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May 14, 2015

Scientists rethink gender identity with new research


The medical field is rethinking the assumption that gender identity links directly to one’s sex at the time of birth.

Transgender individuals do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth based on their sex. Doctors working with them are discovering more about the relationship between biology and gender with the hope of helping their patients lead happy and authentic lives.

Endocrinologist Dr. Joshua Safer at Boston University works with transgender patients and believes that genes help determine gender identity, though that’s only one part of the story.

“In most people, chromosomes, body parts [and] gender identity align,” Safer said. “It is natural that in some portion of the human population, these traits might not match up due to the genes that are controlling them.”

Safer reviewed a study in which children born with male XY chromosomes but ambiguous genitalia were raised as female. The study found that many of those children identified as male, suggesting gender identity cannot be imposed by parents and society.

Kristina Olson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, conducted a long-term study with children using tests that use image and word association to measure the strength of their gender identification. The results showed the children’s thought processes align with the gender they identify with, even if it is not the one they were assigned at birth.

Transgender adults are at greater risk for unemployment, discrimination and self-harm, Olson said. By studying the roots of gender identity, she hopes to change public understanding of the transgender community, and help children avoid depression, isolation and other challenges that many transgender individuals face.

Warm up questions
  1. What is the difference between sex and gender?
  2. What does it mean to be transgender?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What determines a person’s gender? What does the phrase “gender assigned at birth” mean?
  2. According to this report, what do scientists not know about what causes someone to be transgender? What further research needs to be done?
  3. Why is it important to understand the biological roots of being transgender?
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