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8 min

Does the concept of a ‘trans brain’ help or hurt our communities?

It supports a ‘born this way’ narrative, but the idea of a biological source of transness raises more questions than it answers

In February, actress Indya Moore of POSE stardom found herself at the centre of an online debate over identity and biology when she tweeted, “If a woman has a penis, her penis is a biologically female penis.”

Many didn’t know how to react. Most, in the replies to her tweet, were quick to criticize her as irrational, ridiculous and obscene. The bulk of this hostility came from folks on the right, but even well-meaning cisgender liberals were skeptical or outright critical. The common thread was a claim that Moore was simply denying “the science” of biological sex.

Trans inclusion 101 stresses a fine line that differentiates socially performed gender and biological sex. Open-minded cisgender people may be willing to accept that this nebulous thing we call “gender” is a broad tent with many ways into it, but they’re usually far less flexible when it comes to the concept of biological sex. Often, these conversations centre around ideas of biological determinism — the notion who we are and what we do in the world resides somewhere in our bodies or our brains.

Some of the discussions that subsequently came out in Moore’s defence attempted to tackle this problem. One that stood out to me made reference to a 2018 study out of the University of Sao Paulo Medical School, which argued that trans people are essentially “born that way.”

The paper, published in Nature, used brain scans of transgender women at different stages of transition to pinpoint consistencies in the volume of certain brain areas. The authors theorized that this might indicate a biological feature of transness, and even suggest that trans identity is something inherent from birth. “Trans people have characteristics that bring them closer to the gender with which they identify,” wrote Giancarlo Spizzirri, the paper’s lead author. He added that his research suggests that trans people’s brains “have particularities, suggesting that the differences begin to occur during gestation.”

These findings became public just a couple months before a Belgian and Dutch team of neuroscientists presented at a conference that, using MRI brain imaging, they had found that the brains of trans women more closely resembled those of cis women than they did of cis men, and that trans men’s brains resemble cis men’s more than they do cis women’s. They called this “gender-specific” brain activity patterns.

Together, these studies and others like them suggest that neurological factors can demonstrate trans people are determined to be their correct gender from the womb. Their gender variance could therefore be recognized as scientific fact and protected politically, in the same way that some gay, bisexual and lesbian activism appealed to heterosexual audiences by identifying sexualities as biologically determined and unchangeable. We’ve already seen how this logic can be effective in challenging anti-gay talking points, as it was during the gay-marriage debate in the US.

But these studies — and this entire research agenda — should not be taken at face value. Rather, they reflect a worrying trend in the ways trans people are viewed and represented by cisgender institutions, and pose a threat to the diversity and vibrancy of our community.

Julian Gill-Peterson, an assistant professor of english and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh whose work focuses on the medical and social practices of transition, dismisses these brain sex studies. Gill-Peterson tells me over email that the studies aren’t high-quality science, because they start from the premise that clear categories of “masculine” and “feminine” traits already exist, which are themselves culturally informed categories. “It presupposes the evidence it goes on to interpret from data.

However, Gill-Peterson says they still believe that appealing to biological definitions of sex and gender can be very useful for trans politics. “The concept of ‘biological sex’ has long been an ideological and bureaucratic device — a way to categorize, rather than accurately describe,” they say, adding that the language of “biology” tends to be used in reference to the genders our bodies are assigned at birth. “To say that trans women are biological women, trans men are biological men, and non-binary folks are biologically non-binary, then, could be a powerful form of reclamation for the community.”

There’s a lot of merit to this point. After all, given how frequently the notion that one’s body fundamentally betrays their “true” gender is wielded against trans people, flipping that script creates unexpected space for affirmation. Why not take up the language of “biology” rather than leaving it purely in the hands of cisgender people and institutions?

I’m less drawn to this approach. Sure, I can recognize that the idea of biological male, female and non-binary identity can be valuable for some trans people. But, from a political perspective, I am resistant to the notion of biological gender (or biological sex) and critical of the idea of “biology” as a meaningful avenue altogether.

It’s worthwhile to ask what we mean when we talk about sex or gender at all — and to what extent it even matters. What work does the idea of gender do out in the world? What has the category of “man” or “woman” done, politically, other than produce and reproduce an unequal distribution of resources? Even in most scientific contexts, the concept of gender is actually just a rough and imprecise stand-in for countless other, more nuanced variations between bodies (such as hormones, fat distribution and body size). In other words, it’s not only valuable to challenge the idea of “gender” as a social category, but also to point out how even such concrete notions as “biological sex” are themselves ideological, political and subjective.

Still, for many trans people, the language of biology remains an affirming response to a political climate that seeks to demonize us as unnatural and monstrous. In Gill-Peterson’s view, the correct approach may lie between these camps — that trans people should feel free to embrace the concept of biological sex, but on our own terms and in ways that work for us. “If we don’t take up the terrain of the biological, then we leave it entirely to biologists and cis lay persons,” they say. “Why not articulate our own diverse concepts of biology?”

Zoé Samudzi, a scholar of medical sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, says there’s an inherent danger in defining identities and social roles by biology, because it creates a distinction between what’s “natural” and what’s “deviant.” Brain sex ends up reinforcing the notion that our genders are built into us at birth — a narrative that actually aligns with cisgender expectations and assumptions, rather than challenging them. “The idea of brain sex concretizes these ideas that sex, and so gender, are immutable things that are assigned at birth,” Samudzi writes over email.

In fact, the idea of diagnosing transness is troubling in itself. Trans identity has been — and still is — framed as a form of severe mental illness, diagnosable under the labels of “gender identity disorder” and more recently “gender dysphoria.” The World Health Organization only declassified being trans as a mental illness in 2018. One potential side effect of locating trans identity in the brain and its physical characteristics is a resurgence of this model. By relinquishing the power of self-identification to institutional systems (like the medical community) that are generally dominated by cisgender people and cissexist ideas, we risk reinforcing the same frameworks that restrict us from public life and from equal access to health care.

Samudzi argues that these brain sex diagnoses could also affect trans people’s ability to medically transition. “Where many trans people are required to consult a mental health provider who signs off on in order for them to access hormones or surgery, this idea of ‘brain sex’ might be used by gatekeepers to formulate or further enforce the script of what constitutes a ‘proper’ trans narrative that would make someone viable for medical transition,” Samudzi says.

She makes a good point. In many jurisdictions in Canada, for example, accessing transition-related care requires you to earn the approval of far-flung cisgender providers with painfully long waiting lists. Transition-related care (and often, health care in general) has relied on certain clinical benchmarks that give providers broad discretion to deny or dismiss patients who do not conform to their ideas of what a trans person should look or act like. To introduce a new and expensive diagnostic element, like MRI brain imaging, would only worsen the situation.

For some trans people, talk of a “trans brain” or “brain sex” raises alarm bells. My friend Arielle (whose last name is withheld because they are not out at work) is a community worker who self-identifies as Mad and disabled. They point out that these experiments — much like earlier research into the “source” of homosexuality — resemble a pattern of research on disability that have close ties to the eugenics movement. Arielle argued that, historically, when scientists provided evidence of a genetic, biological or prenatal source for particular physical or mental conditions, it has often served to strengthen the stigma and violence against people with those conditions.

“If we say that there is a biological source for trans identity, then we could find a way to eradicate it,” Arielle says. “For example, due to prenatal testing, Down Syndrome has been almost eradicated in Iceland, because it’s seen as something to be destroyed.”

Disability justice advocates like Arielle argue that social groups and institutions should work alongside those communities that have been diagnosed and treated as “abnormal” to ensure a better and more equitable world for all people of all abilities and experiences. For their part, Arielle is concerned that the search for a “source” could devolve into a regime of “prevention” in the form of sterilization or extermination.

Obviously, these individual studies and researcher teams aren’t part of some scheme to trick transgender people and kill us off — the emergence of “brain sex” as a field of study is not necessarily the first sign of an inevitable assault on our communities. But the risks are certainly real. We are living in a moment of expanded transgender rights but also intense backlash and a growing interest on the part of broader society to police how transgender people express themselves and access vital services.

For this reason, Gill-Peterson is similarly uneasy about the way “biological” definitions of transness have been embraced by researchers, who may not always have the best interests of trans people at heart. On one hand, this framework can be useful among trans people like Indya Moore, who are often put in the unpleasant position of having to “justify” our genders to a hostile world. It can be enormously validating and empowering to push back against transphobia with scientific “proof” of our identities.

On the other hand, the idea of a biological source of transness raises more questions than it answers. It risks qualifying certain kinds of trans experiences as “authentic” or “natural,” and demonizing others as “deviant” or “irrational.”

There is a very real danger that comes with lending support to a view of transition and trans identity that emphasizes the discretion of cisgender practitioners armed with costly diagnostic practices over our own bodily autonomy. These risks are especially high among groups within trans communities that are disproportionately affected by other forms of violence, such as trans Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, as well as disabled and neurodivergent trans people.

Recourse to the language of trans diagnoses or an inherent, genetic “brain sex” represents a return to restrictive norms that limited access to transition-related care to certain ideal “types” of trans people. In this climate, it’s worth reflecting on how these ideas carry forward a history of trans marginalization into the present — and the future.