Rethinking late-onset transgender narratives

by Felix Conrad - Clinical Philosopher on May 3, 2015

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gender change

One of the most difficult things about a late onset transgender awakening is trying to understand how the hell you can spend most of your life accepting your social gender, and then suddenly it all falls apart and the very gender you used to accept now seems as alien to you as if you had been born female. And it’s made all the more mysterious by encountering early onset transsexuals who ‘always knew’…when in your own case it’s more like…’I didn’t know shit.’

Thinking that it’s impossible you ‘didn’t know shit,’ you then go back on a Stalinist attempt to change your own history, inserting some female essence here and there. “Ahh…now I see, the time I chose a pink jumper when I was ten…that was my inner girl at work.”

Personally, I have many moments I could choose, but when I analyse them in the cold light of day they don’t suggest anything other than a girlish tendency, and as the whole notion of ‘girlish’ is culturally relative, it doesn’t mean anything. As I say in my book ‘Autogynephilia’ even a tendency to be extremely boyish in childhood can be interpreted as being hyper-masculine in an attempt to kill off the inner girl.

The resolution to this – and a resolution I have espoused myself in numerous podcasts and articles – is the idea of hardcore repression. There is virtually no sign of the inner girl before transgender awakening because she has been so brutally and totally suppressed, she can’t even get as much as a peek in.

This idea stems from the most prevalent and widely accepted narrative of transgender development: that you always were a girl but you didn’t know it and/or you wouldn’t accept it.

I have to say that I’ve never been truly comfortable with this narrative. While it works well for early onset transsexuals it just seems far removed from my own experience. I mean, I don’t want to sound stupid…but how can you be a girl and not know it? But on the other hand, I know that that is the whole basis of being transgender: you’re knocking about in the wrong body so there’s no way you can know it (unless you’re one of those pesky early onsetters who ‘always knew’.)

So, I get it. It’s both a metaphor but also real in a sense…and it’s a useful narrative for making sense of your past. But I repeat…I’ve never really been comfortable with it.

The reason is probably my Irish blood. We are pessimists, we are cautious, we know when something’s too good to be true, and the whole idea that you were a girl all along is just too much of a fairy tale ending.

“And then the princess realised that she was a girl all along…The End.”

Call me dark, or call me Irish, but I like a Game of Thrones style ending…blood, tears and ale.

“And then the princess realized she was just a guy in a dress and so, taking a long draught of ale, she cursed the Gods and impaled herself on her sword…The End. “

(Sorry, please go back and erase the previous five lines. If you are a follower of my blog then you already know I have a very dark sense of humor.)

Anyway, the other day I was reading about the clown fish and an idea suddenly occurred to me: maybe I was a man…and then I suddenly turned into a woman. And in case you think I’m continuing with the black comedy, I’m not.

As you probably know, clown fish are a hierarchical species and the absolute ruler and boss is a woman. But she’s a woman with a difference…she used to be a man, because when the dominant female dies the dominant male changes sex and takes her place. (I wonder if he develops a narrative that he ‘always knew’ or he’s in the ‘I didn’t know shit’ camp.)

The clown fish is exhibiting what is known as sequential hermaphroditism – a phenomona observed in many species of fish, gastropoda and plants. Some of these animals have both female and male germ cells in their birth genitalia and can undergo complete transformation of the genitalia to that of the other gender. If anyone from Merc or Glaxo smith is reading this…get some fucking researchers down the sea, extract those mother fucking genes, put them in a pill and I’ll test them myself.

The idea of gender change – rather than suppressed gender – gained further currency with me when I was reading about experiments with silver foxes.

The scientific motives behind these experiments are the genetic changes hummans have caused in animals they have tamed – cows, sheeps, dogs etc. The researchers wanted to see how quickly they could induce changes in a wild animal by taming them, so they spent twenty years breeding foxes, each time selecting the tamest foxes to breed with each other. The results were incredible.

After just twenty years…the foxes had changed colour and developed the black and white coat of a collie. Their noses had become less pronounced and they had developed cuter, floppy ears rather than pointed ones, and – even more curiously – they completely changed their breeding cycle from once a year to all year round. And this was in only twenty years.

Now, you may be disappointed not to hear a profound tale of gender change with the foxes, but what interested me was the pliability of body and reproductive habits, and more generally, the incredible capacity for change which living organisms display. As we have seen, this can be in the course of a life – like the caterpillar or clown fish – or over a few generations: the silver fox.

What if…humans can change genders? In other words, why do we have to presume that a late onset transgender woman was always a girl but she just didn’t know it. Maybe humans have the capacity to change genders just as other organisms do. This would not have to be anatomical because humans have culture and language and dress and numerous modes of being available to them to express such a change which animals don’t have.

Obviously, sudden gender change wouldn’t happen to any old male. clearly, it would happen to those that were susceptible to it…most notably, lifelong crossdreamers who had spent their entire lives already conceptualized as females in their sexual fantasies.

The interesting thing is, that while such an idea seems to be sacrilegious to accepted transgender theory, it is actually much more in line with contemporary gender theory. The other narrative is cisbiased because the proponent is saying that a man can not possibly become a woman…he must have been a woman all along but wasn’t able to recognise it. This idea smacks of gender binary and the idea that gender is carved in stone – you are either one or the other (even though the genitalia may be mixed up.) The idea of sudden gender change in susceptible individuals is much more gender fluid and compatible with the idea that people can be one thing and then the other and there doesn’t have to be complex explanations or evidence of feminine essence.

In a world where people just accept that people change genders rather than discover their true gender…it is much more easy to accept a sudden change in your colleague, Bob. When Bob comes to the office one Monday morning and announces he’s a girl then you think nothing of it because you know that people change genders. But when you believe he was always a girl trapped in a boy’s body you start thinking about Bob in the past. “But he used to love slagging off women…he used to love football…he used to etc. etc.” Bob is kind of on trial.

Personally, although I find the idea of sudden gender change interesting, I think it’s unlikely to catch on. Human beings need tidy narratives with a beginning, middle and an end. While we all love a twist, sudden, spontaneous gender change probably jarrs a little with the reader. The main thing we should take away from the concept, however, is that maybe we should relax a little when it comes to the great personal quest to prove we were always girls. As our friend, the clownfish shows, sudden gender change is possible in nature.

If you want to continue this little chat on transgender psychology, buy one of my (or JAck’s) ebooks on Amazon. xx


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mtf May 3, 2016 at 11:15 pm

MTF per DMRT1 Ablation
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/07/20/one-gene-keeps-mickey-from-turning-into-minnie/#.Vonz97YrKt8
One gene keeps Mickey from turning into Minnie
By Ed Yong | July 20, 2011 1:00 pm
350
On the surface, it looks as if our identity as male or female is determined in the womb. The decision seems final – a genetic switch flicks towards either setting, and locks into place for the rest of our lives.
This tidy image is wrong. Two recent studies in mice have shown that the switch isn’t locked – it’s held under constant tension by two rival genes – DMRT1 and FOXL2. It’s a tug-of-war fought over sexual fate, which goes on throughout our lives. Take away either contestant, and its adversary pulls the switch to the opposite setting. Ovaries can transform into testes and vice versa, even in adults.
By default, mammal embryos develop as females. A structure called the gonadal ridge eventually gives rise to the ovaries. It’s the presence of a gene called SRY that diverts the embryo down a male route. SRY sits on the Y chromosome and sets of a chain of activated genes that transform the gonadal ridge into testes instead. With SRY, you get a male; without it, a female.
But two years ago, Henriette Uhlenhaut from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory showed that this pivotal moment is not a permanent one. She found that a gene called FOXL2 keeps maleness at bay, long after the gonadal ridge has transformed into ovaries. By deleting it, Uhlenhaut turned the ovaries of female mice into testes. They didn’t produce any sperm, but they cells looked like testicular cells, they had the same portfolio of active genes, and they produced testosterone.
Now, Clinton Matson from the University of Minnesota has found that a gene called DMRT1 acts as FOXL2’s mirror counterpart, suppressing femaleness in male mice.
In fact, DMRT1 and FOXL2 repress each other. Neither can rise to power while the other is strong – this is why sex appears to be so stable. Matson dispelled this illusion by removing DMRT1 in both embryonic and adult mice.
When he bred mice that lacked DMRT1, males would grow up as females. Their gonadal ridges begin to transform into testes, but they are eventually waylaid by the feminising FOXL2. Even when Matson deleted DMRT1 in adult mice, FOXL2 was released and started switching on ovarian genes. Within a month, the testicular cells had been reprogrammed into ovarian ones. These cells produced oestrogen, and flooded the rodents’ bloodstreams with this hormone; meanwhile, their testosterone levels fell.
You can see this clearly in the photo above. The main image is a slice through the organ that would normally be the testes, in a male mouse that lacks DMRT1. The inset is a similar slice through the ovaries of a normal female mouse. Both have two types of cells found in the ovary – granulosa cells (round and magenta) and theca cells (long and magenta, surrounded by green). The magenta colour reveals the presence of FOXL2.
Mathias Treier, who led Uhlenhaut’s FOXL2 study, welcomes the new study. “When we tried to publish our paper that ovaries can be reprogrammed to testis, we were fighting an uphill battle against an old dogma that mammalian sex determination is final,” he says. “It is gratifying for us to see that the reverse is also possible.”
DMRT1 and FOXL2 are not the only genes involved in setting and maintaining our male or female identities. Both of them activate and repress a swarm of other masculinising and feminising genes. But it’s clear from Uhlenhaut and Matson’s experiments that this duo plays a central role in the genetic battle of the sexes.
Of course, these studies were done in mice, but there’s every reason to think that the same antagonism rages on in humans. For a start, both DMRT1 and FOXL2 have very similar counterparts across a wide range of species, and they’re all involved in determining sex. Chickens and medaka fish with silenced versions of DMRT1 will grow up as females even if they are genetically male.
Both genes are also involved in human genetic disorders. People who inherit faulty copies of FOXL2 can develop a rare disease called BPES, which often leads to infertility because the ovaries don’t develop properly. On the flipside, people who are born without any copies of DMRT1 can develop Swyer syndrome. Even if they have a Y chromosome, their testes never develop properly and they are born as normal girls, complete with uterus and vagina. But they don’t have proper ovaries either and as such, they don’t go through puberty – that’s what usually gives away their missing genes.
Understanding how sex is determined could help us better understand these disorders and develop treatments for them. “Both findings will have huge implications for reproductive biology. We may have to look in a new way at reproductive disorders,” says Treier. It might even change how doctors carry out gender reassignment therapies, paving the way for genetic approaches rather than multiple painful surgeries.
Reference: Matson, Murphy, Sarver, Griswold, Bardwell & Zarkower. 2011. DMRT1 prevents female reprogramming in the postnatal mammalian testis. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature10239
I have offered myself to be a test subject for ablation of DMRT1 in humans. There is much more information on the net about this.

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LisaM May 3, 2016 at 11:49 pm

Well firstly there is no such thing as a ‘late onset’ trans person, anymore than there is a ‘late onset’ gay man or lesbian.

It is understood in the later two cases that it was always there, just suppressed. People can be amazingly inventive in how they deal (cope) with such feelings, though they nearly always have a time limit, because they require a lot of mental and emotional (sometimes physical as well) energy…

Eventually it runs out and the coping mechanisms start to collapse.

But if you examine the history of such people, there are always signs at younger ages, that were socialised out of them or the person themselves hid it because they knew it was unacceptable.

Every person I know that has transitioned at an older age, or are a serious part timer, tell the same story about themselves when they were kids.

However when you evolve your ‘coping’ mechanisms to hide and ‘fit in’, you often suppress memories of what you did, they are often shameful and disturbing, especially when you are into your act as a heterosexual male, desperate to put it all behind you..

Until I talked to a cousin recently I had forgotten some of the things I had done as a kid when the adults weren’t around. And while I never thought I acted in public as ‘effeminate’ they had all picked it up.

So I doubt very much that someone suddenly changes, there will have been a long history behind it all.

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Amy Ash May 5, 2016 at 5:02 am

Well, you go through “male menopause” and testosterone levels drop. Suddenly, you feel more feminine! Or what you perceive as feminine. It’s harder to become erect and you lose some interest in sex, it’s not the obsession it once was. You are somewhat more emotional. In the olden days the answer was an affair with a younger woman. But today, well, not as many younger women around as there used to be and they don’t need a sugar daddy like they used to what with women’s liberation and all. Plus, no convenient Vietnam War to get rid of the annoying competition with the younger males. But there is a way you can get around the young ladies isn’t there! Hey you can just be a woman yourself! Bam! Now you have a ticket to restrooms, locker rooms and women’s festivals! What you really should do is grow up and accept that “becoming more female” is just a natural part of aging, just as women “become more male” with the drop off of estrogen production. Get a hobby. Model airplanes are nice.

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David September 1, 2016 at 3:03 am

Amy Ash, has an interesting theory. It is idiotic but hey everyone is entitled to their opinion but I just so enjoy stupidity like this coming from people that are not trans in anyway. It is indeed to understand and many like Amy try to make sense of it in the simplest terms. But really what part of the equation are you not getting that most “late onset” Transfolk knew from an early age? Kinda debunks your pathetically simplistic and near sighted theory doesn’t it? I know in my case I was conflicted at the age of 5. Yup 5. I have not transitioned fully and may not. It is not so easy with family, peers, work and so on. We live in a society that profits very much by gender identity. It bought and sold, or more appropriately sold and bought every second of everyday. Marketing, advertising, media and so forth are massive influences in “genderfication”. I certainly didn’t choose to wear blue as a baby, and I learned quickly the benefits of going along and simply just being male. But after fighting who I really am for 49 years (by the way I am actually quite sexually able and in good shape, just wanted to debunk that stupidity and I have no interest in “acting” like a female to do perverted things…. this is as asinine and ignorant as the scared morons that tried to cast gays as child molesters in the 50’s and 60’s – just watch some of the public service video’s from that era…sobering really!) I want to be the most authentic me I can be.It’s that simple. Yeah it took me a while to realize I have been simply living a lie based upon the misconception that physical features and gender go hand in hand as we are all taught from EVER CORNER…. But Amy they don’t. The world is simply not that black and white, in fact it is most grey. Live and let live. Peace.

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