Lordamighty: PZ’s e-mailer’s errors

Back in the day men who wished to dress as women regarded themselves as being cross-dressers, or transvestites. What they never claimed to be was a ‘woman.’

This is fantastically wrong, and as the saying goes, fractally so. There are errors on a literal reading, errors the become apparent in context, errors implicit hidden in the spaces between words, errors with the steelmanned version of the statement, and errors with an interpretation that allows for nonliteral readings that translate farcically nonsensical and internally inconsistent cissexist approaches to writing about trans lives into meaningful assertions. Shall we have a go?

Let’s address the second sentence first. While its clear from context that the writer is wishing to make a point about the ontology of trans people (whether or not trans folk exist and what “being” trans means), it is correct on neither a literal level nor on the more generous interpretation abstracted from the words used. There is an implicit premise here that trans people are masculine or male trending toward feminine or female (commonly abbreviated “MtF”). But of course there have been many men who claimed to be women. Not trans people who claimed to be women, actual cis men. To escape a police warrant or a military draft, to play a joke, or for any of a million reasons, men have claimed to be women.

If we allow the very stupid and bigoted writing to take on another meaning less facially absurd we must understand that “men claiming to be women” is the author’s description of trans women. Qualified by the previous sentences “back in the day” this is an assertion that prior to some uncertain date trans women did not exist. If you’ve got the spoons and are seeking giggles, go ahead and ask them to name that date. It’s hilarious.

Unlike the second sentence which was wrong both literally and in context and abstracted (or steelmanned), on its face the first sentence is true, “men who wished to dress as woman” did sometimes in some places use terms like “cross-dresser” and “transvestite”. Of course the saving grace here is that “men who x did y” does not logically require that ALL men who x did y. If any two men who x did y, even if they never knew each other and lived in completely different eras, then “men who x did y” is technically true. So kudos there, I guess? But in its context this isn’t a claim that “at least 2 men” called themselves either cross-dresser or transvestite. In its context this is a claim that all men who desired to cross-dress called themselves by one or both of those terms. And that’s just laughably untrue.

Moreover, trans women are not a group of “men who wished to dress as women”. There is a vast category error here. The existence of oranges does not disprove apples. In their determination to cling to hateful, reductionist, and dismissive language, they’ve failed to properly state a claim about trans women at all. Clearly they would like us to believe that trans women did not exist until recently, but they are too staggeringly ignorant to make the claim in a way that even presents as true.

Let’s mention again that the writer dismisses the existence of FtM people implicitly: it does not even occur to them at any point in what they wrote to PZ that people society assigned to the role of girlhood might at any point in their lives lay claim to the roles of boyhood or manhood. That’s important because it is revealing of their cissexism, what many would call transphobia. Other assumptions in this bit of nonsense are as well, but we should not lose sight of the fact that in addition to the explicit claim that trans women never existed before some recent moment, there remains the parallel but implicit claim that trans men never existed before some recent moment. To think that the author is more hatefully contemptuous of MtF people than FtM people would be a mistake.

Having disposed of that, let’s examine “back in the day”. That period includes an awful lot of time to claim no black swans existed in, and we have quite a lot of evidence for black swans going back continuously for quite some time (and discontinuously for many centuries before that). Medical transition with modern, sterile surgical intervention is testified to for more than 100 years. This includes a subsequent identification with a gender not assigned at birth by both the surgical recipient and their society.

Prior to modern sterile surgical techniques, there were also similar cases in many societies. Some are not (permit me to be metaphorical) homologous, but merely analogous — persons who during life shift to a gendered role their society did not previously consider them to occupy, but which isn’t considered opposite to their previous genders in the way that woman and man are frequently considered opposites. (Wrongly and stupidly, of course, but still popularly so considered.) This included societies in which a person transitioned into a separate, sacred gender reserved for rare individuals. But there were also many societies in which a transition to an “opposite” gender occurred, which we can consider homologous (in our metaphorical way) to the category our delightfully cissexist writer asserts does not exist in the past.

The scholarship of persons such as  Ifi Amadiume and Will Roscoe (but don’t stop at just those two) convincingly demonstrate a variety of social understandings of gender that have included the possibility of transition to the opposite for at least several hundred years. Moreover, there is no reason to think that these phenomena popped into being the moment Western writers showed up in a location to record them.

Any argument you have with someone asserting that transition to the opposite (a term of art for the phenomenology, not an ontological concession that opposite is a factually correct description) did not exist until recently is certain to be with someone who was born not only long after transition to the opposite with associated modern medical intervention had become Western reality, but also someone who makes up facts rather than studies the science. Anthropology is clear: gender is multifaceted; gender roles are not generally binary (though they might be in specific, constrained local use cases) and gender expression, identification, and attribution are never so; and transition to the opposite is a long-attested fact.



  1. jenorafeuer says

    To think that the author is more hatefully contemptuous of MtF people than FtM people would be a mistake.

    Probably true; for most of these people, the core issue usually seems to be ‘my mental self-image depends on some aspect of this boundary that people are transgressing, and therefore they must be stopped so my mental self-image doesn’t feel threatened’. The actual direction of transition doesn’t really matter.

    That said, it’s still interesting that almost every anti-trans complaint focuses on MtF transitions and ignores FtM, and it speaks to the policing of ‘true masculinity’ that seems to be at the root of so much of transphobic, homophobic, and ultimately misogynistic belief.

  2. says

    Thanks for righting this. It’s confusing to read statements from transmisics where they can’t even state what they’re criticizing, but you do an excellent job breaking it down.

  3. says

    Glad to help, 183231bcb!

    it’s still interesting that almost every anti-trans complaint focuses on MtF transitions and ignores FtM, and it speaks to the policing of ‘true masculinity’ that seems to be at the root of so much of transphobic, homophobic, and ultimately misogynistic belief.

    Yes. While FtM people threaten many of the beliefs necessary to their sexist and misogynist world view, one important aspect is validated by FtM folks and invalidated by MtF folks: the twin ideas that masculinity is always to be preferred over femininity and maleness is always to be preferred over femaleness.

    In a world that worships masculinity, men, and their male bodies, a woman envious of manhood makes a certain sense. They can still twist FtM people as supporting a dominant masculinity. In their minds FtM people can never achieve manhood, and they’re delusional to think they can and it’s wrong of them to try. But at least they’re rejecting womanhood and embracing manhood, as is right and proper if you believe that manhood is awesome and womanhood is a 7th class status.

    But MtF people have apparently rejected manhood and embraced womanhood, and whether that appearance is true and uncomplicated fact matters little. Even the appearance of valuing femininity or womanhood over masculinity and manhood is a threat to masculine supremacy.

    For those devoted to upholding masculine supremacy, FtM people can be contemptuously dismissed as irrelevant, but MtF people must be publicly destroyed.

    Now, anti-trans hatred is more complicated than a mere byproduct of sexism. Even if it started as that, it has its own symbolic landscape now. And also masculine supremacy isn’t the only tenet of sexism. Masculine supremacy in a world of borderless gender leads to a world of 95% masculine men and only 5% women, regardless of biology. No, creating and enforcing borders is still a necessary component of sexism even if it is not a necessary component of misogyny. (One can imagine, for example, a gender fluid world where cis men and trans men alike hate the few people who assert themselves as women, and part of that hatred would be a contempt for not choosing to become more masculine, to become a man, given that this hypothetical society permits it. In this world, anti-woman hatred exists, but preventing gender border crossing does not.)

    So even if FtM people do not appear, on their surface, to invalidate the privileging and hyper-valuation of masculinity and manhood central to misogyny and men’s supremacy, they do quite obviously threaten a breakdown in the control of gender’s borders. Since that threatens the system of sexism, FtM people are hated by sexism’s devotees as surely as they are considered impotent nothing-persons by the devotees of masculine supremacy. And since the devotees of sexism and the devotees of masculine supremacy are sets with near 1:1 correspondence, they are still hated furiously by the same people who hate MtF people, but the contours and expressions of such hatred are indeed different.

  4. flex says

    I’m far more familiar with literature than I am with trans issues, so I normally keep my trap shut during these discussions and learn what I can. I but I can suggest an example from our earliest writings which demonstrates both the activity of men dressing as women (which has happened for millennia), and the implied superiority of masculinity (which I do not ascribe to).

    That is; In Homer’s Iliad, the description of Odysseus discovering Achilles hiding among the women.


    For a more historical review of non-standard people, I recommend the book Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell. published 2018

  6. cartomancer says

    flex, #4,

    Actually the story of Achilles on Skyros is found nowhere in the Iliad. The earliest version we have is found in the 1st Century BC Greek poet Bion of Smyrna, and the most complete version in the 1st Century AD Roman poet Statius (the Achilleid). The scene does seem to have been a popular wall painting theme in 1st Century Pompeii too.

    For my money the masculinising ceremonial presentation of Hatshepsut in the 15th Century BC is perhaps our earliest clear view of culturally significant gender fluidity of any kind. There are many more examples throughout history, some of which are detailed in Kit Heyam’s recent Before We Were Trans.

  7. Prax Mates says

    Julius Firmicus Maternus, attacking pagan cults in the 4th century, wrote that the castrated priests of Cybele “deny that they are men, and they are not women. They wish that they were believed to be women, but a certain aspect of the body attests otherwise.” Catullus wrote a poem a few centuries earlier about Attis, the mythological prototype of these priests, and has Attis say: “What form have I not been, what have I not performed? I a woman, I a young man, a youth, a boy….”

    Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, wrote in the 1st century BCE about two intersex persons who had been assigned female at birth, and later both identified male and underwent surgery to affirm their gender. Gratian and Huguccio, in the 12th century, discuss how intersex persons should be assigned their “prevailing sex” for purposes of canon law, and how this sex could be determined from a combination of bodily anatomy and voluntary lifestyle.

    It’s painfully obvious that there have always been people within Western civilization who were socially assigned to one gender at birth but identified as another. Even Christian historians and jurists who disapproved of them at least noted their existence.

  8. says

    Thank you, Prax! I was familiar with the clergy of Cybele, but I had no sources that I remembered that articulated a specific claim to womanhood. As far as I was aware before your post, they might have occupied a third gender. I considered mentioning them while I was writing my OP, but since my knowledge of them is scant, I decided to omit any reference lest I make a mistake.

    I shall remember your comment in the future when this topic comes up again (as it unfortunately but certainly will).

  9. Prax Mates says

    No problem, thanks for bringing up the topic!

    As far as I was aware before your post, they might have occupied a third gender.

    And many of them may have, of course, or identified as some other non-binary flavor. Maternus isn’t trying to accurately capture the diversity of gender identity among the Galli; he’s just arguing that good Christians should shun them.

    The Catullus poem fluctuates between grammatical genders even as it variously describes Attis as a man, a woman, or a false woman. It’s a compelling way of capturing their uncertain identity just after a traumatic self-castration…but again, it doesn’t tell us how the real Galli understood themselves. They certainly weren’t recognized by the state as women, despite the official recognition of the Cybele cult.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Prax Mates @ # 11: Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, wrote in the 1st century BCE about two intersex persons who had been assigned female at birth, and later both identified male and underwent surgery to affirm their gender.

    I fear to imagine what “surgeons” 21+centuries ago would do to claim that result.

    Sometime around that same period, from what I’ve read, young Jewish men, to avert jeers and worse in competition with traditionally-naked Greek athletes, somehow contrived to get new foreskins – ~100 generations before safe anesthetics or antibiotics. Trying to figure out how they did faked that leaves me both baffled and cringing in a fetal position; surely they must not have brought a good game to sexual or reproductive competitions.

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