Trans 101: Put Down the Map

One common theme you’ll see throughout the work of some trans feminists is a distinct reluctance or distaste for ever broaching the topic of “Trans 101.” Asher explicitly says as much in his “Not Your Mom’s Trans 101” (which is officially recommended by me) when he says “Trying to teach a new perspective to the victims of this extremely aggressive brainwashing can be daunting.” Cristan Williams, whose work is exemplary within The Discourse, makes no explicit sentiment in this vein–but her Trans 101 is also enormous, and the lack of brevity is itself a message that we resist quick and easy reductions.

This is in my estimate because “trans” isn’t a 100-level topic. Embedded in the culture in which we live are many assumptions which often muddy The Discourse, rendering productive conversation impossible, causing countless instances of two people talking past each other. This does not mean that my attempt will be overly complex, but it’s probably not something that could be captured in a Twitter hashtag.

To bring us to the task at hand, we must first acknowledge a few guiding principles:

  1. Though I will attempt to present these concepts in the simplest terms possible, we understand that comprehending these terms in totality demands of us to hold multiple ideas in our head at once.
  2. We will not attempt to be brief. The reductive stereotypes that trans people have used to communicate our experiences to the unknowing public have resulted in twisted and warped perceptions of who trans people are. More on this later.
  3. We will not attempt to appeal to those who have made up their minds. They are unlikely to have the patience to stick with this piece through its entirety and probably won’t open it to begin with. There are two audiences this is directed to instead–the ignorant-but-willing-to-learn, and those who are already in support of gender variant communities but seek to refine their theoretical frameworks.

It is these three ideas–that we will speak in simple terms; that we will not attempt to be brief; and that we will not attempt to appeal to those who have pre-judged–that define the limitations of this piece. It will not persuade the convinced and is, by design, going to discourage participation among the impatient. Trans people have been bludgeoned enough by reductive stereotypes and I am deliberately challenging that.


The Cobwebs


To illustrate some of the miscommunication that occurs within The Discourse, I would like to take us to one particular exchange that occurred on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, a British radio program. Of particular note is the episode (transcript here, from Natacha’s article on the same episode) where a psychologist specializing in gender identity and a trans-exclusionary radical feminist are brought together to debate the finer points of what motivates people to transition. Because both participants operate from a place of assumed prior knowledge, we won’t go too deep into dissecting the points they are trying to make (you can consult Natacha’s work if you so desire)–instead, we are simply trying to illustrate that miscommunication is occurring. After explicitly modeling this miscommunication, we will be able to name and target the area of confusion, with the intention to carry this forward in other dialogues within The Discourse. Only after having actually identified the problem can we begin to propose solutions.

Let us look at the following dialogue, with emphasis added by me:


JM (Hostess): Finn, why do you think there’s such a rise in referrals to discuss children’s behaviour?

FM(Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist): Well, unfortunately I think a lot of people are very keen to gender children into made up, constructed gender roles and they police those gender roles. You can see this in children’s clothing, in toys, it’s all very segregated along gender lines. Half of it’ll be camouflage and blue, and the other half’ll be pink and princess dresses. I’m interested in why children should have to conform to rigid gender norms in the first place. What is wrong with a child wearing pink fluffy dresses or nail varnish, what does it matter about the sexed characteristics of that child’s body? And this says a lot more about the insecurities of adults and our obsession with reinforcing this false and fierce gender binary that is dangerous for everybody.

JM (11 mins): Why, Michelle, do we have to say, “yes, you’re a boy, so you will wear blue, and you will get this kind of toy, and yes, you’re a girl and you will wear pink?”

MB(Specialist in gender identity): I totally agree but it’s not the stereotypical toys for example that highlight it, this is very often these children will have a profound belief, so it’s not about just insisting on wearing the clothes of the other gender. I think what I would really like to nail is that these children really do get very desperately unhappy, and if you talked to one of the parents you would probably get a picture that was anything but worrying about conformity or anything else, they just want their child to be happy. And I don’t disagree that we shouldn’t force people into stereotypical behaviours or clothes. I wouldn’t disagree with that but it is far deeper than that for some of these children.

JM: Finn, it’s deeper than just worrying about the way we construct gender identity.

FM: I think if people are getting help and support and advice that they need then that can only be a good thing. My worry is that with the medicalised response that we have in our society, if that starts from a position, from a baseline assumption about what is supposed normal and natural femininity and what is normal and natural masculinity, then that is nothing more than medicine based on stereotype and that is only gonna function to actually maintain this brutal gender regime that I think puts pressure on us all, and conveniently blame it on nature instead of blaming it on ourselves.

MB (12 mins 30 secs): Um, yeah, I really wanna come back on that, because let’s be clear, children don’t get irreversible medication when they’re children. That’s the first thing. And children will sometimes reach a point where puberty is approaching and get extremely distressed. A mother just last week described to me how their child had been wearing a binder to suppress the breasts, and was crying her eyes out at night, or his eyes out at night, when it had to come off. So it’s not about stereotypical gender forms with children like that. These are children that have an inherent unhappiness with that gender that they’re in. It’s not about the role. And when a three year old is saying to mum and dad, “I think I’m a boy” or “I think I’m a girl”-


Recall that they are attempting to clarify what motivates children to socially transition. If we collect the two series of statements and compare them side-by-side, we start to see where these two participants diverge:

FM: constructed gender roles, police those gender roles, medicine based on stereotype.

MB: profound belief, not about just insisting on wearing the clothes, not about the role, far deeper than [the role].

For FM, the “why” of “transition” immediately equates to gender roles. The entirety of her response is constructed around this central concern that prevailing healthcare models reinforce these roles. Contrast MB, for whom the “why” of “transition” equates to profound belief, something entirely separate from the gender roles–roles which she also criticizes. Clearly there are two distinct definitions at play here, perhaps most obviously illustrated when FM casually asks “what does it matter about the sexed characteristics of that child’s body?”, having failed to identify that this was indeed the cornerstone of MB’s definition of what motivates people to transition.

If neither side is given room, or stops to make room, to explicitly identify the operative uses of the phrase “transition,” then neither side will communicate at all. Information will not be exchanged if the two parties are speaking different languages.

Here we can now name the problem–difference of definitions–and so to avoid this we should refuse to use the word at all, and simply state the definition we mean when we say it. Less Wrong coined this technique “tabooing your words.”

Compare how the dialogue parses when we do this:

FM — “I’m interested in why children should have to conform to the [external expectations placed upon them because of their assigned sex] in the first place.”

MB — “So it’s not about the [external expectations placed upon them because of their assigned sex] with children like that. These are children that have an inherent [anxiety because of their experience with their sexed attributes.]”

Wordy? Absolutely. These are pretty ghastly sentences and would be difficult to pronounce. But we do have clarity in terms of our problem. Had FM comprehended the latter portion of MB’s statement in the modified example, the dialogue likely would have taken a very different direction. FM would have identified that she and MB actually agreed on the arbitrary external expectations thrust upon us because of our assigned sex. Instead they talked past each other, with FM flagrantly ignoring the foundation of what MB was trying to communicate. (Perhaps MB should take Marcus’ advice and ask, point blank, “what do you mean by that word”?)

Interestingly enough, you can apply the technique recursively. For instance, if we pose the question “why do trans people transition” and respond with the phrase “anxiety caused by their experience with their sexed attributes” and an observer finds it confusing, we can seek clarity by tabooing some of the words.

Trans folk transition because of…

“Anxiety caused by their experience with their [characteristics by which they are sorted into male or female.]” (“sexed attributes” has been tabooed)

“[A deep sense of unease] caused by their experience of their characteristics by which they are sorted into male or female.” (“anxiety” has been tabooed)

“A deep sense of unease caused by [the private and involuntary response] to the characteristics by which one is sorted into male or female.” (“experience” has been tabooed)

On and on it goes. We can repeat as many times as necessary.

If you’re feeling particularly enterprising, you can probably invoke that deep sense of unease, instead of being introduced to it in an abstract way. Structurally, I am limited in the sense that I cannot give you gender dysphoria so you know what it feels like–instead I try to use language to capture the sensation. I can attempt to tap into the experience through metaphor, for example, “like having a raw chicken breast stapled between your legs” or “like having two alien jellyfish attached to your chest.” But if you really, really want to know what it feels like, try wearing a genital prosthetic of a sex other than the one you were assigned at birth for extended periods of time. People have done this, and their experience certainly validates what I’m attempting to describe here:

I cried every day when they put it on. …  Then looking in the mirror… it was weird. I was lonely and I felt really unattractive. I was confused about my desirability—was I desirable?— in having put that on, and having men see me with that on.

If I had not known of Chloe Sevigny’s involvement in playing trans characters, I would have said that could pass as one of my teenaged diary entries, internalized transphobia and all. (Side note: Perhaps the first sign that we are discussing a observable difference is the response regarding the above exercise. Where Sevigny found stress, entire guides have been built to help trans masculine folks to do the exact same thing.)

Since we’ve identified two different definitions, the next question that ought to spring to mind is “which do we use?” We’ll answer this as we move on, but the factors which influence our decision should be “accuracy and clarity.” To that end, any definitions–or collection of definitions, which I’ll call “models”–ought to encompass all people and not some, so as to remain descriptive of what we observe rather than prescriptive of what we want to observe. If someone reading this rejects the models I later propose, then our battleground is related to this values system: Whether or not it is better to describe vs prescribe; or disputing whether the model describes some, as opposed to all, compared to another alternative.


Clearing the Cobwebs


When I give this presentation in person, I tell my audience I have deceived them after explaining that the first part of this presentation isn’t about trans people at all. I’ve tricked you. In fact, the first part of the presentation is about epistemology–or “how do we know what we know.” This is THE premiere question I ask you to keep in the foreground of your mind as you read this. Any time a thought enters your head in response to something I write, ask yourself “how do I know that to be true?” Though I consider this a good habit in general and one of the cornerstones of critical thinking, it will be a vital question to repeatedly invoke as we attempt to clear away the cobwebs in which The Discourse becomes entangled.

There is a metaphor I use in this presentation to help us visualize the dilemma we face. Alfred Korzybski provides us our compass, our metaphor, having been credited with coining the following phrase:

“Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.”

He is technically noted to have said “the map is not the thing mapped” but the message communicated is the same regardless–our abstractions, such as our definitions(!), are compressing information that has to later be decompressed and interpreted. In this process, that information can be misinterpreted, which is what we observed with the example dialogue above. To then know why The Discourse is often unproductive, we ought to recognize that there exists a gap between “the thing” and our abstractions of that thing. When academic writing fails to make this distinction, it produces a very specific strain of transphobia that is frustrating to deal with, because it will impart its inaccuracies under the veil of authority, potentially translating into political policy with catastrophic consequences for trans people.


The metaphor, illustrated.

The metaphor, illustrated.

Here, we can name that it’s the “decode” step which often results in miscommunication specifically in trans people’s attempts to relate “anxiety caused by one’s sexed attributes” to cis (non-trans) people. If you don’t have dysphoria, you have to deliberately invoke it to truly comprehend it–for example, with a vivid imagination, or the prosthetic trial I suggested–and so a person unwilling or unable to do either will be incapable of grasping what motivates trans people to transition. The vacuum in which this miscommunication exists is how Sexology produced a number of inane and frankly infantile theories that were widely considered authoritative despite their bungled methodologies for so many decades.

To illustrate the metaphor further, imagine you were tasked with planning a road trip between Philadelphia and Knoxville. Here’s your map:


There are a few details we can glean that will be useful in our navigation. For instance, we know there’s a fork in the road at Roanoke, and that we should keep right. The map also tells us other geographic information such as State and County borders.











Now imagine we were to hit the fork in the road and we saw this instead when we put down our map:

3 prong fork







What would cross your mind, if upon the discovery the map doesn’t corroborate the territory, that the first thought of your traveling companion is to grab a shovel and correct the territory? Clearly that would be ridiculous. It’s obvious that either the map is wrong, or you navigated incorrectly and are misreading your map. But we would not say it is the territory that is wrong–it was there long before we tried to impose order upon it with the use of a map.

This is the component most people miss, particularly when it comes to to the topics of developmental biology and gender variance. Most people do not realize that what they were taught about both topics were maps, compressions that squeezed detail and nuance out of the picture, traded in favour of simplistic tropes that were quick and easy to learn. Tropes like XY = male and XX = female, even when the real picture is far more complex.

I don’t know if I were you, but if I were confident I navigated correctly and came upon a feature that radically changes the meaning of my navigation, I would not say I have a good map and try to defend it. Strangely, this is exactly what most opponents of trans rights do in The Discourse.

Now we revisit Alfred–“the map is not the territory.” The word is not the thing. A gap must exist between between our abstractions of concepts and the concepts themselves. Another way of putting it–the brute facts, the things that would exist in the absence of our interpretations of them; and the social facts, additional information we overlay on top of the brute facts that only exist precisely because of our interpretations of the brute facts.

It is, in my experience, almost always a case of not understanding this gap when The Discourse turns ugly. There are a few transphobes, rare though they may be, who can be corrected simply by being offered more accurate information on the psychology of gender variance or the actual genetics involved in a person’s developmental biology. But most? Their problem isn’t merely a matter of possessing certifiably incorrect brute facts–their problem runs a bit deeper, with an inability to separate brute facts from social ones, conceiving of their map as infallible, and ordering us to bury the third prong at the fork in the road.

Which is a bit of a problem when the road can speak and is telling you to it does not want to be buried.


Rebuilding our Understanding


Or, “proposing a model with fewer omissions.” Unfortunately, truly comprehending both gender variance and developmental biology would require a life time of study, and even then, we’re likely incapable of holding all of that knowledge simultaneously such that we could claim we were truly looking at the territory. Astute readers will note–what follows is still a map. However, we are at least revising it to acknowledge the road less traveled.

In other Trans 101s, this is usually the point where a catchy phrase is introduced. If you’ve read about trans topics at all, you’ve likely heard phrases like “gender is what’s between your head, sex is what’s between your legs,” or “____ trapped in a _____’s body.” I agree with Asher on this one–I think we can all do better.

When I see a law like North Carolina’s HB2 or Texas’ SB6, I see quite a few problems, the least among them that these laws are scientifically illiterate–and indeed, a writ large demonstration of mistaking the map with the territory. The language commonly used in discussions around these laws is with reference to a person’s “biological sex,” with is defined by the “sex noted on a person’s birth certificate” and their “chromosomes.” This is referring to the genital inspection performed upon a newborn, by which the doctor makes the declaration “it’s a boy/girl,” the implicit assumption being that one’s apparent reproductive organs will be corroborated by one’s unmeasured chromosomes. In developmental biology, this is usually called a person’s primary sex characteristic, gonads, or reproductive organs. But your primary sex characteristic is actually the sum of multiple moving parts, and not all of them will cooperate. Some of these parts are certainly not “fixed” and absolutely change throughout a person’s life. Which all leaves the laws predicated on the statement “biological sex” plus “chromosomes” rather unclear, as Justice Noel Wise says in his take on HB2 and SB6, since a person’s phenotype and chromosomes don’t always match.

Fetuses as they initially develop have undifferentiated gonads until a certain threshold in their development, where the genes that will instruct for differentiation between ovaries and testes are activated by a hormone cascade. Even though I just summarized it in a sentence, that process itself is worth a few hundred PhDs in research–there’s so much that can happen.

You were likely taught about the Y chromosome in public school but you may not have been told about the genes SRY or DAX1. It’s not a Y chromosome itself that instructs undifferentiated gonads to become testes. That is more directly linked to DAX1, housed on the X chromosome (usually), a gene which antagonizes the activation of SRY, which is on the Y chromosome (usually). Right away we have more than just “XY -> male” as an outcome. DAX1 and SRY can both work as they often do, or one or both genes can malfunction. If DAX1 is operating too well, the gonads might go on to differentiate to internal reproductive organs and a vulva, despite the presence of SRY. Or if SRY is broken, there’s nothing signalling the gonads to form testes–again, resulting in internal reproductive organs, the development of a vulva, and the corresponding sex assignment of “female.” Despite being XY!

Or maybe SRY takes a vacation to the X chromosome in the particular sperm that impregnates an egg, resulting in an XX individual with a penis and testes.

It is legally ambiguous as to where such individuals are supposed to go as defined by HB2 or SB6, perhaps one of many signs the laws are busted and extremely impractical.

I won’t go into the full breadth of all possible outcomes in developmental biology, but I recommend Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work if you want to learn more than the simplistic tropes peddled in high school. The only important point we must take away is that more than two outcomes exist, and that even with the two most commonly accepted phenotypes there are still several genetic and chromosomal pathways that might lead to it, creating multiple genetic and chromosomal sexes even if they visibly conform in their phenotypic sex.

If we were to map it, it might look more like this:


Source: Allison Washington

Source: Allison Washington

(Washington calls it “physical sex” where I refer to the sum of your developmental biology–your phenotype, hormones, genes, and chromosomes in totality.)

And less like this:

Not so much.


So what?


The finer points of our developmental biology are extremely relevant to trans people, in part because opposition to our equal and full participation in society is almost always rooted in a cluster of beliefs I’ll call “biological essentialism.” Part of this cluster is the omission of complexity from the picture of a person’s biology, manifesting through expressions that peg trans women as “still men” or alternatively “still male” and vice versa for trans men–if trans men have been noted at all. It tends to assert that the “science” of “biology” is straightforward and “obviously” disproves everything I’ve written… even though actual biologists are not really surprised by any of the material I’ve touched on here, and can go into even greater detail than I do.

As I briefly alluded to, there are actually several layers to a person’s biology in sum–your chromosomes, your genes, your hormones, and finally, your phenotype. When all of these aspects cooperate and exist with no uncommon permutations in your particular biology, you’re called “endosex”–that is, meeting the medical establishment’s criteria for being male or female enough that you won’t be called “intersex.” Intersex development is a label slapped on you when any one of these layers don’t cooperate in accordance to a doctor’s mostly arbitrary judgement, which sometimes flags you for abuse by your medical providers. However, don’t forget out paradigm about maps and territory. “This gene has this allele” is the territory. “This allele on this gene makes you intersex” is a map. There are no lines on Allison Washington’s physical sex normal distribution to concretely mark the point at which you cease being endosex and start being intersex–that is a call made by your doctors.

One argument in this vein that is used to bludgeon trans people is the insistence that our genes and chromosomes don’t change. While it is true your chromosomes don’t “usually” change, they can during cell reproduction. And it is mostly true your genes don’t change (though once again they can), statements like these are overlooking the other two puzzle pieces of a person’s biology: hormones and phenotype.

[Aside: They also overlook the part where neither chromosomes nor genetics are at all relevant to your day-to-day interactions with a person. You will culturally read a person as a man or a woman based off of their outward appearance (apparent phenotype), but almost no one will have ever been karyotyped, much less have it on hand for you to judge instead. Those insisting this is the basis by which a person ought to be judged don’t seem to realize they never needed a karyotype to pigeonhole someone as male or female before. But I digress.]

We alluded to this earlier regarding a person’s phenotype, that this category itself is described, often by your teachers, as primary and secondary sex characteristics. There is more than two outcomes in the former, as we discussed, even if we insist on labeling those outcomes in a binary fashion. Your secondary sex characteristics don’t map at all into discrete binaries–indeed, this is what trans people are counting on when we start hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Characteristics like our body hair, facial hair, body fat deposits, muscle growth, or growth in general, are all regulated in our genetics by hormones. “Hormone” itself is a word that simply describes a molecule’s role in signalling cascades in a person’s biochemistry, and in this case we are referring to the genes that we’ve assigned as relevant to our sex characteristics. But here’s the part most people don’t understand: We all possess the ability to grow beards, breasts, upper body muscle, or have fat deposit on our hips. We all have at least a little testosterone and estrogen. Barring a mutation, these instructions exist in all of us, and are to varying extents active in all of us (this is what makes it a continuum when you graph it). How strongly a gene is expressed is modulated by your hormones, but just because you aren’t growing breasts or a beard doesn’t mean you don’t possess the genetic machinery to do so–it’s just not being “talked to” with enough strength for you to notice at this time. Which means if a person’s hormones change, so does the degree of expression of all these genes.

Of course, this already happens at least twice in a person’s life, the first time being puberty and the second time being andro/menopause. When a trans person takes hormone replacements, they’re just deliberately activating the exact same mechanisms that already existed in their DNA–which, again, the flippant transphobe will remind us “doesn’t change.” It’s irrelevant. The genes themselves exist specifically to install change, and we can give them a nudge in any direction we want. So when a trans man takes testosterone and grows a beard and grows a gut and finds it a bit easier for him to put on some muscle in his upper body, that is his own genetics talking. And when a trans woman takes estrogen and grows breasts and loses her gut for it to land on her hips and finds that she puts more muscle in her lower body, those are her genetics talking too.

Now recall my definition of gender dysphoria, the motivating factor of a person’s transition:

“A deep sense of unease caused by the private and involuntary response to the characteristics by which one is sorted into male or female.”

Well now we’ve reached into one many of these characteristics (the secondary ones) and changed them with hormones. For some of us, this is enough.

All of this brings us to the last piece of the puzzle to bridge the two topics of developmental biology and “gender” (and they are separate, if related topics. I don’t think anything gives me a migraine faster than the phrase “biological gender,” which to me sounds as contradictory as “dry water” when used to refer to someone’s sex assignment at birth.) The scientific consensus has produced a lot of patchwork speculation on why someone might have gender dysphoria, so anybody who claims they know absolutely why is definitely talking out of their rear end. But we do have some answers.

Milton Diamond stitched together data from dozens twin studies and found that monozygotic twins had a ~33% chance of both being trans if at least one sibling is trans. This pattern was not corroborated in dizygotic twins, non-twin siblings, offspring, or parents, though the precise strength of the comparison is still difficult to make because of the sample size. This certainly gives some credence to the hypothesis of gender variance being linked to some kind of physical event, or series of events. I stress again we are far from being able to explain this in detail, but this does at least give us a stepping stone from physiology to psychology (a distinction which is itself a map!), if not the complete staircase.

Having found evidence that some kind of physical event is occurring in our developmental biology that might produce gender dysphoria, we now have our grounds on which to define another aspect often badly bungled in transphobic literature–gender identity. Working from my previous definition of gender dysphoria, which starts with “a deep sense of unease,” we might simply define the corollary of not being dysphoric–the state of anyone not transgender–as “a deep sense.” In full, it would look very similar:

“A deep sense of self related to the private and involuntary response to the characteristics by which one is sorted into male or female.”

Cristan Williams likewise offers these operative uses of the phrase “gender identity”:

Gender identity can mean one of three things. These are

A.)   One’s subjective experience of one’s own sexed attributes;

B.)    One’s culturally influenced sexed identification within the context of a social grouping; or,

C.)    Both A and B

There is a quote within The Night Circus where the protagonist tries to relay her experience of a curse cast upon her which causes intense pain upon thinking of leaving her current circumstances. She says, “we do not feel the bars unless we press against them.” Gender identity is a lot like that. In other words, if you don’t think about your subjective experience of your own sexed attributes, you probably don’t have gender dysphoria, and your experience is one of comfort such that you can ignore it. You likely still experience other people’s expectations of you, based off your sexed attributes, but that is a separate matter and a distinction oft-ignored in transphobic literature. Relating it to Williams’ definition, this would be conflating A with B.

Now let’s relate our map vs. territory metaphor once again. When a child is born, the doctor does not say “this baby will grow up to produce small, mobile gametes,” but rather they say “it’s a boy,” on the basis of the presence of a penis. If we were merely being descriptive of the newborn’s attributes, we could plausibly say that is the territory–instead, the mental calculus “this newborn has a penis, and having a penis makes you male” occurs. Remember, we must always be asking of ourselves who defined a term and from where the knowledge comes. Producing small, mobile gametes is the physical phenomenon. Defining that quality as “male” is creating meaning for that phenomenon, and meets Williams’ description of “gender:”

People can struggle with this distinction. It’s important to recognize that there is a distinction between a physical phenomena and our mental contextualization of that physical phenomena. In other words, “sex” attributes are aspects of human development as it relates to the ability to produce size-differentiated gametes. These can include (but are not limited to), genitals, genetics, epigenetics, neurology, endocrinology, etc. However, all our thoughts about what our “sex” attributes mean is “gender.”

This is my answer anytime someone objects to the phrase “biological sex is a social construct.”

Now, what are the ways we can communicate what a physical phenomenon as it occurs in and on our body “means”? If we use our subjective experience of our own sexed attributes as a starting point, there are two directions this experience can be communicated to others. When someone else is communicating their ideas about my experience, something coming from outside of me and being directed at me, they are communicating a gender role. When I am communicating my ideas about my experience to others, I am doing so through my gender expression. That experience as it occurs to me, privately, automatically, and involuntarily, that is my gender identity.


Where my gender identity and my gender role agree, I have internalized the expectations thrust upon me specifically because of my sexed attributes–e.g. “I wear make-up because I am a woman, and women are supposed to wear make-up.” Where my gender identity and my gender expression agree, I am expressing myself as I want to, because I want to–e.g. “I wear make-up because I want to.” Where my gender expression and my gender role agree, I am conforming and not conspicuous–e.g. “Nobody cares that I am wearing make-up because they see me as a woman.” These aren’t perfectly discrete and can still bleed into one another, but at least provide a general enough framework for separating certain specific circumstances. For example, we might not say a student subject to a gendered dress code is guaranteed to be expressing herself as she wants–she may be conforming to that expectation against her will–and so her educational institution has insisted on a particular gender role as defined by her assigned sex which defines her “acceptable” gender expression regardless of her gender identity.

Note that this distinguishes the types of disagreements we all might have regarding “gender.” For example, I can still experience anxiety from my sexed attributes and transition to resolve that, but now resent the gender role newly thrust upon me. And I do–I would argue that most self-aware individuals should feel constrained by their gender roles, those arbitrary expectations thrust upon you specifically because of your sexed attributes. But at least now we have the vocabulary to articulate why it wasn’t enough for me to merely reject a masculine gender role, something I still did while in denial and in the closet. It was never about gender roles, as MB tried to say earlier, but that distinction is meaningless for those who maintain no understanding between the above operative uses of the word “gender.”

All six of these points can be contained in the phrase “gender,” which is why someone who fails to delineate between them is almost certainly going to pen a bunch of claptrap should the issue be related to trans issues.

Of course, not everybody experiences their sexed attributes the same way, and not everybody wants to communicate the same thing. We make choices about how to communicate this experience all the time–how I groom my hair, what clothes I wear, what jewelry or accessories I adorn, what body language I use. These characteristics can be culturally interpreted as masculine or feminine, with social consequences doled out for each depending on the circumstances, but all this–the gender expression–is not inextricably linked to gender identity. A trans woman is not automatically going to be feminine simply because she has professed a gender identity that is not male; just as not all cisgender women will automatically be feminine either, simply because they are understood to be female.

The failure to distinguish between gender identity and gender expression informed the entirety of Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s now-defunct gender identity practice, which operated by ruthlessly policing the expressed gender of a child to “prevent” adult gender variance. Consider this revealing dialogue:

Therapist A: I do this work all the time with children and I’ve never once been worried about my work being conflated as conversion therapy. It’s my job ethically to explore the difference between gender expression and gender identity; I do that all the time in my work without worry that this is anything like reparative therapy. So, I would just suggest that anyone who’s worried about that probably is inching their way towards trying to change the child.

[Audience Applause]

Zucker: Um, Okay. I… I’m not really sure um… what your point was.

Audience Member: That’s the problem

Audience Member, that’s The Understatement of 2016 if I ever saw one.

Similarly, the failure to distinguish between gender identity and gender role can be found in works like these:

Tackling the wage gap, expanding maternity leave and childcare, establishing specialist domestic violence courts, increasing the conviction rate for rape – all these things are founded in an understanding of the ways women suffer discrimination because we are female, and not because of the way we identify.

This is Sarah Ditum, a pundit who gets paid to write reactionary anti-trans hit pieces that almost always begin with the phrase “I’m not transphobic, but.” Had she understood the distinction between other people’s ideas about you based off of your apparent sex and your own ideas about your own sex, she would not have rather naively implied that the above circumstances she has described don’t affect trans women for the same (and more) reasons. As long as a trans woman is culturally read as female by other people, those same people subject her to the exact same misogyny as any other woman, as many of us will point out when we are being scapegoated in hit pieces like these. Returning to our map paradigm–whether or not I meet someone’s arbitrary criteria of “female” (the territory), if I am perceived to be female, I will be treated as female (the map), with all the baggage that entails.

[Another aside: You can see Ditum’s life circumstances bleeding through her agenda. Whereas most trans organizers are preoccupied with homelessness, epidemics of trauma, and survival sex work in their communities, Ditum chastises us for not affording equal pay the weight it deserves!]

Last, and certainly not least, I have left the definitions somewhat open-ended for a reason. We all experience our own sexed attributes, whether we admit it or not, but not all of us will interpret that experience the same way. There will be some who profess anxiety about their own sexed attributes as they are but who do not think the “package deal” that occurs with masculinization or feminization is for them. As such a concept has not proliferated linguistically in English until relatively recently, the vocabulary for this experience varies. Some examples include non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or two-spirit, among many others. Understand this to be an attempt to revise the map. Given all the possible permutations that can occur in a person’s developmental biology, there’s no reason to insist a person’s ideal resting place needs to be one particular way.

Only now do I start to believe we have assembled the pieces that create the picture of The Discourse. There’s so much miscommunication that occurs because a non-trans participant starts from their understanding–rather than our understanding–of what gender variance entails. This is a power play in and of itself, particularly if a participant has been told repeatedly that they’ve misconceptualized and conscientiously ignores this criticism. We saw this with FM in the Women’s Hour episode–FM started with her framing and refused to actually meet the gender identity specialist where she was at, paving over MB with insistence on her interpretation of the issue. This dynamic is why I describe dialoguing with trans-exclusionary radical feminists to be emotional labour. That the debate has to be had at all is itself an act of social domination, because the debate only exists to begin with by denying the attempts of trans feminists to offer more accurate maps. I am, essentially, trying to convince them that burying the third road is needless and exhausting. But for them, the map is sacrosanct and cannot be revised.


Bringing it all together


So, what ideas do we need to internalize to proceed constructively moving forward?

  1. There is a gap between our ideas of what bodies mean (the map) and what the bodies themselves entail (the territory). The territory exists regardless of our attempts to impose order upon it with a map.
  2. We all experience our sexed attributes in a raw and formless way (territory) but the ways we describe it inevitably draw on our ideas of those bodies (maps).
  3. The ideas other people form of you because of your apparent sexed attributes are separate ideas from the ideas you have of yourself because of your sexed attributes. They can be related (I called it “internalization”), but don’t have to be.
  4. It is ordinary to dislike other people’s ideas of you formed by your apparent sexed attributes. I would argue most of us should dislike being shoehorned in this way.
  5. The most visible aspects of a person’s developmental biology are quite flexible, cannot be neatly categorized into a binary, and fall somewhere on a normal distribution rather than an on/off switch or pair of gender boxes.
  6. People transition because their experience of their sexed attributes causes a profound distress–anything positing otherwise is fundamentally failing to communicate with the subject of their material.

This addresses most of the ignorant posturing I see within The Discourse. Here’s what I can’t fix: Double standards, dehumanization, “model minority” myths, the sort of thing engaged in by those who implicitly believe in the inferiority of their target. There’s a reason I said this wasn’t directed at those who have pre-judged. I am frankly at a loss as to how to get through to such people. But maybe we can talk about it another time.



  1. =8)-DX says

    Wow, thanks for a great piece! The whole “personal experience (and anxiety) of one’s sexed characteristics” definition eases up a lot of confusion I was having. Previously I was operating under a kind of sexed/gendered brain model, which struck me as going against brain plasticity while failing to distinguish between trans people and nonbinary people. But considering sexed experiences can sidestep the underlying neural complexity (and lack of research as far as I get it, which would show male/female brain differences to be significant and binary) and get to the issue: how gender identity actually works, its impacts and lived experiences.

    One bit that jarred with me was “ of the following three… 3) Both A and B”. Daargh! Either or both with two points please =)))

    Primary-school/middle-school level understandings of gender and sex are seriously at the base of the problem here, we tend to consider those as basic and undeniable facts and gender studies to be some namby-pamby pseudoscience. I always mention it but translating a bit of feminist literature got me to think about this: I laughed it off as ideology but later thinking about it I realized the terminology was perfectly understandable… so yeah.

    Once more thanks!

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