DES’s Other Daughters: Neglected Evidence of Prenatal Gender Development

 

A Guest Essay by

Dana Beyer, M.D.

http://www.danabeyer.com

 

 

 

I spent the first half century of my life searching for the reason I was assigned, reared, and living as a man even though I knew I was female. As a child it was utterly confusing, and when coming out to my parents led to threats of incarceration in the state mental hospital, being the smart little kid that I was, I went silent and focused on trying to determine the causes of my misery. I could never imagine, in my wildest dreams or fantasies, ever transitioning and living full-time as myself; I couldn’t even imagine spending even a day in public as a woman. So I focused my attention on an academic future, scouring all the major libraries in the northeast, reading everything I could about gender variant behavior, trying to understand how I became who I was.

 

My cover being near perfect, I could do this research without arousing suspicion. I could even ask my mother questions about her pregnancy with me, and my brother, and try to tease out some information that might help me. One day she mentioned having taken the drug, DES, or diethylstilbestrol, to prevent miscarriage. Having miscarried her first time around, and being the dutiful woman that most were back in the early 50’s, she took this drug which had come highly touted from the Harvard labs. She told me she was always concerned about her exposure, but could never really learn anything about it, and was afraid to speak out. I, however, as a medical student, was under no such constraints. So I learned that the drug had been banned by the FDA in 1971 after having been tied to a cluster of eight cases of vaginal adenocarcinoma in very young women. This been unheard of in the Boston area, epidemiologists eventually traced the tumor to DES exposure in utero, and the drug was pulled.

 

Eventually I learned about additional long-term consequences of DES exposure, but the vast majority of them were in those assigned female. Even female homosexuality was recognized as a complication, along with breast cancer in the mothers as well as daughters, and an epidemic of infertility. A group, DES Action, sprang up in the 1970’s, fueled by the young women’s movement and books such as “Our Bodies, Our Selves.”  Lawsuits were filed and won, Congress got into the act, and DES was eventually recognized as the worst drug disaster in American history. 5 million women were poisoned, and while the vaginal tumor developed in only 1:1000, it was still a true tragedy.

 

But what about those assigned as male? Nothing. While males were part of the few long-term follow-up studies, nothing more than a whisper of testicular cancer or a variety of genito-urinary tract anomalies popped up. DES Action put a man with brain cancer as the front for a DES Sons group, yet he didn’t even have internet or email capabilities, effectively shutting down any effective advocacy for those men.

 

We all know men are uncomfortable with their bodies, and don’t like to talk about their medical problems. The DES researchers, generally men, were not investigating issues of human sexuality either, so it became very easy to announce that the drug has no effects on male offspring. This in spite of the fact that DES was a super-estrogen, capable of crossing the placental and blood-brain barriers, and bathing the developing male brain with an overdose of estrogen before neurodevelopment had progressed very far. Those dosages of estrogen sure seemed to be capable of overwhelming the testosterone produced by the fetus’s testes, but the possibility was not taken seriously. Except by basic science researchers, such as Professor John McLachlan of Tulane University, who studied DES’ effects on rodents.

 

At a Congressional hearing on DES in 2001 I bumped into the good Professor and recounted my personal history. He told me that my medical history was classic for DES exposure, referred me to his papers, and I finally had my answers. Funny thing, by that time I had decided I could no longer live as a male and had decided to transition, so it no longer mattered to me existentially. But I had the answer.

 

As the medical advisor to Dr. Scott Kerlin’s DES Sons International Listserve, I had been toying with outing myself as transgender. Finally, I came out, and that opened the door to hundreds of other exposed DES “Sons.” Strange how things happen. That flood inspired Scott to start collecting data online, leading to his presentation of a paper at the e.hormone conference at Tulane in 2004, and my presentation, along with the nationally renowned intersex expert, Dr. Milton Diamond, of an expanded version of the paper, at the International Behavioral Development Symposium in Minot, North Dakota, in 2005. All the heavy hitters were there – Bailey, Blanchard, Zucker, Meyer-Bahlburg -  and while they were able to ignore the paper because of our lack of proof in medical histories which had been destroyed decades earlier, the younger and more open-minded researchers accepted our thesis. Shortly thereafter Shanna Swan published her paper proving, for the first time in humans, that endocrine disruptors, of which DES is the paradigmatic compound, caused feminization of male fetuses. This past summer Congress banned the importation and sale of children’s toys containing one of the more ubiquitous EDCs, a class of molecules called phthalates.

 

Progress may come slowly, in fits and starts, but it does come. It will come, if people will it to happen.

 

 

 

 

References:

 

Berkson, D. Lindsey (2000). Hormone Deception, Contemporary Books.

 

Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., Erhardt, A. A.,  Rosen, L., Gruen, R., Veridiano, V. F. H., and Neuwalder, H. F. (1995). Prenatal estrogens and the development of homosexual orientation. Developmental Psychology 31: 12.

 

McLachlan, J. A., Newbold, R. R. , Burow, M. E. and Li, S. (2001). From malformations to molecular mechanisms in the male: three decades of research on endocrine disrupters. APMIS 109 (4): 263.

 

Beyer, D., Kerlin, S. and Diamond, M. (2005), The Presence of Gender Dysphoria, Transsexualism, and Disorders of Sexual Differentiation in Males Prenatally Exposed to Diethylstilbestrol: Evidence from a 5-Year Study. Presentation to the International Behavioral Development Symposium, Minot, ND, August 2005.

 

Swan, S., Main, K. M., Liu, F., Stewart, S. L., Kruse, R. L., Calafat, A. M. , Mao, C.S, Redmon, J.B., Ternand, C.L., Sullivan, S., Teague, J.L. and the Study for Future Families Research Team. (2005). Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 113 (8): 1056.

 

 

About the Author: Dr. Dana Beyer is a retired ophthalmic surgeon and physician and is currently a senior advisor to Maryland Montgomery County Council Member, Duchy Trachtenberg.  A vice-president of Equality Maryland, Dana was instrumental to a recent effort that successfully defended a transgender civil rights law in Montgomery County. In a historic 2006 campaign, Dr. Beyer ran for the Maryland General Assembly.

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About gidreform
Kelley Winters, Ph.D.is a writer on issues of transgender medical policy, founder of GID Reform Advocates and an Advisory Board Member for TransYouth Family Advocates. She has presented papers on the psychiatric classification of gender diversity at the annual conventions of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association and the Association of Women in Psychology.

11 Responses to DES’s Other Daughters: Neglected Evidence of Prenatal Gender Development

  1. Zander Keig says:

    I have read several times that DES has been linked either causally or correlatively to female homosexuality and the feminization of the male fetus, which might lead to a transsexual identification (MTF), but no one has articulated a causal or correlative relationship between the masculinization of the female fetus and DES, which might lead to a transsexual identification (FTM).

    Any thoughts, Dr. Beyer?

    Zander Keig, M.S.

  2. Dana Beyer says:

    Zander,

    There has been no such relationship posited in any literature that I can find. As would be expected from the small samples used by Kruijver and others, where there is generally a lone trans man, and since trans men haven’t been quite as out and demonstrative as trans women, I don’t find that surprising. It is also the case that most trans men are decades younger than the later transitioning trans women, so their mothers would be much less likely to have been exposed to DES, used mostly between 1948-1971.

    It would be nice to hear from some of those lesbians who were identified in those earlier studies, and hear if any of them ultimately transitioned.

  3. Pingback: Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » An Endangered Gender

  4. Radha says:

    If DES and/or other effects of hormones on the developing fetus are accepted as the cause of GID/transsexualism, then it begs the question: In what way does ‘transition’ help the GID/transsexual individual?
    How does transition ‘undo’ medical history?
    Perhaps a reclassification of transsexualism as a congenital/developmental disorder would simply strengthen the case AGAINST surgeries which are already seen by many as merely cosmetic.

  5. Pritti says:

    It is important to locate how transsexuality come about, but it looks very unlikely that DES is involved. Genital malformations don’t relate well to transsexuality. There seems no significant peak in the children conceived in the years it was used during pregnancy. There were transsexual people before, and there seems a continuing, and faster increase since, probably due to information and availability of assistance.

  6. Pritti says:

    According to the details of the FDA approval in the Diethylstilbestrol
    Wikipedia entry, it was given to prevent miscarriage, in ascending doses from week 7. Since the brain changes that lead to M2F transsexuality are in place before week 8 (since they coincide, in M2Fs, with the 2D:4D finger ratio, which is established by then) that probably explains why DES is not statistically linkable to transsexuality.

  7. Marcus Arana says:

    I am an FTM person born in 1957 and I am a DES baby. I was never able to get pregnant (which is a releif now that I look back)even though I was sexually active with males and not using protection.

    Other than undiagnosed infertility, I do not have other “symptoms” of being a DES baby – no tumors, etc.

    I am firmly convinced that I experienced DES-induced virilization which is responsible for my male gender identity and female body. I have since transitioned to male and am very happy.

    I think it is risky to assume that not many FTMs were exposed to DES inutero. I know a large number of transmen of my age cohort and many of them are also DES babies.

    More research needs to be conducted before concluding that there are not as many FTMs of that generation (when compared to MTF). I think we are merely less visible, not less numerous.

  8. chris Johansen says:

    I was born in 1949. Mom took DES and had one miscarriage before me. I knew at age 4 I wanted to be a girl. I even had the vericasel that seams common to des sons.

    GD??? yes. It is so nice to find some reasons for the way I am. I plan to transition this year to the person I have been hiding all these years.

  9. I was born in 1954. My mother was given DES. I knew from around the age of 3 that I desired to dress female. I was of course rebuked for it. I suffered all my life with this condition and tried pretty much everything I could to avoid the only conclusion left to me other than ending my life. That I was a Transsexual. I have started to move forward in the process of changing my life to that of a female. Sadly it is morons with their half baked unsupported theories that make the process of moving forward to be who I likely should have been when I was born a more difficult process. Stop playing with my life you freaking quacks! It has taken years of trying to deal with people who seem to think they know what is better for me than I do. I am sick of it. Go back to sick world where everyone and everything is link to sex and leave me alone Ray Blanchard and company. Oh and stay the hell out of my way in doing what I must with my life.
    J.S. Morse

  10. Maurits says:

    Born in 1967, my mother took DES from the 3rd month of pregnancy onwards. I never realised DES also could have such pronounced gender effect on boys. I have been a member of a DES-listserver in my country, and can’t remember anything being said about it. (It was almost completely dedicated to female physical troubles). I have 3 brothers and to date, they live as hetero sexuals. They did not have problems conceiving children or any other problems concerned with the reproductive system. Maybe this is due to them being exposed in utero ‘only’ from 3 months onwards??
    I on the other hand, have a yearly hospital check to see if the cells on my uterus are turning carcinogenic… So far so good… From as long as I can recall, I always wanted to be a boy. At last, at 42 years of age I have started to proces of transitioning from FTM. I did read that DES exposed girls were more likely to become lesbians, but in my country this report was burried under much critism. To be honest, I don’t know if my genderidentity was influenced by DES. Upbringing, being surrounded by 3 brothers or other factors could also have contributed, IMHO. Maurits.

  11. I was exposed to DES in-utero; I lucked out, having no symptoms. I am now 62. However, my 2 daughters have both had major problems. Eldest – premature puberty at age 7, now, unable to conceive; youngest – depression, anxiety, and gender identity issues since childhood. She is now in the Army and going through discharge process because undue stress made it impossible for her to cope with the gender issue and military has no tolerance for gender dysphoria. I had read about DES granddaughters, but, had no idea until now that it could affect gender. Both daughters were exposed to toxic groundwater contamination in utero and as children, so that could have made things worse. We lived on an air base.

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