Organization Intersex International: Transgender people using “brain sex” theories damage the Intersex community’s ability to organize

July 26, 2014

"It’s time for a bit more pride, and time for phone calls seeking validation based on brain sex to stop." - OII

“It’s time for a bit more pride, and time for phone calls seeking validation based on brain sex to stop.” – OII


By Morgan Carpenter, new Director of Organization Intersex International Australia:


Intersex, brain differences, and the transgender tipping point

5 June 2014.

Over a decade ago, intersex and trans activist Raven Kaldera wrote that trans people seeking classification as intersex might be seeking legitimisation, as if a physical cause is necessary to obtain social or familial validation. He said that trans people using brain sex theories to claim intersex status were basing a political stance on unproven science and damaging the intersex community’s ability to organise.

We might hope that times have changed, with the amazing Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time magazine, as it declares The Transgender Tipping Point. This is great news (also, we can’t wait for the next series of Orange is the New Black) but, sadly, a high proportion of enquiries that we get at OII Australia, a national intersex organisation, are still from trans folk seeking biological validation for their identity.

Intersex is a term for innate physical differences in sex characteristics, known controversially to medicine as “Disorders of Sex Development” and historically as hermaphroditism. At least 30 or 40 genetic differences causing intersex traits are known to science. Intersex is not defined as a gender identity. Intersex people have all sorts of gender identities, just like trans and other people. Some intersex people have non-binary gender identities, just like some trans people, but most intersex people are men or women.

Correlations between brain sex differences and same sex attraction in men, and trans gender identities in women, have been widely reported over a long period of time – yet there’s still controversy even regarding the notion that men and women have different brains. Given the known biological basis of many intersex variations, much of the research on causes of homosexuality has been carried out on live foetuses and infants with intersex traits.

Late last year, a neuroscience study inspired headlines proclaiming, “hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are “better at map reading” (And why women are “better at remembering a conversation”)”. Cordelia Fine writing at The Conversation shows how the reporting and the study itself, of nearly 1,000 people, inflated very modest differences into something “tediously predictable“. In reality:

In an larger earlier study … the same research team compellingly demonstrated that the sex differences in the psychological skills they measured – executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition – are almost all trivially small…

the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces.

The more research that is conducted, the more clear is the evidence that brains are plastic. Differences are often over-stated, especially where results fit social preconceptions, but brain structures change according to circumstance and repeated activities.

Studies in recent years have found that a short eight-week mindfulness meditation program changed the brain structures of 16 participants, while other studies have found brain differences in active longer-term meditators. Scientific American has collected some good links.

More recently, a study in Israel has found that parenting rewires the male brain, particularly those of gay men: “the experience of hands-on parenting, with no female mother anywhere in the picture, can configure a caregiver’s brain in the same way that pregnancy and childbirth do“. In heterosexual men, brain differences were “proportional to the amount of time they spent with the baby“.

Laverne Cox said in that Time interview (via The Guardian):

If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is OK, and they should not be denied healthcare. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence … That’s what people need to understand, that it’s okay and that if you are uncomfortable with it, then you need to look at yourself.

It’s time for a bit more pride, and time for phone calls seeking validation based on brain sex to stop.

Biological validation doesn’t improve access or quality of healthcare. Testing for biological differences creates its own risks. Basing a human rights campaign on being “born that way“, or not being able to help being different is undeniably seductive, but we all deserve human rights whether we’re born a particular way or not. It shouldn’t depend on your genetics or your brain structure any more than your gender expression or what you choose to wear.



[Bolding by me. Images added by me.-GM]



14 Responses to “Organization Intersex International: Transgender people using “brain sex” theories damage the Intersex community’s ability to organize”

  1. GallusMag Says:

    Very interesting talk by Morgan at the 2013 “Health in Difference” conference organized by the National LGBT Health Alliance here, for those who have the time. Lasts about half an hour. Recommended.

  2. Miep Says:

    I would argue that there is no such thing as an essentialist brain sex theory, that the evidence is too weak for anything stronger than hypotheses. Work predicated on brain plasticity and social constructionism is much stronger.

    • cerulean blue Says:


      You are right. This is an example of people thinking any crappy explanation is a “theory”– science illiteracy at its finest. But that’s what trans, inc., is all about.

      As for drinking the koolaid, I don’t think this organization has. It strikes me more like the plea of someone powerless, like the shoe salesperson who mistakenly thinks that placating the six foot eight inch “girl” with the size 14 feet will keep “her” from destroying the store’s entire inventory.

      • Lizzy Shaw Says:

        As a scientist, I love your comment!

        It does seem like there is more evidence on the plasticity of human brains than on this innate brain sex hypothesis. Also, if there is a such thing as innate brain sex (not influenced by the environment) then why do girls do just as well if not better than boys at mathematics in countries with high levels of sex-equality?

        The brain sex hypothesis is harmful to women and men have been trying to prove that women’s brains are inferior since neuroscience began. White men have also tried to prove that white people’s brains were superior, but thankfully the idea of significant brain differences between racial groups has mostly fallen out of favor.

        I don’t get too much of a Kool-Aid feel either; I agree that it’s plea for rationality from someone who doesn’t have power.

      • GallusMag Says:

        The telephone graphics (including the koolaid one) are meant to illustrate the frequently calling brain sex adherents discussed in the article. Not as commentary on the author. Obviously that was unclear to more than one reader. My apologies.

  3. Random Radfem Says:

    Cheryl Chase and the Intersex Society of North America took a very firm stand against transgender appropriation throughout the 1990s and early 2000. There used to be documents on the website ( ) that plainly named names, dates and conferences that the trans brigade tried to aggressively colonize (unsuccessfully). It doesn’t seem like those documents are available on the site anymore- at least I can’t find them. They were very eye-opening accounts of the early days of the trans movement we know today- aggressive self-serving men looking to obfuscate and co-opt the struggles of others to satisfying their own personal/political agendas.

  4. samley Says:

    Aren’t there international studies which prove that the “differences” that studies limited to the U.S. didn’t actually exist? I think I’ve read a couple. Socialization, culture and education have everything to do with differences in skills. It’s a fact.

  5. “Laverne Cox said in that Time interview (via The Guardian):

    If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is OK, and they should not be denied healthcare.”

    I guess what he means by “healtcare” in this context is “access to hormone replacement therapy and genital surgery”.

    • Adrian Says:

      Usually when you pick it apart, that’s what it ends up being.

      Sometimes though you’ll find people fighting for the legitimate thing, which is – even if an M2T is “presenting like a woman” and even post SRS, if he shows up at the urologist needing care or checkups of the prostate (which is still present!) then he should not be denied such just for being “a freak” or whatever. I’m 100% agreed with that. Similarly, if someone breaks an arm, there’s no reason for the doctor to freak out because the person is trans.

      Usually though the “healthcare” thing is all about getting hormones and SRS covered by insurance as “necessary treatment” in the same way that heart surgery is. You can find endless “please fund my lifesaving medical care that insurance is denying me” blogs where it ends up being all about hormones. Or “I need funds for medicine because I can’t pay my rent” and again, hormones.

    • lin Says:

      If I were a doctor, I would never, ever want to take on a transsexual patient. They would sue or start one of their smear campaigns for some imagined discrimination or if they don’t get their way. And who wants to explain to the insurer why you performed a pap smear on a man or prostate exam on a woman.

  6. PrayingMantis Says:

    It’s especially galling since trans people are hijacking intersex activism to allow them to get their genitals mutilated (with government money, no less) when what intersex people want is for doctors to please stop mutilating their genitals. This was a good article but I feel it didn’t really state how exactly trans are hurting the intersex cause- which is the above. I guess the author was too scared of the trans backlash, I don’t blame her.

  7. […] An excuse primarily used by men mimicking femininity to suggest that their predilection for the color pink, or desire to buy many pairs of cute shoes, has its basis in a hypothesized rare genetic disorder of sexual development, supposedly making them “intersex,” but which has never been diagnosed. They claim this in an effort to pretend that their desire to mimic feminine stereotypes is not based on masturbation fantasies. A parasitic co-opting of attention from people who really do have such conditions. […]

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