encouragement and self-socialization based on gender identity affects later development. Professor Hines found that the presence of testosterone plays a major role in the development of gender identity. She discerns that gender identity is affected by the hormone blasts that occur prenatally and immediately after birth. Her research also found this exposure affects behaviors during childhood.
Professor Hines studied female children with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH); a genetic disease where the girls have a high exposure to androgens (testosterone), and compared them to children who do not have the condition. She found that girls with CAH were just as likely to choose toys made for boys as a male control group. She also found in a study of 9000 children that in girls who displayed more masculine tendencies, their mothers had higher levels of testosterone. Most importantly her study found that girls that were exposed to more testosterone in development had a reduced female identity.
Catherine Dulac is a professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. Her work has shown that the neural pathways to be both male and female exist in the brain. She only found a few parts in the brain that differ between men and women. In studies on mice, she found neurons in the brain that control maternal behavior that exist in both females and males. Her research also found that females are spontaneously paternal while the males are not. She discovered that if you activate these neurons in a specific way, males can also become spontaneously paternal just as the females.
Dulac also experimented with hormones. She discovered that hormones can determine the development potential for male or female behavior at an early age. She also found that hormones will determine expression of that behavior later in life. Her research determined 3 things:
- Development of male sexual behavior requires that the brain of a newborn mouse is exposed to testosterone, but development of female behavior does not require estrogen.
- Testosterone masculinizes the nervous systems of both genetic males and genetic females.
- Exposure to sex steroid hormones in adulthood is necessary for the expression of sexual behavior, but testosterone produces male behavior only in adult mice whose brains were masculinized when they were newborns, and estrogen produces female sexual behavior only in adult mice whose brains were not masculinized when they were newborns.
The study concluded that the sex steroid hormones that are present at the time of birth determine which pattern of behavior develops and the sex steroids that are present in adulthood determine which pattern is expressed.
We can conclude that prenatal hormones have a profound effect on gender identity. However we do need to further understand what happens during the second hormone blast at childbirth and it’s affect on the masculine identity. Below is a video from Charlie Rose and his Brain Series which includes the scientists and the studies mentioned in this article.