Archive for October, 2009

Theories of transsexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, homosexuality, Milton Diamond, parenting, psychoanalysis, transsexuality on October 13, 2009 by Steve

The development of human beings is extraordinarily complex. It is the intricate interweaving of genetic, uterine neuroendocrinological, environmental, social, cognitive and cultural factors which come together during the course of our lives to make each one of us absolutely unique. It is no surprise, therefore, that development in the area of one’s sexuality and gender identity is likewise multi-faceted. Understandably, the theories on sexual and gender identity development which have arisen over the years to explain these identity differences are diverse and complex.

Famously, psychoanalytic theories have proposed that resolving the conflicts surrounding one’s genitalia will have a profound influence on the unconscious processes in gender identity development. Freud claimed that a person’s lifelong sexual orientation, determined between the ages of 3 and 6, depends on how a boy resolves the fear that his father will castrate him and how a girl deal with the contempt she feels at her mother for not having provided her with a penis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this view has largely gone out of favour in recent decades.

Prominent since the 60s and 70s, environmental conditioning theories hold that gender identity arises out of the process of parental identification in the first two or three years of life. Here, for exmple, if a boy has difficulty identifying with a masculine gender identity was thought to be due to an excessive attachment to his mother and absence of a male role model during infancy during infancy. These sorts of environmental conditions could be associated with the development of mild gender identity problems and homosexuality, but do not adequately explain all forms of transgender identity.

In recent decades, neuroendocrinological studies have indicated that the brain’s normal differentiation as male or female may be interrupted if a deficit of testosterone in males, and an excess for females, somehow occurs during foetal development. This would appear to explain someone’s experience of “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”. Other interesting findings, such as the tendency for transsexual males to have been born into families with many sons and to have come later in the birth order, add to the mysterious complexity of transsexuality.

One of the most coherent, comprehensive accounts for transsexuality is the theory of gender development proposed by Milton Diamond, termed “Biased-Interaction Theory”. In this theory, Diamond regards a person’s genetics and uterine neuroendocrinological activity as the fundamental organisational factors which will influence the ways in which this person will develop as he or she interacts with the social environment (parents, siblings, culture). Specifically, the course of a child’s psychosexual development depends on whether peers are perceived as are the same or as different. Thus, a typical boy will see himself fitting into the category “boy” and grow up into a sex-typical gender role. The transgender, boy, however, will experience distress in his assigned gender identity, being unable to see himself as similar to other male peers. Finally, this model incorporates the culture’s level of permissiveness as an indicator of how likely the child will be to express his identity.

Diamond’s robust account of transgender identity development reflects the infinite intricacy of psychosexual development and reminds us that we cannot afford to see this experience as resting simplistically on just one or two factors. The mystery and wonder of the formation of the individual cannot be overstated. It is a overwhelming and worshipful thing for parents of both in utero and postnatal children, child-care workers and teachers to contemplate. We must respect the individuality of each human being, knowing that God is at work in the “typically” and “atypically” developed alike. Indeed, in areas where science is still unable to take us, we know that God is not unknowing, uninvolved, or unsympathetic:

You[, God] knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:13-16, New International Version

References and access to Diamond’s publications is available online via his website. Australian-based research and various forms of assistance to transsexuals and their friends can be accessed via the Gender Centre website. For an informative audio presentation on the development of sexual identity, check out the most recent podcast at The Psych Files.

References and suggestions for further reading:

Brown, D. G. & Lynn, D. B. (1966). Human Sexual Development: An Outline of Components and Concepts. Journal of Marriage and Family, 28(2), 155-162.

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & Gooren, L. J. G. (1999). Transsexualism: A Review of Etiology, Diagnosis and Treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 46(4), 315-333.

Diamant, L. & McAnulty, R. D. (Eds.). (1995). The Psychology of Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Identity. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Diamond, M. (2006). Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development: “How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?”. Sex Roles, 55, 589-600.

Lips, H. M., & Colwill, N. L. (1978). The Psychology of Sex Differences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Lips, H.M. (1997). Sex and Gender (3rd Edition). CA: Mayfield Publishing.

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