what causes gender variance?


Well … the short answer is simply that we don’t really know for sure. There’s plenty of evidence that shows the biology of gender variant people to be unique, in terms of our genetics and brain structure and stuff, but the problem is that we haven’t a clear idea yet of what causes these biological variations. There are plenty of possible causes, but nothing where scientists can say with 100% certainty “This is it.”

Of course, it’s debatable if there is even a single cause – with such a complex biology touching on brain chemistry, our endocrine system and even our genetics, there are quite possibly many factors at work that all influence a developing baby in the womb.

So yeah, we’ve got a fair few bits of the puzzle, but unfortunately Sparky chewed the box top all to hell, so we don’t know what the picture we’re after is exactly.

You’ll notice that many of the linked resources discuss the same findings as others. These are included to present different perspectives on the same data, and also to target different audiences. Please also note that many of the research reports linked here are behind pay-to-view journal sites, and so only the abstract and results may be viewed freely.

Just on a last note, this is a real grab bag of stuff, from authoritative through to badly researched BS, I’m quite sure. It’s simply the stuff I’ve read and come across, so do your own reading, draw your own conclusions, and reference stuff at your own peril.

I’ll be duplicating this and future posts on causes on a single page for ease of reference. Check it out at “the causes of gender variance”, there might well be updates listed there that are not present in this post.


general research on gender variance

Overarching studies and general research looking at the causes, indications and effects of gender variance.

female biology and sexuality

Studies on female sexuality, gender, biology and other subjects that might be of relevance to people who are gender variant.

male biology and sexuality

Studies on male sexuality, gender, biology and other subjects that might be of relevance to people who are gender variant.

  • Since I’m female I’ve not paid as much attention to male biology, but I’ve included this category for future updates.


General research on the biological and mental changes that take place before and during human puberty.

gender differentiation

General research on the biological differences between human males and females and how those differences come about.

gender socialisation

This research focusses on how social interaction and development, especially at an early age, influences the formation of gender roles and expectations, social ability and other characteristics. Also included are so-called “nature-vs-nurture” studies that posit purely environmental rather than biological origins for gender.

natural gender variance

There is a strong argument that variation in sexual preference and gender identity is a natural phenomenon, and indeed, homosexuality and gender variance are observed in wild populations right along with intersex, and at least as far back as we’ve recorded history, transgender and homosexual people have been known to varying degrees.

biomass pollution

Scientists are observing unprecedented levels of deformity and intersex conditions due to widespread pollution. Marine animals especially have been hard-hit due to high levels of estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Humankind is also not immune to this phenomena, with male sperm counts in continual decline and undermasculinesed boys being born more and more often.

diethylstilbetrol (des)

Diethylstilbetrol was a medication widely prescribed from the early 1940’s until the mid 80’s as a menopause control and general hormone replacement therapy, and as an anti-miscarriage medication for pregnant women. It has since been found to be a powerful teratogen, causing widespread deformity of children born to mothers who were exposed to or used it during pregnancy. More interestingly, so-called DES-sons have a 20-fold increase of hypospadia, where the urethral tube opens on the underside rather than at the tip of the penis, and have demonstrated greatly increased incidences of gender dysphoria/transsexuality.

brain structure

Some of the earliest research looking for the causes of transgenderism focussed on the brain structure, and specifically structures within the hypothalamus. This research is ongoing and has arguably given transgender individuals their loudest argument yet for acceptance and legal/medical recognition.


This research focusses on hormonal variations amongst transgendered people, and on possible influences early hormonal variation may have on brain structure and gender identity.


Recent research into the etiology of transgenderism has focussed heavily on genetic indications, and late 2007 and 2008 have seen a number of interesting studies published that do indeed indicate a definite genetic component.


Anthropometry is the measurement and statistical sampling of physical characteristics. As it relates to transgender individuals, this research looks for typically female measurements in transwomen and typically male measurements in transmen.

asperger’s and autism

I’ve read in a few places now that asperger’s syndrome is up to four times as likely amongst transwomen as amongst the population at large. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find any studies to corroberate this, but many of the same endocrine disrupting chemicals that get blamed for intersex and transsexual biological variation also feature in autism and aspergers. Interestingly, autism and related disorders have been theorised to be a form of a hyper-masculinized, structuring brain.

polycystic ovarian syndrome

Polycystic ovarian syndrome is an endocrine condition that affects about 5% of cisgendered women. It causes the body to produce excessive amounts of androgens, leading to masculinisation. Up to a third of female-to-male transsexuals suffer from this condition.

the effects of HRT

This research focusses on the effects that HRT have on transitioning gender variant people, both in the short term as well as long term health consequences.

body image

Body image forms a major part of Gender Identity Disorder. This research studies variations in the image transgender people have of themselves and their bodies.




4 Responses to “what causes gender variance?”

  1. Mina Magpie Says:

    Thanks Zoe. I haven’t really been in a position to do a lot of writing recently, but I’ll definitely add that to the list. 🙂


  2. Eli Says:

    Hello Mina!

    I saw you asked for the prevalence of how often transsexualism and autism goes together for females.

    Usually when it comes to investigations around people with GID, they leave those with aspergers out of the sample. So up til now the idea that the numbers was high, has only been guesses. When you think about how rare transsexuals are, compared with that people with autism estimates around 1% of total population, then 6% of those reffered about GID having aspergers is high.

    Nice page by the way.


    I found the numbers on this page on http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/?p=2501

    16 Jun 2009 Author: Sullivan
    Comments: 5
    AutismScienceSimon Baron-Cohen

    Autism and gender identity
    Two abstracts from IMFAR (the International Meeting for Autism Research) caught my eye as they discussed an area I haven’t seen discussed much (if at all): gender identity and autism.

    The 2008 paper was from the Autism Research Centre (ARC), R.M. Jones first author, and Simon Baron-Cohen’s group:

    Female-to-male transsexuals and autistic traits.

    The second paper had first author I. L. J. Noens ( Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) with collaborators from the Netherlands.

    Co-Occurrence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Individuals with Gender Dysphoria

    It isn’t surprising that the ARC paper was looking for support for the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism. They tested transsexuals, female-to-male and male-to-female, “typical” males and females and people with Asperger syndrome. They used the Autism Quotient test. What they found was that male-to-female transexuals and typical males and females scored about the same. Female-to-male transexuals scored significantly higher than these groups in AQ, but significantly lower than people with Asperger syndrome. The concluding sentences in the abstract stated:

    We speculate that these biological females, being masculinized in their autistic traits, may have had difficulties socializing with a female peer group and therefore found it easier to identify with a male peer group. This research illustrates how carefully selected groups in the population (e.g., congenital adrenal hyperplasia) can inform the extreme male brain (EMB) theory of autism.

    I think this speculation is just that—speculation. I am not really comfortable with the speculation either. However, the idea of studying gender identity and autism stayed with me. So, I was very interested when I saw the abstract for the Noens study in the 2009 IMFAR abstracts.

    Noens et al. took a different approach. They tested people for autism who were referred to the Amsterdam Gender Identity Clinic.

    From April 2004 to December 2007, all children and adolescents referred to the Amsterdam Gender Identity Clinic were screened for ASD features.

    Their preliminary results?

    Preliminary results indicate that at least 6 % of the 233 referred children and adolescents has an ASD. This percentage remains almost the same for the referrals with a confirmed Gender Idenity Disorder (GID) or Gender Identity Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (GID-NOS) diagnosis. The group of individuals with ASD and GID (seven adults included) is heterogeneous in various respects: sex (both male and female), GID classification (GID, GID-NOS, transvestic fetishism), ASD classification (AD, Asperger syndrome, PDD-NOS), age of onset of GID (before or after puberty), and developmental trajectory (cross-sex behavior temporary or persistent).

    Pretty interesting, if you ask me. 6% of people referred to the clinic had an ASD. Unlike the results from the ARC group, there appears to be similarity in the male and female subgroups.

    6%—about 6x the prevalence of autism in the general public. That is worth following up on.

    There is, of course, another study one could consider: how many people with ASD’s have GID’s?

    Note: I hope I have treated gender identity with respect. If I have made any disrepectful comments, I would welcome suggestions for correction.

  3. Mina Magpie Says:

    Ooh, nice references Eli! Thanks lots. 🙂

    I agree, those statistics in the second study are definitely worth following up. Alot of the trans people I’ve met online through support forums and chatrooms and the like have been diagnosed with an ASD in one form or another.

    Hopefully, as we learn more about how endocrine disruptors and other factors are affecting our biology, more studies will start to look for links between the various conditions, and how they interact with and inform one-another.

    Thanks again, I’ll definitely be adding those studies to my collection. 🙂


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