How Common Are Transgender Siblings Like the Wachowskis?

Lilly Wachowski - H 2016
Courtesy of Lilly Wachowski & Windy City Times

Lilly Wachowski - H 2016

Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy of Children's Hospital Los Angeles talks to THR about the Wachowski's "trans cred" and just how common their story is.

The Wachowski siblings are the first major Hollywood directors to come out as openly transgender, but they are not the only transgender siblings in the world. Following Lilly Wachowski's revelation that she had joined her sister, Lana, in transitioning, the question immediately sprang to many people's minds: Just how many transgender siblings are there?

The quick answer is that nobody really knows. According to physicians and transgender experts, no consensus exists on what portion of the population is transgender, let alone how many trans siblings are out there. Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy — an adolescent medicine physician who specializes in the care of gender-nonconforming children and transgender youth as the medical director of The Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles — tells THR that in her practice she has two sets of siblings and another set of identical twins who are trans.

But just how common those cases are, Olson adds, "I don't think we really know." Data aside, what Olson does know is that when bold-faced names like Lana, and now Lilly, share their stories of transitioning and the subsequent support they receive from friends, family and loved ones, it has a positive impact on the children and families she sees in her practice.

Is there a biological or genetic reason that siblings would both identify as transgender?

There have been only a few twin-concordance studies. The findings of these studies show a concordance rate of 39% among monozygotic (identical twins) and no concordance among dizygotic twins (fraternal/sororal) twins. These studies point to the potential genetic underpinnings of gender dysphoria but not the whole story, because there is not 100 percent concordance [with identical twins], and in those studies there was not concordance with the non-identical twins. [The Wachowskis] are certainly not the first set of siblings that have come out as trans. I've even had in my practice a set of siblings where one is assigned boy and one is assigned girl and they both identified as being trans. Most people who do this work would probably agree that there is some genetic component to gender identity development. What that is or what proportion that is of the developmental process nobody really knows for sure.

Why is that?

Trans experience has been around since the the beginning of human experience, but has largely lived in the world of mental health. It is moving slowly out of that world, and now the question of what is responsible for all of our gender-identity development can be addressed with science, rather than erratic speculation about inadequate parenting, trauma and other social environmental influences. Where gender identity lives and how it is formed are great scientific questions. I don't think we are anywhere close to answering them yet.

Are there studies happening now?

There are ongoing studies. What scientists are focusing on right now are brain studies, looking at centers in the brain that may play a role in gender identity. The question is, where does gender identity live in all of us? And then the broader, next question is, well, how does it get that way? Specifically, what set of circumstances are happening in utero. Is it a combination of genetics, hormones, hormone receptors, something else entirely that we don't know about yet? It's so wide open.

What does the visibility of trans siblings do for research?

What trans siblings show us as scientists is to think about and investigate the things that play a role in gender identity formation, giving credit where credit is due around genetics and chromosomes. Historically, we know that people have put forth unpleasant and false ideologies and causalities for why folks are trans. I don't know how many people still believe those things, but you would be surprised how many people come into my clinic still thinking trans experience happens as a result of bad parenting, childhood trauma, over-enmeshed mother. But what's so exciting about siblings, is the likelihood of genetic contribution to gender identity development. There is a consistency for genetics and hormone receptors and hormone availability in utero. Those are things that happen for all individuals in the process of gender-identity formation. They just take different trajectories for different people.

People might think that having a sibling or someone in the same family who has already transitioned would make the process easier. Is that true?

It's an interesting question. It would depend on how the family responded to the first sibling coming out. If there was acceptance, embracing and celebration of somebody's trans experience when the first child came out, then it's probably more likely that it would be or would've been easier when the second one came out. But then there's that danger of, "Wait, really?" Disbelief or skepticism; thinking that there are more environmental and social influences with the second child than they might've thought with the first child. I don't know if that's true or not, but I can imagine that people might think that.

Or, the opposite could be true and the response could be, "Well, of course. If one is, then the other could be too because they share the same DNA."

Hopefully people would say, "That makes sense." Why would you be surprised if your [second] child had blue eyes if your first one did. You wouldn't be surprised. The other thing is, there's a certain language that people have to learn and embrace when they have a family in transition. Once you've learned that language, a second transition is much easier.

The Wachowskis transitioned later in life. Your work focuses on youth, during a time in our culture when more children are transitioning. Do coming-out stories like Lilly's and Lana's have any effect in your circles or with families you work with?

No question. Any time people's trans journeys are profiled, it impacts families and young people. These are very well-known, very well-respected and idolized people. There is something really wonderful that happens for families when folks with such high profiles and such high respect and genuine, amazing creativity come out. They see that there is nothing wrong with their family. I really love when young people hear these stories. It reminds them of the incredible changing times and space they have to be able to talk about their authentic selves at such an early age. They are standing on the shoulders of giants and going down paths that have been hewn by people many, many, many decades before them.

Will you bring up the Wachowskis in your work?

Absolutely. Younger people might be more connected with the Wachowskis than they are with Caitlyn Jenner or Chaz Bono or others in that generation. From a culturally relevant perspective, the Wachowskis may have more trans cred than the other folks. When I ask young people about their journey or how they came to understand their gender and how they learned the language to help them articulate their gender, they will often mention the leader of a band or a musician or Lana Wachowski or some profile that they saw on TV that helped them realize they weren't alone. It's a source of comfort for them.