A (non-authoritative) post on Transgender Issues

There was a request in the comments that I do a post on Transgender issues in the same way I did a post on bisexuality for National Coming Out Day (which was followed by bisexuality Q&A and a post on queer political tactics).  I thought those posts prompted some pretty helpful discussion, so I’m glad to set up another opportunity to go over the basics, but this time I have to tag on some major caveats:

  1. I’m not trans (well, except transhumanist), so I’m not speaking from a place of personal experience.  I really recommend that if you’re trying to learn more about the trans movement or the trans experience, you check out some personal narratives online, because I’m just speaking with all the authority of reading and talking a lot.
  2. Err, remember that bit about my being bisexual?  Some bisexual people are attracted to both men and women and think of them as two sharply divided categories.  Some bi folks (including me) think of gender as something you do not something you are.  We see the whole thing as a bit of a blurry spectrum and aren’t that interested in how people choose to divvy it up into categories.  This tends not to be the position of most trans people.
  3. Err, remember that bit about my being transhumanist (and/or dualist and gnostic)?  My attitudes about the body as a flawed interface for the mind, something decidedly not sacred and acceptable to alter kinda mesh with the transgender perspective, but it’s probably outweighed by my apathy towards the body as intimately bound up for identity.

All that is mainly to say that if the transhumanist movement were looking for spokespeople, I wouldn’t be high on the list.  Let me just give a rundown of the basics, and I’ll try to recruit some friends to help out in the comments.

People who are transgender have a strong subjective feeling that their physical body and their self are mismatched.  Some people address this discrepancy by crossdressing privately, some people choose to publicly identify with the gender they ought to have, and may have gender reassignment surgery or hormone treatments to bring their mind and body back into harmony.

Surgery is one way to sync these systems up; it’s not a prerequisite for identifying as trans and not all trans people plan to transition medically.  No one is “not really trans” because they haven’t used medical or surgical means to change their body just as no one could be dismissed as not really having Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) just because they hadn’t amputated the offending limb.

BIID is one example of a different condition where someone is not at home in his or her body.  We take that connection as natural, so it’s hard to imagine how strange and upsetting it would be to have a constant feeling that part of your body was alien to you and hideously mismatched.  People who doubt the self-reports of trans people might be persuaded by a common apologetic argument in Christian circles.  The evidence for the sincerity of the martyrs lies in their martyrdom.  The evidence for the claims of trans people lies in the lengths to which they are willing to go to restore their bodies to they way they think they are meant to be.

Trans is a big category, and, because it’s tangled up in a broader fight about gender, there are a lot of conflicting perspectives inside the community.  There isn’t a canonical way to use pronouns, so check with the person you’re talking to.  The best default is using the pronoun of the trans person’s self-reported gender, not biological sex at birth.  That guideline applies even if you’re using the past tense and are talking about the period before a trans person was out or began any hormonal or surgical intervention.  Most trans people see their gender as constant; there is no period when a Female-to-Male trans person was female, just a period where a man presented as female to the outside world.  Some people eschew gendered pronouns altogether, and the burden is on them to let you know their preference.

An Albanian sworn virgin lives most of her life as a man, but is not necessarily trans

Gender presentation is complicated.  In the LGB community, there’s recreational crossdressing that’s disjoint from gender identity and there’s also a history of gender confusion and strategic crossdressing.  When queer people were invisible, if you’re female and strongly attracted to women, it might be hard to feel like you belong in the category of women.  In the modern U.S. you’d be less likely to have this problem.  Finally, people have crossdressed throughout history in order to enjoy the privileges of the opposite gender.  My favorite go-to example are the sworn virgins of Albania, but you can include all the women who passed as men to fight in wars, and plenty of others.

So, the TL;DR takeaway is: being trans is fundamentally about feeling like your biological body and your self are mismatched with regard to gender.  Crossdressing, hormones, and surgery are common ways people resolve this mismatch, but they’re not compulsory and are not exclusively used by trans folks.  Trans people are severely at risk for bullying, assaults, and suicide, due to intense stigma, isolation, and limited legal protection from discrimination.

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  • dbp

    Question: What is that trans people think it means to be (say) female that is independent of their biological sex? Presumably it isn’t something as simple as, e.g., being attracted to men as a biological male (because homosexuality is already a pretty well-understood concept).

    I mean, is it usually a physical thing– like, feeling that these genitalia don’t belong to me? Or, is it an attraction to things commonly associated with the other biological sex (like clothing or whatever)? Or, is it more a matter of self-identification primarily with members of the opposite biological sex, independent of things like sexual attraction?

    I guess what I’m saying is, the question of ‘self’ vs. one’s body is still not a very clear concept in my mind. Are we talking about people who are totally all over the spectrum I mentioned above and hence ungeneralizable (actually, I expect there’s someone somewhere with every possible combination of traits, but I’m speaking in terms of general rules), or are there dominant patterns? Are there other areas I’m missing? Is it common for a transgendered person to identify as a woman but also be attracted to women (considering themselves lesbians, I guess)?

    Heh, the number of question marks in this post should make it clear I’m still pretty foggy on this topic.

    • dbp

      Clarification of my question: when I say ‘is it more a matter of self-identification primarily with members of the opposite biological sex,’ one reading would be that of course this is what transgenderism is– it’s the very definition! What I mean by this specifically is, is it primarily a social phenomenon, where a person is defining themselves on the basis of which crowd they most comfortably and naturally feel they ‘fit’ in day-to-day interactions– as opposed to a matter of physical incongruity, sexual attraction, or personal interests in things like fashion or pastimes?

      • deiseach

        I’m confused on that as well, dbp. I can see and agree with the idea that there isn’t a list of behaviours and attitudes that mandate “Women are (or should be) like this and men are (or should be) like that“, but when does feeling that “I’m not like the way society says a girl/boy should be” tip over into “I’m really a girl/boy not a boy/girl”?

        When do you decide – if you decide – that the problem is not being a woman who isn’t interested in make-up and clothes and getting married to Prince Charming, even if the ideal notion is of pretty in pink, but that really you’re a man in a body with the wrong attributes? I speak as a girl who was never very girly and to this day, I have never – for example -worn lipstick (did the usual ‘playing around with Mother’s makeup’ as a child, absolutely hated the feel of the stuff on my mouth, never used it). I’m not even going to go into being same-sex attracted, because that’s a different kettle of fish and would only complicate the question, but how do you know or what is so alien about the identity one has been given?

        I’m thinking of things like Leah posted about the Girl Scouts allowing a seven-year old boy to join; isn’t seven awfully young to be so certain about what and who you are? Or am I the only person out there who ever wanted to be a boy when she was told “Girls can’t/shouldn’t do x, y or z” (especially when puberty hit and all of a sudden things I used to do were no longer permissible for no good reason I could see), yet I’ve settled down in myself now for good or ill and really, I’m glad I’m not a boy?

        Particularly when we’re talking about parents seeking medical intervention to prevent puberty in children at very young ages? If a ten, eleven or twelve year old isn’t deemed capable of informed consent or of living as an adult, why postpone puberty which I can only think involves a lot of interference with the workings of the body which may have unforeseen long-term effects?

        If a fifteen or sixteen year old said “I’m the wrong gender”, I’d be more inclined to listen than if it’s a seven or ten year old. I know young children can suffer unhappiness and be distraught, and it’s not good enough to say “Oh, this is just a phase”, but things like such massive interference at such young ages do disturb me.

        • leahlibresco

          I think it’s a hard decision for a parent to make. There are some kids who look like they’re really far out on the certainty spectrum and then a lot where it’s a very difficult judgement call. There’s usually a lot of screening before doctors consent to treat children, and I’d hope they’re doing a good case-by-case job. I’d defer to the judgement of people in this field for now, since I don’t trust myself to come up with a good general rule. In the future, the recommendations of doctors will be better due to the data they’re getting now.

        • Preface: I am not a fan of sheltering children. You can have an argument about whether your four-year-old needs a coat when it’s 40 degrees out a hundred times, and you will still have the argument next time. Let her go without the coat; if she’s cold, you will never have the argument again, and if she’s not, what was the argument about in the first place? (Clearly, this does not extend to things that would pose an actual danger — say, it being twenty below — and that threshold is subjective in a lot of cases, but discomfort is a very effective teacher.)

          In my opinion, you should let your child develop the way they want to develop. If a male-born child wants to grow their hair out, wear a dress, play with barbies, and (most tellingly) be called a girl’s name and referred to as “she,” you should let them. If that child shows apprehension at growing up to be a man, let them go on testosterone blockers before they hit puberty — these medications can be stopped and puberty will ensue normally at any time.

          It’s quite nebulous to try and define what separates the butch woman from the transman. The answer is pretty much “because the person says so.” Thinking of gender as binary doesn’t help with this, it’s a continuum. There are people who feel that they are neither gender, but are comfortable with the sex they were born with (like myself), referred to as genderqueer. There are people who are neither gender and prefer to present as androgynous or the opposite sex, also generally called genderqueer or trans-genderqueer. There are people who feel that their mental gender matches their parts, and we refer to these people as “cisgendered” (to avoid the potential implications of trans* not being okay if we just referred to them as “normal” or something). And there are people who feel their gender and sex are in conflict, who may present as the opposite sex, undergo sex reassignment, present as andrygynous, or whatever; it’s a very personal choice.

          You’ll notice I used the word “feel” a lot. That’s because that’s really the only way to define it — how someone feels. For some people, it may break down more specifically, but in general, it’s just “I am a man in a woman’s body” or vice versa.

          Also, yes, transsexuals can be gay too. I know a very lovely lesbian couple who are both transitioning to female, and I heartily applaud you for making the division presumably on your own, because too many people see transgenderism as just “more extreme” homosexuality. It sucks because it can lead, for example, to a gay transman being told he’s just a severely confused straight woman, which is just more crap he’s going to be putting up with for trying to be himself.

          • deiseach

            “these medications can be stopped and puberty will ensue normally at any time”

            Well, you see, that’s the part that I’m dubious about. I don’t know if giving doses of drugs to halt puberty has been going on long enough or in large enough numbers to know all the possible side-effects, particulary in the long-term.

            I also wonder about the effect on psychological development; I have two nephews, one aged nearly fifteen and the other nearly twelve. There is a distinct difference physically even in three years, and if – in the example of this child – puberty is stopped at ten until, for example, a decision is made at fourteen or fifteen whether to permit puberty as a male or start hormone treatment for female developement – in the meantime, this child is chronologically fourteen or fifteen but physically ten. She (to use the preferred pronoun) is not developing like the boys her peers, but neither is she developing like the girls. She may not have her voice broken, but neither is she growing breasts and beginning to menstruate. How will she deal with being the ‘little kid’ in a class of her age-peers who are changing physically from ten onwards?

            I don’t think that seeing a boy, for instance, playing with dolls or preferring cookery lessons to playing sports is a reason for “OMG, he’s going to turn out to be a sissy unless we toughen him up!” but neither do I think it a reason to say “Little Johnny is really little Jenny.”

            It’s hard to know, as even that condensed story hints at a lot of other problems and difficulties in the background, and I do see that the adoptive parents are doing what they consider best. But I’m dubious, as I said, about this kind of massive medical interference at such a tender age, when the body is developing in a myriad of ways not confined to just secondary sexual characteristics.

          • Kristal

            Testosterone blockers once taken for an extended amount of time do damage to the testies and they may or may not function properly. Once hormones cause physical changes (such as secondary sex characteristics ie breasts or a beard) they are not able to be undone unless by surgery or permanent hair removal. This is one of the reasons for the Harry Benjamin’s Standards of Care. I know because I am a Transgendered Male to Female person. For myself it was a matter of feeling as though my whole inner being or sense of self was in complete conflict with the main and secondary gender characteristics of my birth gender of male.
            When it comes down to the reasons that one feels as though they are transgendered as all humanity is diverse so too are the reasons transgendered feel as though they are transgendered.

    • leahlibresco

      I like Joe’s formulation, but, as to the specifics: it is a spectrum. Some trans people feel disgust for the genitals they were born with or completely disassociated from them. Kind of the way you might feel if you woke up with a third arm.

      There are trans people who also identify as gay (i.e. a biologically female at birth person who identifies as male and is attracted to men), so you’re right that the sense of disjointedness doesn’t necessarily spring from attraction.

      • dbp

        If I woke up with a third arm, I’d embrace it with my other two arms, no question. Stupid two-armed-ness is already hampering my efficiency, making a living at a keyboard…

        But anyway, it sounds like what you’re saying is that there’s not necessarily a consensus on what specifically it is that makes the self and the body so incompatible. That makes Joe’s formulation true, but not necessarily useful: I’m doubting most people would associate all the same things with ‘substance’ and ‘accidents’ as St. Thomas, or with each other for that matter.

        And that’s fine, I guess. I was only asking because the whole thing sounded very nebulous, and it seems that is because it’s nebulous in reality and not just in my understanding.

        However, the kind of disgust you talk about is a little troubling to me. I’m no expert on any of these topics, but I’ve heard those with eating disorders often feel a similar kind of disgust or revulsion either for their bodies as a whole or for food; but in those cases, we generally accept that these are people who need help, not accommodation. In the case where transgenderism is primarily an involuntary response to a physical fact, how is it different from these situations?

        Honest question, by the way; I’m not in debating mode, just learning mode here.

        • leahlibresco

          Welcome to the transhumanist movement, dbp! I applaud your flexible definition of your body!

          On your actual point (and really really speaking only for myself, not the trans movement) I think one reason people find body-revulsion in the content of trans people more acceptable is because those people are trying to cleave to a generally accepted category. People with BIID or eating disorders are trying to change their body so that is outside the standard human model, so, even aside from the health risks, we see it as a privation. Also, obviously, the health risks of eating disorders are obvious and clear. The better analogue might be tightlacers, who can change their bodies safely, provided they are prudent.

          • dbp

            OK, I can’t let the transhumanist thing pass. Enter thread derailment mode. 😉 I’ve commented on your transhumanist inclinations in the past, and I’m not entirely opposed to every conceivable formulation of the idea, just as (as a Catholic) I’m not opposed to every conceivable formulation of the idea of humanism.

            As a software engineer, I’m very familiar with the idea that the implements we use can can be integrated operationally into what our actions in pretty amazing ways, even without physically connecting things directly to our nervous systems. Any time I get totally wrapped up in work, my mouse and keyboard end up being nearly practical extensions of my body. (It doesn’t hurt when my keyboard breaks, to address one possibly objection, but it also doesn’t hurt when my hair is cut or my fingernail breaks– at least not as long as it’s just the nail.) As a general rule, I don’t see anything wrong with this. I would imagine people have been developing this relationship with tools ever since we started using them.

            Similarly, if I suddenly grew an arm, I would take it as a gift (or a challenge) from God, and, yes, try to live with it appropriately, assuming it was in fact a “natural” third arm (with normal mechanical integration with the rest of my body). So, to that extent, I’d say I’m fairly flexible in my definitions.

            However, I think we would disagree in several fundamental ways here. First, I would never consider a tool with as much reverence as my natural body: I may consider it more important (say, in the case of a critical, life-saving implant) than, say, my own fingernails, but I would consider my fingernails possessing of some inherent (though perhaps only a very little) inherent dignity in what it is, as opposed to what I get from it.

            Second, although I would accept an arm that I woke up with, I wouldn’t necessarily take action to procure one if I could. Again, if it’s a gift, I’ll take it whether it’s useful or not; but even if it’s useful I might think twice before surgically attaching one. (Not to say I’ve decided definitively I couldn’t approve of this; just that it bears more careful moral consideration.)

            Third, regardless of the foregoing, you and I might differ in what we call transhumanism. Like I said, humans have been making tools and using them practically as bodily extensions forever, and I see it not so much as ‘transhuman’ as simply ‘human.’ And that is the most important point. I can accept ways in which we create tools and other things to augment or embellish our bodies to correct defects or enhance effectiveness, as long as we do so in accord with and respect for our God-given human nature and ingenuity. I would reject (out of caution and humility) anything that strives to lay aside or surpass our God-given human nature. Where the line should be drawn is, of course, an open question.

            Thus ends my transhumanist tangent.

            Back on topic, I understand what you’re saying, but still have some serious reservations about it. What objective criteria do you use to distinguish one form of body-revulsion from another? “Generally accepted category” is pretty significantly up for debate in this instance, since the category in question will never (as commonly considered) naturally contain the trans person, even after surgery, because they are still trans and not simply ‘male’ or ‘female.’ That, and it’s not clear why that a “generally accepted category” should be normative anyway.

            I don’t know enough about the health issues involved to argue, but it would seem to me that body-revulsion represents a mental health issue no matter what– not because I am here contradicting the assertion that the transgendered person is the gender they say they are, but because I don’t think body-revulsion should be a part of any person’s psychology. We can discuss whether sexual reassignment surgery is acceptable another time; but if it is, it seems to me it should be the result of careful and rational consideration, not an irrational (or pre-rational, if you prefer) revulsion that compels me.

            Please note this is an argument of principles and ideals, not a judgment of particular cases or people. Sometimes life doesn’t give allow for the ideal, and then you need to fall back on licit workarounds, which in this case I’m not going to discuss.

  • Joe

    Aquinas might say their substance and accidents are mixed up.

    • dbp

      If you were responding to me, I understand that in principle. That general statement doesn’t lead to much more clarity, though: how do they spot the fact, and which gender-specific qualities fall on which side of the line, and how far does it go, and so forth?

      • Joe

        I didn’t intend to respond to you I was just trying to understand transgender people in the friendliest possible way. I was just thinking out loud. Sorry

  • Joe

    Just an observation

    In my earlier comment I eluded to some eucharistic theology about substance and accidents and related it to transexuals. Im not sure that was a good understanding or not but reading other comments it made me think of something ironic. When Catholics tell atheists or unbelievers in general about Christ in the Eucharist they think we’re crazy or stupid for believing it and demand empirical evidence. In response we tell them there isn’t any, its metaphysical and try to explain it from there but most of all we believe it on Christ’s word. The irony is that when a Transgender person expresses their belief that they are the opposite gender it is the Catholics that ask for empirical evidence. The transgender person can give some psychological(metaphysical maybe) reasons for how it works, but ultimately (as Carly points out)we have to take their word for it. Theology and humanity blow my mind sometimes.

    • This is a very astute observation and (speaking for myself only, anyway) a very apt comparison. Really, you can apply it to all mental health; there are no blood tests for bipolar disorder, there isn’t a machine to detect depression. At some point, it comes down to believing that most people are not destructive attention seekers, and sometimes a person needs help.

      • deiseach

        Though in a way, you could say that the feeling transgendered people have of their internal identity and their physical body not matching up throws an interesting light on the question of “is the mind independent of the brain?”

        If you are in a functioning body of a particular sex (the inter-sexed are a different category with their own challenges), and your body and brain are ‘bathed’ in the hormones for that gender, and there doesn’t appear to be any genetic component (I’m drawing on the argument about the supposed ‘gay gene’ and the putative influence of the environment in utero on brain chemistry in the developing foetus, so that allegedly, exposure to or lack of testosterone/oestrogen at the appropriate developmental stage influences sexual orientation), then how do materialists (for one) explain the disconnect between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ of gender identity in these cases?

        • Joe

          I wish I had an answer for you. But I will say this its a strange world when your supposed enemies become your philosophical metaphysical friends!!

  • Joe

    Whenever I think of these issues it reminds me of that short story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”