I want to have a discussion about gender, gender identity and transgender. This is going to be a long post, for shortening it would risk losing the nuance – something that is missing from most of these discussions.
1) A preliminary point before I start, people talk of a requirement for “lived experience” before one talks about these issues, or claim that “you cannot understand unless you feel it”. This point is legitimate but only when applied within its limit of applicability. There are two domains in these discussions. One is about feelings and the other is about facts. The domain of feelings is how it feels like to experience x or to identify as x. In this domain it is indeed the case that, unless you have felt it you don’t really know what it’s like to feel it. Moreover, everyone’s experience is different, so really no one can talk for another person as to how it is to feel a certain way. In this domain, then, no one should really speaking for others to say what it’s like to feel x. This domain is therefore one in which we cannot really have constructive discussion. I’ll therefore say nothing more about this domain.
The second domain is about facts: What defines gender? What is or isn’t natural and healthy? Etc. In this domain it is not experience that matters but knowledge. In fact, the very premise behind the scientific method is objectivity, meaning that it is the data that decide, not how one feels about it. In this post I shall confine myself to talking only about this domain. I will not talk about how it feels like to be x. Hopefully this preempt responses of the form “you don’t have the lived experience” etc.
2) Another preliminary point, discussions around these issues are often constructed as a false dichotomy: “you either accept all my claims about who I am, or else you are denying my existence.” Let it then be clear from the start that no one’s existence is being denied and no one’s rights are being denied. This post takes for granted that all humans deserve respect, safety, etc. Discussing the validity of certain identities does not mean that those holding these identities should be discriminated against, disrespected, or harmed. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but the unfortunate reality of how these discussions have been framed means that you cannot take it for granted that people will understand it that way.
3) A final preliminary point, the importance of this discussion. People often say “This is not your issue; why talk about this?” Here’s why: we live in a society with norms that we interact with daily and that affect us all. It is not the case that paradigm shifts in the understanding of gender affect only the people with these non-traditional gender identities. It affects everyone who has a gender and it affects everyone interacting with people with non-traditional gender identities. It is also something that is being pushed on everyone with campaigns and repercussions to those who don’t conform. It is absolutely a societal matter and society has every right to discuss it.
OK, I’m ready to start. In no particular order, here are some observations, questions and discussion points:
4) IDENTITY: there’s this mistaken belief that identity is that which you say you are. If you “identify as x”, then you are x. This claim is philosophically extremely suspect. Firstly, it is easy to make a reductio ad absurdum argument to show that in most cases where someone will “identify” as something, we will reject it. Whether I “identify” as a different race, or as a different species, nobody thinks twice before rejecting it. If I genuinely believe that I am that, then most people would recommend psychiatric help.
Secondly, that is simply not how identity works. Identity is a complex relationship between oneself and their environment and how they see themself relating to the society around them. It is not something that is fully internal between one and oneself. In order to be valid it has to have some external manifestations and people around you have to see you as such as well. For example, if you are a transwoman and you make an effort to be seen as a woman, to pass as a woman and to associate with womanhood, then there’s a case for your identity as a woman to be legitimate. However, if you are by all appearances a man, you behave like a man and make no effort to relate to your surroundings as a woman, then your insistence that you are a woman means nothing. You can’t “identify your womanhood into existence”. Identity is not some metaphysical or magical act of pronouncement “I now pronounce myself a woman”. It is a complex relationship between one and their social environment.
5) BEING BORN IN THE WRONG BODY: I wouldn’t even devote writing to this if not that I hear this claim so often. And there I thought that scholastic metaphysics was dead! What does it even mean for your body to be “right” or “wrong”? The only thing that you can say about your body is that it is yours. Unless you are some kind of radical dualist, believing that you metaphysically exist independent of your body, then there is no “you” who really “belongs” to another body. This is such a dodgy claim that I doubt that anyone with an understanding of philosophy 101 takes this claim seriously.
Perhaps what people mean to say when they make this claim is that they feel uncomfortable with their body, or that they would have preferred to have a different body. Perhaps individuals even feel intense pain about how their body looks. Perhaps they’d do whatever they can to alter their body. I have the greatest of sympathies with people who feel such pain, but it is not their body that is “wrong”. What’s at fault here is the way they relate to their body.
At this point I want to bring up another thorny issue regarding transgender: is it a mental disorder? The WHO has very recently removed it from being a mental disorder. I understand that that they moved the “transgender” category from mental disorder to sexual health. This may be as much a political as well as a medical decision. But here I want to think about just the feeling I described in the above paragraph, not being transgender as a whole. The feeling of looking in the mirror and hating your body and wanting to mutilate it or change it – whether this is because you think you are too fat, too ugly, or don’t like your body’s sex – this feeling is almost by definition a mental disorder. There’s no other way to describe such a painful relationship between one and their body. This shouldn’t be controversial either. There should be no stigma in having a mental disorder. I have one. I suffer from anxiety and depression and take daily medication for it. I think that the first step in trying to help people who are suffering mentally is to recognise that they have a mental disorder.
So how to help people who are suffering like this mentally? This brings me to my next point of discussion:
6) TRANSGENDER: I want to make a conceptual distinction here which will help articulate what I am about to say about this. I do not mean to claim that this distinction actually exist in real life. As I said, this is a “conceptual” distinction. To help with the following, I’m going to give these two concepts different arbitrary names: trans* and trans^. Here is what these concepts mean:
A trans* individual is someone who believes that sex and gender are distinct. They were born male and continue to acknowledge that they are male in terms of biological sex. However, they really feel more comfortable interacting with society as a woman. They like to do traditionally feminine things and to wear traditionally feminine clothes. They also interact with society as a woman and relate to others as a woman. In turn, others also see them as a woman. They identify as a woman. They’re a trans*woman.
The trans^ individual was also born male, but they were never comfortable with that fact. From as young as they can remember they always wished they’d get rid of their male parts. Their male body gives them intense mental pain. They tried acting like a woman, wearing women’s clothes etc, but their male body still causing them a lot of pain. They fantasise about when they can be a “real” woman with female body parts. They are a trans^woman.
Now I’m ready to make an argument here to distinguish the two. The trans*woman is by all appearances a healthy adult. They want to express their gender in a specific, unconventional way. That makes them a maverick, not someone who is unhealthy. More strength to them for defying societal norms! I say, live on with your life and your identity in whatever way makes you happy. Good for you!
The trans^woman, however, is clearly suffering and unhealthy. We can try to pretend that they have no mental disorder, but the reality of their constant mental suffering contradicts that. So let’s help them! How do we do that? Well, I can think of two possible options: the most straightforward one to me is therapy and antipsychotics. Like any mental disorder, we can try to help them in the way that we treat mental disorders like anxiety, depression etc. This seems to me like the most straightforward way, since this individual is clearly suffering from a mental disorder. If after treatment they still want to identify with their non-traditional gender, good for them. But let them do so without internal suffering!
The other solution that seems to me less reasonable, but more popular, is sex-reassignment. Individuals might feel that if they alter their body to conform to their mental image of themself then that would get rid of the pain. Now, whether or not this is an effective treatment for their mental anguish is an empirical matter. I am not going to say that I’m convinced that it works, but if it does then so be it. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the individual’s suffering.
The point to remember, however, is that, unlike the trans*woman, the trans^woman is not in a healthy mental state. Their being trans is not a mere matter of identity choice. It is them dealing with their intense pain. If transitioning does not alleviate that pain, then it is a sad mistake. This is an upsetting point to talk about. Their is so much political pressure to present as if sex-reassignment is the only treatment for gender-dysmorphia. How many people could be saved from costly and painful operations and life-long dependence on mediation if they’d try the route of therapy and antipsychotics?
7) GENDER-NON-BINARY: People often claim that gender is non-binary, or that they “are non-binary”. I am not going to discuss here whether or not that it is a legitimate position to hold. I just want to analyse the idea to see its implications. From what I understand, gender-non-binary theorists claim that gender isn’t a binary between “man” and “woman”, but is instead more like a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum you have the archetypal man and on the other side the archetypal woman and every real human fits in somewhere on this spectrum in terms of their gender expression and identity.
Now let’s analyse what this theory is committed to in order to be consistent. It is committed to the idea that some behaviours are inherently more masculine and some more feminine. If has to accept this otherwise, what does the spectrum consist of? Accepting a spectrum means accepting that some behaviours are closer to one side of the spectrum than others – meaning that some behaviours are inherently more masculine or feminine than others. I am not necessarily arguing against this view, but note how this claim is incompatible with the view that gender can be separated from gender roles and performance.
According to this view you cannot be a very masculine and butch woman, for being masculine puts you closer to the male side of the spectrum, thus stripping you of womanhood. Likewise, an incredibly camp, gay man would according to this view not really be a man, as they are closer to the feminine side of the spectrum. Some gender-theorists disagree, of course, and claim that your gender performance has no impact on what gender you really are. According to them you can of course be an effeminate man or a butch woman. In fact your manhood and womanhood is not affected by how masculine or feminine you are because these are only social constructions. There is nothing inherently unwomanly about being masculine, or unmanly about being feminine. Again, I’m not going to disagree with this position. I’ll just point out that this position is incompatible with gender-non-binary theory.
So you cannot have it both ways: you either believe that gender is non-binary, but then you have to accept that people’s performance – feminine or masculine affects what gender they are, or, more precisely, where on the gender spectrum you belong. Alternatively, you can believe that no performance is inherently masculine or feminine and that your manhood or womanhood does not depend on your gender expression. But in that case you have to see gender as something essential to the individual – perhaps their sex?
8) LANGUAGE: We often hear slogans, such as, “transwomen are women”; “Woman: adult, human, female”. Well, in reality, “woman” is just a two syllable sound that we make with our moths. Just like any other linguistic term, it has no inherent meaning and just means what it communicates to people. If you want to know whether or not transwomen or women, all that you have to do is go out and say the word ‘woman’ and see if people understand that to signify the class of females excluding transwomen, or the class of females including transwomen. Ascribing essentialism to language is a common fallacy. There’s nothing in the word woman that would either include or exclude transwomen. It all depends on how people understand the term. I would go as far as saying that transwomen are women on most campuses and or not women in many places off campus. It really does depend on the linguistic community you are associated with.
Another linguistic issue is the insistence on “inclusive” language, such as “people who give birth”, instead of women and “people with penises” instead of men. On the surface you’d think that this follows naturally from the belief that sex and gender are separate. Surely, if you can have men giving birth, then surely it is no longer a woman issue, right? Wrong! This is another language issue. There’s a big difference between saying “some men can give birth” (which is, depending on your view on the matter, plausibly true) and saying “giving birth is not a woman’s issue, but an issue of people with wombs” (which is most certainly false). Here’s why:
Just because we say that gender can be separated from sex does not mean that there is no correlation between them. It may be true that some women are male and that some men are female, but womanhood is still the default of females and manhood of males. This is not some accident of our cisnormative society. There are strong evolutionary, psychological and biological reasons for a correlation between femaleness and femininity and maleness and masculinity. Note, I am not saying that gender is biologically determined or that gender is biologically essential. What I am saying is that the two are closely correlated. It is isn’t arbitrary that most females are women and that most males are men. Outliers aside, I believe that, generally speaking, males are men and females are women.
One reason for why I insist that that is the case is because we still haven’t figured out a healthy and “natural” way of transitioning. Unlike being gay, that does not require hormone replacement, medication and surgery, transitioning is definitely not an easy or natural procedure. It is therefore not the case that some women just happen to be male and vice versa. Those males who are women have done so at great cost to their health, mental and physical. It can therefore not be regarded as the “natural” gender of their sex. I’d be happy to regard it as natural if transition would not involve so much mental and physical pain. In the meantime, I will insist that men and women are “naturally” divided into males and females respectively, acknowledging some outliers.
As an illustration of what I mean, polydactyly is the condition of being born with more than 10 fingers. According to Wikipedia 1 in every 500 births have this condition. Again, according to Wikipedia, 3 in 500 Americans are transgender. That means that being transgender is only 3 times as likely as having more than 10 fingers. And yet, no one (I hope!) would say that the statement “humans have 10 fingers” is false or uninclusive. We understand that we are talking about how people usually are. I’d say that we similarly need to understand that despite transgender people existing, it is still the case that we can talk about “women health issues” and “men health issues” and do not have to twist our tongues to deny that giving birth is something that women do. Again, that doesn’t mean that no man can do it, just that by the natural way of things it is something that women do and not men.
I’ll finish here for now. This should not be seen as some well-researched, flawless academic paper, but rather as a discussion starter with some considerations for certain positions. I am sure that there are some mistakes in this and I am happy to be corrected on them. Ultimately, no one ever discovers the truth all at once. It is a process of coming nearer and nearer to it, where on every step one discards some falsehoods that were there on the previous step. So please see this as me trying to make a step forward towards the truth, but by no means the last and final step.
People also say, “these are real lives you are talking about”. I know. That’s exactly why it is so important to talk about this. “Real lives” are equally affected when we don’t talk about things as when we do. Silence on the issue isn’t going to help these real lives, neither is bullying everyone into accepting a certain orthodoxy. I hope that I have shown nuance in this post and I sure hope that it is not meant personally because it was sure not intended as such. I am sure you disagree with me: please do so charitably and respectfully.