The myth of the gendered brain and its ties to gender dysphoria in medicine

Morgain Locke, Contributing Writer

The notion that gender dysphoria should be considered a medical condition relies on the belief that there is a distinct difference between male and female brains, an outdated idea based on studies with unreliable sample sizes that were popularized to favor patriarchal ideals that have since been debunked. Dysphoria directly results from societal standards that define what a man and a woman “should” be based on traditional stereotypes and gender roles, not a medical condition. Moreover, the previously referenced argument also does not account for the social consequences and the inherent exclusion of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals that identify as transgender.

Gender dysphoria is not a condition to be treated. It is the remnants of a traditional society that cares more about what is in a person’s pants than who they are as an individual. That feeling of being in the wrong body that so many transgender people report experiencing is a direct result of the long-standing idea that your gender identity and expression need to match your biological sex. This is the basis of gender dysphoria, not a difference in brain structure.

Those that believe that gender dysphoria needs to be a diagnosable condition rely on the idea that the brain is built differently between sexes and that a transgender person’s brain supposedly matches the structure of the sex they identify with rather than the one they were born as. However, where do people that do not identify within the gender binary fit in that argument? If transgender people supposedly share the brain structure of the sex they identify as, what does the structure of nonbinary people look like? Nonbinary people — or people who do not identify as either a man or woman — can also experience gender dysphoria, so if dysphoria were to be considered a medical condition, how would they be diagnosed? How would they be treated? Hypothetically speaking, if binary transgender people were to have their “condition” treated by transitioning, what would happen to nonbinary people, who can never fully match their biological sex to their gender identity?

Circling back, if gender dysphoria were to be classified as a medical condition, how would such a condition be treated? Would it be by physically transitioning from one sex to another, like many transgender people already do without the need for a diagnosis? What purpose would diagnosing something that stems from a person’s identity serve when the only “treatment” available is already so popular among the transgender population?

Making gender dysphoria a diagnosable medical condition would also commercialize transgender identities to a point where transgender people would no longer be able to confidently call themselves by that label without first having to pay for a doctor to “diagnose” their identity. The need for a proper diagnosis of gender dysphoria would also make people less likely to accept a transgender person’s identity if they had not already been diagnosed. An industry targeted toward undiagnosed transgender people would boom and so would transphobia, as transphobes gain a new method of invalidating those undiagnosed with or those that do not experience gender dysphoria. Transgender people that cannot afford or just do not want to go see a doctor regarding their personal identity would be seen as less valid in the eyes of those looking for ways to discredit transgender identities.

Even without considering the social problems associated with classifying dysphoria as a medical condition, the core argument based on the idea of male and female brains is inherently incorrect. Dr. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University, conducted a meta-synthesis study that found very few widely reproduced differences over the many studies they examined, even when they included the results from thousands of participants. The handful of differences that they did find were far too physically insignificant to be able to confidently identify a person’s biological sex based on their brain alone. The notion that transgender individuals have brains that resemble that of the sex they identify as — the idea that is the main supporting argument for those that believe gender dysphoria should be classified as a medical condition — is completely discredited by these findings. Furthermore, one of the studies credited with popularizing the idea of a gendered brain in the first place was one conducted by the University of California, in which only 21 men and 27 women were used. Anyone who has ever taken a statistics class can tell you that this sample size is far too small for any results to be considered legitimate. Alas, the idea of the gendered brain, coined as “neurosexism” later on, persisted.

Although biological sex does have some effect on the brain and its function, it does not have nearly enough physical identifiers for there to be designated male and female brain structures, with Dr. Eliot stating, “The truth is that there are no universal, species-wide brain features that differ between the sexes.” The idea of brains being specific to biological sex is a product of the time they originated in and is continually held up by traditional belief rather than proven fact. As best said in “The Gendered Brain” by Dr. Gina Rippon, “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.”

It is safe to say that gender dysphoria should not ever be considered a medical condition, if not from the likely societal consequences and the inherent exclusion of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals, then certainly because of the outdated belief in a gendered brain that the idea was built on in the first place.