by Russ Peterson:
Note: This is Part 2 of a multi-part post. Continued from Part 1 here.
Gender and Individual Identity
Consider for a moment the experience of an individual with androgen insensitivity syndrome—one of the disorders of sex development described in the previous section. These individuals that are genetically male (with X and Y chromosomes) nevertheless develop as females, along with outwardly female sexual anatomy. Most do not become aware of their condition until they are medically examined to find the cause of infertility when they are trying to conceive children.
Imagine what it might be like to grow up normally as a female, only to learn during adulthood that you are genetically male, and that your female gender presentation is due to a genetic error. In the context of the current discussion, imagine further what we might say should such an individual express feelings of gender confusion (e.g., that the externally manifested gender did not match the individual's internal experience).3
This illustration helps us separate the concept of biological sex from that of gender identity. Whereas biological sex refers primarily to sexual anatomy and physical characteristics, gender identity refers to an individual's internal experience of gender. Most often gender identity is consistent with biological sex, but sometimes it is not. For reasons not clearly understood, there are cases where the inner sense of gender identity does not match the outward manifestation of biological sex. Interestingly, most often this incongruence cannot be explained by a recognized disorder of sex development spoken of in the previous section.
What we do know is that gender formation and identity are highly influenced by culture. That is, parents typically convey to children expectations about gender in accordance with a child's biological sex; thus children learn to identify with a particular gender based on these experiences and expectations. Furthermore, gender identification happens early in a child's development—well before the age of 8, and this gender identity is most often stable over time. Typically, when an individual announces as an adult that outwardly perceived gender is opposite that of inner experience, that individual is most often acknowledging later in life a gender identity that formed earlier during childhood.
For the gender congruent majority, the separation of biological sex and gender identity is difficult both to imagine and to understand. Few outside the social sciences are able to clearly separate gender identity from biological sex. This is because: 1) gender is so innate to personal experience that most lack a frame of reference for understanding how gender can differ from biological sex; 2) gender incongruence is seldom disclosed; and 3) exposure to these topics is limited outside college courses that specifically address them.
We also know that identification with a particular gender is a developmental process; gender identity is not something an individual consciously chooses. This is true both for gender-congruent and gender-incongruent individuals. For a frame of reference, ask yourself if you can remember choosing to see yourself as male or female. Alternatively, you might ask why an individual would bring upon him or herself shame and ridicule by choosing to identify with a gender that is opposite his or her biological sex. Sometimes gender-incongruent individuals seek surgical intervention for their condition. In doing so, they are generally not trying to change gender; rather, they are seeking to make their external appearance and biology congruent with their internal sense of gender identity.
Sexual Attraction and Development
Thus far we have considered biological sex and gender identity in terms of mortal growth and development. We have discussed some of the genetic and other problems incidental to a fallen world. I would like to introduce the discussion of sexual attraction by recalling an experience I had with a client years ago in private practice.
Jane* sat across from me and related the history of her past relationships. She had been married three times, and each of the men she had married had turned out to be terribly abusive. She was contemplating marriage for the fourth time, and she had started to see signs that this fourth man was also abusive. Rather than risk repeating the same mistake, she sought professional help. Why, she wondered, was she repeatedly attracted to men who turned out to be abusive?
As we sat in session, Jane recalled elements of her childhood. Her own father had been an abusive alcoholic and Jane remembered vowing that she would escape the circumstances that had framed her youth. With each successive relationship, Jane became more deeply depressed as she tried unsuccessfully to escape her past.
As Jane and I traced her relationship history, Jane became aware of patterns she had not previously recognized. The men she had married all shared specific personality traits with her father. Since these traits were familiar to her, Jane felt comfortable in the presence of these men. In time these feelings of comfort helped Jane to feel safe and secure, and it was from this sense of safety and security that feelings of sexual attraction developed. Although Jane recognized consciously that she did not want to participate in abusive relationships, the mechanisms whereby her attractions developed were initially outside her awareness and thus, outside her control.
From a clinical perspective, it has likewise been long understood that the emergence of sexual attraction(s) is a non-deliberative process. In other words, sexual attractions unfold over time outside the sphere of conscious direction or control. For a frame of reference, a reader might try to recall a time when he or she chose to be/become attracted to a certain sex or gender. For most individuals, attractions are not chosen; rather, they unfold over time and are framed by a host of factors, including genetics, biology, hormones, early learning, social expectations, and role modeling, to name a few. Additionally, the development of sexual attractions can also be influenced by one's sexual history, including the experience of sexual abuse or early experimentation.
Many theories have been proposed to explain the development of same-sex attraction. These have included theories focused on family dynamics, genetic factors, hormonal influences during development, etc. Among the various theories, none has been shown to account for more than a nominal amount of variance in the development of same-sex attraction. This suggests that several factors are involved, and that the interplay between the factors is highly complex. As we would expect, the development of sexual attractions is an intensely personal process.
The scientific literature that has emerged has helped us understand some of the biological component(s) of same-sex attraction. Again, this is not meant to be an all-inclusive list:
First, there appear to be some structural differences in the brains of those who identify as gay. In the brain there is a group of structures known as the "sexually dimorphic nuclei." In lay terms, this description denotes structure(s) that are different in men than they are in women. Studies have shown that for gay men, these structures are closer in size to the sexually dimorphic nuclei of women than to those of other men.
This coincides with what we know about how hormones influence the body throughout development. During development, hormones determine whether certain tissues develop according to male or female developmental templates. Testosterone drives male sexual development, not only at puberty but beginning in the womb. We are only recently beginning to understand how a mother's own sex hormones influence this process during embryonic development, but research suggests that this influence can vary greatly from one individual to the next. As with all factors relating to the mortal state, these systems are subject to error, disorder, and disease, which in turn can have profound implications for normal or atypical sexual development.
Finally, we know that certain neural pathways—once established—are not meant to change during an individual's lifetime. Consider, for example, the process by which birds form maternal bonds via the mechanism known as imprinting. Shortly after hatching, ducklings focus on the first moving thing larger than themselves and establish their part of the parent/offspring bond with whatever it is they see. This would typically be the mother duck, but the mechanism of the imprint is such that ducklings can become imprinted on other species, including humans. When this happens, we wouldn't say that the duck's bond is natural, but we can appreciate that it seems natural to the duck.
Our purpose is not to equate humans with ducks. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate the power of early learning and how it can interact with biology. Certain neural pathways, once established, are not meant to change during an individual’s lifetime. Correctly established, there is no need for them to change. However, once established, they can prove highly resistant to change over time. Such appears to be the case with same-sex attraction. By the time an individual becomes aware of his/her sexual attractions, most facets of development have already played out and have been incorporated as part of an individual's identity and personality.
(to be continued) ...
* Name has been changed.
3The author is not suggesting that individuals who experience androgen insensitivity syndrome and develop as female wish to change gender when they learn of their condition; nor is he suggesting that gender identity mismatch is caused by or associated with any disorder of sex development (including androgen insensitivity syndrome). Rather, the example serves to illustrate the difference between gender and biological sex, and to help the reader think broadly about these concepts as they apply to others in this article.
Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.
Image credit: Jonathan McIntosh, modified by Scott Heffernan (used with permission).