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19 April 2012

Nature v Nurture

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has recently funded a private transgender body – the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) - to produce an e-learning resource entitled Transgender Awareness Training for Local Authorities – available here.

The word ‘gender’ has historically been used to mean the psychological and physical characteristics that distinguish male and female. In recent years, however, it has become commonplace to confuse the word ‘sex’ with the word ‘gender’.

‘Sex’ is of course biologically determined, but contrary to the expert position described in the Evangelical Alliance’s 2000 book Transsexuality, GIRES is ideologically committed to the view that ‘gender’ is biologically determined. The e-learning resource claims that medical authorities are increasingly agreed that transsexuality develops pre-nataly in the brain. It also includes a letter purported to be from a 16-year-old to his GP stating that he began puberty some six years earlier. Since then he has hated his body image in the mirror and claims he knows that he is a female in a male body.

The training resource openly declares that neither one’s sex characteristics nor one’s upbringing determine our gender identity. This flies in the face of broad scientific consensus which accepts that while these factors do not absolutely create gender identity, they nevertheless do create it to a high degree. 

It is an accepted fact that ‘transsexuality’ or ‘transgender’ remains a rare condition and that sex characteristics and upbringing are to an extraordinarily high degree responsible for producing divalent gender identity. As evidence, there are hundreds of scientific papers in existence dealing directly with the observed developmental psychology processes which lead to gender identity.

In contrast, the (GIRES) authors allege that there is “considerable” scientific evidence that gender identity is influenced before birth. The word “influenced” is tellingly weak and in reality any scientific papers dealing with this hypothesis (NB definitely not ‘observations’) are few and negligible compared with the vast majority of papers examining post-natal factors. Historically there has always been some degree of debate over nature and nurture proportions usually between biologists and developmental psychologists. For some 30 years in most areas the consensus is that both are always involved. What GIRES and the DCLG are trying to do now is to swing the pendulum right to the ‘nature’ extreme.

A clear statement made in the GIRES training resource is that we are born with gender identity. This is absolutely wrong. Scientific researchers define gender identity as a consciously held idea. This idea simply does not exist in new borns. They do not even have a sense of a separate identity from their mother for several months. The stages by which they acquire a sense of gender identity have been thoroughly investigated and it is agreed that most children’s learning comes from copying others of the same sex. 

To suggest that we are “born with gender identity” implies that we are inescapably destined to a particular gender identity as this trait develops. However, no reputable academic experts believe that gender identity is completely fixed prenatally and unchangeable thereafter. Rather, it is widely accepted that all human traits are multifactoral, carrying very many influences from prenatal, family, society and developing physiological states through childhood together with random experiential sources. Furthermore, there are known to be strong post-natal influences as well as considerable experiential malleability during development. For example, a girl subjected to sexual abuse may retreat from a gender identity of femininity to that of androgyny.

Also to suggest that we cannot change who we are inside is contrary to human experience. Ironically, the authors of this publicly-funded resource are understandably attempting to create precisely such change to dispel prejudice in the minds of their audience. And such prejudicial beliefs can indeed change. As confirmed by studies of twins, there is actually much stronger scientific evidence that in a number of areas prejudice itself is more likely to be innate than gender identity.

The authors point to the experiences of many who have not found it possible to change their gender identity or to those who experienced conflict very early as implicit evidence that change does not happen. But there is evidence available from those who have changed and contrary interview material could have been included in contrast to that actually produced in the training resource - as the authors should have been aware. It is therefore scientifically indefensible to assert that gender identity cannot change. Nearly 100 years ago standard medical opinion assumed that alcoholism was incurable. The fact that so very many now routinely change shows how totally misleading it is to mistake great difficulty for impossibility.

In line with the philosophical principle that it is impossible to prove a universal negative, it is scientifically impossible to prove that change cannot happen. Skilled therapists produce notable successes and new treatments emerge.
The Diagnostic & Statistics Manual classifies gender identity disorder as a mental condition. If GIRES wish to argue otherwise their medium should certainly not be that of a public training course used to reinforce a particular ideology but a scientific article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine or related publication.

There may be many reasons for treating trans people with respect, but for the authors to invoke science in this way, implying that there is such a clear consensus around their position that public policy inevitably follows, is totally incorrect. By seriously understating the contrary views to theirs which exist in the scientific community they may be accused of deliberately misleading. Social policy cannot be based on such a degree of discord. The Evangelical Alliance is currently in contact with both GIRES and the DCLG in the belief that this learning resource needs to be vigorously challenged on the basis of the flawed scientific arguments used to underpin it.

(With acknowledgements to Dr Neil Whitehead)