Born This Way (Reprise): The New Essentialism

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. [Read more...]

F–k Anti-Science

Last week was a really, really rough week. Worse than usual, even. Scary terrible things happening, and very suddenly and unexpectedly, as is usually the case with scary terrible things. Lots of complex and intense feelings I didn’t know how to handle. Lots of memories of really awful things that happened to me in the past deciding they’re not keen on being ignored right now. Lots of stuff that had been building up all Spring kind of arriving at a bit of tipping point into badness. And the terrifying realization that having spent almost my entire adult life as an addict means I never actually learned how to deal with rough patches like this. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, or how to get through this, or how to cope. Just kind of have to make it up as I go along.

On Tuesday I met up with my BFF at the comic book store, and we went to sit in the nearby park for a bit and talk. She noticed that my knuckles looked rather red, and asked if I’d been punching the wall or something. I hadn’t, but it kind of occurred to me that I totally did find a punching bag of sorts that morning on the internets in the form of a nice argument against someone promoting dodgy anti-science attitudes of the lefty-academic, post-structuralist vein. The idea that science is this nasty “Western” imperialist concept that pretend it knows everything and thinks it’s the One True Path and disrespects other “ways of knowing” and tries to colonize everyone’s minds and get us all to fit into some particular Western conceptual framework and blah blah blah.

I got a tad more aggressive than usual.

I’m not sure, however, that aggression is an inappropriate response to these attitudes. [Read more...]

Born This Way: A Skeptical Look At The Neurological Theory Of Gender Identity

Sorry, everyone! No posts today. I’m terribly, terribly exhausted, as a result of falling way behind on my schedule, overextending my commitments, and having a friend from Kelowna staying over. I need sleep! So here’s a repost from Skepchick- one that is in desperate need of a follow-up, as I no longer entirely agree with the concepts and arguments I advanced in this post. My thinking on this issue has changed a lot over the past five months. So feel free to use the comment thread for helping expand the conversation, and move it forwards towards something a bit better, a bit broader, a bit more inclusive, and a bit more useful. Cheers!

For some reason, political debates concerning LGBT rights and issues like same-sex marriage often end up getting caught up in the question of whether or not being gay, lesbian, bi or trans is a choice. I’ve always considered this to be something of a red herring. Why, exactly, does it matter? If it were a choice, is there anything to justify treating it as anything other than a choice someone has the right to make? Any reason other than “Because The Bible!”, that is?

It’s certainly an interesting question, though. What exactly does cause variance in sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression? Why do these traits seem to be so fixed and innate? Why are they so unresponsive to attempts at re-conditioning and reparative therapy, even when the individuals involved are genuinely committed and would give anything to be “normal”? And of course there are tons of important medical and bioethical considerations when dealing with transsexuality, which requires medical intervention. If it’s a choice, then those treatments can theoretically be considered elective or cosmetic, but if it’s an innate characteristic, then they’re medically necessary and deserve to be covered by insurance or national healthcare. That particular issue becomes pretty controversial when conversations come up in the trans community over whether or not Gender Identity Disorder should be removed from the DSM.

The hypothesis that most people in the LGBT community run with these days is that it’s some kind of inborn facet of our neurological wiring, rather than a psychological issue or socially constructed predisposition. A simplified version of the theory runs something like this: in utero, prenatal hormones are sort of washed over the developing fetus, and these help steer the child, both physically as well as mentally, towards one sex or the other. The different sexes needed to evolve some differing behavioural characteristics as well as physical ones in order for our whole sexual reproduction thing to work out. As a very basic example, the females needed to mostly be attracted to the males, and the males needed to mostly be attracted to the females. There are all kinds of other behavioural differences too, but I’m usually pretty uncomfortable getting into evolutionary psychology applied towards gender. People always seem way too quick to use it to justify 1950s gender roles or hard gender-essentialism, so I’ll just leave it at the basics. Anyway, we suppose this prenatal hormone thing doesn’t always go quite to plan, and sometimes certain cross-sex neurological or behavioural differences can be triggered without any noticeable physical changes occurring. Perhaps our brains, being as complicated and subtle as they are, are more likely to manifest noticeable differences from subtle changes than other organs and tissues? Chaos theory complicated systems single variables butterflies and hurricanes somethingsomething?

The theory is appealing for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there are the political, ethical and medical considerations above. But it also speaks to and matches our personal experiences of being gay, bi or transgender… that these things are a deep, innate, unchangeable aspect of who we are. Something we never chose, that we usually didn’t want (even if eventually we learned to accept ourselves or even embrace those aspects of our identity), and that feels like it was always there (even if we’re sometimes the last to really know). It’s a belief that meets our social, personal, political and cultural needs, and a belief that feels true.

But as a skeptic, I can’t simply believe something because it feels true, or because it’s convenient to do so. What is the actual science? Is there any hard evidence to support this theory? [Read more...]

Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens And Why I’m Not “Scientifically” Male

I’m on vacation this week! This post originally appeared at Skepchick.

You know what this world needs more of? Misconceptions about transsexuality.

Wait… I think I got that backwards.

Right… there is absolutely no dearth whatsoever of misconceptions people have about transsexuality. Sometimes I feel like a sort of trans-advocate Sisyphus, perpetually pushing a boulder of education up a hill of myths, stereotypes, fear, hatred, ignorance, disinterest and general laziness. And really, I could spend the rest of my life just trying to debunk a small sub-set of the mistaken beliefs about us held in the mind of the general public.

Quite often, people tell me to pick my battles. So in the interest of actually listening to my friends for a change, that’s what I’m going to try to do today. Pick a battle. In this case, something that I really need to get out the way if I’m going to keep at this whole “discussing trans issues in the skeptic community” thing, something that I’ve come to regard as by far the most common misconception about transsexuality within skepticism: the belief that transsexuals are and always shall be “objectively”, “scientifically”, “biologically” members of their assigned sex. [Read more...]

Phytoestrogens and Natural Transition

So I’m at this Christmas party thingy for a trans support group last month, and I’m catching up with a girl I know, and she begins asking me weird, akward-ish questions, like “how are your boobs doing?”

These kinds of things tend to go with the territory at trans support groups.

Providing my usual evasive, non-committal response, she proceeds to inform me that her own have been developing fantastically. First, she explains that she’s been taking progesterone. I reply that I’ve heard mixed things about it, that it, more than any other HRT medication, tends to be a bit unpredictable and rather on the “your mileage may vary” side of things- negative effects being reported just as often as positive ones. She then says that she’s on the “brand” of progesterone that has “only two side effects”, one of which she claims is breast growth. I begin to become a bit suspicious of whether she wholly understands the concept of “brand” as applied to medication (particularly a hormone like progesterone, which is going to be progesterone no matter who is actually manufacturing it) and also how much she understands what “side effect” means.

And then it got worse. [Read more...]