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.

“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.



I’m going to be leaving Freethought Blogs soon. To be kept up to date on where I’ll be going next, please follow my twitter, @nataliereed84. If you’d like to help me land on my feet, save up for SRS, and invest in future projects, please donate to my Tip Jar!


  1. Tori W. says

    Um, hi Natalie! I really like your articles, and I’m glad to see one again~ (Not that your Twitter feed isn’t a helpful avenue of discourse as well. ^_^)

    I agree with your point that we shouldn’t center the question about gender around that which can be used to contradict someone’s subjective experiences. I always found the brain theory creepy because I really wouldn’t want trans women and trans men to have their experiences invalidated through a neurological evaluation. And your more nuanced description of gender dysphoria matches my own experiences. I’ve always felt alienated by the focus on bodies by people who want to profit off of people’s dysphoria (which is by no means a trans-only phenomena. Makers of all kinds of products, from cosmetics to video games, manipulate the need to feel like one is expressing one’s gender in a way that will be consistently received by others in all people. Though trans people get the worst of it as we’re often more financially unstable and more insecure about our capacity for gender expression, so this isn’t to say that cis people have it just as bad as trans people in this regard, which would be silly to assert.) Honestly, I’m more dysphoric about aspects of myself that effect my ability to communicate womanhood to others than my genitalia or the like.

    I will say though that I am still going to use the term “gender identity”, because I find it more helpful than problematic. This is because, (and not saying you aren’t aware of this at all), our discourse often has to take place over a megaphone. Nuances and complexity cannot be conveyed through the slogans and cries that are necessarily briefer and simpler to travel farther (specifically, to the desks of government officials). Gender identity is a very useful description of the culturally-informed self-concept of gender, and its use in conjunction with gender expression helps to highlight the fact that there isn’t anything essentially feminine or masculine about any culturally common expression of gender.

    Finally, I don’t think being trans is a matter of choice (not that you said it was in a parochial sense). Participation in the expression of one’s gender is definitely a choice, but dysphoria is caused by prior circumstances outside of our control. I believe the causal association with neurophysiology helps to direct responsibility away from those that raised us, who will be held at fault for “allowing” us to “become trans”. Regardless of the truth, our cisnormative society will view being trans as maladaptive. Because of this, it is important to not frame the issue in a way that presents societal, parental or psychological reform (of an often conservative nature) as plausible avenues for reducing the number of trans people in the world. And though it is problematic to argue a “female/male brain”, it is not problematic to at least assert that the structure of one’s brain, and not the character of one’s upbringing or the choices one has made, as the most important cause to be considered for transsexuality. That is to say, we won’t verify or invalidate people’s experiences on the basis of their brains, but when pressed for a cause, it is helpful to point to neurological differences. Although gender identity isn’t an inherent, eternal property of a person, it is typically a consistently applicable component of a person’s concept of self caused by prior, uncontrolled circumstances.

  2. says

    What is the role of bodies in this framework? Are they passive in relation to culture and semiology? Are they something produced by culture (a la Butler and the production of sex through the production of gender)? Are they bracketed from what we can understand about sex & gender? This is a large piece, so forgive me if I got lost and missed something.

    • says

      Bodies probably aren’t *produced* by culture. Pretty sure non-social animals have bodies too. But how we view and experience and understand and gender and sexualize our bodies certainly *is* partially constructed, and also our bodies in turn influence the ways that other constructions happen, how we respond to gender, how we negotiate our gender, etc.

      • says

        I meant moreso the intelligibility of bodies than the fact of being a body (so we of course have bodies, and so do non-social animals, but how those bodies are understood is sometimes argued to be discursively/socially produced without any agency from the body itself, which ends up being theorized as inert matter to be worked upon).

        In any case, I think we’re on a similarish page.

  3. Jenni says

    A few points I want to comment on. First up, I agree with you basically completely – the “gender Identity” thing is another form of essentialist, and ultimately, I don’t think we *should* have to fall back to “born this way” type arguments as a way to validate our existence. There are a rediculous number of factors to be considered regarding gender and to say “Well, it all boils down to my brain is wired for this” blatantly ignores a lot of non-biological influences.To add a point to one of yours – I was not dysphoric about how I smell until it was pointed out to me that I “didn’t smell like a girl” (as someone so bluntly put it), it had never crossed my mind until it was brought to my attention that it was just another thing about me that wasn’t womanly – at which point I became dysphoric about it and started being careful to overpower my natural scent with floral smells and such (and this is something HRT helps a lot with, for any trans folk reading this who I made paranoid about their smell!).
    I drifted from my point at the end there I fear…

    Anyway – next point I wanted to make was about weather or not we *should* have to fall back on “born this way” explanations. Ideally, I don’t think we should. Even if we were not born this way, it wasn’t necessarily a choice – I never decided “Oh, from now on, I’m going to have occasional panic attacks because of the bits between my legs” – I don’t know why, exactly, I see myself as, need to present myself as, and exist more comfortably and happily as, a woman, when society has kept calling me a man. Ignoring even that, though – even if it is a choice to someone – Why is that a problem? People make all sorts of decisions about how to present themselves, ranging from what clothing (within society-imposed limits, typically) they wear, to what modifications they make to their bodies in the form of tattoos, piercings, and cosmetic surgeries, why then are certain decisions like SRS, HRT, and living as a woman[for examples] so horrible that they can only be excused if they are determined at birth?

    I think this is a great foundation to start from, re-examining gender from a perspective that doesn’t assume that the truth behind gender is binary & essentialist, like the “gender Identity” and “brain sex” and so on approaches do. Great job Natalie.


  4. says

    Of course my being genderqueer is not a choice! Except when it is.

    I was born this way. I became this way. I continue to recreate this way.

    Within the first week of coming out, I already had validation fatigue – by which I mean, I had been asked by so many people in such a short amount of time to defend my very existence as a nonbinary person, that I have at this point stopped caring to do so.

    I’m not interested in racing toward other people’s moving gender goalposts.

  5. A. Person says

    Ok, I just finished my first read through, and I think there is a lot of good stuff to dig into and explore. I think it’s a good reminder that all of these concepts are models.

    I think that essentialism is the nasty side effect of classification because it arises from the question of “what is X, really?” And the problem with gender identity being the basis for a new form of essentialism isn’t really with the concept of gender identity, but rather because some people are attempting to slot it in place of the classification variable in an existing problematic structure. And since the existing structure is a binary, we get the original set of questions back just in a new guise, “What is a feminine gender identity?” “What is a masculine gender identity?” And that leads us to trying to objectively define what was originally a description of a subjective process of self-understanding. and immediately tosses out all concepts of non-binary-identified gender identities. .

    So if things get started over again, there needs to be pushback against attempts to slot it into the existing framework. I’m not sure how to square that with the need for action for social protection for trans and non-binary identified people. Because solutions within the existing framework are almost always going to be exclusive.

    I think a term for a “subjective process of understanding one’s own gender” is important, but I’m not attached specifically to “gender identity” for this concept. I recognize that gender identity has become a vehicle for a stealth neurological essentialism argument.

    And now, a quibble. (I’m not sure if it’s with you or the audience of this section.)

    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.

    I get the point you’re making that the style and fashion you wear your hair isn’t a biologically innate trait, but this gets uneasily close to dualism. You, Natalie the agent, can’t really be meaningfully separated from the substrate that you use to make those decisions. And I guess that links back to the larger point. Biology lays the groundwork and delineates the potential, but the brain as part of its many functions mediates and adapts to social/cultural pressures/currents/trends/events.

    • says

      I’m not making a dualist argument. That’s like SO far from what that sentence is meant to convey. My brain as a whole is the “me” that’s making my decisions, like what I do with my hair, but there isn’t some structural, innate, pre-determined, internally isolated aspect of my neurobiology that dictates it. It’s an act of agency (in relation to social and cultural cues) to exactly the best degree ANYTHING can be considered agency. And I am SOOOO not interested in the “we don’t empirically have free-will, so technically everything is ‘born this way’, because of physical laws, universal constants and the initial conditions of the universe!” argument.

  6. The Mellow Monkey says

    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.

    Lovely bit of essentialist thought right there in our science and how we interpret animal behavior, too.

    A male presenting for mounting = homosexual behavior.
    A female attempting to mount = homosexual behavior.
    A female presenting herself to other females = normal estrus behavior.
    A male attempting to mount other males = normal dominant male behavior.

    It’s when a behavior is seen as transgressive of the gender norms which we’ve projected onto animals that it’s typically labeled as homosexual. The male who mounts other males is still behaving in a “masculine” way, and so his behavior isn’t normally interpreted as homosexual in the laboratory. It’s “normal” and therefore a “heterosexual behavior”.

    One issue with the “born this way” concept that rarely gets talked about much is that this sort of essentialism is also a form of colonialism. Modern western ideas about the male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, and cis/trans binaries get treated as though they are immutable facts, while trampling upon (and erasing) all cultures which have functioned just fine with alternate ideas. Someone who identifies as a woman in modern day Canada might well have had a completely different–and completely valid–self-concept if she had been born in modern India, or among the Ojibwe in 1491, or in ancient Greece. We are shaped by what we know and what we internalize. It’s difficult to identify with something you don’t know about, which is what makes treating identity as some sort of objective, unchanging trait so problematic. Experience, knowledge, age, all of these things can influence how a person identifies. To assume that they were “born this way” wipes out the possibility of exploration and discovery. The “I always knew” narrative reigns supreme.

    This was a phenomenal post. It both crystallized some things I’ve been struggling with on my own as well as forced me to throw away some thoughts that I now realize don’t withstand scrutiny. I love when that happens. I have a lot to think over now and question. Thank you.

  7. sillose says

    awesome post. i dont actually disagree with any of it, and it exposed me to some nuance on some stuff i wouldnt have thought of, helping me articulate some thoughts that were already floating around in my head. thanks!

    i do however take issue with something you said, disparaging the “One Gender Dysphoria To Rule Them All” and i have to say, you completely failed to consider its merits. invisibility whenever you want it(rather than whenever someone in a position of power over you wants it), telepathy, and power over the minds of lesser men is nothing to scoff at, to say nothing of the less tangible benefits.

  8. says

    Thank you, Natalie. IMO, enforcement of the gender binary hurts everyone and, as someone who prefers not to live the life that society would have me believe my chromosomes prescribe and yet doesn’t really want to jump to the supposed other extreme of the supposed spectrum either, I find it very distressing when I read discourse about trans* issues that seems to just reinforce the binary from the other side. It makes me feel like there’s no community at all that wants to make the world a safe place for people like me (rather like reading Christians and Muslims both waxing poetic about the importance of faith — they may be each other’s enemies, but they’re united in their devotion to that harmful idea). So seeing you talking this way gives me hope that maybe I don’t have to be alone in this forever.

  9. Kathrine says

    This was an excellent addition to the discourse, Natalie. And I it really is about agency. Regardless of how inherent or immutable we feel about our gender, what we do about it is our choice, and it is one which should be respected as valid so that we can be as comfortable with ourselves as we possibly can be. To deny us that comfort level denies our agency and to deny our agency is to deny our humanity.

    This idea of inherency is something which has always bothered me. I’ll state that I am 29 years old, so readers have a basis of judging how much knowledge I had access to, and how much access my health professionals have access to. I hate the idea of gender inherency, and I always have, but being so adamantly against the idea of inherency is used against me as a club to invalidate what I’ve always felt from my earliest memories of being aware of differences. I am so afraid, as you rightly address, that if I take on the argument you espouse here (which, internally, I have for a few years now), it will lead to even people I’ve already “won over” with the argument “This is just how I am” rejecting my sense of identity.

    That said, I struggle with this dichotomy, because I am very “textbook” (granted that the textbook was written by cis persons). Going back to childhood, I always wanted to check the box marked “f” or the box marked “girl,” or go do whatever the girls were doing, and I found segregation of boys and girls in activities–and the way I was (sometimes physically) redirected away from girl only spaces was what brought on my, for lack of a better word, dysphoria. My actual body, even during puberty and young adulthood, honestly, didn’t seem to bother me more than other adolescents, it just seemed that the things I worried about were different. My sense of self, it seems to me, has always been an attempt to fit into gender roles assigned for girls or women not because I inherently like those roles, but because the identification of “boy” or “man” and the insistence of participation in boy/men only spaces and being barred from “girl” or “woman” spaces is so viscerally painful.

    I do remember two very strong (dysphoric?) reactions to two incidents, one in in my preteen years, and one in my first year of college. I drew a lot as an adolescent. I wasn’t very good at it. I normally drew girls, some I identified with myself, some I did not, and I also drew boys ever so often. In a therapy session about some of my quite normal adolescent social anxiety, I was asked to draw a person. I made a decision to draw a boy; I hadn’t drawn one in a while. I remarked on this fact, that I normally drew girls. The response I got was, “Oh that’s perfectly normal, people almost always draw their same gender.” I was outraged, horrified, and immediately got up and left. It’s amazing to me now that the therapist in question never bothered following that up, nor thought about the fact it might have something to do with gender and a deeply held concept of self.

    The other was when a friend of my mother’s remarked that I had “such manly shoulders.” I immediately shuddered visibly and told her to please never say that again. She was actually trying to compliment me, as she was reading me as a man, so she reacted badly to my comment, which obviously, was overboard. But you know, I am not dysphoric about the size of my shoulders, they’re well with in the supposed “female norms.” What bothered me was, once again, someone shoved a part of me into the “manly” box. No, my shoulders are not manly, because I am not manly, I am not a man.

    Back to this concept of inherency, I do not know why or how the five year old me took a look around the kindergarten and came to the definitive conclusion, “those people are like me, these people are not like me, please stop placing me with the group I don’t identify with.” Obviously, that vocabulary was beyond me, but the THOUGHTS, as nebulous as they were, were not debatable and not negotiable. It was true, and it remains true.

    And it was also so clear cut to my friends and family, that I didn’t really have to “come out.” When I did, the general reaction was “Meh, we already know. No big deal.” And I recognise the privilege of that experience. As I recognise the privilege that had any of my therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists growing up had identified me as a trans, my parents would have seen to it that I transitioned early (they’ve told me so). And all of us have wondered aloud why something so obvious seemed to be missed by health professionals. And it explains why I have extremely negative views of mainstream mental health professionals.

    I’m rambling, but I hope I have added to the discourse.

  10. Kathrine says

    Also, I made a few typos, most notably, “a trans” should have just been “trans,” as I find the first profoundly offensive.

  11. rq says

    Thank you for this post, Natalie. It took me three days to read through it (or four?) but I appreciate every moment of reading. Sad to see you leave FtB; don’t have twitter, but hopefully you’ll leave a note here as to where you can be read later!
    Best wishes!

  12. lady_arkitekt says

    I agree with most of this writing, however, I have my own places where this sounds a bit… iffy to me.

    Especially when I first came out, I felt like I had no choice about being a trans* woman. Was I always female identified? No. But that doesn’t make me being trans* a choice in any way. I didn’t choose to feel shame in my male traits, to suffer depression and panic attacks because of my body, nor to only feel comfortable in presenting as female and identifying as such. I never chose what my mind’s eye tells me I -am-. If I had a choice, first coming out, I would have been glad to be rid of these feelings and live life as a cis-male identifying person.

    So was I born this way? I can’t say- I never had real dysphoria until just over a year ago, but I crossdressed when I could in Junior High and High School- I have distinct memories of wanting to do things “Boys don’t do”.

    Now, am I saying someone’s identity is not malleable, cannot change over time- hell no. People constantly change, constantly evolve into who they are. Just because I didn’t like onions as a child does not mean my current identity as an onion-liker now is any less valid.

    I always see identity as a 2-dimensional spectrum, not just male/female, of which each person has their own definition, but also intensity- to what degree we “feel” gender of any sort. And no part of this specturm is inherent, and come people cross it day-to-day, some, like me, are more firmly planted in one place. No place on it is “good” or “bad”, and changing it as often as the person feels is not “good” or “bad”. It just -is-.

    That’s the core of what I think all gender issues should come to- it just -is-. There’s no point in invalidating those who feel they were “born this way”, because that is likely how they feel- their view of their own gender, however it was formed, is fairly static. Nor should we seek to invalidate those whose gender identity changes more rapidly. There is no inherent beauty or pride in the change, it just -is-.

    I think the only way to handle gender and sexuality is- it’s fairly fluid. You have to take into account at least 3 dimensions- the person’s gender in terms of male/female/neither/both/other/etc. and intensity (agender/gender-conforming/genderfuck/etc.) and time, which may cause a person to shift however they identify. And I agree, that’s simplified. But that’s how we humans think- we simplify, and we bucket. There’s no way going around it completely- it is how our brains function, by generalizing. And this model seems to fit well in line to your explanation.

    Sorry for the long post, just my two cents, because I don’t want to ignore the fluidity of gender, but also taking into account there are people who feel that they -are- “born this way”, and we should not seek to invalidate that view, either.

  13. says

    FINALLY someone brings up the trouble with “it’s in my brain!!” It’s something that has bothered me a long time, but I never felt like I had the right to say anything about it, because I’m not trans so what would I know.

    I’ve long felt that my identity has always been about how other people see me – it’s all semiotics. I could *try* to choose an identity for myself, but it was futile. People wouldn’t even buy my own story of “where are you from?” – and growing up in Malaysia that affected a lot of which services and places I could access. Similarly, gender-wise it didn’t really matter what I did or did not do: people were going to read whatever they want on me and treat me based not on my own chosen identity but on what is convenient for them.

    I had been resisting “genderqueer” for so long (despite a ton of friends telling me that’s how they parsed me) because it seemed more like a title taken to prove you were Queerer Than Thou, and I was already having trouble being read as queer (apparently being brown doesn’t help). Then I found my old blog posts from when I was a teenager and saw how I was way more comfortable with having an ambiguous gender identity (I latched onto Mx as a thing) but was in deep denial about my sexuality. Now it seems to be the other way!

    Recently I’ve found myself describing myself as genderqueer or genderfluid or gendervariant. But it’s not because I chose to adopt that identity. It’s a recognition and resignation to the fact that *how my gender is parsed changes all the time*, especially across cultures, especially having always been coded as The Other ever since I was born. I cannot fit *any* gender role or stereotype BY DEFINITION. My gender, like my identity, is a social construct through and through – and it seems rather pointless to me to try and identify as anything proactively, because no one respects that anyway. Might as well just state it as it is.

  14. Heidrun says

    Dear Natalie, I wholeheartedly agree with your arguments regarding the ‘born this way’ statements. Actually you helped me solve a problem I had in respect to ‘thinking trans’ I will briefly describe as others may have stumbled across it, too.

    I am quite familiar with post-structuralist theory, and accordingly I was aware of the essentialism of the ‘born this way’ explanations. But each and every ‘new’ (Third Wave/ Judth Butler/Queer Theory, you know …) cis feminist I heard expound on the subject and each and every text written by them I read in fact invalidated my experiences and myself with the ‘it is all in the head’ statement – besides, I wonder how long they would insist on this if – their – status as women would be threatened … but I digress. I felt colonialized, put under their discoursive truth production as an object and realized that, far from being allies they were and they are another nail in my coffin. And of course there are the other feminists to consider, the essentialists who hate us.

    While being aware that there was something wrong with the ‘new feminist’ interpretation ( you hit the nail on the head, social and cultural concepts are real) the only idea I could come up with was that the self (as in philosophy) has a sex. This might even be worth pursuing further in the light of what you say – i.e. how the self becomes sexed – or gendered?

    Perhaps I should add that I cannot really discuss this with anybody as I do not dare to ‘come out’, I am simply frozen with terror by what I know about the psych procedures I would run into, and accordingly I lead a carefully maintained false life for more than ten years now. True, it is painful, but what the psychs would do to me is far, far worse than that, and considering that the ‘support organisations’ here are nothing but the psychs’ puppets there is nothing I can do about it.

    And this is the danger I see your concept of our gender Identity – with which, I repeat, I wholeheartedly agree – brings about. There is in my eyes the very real danger that it will empower psychs and sexologists even further. They will bring back reparative therapy, especially for children, and accuse parents (particularly mothers) of inducing gender dysphoria. If this sounds unlikely to you just google the German Alexandra case in which the city’s head sexologist claimed exactly that. If you review the history of psychiatry and psychology you see that they are capable of anything.

    I believe the ‘born this way’ brain theories will eventually take the place of the psychic disorder theories. For two reasons: as you say, they save gender essentialism, and additionally they are a way for political gender medicine to never have to face what they did and do to us, in these countries where this might be an issue, i.e. not here. They can call it ‘progress’ and claim that psychiatrist A, sexologist B and psychologist C made a mistake, alas, after A, B and C have retired as millionaires.

    There is a passge where you ask who cisgender people are to question your choice. Well – they are in power. They do as they please.

    But – I would write this in capitals if that would not be gross – after reading this I felt good for being trans for the first time in my life. I mean – realizing and knowing I am female feels good and right, or rather, it did before the sheer terror of the situation ate that. Reading this today I realized that I had always thought and felt that being trans was a curse, a guarantee for misery and pain save for those rich enough and pretty enough to pay and benefit from the Passing Industry. I was absolutely convinced that even in the unlikely case I could possibly survive the psych gauntlet the paranoid life of a recluse would be the very best I could aspire to. Now I can, and I will, re-think this, and although I do not believe it will change one jot regarding the actual situation I do believe I learned something about myself I did not realize before. For this please accept my heart-felt gratitude.

  15. Erica says

    It’s funny – its the tyranny of the language of neuroscience that make people think that if people use neuroscientific language to describe things, the thing it is being used to describe is the realist real thing possible. Also, the conflation with neurobiology and innateness – there is no organ in our body more able to completely change as a result of learning, culture and society. That something is neurobiology absolutely does not relate to how fixed it is. All our behaviour is, in some respect, a result of our neurobiology – but a lot of the specific ways our neurons are wired up are a result of learning and culture.
    i.e. a neurobiological cause hypothesis in no way justifies essentialism.

  16. the trans truth says

    Why not stop calling yourself trans and simply identify you gender and identity as female if that is what it is?

    • says

      Don’t fucking spam your tumblr on my blog, please.

      As for your question: Trans is simply a qualifying adjective. It doesn’t mean I’m not “simply” a woman. It just means I’m a woman who also has this other stuff going on; no different than describing myself as a white woman, an able-bodied woman, a Canadian woman, an underclass woman, a tall woman, a green-eyed woman, or an atheist woman. Those, like trans, are other aspects of me that may or may not be relevant in certain conversations. Unless you’re going to say that calling myself a “Canadian woman” means I’m hypocritical and undermines my gender identity and that I should just say “woman” even in conversations where my nationality is relevant, your point is nonsense. Sorry.

  17. C says

    Isn’t it possible though, that how you conceptualize “what is/what causes transgenderism/transsexuality” in general/beyond your own experiences depends on how you’ve actually experienced transition? I ask because of what you mentioned in the last few lines of your post, re: agency and choice. Because if your experience of transition has been largely positive, then viewing it in the context of asserting one’s agency seems almost tautological in a sense (to the degree that having agency is a positive thing, though I’m not sure when it wouldn’t be).

    But for me personally, transition has not really been such a great thing. Not because “being a woman” doesn’t feel “right” for me: it’s the exact opposite, actually! I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin. But partly because of the things that I left behind and have had a hard time regaining… contrary to to experiences of most trans people (at least seemingly), objectively, I had a great life pre-transition: I was good-looking, good at traditionally males activities like sports, a great student, had a large number of friends, generally well-liked by those I wasn’t really friends with, and most of all, a girlfriend who was amazing to the point where she almost got me believing in soul mates. It was all a moot point though, because the young man bestowed with all those great things was not who I was. But it wasn’t necessarily “social role dysphoria” for me, where I was forced to be an alpha male and that was the opposite of the girl I wanted to be, because the lady I am today is pretty similar to the guy I used to be. Except when being trans and having been poisoned by testosterone makes it ridiculously complicated or impossible.

    So I guess the reason why a strong biological cause to this phenomenon we all apparently share makes sense to me (other than the lack of another logical explanation for a phenomenon that has a long, established history in civilization and crosses pretty much every demographic/cultural delineation there is/was) is because otherwise there’s really no other reason for me to still be here, let alone have transitioned in the first place. It’s not simply because I want to validate my identity in the eyes of a cissexist society: it’s because it’s the only way to describe my experiences that makes sense to me.

    FWIW I don’t like the term “gender identity’ either, because whatever it is that constitutes “the reason I transitioned” has nothing to do with gender or how it’s constructed beyond the obvious restrictions that a gender binary establishes for people with certain bodies. But I don’t think that something like “brain sex” or “subconscious sex” absolutely MUST be a binary either, so to toss it out for that reason seems like tossing a straw baby out with the bathwater.

  18. SG says

    This essay sort of suggest the radical feminist dogma that gender is a creation of patriarchy intended to oppress women, and that the way to achieve equality is to eliminate gender. This leads to part of the trans-exclusionary radical feminists transphobia, as they claim that transition serves to reinforce gender (Of course, even if you buy that gender should be eliminated, this argument against transsexuality is self-serving and entirely lacking in empathy, as transition is necessary whether it reinforces gender or not).

    Natalie, can you explain where, in your opinion, the logic of radical feminist advocating the elimination of gender goes wrong?

    • Rowan says

      I’ll say it’s in the difference between compulsory elimination of gender and elimination of compulsory gender.

  19. FinlyErkenwald says

    Thank you!!!
    I have trying to formulate a framework for my thoughts about gender identity as well as gender roles being a type of social construct for quite a while (since everything we experience is through a lens of social constructs), leading to quite a merry-go-round experience in my mind that has lasted for weeks. And you understand about semiotics!


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