What I believe about sex and gender: part 3

Trans issues and gender identity

18. While we will all experience unease and discomfort living under the constraints of gender to a greater or lesser degree, some persons experience this especially intensely and acutely, to the extent that they cannot tolerably live in the gender role associated with their biological sex. Further, a small percentage of persons experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be more accurately labelled sex dysphoria or sex dysmorphia, as it is a form of acute distress and discomfort caused by the experience of living in their sexed bodies. Although biological sex is immutable, residing in our chromosomes and expressed in physical and anatomical features, it is possible for persons with dysphoria to undergo treatment to make their bodies more closely resemble those of the opposite sex, and to enable them to live more easily in the gender role associated with the opposite sex.

19. Whereas the label “female” refers to a biological category, membership of which is fixed at birth and hence unalterable, the label “woman” refers to a social category. Being a woman is not so much a matter of having female biology, as it is a matter of being read as a person who has that biology, and being treated accordingly. What it means to be a member of the social class ‘woman’ is that one is read by others as female, and is treated in accordance with the gendered rules that prescribe feminine passivity and submission to members of the female sex class. The vast majority of persons occupying this class do so because they have female biology and so were inculcated into this class from birth, through the process of gendered socialisation. However, given that woman is a social rather than a biological category, it is therefore possible for biologically male persons to transition into the role of woman. Since being a woman is primarily a matter of being socially read and treated as female, it is possible for persons born male to undergo a process of transition, at the end of which they will be read and treated as female, and hence are women. This may or may not involve medical treatment in the form of hormone treatment and surgery. But what it will necessarily be is a process of social transition, which will involve, among other things, confronting and addressing the privilege that comes with being raised male and living as a male for a period of time. What such a process will involve and how long it will take are difficult and complex questions that will vary from case to case, and there is no simple or universal answer. But once such a process has been completed, those persons now occupy the category of woman, and it is appropriate and respectful to refer to such persons using feminine pronouns.

20. While it is possible to transition to the role of woman, this cannot be achieved by a simple act of will or performative utterance. The mere fact of “identifying as a woman”, feeling like a woman, believing one is a woman, or declaring “I am a woman”, on their own are insufficient to make one a woman. To be a woman is to occupy a social role and to be viewed by others as occupying that role, and therefore no subjective mental state is sufficient to make one a woman; becoming a woman is not a mere matter of “identifying as a woman”. If you are called Simon and “present as male“, then the mere fact that you identify as a woman, which presumably means simply to have some sort of feeling or belief in your mind, will have no bearing on how anyone views you, and thus you will continue to be treated with the respect and deference that it usually shown to men.

21. There has been on the left a general shift away from class based politics and structural analysis of oppression, and towards an individualistic politics whose primary demands are for the recognition and validation of identities. In conjunction with this shift, recent discourse on trans issues has moved away from the language of transsexuality, which defined transsexual people in terms of the experience of dysphoria, and towards the notion of talking about transgender people, who are defined in terms of their “gender identity“. This significantly broadens the category of people who now refer to themselves as trans. Many people who now self-define as trans may not experience any dysphoria at all, may have no desire to modify their bodies in any way, and may have no intention of ever engaging in a process of transition to live in the gender role associated with the opposite sex. What this means is that being trans is now entirely a matter of self-definition and self-identification.

22. “Gender identity” is described as “someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman“, or “a person’s private sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender”. These definitions are vague and unclear, and so it’s not easy to get a grasp on exactly what it is that is being posited in talk of gender identity. One crucial feature of gender identity, as posited by its proponents, is that it is considered to be entirely independent of both biological sex, and of gendered socialisation. So the claim is that persons have an internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or something else entirely – more on this in point 28) that hangs free from, and can be explained and described without reference to, both their physical bodies, and their experience of being socially read and treated as a person with such a body. It is this that explains how a person can come to identify as a woman despite having a male body, and despite having been raised as male and having lived as a man. If you are transgender, then your “gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex [you] were assigned at birth”. it is claimed that everybody has a gender identity, so that if you are not trans, then you are cisgender, which means that your gender identity is aligned with the sex typically assigned at birth. (I have written before about my discomfort with the label cisgender, which I feel does not accurately describe me, nor many other women I know.)

23. Given the free floating nature of gender identity, it’s very unclear what kind of a property or mental state it is purported to be. If by “gender identity” what is meant is a strong feeling or conviction that one’s personality, dispositions and preferences are more closely aligned with the gender norms for one sex over those of the other, such that one can survive and flourish more comfortably in that gender role, then it is plausible to suggest that everybody has a gender identity. However, the term is generally used in ways that suggest something much deeper and more fundamental than this. Gender identity seems to refer to some quasi-metaphysical property or essence that is fixed, unchanging, and may not be challenged. An individual’s professed gender identity is an essential, sacrosanct part of their identity, and must be believed and respected without question.

24. This notion of “gender identity as essence” has troubling implications. The unclarity about what kind of a property it is, and its inherently entirely subjective nature, means that the doctrine of gender identity becomes unfalsifiable. Positing the existence of a gender identity is thus equivalent to positing the existence of a soul or some other non-material entity whose existence cannot be tested or proved. If we wish to avoid this implication, the only option is to make a claim for the objective reality of gender identity and to try to search for its material basis; and then we come perilously close to positing the existence of gendered brains, and suggesting that people can be born with a brain belonging to one sex but with the primary and secondary sex characteristics of the other sex. I am not qualified to pronounce on the validity of these claims, having no scientific training and very little knowledge of neuroscience. But feminists have long been suspicious of any attempt to argue for the naturalness of gendered traits and dispositions, as these arguments are so frequently invoked to justify women’s social and political subordination. (I acknowledge my own scientific limitations here, but like any good feminist, I recommend those who are inclined to believe in the existence of ladybrains to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender).

25. If we take an individual’s self-declared gender identity as the sole necessary and sufficient condition for membership in a gender class, the result is that the meaning of the word “woman” is reduced to a subjective mental state, to a feeling in a person’s head. The only answer to the question “what is a woman?” becomes “a person who feels like a woman”. But this is an entirely circular definition that tells us nothing about what a woman is. The purpose of language is to convey shared social meanings. If a word means something different to every person who uses it, and they cannot explain to others what they mean when they use that word, then it means nothing. If the word woman is defined as “someone who thinks they are a woman”, then the word woman becomes meaningless, and can no longer be the name of anything. The political implication of that is that women as a class disappear. This also leads to absurd and profoundly objectionable conclusions such as the one linked to in point 20, where someone raised as male, living as male, presenting as male – in other words, a man – can suddenly insist he is a woman and be allowed to speak over and on behalf of those who have been living as women and been socialised as women since birth. By insisting that being a woman is nothing more than a feeling in a person’s head, the notion of gender identity erases and invalidates the experiences of both biologically female women and transsexual women. Both biologically female women and transsexual women should resist the idea that womanhood is nothing more than a state of mind, a feeling in a person’s head, evidenced only by a performative utterance, because such a position has the effect of eradicating the existence of women altogether.

26. The fact that it is possible to move from one social group to another itself is evidence of the fact that the individual is undergoing a process of transition from membership of one group to another. It does not occur instantly, through a simple act of will, and nor does it become retrospectively the case that, having decided to transition, the person was somehow “always a woman“. It makes no sense to say that someone who transitions to live as a woman after living a certain number of years as a man has “always been a woman“; if that were so, there would be no reason to embark upon physical or social transition. It makes even less sense to say, as has frequently been said, that a trans woman’s body is female and has always been female, just because it is hers and she “identifies” as female. As already noted, the word “female” refers to a biological category that one cannot identify or transition one’s way into. And further, if one’s body were already female, there would be no reason to modify it in any way. It is the fact of sexual dimorphism and the anatomical differences between the sexes that creates the need in those with dysphoria to modify their bodies. Trans women have male bodies, which they may choose to modify to resemble more closely female bodies. And trans women were raised as boys and often lived as men, and will have to undergo a social transition from that role to the role of woman. It is therefore clearly absurd, once a person comes out as trans, to insist that we must now believe that they have always been a member of the class into which they are moving. If Kellie Maloney, who transitioned at age 60, has always been a woman, then the word woman becomes meaningless, as it refers to literally anything and everything a person wants it to refer to. And her efforts to live as a woman and pass as a biological female become incomprehensible, because unnecessary.

27. For those who subscribe to the notion of gender identity – and in contrast to the radical feminist analysis – gender is not inherently oppressive. While radical feminists consider that gender is inherently oppressive because it is a system that embodies a hierarchy of male over female, man over woman, masculine over feminine, for the proponent of gender identity there is nothing oppressive or restrictive about gender norms in and of themselves. Hence there is often resistance to the radical feminist critique of femininity as submission and subordination, because the person who believes they have a feminine gender identity may enjoy performing and enacting femininity, and so resents being told that this is an expression of female weakness and passivity.

28. So for many of those who endorse the idea of gender identity, the oppressive thing about gender is not that it is a hierarchy; it’s that it is a binary. Once you detach the notion of gender identity entirely from both biological sex and gendered socialisation, there is in principle no reason to limit the number or genders that are purported to exist to just two. Hence the emergence of individuals identifying themselves as “non-binary” or “genderfluid”, some of whom claim to variously experience “male shifts” and “female shifts“. We now have fifty-six different genders recognised on Facebook, though if you go roaming through the wilds of Tumblr you will find many, many more, along with a whole range of special pronouns. The logical question to ask the proponent of gender identity as a spectrum is: how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? And the only consistent answer that can be given to that question is: 7 billion. We would have to acknowledge that each individual can have their own unique gender identity. But if there are 7 billion different genders, a unique one for each of us, then it’s not clear that it makes any sense, or adds anything to our understanding, to call this “gender” at all. Gender is a system that ties certain desirable personality traits and behaviours to reproductive function. As soon as we detach these traits, behaviours and forms of appearance from biological sex, what we have is simply human personality, in all its variety and complexity. For this reason, every single one of us is non-binary. None of us is a walking gender stereotype. Gender is not just the name we give to the set of tastes, preferences, and dispositions that an individual happens to have. It is a system that ties biology to personality and behaviour, and puts people into pink and blue boxes according to the set of genitals they possess. The solution to that is not to create ever more boxes, nor to allow that some special non-binary individuals get to be gender revolutionaries who are able to move between the boxes at will, while the rest of us must stay put, and are told that we like it that way. The solution is to get rid of the boxes – to abolish gender altogether.

(Part 1 is here; part 2 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here; part 6 is here.)