It’s Undergraduate Week at Nursing Clio! All this week we are proud to bring you amazing work written by students at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. Students wrote their essays as part a “Transgender Issues” course taught by Elizabeth Reis. Today we feature an essay by Elyse DeGrazier.
New research has recently come out examining sex differences in the brain. On November 30, 2015, the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences published the findings of Daphna Joel, a psychobiologist from Tel Aviv University and her colleagues, asserting that there is no such thing as a “female brain” or a “male brain.” Even in areas of the brain previously thought to show differences based on sex, they concluded that there is more variability than consistency. “Our study demonstrates that although there are sex/gender differences in brain structure, brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, nor are they aligned along a ‘male brain–female brain’ continuum,” the researchers wrote.1 Neuroscientist Lise Eliot confirmed these findings, which may contradict what we have previously heard. Eliot writes in Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — And What We Can Do About It, that the studies of the male/female brain published in scientific journals that garner attention in the media are those that confirm our gender stereotypes. “No difference” doesn’t usually get reported.
The Saturday after the study came out, SNL included it in their news segment, the Weekend Update. Comedian Michael Che reported, “A new study finds that scientists examining scans of human brains could not tell the difference between the male brain and the female brain.” Then Che leans in and says, “In fact, the only way you can tell the male brain from the female brain is that if you look very very closely, the female brain always be shopping. Am I right?” Then the camera pans to Colin Jost, cracking up along with the audience. It was a funny moment, poignantly revealing our cultural tendency to dismiss and laugh away that which challenges our assumptions.
I think it is important to call attention to this research as it is the first to examine the brain overall rather than narrow in on one specific area. Also, it comes at a time when there is renewed interest in finding sex differences in the brain. As the Time Magazine Cover declared in May of 2015, as a society we are at a “Transgender Tipping Point.” Celebrities coming out as transgender have generated media coverage and created unprecedented visibility for trans people. It has also sparked dialogue about what gender means.
Where is gender located? As a culture we act with certainty about something that once examined is actually somewhat uncertain. Proud parents rush to tell the world who their child will be through clever gender reveals on Facebook or elaborate parties. Yet, chromosomes + genitals + hormones do not always add up to one gender or the other. Rather, they come together in complicated ways for many of us, not including the roughly 1 in 2000 people who are born intersex. Some people locate gender in creation stories “And God made them female and male…” Others locate gender as a system of oppression that determines anyone without a phallus as a woman (and therefore “less than”). What (I hope) we’re learning from hearing the stories of transgender people in the media is that who people know themselves to be may or may not agree with the sex they were assigned to be at birth. Biologist and trans activist Julia Serano calls this knowing a “subconscious sex,” or the sex we feel ourselves to be.
Since the Enlightenment, the general consensus has been that there are two sexes. This notion has been so oft repeated that the binary of male and female is now taken for granted. We construct and then confirm this reality through socialization. Serano writes, “thus, the primary role of socialization is not to produce gender difference de novo, but to create the illusion that female and male are mutually exclusive, ‘opposite’ sexes.”
Think for a moment about the implications of the question, “Are you attracted to people of the same sex or the opposite?” Not the outcome (someone being homosexual or heterosexual) but rather the belief that the question itself underscores. As a society, we no longer hold true blanket statements such as, “Men are good at math and women are not.” Yet, through science, socialization, and our use of language, we still hold on to the false idea these statements underpin, that men and women are opposites. Lise Elliot suggests while there is no male brain/female brain that perhaps the synapses and connections in our brain, not visible on an MRI, are what account for the differences we see in males and females. As we learn and gain new experiences the circuitry is rewired and our brains change. Our synapses are affected by both nature and nurture. What comes first? It’s hard to tell. As Julia Serano says, “it seems to me more accurate to say that in many cases socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist.” If men and women aren’t opposite, what does that mean about transgender desire?
First, for those of us who have lived our lives with our subconscious and bodily sex aligned we have to acknowledge our blind spots; we don’t know what it feels like to be trans. Secondly, no matter how much I as a feminist am tempted to say that the whole gender thing is simply a construct, transgender people show us that difference exists between male and female. The pain that comes from “being born in the wrong body” is not insignificant nor can it be ameliorated through therapy.
In the narrative of a culture that holds men and women as opposites, transgender people must take a long journey across a Grand Canyon of gender difference. We can see that in this version of the story, to cross over is a radical act of transgression. In fact, it has been. As a result, transgender people have suffered violence, imprisonment, homelessness, poverty, and even death. They are the gender migrants who are most often refused a passport by society.
For a moment, if you will, imagine with me a transgender experience in a culture that holds men and women as being different but with so much variation that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that means. Gender is considered a felt knowing instead of two poles on opposite ends of a spectrum. I envision this as a much shorter distance to travel with far lower stakes. Perhaps we can loosen our pink and blue version of reality just a little bit to make more lives, more gender expressions possible.
- Stephanie Pappas, “Your Brain Is a Mosaic of Male and Female,” Live Science (December 1, 2015). Return to text.