We appear to be at an impasse: a strongly vocal sector of the trans lobby insists that one is simply the gender one identifies as being, while an ever louder association of feminists insist both that birth sex is inextricably linked to gender and that, in effect, gender isn’t something we can choose solely on the basis of our private mental content. By private mental content, I mean content that is inherently first-person in perspective and therefore not verifiable by anyone else. For someone to truly identify as a gender that does not match the one traditionally associated with their genitals, there must be mental content that signals the mismatch. Such signals are very probably of the common or garden ilk by which all of us identify with others: perceptions of a group’s central tendencies, particularly in terms of traits, preferences, proclivities and other behavioral characteristics.
Men and women are more similar than they are different. Gina Rippon has recently made much—though perhaps too much—of this convergence of psychological and neuroscientific findings. However, whatever the science indicates, the more pertinent facts here are the cultural stereotypes that a given society happens to have, however well- or ill-informed. People tend to have clear ideas of how girls differ from boys and women from men. If I identify as female but was born male, that could be because I identify with some set of perceived central tendencies in females that are less apparent in males (e.g. being emotionally expressive or sensitive), or with particular values or valences on perceived scales of characteristics (e.g. less aggressive, more agreeable). Consider the following as yet (to the author’s knowledge) unrealized possibilities:
- trans women who report feeling exactly how they imagine men would, liking what men like, behaving as men do, and having typically male dispositions, preferences and other characteristics, but nevertheless happening to be women
- trans women who assert being unlike cis women in every way other than identifying as women
My intention is not to deny the reality of being a woman to trans women, but to begin dialogue about what this actually means and how it might be realized by individuals. Since these matters are not self-evident, an account that takes us further than discussions of woman essence and experiences of sexism—or indeed simply stating that any inquiry is transphobic—might be a step in the right direction. Furthermore, no stereotypes are necessary. Individuals might simply abstract perceived differences between the males and females they happen to encounter. I am not attempting to define what it means to be a woman, but to suggest what it might mean for at least some trans women.
Let’s take a look at where this simple idea might lead. First, it would mean that trans women’s minds would, by definition, be different in predictable ways from those of men, because those minds identify with different sets of (values of) behavioral characteristics (which are stereotypically female). This implies that their brains would necessarily be different because mental content corresponds to (supervenes on) neural phenomena. In other words, any and all mental differences between individuals reflect neural differences, even if the particular neural correspondences differ from person to person (pedants might also consider the possibility that the neural phenomena are identical across two people with different mental content, but the correspondences between mental and neural themselves are different). Such neural differences might be hard to detect, though not necessarily (neuroimaging has revealed differences in Japanese people who perceive the sounds r and l similarly from those who can distinguish them).
Second, being transgender via identification with particular gendered characteristics would seem unlikely to be 100% genetically determined in a traditional sense, given the requirement for perceiving characteristics about others, which is environmental. However, this does not imply that it would be a choice, a whim or changeable. By analogy, one common misconception is that homosexuality is genetically determined. In fact, twin studies consistently estimate concordance between identical twins at under 50%, with the most rigorous ones tending to give considerably lower figures. However, few would claim that being gay is either a choice or a whim, even if apprized of the facts about its causes. There is, however, nothing incoherent about positing genetic influences on identification-relevant behaviors or predispositions, or even of genes ‘for’ identifying with a particular gender.
Third, identifying as because I identify with cannot be the whole story, because it seems manifestly possible for a boy to identify with all manner of female traits while simultaneously identifying as male. What remains in identifying as is not clear. Not all transgender people have dysphoria, but all report a sense of mismatch between their identified gender and their birth sex. A naïve model, then, would posit that transgenderism is characterized by a sense of mismatch between the set of other-gendered characteristics identified with one’s birth sex. However, this raises the question what drives the sense of mismatch?
There are various psychological theories relevant to mismatched mental contents, the most famous of which is Festinger’s 1957 notion of cognitive dissonance: there is psychological stress and discomfort involved in holding apparently contradictory mental content, such that people tend to seek to resolve the contradiction. To continue naively, then, some boys who identify with female traits—and who put a high personal value on these traits—will find this mismatch psychologically distressing and seek to resolve it by identifying as female. Although venerable and somewhat underspecified in its original form, the theory maps well onto much more recent neuroscientific research, which also suggests that the processes serving to reduce dissonance do not appear to be conscious rationalizations, but automatic processes that help to restore emotional balance, with the striatum and insular cortex consistently involved across studies.
This invocation of neural substrates does not exclude the possibility of cultural influences on the process, however: in fact, arguably, the more an individual viewed particular characteristics of themselves as gendered, the more likely they would be to have feelings of mismatch. One associated prediction: the less sharply an individual drew gender distinctions between personal characteristics, the less likely they would be to identify as transgender. Note that this is a prediction on the individual—not the societal—level, so we could not test these ideas by looking up the prevalence of transgenderism in different societies, varying in sharpness of gender distinctions. Instead, a longitudinal study, involving structured interviews with, say, biological males who were questioning their gender, might be the way forward. One prediction here would be that anyone identifying with a set of perceived female characteristics to which they assigned high value, who also assigned high value to birth sex for being female, would experience less sense of dissonance than someone who assigned low value to birth sex for being female and—we could tell from following up on participants longitudinally—would be less likely to ultimately transition. In other words, within the current framework, one would predict it to be relatively rare for a male to transition to female if he firmly believed that biological sex was a key determinant of gender for most people. Within the popular trans activist framework of just knowing your true gender, such a prediction would make no sense.
What, if anything, am I hoping that you take away from this essay? First, the definition of womanhood in terms of self-identification (a woman is someone who identifies as a woman (who is defined as someone who identifies as a woman (etc.)) need not be circular if one defines the identification as being primarily with perceived female personal characteristics. Second, some light might be shed on the impasse mentioned at the start: maybe, just maybe, people who identify as women are categorizing themselves in accordance with the set of gendered characteristics that they associate with themselves, with different values being placed on different characteristics, such as—importantly—birth sex. Finally, this allows us to view the impasse mentioned at the start of this essay as an understandable consequence of differing values placed on gender-relevant characteristics.