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Scanning for Understanding

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

There is much discussion in my online transgender/parent of trans/ally groups about a study recently released by the University of Liege in Belgium that shows structural differences in brains of people with gender dysphoria.

Professor Julie Bakker, the study's lead researcher, said:

“Although more research is needed, we now have evidence that sexual differentiation of the brain differs in young people with GD, [sic gender dysphoria] as they show functional brain characteristics that are typical for their desired gender.”

(Bodkin, H. (2018, May 2 2018) Transgender brain scans promised as study shows structural differences in people with gender dysphoria Retrieved from

Many are excited about this finding. One mother I know recently said the findings “helped her understand and accept” her transgender child. One man, father to a transgender child, said he is so relieved to have a scientific, peer reviewed study to refer to when he talks about his transgender child to people who do not understand or who are not supportive. One woman, who identified herself to me as transgender, said the results of the study made her feel her “right to exist is validated.”

The implications of this study are far reaching. Brain scans could lead to early identification and treatment for transgender youth, and may help them avoid some of challenges that occur when someone suffers from gender dysphoria. For parents of transgender youth that struggle with decisions about their children’s health care regarding gender, this scientific research may help relieve some of their anxiety as they make challenging and often permanent decisions that support their child in affirming their gender.

This study puts the focus on brain structure rather than mental health as the determinate with regard to gender. Transgender people are not inherently in need of mental health care anymore than cisgender people are. It is only one’s confusion/suffering that would call for mental health support. Still, many transgender people do need to seek counseling, not because of who they are on the inside, but rather because of the messages and treatment they receive from society.

While there are many positive outcomes that could occur from the information this study provides, there are many who are concerned the results of this study will lead to practices that could be harmful and discriminatory to transgender people. Some fear there will be those who want to use brain scans to invalidate someone’s gender identity, using the scan as some measure of proof that they are indeed transgender. Only those with the scan to prove it could claim transgender identity, get insurance approval for medical need, change their legal documents. Others fear the scans could be used in utero, and perhaps lead to selective breading to eliminate gender diversity.

Dr Stephen Rosenthal, head of UCSF Adolescent Gender Center, presents workshops at conferences about the science regarding gender and the brain. I learn something new each time I hear him speak. This is because our understanding is expanding exponentially as more research about gender is being conducted. Consistently, he is very careful to caution that the science he presents is important for developing understanding and raising empathy, but that it should not be construed as a way to measure or prove someone’s level of “transness.”

Gender is a multi-leveled construct based on bodies, expression, and identity. There is no one way to be transgender just as there is no one way to be a person. There are as many ways to be transgender as there are transgender individuals. While I am all for science and finding the “why” I hope this science is only used for good. I worry this science will also lead to testing to “prevent” and /or “cure” and the inevitable labeling “not trans enough.”

Every person deserves to be loved and supported unconditionally, regardless of their gender identity. Being transgender is just one more beautiful, normal variation of being human.


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