Gender dysphoria: innate or acquired?

When I read a study on 45 female-to-male transsexuals at the end of 2016, I concluded that gender dysphoria had to be caused by social factors. Since the vast majority of the participants were attracted to women and had homophobic attitudes, and two-thirds of them had also been abused as children, I decided that this couldn’t be a mere coincidence. If gender dysphoria tends to strike same-sex attracted women with internalized homophobia who have been abused, then clearly there are social factors involved in the development of dysphoria. As I said back in December:

“First of all, if gender dysphoria had nothing to do with internalized homophobia, then wouldn’t this condition randomly strike women in proportional amounts across all sexual orientations? Women in the general population are somewhere around 90% heterosexual. If gender dysphoria is a condition that strikes randomly, then wouldn’t the percentage of FtMs who are attracted to men be somewhere around 90%, keeping in line with the general population? Why is same-sex attraction so overrepresented among FtMs if people are just randomly born with dysphoria for no reason? In addition, a lot of the participants in this study had extremely homophobic attitudes. One third of participants did not act on their sexual attraction to women during adolescence, and common reasons given for this is that they did not think it was possible for two women to have sex, and that they believed homosexuality was wrong. Is this just a coincidence too? Women who are same-sex attracted and have negative attitudes toward homosexuality are overrepresented among FtMs for just no reason? I tell ya, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence to me. It feels a lot like homophobia.”

Since reading this study I have firmly believed that gender dysphoria is not innate, although I do think that the tendency to develop dysphoria could be innate, and it gets activated when living in a sexist and homophobic society.

The blog 4thWaveNow has been writing posts on the correlation between gender dysphoria and other conditions such as autism and giftedness. The interesting thing about autism and intelligence is that they are both innate. A commenter on 4thWaveNow, responding to my comment about gender dysporia being acquired rather than innate, gave me some interesting food for thought:

“I think it can definitely be innate, or at least an innate (with biological factors) tendency (possibly gender/sex dysphoria represents only one possible manifestation, though). Co-morbidity is common enough with neurological conditions/mental illness, with evidence for genetic factors. With autism and the concept of ‘gifted’ there’s significant overlap already, as Lisa discusses. To me the lack of randomness points towards it being innate/down to innate factors in some cases (autism is of course itself an innate factor), rather than the opposite.”

This is a really excellent observation, and it appears to prove me wrong. If gender dysphoria tends to correlate with the innate conditions of autism and giftedness, then that points to dysphoria being innate too. Even though there is no scientific proof of a “gay gene,” homosexuality too is widely held to be innate, in the sense that it’s stable over time and cannot be changed.

This week I have been pondering whether this new information changes my theories. I don’t think it entirely does though. If people with autism, giftedness, and non-heterosexual orientation have a higher chance of developing dysphoria, that still could be due to social factors. The common theme across these three different types of people is feeling different and not fitting in. People with autism have a hard time understanding social cues, people who are gifted have minds working on another level than other people, and gays and lesbians often don’t think or behave the way straight people do. All of these characteristics can cause alienation from one’s peer group, a feeling of being “wrong”, and intense discomfort.

We can’t state that gender dysphoria is an integral part of being autistic, gifted, or gay, since there are also people who are these things without dysphoria. If dysphoria came innately with these other characteristics, then all people who are autistic, gifted, or gay would be dysphoric. Instead they are just statistically more likely to be than the general population.

In my conclusion post on FtM Transsexuals In Society, I concluded the following:

“It seems reasonable to say that some people are more susceptible to developing gender dysphoria than others due to their innate personality, but it doesn’t follow that there is a one-size-fits all cure for that, and it doesn’t follow that body modification is inevitable.”

I still believe exactly this. It seems entirely plausible that some people have an innate tendency to develop dysphoria, and being autistic, gifted, traumatized, or gay can increase the likelihood that the dysphoria will activate. That’s because these characteristics can lead to feelings of discomfort, for different reasons according to the condition. When you have a tendency to feel discomfort, and something happens to make you uncomfortable, then you feel discomfort. However, just because someone feels uncomfortable with their body, it doesn’t follow that body modification is the only cure, or that they are literally the opposite sex. It makes more sense to follow the normal strategies that those with the above characteristics use to feel more comfortable, rather than rushing right into medical transition.

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26 thoughts on “Gender dysphoria: innate or acquired?

    • Body mapping disorders are real, but, again, people are so suggestible and they want labels for things, it makes them seem more manageable, and there is so much unacknowledged trauma in this culture, that people are not encouraged to discuss.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your use of anorexia as a comparison to dysphoria in the December post is particularly apt given the studies showing anorexic girls and women are significantly more likely to have autistic traits, so that some people even think anorexia should be considered a potential symptom of female Asperger’s. (http://blog.theautismsite.com/anorexia-correlation/) Autistic children hvae also turned out to be at least as capable as non-autistic children of learning sterotypes about classes of people. (http://www.lookingupautism.org/Articles/Understanding-through-stereotypes.html). Given the cognitive rigidity routinely seen in autism, it makes sense that stereotypes internalized at an early age might have a more enduring influence for those on or near the autistic spectrum. So a girl on the spectrum who learns as a young child that women should be thin may be more likely to starve herself than the average girl, and autistic children told that boys do this or girls do that–especially if it’s before they have a clear understanding of physiological differences–may well be more prone to concluding they must be transgender for not conforming to a stereotype, and that stereotype could also include being attracted only to the opposite sex.

    I think the evidence shows your conclusion is dead on, especially given that so many conditions/characteristics have turned out to require both a genetic tendency and an environmental trigger–even things such as schizophrenia or gluten intolerance. Autism may just be a component of the innate tendency for some people .

    By the way, although I haven’t commented here before, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The connection between autism and gender dysphoria is rather interesting.

      I have some autistic traits, but I always got the impression that they made me more resistant to genderism.

      I know about gender stereotypes, and can probably point out very nuanced details in them, but I just don’t believe they are in any way relevant to what someone’s biological sex is.
      The fact that I am rather uninterested in other people means I feel no need to go along with what they believe for the sake of being liked.

      Liked by 2 people

      • sellmaeth — I have observed the opposite in people I know who have autistic traits or ASD diagnoses. I am guessing it’s more related to the individual; but also, I find often times they are “unaware” of their own motives, too.

        For example, I’ve had several friends with aspergers/ASD, who clung to gender norms very seriously. This is due to the trait of not being able to judge the “weight” of such social information, and take it too literally. Or they enact/mimick a behavior consciously, believing everyone else is also doing it consciously, when they are not. Or, they are unable to tell when someone is lying or using subcontext, so they repeat it at face-value.

        Not just about gender, but about other social group concepts, I have seen my ASD friends torture themselves with trying to fit an external concept, simultaneously unable to see it isn’t true while totally believing it. Including stuff from, say, thinking they are “popular” when the other kids are actually taunting them, to believing they are really a literal dragon. Not joking.

        I don’t want to sound like I’m saying “don’t listen to what ASD people say about their experience”, but I think it’s reasonable that a lot of autistic self-proclaimed transpeople are making a mistake.

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  2. I think the innate risk factor for gender dysphoria is also a risk factor for a wider class of “obsessive + anxiety” disorders: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, OCD, PTSD, panic disorder. Virtually every trans person I know has had at least one of these. There also seems to be a high proportion of trans people with BPD, much higher than the general population, though BPD is kind of a shit diagnosis (sometimes considered a modern day version of “hysteria”).

    The reason gender dysphoria is the only one of those conditions treated with hormone therapy and surgery is partly, I guess, because we have no idea how to treat it through psychotherapeutic means and the body modifications are less harmful than the status quo (from a holistic standpoint). But also partly because of patriarchy—virtually every procedure used to medically transition is based on one originally developed to make women’s bodies (and later, men’s as well) conform to social norms. And once a person takes on the gender affiliation associated with the opposite sex, their body is switched from being seen by the wider society as a typical body to an extremely atypical one that needs to be corrected. For someone who already has gender dysphoria, this entrenches their belief that transition is the only way to resolve their issues of bodily incongruence by, essentially, rewarding transition and punishing a failure to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would question whether anxiety disorders are always innate. There is emerging evidence that sedentary lifestyles can trigger a chronic fight-or-flight response. People who don’t fit in and have few friends are more likely to spend time alone looking at screens. This can increase their baseline anxiety level, as well as increase their chances of being exposed to gender propaganda.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think we might be forgetting some of our Marxist analysis here. The kids that are deemed gifted are mostly from social classes that have influence over school boards. While there may be genetic variations that underlie a student being considered gifted, there are plenty of similarly genetically endowed children not accordingly recognized due to race and class power dynamics. Children from backgrounds of actual class power are more likely to be deemed gifted, and more likely to have their difficulties accommodated as a learning disability in an otherwise smart kid.

    Child-transitioning doctor Johanna Olson recognized this. She almost understood that the trans phenomenon was connected to race and class power, but never reached the conclusion

    https://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/parents-who-sterilize-their-kids-over-gender-norms-are-overwhelmingly-white-says-dr-johanna-olson-kennedy/

    “Gifted” and “autistic spectrum” kids are likely connected to parental class power and have plenty of access to digital tech. Similarly bright and troubled kids from lower status groups are likely to be put on the school to prison pipeline.

    There may be some innate genetic combinations that predispose people to gender dysphoria, but I think your original stance that homophobia and sexism are the best explanation for why so many girls want to transition and why this seems to be a social contagion is well founded.

    And don’t forget porn. These kids have been raised up on porn in ways we cannot understand. Who would want to be what porn says women are?

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi,

    I can’t tell whether you want trans feedback this time. I may have been mistaken before.

    I am pretty sure there are different kinds of dysphoria. For example, feeling numb and/or not real from high testosterone and low estrogen levels, feeling pressured, feeling vulnerable from feminine clothing… I am pretty sure some are primarily biological and others are purely social.

    Being autistic can make us targets for abuse, bullying, and/or other violence, and it can get us hurt by social norms, spaces, safety signals, etc. designed for non-autistic people. It can cause ptsd and other problems, but it doesn’t cause our autism. Being trans can also make us targets, and I don’t think that causes our trans-ness.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a really interesting observation. I’ve read a coupe other articles on the connection between autism and dysphoria, and I think I agree with you that it might increase the likelihood of getting dysphoria because it makes a person feel different or uncomfortable.

    I have autism and I also suffer from minor dysphoria, but I feel pretty strongly that my dysphoria was caused by stuff that happened to me growing up. Although it can be hard to tell with autism, since from my personal experience it really changes how a person mentally develops and is socialized.

    Thanks for the great article. I like that you restate at the end that body modifications or being the opposite sex aren’t logical solutions to the problem of a person feeling uncomfortable with their body.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I (as usual lol) disagree with a lot of the commentators. For example, I feel that there is a huge lack of understanding about anorexia nervosa among laypeople, so I tend to find any comparisons to it really strained. I frequently think it is the same with things like ASD.

    My theory requires a prerequisite: that there are different types of people being labeled as transgender or transsexual. However, there are actually lots of different “types”, and each has a different origin/cause. Any hypothesis that lumps all transpeople together into one origin story is automatically wrong. (And research supports this.)

    I do think that some “transpeople” have an obsessive-compulsive disorder (such as the porn-obsessed ones). I do think some “transpeople” have aspergers/ASD. I do think some “transpeople” have personality disorders. Perhaps some have a combo of these things. But I think it is incorrect to try to claim that “all transness is caused by X”.

    I think (and I think we’ve agreed to disagree on this, lol) that “classic transsexuals” are born with a neurological predisposition to it, which is hormonally caused (explaining its link to homosexuality), and that it is not an OCD, PTSD, body dysmorphic, or personality disorder. I’d also argue evidence supports this (or at least it did before “transgender” became one lumped category in studies).

    I am not claiming that I know for certain that surgery is the best solution for transsexualism (and I’m DEFINITELY not claiming it’s the ONLY solution), but if this disorder is a distinct entity, it needs to be treated distinctly. To me, the best judgement of this is whether a person’s QoL is improved in the long-term by medical transition. Just before the trans-trender boom, data was starting to show that well-screened transsexuals did, in fact, improve their lives. To me, that is enough to support it, distinct from any ideology.

    (Of course, I want to reiterate, even with complete medical transition there is zero reason to deny that transpeople are still their birth-sex.)

    ….A couple of minor notes: Today I read an abstract of a review article insisting on the necessity of discreet definitions for who is “transgender” — I hope researchers take that to heart. Also, I finally came across one paper that stated the same theory as mine for the development of (my form of) transsexualism. Clearly, I’m excited and hope it gets picked up, but that’s definitely personal bias speaking. 😉

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    • I didn’t say here, and I forgot where I said it now, but my theory is that people develop transsexualism in their earliest childhood years by developing a cross-sex mental image of themselves. Not caused by social gender roles, but likely reinforced by them. Rather, they are born with a neurological temperament that is gender-nonconforming (thus explaining why most FtMs are homosexual) and so they internalize the cross-sex image because those people seem more similar to them. Unlike a “typical” homosexual, the transsexual person would have to have some other neurological vulnerability that would make this rare cross-image happen. As the years progress and the body becomes more sex-dimorphic, distress and discomfort would increase, no matter how comfortable a person is with their gender-nonconformity. I’d presume historically these individuals would “just get used to it”, to be honest — and probably have the ability to come to terms with it in a society that accepts a “third gender”.

      (that’s a nutshell anyway)

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      • I think that’s as good a theory as any, but I’m not sure how you’d prove that. There’s also theories that homosexuality is caused by the presence of certain hormones in the womb, and that could be true, but there’s no definitive proof. I’m not sure how you’d ever differentiate between “true transsexuals” as noted in your theory and other people who have acquired gender dysphoria as a result of a lifetime of sexism and homophobia. After many years the dysphoria feels like an automatic neurological reaction. Anyway, thanks for coming around, Mirrorofgorgon, I like hearing from you. When are you going to get some posts up on your blog? 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve often fought with the idea homosexuality like left handedness is a mere fluke of hormone expression in utero because that smacks of “defective” yet, is a redhead or left hander defective? Maybe old modes of responding to difference are shifting as we learn more about the genetic table, but the stigma imposed by others on those labeled different is incalculable and what other factors go into the outcome are hard to guage, I think homosexuality it innate but also epigenetic in that we may be born homosexual but not act upon it for a variety of reasons whilst conversely someone not born homosexual can live a homosexual lifestyle. Is one “more” natural than the other? I suppose they are, but I wouldn’t say so because then we do together our community what was done to us. I know plenty of lesbians who had they not bad negative experience with men would likely not have become lesbian but who am I to negate the value of their now lesbian identity? Then again there’s a world of difference in all community’s including the die hard versus the stone Burch versus the bisexual femme. Ultimately love is love. I identify with the dysmorphic expression of feeling unlike others all the tine, so I really relate to this. More left handers are gay, I’m left handedness and have always known I was a lesbian, but horses for courses ♡

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    • Considering the discrimination issues, I tend to find efforts to determine the causes of such qualities mostly suspect. There is so much confirmation bias in what passes for Science, and would it really be such a problem if we considered such things as homosexuality and lefhandedness merely delightful mysteries?

      Humans, always wanting narratives. Maybe lesbians should work up a lesbian creation myth.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed. When someone determines to find the cause you wonder at the motive, are they trying to undermine in some fashion? After all how often are heterosexuals searching for a root cause to their heterosexuality? Bias. Bias. Bias. Okay so now I’m excited, want to write the Lesbian Creation Myth together? 🙂 (great idea!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • But I’m not a lesbian. I’m not much of anything these days, but it would be dishonest to claim I’m a lesbian. This should be written by lesbians.

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        • I get read as a lesbian a lot, and I have more friends and acquaintances and colleagues online who are lesbians than anything else, but I have no history of lesbian relations and I’m a hermit. I think you have to actually be a lesbian in order to be a lesbian.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Well, being celibate doesn’t make you not a lesbian. If you are a single lesbian you’re still a lesbian. But as you have said before Miep, only men seem to have the ability to really mess you up, which means you are straight. For me, only women have the ability to really mess me up. Women can mess me up big time. 🙂

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        • That’s a good point, and another way of saying I don’t have the appropriate experience to claim to be a lesbian.

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  8. In terms of biological influences:

    The use of diethylstilbestrol to prevent miscarriage from the ’40s through the ’70s may affect both gender and sexual orientation. Some research suggests it increases the chances of lesbianism in xx children. Some research suggests it increases the chances of transness in xy children, but Kerlin’s studies probably have sampling issues.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268256137_PRENATAL_EXPOSURE_TO_DIETHYLSTILBESTROL_DES_IN_MALES_AND_GENDER-RELATED_DISORDERS_RESULTS_FROM_A_5-YEAR_STUDY

    This report concerns the abuse of prenatal hormones:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22904609

    There seem to be a lot of David Reimers out there, though not all identify as men. This study concerns xy children with cloacal exstrophy.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14736925

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