Transgender: Nature, Nurture and When It All Goes Awry
- Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
- 2004 12 Aug
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article includes content that is NOT appropriate for children.
Unlike most men, Yosef Kirchner, 41, would love to be able to shave every morning. He’d also like to become a husband and a father. But for now, that dream is on hold.
Thanks to a series of painful “reassignment surgeries” that took place 16 years ago, Kirchner looks like a woman – with large breasts, curvy hips, high cheekbones and no visible Adam’s apple. He also has a full set of female genitalia.
The surgeries, which cost Kirchner more than $100,000, transformed the 18-year-old Tom Cruise look-alike into a long-haired, attractive woman. But despite the outward success, Kirchner continued to struggle with deep-rooted emotional problems.
One day, he turned the radio to a Christian station, where Richard Cohen, a renowned reparative therapist, was describing his work with transsexuals.
“By the time the interview was over, my eyes were full of tears and I was furious,” Kirchner said. “Furious for being lied to all these years by those who told me, ‘You were born this way.’ I felt as though my life had been stolen from me by a bunch of brainwashers.”
Kirchner knows that the roots of his Gender Identity Disorder (“GID”) stem from his childhood. With a mother who had already been married three times by the time Kirchner was 12, he never had a father figure and was often teased at school about his seemingly “feminine” aspects.
“I was a straight boy who was confused,” he says. “Females were familiar, men were the mystery. My mom always put men down and kids teased me at school… I was so confused that the only way I could figure out what was going on was to have sex with a man… I was pushed into homosexuality.”
A lapsed Jew, Kirchner knew that homosexuality was wrong, so he denied those urges. Then he began to rationalize that he might be a woman, which conveniently explained his sexual desire for men. He went to a psychologist. Soon, he was taking hormone therapy and preparing to be surgically altered.
A number of psychologists who have labeled themselves “gender specialists” contend that GID is an inborn trait which occurs in the womb. It is a position which has received much media attention, including several Oprah shows devoted exclusively to the subject, and which is being actively promoted by the transgendered community.
The theory, however, has little medical backing.
“There are no credible medical studies that verify this conjecture,” insists Jerry Leach. “It’s not a genetic flaw or a birth defect, but a result of a psychological wound – or even a perception of a wound – usually created in early childhood.”
Leach, who directs Reality Resources, a non-profit ministry for people who struggle with feelings of transgender, has worked with more than 1,600 individuals during the past 25 years to help them overcome the strong feelings of association for the opposite sex which characterizes GID.
The problem of transgendered feelings typically begin early on, Leach explains, and it is not atypical for a boy or a girl to start identifying with the opposite gender from the age of three.
“We’re talking about a human soul that is damaged,” he said, “and there are both spiritual and psychological issues involved. But it begins with a deep-seated envy of the other gender, as well as an association of the hated gender with a negative role model.”
GID is also, Leach says, a place to hide from early childhood trauma and the responsibilities that come with a specific gender.
“You’re running away as fast as you can into that which brings you a sense of relief and refuge,” he explains. “It’s an escape into a fantasy world, an escape from the responsibilities of manhood… The problem is, if you do it regularly, it becomes second nature. And once you start taking hormones, you lose all sexual desire for the opposite gender.”
Dr. Warren Throckmorton is director of college counseling and associate professor of psychology at Grove City College. He has seen close to 4,000 clients since he began counseling in 1980. Approximately 1-2 percent of his caseload involves people with “significant gender concerns” – a number that is about the same as the general population, he says.
Throckmorton believes that cultural misconceptions about gender are an important element driving GID and other gender issues like homosexuality.
“Just because [a boy] likes to dress up in girls’ clothes doesn’t mean that he was intended to be a girl,” Throckmorton says. “He might like color, color combinations and style. He might like certain aspects of what it means to be female, like sexual power, friendships and other things that are seen as typically female. He might look at that and wish he could be that way. There are boys who are not interested in trucks, sports or WWF. Some kids in the nursery are rough-and-tumble, while other kids prefer to sit and be held, or look at pretty things.”
These exceptions to the cultural rule can create a problem for some parents, Throckmorton says.
“We all know that it’s okay for girls to be tomboys, and a lot of guys like it when girls go out for softball and soccer,” he says. “But what we don’t tend to do well with is boys who are interested in music or the arts. Some boys just don’t like NASCAR but they do like music or art or drama, and they need the support of their fathers.”
The absence of that support, Throckmorton says, can give birth to the seeds of gender dysphoria.
A former president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, Throckmorton is convinced that the overwhelming majority of GID cases are fueled by “nurture,” not “nature.” Prevailing cultural attitudes, the media and peer expectations also play a huge role.
“A lot of kids would never have had a same-sex attraction if they had not been called ‘gay’ or ‘fag,’” he says.
Nevertheless, Throckmorton insists that the issue is not a simple one, no matter how you look at it.
“In the Christian community, it’s been easy to buy the idea that we have the research. We don’t. Our research is no better than the genetic research.”
That genetic research remains a point of contention in the medical community.
Like Leach, Throckmorton has seen hundreds of people walk free from homosexual and transgender issues. But, from a clinical point of view, the debate still rages, even as the studies continue.
“I have no problem believing that our genders are hardwired by God,” Throckmorton says, referring to a recent study that found gender differences in the mouse brain prior to the hormonal developmental stage – a finding that was widely trumpeted by the media, the homosexual community and the transgendered community.
“Differences appear to occur much earlier than previously thought,” he says. “I tend to agree with that God would hardwire our genes genetic – not for sexual orientation or attraction, but by the fact that He had it in mind from the beginning. Tainted by sin, is it possible that someone gets hardwired with a female brain but gets a testosterone bath? I don’t know. I don’t want to go beyond the research, [but] mice are not humans. Gender is probably impacted by how we are raised but we may also be able to override that. We have no way of knowing, as humans, how that process might operate. However, we certainly don’t have any research that would support the kind of dogmatism that says people are born that way – and certainly not to tell someone on Oprah that.”
He adds, “The reasons why people do the things they do is as individual as they are, and that’s the problem with being dogmatic. Environment and our ability to think and reason, our will, sin and everything that makes us human makes any animal model of gender or sexuality insufficient.”
Throckmorton points to the mantra of the 60s, “If it feels good, do it,” as a significant source of the problem with transgender, which continues to increase in the feeling-based, individualistic culture we live in.
“Kids are being told that if they feel same sex feelings, that’s who they are. The consequences are a great many mistakes,” he says. “People are chronically confused because their feelings change. Feelings change based on our environment, on situational changes of our brain chemistry, on relationship changes. I can’t tell you [how often I’ve] treated depressed college students whose depression suddenly lifted after they meet someone. They were depressed because they were lonely, and when they weren’t lonely anymore, their mood changed. Basing your reality on feelings is to invite a constantly-changing reality.”
Kirchner certainly understands that.
Even though he longs to revert to a male body, with his DDD-chest and fully-feminized face, he has no choice but to carry on, even as he saves for the cost-prohibitive reversal surgery. Almost everyone in Kirchner’s community thinks he is a woman, but he knows differently.
“It wasn’t a sex change, because it didn’t change my sex,” he insists. “It only masked my true sex with a surgical appearance of female genitalia.”
He finds solace in prayer, in the conservative Jewish temple where he worships, in fundraising and activism, and in talking to other transsexuals who feel as duped as Kirchner knows he was. And, in the quiet places of his heart, he dreams about a new life.
“Who would marry a man with a vagina?” he says. “But yes, I dare to dream. When I diverted off into this bizarre mess, the boy was locked away inside of me. But he’s still in there, and the virgin boy that I was still wants to meet his virgin bride.”
Stay tuned for the second article in this two-part series, which will explore some of the ways that people can find healing from Gender Identity Disorder. We will discuss how the culture and media have fueled myths about gender issues, how this impacts counselors and psychologists and where to go for answers about this multi-faceted, complex issue.
Annabelle Robertson is an award-winning journalist and former attorney. She has a Master of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
For more information:
www.realityresources.com – information about GID, personal testimonies and referrals
http://www.exodus-international.org – the largest Christian referral and information ministry dealing with homosexual issues in the world.
www.truthcomesout.com – information for kids concerning sexual orientation. www.drthrockmorton.com – a general-interest, heavily-researched site concerning sexual orientation, news and opinion about sexuality.