I don’t have a body; I am a body.
– Christopher Hitchens

You might like to believe otherwise, but all the evidence says we are no more and no less than physical beings. Our thoughts, feelings, and memories are nothing more (and yet so much more) than a few millilitres of chemicals squirting around our brains.

We have no control over this. What we are conscious of is the result of chemical activity that took place just a tiny fraction of a second earlier. The way I like to describe it, we don’t have free will, but our brains might.

This is some heavy shit to be throwing down, Twist; what does this have to do with crossdressing?! I hear you cry.

Well, a fellow blogger recently drew my attention to a report of opponents of sexual reassignment surgery cherry-picking data to suit their prejudices and declare that more research was needed […to support their opinions]. (I paraphrase in my own way, of course!)

Among the problems in the report (and whatever you do, do not read the comments at the end) was a conflation of sexuality and sexual identity. These are, of course, separate issues – but we can find some interesting brain stuff where they’re concerned.

It’s time to say hello to your hypothalamus.

Bailey & Zucker (1995) found 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming) – is this because of the way they are, or the way they were brought up?

Adler (1991) and Byne et al (2001) found a cluster of nerves in the hypothalamus was largest in straight men, smaller in gay men and slightly smaller in straight women (and this develops before birth). So it seems one’s sexuality is determined by brain development before we’re born.

Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexual identity or orientation.

So nature, not nurture, determines one’s sexual orientation – and it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition – people can be more hetero-, or more homo-sexual (think of it as a range), or simply not interested (asexual; maybe 1% of people will identify as such). It’s not a matter of whether one prefers men or women or isn’t interested, but how much one prefers men or women or isn’t interested.

Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation.
It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment.
Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice, though sexual behaviour clearly is.

– Royal College of Psychiatrists

Sex in the brain
To be clear: yes, there are size differences between the average male and female brains:

So when they ask “Are men and women’s brains different?”, you can unhesitatingly say, “yes”. And when they ask “And what does that mean for differences in how they think” you can say “Ah, now that’s a different issue”.

Joel et al (2015) conducted 1400 MRI scans of brains; and sure, there are some sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour. We have unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females, some in males, and some common in both. Regardless of whether nature or nurture causes sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour, human brains cannot be categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female’.
(This has provoked some debate in letters to PNAS.)

Returning to the hypothalamus, Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) looked at the ‘interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus’ (INAH for short; it’s a bit in the middle at the back of the hypothalamus). They found the following:

  • it’s larger and more elongated in men and more spherical in women;
  • male-to-female transexuals have a similar INAH to women, as do castrated males;
  • could the size of the INAH determined by testosterone?
  • (But their study has been criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)

So, it seems there’s a bit of the brain that might well tell you what gender you are?

Swaab (2007) found sex differences in your body develop early in pregnancy (the first few months), but sexual differentiation of the brain occurs later in the second half of pregnancy. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who would otherwise be ‘male’ (for example).

So your body’s sex and your brain’s ‘gender’ can be different. Can we really divide people into two genders? Not if we use biology, it seems!

I don’t think anyone wanting to alter their appearance to match their gender should be seen as suffering from body dysmorphia. Being trans is the result of natural development processes in the womb, not anxiety.

Anxiety might come from lack of acceptance by others, though – but that’s something imposed from without, not something that comes from within. As the tragic case of David Reimer demonstrates, if you force someone to accept a sexual identity they do not have, it cannot end well.

If any part of your body knows what your identity is – well, it’s the brain!

*No, I’m not a neuroscientist, merely a geek and a nerd. This isn’t a complete and comprehensive run-down of brain research and sexuality and sexual identity, but is the best summary I can squeeze into less than a thousand words…



What do the folks say?

So, here’s a question many of us have wrestled with: how do we tell our parents about our cross-dressing? Do we even dare? Is it worth the effort? Or is it enough to have a supportive group of friends?

Earlier this year a couple of my friends came out to their parents as trans (one m-to-f, one f-to-m). In one case, this was met with acceptance (and relief from their social circles); in the other, let’s just say the parents might need a bit more time – I gather their response was more doubting.

As my friend put it, it felt like their family was inadvertently hurting them through a misguided sense of trying to ‘protect them’, treating them as if they hadn’t already spent years thinking about their gender identity and the consequences of transitioning.

Another friend of mine transitioned a number of years earlier, and with the benefit of hindsight offered these pearls of advice (paraphrased):

  • By coming out to your parents, you might take a weight off your shoulders, but you end up putting it onto your parents’ shoulders
  • Your parents have lost a [son/daughter]; so even though you’ve thought about this for many years, you need to allow them time to come to terms with this – and grieve
  • Your parents have lost a possible future they would have expected for you
  • There might be a sense of guilt from your parents that they didn’t spot it/  understand/ help you sooner
  • While your friends might be understanding and supportive, how will your parents’ friends react to them? Your parents will also need to “come out” to friends and family.

Of course, this assumes fairly liberal, tolerant parents; not everyone is so lucky.

A friend once put me in touch with a guy who was starting to cross-dress, but didn’t have much of a supportive social community to rely on, and his parents were extremely socially conservative and religious (there’s a surprise), and utterly rejected and forbade it. My friend thought I might be able to help, (as a cross-dresser who’d already come out and was quite comfortable with my identity), but the problems this guy faced were huge, and had taken a toll on his wellbeing.

All I could do was reassure him that he wasn’t ‘wrong’; he wasn’t ‘deviant’; more than anything he simply had to become independent (especially financially independent) of his parents – that way they couldn’t threaten him, and anything they did wouldn’t harm him (of course, this ignores the emotional distress of his parents opposing him so directly). Last I heard, he’d moved to a new college and was finally able to come  out and start establishing a female identity.

As for my own parents?

Well, back in the 1980s when my mother happened to see Europe on TV singing The Final Countdown, her response was to ask “Are they men? But they’ve got long hair! And they’re wearing lipstick!” And later on my father, questioning my choice of Hawai’ian shirts, opined that in his day garish, brightly-coloured clothing like that was a sure sign of homosexuality.

The first time I told them about my cross-dressing, I was already an independent adult and had been living with my fiancée for a few years. Initially they took it as a joke, a one-off. When I made it clear that it wasn’t, they were clearly uncomfortable (but would never admit as much, being classic Brits). There were a few sarcastic comments made, and I decided that if they didn’t want to hear any more about it, I simply wouldn’t tell them. There was no reason to make it a problem.

This hasn’t given me any emotional distress. Sure, it’s frustrating not being able to share funny stories or adventures, or show them photos, but I’m constantly aware that it could be far worse (and it is, for those in other cultures, or for those who haven’t yet been able to establish themselves). I have some of the best friends I could ask for, and someone to share adventures with. I have no reason to complain!

Any advice, take-home lessons?

From my perspective – and do bear in mind how limited it might be – if you have to choose between coming out to an unreceptive or hostile family, or establishing your independence, choose independence first. Give yourself the social support and the safety of distance. Get to the point where “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

Gendered agenda addenda

During Edinburgh’s 2016 Science Festival I got to introduce a talk on world cultures which recognise more than two genders, by Professor William Naphy. It’s a topic I’ve briefly alluded to in a previous blog, but this seems like as good a time as any to go a bit more in-depth.

Update 13 April 2016: you can listen to the talk via the Edinburgh Skeptics podcast, starting 4m30s in. (Warning: if you do listen to the first few minutes you can hear me erm-ing, um-ing and ahh-ing through an intro to a poet and to the speaker…)

The talk was really excellent – densely packed with information, yet presented in a very clear and accessible way. I won’t regurgitate the talk verbatim, but the significant take-away messages were these:

  1. There are cultures around the world and throughout history which recognise three, four, or even five genders. From their point of view, they don’t ‘have’ three (or more) genders – there are three (or more) genders.
  2. ‘Genders’ and ‘gender roles’ seem to be inextricably linked – for example, in certain cultures if a woman wants to run a business, she will be seen as a ‘businessman’, and is not allowed to become pregnant (because ‘businessmen’ do not get pregnant). These are entirely separate from matters of sexuality.
  3. Just because a culture recognises more than two genders, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s open, tolerant and socially liberal – sometimes there can be very strict rules about what each gender is allowed to do, and the jobs they can take on.
  4. Following on from the last point, people in these cultures are likely to be disinclined to talk about genders; it would be as impolite as asking complete strangers about their sex lives.
  5. Generally speaking, across the world, there appears to be a bigger deal made about men adopting female gender roles than women adopting male roles.
  6. The influence of gender-binary cultures is adversely affecting the ones which recognise more than two – a culture which might celebrate a third gender could now start describing people in binary terms  – ‘gay’ or ‘trans’, rather than whatever words they have to describe a concept which we don’t have the words (or even concept) to describe in English.
  7. The cultures with more than two genders could be said to have more than two labels or pigeonholes to stick people into. Sure, it’s better than limiting it to two, but it can still be an inflexible system.
  8. I suspect the model we’re moving towards in ‘Westernised’ cultures is one which doesn’t see people as one thing, or another, or yet another, but rather has us occupying different points on ranges: a range of sex; a range of gender identities; a range of sexualities.

2016-ScienceFestivalAfter the talk I spoke to some of the audience in the bar afterwards. As you might expect, it drew a lot of interest from people who are, or have been through, transitioning (m-to-f and f-to-m), or otherwise gender non-conforming in various ways. I don’t really get involved with communities or support groups (because reasons), but I really enjoyed hanging out with other people who’ve had to come to terms with being at odds with what society considers ‘normal’.

If anything, I came away thinking more strongly than ever that each of us has to act as an ambassador for everyone else. We probably need to learn as much as we can about sex, gender and sexuality, even if we don’t think it applies to us, because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will latch on to us as their ‘token’ expert in these matters.

If we want to live in a more enlightened culture, that means sometimes fielding questions from other people which might be crude, or insensitive, or blithely ignorant and we’ll have to reply openly and honestly. To borrow a phrase from Jim Jeffries‘ stand-up routine about gun control:

…we have to play to the one per cent of society who are such fuckwits they ruin it for the rest of us. We have to move as slow as the slowest person to keep society moving…

Anyway… we all agreed that Professor Naphy’s talk was an eye-opener, and he did an excellent job of presenting other viewpoints we simply aren’t used to. It’s not often you can come out of a talk having to rethink certain bits of how you think the world works, but this was one of those times.


The Kids Are All Right

I reckon the future’s in good hands.

I recently had the chance to help out and speak at a couple of school events dealing with gender issues.

In the first, I only provided links to some recent brain studies and helped prepare a presentation for two teenagers, made in front of about 1500 pupils and teachers. Their talk was powerful, highlighting the death rates among trans people, from suicides and murders, and making the case for (among other things) gender-neutral school uniforms. They did a bloody good job, too – it’s really quite uplifting when things like that happen.

The fact that they got the chance to do this – and the lengthy applause afterwards – made me wonder if we’re reaching some sort of turning point.

In the second, I got to speak to a pupils’ lunchtime group which discusses LGBTI issues, led by a couple of teachers. I won’t repeat what I said, since much of the information has already appeared in this blog (and the rest of it will appear in future posts). My main goals were to inform, reassure, and – when possible – to entertain.

The teachers appreciated the fact that I had citations for everything I said, and the pupils appreciated the fact that I covered a wide range of sex, sexuality, gender, history and culture (kudos from one girl when I included asexuality with the other types).

But if the group response was anything to go by, I think what they’ll *really* take away from it is my impersonation of Australian cuttlefish…

LGBTI kids still face a lot of discrimination, but public awareness is growing. Doubtless, things will improve further as more parents understand what their children (or their children’s friends) are going through and seek support.

In some schools in the UK, more pupils are challenging the rules on uniforms – skirts for girls, trousers for boys – and schools are starting to adapt.

Kids are more aware of these issues, because they are already part of the world they are born into.

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends...

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends…

In my own experience, a couple of my friends have been happy for their kids to see pictures of me, or meet me dressed up.

“[She] saw and liked your new Wild West photos.
She said, “Cool! He must have fun being able to dress in both boys’ and girls’ clothes.”

It probably helps when you can provide a friendly, familiar face (if not a respectable one…) 😉

“…it was interesting to me when she met you in full Twist mode because it challenged her expectations at an age when she was probably quite binary (genderwise)”

Obviously, openness and acceptance aren’t going to happen everywhere, immediately. But they do seem to be spreading and accelerating.

“Twist is the biggest challenge to identity norms I’ve offered my children.”

It’s going to be interesting to see where this all leads. A couple of years ago, I introduced a talk by Nathan Gale, who expressed the hope that trans- and intersex issues would be mainstream within Nathan’s lifetime. Back then I wasn’t so sure, but now… hm!



I’ve got it easy

People pass by without batting an eyelid...

People pass by without batting an eyelid…

As a crossdresser, I have it ridiculously easy.

First of all, I live in a liberal, cosmopolitan city with enough arts events going on that cross-dressing doesn’t faze the locals. The Ladyboys of Bangkok have been visiting every year since the mid-1990s.  Hell, I live in a country where the national dress for men consists of a pleated tartan skirt.

Consequently, it’s been quite straightforward finding myself in social circles where my cross-dressing is welcomed. And a girlfriend who supports/puts up with it is a big help, too. All in all, it’s hard to think of any major problems I’ve encountered…

…so, as a consequence of that, I’ve never felt the need to join any support groups or communities either, but there are a number of other reasons for this. For one thing, my cross-dressing is purely cosmetic and not tied that deeply to my identity. But I’m not really a community-minded person, either. I’m not a fan of being lumped in with a crowd – I like to think I’m a little bit more interesting than someone’s label. If there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s conform to someone else’s expectations; Twist can be a bloody-minded contrarian.

“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.
Groucho Marx

Even so, I support and sympathise deeply with trans issues. Two friends of mine are male-to-female and female-to-male trans, another is bi-gender, and another might be described as ‘non-gender-conforming’.

Among my fellow-bloggers living elsewhere around the world, they’ve had to hide this aspect of themselves from workmates or family, or else it has caused relationship problems, or they’re having to go through the long process of transition, or the only support they get is online.

As I said, I’ve got it easy.

Despite advances in our understanding of sex and gender, more frequent reporting of trans issues or people ‘coming out’, and fashion houses starting to showcase skirts and dresses for men, and gender-neutral clothing departments, there are still large numbers of people who refuse to understand what it’s about (a breakdown of the TERFs’ turf wars over womanhood is clearly summarised here).

At worst it leads to death, something that has been lurking at the back of my mind since reports of Leelah Acorn’s suicide at the end of 2014, and brought into ever-sharper focus by the more recent suicide of Zander Mahaffey and the murders of Bri Golec and Kristina Grant Infiniti (making eight trans murders in seven weeks in the USA) in February 2015.

Yet, against this background, I’m no activist. If I talk about these issues at all, I can only do so from a detached, pseudo-academic point of view. I certainly have no interest in advising people how to run their lives, either. I can only speak about these things from my point of view alone, and nobody can make generalisations from it.

What can I possibly bring to the table?

I just want to show how much fun it can be. I can afford not to take myself seriously, and most of the time I won’t. I figure it’s best to show, not tell – which is why I’ve added an ever-increasing gallery to the blog.

This blog will be fun, informative, or (if I’m really on a roll) both of those things together.

As I wrote in the previous blog entry, every cross-dresser has their own story, or their own motivation, or their own challenges to write about. We are all representatives of what it’s like to be cd/TG/TS, and there is no single, ‘correct’ way to behave. I like to think that each of us acting individually might be just as effective at helping gain acceptance for others as a group might be.