abnormal, ambidexterity, ambidextrous, anatomy, birth condition, brain hemispheres, brain wiring, Bruce Jenner, conformity, converted left-handers, dominant hemisphere, dyslexia, famous left-handers, fear of unknown, forced conversion, forced to write with right hand, gender binary, gender non-conforming, handwriting, King George VI of England, left-handed, lefthandedness, minority, mixed-handed, older birth mothers, Paul Simon, sinister, stressful pregnancy, stuttering, Transgender, transgender contribution to society, transgender soldiers, transhanded, Transsexual, US Presidents
I’ve been sending information about myself to a few different people and organizations recently. And it made me think anew about how I identify being transsexual as my anatomical reality. That led to thinking about other anatomical realities that are not the norm.
I thought about those who are born double-jointed, or with blue eyes (same color as mine). I thought about being one of a minority of people who are not able to roll their tongue into a U-shape (looking head on). And I thought about people who are born left-handed.
Clearly, some atypical characteristics do not lead to opposition, while others do. Blue eyes are often a desirable feature and even rarer colors are even more prized (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor’s purple eyes). The same would be true for hair color with blondes and reds often seen as more desirable.
Then why do some non-conforming features breed opposition rather than attraction? I will venture a hypothesis: people whose unusual characteristics evoke uncertainty or the unknown are more likely to be avoided or treated negatively. And I realized that like transgender, historically in most cultures, this has also been true for those who are left-handed.
Isn’t comparing being left-handed to being born transgender far fetched? Not at all. Some of you are familiar with left-handed classmates being forced to learn to write right-handed. (One person told me that in some cases, the student’s left hand was tied behind his or her back.) Or you may recall those one piece desks that were designed for right-handed students and required left-handers to be contortionists to write. These were clearly attempts to get lefties to conform and use the right-hand. After all, the word “sinister” comes directly from the Latin word for something on the left side, but had also come to mean “unlucky” or “inauspicious”.
There is something even more basic that gender and handedness have in common. They both relate to the way that the brain is wired. Most young children don’t make a conscious decision as to which hand to use. People generally don’t think about whether they are right or left-handed. They know which they are and act accordingly, unless someone forces them to change.
The same is true with gender. Most people don’t choose their gender. They know at a young age which one they are. Most people don’t even spend much time thinking about their gender. They know who they are and act accordingly, unless they were assigned and expected to conform to the opposite gender.
“Transhanded” is used by some who feel oppressed by having been forced to switch from using their dominant hand. At the moment it is a rare usage. But it certainly has a well-known gender counterpart in today’s society.
Forcing a left-handed child to write with their right hand might seem like a small thing. But messing with a person’s natural brain wiring risks negative consequences. (As might be expected, there is some disparity of opinion: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22332811) Here are some of the conditions that have been associated as occurring with greater frequency when people are forced away from use of their predominant hand (most often from left to right, but occasionally from right to left): bad handwriting, bed-wetting, stuttering, nail biting, shy and withdrawn behavior, defiance and provocative behavior, poor concentration, bad memory, reading difficulties, poor spelling, neurotic personality, unexplained physical tiredness.
King George VI of England, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, was a natural left-hander who was forced to write with his right hand. Even as king, he spoke with a pronounced stammer, and he was a nervous child.
In a study published in the April 1, 2002 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience on the long-term consequences of switching handedness, it was shown that the brain activity of converted left-handers was different from both that of consistent left-handers and consistent right-handers. Converted left-handers also continued to prefer the use of their predominant hand in other activities besides writing or drawing (for example, throwing, brushing teeth or striking a match).
The study concluded that “Adult converted left-handers show persistent features of lefthandedness during right-hand writing.” I interpret this to mean that while they may have changed the way they write, much of the way their brain works does not change. Therefore the forced conversion hasn’t really changed who they are.
Is this beginning to sound similar to the way that transgender people express what it has been like to be forced or feel compelled by societal pressures to live in the gender that is inconsistent with their internal gender? A brain that accommodates being acculturated in the opposite gender may show some difference from the brain activity of a person’s target gender, but it is much more consistent with the normative of their target gender than with the normative of their assigned gender.
But wait, there’s more to the analogy. In recent years, we have seen a significant increase in those who are claiming to be transgender but outside of the gender binary (plus some who are outside but do not include themselves under the transgender umbrella). I freely admit that this isn’t the easiest concept for me to grasp, although I am learning to accept the testimony of those who claim it as being true for them. So it is understandable that I struggled to include this in my analogy.
It came to me as the water flowed from the showerhead over my body: ambidexterity. Obviously having nothing to write this down at the time, I count it significant that I retained this thought through the rest of the shower and my subsequent grooming.
Upon research, I found that it fit in quite well. Just as there is resistance to the abandonment of the gender binary, there is debate in academic circles as to whether ambidextrous people are born or are trained to become that way. (Those who hold to the latter position point to many ambidextrous people originally being left-handed.)
Because of their rarity, mixed-handed people are difficult to study. There is some research that has found that ambidextrous people lack a dominant side to their brain. A study in Finland found a higher incidence of ambidextrous people among triplets. This has some, although not exact, similarity to findings that birth order and gender of the previous children has a correlation to people born transgender or with a same sex preference.
In Denmark, it was found that mothers who experienced stress during their pregnancy were more likely to give birth to mixed-handed children. (For what it’s worth, my mother of somewhat advanced age  when I was conceived and born also went through a stressful pregnancy with me. Much of my gestation period was during a brutally hot summer in New York City. And our upstairs tenant was a particularly nasty person, regularly complaining by pounding upon the floor over my parent’s bedroom. Could that gut-wrenching behavior have affected my mom to such an extent that I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck twice? I know my mom told me that she would get so upset, that she had to stop nursing me because her milk had turned sour.)
There is one downside to the analogy between ambidexterity and gender non-conforming (or a host of related terms). Some researchers believe it is because of the brain symmetry that occurs when there is no dominant hemisphere. It has been found that ambidexterity is more prevalent among people who also have certain disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia and dyslexia.
So what’s the bottom line? Some people say that the transgender community is where the gay and lesbian community was a generation ago in terms of gaining awareness and acceptance. It may be even more relevant to say that we are where left-handed people were in the past. No longer are left-handed people automatically considered sinister. And while political division in the United States may be much deeper and more strident than fifty years ago when Paul Simon penned the song lyrics that appear at the beginning of my post, the pejoratives hurled at the left and right wing are fairly equal.
There have been eight left-handed U.S. Presidents: all since the Civil War and five of the past seven. Other famous left-handed people in history include Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Henry Ford, Helen Keller, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Vin Scully, Cathy Guisewite, James Baldwin, HG Wells, Michelangelo, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Marcel Marceau, Dick Van Dyke, Oprah Winfrey, and the musician Paul Simon (as might be expected). And yes, many athletes are on the list because in many sports, being left-handed is an advantage. A sport in which it offers no advantage (because there is no defense in this sport) is track & field. How interesting that Bruce Jenner happens to be left-handed … and dyslexic … and now we have learned, transgender.
We now know that besides an Olympic Gold Medal winner, transgender people (whether before or after transition, or both), have been valiant soldiers (such as Kristin Beck) enlisting for military service at a significantly higher rate than the cisgender population. The transgender community has contributed to society medical doctors, engineers, scientists, professors, successful business people, clergy, attorneys, people who have earned PhD’s, climbed Mount Everest and many other people who have made the world a better place. One can only wonder how much that contribution will grow if the world is no longer a hostile place for us.
My dream for the rest of my life is to help the world become more understanding and shed its hostility towards the transgender community; to make the world a better place for my church community, my neighbors, my clients, my family and my friends – whether transgender or cisgender.
But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man lefthanded: – Judges 3:15 (portion)