One of the often jarring things about being a trans feminist, or even just being a trans person who enjoys participating in discussions of feminism and gender theory, is how you’ll sometimes come across cis people using the existence of trans people to prove some point or another. One way or the other, any theory of gender will ultimately have to account for us, and the simple fact that there are such a thing as trans people, people whose gender identity is in conflict with their assigned, physiological sex, and that there always has been such a thing as gender variance, ends up having significant implications for our understanding of human gender and sex.
A lot of the time, people will just try to ignore us, or awkwardly force us into their existing framework somehow, or develop really elaborate, creaky, intellectually acrobatic theories to try to get us to fit and explain how we can exist without threatening whatever theory of gender they’ve decided to put their stake in. But when things get weird, and sometimes insulting, is when they decide to just go right ahead and use trans people as a tool for pushing their theory forward. Most of the time, you’ll seen this done by one of two groups: the extreme social constructivists, who argue that gender isn’t really real, and is sort of only in our heads, who will suggest that the existence of trans folk indicates that clearly biological sex doesn’t determine gender. And also the extreme bio-essentialists, who say that men and women are fundamentally different, and behavioural differences between the sexes emerge from underlying neurological or hormonal or genetic or evolutionary differences, and the fact that trans people exist, or behave in ways different from the gender they’ve been socialized to be, and that gender identity disorder is thoroughly unresponsive to therapy or cultural pressures and stigma, indicates that there is clearly some kind of underlying human trait that drives gender and gender differences.
Two sides of a debate, each holding contradictory theories, each claiming trans people as conclusive proof of their position.
This tends to really annoy me in that neither of their theories actually adequately account for trans experiences, or take into consideration the immense diversity of experiences of gender. One of the things I’ve learned over the course of transition, and one of the ways my conceptualization of sex and gender has most changed from what it used to be, was realizing that there really aren’t, and can’t be, any overarching rules of gender. You can’t say anything about it, or articulate any theory, for which there won’t be significant exceptions. You may be able to construct a theory for how gender operates in an individual, but the instant you try to apply that etiology of gender to another person, you start running into problems. Gender and sexual orientation are consistent only in their capacity for variation, and trans experiences conclusively prove nothing except for the inadequacy of overarching theories of human gender. We provide wonderful counter-examples, but terrible “proof” of anything.
It becomes especially creepy and skin-crawly when I see trans people used as a cudgel to beat people into accepting sexist or misogynistic worldviews. This is just a personal thing, really. I dislike being used as a pawn or token or specimen in other people’s arguments anyone, but it’s relatively tolerable when I see it as a positive, or at least well-reasoned and mostly harmless, argument. But when it’s in favour of positions I regard as loathsome? Not fun.
One way this happens is trans women being used as an example of the fundamental differences between men and women. “Men are like this, women are like that”. This is often done by pointing to the psychological and emotional influences of sex hormones.
A few months ago, I was in a bit of debate with a rather obnoxiously sexist and anti-feminist Internet Guy. If I remember correctly, I was arguing that a man is in no position to tell a woman when she is or isn’t “overreacting” to some kind of expression of misogyny, like being called a “whiny cunt”. Given that men have not experienced misogyny firsthand, they have no basis of comparison for what is or isn’t a reasonable, understandable emotional response to it, and therefore no real justification for stating someone is “overreacting”. How could he possibly understand where the line her reaction has crossed “over” lies?
So, shortly afterwards, Straw Natalie was set up to have been suggesting that men can’t possibly understand women. And Internet Dude sort of agreed with Straw Natalie that men and women are indeed different, but that it would be relatively easy for a man to understand a woman’s experiences and point of view:
“Just take sex change hormones for a couple weeks and PRESTO! Now you understand being an ‘emotive’ thinker, just like women!”
It was like I’d been hit by a truck. A big eighteen wheeler hauling a shipment of Ignorance from Misogynia to Transphobesylvania. Smacking me right in the thinky parts, and splattering them all over the html.
“Sex change hormones” indeed! You mean estrogen? The same hormones everyone has? And what’s this “emotive thinker” bit? Perhaps you yourself, Sir, should be doing a bit less emoting and a bit more thinking?
This is by no means the first time I’ve come across this. Our culture is rife with various misunderstandings about what influence estrogen, testosterone, progesterone and other sex hormones have on human behaviour. They’ve become extremely common urban myths. Such as that women start desiring babies in their late twenties because of hormonal shifts, or that testosterone is the reason men are more competitive and ambitious than women. This helps support all kinds of archaic, outdated, essentialist concepts of gender roles. It’s a case of taking a tiny fragment of science and using it to maintain the cultural conception you’d had all along, and add a veneer of “proof” and justification. That trans people are used to help prop up this flimsy means of keeping the binary entrenched is…well… uncomfortable.
The counter-arguments aren’t all that much better, though, and don’t really help. What many will insist is that actually sex hormones don’t bear any significant relationship to behaviour or psychology or emotions. That there’s NO real difference between the sexes other than basic physiology and any claim otherwise is simply sexist pseudo-science. This again puts trans people in the awkward position of being a pawn in this game between two positions that both invalidate our experiences. And it ends up strengthening the silly bio-essentialists’ position because it’s pretty easy to counter the claim that hormones have no influence at all, and the pure social-constructivist stance isn’t supported by the evidence (unless you start bending over backwards in terms of how you define a constructed gender, and what you consider an environmental or cultural influence vs. an innate or biological one). If some feminists are making one unsupported claim (hormones don’t do anything on a psychological level), then the sexist essentialist dudes can start ignoring all their claims and thinking they must all be equally unscientific wishy washy theory (while not actually examining the degree to which their own claims are misinterpretations of the science).
I end up sort of wishing I had some kind of pamphlet I could just drop by the millions from airplanes from around the world indicating exactly what hormones actually do and don’t do, with a big giant “STFU constructivists and essentialists” printed at the end. “It’s both, you nitwits. An interaction between biological, environmental and cultural factors. Just like almost EVERYTHING. Stop playing ‘I’m the smartest!’ with trans people’s lives!”
Here’s the thing: hormones DO exert influence on psychology, emotions, personality and behaviour. They really do. But to nowhere NEAR the extent suggested by the urban myths, by the essentialists, by the evolutionary psychologists, by the various everyones in all kinds of disparate ideological positions who find it convenient to chock up some kind of trend in behaviour to chemistry, by every asshole boyfriend, spouse or girlfriend who decided to dismiss their female partner’s anger as “just hormones”.
So let’s get the record straight here… I’m going to have to make a little disclaimer, though. Remember what I just said a few paragraphs ago? About how gender is nothing if not diverse? Defined by nothing but variation? That applies here. What I’ve found to be true of how sex hormones have influenced things for me isn’t necessarily the case for everyone. But generally speaking, my experiences are pretty common amongst trans women. So yeah…
Estrogen does make you more emotionally sensitive. Yep. Not in the sense of sending a person into wild histrionics at the slightest provocation, or becoming an “emotive thinker” or whatever-the-fuck, or being unable to control ones emotions and understand them or work through them. And despite an awfully consistent myth to the contrary, experiencing emotions doesn’t detract from being able to think rationally or apply reason. Emotions and reason aren’t in conflict. Lack of awareness of one’s emotions, and the inability to understand them, can inhibit one’s ability to handle the whole human-cognition-thing, but simply having emotions doesn’t. They also pretty seemlessly intertwine with all the other ways that we think and process and understand.
Anyway, the way I tend to describe it is increased emotional nuance and range, if that makes any sense. Between the ages of 14 and 25, I properly cried only about three times. Since beginning hormone replacement therapy, I tend to properly cry a good five times each month. And I get teary eyed far more often than that. We could say this is a psychological thing, or a cultural one, or is simply related to me becoming more emotionally open since transition. But all things considered, I think it’s pretty evident that yeah, female hormones tend to make you a bit more sensitive.
I’m also much, much more sensitive to touch. I enjoy tactile sensations a lot more, I’m more responsive to being touched or hugged, I tend to actually think sometimes just about how much I wish I had a boyfriend to hold me. Not to snog, just to hold me. I also have a stronger sense of smell. And my sexuality is very different (including my sexual experiences and sensations and orgasms… which I’d also emphatically say are far better, too… really guys, you have NO IDEA what you’re missing), and operates in different ways. My libido is significantly lower. I still get lonely, but I hardly ever get horny.
Some of my tastes in food are a bit different. I developed a sweet tooth I didn’t used to have. Ice cream has become something of a staple food for me, and salty/sweet combinations like my recently discovered ambrosia of chocolate-caramel-salted-pretzels are heaven to me. I used to be all about salt, onions, pickles, garlic, starchy foods and carbs and grease, that kind of thing, but not so much anymore. Though sometimes I do end up strongly, desperately craving a steak. Which I now prefer bloodier than I used to.
I feel calmer, and more at ease. Less restless. A bit less energy, but also more able to act upon it. Far less depressed (though that’s almost certainly just a psychological one). Less anxious. A lot more okay with myself. A lot of this happened within just a few weeks of starting on HRT, long before physical changes began to be noticeable.
But you know what didn’t happen? I didn’t suddenly start wanting babies. I didn’t become any less competitive or ambitious. I didn’t become less aggressive. I didn’t become more passive. I didn’t suddenly become better at household chores (though I did become a bit tidier, though I would strongly hesitate to ascribe that to hormones). I didn’t suddenly gain some kind of magical intuition. I didn’t become all nurturing and motherly. I didn’t lose my appreciation for sports. My music taste didn’t change. My hobbies and interests didn’t change. I didn’t become any more artistic, or less intellectual.
I didn’t start liking pink.
At least not any more than I already had.
Which was lots.
This doesn’t say anything conclusive, of course. This isn’t hard science. But at the very least, it punches some pretty significant holes in both the theories that posit a purely socio-cultural origin of gender, suggesting things like that women only tend to cry more often than men due to cultural standards , and the essentialist and evo-psych theories that say hormones and biology and evolution are responsible for binary gender roles, and that the conveniently 1950s North American version thereof just happen to be the ones that are somehow genetically inevitable.
Like I said, the existence of trans people, fluid and diverse a community as we are, do not provide very good proof for any particular theory of gender or another. But we do an amazing job of illustrating when theories of gender fall short of accounting for the whole spectrum of human possibility.
So please… don’t bring us into your arguments, especially not as evidence, unless that argument actually can account for us, the actual us, and you actually understand what you’re talking about.
Being the hormone-addled emotive thinker that I am, that kind of thing just might send me into some dangerous hysterics. You wouldn’t want that, would you?