Opinion To understand biological sex, look at the brain, not the body
May 1, 2023 at 6:15 a.m. EDT
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is “Mad Honey,” co-written with Jodi Picoult.
"There they are, in their Chevrolet Colorado, five dudes bouncing up and down as the truck grinds through the rugged American high country. Two guys up front, three in the back. Shania Twain is blasting. The fellow in the middle is singing along. “Oh, I want to be free, yeah, to feel the way I feel. Man, I feel like a woman!”
The other guys look deeply worried. But the person in the back just keeps happily singing away, even as the dude next to him moves his leg away. Just to be on the safe side.
This commercial aired back in 2004, and even now it’s not clear to me whether it’s offensive or empowering, hilarious or infuriating. Twain says she wrote “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” after working at a resort where some drag queens were performing. “That song started with the title,” she said. “Then it kind of wrote itself.”
It’s a fun tune, and I admit I kind of loved seeing that commercial. But at its heart is an issue central to our current political moment.
When someone says they feel like a woman, what exactly does that mean?
Across the country, conservatives are insisting that — and legislating as if — “feeling” like a woman, or a man, is irrelevant. What matters most, they say, is the immutable truth of biology. Missouri’s attorney general, Andrew Bailey, wants to restrict gender-affirming health care for all transgender people, including adults.A new dress code at the Texas Agriculture Department commands that employees wear clothing “in a manner consistent with their biological gender.” In Florida, a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) keeps “biological males” from playing on women’s sports teams in public schools.
This term, “biological males,” is everywhere now. And it’s not used only by right-wing politicians. People of good faith are also wrestling with the way trans people complicate a world they thought was binary. They’re uncertain about when, and how, sex matters, and just how biological it is. Some want to draw a bright line in areas where maleness and femaleness might matter most — in sports, or locker rooms, or prisons. Others are trying to blur lines that used to be clearer. At Wellesley College in March, for instance, a nonbinding student referendum called for the admission of trans men to a school that traditionally has been a women’s college. The president of the college, Paula Johnson, pushed back.
So what, then, is a biological male, or female? What determines this supposedly simple truth? It’s about chromosomes, right?
Well, not entirely. Because not every person with a Y chromosome is male, and not every person with a double X is female. The world is full of people with other combinations: XXY (or Klinefelter Syndrome), XXX (or Trisomy X), XXXY and so on. There’s even something called androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition that keeps the brains of people with a Y from absorbing the information in that chromosome. Most of these people develop as female and might not even knowabout their condition until puberty — or even later.
How can this be, if sex is only about a gene?
Some people respond by saying that sex is about something else, then — ovaries, or testicles (two structures that begin their existence in the womb as the same thing).
What do we do, then, with the millions of women who have had hysterectomies? Have they become men? What about women who’ve had mastectomies? Or men with gynecomastia, or enlarged breasts?
Are these people not who they think they are?
It might be that what’s in your pants is less important than what’s between your ears.
In the past decade, there has been some fascinating research on the brains of transgender people. What is most remarkable about this work is not that trans women’s brains have been found to resemble those of cisgender women, or that trans men’s brains resemble those of cis men. What the research has found is that the brains of trans people are unique: neither female nor male, exactly, but something distinct.
But what does that mean, a male brain, or a female brain, or even a transgender one? It’s a fraught topic, because brains are a collection of characteristics rather than a binary classification of either/or. There are researchers who would tell you that brains are not more gendered than, say, kidneys or lungs. Gina Rippon, in her 2019 book, “The Gendered Brain,” warns against bunk science that declares brains to be male or female — it’s “neurosexism,” a fancy way of justifying the belief that women’s brains are inferior to men’s.
And yet scientists continue to study the brain in hopes of understanding whether a sense of the gendered self can, at least in part, be the result of neurology. A study described by author Francine Russo in Scientific American examined the brains of 39 prepubertal and 41 adolescent boys and girls with gender dysphoria. The experiment examined how these children responded to androstadienone, a pungent substance similar to pheromones, that is known to cause a different response in the brains of men and women. The study found that adolescent boys and girls who described themselves as trans responded like the peers of their perceived gender. (The results were less clear with prepubescent children.)
This kind of testing is important, said one of the researchers Russo quoted, “because sex differences in responding to odors cannot be influenced by training or environment.” A similar study was done in measuring the responses of trans boys and girls to echolike sounds produced in the inner ear. “Boys with gender dysphoria responded more like typical females, who have a stronger response to these sounds.”
What does it mean, to respond to the world in this way? For me, it has meant having a sense of myself as a woman, a sense that no matter how comfortable I was with the fact of being feminine, I was never at ease with not being female. When I was young, I tried to talk myself out of it, telling myself, in short, to “get over it.”
I compare it to a sense of homesickness for a place you’ve never been. The moment you stepped onto those supposedly unfamiliar shores, though, you’d have a sense of overwhelming gratitude, and solace, and joy. Home, you might think. I’m finally home.
The years to come will, perhaps, continue to shed light on the mysteries of the brain, and to what degree our sense of ourselves as gendered beings has its origins there. But there’s a problem with using neurology as an argument for trans acceptance — it suggests that, on some level, there is something wrong with transgender people, that we are who we are as a result of a sickness or a biological hiccup.
But trans people are not broken. And, in fact, trying to open people’s hearts by saying “Check out my brain!” can do more harm than good, because this line of argument delegitimizes the experiences of many trans folks. It suggests that there’s only one way to be trans: to feel trapped in the wrong body, to go through transition, and to wind up, when all is said and done, on the opposite-gender pole. It suggests that the quest trans people go on can be considered successful only if it ends with fitting into the very society that rejected us in the first place.
All the science tells us, in the end, is that a biological male — or female — is not any one thing, but a collection of possibilities.
No one who embarks upon a life as a trans person in this country is doing so out of caprice, or a whim, or a delusion. We are living these wondrous and perilous lives for one reason only — because our hearts demand it. Given the tremendous courage it takes to come out, given the fact that even now trans people can still lose everything — family, friends, jobs, even our lives — what we need now is not new legislation to make things harder. What we need now is understanding, not cruelty. What we need now is not hatred but love.
When the person in that Chevy ad sings, Oh, I want to be free … to feel the way I feel. Man, I feel like a woman! the important thing is not that they feel like a woman, or a man, or something else. What matters most is the plaintive desire to be free to feel the way I feel.
Surely this is not a desire unique to trans people. Tell me: Is there anyone who has never struggled to live up to the hard truths of their own heart?
Man! I feel like a human."