Viewpoint: Why we need to know more about transgenderism and genetics

“Transgender.” Just a few years ago, one hardly ever heard or saw that word in the news media. Now, hardly a week goes by without encountering at least one mainstream news story on this peculiar subject.

In early 2015, stories about the gender transition of Bruce Jenner, the 65-year-old former Olympian, were all over the news. Most of these stories focused on salacious rumors about Jenner’s transition, paparazzi photographs showing his painted fingernails or signs of breast growth beneath his shirt, or concerns within the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community about the “spectacle” of it all.

Bruce Jenner TransformationIt did indeed seem like an out-of-control media spectacle in the days leading up to Jenner’s highly anticipated public “coming out” TV extravaganza, marked by appearances on Good Morning America and capped by a two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s 20/20 on April 24, 2015. Jenner revealed personal info about “the journey, the decisions, the future”; the Kardashian clan was reported to be worried about how Jenner’s comments might affect the reality-TV family’s reputation; and the first photo secretly obtained of Jenner wearing a dress was pasted across the Internet.

One thing I did not see in any of these breathless stories about Jenner was a serious, scientific discussion about the possible causes of transgenderism, including genetic influences.

The author

As a 55-year-old individual who has struggled with my gender identity for more than 40 years—still without completely resolving the struggle or conflict—I have long been curious about the causes of transgenderism. My curiosity stands in contrast to most of my transgender friends—many of whom have fully transitioned (unlike myself). They generally show no interest in what caused them to be the way they are, and they tell me that I should stop worrying about causes and simply accept it and be happy about it. But I can’t do that.

Perhaps it is my background in science that makes me need to ask, “Why do I have these feminine feelings? Why do I like to wear women’s clothes? Why do I sometimes live as a woman, and why do I sometimes want to become fully female?”

Media incuriosity or fear?

With the increasing media attention being given to the T in LGBT, one would think such answers would be fairly easy to find these days. But that would be an incorrect assumption. Like my transgender friends, almost all media reports on this matter simply acknowledge how wonderful it is for transgender people to express themselves, and how wrong it is for transgender people to be discriminated against. I agree with those sentiments. But where is the scientific curiosity about the gender identity issue?

As with homosexuality, media reports about transgenderism almost never ask “Why?” Why are some people homosexual or transgendered? Might it be related in some way to certain experiences while growing up? Is it something in their genes? If so, what exactly? It is considered politically incorrect—a sign of intolerance and bigotry—to ask such questions. That’s what I have been told by a number of people who work in both journalism and science. And whenever I have raised such questions in LGBT online discussion boards, I have been shot down with angry comments, such as “There is no such research!” “Stop asking those stupid questions!” “Who cares anyway?” “What are you, a troll bigot?”

Geez! That kind of ignorant, willingly blind attitude drives me crazy! (Also driving me crazy is the way the media lumps together all forms of transgenderism as a single, monolithic issue. News flash: “Transgender” can mean a wide variety of things. For example, a transvestite and a transsexual are both transgender, but they are very different. One enjoys dressing like a woman but considers himself male; the other actually wants to be a woman and considers himself female. And there are some people, like me, who are caught somewhere between the two—not exactly sure which one best applies to us.)

Personally, I tend to agree with Lady Gaga that LGBT people were “born this way.” I suspect that certain gene mutations or other congenital factors (such as certain unusual conditions in the womb) result in tendencies toward various types of transgenderism or homosexuality. Nevertheless, I still want to know what the latest science says about this matter. But reports of such science are rarely encountered in the mass media, such as television or newspapers.

Every now and then, however, one does hear or see stories about scientific findings regarding LGBT issues. The best chance of finding these stories is through the use of carefully targeted Internet searches.

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Gay and transgender genes?

In 2014, several media outlets carried reports of an interesting study of 409 pairs of homosexual brothers. (This study was formally published in the May 2015 issue of Psychological Medicine.) The researchers found evidence that sexual orientation in men is influenced by certain single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) on chromosome 8 and the X chromosome. This study was described by New Scientist in November 2014 as “the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay.”

But even New Scientist, though it properly covered the research findings, felt the need to editorialize: “Ultimately, what causes homosexuality doesn’t matter as much as the fact that homosexual people exist, and have always existed, in every society on earth. In the words of the activists: some people are gay. Get over it.”

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Is it necessary to add such aggressive, activist, off-putting commentary to a science story? I think not. I also think it is wrong for an allegedly scientific publication to proclaim that a scientific finding on any subject “doesn’t matter.”

Regarding my personal interest in LGBT matters, Rolling Stone ran a brief, although welcomed, article in July 2014 titled “The Science of Transgender: Understanding The Causes of Being Transgender.” Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely noted:

…a growing body of research is pointing to biological origins. The 2008 discovery by Australian researchers of a genetic variation in transgender women—their receptor gene for the sex hormone testosterone was longer, making it less efficient at communicating signals—set off speculation that insufficient uptake of male hormones in utero contributed to a “more feminised brain.” And the brains of trans people do look different. Recent Spanish imaging studies have shown that the white matter of untreated trans men look much like those of biological males, and that the patterns of trans women’s white matter fell about halfway between those of biological male and female control groups.

Erdely also noted that the role of genetics in shaping transgender identity remains very much unknown, noting, “a recent survey of identical twins found that only in 20 percent of cases did both twins turn out transgender, despite having identical DNA.”

Such media reports are refreshing, because they at least indicate to the public that science is trying to figure out a subject that is usually discussed in only political or social terms. Even if the science is currently too complex for even scientists to understand—with unknown interactions of genetic and environmental influences—it is important that writers in the media honestly convey that information to the public. Why keep it a secret? Any kind of information based on scientific evidence is always good to share.

LGBT objections

Unfortunately, some people in the LGBT community object to studies that investigate the genetic roots of gender or sexual identity. Perhaps that is why these kinds of studies get so little coverage in the mainstream media—and maybe also why there are so few such studies to begin with. Look at some of the seemingly fearful, who-cares-about-science comments in reaction to a November 2014 Huffington Post story about the Psychological Medicine gay brothers study:

  • “On the question of whether being gay is a choice or not, does it matter? Do people really need to validate their actions and lives in the eyes of others?”
  • “Born this way – now leave em alone.”
  •  “So, are there genes that cause heterosexuality? I find this entire inquiry strange: Why not look for genes that affect sexuality, instead of homosexuality? It’s like white people trying to explain black people by looking for a gene that made them different/black. (implying that one would be normal and everything else is deviation from the norm.)”
  • “But…so what? Why does it matter why a person is gay or not? What possible use could this info have other than something that I shudder to contemplate?”

Such public comments are disheartening. Scientific knowledge should always matter—to everyone. And it should never be feared—for any reason. To quote renowned psychologist and author Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature quoting Chekhov, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

We need much more scientific research into the causes—genetic and otherwise—of homosexual and transgender behaviors, as well as all other forms of human behavior and sexuality. Why? Because knowledge about human behavior and sexuality is essential to understanding what being human is all about. And investigating what it means to be human is one of the noblest quests of science. Then, after the science, we need honest media reports about this research—free from political agendas, advocacy, or fear mongering.

In a story about the Psychological Medicine gay brothers study in February 2014, The Guardian included insightful comments by Qazi Rahman, a psychologist at King’s College London:

“This is not controversial or surprising and is nothing people should worry about. All human psychological traits are heritable, that is, they have a genetic component,” he said. “Genetic factors explain 30 to 40% of the variation between people’s sexual orientation. However, we don’t know where these genetic factors are located in the genome. So we need to do ‘gene finding’ studies, like this one by Sanders, Bailey and others, to have a better idea where potential genes for sexual orientation may lie.”

Rahman rejected the idea that genetics research could be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. “I don’t see how genetics would contribute more to the persecution, discrimination and stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people any more than social, cultural or learning explanations. Historically, the persecution and awful treatment of LGBT groups has been because politicians, religious leaders and societies have viewed sexual orientation as ‘choice’ or due to poor upbringing.”

I would go a bit further, by offering my own version of FDR’s famous proclamation: “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear of science itself.”

A version of this article previously appeared on the GLP on April 23, 2015.

A. J. Smuskiewicz is a freelance writer specializing in science and medicine, including issues of human sexuality and gender. His website is

19 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Why we need to know more about transgenderism and genetics”

    • Thanks very much for the links! I know there has been research on this subject, and these links are useful for exploring this further. But my main point in this article is that the research information is not being properly conveyed to the public by the
      mainstream, commonly viewed or read media.

  1. Very good article I think it is important to understand why people are straight, gay, trans, or cisgender because sexuality and gender identity are so important to who we are as individuals. Although with regard to gender I don’t think stereotypical prefences for clothing or behavior has a biological basis.

  2. While I like your article, and can understand why you find the reactions to your wanting to know the origins of transgender and homosexual behaviour and identities disheartening, I have no problem understanding why people feel this way. Science is a cultural enterprise, and it isn’t happening on a level playing field.
    The whole methodology of science is a constant striving to overcome human bias, both cognitive and social. It is an ideal that isn’t achieved, at least not fully. Not that we should stop trying.
    For people whose whole lives have been a struggle against bigotry, with that bigotry often being couched in sciencey language, it is threatening to hear talk about the why of who we are, when that question is so often pathologized.
    Asking why people are heterosexual does throw people who start talking about homosexuality, when they are themselves heterosexual, because they take for granted that they are normal, and not just the statistical norm. They have this feeling that they are ‘right’.
    Just as the anti-GMO crowd appeal to nature to defend their beliefs that genetic engineering is wrong, it happens just as much with gender and sexual orientation. And there is a prevalent feeling that nature has somehow gone wrong with us who are differently oriented when it comes to sexuality and gender.

    Science is political; It is social. It can’t be divorced into some purely objective sphere.
    As much as you want to know why you are the way you are, the lament shouldn’t be how resistant people are to this line of questioning, but that attacks on gay and transgender people are ongoing, and everything science uncovers is regularly twisted to serve the attacks.

    • I get it. But you’re still speaking from fear. And fear is the enemy of truth. Science is sometimes political, but not all the time. And even when it is, the BS aspects of that kind of science eventually end up in the trash, where they belong. True science ultimately results in real truth, which should never be feared. But you’re fearing certain social reactions to science, which science can do nothing about. If you want to deal with that kind of stuff, you have to look elsewhere for answers. I’m not going to let your fears or the fears of others get in the way of me finding out the genetic, congenital, psychological, and/or environmental reasons for something I want to know.

      • I didn’t intend to imply that we should not go ahead with that research. I’m all for understanding the why. That doesn’t mean that the fear of how such understanding might be used against non-conformists disappears. Do you think that if there were a guaranteed method available to identify gay people by genetic markers that Putin’s regime would eschew it. Not likely.

        I want to know, and at the same time I’m know there may be unintended consequences.

  3. Regarding Jenner’s interview, I could relate to a lot of what he said, as a middle-aged person who has struggled with my own gender identity since I was 10. I could also detect signs of continued confusion and
    conflict regarding his gender and sexuality in many of his comments – confusion and conflict that I have always also felt and that I probably will always feel about my own situation. He said he was a woman, yet he said he was heterosexual because he was attracted to women. I’m sure that left a lot of viewers scratching their heads. And he indicted he was unsure regarding eventual surgery. People probably wondered, if he’s a woman, why the hesitation about that?

    His interview left a lot of answered questions for the public regarding not only his situation, but the issue of transgenderism in general. I’m afraid the public is ending up even more confused after this media
    spectacle. And from what I’ve seen so far, the mass media will likely use this as an opportunity for politically correct indoctrination rather than for
    genuine education.

    We see the predictable media comments about Jenner’s bravery
    and strength and about how he should be admired and applauded. But so far, I have not heard the media ask the kind of questions about this that I think would be most helpful to advance public understanding.

    Besides the question of genetic, congenital, psychological,
    or environmental reasons for transgenderism, there are more relevant questions regarding Jenner’s particular case – and the cases of other older individuals struggling with their gender identity, such as myself.

    – What is the “success” rate of gender transitions for older
    individuals versus younger individuals?
    – Are they better off psychologically and socially after transition, or do their psychological and social problems continue – or even worsen?
    – How important is an attractive “passable” physical appearance to ultimate satisfaction with transition?
    – How many transgenders eventually regret transitioning?
    – How many self-proclaimed “transgenders” or “transsexuals”
    are really just transvestites or cross dressers?
    – How many are simply confused or conflicted as to what they really are?
    – How lucrative has the gender transition business become for therapists, endocrinologists, and surgeons?
    – What are the connections between the political, social, cultural, and scientific aspects of transgenderism?

    I realize that these are politically incorrect questions that probably make a lot of readers uncomfortable. Perhaps you are suspicious
    of my motives for asking them. But I have a great deal of personal experience in this area, and I am friends and acquaintances with many other transgender people. Although I have not conducted any original scientific studies on this matter myself, I certainly have a lot of personal and anecdotal evidence that has allowed me to develop some rather strong opinions, which you are free to agree or disagree with:

    – Many people who believe they are transsexual are in fact
    transvestites/crossdressers. They may feel like transitioning sometimes, but then the feelings go away, only to return and then go away again, over and over.

    – Generally speaking, gender reassignment/transitioning is not wise for older people (say, past their 30s). It is most successfully done when people are in their teens or 20s.

    – Anyone who is contemplating transitioning – but especially
    older people – should be extremely cautious about taking any actions that will be irreversible.

    – People who love and care about individuals who are
    struggling with gender identity and transitioning decisions should not
    necessarily think it is kind and good and understanding to support drastic decisions made by that individual. Sometimes the best way to show your love is to ask that individual very tough questions and to even oppose their decisions.

    – There are viable alternatives to gender transitioning. For
    example, I have always been conflicted about my gender, as I’ve indicated. I’m now 55, and I often wish I would have transitioned hormonally and surgically 30 years ago. But I’m not going to do it now, because the male hormones have done their damage, and I know I could not achieve the physical appearance I would desire. Perhaps it’s shallow, but it’s also a fact that we are judged by our physical appearance, and I don’t want to be stared at as some kind of oddity.

    Thus, I have achieved my own imperfect compromise… I usually live as a man, but when the feminine feelings become overpowering, I dress and live as a woman for a few days. I’m not passable, but I’m acceptable enough, I don’t force myself on people, and
    I’m careful about where I go, always respecting the rights of property owners to either welcome me or not welcome me. Those outings satisfy my female urges, until the next time…

    Life is always going to be imperfect, but we do what we can.
    As the Rolling Stones said a long time ago: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

    If Bruce Jenner was a regular Joe (or Joanna), I would feel
    sad and sorry for him. Like a lot of older transgender people, I think he is confused and conflicted, and he feels like his time is running out, and he’s not quite sure what to do…. He probably thinks that nobody understands what he’s going through, even though people are trying hard to understand and to help him. He’s probably worried about his future, about his family, and about what other people will think about him. And all that mental turmoil is causing him to make bad decisions, in my opinion.

    But Jenner is not just a regular person. He’s a media celebrity, he’s got that weird Kardashian association, and he’s gonna have a reality TV show about his transitioning. So I can’t relate to any of that.

    Still, he is a human being, he seems like a nice fellow, and
    I wish the best for him and his family. But I would not do what he is apparently planning to do.

    The Karolinska Institute has done some interesting research on this matter. To quote psychiatrist Paul McHugh about one of the institute’s studies:

    “A 2011 study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden produced the most illuminating results yet regarding the transgendered, evidence that should give advocates pause. The long-term study—up to 30 years—followed 324 people who had sex-reassignment surgery. The study revealed that beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population. This disturbing result
    has as yet no explanation but probably reflects the growing sense of isolation reported by the aging transgendered after surgery. The high suicide rate certainly challenges the surgery prescription.”

    • I love the brute honesty. It is something we need far more of. It is also something the so called most ‘tolerant’ members of our society are often the most intolerant against. Your post is quite refreshing.

      • Hey, thanks! It’s just my opinion, but it’s based on many years of personal experience. I think that brute honesty, like real science, is something that’s becoming increasingly hard to find. We seem to be a society lost in fantasy and fear, and I think we’re now suffering from the adverse effects.

    • Beautifully written! I am a youth minister at a Catholic church trying to do some research into transgender identity and the like in order to better educate the teens that I work with. All of the questions you ask are fantastic and, the more science we have on this topic, the better! What I find in our church is that “natural law” (science) actually really DOES play a part in governing what people believe. I REALLY hope the scientific community keeps trying to explain LGBT issues so that those in our faith system can, hopefully, become less afraid of those who are different from them! I already see it in our youth; the ability to think for themselves and love their neighbor no matter how they identify or what their sexual preference is. This whole conversation is very encouraging. Thanks for your words!! <3

  4. Respect and understand everyone. We need to search for our group think gene that makes people assume they are superior to others because of their differences. What about guys that like transgendered women? Let’s make this a science issue not a personal value issue.

  5. This is really great post and something I have long noticed in media, with friends and the general public. Whatever the science is, us curious science people are not for discrimination. Our media really is horrible and lame when it comes to science. They are extremely PC. My sister is gay and asked me for advice about confronting my parents because she knows they will just walk away (granted, they already know) and I gave her the usual loving emotional all the good stuff to say to them but I also added scientific research and what we know and how it’s not a lifestyle and choice, and all sorts of science goodies and how it’s twice listed in bible (I know bible, silly) and people pick and choose bible statements, but in the end I don’t think she cared about any of that.

  6. another interesting phenomenea are guy interested in shemales but disgusted or no interested in men. That one has always fascinated me. To bad there is not more research on sexual desire and identity (they are different but really really closely related). There is much to learn about biochemistry, hormones and genes in the developing fetus in the womb.

    • Idk, can’t help but feel that probably has more to do with the shame associated with being homosexual or for not liking the stereotypical woman than biochemistry. I don’t have anything to back it up source wise of course, but I’d bet money on it.

  7. Wow, what a pleasant to read, well reasoned, ideology-free piece!

    Probably the best thing I have read since Camille Paglia.

    As a happily masculine mostly gay man who’s had a boyfriend who dressed up as Billie Holiday (and took me to crossdressing shows at Harlem’s Apollo) and who dated a woman dated a woman to whom I was out for six years, I say let us be who we are, not fear the scientific facts, and free ourselves from the shackles of any ideology.

    Great piece, God Bless!

    PS, let me plug the documentary Paris Is Burning, an incredible film.

  8. Why some people are transgender is likely multi-factoral. And I strongly suspect there are different constellations of causation that have biology as the major component.

    In my case, I am a DES (diethylstilbestrol) child. My mother admitted to taking this during my gestation (my twin and I were a risky pregnancy), and I see the evidence in my eunuchoid body, the way my body processes sex hormones (testosterone: not well; estradiol: fantastically well), my gender identity (female) and my feminine mental and psycho-sexual characteristics. I know many trans women who are in much the same position. I also know many other trans women who are not in this position and seem to have come to this through another mechanism(s).

    But, whatever the cause, I know myself to be female person and my gender has remained fixed since I was first aware of it at about five years of age.

    Most female people *become* women though their girlhood and adolescence. *This* female person has become through her transsexuality and transition.

  9. Hi A.J., thank you for this perspective! Do you think there is a fear that in determining the complex interaction of genetics, environment, and other factors, trans people might fear being told that there is an element of choice (I don’t believe that, just wonder if this is the perception or the reason for apprehension)? Also I’m trying to find you on Twitter, are you there?

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