Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gender Basics & Transgenderism by Lynn Conway

Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emerita

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Member, National Academy of Engineering

Short Excerpts from:
Basic TG/TS/IS
by Lynn Conway
Copyright @ 2000-2006, Lynn Conway.
All Rights Reserved.

We learned in Lynn's story that she was born and raised as a boy, and later in life was changed into a girl by female sex hormone treatments and major surgical procedures. Because of this past, Lynn is sometimes called a "transsexual" woman. Why did this happen to Lynn, and what is transsexualism anyway?

In order to understand transsexualism, we must first answer some basic questions about gender. What is Gender Identity? Where does it come from? What events occur in nature that interfere with correct assignments of gender? These pages aim at answering these questions. Links are then provided to further information on gender identity, transgenderism, transsexualism and intersexuality, and to information about methods and technology for physical gender modification.

Knowledge in this area is under rapid development. There are challenges in defining, separating and "labeling" the different phenomena, and in making estimates of frequencies of occurrence. There are also differing interpretations of the underlying science, and differing points of view about the evolving social and medical protocols for resolving these conditions.

However, much more is known about gender identity than just a few short years ago, and those new understandings are very much worth sharing and building upon. The taboo on this area has also been broken, so that we can openly discuss these important issues without fear, shame or embarrassment.

As we'll see, far more people suffer from gender-identity conditions than previously suspected, and the lives of millions of people are impacted by gender-identity issues. The key to improving the quality of those lives is better knowledge and more widespread understanding of that knowledge. Read More


Gender is the most fundamental part of one's identity as a human being. The very first question everyone asks about us is "Is it a boy or a girl?"

Important though it is, most people never think much about gender. They have no idea what causes their sense of being a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. Having never suffered mis-gendering, they take their gender for granted like the air that they breathe, never giving it a second thought. It is an unquestioned birth privilege to have a gender.

Conventional wisdom says that people are either boys who grow up to become men, or they are girls who grow up to become women. There are only two possibilities, and you are either one or the other. It's obvious at birth from your "genital sex", and that's all there is to it! However, as we will see, reality is not that simple. 

What makes us a boy or a girl? What determines our gender identity?

During early pregnancy, a fetus that has male genes (XY chromosomes) usually develops into a boy with male genitals. It develops into a girl with female genitals if it has female genes (XX chromosomes). This happens well over 99% of the time. Doctors and parents look at an infant's genitals at birth, and simply declare it to be a boy or a girl.

Those declared to be boys usually grow up into men having a male gender identity, and those declared to be girls usually grow up into women having a female gender identity. Again, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Although more than 5% of all men and women will grow up to be gay, and will seek love partners of the same sex and/or gender as themselves, they too usually have normal male and female gender identities as men and women, respectively.

Intersex conditions - including intersex babies whose gender is ambiguous at birth:

Although most infants appear to be either normal boys or normal girls, various genetic and developmental effects can lead in some cases to infants having ambiguous genitalia, so that even the doctors can't be sure whether it's a boy or a girl. In other cases, the genitals look correct for one gender, but aren't consistent with the infant's genes. In yet other cases the child's genes are something more complex than just XX or XY, and the child's gender identity and physical gender trajectory as they mature may be difficult to predict in advance. Children having these genital and/or genetic variations are called "intersex".  Intersex babies are produced in about one in every 1000 births.

For example, in about one in 13,000 births an XY (genetic male) fetus is unresponsive to fetal male hormones, and develops genitals that look like a girl's, except for a lack of internal reproductive organs. These XY "complete androgen insensitivity syndrome" (cAIS) infants are simply declared to be girls and are raised as girls. Although they cannot bear children, they often develop into slender, attractive women who have a female gender identity. It's rumored that a number of beautiful models have been cAIS girls. 

In other births, a "partial androgen insensitivity syndrome" (pAIS) results in the external genital appearance may lie anywhere along the spectrum from male to female. (See theAndrogen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group (AISSG) website for more information about AIS conditions). Incredibly, many of these girls are never told about the true nature of their conditions, because their doctors and families feel such shame and embarrassment about thes "terrible secret" that these girls have male genes. Instead they are usually told things like "you didn't develop any female internal organs, and thus can't have babies", and often discover the truth about themselves by accident later in life (for example, readSherri's Story on the AISSG website). Read more 


Now that we know some basics about gender and gender identity and have some insights into the difficulties faced by intersex people, we're prepared to learn about and understand transgenderism and transsexualism.

In this webpage we focus on male to female [MtF] conditions, since those are within Lynn's direct experience. However, there is a completely symmetrical set of female to male [FtM] gender conditions that are almost as common as MtF conditions. For more information about FtM transgenderism and transsexualism, see the websites of FtM Internationaland The American Boyz. The article "Girls will be Boys", by T. Eve Greenaway discusses the sudden emergence of FtM trangenderism out of the shadows and into the open in many U.S. colleges and universities. For in-depth background on FtM transgenderism and transsexualism, see the book by Jason Cronwell, Transmen & FtMsand also Jamison Green's book "Becoming a Visible Man". See also Lynn's webpage listing weblinks and photos of Successful TransMen (es)


Hidden away and seldom talked about is the fact that some apparently normal boys aren't boys at all, but should have been girls. Although they have normal XY genes, normal male genitalia, and are raised as boys, they nevertheless have the gender feelings, body feelings and gender identity of girls. Similarly, some girls aren't girls at all, but should have been boys. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. And it's always been that way.

Perhaps once in every 200 to 400 births something must go amiss in the early stages of pregnancy so that sex hormones do not have the usual action on the integration of the fetus's brain. In these cases, children are born having a brain-sex (neurological sex) and innate gender identity opposite to that indicated both by their genes and their genitalia. Since these infants look normal, they will be raised in the wrong gender for their brain-sex (neurological sex). Being raised in the wrong gender causes them profound gender dysphoria and mental anguish as they grow up. These are the "transsexuals" (TS), the most intensely affected of the "transgendered" (TG). Read more 

Basic TG/TS/IS
by Lynn Conway
Copyright @ 2000-2006, Lynn Conway.
All Rights Reserved

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