Going to Church

| Oct 12, 2015
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Dr. Dana Bevan

Dr. Dana Bevan

I have been invited to talk to a youth church class about being transgender. Yes, a scientist talking in a church. They told me that they wanted me to describe my life story as being transgender. Many people seem to form their opinions about being transgender from the transgender stories they hear and people they meet. So I better be on my best behavior. But I live, breathe and bleed science so some of that is bound to come out. I am sure that I will not waste the opportunity to inject some science into the presentation since it guided my life. Specifically, these young people need to know that there is science in both sides to show that being transgender is due to a collision between biology and culture. Some of these young people are transgender and need to know that they cannot be blamed for being transgender. There is nothing anyone can do about transgender biology. It is up to them and us to continue to change the culture.

I guess I will start out talking about knowing that I was transgender when I was a child (The word transgender had not been invented yet). I told my mother that I was a girl, not a boy at about age 4 and a half. She tried to deny my feelings but eventually told me that crazy people in New Jersey were sent to the state mental hospital at Ancora. I did not completely believe it until they took away the brother and sister across the road and sent them to Ancora. They never returned.

So for about 45 years, I stayed in the closet and did not let anyone know that I was transgender. But my scientific orientation led me to try to find out more about this “perversion” that I had. For some reason, I was confident that I did not need a cure but I wanted to understand it. There were a series of bells going off as I looked for information.

There was no help at the libraries that I could access. Eventually I took a course at college called Abnormal Psychology. The instructor mumbled something from Freud and lumped transgender people with homosexuals. But he did tell us that being transgender happened all over the world. THE FIRST BELL RANG. I reasoned that if it was that widespread that it could not be some local cultural aberration. It had to be biological!

That led me to think about my own experience, realizing that I was transgender at a really early age. I could not find any information to confirm others’ experience (I was afraid to ask anyone, let alone a transgender person). But my family had treated me well and I had not done anything wrong by the age of 4. BELL NUMBER 2. I must have been born transgender meaning that it came with my biology!

For about 45 years, this evidence and explanation was all I had to hold on to. I was not much. I changed fields from physiological psychology to human factors psychology. I had been discouraged by my graduate school advisors from studying the potential biology of those who were transgender in graduate school. Since I we were working on the biological basis of sexual behavior in our lab, I used this as a cover story to discuss my interest. They informed me, correctly so, that there was no grant money available and no colleges where I would be welcome to do this kind of research.

As a human factors psychologist I did all right. Managed to get married and raise a family, to my mother’s delight. Did some interesting research studying all sorts of jobs including various military positions, first responders, medics and paramedics. I designed computer and training systems. Passed periodic security investigations every 5 years and at least a dozen polygraphs. (They never thought to ask me if I was transgender.)

At last I found a public library that had some relevant books. I read As Nature Made Him by Colapinto, the story of an unfortunate male newborn who lost his male organ in a circumcision accident. His parents had genital plastic surgery done to make him look more female and tried to raise him as a girl but he rejected this gender behavior category. He eventually committed suicide. BELL NUMBER 3. Admittedly this was only a case study of one but it was a pretty pure “natural experiment.” It demonstrated that, at least, for males with masculine gender behavior predisposition that the predisposition could not be changed by child rearing practices or coercion. I was born transgender only I had a feminine gender behavior predisposition!

By this time I also had started going to support groups. The one I attended regularly was Crossroads in Detroit. At one of these meetings, I heard that Lynn Conway who was an engineering professor at the University of Michigan had come up with good estimates of the population frequency of transgender people. I managed to find her paper and read it. BELL NUMBER 4. Her paper meant that being transgender and transsexual were not that rare which provided further indication to me that being transgender involved biology. If 1-2% of the male population is transgender then there must be lots of us, reinforcing the idea that being transgender was pretty common.

The evidence seemed to convince me that I was not guilty of doing anything wrong but the kicker came while I was teaching Biopsychology at the local university. The textbook I was encouraged to use had one picture and one paragraph about a nucleus in the hypothalamus whose characteristics seemed to correlate with being transgender. The place was well known to me. I had studied it way back in graduate school. BELL NUMBER 5. If brain structure correlated with being transgender, then it was surely biological in nature. And eventually I found that there were studies of other places in the brain and of its structure and function that correlated with being transgender. I started a full court press to find scientific papers related to being transgender because I now had hope that there were some.

Back in psychology school I had learned from others research how to establish heritability of a trait. It was a one-two punch. First you did twin studies to determine the likelihood that if one identical twin had a trait that the other would also. Identical twins start with the same DNA at conception, so if a trait is heritable, then it should appear in both identical twins. I eventually found some genetic science that indicated that both being transgender and being transsexual were heritable. BELL NUMBER 6. So I had been right that we are born transgender but here was clear evidence!

Shortly after that the human genome technology became available, I found some research papers that had found markers on the DNA molecule that correlated with being transgender. BELL NUMBER 7. The bells were going off now in quick succession. Next I found several papers indicating that transgender people were less right handed than other people. I casually discussed handedness with a psychologist colleague who told me that his father had the best theory of handedness in that it is at least partially heritable. BELL NUMBER 8. I eventually found this and other biomarkers that correlate with being transgender!

I was about this time that I realized that I might be going in the wrong direction. Could I find evidence to eliminate non-biological explanations of being transgender? In quick succession, I found evidence to eliminate blaming it on childrearing practices (BELL NUMBER 9) and prenatal drugs and environment (BELL NUMBER 10). I examined some 20 psychodynamic explanations and found all of them did not constitute scientific theories or produce any objective evidence. One of these was the notorious autogynephilia. (BELL NUMBER 11). That is not to say that we may find evidence in these areas in the future but all current evidence refutes a non-biological explanations.

Finally, I examined the heritability evidence again and found that not all transgender identical twins have transgender identical twin siblings. There was room for another factor besides genetics, that of epigenetics. Epigenetics are chemical events that spontaneously change DNA or modify its expression. Even non-transgender identical twins have some traits that are different at birth because of epigenetics. So there must be epigenetic mechanisms that prevent one identical twin in a twin-pair from being transgender. BELL NUMBER 12. The two-factor theory of being transgender was born. I also felt that I had done enough due diligence to go into transsexual transition.

But now that I have a head of steam, there is no stopping me. There are a lot of transgender issues which science can help address. I expect some other bells will go off in the future that fill in our knowledge. I hope that the young people at the church will realize that they are not to blame if they are transgender. I also hope that I can find at least one who will take up the scientific challenge to understand being transgender.

So there is the outline for my talk at church.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at danabevan@earthlink.net.

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