What does it mean to be a woman?: The issue of male-to-female transexuals

I was reading the section in “The Sexual Spectrum: Why We’re All Different” by Dr. Johnson (a really good book) about transsexuals.  At one point she mentions that some women believe, specifically in this case Germaine Greer, that without a womb you cannot fully understand what it is to be a woman.  Basically saying that a transsexual woman (born with male chromosomes) cannot really be a woman.  And it made me think, do I agree?


I suppose I should get into it more than that.  My first reaction to this is that it implies that what makes a woman a woman, her defining characteristics, are child birth and menstruation.  I don’t like this implication.  I don’t feel defined as a woman by my period.  I feel that my experiences as a woman, of which only a small part have anything to do with vaginal bleeding, are what define me.  Beyond that, especially since the basic experiences I have had are not that much different than my male equivalent would, it is how I interpret them.    Of course, there is also the issue of the women who cannot give birth, have to have their ovaries or womb removed or have some other sort of medical difficulty, deformity or malfunction.  Are they now not women because of this?

Now, I will admit to not knowing a lot about transsexuals, and there is a lack of scientific research in the area (just like there is in most areas in regards to sexuality), but I have my theories.  You might be thinking that since these transsexual women were born men then they see the world like men.  Their brains are men’s brains.  Well, if you read my post on the feminine and masculine brain you might think this is definitely true.  I am willing to bet that this is wrong.  When hormones are given to men, such as when doctors treat prostate cancer, they start acting more like the average woman.  They are more communicative, able to recognize emotions more easily, etc.  So, even assuming that pre-treatment transsexuals have the average male brain (which I doubt they do, but I’ll get to that in a moment), they do not after the hormone treatments begin.

As for them having the average male brain, most transsexual individuals report not acting like the rest of the children their sex at their age.  The female-to-male transsexuals report enjoying sports and wanting to be friends with the boys more and the opposite goes for the male-to-female transsexuals.  This often happens despite the parents’ best efforts to make their child “normal” (hear this dripping with derision).  This suggests to me that if you did the same experiments and measurements on these individuals that have been done on the cisgendered (non-transsexual) you would find some common variations.  Just like there are common variations in the brains of minority sexualities.

The fact is that the transsexual woman can have breasts, a vagina, labias minor and majora and make a strong appearance as a woman (though the lower voice and broad shoulders she might have gotten during her male puberty are permanent).  They get ogled and I am sure get the same treatment as other women do, at least when they are in a situation where no one knows they were born male.  I can’t see knocking them for not growing up with the same pressures those of us who were born women had, since they most likely felt even more pressure to conform since their natural inclinations were so far from “normal”.  Every woman has to make a personal journey to find out who they are and I have only respect for women who have to cross a gender line to do it.

Side Note:  If there are any topics that you guys want me to look into or think that would make a good post please let me know.  Any (friendly, supportive and well-meant) suggestions you have would be great.


About Tori

I am a graduate student working on my masters in Women and Gender studies. My masters thesis is on the gender nonconformity and ambiguity in modern film.
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5 Responses to What does it mean to be a woman?: The issue of male-to-female transexuals

  1. Jimbo says:

    This shit is so stupid.

  2. S.J. says:

    Maybe you could talk about the play Lysistrata and how it is and isn’t applicable today?

    P.S. Pretty sure Jimbo is a troll

  3. catkisser says:

    Actually there is quite the growing body of evidence about transsexuality, over three hundred separate and distinct studies that confirm the the basic neurology (entire central nervous system) of those born transsexual are in fact so female they skew towards the far side of the bell curve. The old saw about woman born in a man’s body is exactly right as it turns out. BTW this is only true of those actually born with the condition, not the vast umbrella of “transgender”.

  4. Zoe Brain says:

    It’s not quite as simple as “male brain in female body” (or the reverse), though that does capture the essence of it. The brain is a complexity of many parts, quite a few of which are sexually dimorphic. Men conform (by and large) to one stereotyped anatomical pattern, women to another, more or less, though both are likely to have some parts androgenous or even cross-sexed.
    When the Lymbic nucleus is feminised, the patient has a female gender identity, regardless of the shape of the rest of their body. Most people with feminised lymbic nuclei have female bodies; but some are Intersexed, and some look male.

    Here’s the abstract of a paper describing, in rather over-simplified terms, what we know now, from experiments on animals, and autopsies and fMRI scans of humans.

    Sexual Hormones and the Brain: An Essential Alliance for Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation Garcia-Falgueras A, Swaab DF Endocr Dev. 2010;17:22-35

    The fetal brain develops during the intrauterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. However, since sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy, these two processes can be influenced independently, which may result in extreme cases in trans-sexuality. This also means that in the event of ambiguous sex at birth, the degree of masculinization of the genitals may not reflect the degree of masculinization of the brain. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation.

    See also papers such as:

    Male-to-female transsexuals show sex-atypical hypothalamus activation when smelling odorous steroids. by Berglund et al Cerebral Cortex 2008 18(8):1900-1908;

    …the data implicate that transsexuality may be associated with sex-atypical physiological responses in specific hypothalamic circuits, possibly as a consequence of a variant neuronal differentiation.

    Male–to–female transsexuals have female neuron numbers in a limbic nucleus. Kruiver et al J Clin Endocrinol Metab (2000) 85:2034–2041

    The present findings of somatostatin neuronal sex differences in the BSTc and its sex reversal in the transsexual brain clearly support the paradigm that in transsexuals sexual differentiation of the brain and genitals may go into opposite directions and point to a neurobiological basis of gender identity disorder.

    Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relevance for gender identity, transsexualism and sexual orientation. Swaab Gynecol Endocrinol (2004) 19:301–312.

    Solid evidence for the importance of postnatal social factors is lacking. In the human brain, structural diferences have been described that seem to be related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

    A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality. by Zhou et al Nature (1995) 378:68–70.

    Our study is the first to show a female brain structure in genetically male transsexuals and supports the hypothesis that gender identity develops as a result of an interaction between the developing brain and sex hormones

    A sex difference in the hypothalamic uncinate nucleus: relationship to gender identity. by Garcia-Falgueras et al Brain. 2008 Dec;131(Pt 12):3132-46.

    We propose that the sex reversal of the INAH3 in transsexual people is at least partly a marker of an early atypical sexual differentiation of the brain and that the changes in INAH3 and the BSTc may belong to a complex network that may structurally and functionally be related to gender identity.

    White matter microstructure in female to male transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment. A diffusion tensor imaging study. – Rametti et al, J Psychiatr Res. 2010 Jun 8.

    CONCLUSIONS: Our results show that the white matter microstructure pattern in untreated FtM transsexuals is closer to the pattern of subjects who share their gender identity (males) than those who share their biological sex (females). Our results provide evidence for an inherent difference in the brain structure of FtM transsexuals.

    Regional cerebral blood flow changes in female to male gender identity disorder. – Tanaka et al, Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2010 Apr 1;64(2):157-61.

    RESULTS: GID subjects had a significant decrease in rCBF in the left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and a significant increase in the right insula compared to control subjects.
    CONCLUSIONS: The ACC and insula are regions that have been noted as being related to human sexual behavior and consciousness. From these findings, useful insights into the biological basis of GID were suggested.

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