“Those persons who identify as transgender (the “T” in many queer community acronyms) are those who identify with a gender that differs from their assigned sex (Figure 1). This juxtaposes cisgender, or those who identify with their assigned gender. Though the typical assigned sexes are “male” and “female,” often designated at birth, being transgender does not limit gender identity to these two categories, as many who identify as transgender do not feel they are exclusively masculine or feminine. Importantly, transgender identity is independent of sexual orientation. The subset of transgender individuals who choose to undergo sexual reassignment surgery are often denoted as transsexual.
The transgender identity has long been associated with poor mental health, particularly the diagnoses of “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria.” However, the World Health Organization is actively working towards declassifying transgender identity as a mental disorder, a change partially prompted by a recent study uncoupling the mental and physical health problems experienced by transgender people from their gender identity. Rather, those who had suffered ailments could vastly attribute their afflictions to societal stigma, discrimination, and violence.
“It’s All in Your Head” – Except When It’s Not
Sex determination – the way we are “coded” into a biological sex – is complicated in and of itself. There are far more options than just “male” or “female,” and countless instances of species that can actually transition from one sex to another within a single lifetime. With most mammals, however, the majority of individuals are cisgender male or female; transgender individuals are estimated to comprise about 0.3% of the adult U.S. population.
Little is known about the causes of transsexuality, and many of the studies that have been conducted – particularly psychological studies – have since been widely discredited (more on that later). However, scientists do seem to have some information on the biological basis of several factors.
First and foremost, is gender identity genetic? It seems the answer is yes – though, as with most traits involving identity, there is some environmental influence. One classic way for scientists to test whether a trait (which can be any characteristic from red hair to cancer susceptibility to love of horror movies) is influenced by genetics is twin studies. Identical twins have the exact same genetic background, and are usually raised in the same environment. Fraternal (nonidentical) twins, however, share only half their genes, but tend to also be raised in the same environment. Thus, if identical twins tend to share a trait more than fraternal twins, that trait is probably influenced by genetics. Several studies have shown that identical twins are more often both transgender than fraternal twins, indicating that there is indeed a genetic influence for this identity. So, what genes might be responsible?”
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