Okay… this is long…
So let’s start with me making some, perhaps entirely groundless, assumptions that we’re already on the same page about some stuff.
Like how the debate between a bio-essentialist “evolved behaviours” view of gender and sex, and the social-constructivist “blank slate” view of gender and sex, is a harmful false dichotomy, that presents a lose-lose choice for anyone who needs or wants actual, lived transgender experiences, in all their diversity, actually accounted for in whatever theoretical framework of gender and sex they sign on for. Or at least wants them accounted for without a lot of bizarre mental gymnastics and convoluted, flimsy theories.
Okay. Agree? Cool.
And how there’s more than one kind of gender-essentialism. There’s the obvious binary, bio-essentialist view, where most or all observed behavioural differences between men and women are “evolved”, and the definition of the terms “man” and “woman” is based on a simplistic “biological” distinction (penises and motive gametes and XY = male, vaginas and ova and XX = female, and everything else is either a disorder, or simply “cosmetic” and not “biological” or ‘scientific”), but a gender-essentialism is any theoretical framework that ultimately boils down to saying men are men and manhood is an inherent, essential quality of such people, and women are women and womhood is an inherent, essential quality of that category of people, and there are other kinds of gender-essentialisms.
For instance, you can have an essentialist version of the “social construct” view. And this actually pops up a lot in some of the justifications some cis feminists provide for trans-exclusionist policies or attitudes. This is where you state that socialization is the root cause of maleness or femaleness, but it nonetheless defines you, and “man” or “woman” is still an inherent, essential quality of the person, that isn’t fluid or contextual, and cannot be transcended or complicated. In this view, if you were raised and socialized as a man, that is what you are, and what you always will be, all other considerations not being relevant.
There are also theological or spiritual essentialisms, like where an Abrahamic God ordered the world into a division of gender and sex, ordains certain roles and behaviours for those sexes, and being a man or a woman is an immutable aspect of yourself that was God’s will, and any beliefs, identities or behaviours contradicting this divine order are simply mortal folly. Or where men and women are respectively two different aspects of a cosmic “balance” of complimentary “energies”, fitting into a cosmic order of other “opposites” like sun and moon, reason and emotion, order and chaos, light and darkness, aggression and passivity, science and art, Apollo and Diana, etc. Or where men and women exude male or female “energies” or “auras”, and only one or the other is capable of performing certain kinds of magic.
And lots of other gender-essentialisms. Gender-essentialism isn’t just an overly rigid, biological view in which gender is a behavioural consequence of (binary, dimorphic) sex. Gender-essentialism is any view based on the idea that being a “man” or a “woman” is an innate, inherent, essential trait of a person. Gender-essentialism needn’t even be necessarily binary.
Okay. Agree? Cool!
So… the framework of “gender identity”, where the quality of being a man or a woman is based on subjective experience of your body and sex, subjective experience of gender roles, and how you identify within them, is the best approach, and totally better than all these other frameworks, right?
Agree? Actually… not okay. Not cool.
“Gender identity” is still gender-essentialism. It’s just a gender-essentialism where we get to continue thinking men are men, and women are women, and these are inherent parts of who you are, but we also get to ignore the uncomfortable demand of DEFINING “man” and “woman” and what we mean by that, and thereby dodge the uncomfortable fact that any such definition within any essentialist framework necessarily invalidates, undermines, insults or excludes at least some trans or intersex people. It’s a way to go right on believing that our womanhood, or our manhood, or whatever “gender identity” we have, is an immutable and intrinsic quality of ourselves, and thereby maintain the comforting belief that it’s concrete and stable and unassailable, but without having to deal with any of the difficult implications of that, without having to interrogate our definitions, without having to worry about what we mean, and without having to really think about gender beyond the generally received notions. It’s a way to be transgender but still think of our genders the way cis people do.
I’d say it’s about trying to have our cake and eat it too, but I never really understood that expression. Why wouldn’t I eat my cake? Isn’t the whole point of cake to eat it?
It’s like trying to have our fireworks display, box of puppies and golden robotic dance troupe and EAT THEM TOO.
The “gender identity” framework is extremely common amongst trans communities, allies, and “social justice” discourse in general, both as an independent concept and framework as well as a means of defining the relationships between gender, sex and sexuality in general. We’ve ALL seen the “genderbread person”, and the idea that human gender/sexuality defined by four “spectrum” variables (sometimes with a secondary spectrum of intensity) of “gender identity”, “sex”, “gender presentation” and “sexual orientation” is quickly becoming THE assumed nature of what makes a person cis, trans, gay, bi, asexual, male, female, whatever.
I myself subscribed to the basic “gender identity / gender presentation / sex” view for a very long time (although I increasingly would qualify it with statements of “this is a bit simplified, but…” as more and more troubling implications occurred to me), and it was extremely tempting to lean on, given how many cis and straight people have trouble dealing with even basic issues, like how they tend towards the notion that the entirety of human sexual/gender diversity is a single spectrum of male/masculine/gynephilic to female/feminine/androphilic, or how they struggle with the distinction between issues of sexual orientation and issues of gender (like that being a trans woman isn’t simply a matter of being “really really really gay”).
I defined “gender identity” in my glossary as follows:
“The inner conceptual sense of self as “man”, “woman” or other, as divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex. It is a subtle and abstract, but extremely powerful, sense of who you are, in terms of gender, independent of how you dress, behave, what your interests are, who you’re attracted to, etc.”
That’s still useful to have in there just in terms of clueing people into to what is generally *meant* by “gender identity” even if I don’t agree with the concepts behind it (sort of like how I might also define “passability” or “autogynephilia” despite finding those concepts extremely problematic). But that’s not the way I was thinking of it when I wrote the glossary. I was thinking “here’s a useful concept to help us think about and discuss gender and sex in less problematic ways!”.
My thinking has changed. And although I sometimes cringe with embarrassment looking back at the ways I approached these concepts when I first started this blog, I feel like it’s a sign of success that I’m leaving this blog with new ideas, new experiences, new insights, and new ways of thinking. Ways of thinking that, I hope, have grown. Leaving this blog as a different woman, different trans-advocate and different feminist than I was when I began suggests to me that I did a good job, and stayed honest, critical and open-minded enough to learn from my colleagues, my readers and my own investigations as I went. That I wasn’t simply trying to hammer a particular view into everyone else, but that I was sharing in a discourse, sharing in an effort to bring us all to a better understanding of these issues.
To get back to the topic at hand, though, notice how in my definition I position “gender identity” as an intrinstic “inner”, “powerful” quality of a human being. That’s, you know, essentialism… in a nutshell, anyway.
The term, at least, “gender identity” could be meaningful and justifiable if it were restricted to the description of a subjective experience. If it were simply a means of describing how we experience our relationship to the concepts of “man” and “woman”, an argument could be made to its validity, and that it doesn’t need to mess around in the tricky business of saying what “man” or “woman” means, or even what the basis or function of “identifying as” actually is. But that’s NOT how we use it, and the position of “gender identity” as a quality immediately leads us away from such use (much like the way “passability” is described as a quality of the individual immediately leads us away from conceiving of it in terms of other people’s perceptions placed on us. To speak of “gender identity” and “passability” as traits or qualities immediately abandons their nature as contextual, fluid and subjective in favour of describing the individual as having a specific gender identity or passability, so defending those terms as ways of describing contextual or subjective experiences is disingenuous at best).
Behild the problematic fact that “gender identity”’s definition as an intrinsic fact of a person’s experience is an even shakier world of implicit assumptions about where the “deep-seated sense of self” comes from. Although the definition itself says nothing about the cause, the conceptual frameworks we build with “gender identity” as the scaffolding are much less reserved in the assumptions we’re willing to make about what causes a person to have one gender identity rather than another. And it’s hard, sometimes, to see where these ideas of the nature of gender and sex build from the assumption of an inherent “gender identity”, and where they’re merely justifications put in place to keep the assumption of “gender identity” from collapsing.
Gender identity has always been deeply connected to the “Born This Way” concepts of gender and sexual orientation. The qualifiers of “deep-seated”, “intrinstic” and, often, “immutable” added onto “sense of self” typically seem far more connected to saying “We can’t help it! This is fundamentally who we are! It’s totally completely inherent! Seriously! We were born this way!” *as a response* to social pressures suggesting that being trans or being queer is only permissible or understandable if it can’t be helped, or that cissexism and heterosexism only count as bigotry and unethical if they’re targeting an inherent, immutable, non-fluid aspect of someone’s being that was present from birth and they have no control over. Which is, to be frank, not only a totally ridiculous attitude to have about bigotry and why it’s not okay, but also a mentality that lends strength to the idea that trans and queer identities, bodies and behaviours are less preferable than cis and straight ones (and helps validate the underlying misogyny that fuels a great deal of cissexism). “GOD NO, of course no one would CHOOSE to be queer, or transsexual, or a woman. That would be repulsive and insane! But we simply can’t help having this tragic, deplorable condition.”
What if I did choose to be a trans woman? What if I refused to play along with social demands that I justify this, and the only explanations I offered was that this makes me feel happier, more secure and confident, more comfortable with how I dress and present myself and more comfortable in my body, and that it makes sex more pleasurable and fun for me? Is that not reason enough? And who the fuck are cis people to say it isn’t, and that I need to provide a better explanation?
How about, instead, you provide me with an explanation for why there’s anything wrong with the choices I’ve made and why they should be denied to me (or anyone), and justifications for your hatred, discomfort, disgust, fear, bigotry and violence?
This framework of “born this way” justifications for being trans is based in the related concepts of “gender dysphoria”, theories of neurobiological “cause”, and the idea that human beings can have a “male brain” or “female brain” or “androgynous brain”. Not everyone investing themselves in “gender identity as essential, inborn trait” shares precisely the same assumptions or views about these things, and don’t necessarily all sign up for the more extreme binarist, bio-essentialist, sexist ideas about “male brains” and “female brains”. Nonetheless, the idea that there’s some intrinsic part of you, almost always assumed to be neurobiological, that establishes your gender identity is overwhelmingly consistent in the hypothesis, and shows up almost immediately after you get past the basic definition (as subjective “intrinsic, deep-seated sense of self”) and start asking people where that sense of self comes from, and why it’s so intrinsic and deep-seated.
The basic theory runs like this: brains and the nervous system are not distinct from other aspects of the body in being sexually differentiated by hormones, particularly in utero. Sometimes hormonal fluctuations at various key periods in fetal development can result in shifts in how the nervous system is ‘sexed’, and this results in the neuro-biology being structured, or disposed towards instincts and behaviours, “meant” for the “opposite” sex, even where sexual development of simpler, more macroscopic anatomy, like genital configuration, is unaffected. This, so the idea goes, is what “causes” variant sexual orientation and gender dysphoria as innate, inherent qualities.
The basic concept is fine, makes sense, and the basics on which the theory is built have a certain amount of sound scientific evidence. There is, for instance, ample evidence that neurobiology is a factor in sexual behaviour, that this is strongly related to development in utero, and that this neurobiology can be affected by changes in pre-natal hormones. It’s possible, for example, to *nduce homosexual behaviour, or “lordosis behaviour” (the arched spine position adopted by most female mammals for intercourse) in anatomically male mammals, by messing around with their prenatal hormones.
I have no problem with the assumption that there are underlying neurobiological factors in sex and sexuality, and that these are related to gendered behaviours and perhaps affect the relationship between an individual and their sexual anatomy. What I have a problem with is how many assumptions, and leaps, are made from this. For instance, seeing neurobiology not as a factor, but as determinant or cause… or as an explanation for the entirety of gendered behaviour and gender variance. Those kinds of leaps seem really really iffy to me, and I don’t at all trust their motives. We also seem to have fallen seriously short of actively questioning them.
Gender, as the series of behaviours and modes of presentation we adopt in relationship to our cultural roles and understanding of sex and sexual difference, seems clearly to be at least partly socio-cultural in nature. This is rendered pretty apparent in the degree to which things we used to assume (or often still assume) to be inherent qualities of the sexes are in fact culturally arbitrary, and can dramatically shift from context to context. And study after study emerges telling us that things we saw as inherent, and even came up with elaborate evolutionary theories to explain, are also arbitrary and shift along with shifted context (for instance, if you reverse the “seated” vs. “moving” roles in speed-dating, the “passive, selective” role and behaviours typically seen as inherent to female sexuality, and the “aggressive, promiscuous suitor” role and behaviours typically seen as inherent to male sexuality, immediately reverse along with the shifted roles).
Needless to say, there is no part of my brain telling me to grow my hair long and dye it magenta. There’s no “long colourful hair” lobe. Those are ways I relate to my culture and its codes of gender, and means of expressing and asserting myself as “woman” in relationship to my cultural “field” of gender (by field of gender I mean the overall system of meanings and assumptions a culture or subculture assigns to various behaviours or modes of presentation when gendering them).
The model that I’ve recently found to be by far the most useful and consistent means of looking at gender is to see it as basically a semiotic system for understanding, expressing and communicating sexual difference. In its most basic sense, it’s about communicating to each other what our bodies are like, how we relate to those bodies, what our sexual desires are, and how we engage those sexual desires through our bodies.
Things do become more complicated, though, in that gender ultimately also communicates and expresses one’s relationship to the field of gender itself. We inevitably form various “shorthand” heuristics for reading these things in each other, so we develop codified sets of meanings grouped under a single discrete concept of gender, like “woman” or “man”. When someone uses the system of gender to express herself as a “woman” (via things like long-hair, skirts, certain pronouns, body language, certain types of name, certain kinds of language, make-up, etc) that is meant to simultaneously express and assert various aspects of herself: her body, her relationship to her body, how she expresses and experiences her sexuality through her body, and how she relates to the concepts of “man” and “woman” and understands herself within them, etc. Someone reading her as “woman” will make a number of heuristic assumptions about her in response (which may or may not be correct: the assumptions he makes about “woman” might include “vagina”, whereas she does not have a vagina, and does have a penis, and doesn’t consider this relevant to her gender nor is it something she’s attempting to express through it. Just like with all semiotics, it’s always possible to be misunderstood).
Under this model of understanding gender, we have to view gender itself as being pretty much entirely, by definition, socio-cultural. Gender is not, and CANNOT, be inherent. It is only a system built around certain aspects of ourselves and one another which might be inherent, and around certain aspects of our culture which certainly aren’t.
The neurobiological factors which might influence, for instance, our relationship to our anatomy and how we experience our sexuality through our bodies do not, and cannot, determine, predict or “contain” our genders, which are definitively social as a means of relating to other human beings. “Woman” is not contained within my brain. “Woman” is a social and cultural construct that is more useful and meaningful than other options (like “man” or “androgyne”) for understanding, expressing and communicating what goes on in my brain, the relationship between my brain and body and sexuality and body, and what’s going on with my body itself. And also a bit about how I position myself within, and feel about, the field of gender I’m in.
Any inherent quality, like a certain neurobiological structure or whatever, cannot be “gender”. It is an aspect of sex, which our gender responds and adapts to and tries to negotiate. And what kind of gender is constructed around those more “inherent” qualities like sexually differentiated neurobiology varies from culture to culture, time period to time period. Field to field, and even from individual to individual. One person might find the construct of “woman” to be what works to best their navigate their culture landscape and social / interpersonal relationships, in response to certain subjective experiences related to her neurobiology while another person who has the same neurobiological trait might respond differently, through expressing a different gender, like “femme” or “dandy” or “genderqueer” or “Hjira” or “kathoey” or “cross-dresser”. Consequently, a “gender identity” cannot be a fixed, identifiable trait. And it can’t carry any definable meaning beyond the subjective experience of that subjective experience naming itself.
Trying to define a “gender identity” as a personal trait is like trying to objectively quantify pain. Since there are no reference points, or bases for comparison, other than one’s subjective experience, it’s impossible. A person can say that their stubbed toe hurts more than a papercut they had and less than a broken leg they had…. but they can’t say their stubbed toe hurts more or less than someone else’s stubbed toe, papercut, or broken leg. We can develop a scale of subjective experience of pain, and we can even make some objective judgments about how much pain someone is in on the basis of their behaviour, but we can’t make an actually objective, quantifiable scale of pain. My pain isn’t your pain. My experience of my identity as “woman” isn’t your experience of your identity as “woman”.
Also, more often than not, the way we express and understand our own gender in relation to whatever inherent qualities may affect it fluidly changes and shifts over the course of our lives. Even though it might be workable to describe “gender identity” as a personal construct designed to understand our position in the dynamic between our field of gender and our experience and understanding of who we are, this is still problematic in framing it as a fixed quality of a person. It’s an interpretation of ourselves that is constantly recreated, only retroactively producing an illusion of continuity, at best.
Maybe that’s part of why we get so hung-up on telling and retelling our narratives, and why our narratives take such a central position within how transgenderism is understood and discussed.
Within the wider Gender-As-Semitocs model it might be tempting to view “gender dypshoria”, at least, as a consistent phenomenon. It seems like it could reasonably be considered one of the signifieds (like the frequency of visible light to which the arbitrary word “red” refers), and to say that it, at least, is a “born this way” experience; something that exists as an inherent, essential quality of an individual, and correlates strongly to transgender identities, even if not necessarily determining them. Well…
One of my favourite things is when a close friend I strongly respect and trust tells me they disagree with me, but don’t tell me why. It’s annoying, but it’s also extremely productive, because if I respect them enough, I just sort of assume they must have a good point, and so I start unpacking and sifting through my own thinking on a subject to figure out what my mistake was. This happened to me recently in relation to “gender identity” and “gender dysphoria”.
I’d said to my friend that I found “gender dypshoria” wasn’t quite as ridiculous as “gender identity”, because it at least describes a certain kind of subjective experience we know to be real (and yes, I know it to be real, at least as a subjective experience, because I’ve, you know, experienced it. Palpably). I’d said that yes, people really do experience intense, consistent feelings of discomfort about sexualized or gendered aspects of their anatomy, and that these feelings are usually dramatically improved by medical intervention.
She said no, she disagreed, and hinted that she might find the framework of dysphoria to be more problematic than that of “gender identity”. But we didn’t have time for her to tell me why. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I might be missing with this lately.
One of the immediate issues I have with “gender dysphoria” is that it falls into the very common pattern of people taking a varied range of things and variables and stuff related to gender, sex or sexuality and acting like they’re all one single variable. Sometimes as a binary (“man or woman”), a spectrum (like the Kinsey Scale), or one component of a simplified combinatoric thingy (like the Genderbread Person). And sometimes it’s just one giant stupid spectrum between two poles “I don’t see men and women as binary, really. I see it as, like, a spectrum. You’ve got manly straight men on one end and girly straight women on the other, and then you have gays, lesbians, transsexuals, guys who wear berets, and women who wear jeans, in between” (this, including “guys who wear berets”, was an actual conversation I had when I was 14 with an adult artist from Montreal, a friend of my stepmom’s. It was shortly after I’d tried coming out to my family as trans, and during a time when my body was rather obviously intersexed, so my guess is that she was trying to be supportive and helpful after my stepmom told her I was “struggling with gender” or “confused” or whatever.)
But much like “sexual orientation” is NOT as simple as a spectrum between liking girls and liking dudes (involving other issues like intensity, asexuality, romantic love, dom/sub, gendered aspects of sexual behaviour, how sexuality is expressed through anatomy, top/bottom/stone/etc, kink, body types, gender in objects of desire, the fact that the sex of a partner is NOT itself a clear-cut issue, straight men specifically interested in women with penises, how “sexual orientation” will directly overlap and interplay with one’s own “gender identity” and “gender presentation” as in sexualized cross-dressing, etc.), and much like “sex” is not as simple as a spectrum between male and female with intersex “in the middle” (involving a variety of genital configurations and types with genitals themselves consisting of a variety of features like gonads and clitoris/glans and penile shaft and vaginal canal and vulva and descent of gonads and so on, chromosomes, secondary sexual characteristics, dominant hormones, scent, body hair, adipose distribution, musculature, skeletal build, prostate, uterus, etc.), it’s absurd to describe “gender dysphoria” as a single quality that simply varies in levels of intensity.
It’s easy, for instance, to notice separate “categories” of dysphoria, like dysphoria related to genital configuration, dysphoria related to endocrine regulation and dominant sexual hormones, and dysphorias related to secondary sex characteristics like breasts or absence thereof. Allowing for a variety of different dysphorias is a much better model than the One Gender Dysphoria To Rule Them All, and viewing how we experience it as being a sort of “combinatoric” process of different aspects of our relationship to gendered or sexually significant aspects of our body in different ways goes a long way towards being able to more successfully account for (and describe) the diversity of trans and gender variant experiences, as well as accounting for the different priorities any given trans or gender variant person may have for they approach medical intervention, how they present, and how they choose to articulate and name their identity, sex and gender.
But those “different dysphorias”, of course, can themselves be sub-divided. “Genital configuration”, for example, itself isn’t simply a “spectrum” between penis/testes and vulva/clitoris/vagina/ovaries. It involves numerous organs, each with different configurations, shapes, sizes, functions, sensations or types.
Additionally, dysphoria may or may not be present not only in relation to every individual aspect of our body that are physiologically significant to sexuality and reproduction, but may also be present or absent in relation to individual physical characteristics that are *culturally* gendered, like feeling dysphoria about leg hair, wearing male clothes, or being forced to cut your hair short. These are aspects of gender that vary in meaning and significance between different contexts, different fields of gender.
This latter point indicates that dypshoria does NOT strictly belong to sexual anatomy, which is what we’d expect from the theory of neurobiology being “wired” for a different kind of body. The fact that dysphoria also occurs along lines that are socio-culturally (and variably, contextually, arbitrarily) gendered creates an *extreme* complication of our assumptions about it. If, for instance, I suddenly feel dysphoric about the way my public hair grows only in response to happening upon some pictures of naked ladies on the internet, and that that dysphoria feels very similar to the dysphoria I have about my penis, how do I know that the latter dysphoria is strictly a product of neurobiology and not simply a product of cultural conditioning to “know” that a woman’s body is configured without a penis? Like how it was only the sudden “realization” that a woman’s pubic hair is “supposed” to grow in a certain kind of pattern that triggered my dysphoria in relation to it?
This raises some pretty intense and uneasy questions, and leads us right back to the initial question transsexuality posed to feminism: is this a response to cultural conditioning about what women and men respectively are and are supposed to be within our patriarchal culture, or is it a response of adapting the body to a pre-existing “womanhood”? (or, per my theory, adapting the body to make your relationship to it more comfortable, with “womanhood” slotting in after the fact as a concept that best expresses that relationship to your body and how you negotiate that… but “womanhood” was already, and generally, an after-the-fact means of expressing sexual difference, meaning that a trans woman’s “womanhood” is a social construct but not any more so than a cis woman’s. And these are helpful, reasonable, meaningful, and inevitable constructs anyway. A trans woman’s “womanhood” is a construct responding to a different experience of sexual difference, but it’s no more or less valid and meaningful than a cis woman’s construct of “womanhood”).
Trans discourse, even trans-feminist discourse, is consistently, overwhelmingly uncomfortable with exploring, or even accepting, the fact that there are blurry lines between the experience of “dysphoria”, to which a trans woman’s response is engaging in quite understandable measures to feel comfortable within her body (given that she can’t simply accept her body in its male configuration) and the desire for “passability” and cultural standards of beauty, femininity and what a woman’s body is “supposed” to be, to which a trans woman’s responses might be seen as internalized sexism or internalized cissexism.
Given how intensely conditioned our concepts and standards of women’s bodies are under patriarchy, and how strong and meaningful and personally significant the need to assert a gender that feels “right” to oneself is, is it even *possible* to draw a line between these things? If the best gender available that feels “right” for expressing and asserting one’s understanding of her sexual self (regardless of whether neurobiological, psychological, or socio-cultural in cause) is “woman”, and the cultural concept of “woman” not only consists of “easy” semiotic signs like presentation and language, but also is DEEPLY tied to a certain kind of body consisting not only of a basic sexual anatomy but also intense standards of beauty and desirability, it’s unavoidable that the distinction between feelings about your body based on the “original” anatomical discomfort (if it exists) will end up functionally indistinguishable from the effort to express and assert the gender “woman” through your body.
Nonetheless we end up not only *assuming* a hard line definitely exists between “dysphoria” and the effort for meeting cultural standards of what a woman’s body should be (despite the evidence of the overlap *constantly* staring us in the face through the obsessiveness of The Passing Industry and the mentalities of trans space), but also we refuse to even *broach the question*.
We believe the line MUST exist, because without it, our entire framework for asserting the validity of our gender within cis-defined standards (“gender identity” and “born this way”) falls to bits and requires being re-assembled. And in the mean time, all the cissexist feminists will say “told you it was all in your head!” (for the record: fuck you, cissexist feminists. This essay is not a defense of their attacks on us. Social constructs, culturally conditioned experiences, and shit that’s in your head are STILL REAL THINGS. And the facts of transphobia, the intense personal need for “transition”, and how sex/gender-related medical intervention makes a significant improvement in people’s quality of life, are fucking clear as day as REAL THINGS).
Basically, we assume an inherent “born this way” dysphoria and internalized cultural ideas of what a woman’s body “should” be are distinct because, politically, personally, they HAVE to be. Opening up that question makes us vulnerable to the arguments of transphobes, cissexists and trans-misogynists from every facet of our society, who believe that gender can only be valid if it is inherent, that there must be a concrete essential “maleness” and “femaleness” (they’ll accept that it’s in the brain rather than your underwear as long as you agree that it’s there), that bigotry is only wrong if it targets something innate, and that we assure them that of course we would never willingly choose to so defy their sacred systems of gender and sexuality. And opening up that question means we might have to confront the same existential threat we pose to cis people: our gender, that central aspect of our identity on which so much of our social structure and sense of ourselves hinges, might not be concrete, might not be stable,and might not be as much an intrinsic part of us as it feels.
The degree to which the framework of “gender identity”, “gender dysphoria”, and the neurobiological-cause hypothesis used to justify them, are largely based in a sort of need to continue thinking about our gender within the same basic models, values and heirarchies as cis people use is noticeable in the bizarre way that the gender identity framework assumes an oppositional, binary, spectrum approach despite a lack of evidence for it, and a lack of it being at all necessary for the basic hypothesis to work.
The model is typically based on a basic assumption of “female brains” and “male brains”, that every sexually significant aspect of our neurobiology, or every aspect pertinent to sexual behaviours, is sexually dimorphic, structured as one of only two possibilities. Lots of people, cis and trans alike, also love assuming that parts of the brain that aren’t related to sex and sexuality are also “male” or “female”, based on whatever *tendencies* may have been observed, like capacity for spatial or linguistic reasoning (usually essentializing these differences while conveniently ignoring things like neuroplasticity, how brains will structure themselves in response to the tasks they’re “trained” for during development, and how young girls are socialized differently than young boys and expected to play in different ways). Usually, the “maleness” and “femaleness” of brains is oppositionally defined (meaning that any aspect becoming “less male” makes it “more female”, and vice versa).
These aspects of the neurobiological-cause hypothesis can be seen in how the traits that hypothetically predispose us towards behaviours and identities classed as queer or trans are assumed to be a *flaw* in sexual development that “wires” us for the “opposite” sex. For example, it’s assumed that the cause of male homosexuality is the “sexual orientation” part of the brain developing like a “female brain”, or failing to develop like a “male brain”.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that defining these neurobilogical predispositions as “opposite sex-like” is itself an act of gendering, imposing our concepts of gender on something after the fact of its existence. This is similar to how we gender sexual acts and positions, believing that “top” is a “masculine” role, that to be attracted to men is a “feminine” orientation, that penetrating is the “male role” and being penetrated is the “female role”. This is important to bear in mind, given how it shines a light on the socio-cultural systems of gender will seek our justifications in our “inherent” sexuality by gendering that sexuality. It’s a sort of circular logic, wherein the gendering of things as feminine is justified by the “inherent” femininity of a sexual role or inherent trait, and then we justify the “inherent” femininity of the role or trait by gendering it.
Part of this assumption that all queer or trans predispositions are variations upon a hetero-oppositional, binary template can probably be chalked up to general ignorance as to how evolution works, of course. People think that anything that isn’t immediately obvious in how it benefits survival and reproduction must therefore be a flaw rather than adaptive trait. So, since human beings with an exclusively homosexual predisposition are less likely to reproduce, we assume a biological “cause” of homosexuality MUST be a maladaptive variation on something “good”, like predisposition towards heterosexuality. Even though there’s not really any substantial evidence for this (homosexual behaviours in men and women, for instance, seem to be correlated to very different things, so what little evidence we have so far suggests entirely different mechanisms for that predisposition).
This bias in our assumptions about the neuro-biological cause hypothesis is also probably a lot about the way we, ironically, project an anthropocentric view of sexual differentiation and reproduction in life and evolution while simultaneously projecting a hetero-centric, cis-centric, essentialist, binarist, culturally-conditioned view on ourselves and our own sexual differentiation. Even HUMAN life isn’t as binary and hetero as we assume life in general to be. In the animal kingdom we can observe several species where behaviours we might (anthropocentrically) describe as homosexual or transgender are actually an adaptive part of that species’ overall reproductive strategy and/or social structure. Rats, bonobos and cuttlefish, for instance. And that’s not even accounting for the degree to which heteronormative, anthropocentric bias in biologists leads to adaptive non-”het”/”cis” behaviours in animals being intepreted as maladaptive.
As many of us know, evolution works in mysterious ways.
So why the assumption that human sexual and gender variance must be maladaptive, and deviating from heterosexuality, cissexuality and a binarist, essential model of gender as the “optimal” human condition? Why the refusal to consider the possibility that whatever traits might predispose us towards being queer or trans are actually an adaptive aspect of human sexual differentiation, and that who we, as a species, *actually are*, is not necessarily heterosexual, cissexual and binary-gendered? Why immediately build our hypothesis from the assumption that the most COMMON experiences, and socio-culturally conditioned manifestations, of sex, gender and sexuality must be the BASIS of human sex, gender and sexuality? Why not consider that there are more than two “natural” variations upon the human theme?
This is not to argue that queer or trans people actually ARE some kind of “third gender” (or fourth, fifth, etc.), but simply to point out that despite the fact that *we don’t really know* what’s going on with the brain’s relationship to sex, sexuality and gender that we’re nevertheless chomping at the bit to find “explanations” for our existence that fit the same binary, oppositional, essentializing mould cis people have imposed on us. We spent decades fiercely arguing that biology was not destiny only to turn around and just as fiercely convince ourselves that neurobiology was.
“Vagina isn’t what makes someone a woman!”, we argue. “speculative, ill-defined ‘female brains’ do!”
(“male/female brains” = also a bit of a dick move to genderqueer people)
Besides, if it were to be determined that the neurobiology associated with transsexuality is not a case of “female brains in male bodies” or vice versa, but rather that the neurobiology, or many variations of it, are distinct in their own right (and this is, btw, where the evidence seems to be heading; studies with magnetic resonance imaging have so far tending to indicate that the brains of transsexual women not yet on HRT tend to NOT resemble the brains of cissexual women, but DO have unique structural properties inconsistent with the brains of both cissexual women and men)… this wouldn’t mark us out as a “third gender”, it merely marks us as sexually distinct- just like every human being already is. Our gender would still be whatever we’re positioning ourselves as within our cultural field of gender, its meanings, and the concepts it makes available to us.
After all, we’re already familiar with the phenomena of physiological intersexuality, and we don’t mark intersex people as immediately a different “gender” by consequence. That’s their biology… they’re just, in some way or another, differently sexed… and it would be enormously insensitive to say they don’t “count” within the concepts of “man” or “woman” because of that fact (an intersex person might, however, find that neither of those concepts works for them, and assert a gender outside the binary. But people who are totally normatively sexed may also do so.) The way someone’s biology, or neurobiology, is sexed doesn’t force them into any particular gender, so unless we believe that it does, there’s no reason to insist that our brains are somehow objectively sexed as consistent with our gender out of fear that someone will swoop along and take our gender away if they aren’t.
This is very much connected to why it’s problematic to assume, and insist upon, a model of “gender identity” pre-determined by our biology. It being the brain and central nervous system instead of genitals and chromosomes doesn’t make a difference. You’re still postulating a system where gender is determined by something *innate*, where someone can still be “wrong” about their gender, rather than it being something subjectively negotiated between your society and friends and partners and family and yourself, as a human being possessed of agency, and possessed of that right.
And, of course, whether it’s “male brain” and “dysphoria” that “makes” you a man, or penises and Y chromosomes, or male socialization and privilege, or the Will of God or “male energy” or a lack of menstrual blood magick, it’s all still essentialism.
The reasons that cis people lean into certain kinds of ways of looking at gender and sex aren’t too hard to glean. Gender is the very first thing ascribed to your identity, from the very moment you’re born. “It’s a boy!”. Often before. It feel central, it dictates SO much of your role in life, it is interwoven with social status, and career, and sexuality… even the clothes you’re “allowed” to wear, the toys you’re “allowed” to play with, the career you’re “allowed” to pursue, and the food you’re “allowed” to like. It dictates so incredibly much that yes, it is legitimately a terrifying, threatening concept, that induces a sort of existential vertigo, to be confronted with the possibility that maybe it isn’t so fixed, maybe it wasn’t as pre-ordained, sacred, all-consuming, powerful, and immutable as you were led to believe.
An enormous amount of our societies and culture hinges on gender. And therefore hinged on the dominant perspective of gender as innate, immutable, binary, oppositional and essential.
Cis people consequently have a social and cultural investment in the dominant concept of gender that extends *well* into the personal, and this gives them a personal stake in its maintenance.
Trans people aren’t all that different. We were raised in the same culture, and taught the exact same importance of the concept. We inherited the same intensity and sanctity of the binary, oppositional concept of gender, and of patriarchy. We were taught it no different than cis people. In almost all meaningful senses, we all lived as cis for at least a little while, and we were never meant to disinherit their frameworks of gender and sex. Nobody ever taught us a means to understand or value or reconsider gender outside their frameworks and heirarchies. Even feminism, while teaching us to question patriarchy, would not (could not?) teach us to step outside the cis-normative frame of gender.
We’re not outside those hierarchies, and so we inherited from everyone around us the same sense of “value” tied to the degree to which an aspect of gender is essential and immutable. We have the same biases, the same personal stake. And our perceptions are distorted similarly, only allowing for the minimum flexibility to account for our existence with as little disturbance to that system as possible.
Thus, for a trans woman, the “best” definition of “woman” becomes the one in which we’re most consistently able to say we’re the exact same thing as cis women.
(I mean, I maintain that there’s no genuinely consistent, non-tautological definition of “woman” that includes ALL cis women while excluding ALL trans women, but that’s besides the point. My point is about our motives.)
We’re no better than cis people. We’re not above the obsessive investment in gender as a sanctified and essential characteristic. Maybe we’ve even got MORE riding on that than most… we’re the ones upon whom a hostile, essentialist world has placed the impossible demand that we consistently, unwaveringly insist it’s what we ARE; we’re the ones who are pathologized and marked against the “default” normativity, and need to develop means of naming and describing our shared experience of this; we’re the ones carrying the burden of never flinching, never blinking, while staring that genocidal system in the eye and saying what we can never be anything BUT what we are, that this is something unavoidable and instrinsic and pre-ordained about us… because how else can we defend this aspect of ourselves when our culture as a whole is threatened by it? And how can we defend it to that secret, dark, self-hating part of ourselves that has internalized their hatred, and our marginalization? That part of us that agrees that it would be immoral, sinful, disgusting, absurd and abominable to have chosen to be this… to be trans in a world where where cissexuality is the natural order, to have adapted our biology where that goes against the optimal human condition, to be a woman where men are the ideal human form, to be feminine where masculinity is strength, to be queer where healthy sexuality is strictly for the purposes of genetic reproduction, to have indulged our unnatural desires against the Will of God…
We couldn’t help it. We were born this way.
But to turn out backs, for a moment, on the gravity of that shame… isn’t the beauty of being trans in exactly that we’re not simply as we were born? That we, relatively speaking, CHOSE…
We chose despite the intensity and persistence and depth of these messages, despite the temptation to supplicate ourselves before them presenting our hypothetical justifications and excuses and explanations, all within THEIR terms and frameworks, despite the need to validate our gender as being just as good as theirs despite the fact that there was never even any real reason to see their’s as the standard… that despite ALL that, we chose, we created this, our bodies, our lives, ourselves.
We didn’t do it as the result of a reasoned argument of speculative science and hypothetical biology. We did it because it was what we needed, because it was what we needed to DO… fuck what we WERE.
It was agency. It was self-determination. It was assertion.
I wasn’t born this way. That’s exactly what makes me trans.
And I’m proud of being trans.
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