Are there transgender genes?

We don’t know for sure why some people are transgender. Many people think one or more genes may play a part. People who study genes have found things that support this. Science does not know all the answers yet.

This page uses easy words. This helps young people read it. This also helps people who don’t know many English words. The words in bold are hard. You need to know what they mean, or this will be hard to read. Start here if you don’t know some of the words so far. You can use these links to looks up words you don’t know:
Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary
Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary


Why look for transgender genes?

Some people don’t like transgender people. Many of us want to change that.

If science finds genes that make people transgender, it can show some good things:

  • Being transgender is not a sin.
  • Being transgender is not a crime.
  • Being transgender is not a choice.

Many people who work in science think that being transgender is just a trait, like having brown eyes. It’s not good or bad.

Some people think that being transgender is a bad trait. Some think it is a disease.

Other people worry about looking for transgender genes. They worry about how the science will be used.

If science finds genetic causes for being transgender, someone could make a genetic test to see if people had transgender genes. Some people think that a genetic test could be used for bad things. that violate laws or ethics. Some of the fears about a genetic test:

Testing babies for a transgender gene before they are born

  • What if a pregnant person’s fetus could be tested for transgender genes? If the parents didn’t want a transgender child, they might end the pregnancy with an abortion. This already happens with other traits. People who think being transgender is a bad trait.
  • About two out of three fetuses with trisomy 21 get aborted in the United States, because some people think trisomy 21 is a bad trait.
  • About the same number of boys and girls are born each year, but some parents test their fetus. If the test says it is a girl, they abort it. They do this because they think being a girl is a bad trait. They think it’s better to have a boy baby. One group thinks that 126 million girls were never born, just because they were girls.
  • One person who wrote a bad book on transgender people wrote that if it’s OK to abort a fetus for any reason, testing fetus and aborting the gay ones is OK.
  • Many people believe that testing fetuses for transgender genes and terminating a pregnancy if the fetus is transgender would be unethical or immoral.

Testing people for a transgender gene before they get a job

  • For instance, in 2017, President Donald Trump said that his administration would try to ban transgender people from serving in the US military. This would affect thousands of transgender military personnel currently serving, as well as anyone wishing to serve in the future. If trans people were banned and a gene test existed, that test could be used to enforce the transgender ban.

Testing people for a transgender gene to hurt them

  • What if that kind of genetic test existed in one of the countries where being transgender is a crime? People could be tested and the transgender people could be imprisoned or killed.

Science: Good, bad, and fake

Some people claim that simply asking these ethical questions about scientific research is “anti-science.” That is not true. Science is simply a tool we use to understand the world. Tools can be helpful as well as dangerous if misused. You can use a hammer to build, and you can use it to intimidate or even kill someone. You can also make a mistake with a hammer and hurt yourself or others by accident. Mistakes in genetic research could hurt transgender people, even if the scientist didn’t mean to hurt anyone. That means the stakes are high.

Some controversial scientific research about trans people has been presented as a scientific debate, but it’s really a debate about whether the research is good science, bad science, or fake science (called pseudoscience). Science works by trying to find out if the research was done according to the scientific method. That means having a hypothesis about something, then testing that hypothesis to see if the evidence matches the hypothesis. That conversation should include everyone, not just scientists. Sometimes people who aren’t researchers can see scientific mistakes the researchers missed.

Genetic research involving transgender people must avoid making any scientific mistakes, because even a tiny mistake could hurt a lot of transgender people. That’s why it’s important that everyone looks closely at genetic research for possible bias, especially the transgender people whose lives may be affected by the research.


Genetic and epigenetic basics

This page gets progressively more technical and assumes you have a basic knowledge of human reproduction and genetics. Here’s a good overview on DNA:

There’s probably not just one “transgender gene.” It’s more likely that being transgender is a polygenetic trait, meaning that more than one gene can be involved.

Our genes are not the only thing that make us who we are. While heredity, or inheriting genes from our parents, is a big part of it, non-genetic factors can affect who we are, too. For instance, if pregnant people do something healthy like eat nutritious food, that can help a fetus, but if they do something unhealthy like smoke cigarettes, that can hurt a fetus. After we are born, how and where we grow up will affect all of us, too. Those factors after conception and before or after we are born are called the environment. Scientists are trying to figure out how much of who we are is caused by our heredity and how much is caused by our environment. Sometimes this proportion of heredity and environment is nicknamed “nature versus nurture.” That nickname isn’t quite right, because who we are is a blend of heredity and environment.

Being transgender may also have an epigenetic aspect, where our environment affects our heredity. The study of epigenetics looks at biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.

This is all very hard to measure, which is why many scientists find it so interesting!


Transgender people who have a twin sibling

Transgender people who have a twin sibling are very interesting to genetic researchers, because sometimes the twins are both transgender. Gene scientists call this concordance. When twins are concordant for being transgender, it suggests that being transgender has genetic factors. It doesn’t prove it definitively, but it shows a significant correlation.

Once a human egg gets fertilized, it’s called a zygote. Twins happen for one of two reasons:

  1. One zygote splits in half, and the two halves become two babies with the same genes. These are called monozygotic twins (nicknamed “identical twins” and abbreviated MZ).
  2. Two zygotes are created at the same time. They are two ordinary siblings who happen to be made and born at the same time. These are called dizygotic twins (nicknamed “fraternal twins” and abbreviated DZ).

Some monozygotic twins both identify as transgender, like Jack and Jace Grafe:

However, for other monozygotic twins, only one identifies as transgender, even though they have the exact same genes, like Nicole Maines and her identical twin Jonas (shown below). Both were designated male at birth and raised as boys at first, but only Nicole identifies as transgender and made a gender transition. Scientists call this a discordance, the opposite of a concordant trait.

Gene scientists are interested in how often these two different kinds of monozygotic twins occur. They are also interested in comparing them to dizygotic twins.

I will give dizygotic sibling examples and discuss the concept of heterozygote advantage later.


Published case reports

Some published research uses outdated words. Those words are changed.

When healthcare professionals observe something interesting or unusual while they are working, they sometimes publish a case report in an academic journal. Over the years, case reports have documented dozens of transgender people with twin siblings:

  • In 2012, a clinical team led by Australian Jacqueline K. Hewitt reported that 2 of the adolescents they treated were from dizygotic same-sex twin sibships, discordant for gender dysphoria.

Published twin research

Some published research uses outdated words. Those words are changed.

Research into transgender people with twin siblings suggests that being transgender has genetic factors.

Heylens (2011)

In 2011, a team led by Belgian researcher Gunter Heylens looked for all the published case reports about twins who were concordant or discordant for gender dysphoria. They found the following:

  • among 23 pairs of monozygotic twins, 9 of them (39.1%) were concordant
  • among 21 pairs of same-sex dizygotic twins, none of them (0%) were concordant
  • among 7 pairs of opposite-sex twins, all (100%) were discordant for GID.

Diamond (2013)

Sex researcher Milton Diamond wanted to see if he could find patterns of transgender traits by comparing monozygotic twins to dizygotic twins. This is called a study of concordance.

Diamond found 61 pairs of monozygotic twins where at least one had made a gender transition. Then he compared them to 38 pairs of dizygotic twins where at least one had made a gender transition. One interesting finding was that 3 of the 99 sets of twins were concordant for transition even though they were separated at birth. In other words, the twins grew up in different environments and didn’t know each other. Imagine having a twin you never met, and both of you transitioned after living in totally separate homes and never knowing about each other. Those 3 sets of twins suggest that there is a genetically heritable part of why they are transgender.

Diamond also found out that of the 38 pairs of dizygotic twins, only one pair was concordant, where both dizygotic twins had transitioned. Then he found that of the 61 pairs of monozygotic twins, 21 of those pairs were concordant, where both monozygotic twins had transitioned. Diamond’s study found that monozygotic twins were 10 times more likely than dizygotic twins to be concordant for both making a gender transition. Even though it would be ideal to have a lot more transgender twins to study, that significant difference strongly suggests that there is a genetically heritable part of why they are transgender.

Diamond’s findings are very interesting, but it’s not enough evidence to prove that being transgender is genetic.

Outside of academia, most people have a very oversimplified understanding of genetics, especially when it comes to sex, gender, and sexuality. As children, they learned “boys are XY and girls are XX” and that sums everything up. This kind of belief is called genetic essentialism.

Related gene research

In 2018, Tinca Polderman led a team of researchers who wrote: “Based on the data reviewed, we hypothesize that gender identity is a multifactorial complex trait with a heritable polygenic component.”

In addition to researching possible genetic roles in gender identity and expression, scientists are also looking into sexual orientation and differences of sex development, because those traits may be connected to being transgender.

Garg and Marwaha note “it is thought to originate from a complex biopsychosocial link.” I’ll explain those complicated interactions at a later date, along with gene polymorphism of the gene that affects androgen receptors.

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Resources

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