Chemistry and Gender Identity

Chemistry, along with subjects like physics and biology, is often referred to as a 'hard' science while subjects like psychology and geography are 'soft' sciences. This distinction, only referring to the objectivity of results, often leads to the stereotype that the hard sciences are the only 'real' or 'tough' sciences, while all of the others have far less substance. While I disagree with those stereotypes, I have never associated chemistry with gender identity. Psychology? Absolutely. How about geography? Is someone more willing to transition publicly in some countries rather than others? For sure. But chemistry? No.

That was until I listened to the Testosterone episode of This American Life. Each act revolves around the hormone; lack of it, overabundance of it, etc. Act two is what caught my attention particularly.

To summarize up until the transcript below, Griffin Hansbury was born with female sex organs, so therefore was assigned as female for gender at birth. The more Griffin aged, however, the more he discovered that he identified more with being a male than female. Wanting to fully align his body with how he felt, he received hormone therapy which put the same amount of testosterone in his body as two NFL linebackers. What follows is the therapy changed how he thought.

Alex Blumberg
What were some of the changes that you didn’t expect?

Griffin Hansbury
The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex.

Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say. There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.

After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive— or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality— nice ankles or something— and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.

But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched turned to sex.

I was an editorial assistant. And I would be standing at the Xerox machine, and this big, shuddering, warm, inanimate object would just drive me crazy. It was very erotic to me.
— This American Life, Episode 220, Act 2

This is someone who later in the interview said he now is called a misogynist by coworkers, where before no one would ever even think of him as anything but the ideal feminist.

I want to be extremely clear; people are still very responsible for their actions. "My testosterone made me do it" mentality would, and should, not hold up in court. If you are thirsty you can't just grab water out of someone's hand.

But what it does bring up is questioning what makes me, me. I don't think of myself as a stereotypical 'manly man.'  I would rather spend time cooking in the kitchen than working on my car. But I recognize that I look stereotypicaly male: big beard, bald head, and I even wear boots at work when all that are required are dress shoes. 


Are my life choices really a choice then? Or are they a byproduct of the specific chemical composition that makes me, me? I have often thought of my identity largely based off of the education I have received: formal and informal. Late night conversations with family to just seeing different walks of life while driving across the country. Could the core of me really change with just one shot of the right chemicals?

Honestly I don't have an answer to these questions and would love to hear your input. I can be reached at or the space below if you would want to share your thoughts.