Identifying As or Identifying With? Transgender Identity

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.

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23 comments

  1. Our innate sense of other people’s genders is based on recognition of secondary biological sex characteristics. As children, we learn to distinguish boys and girls by how they present themselves in terms of hair and clothing, but that doesn’t mean that these superficial features are what define them as boys or girls. They are only placeholders until we reach sexual maturity and the true distinctions manifest themselves. An adult male presenting as a female in terms of clothing, etc. is generally instantly recognizable as male unless he has undergone surgeries to mimic female secondary sex characteristics. Recognition of sex is not “I know it when I see it.” It can be precisely and objectively defined.

    I don’t believe in the concept of innate gender identity. I’m a male with a more traditionally feminine personality, but I present myself in a traditionally masculine way (men’s clothing, short hair) simply because I don’t want to draw attention to myself when going about my daily business and especially because I want to be as attractive as possible to females. I don’t obtain any particular satisfaction from wearing these clothes and presenting myself in the manner that matched my sex for the society in which I live. If women would be more attracted to me if I wore dresses, I would wear dresses. I also have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I fully recognize to be a psychological disorder and irrational, even though it is still completely true that I have the lived-experience of feeling strong anxiety for completely illogical reasons. I don’t expect society to validate my irrational fears nor consider other people to be hateful towards me for failing to do so. Likewise, if I held the irrational belief that I had the wrong body for my intangible feeling of innate gender, I would not expect the whole of society to redefine (or more accurately to eliminate all definitions of) biological terms fundamental to the propagation of our species in order to cater to my psychological disorder.

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    1. “I don’t believe in the concept of innate gender identity.” I can’t imagine the arrogance that it takes for a person to think “you know, I see colors, not smell them. Therefore, people who smell colors are illogical, and I disagree with the concept of synesthesia.”

      You can’t logically or quantitatively deconstruct other people’s minds. “Disagreeing with the concept of innate gender identity” doesn’t actually mean it doesn’t exist. It just means YOU don’t understand or accept it’s reality. Honestly people like you make me believe that human beings do not have the emotional or intellectual maturity to investigate these experiences properly.

      Do you know what you sound like?

      “If I smelled color, I wouldn’t except society to accept the reality of my experiences.” Really? And exactly how do you know that? You think you can simply substitute YOUR IDEA of the experience, separate that from the self-attributed meaning (an integral component to the overall experiential complex) and just substitute YOUR OWN MEANING, which you acquired not from the experience itself, but again from YOUR IDEA OF IT, and call this a sound or even remotely meaningful observation??

      And please, stop distorting the record. Transgender people have never said that male is female, anymore that synesthetic people have claimed that the eye is the nose. Only that there are different ways to experience being female or male, as there are different ways of experiencing color or sound.

      Also I categorically reject the position that smelling color invalidates the experiences of people you see color. Also, synesthetic people don’t claim those experiences are necessarily the same. This is to preempt comment in this regard.

      1. John,

        Not sure why the anger and personal attacks are needed. Actually I have very low self esteem so I don’t think the accusation of arrogance is appropriate. I am a scientist, though, and as such am interested in objective reality.

        People don’t smell colors. Smell is when chemicals bind to receptors in the nostrils and transmit a signal via neurons that is processed by the brain. If some people have the area of their brain that normally responds to smell activated in response to visual signals, that is not the same as smelling. It is a neurological disorder of some sort. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but it isn’t the same as smelling. Anyway synesthesia seems like a bad analogy for transgenderism. It’s not illogical. Smelling and seeing are both senses that people experience, they just get crossed somehow in synaesthetes. But there isn’t a sense of being a certain gender. Brain studies can objectively demonstrate visual and olfactory responses, but they don’t support the idea that there are particular brain functions associated with being one sex or the other. There are general trends in differential brain structure and activity between the sexes, but there is a great deal of overlap. Many women have more masculine-typical brain structures, and vice versa.

        Neither my personal experience nor the available scientific evidence support the idea of people having some innate sense of gender identity. I believe that body dysphoria is real, as people would not go to such great lengths to alleviate it if it weren’t. That doesn’t mean it’s the same phenomenon as a hypothetical situation in which a completely psychologically normal woman’s brain somehow simply wound up with a male body and she experiences extreme psychological discomfort as a result of this. This hypothetical situation is nonsensical because the evidence shows that psychologically normal women and men do not have categorically distinct brain structures. The only categorical differentiators between males and females are their primary and secondary sex characteristics. If a hypothetical experiment could be performed in which the brain of a female fetus were transplanted into the body of a male fetus, the available evidence does not suggest that this individual would experience body dysphoria later in life as a result. Putting it simply, you can’t have the wrong brain for your body. Body dysphoria must therefore result from some other neurological phenomenon/phenomena. If people with body dysphoria feel like they have the mind of the opposite sex, that’s a real and unfortunate feeling that they have which seems to cause great distress, but it doesn’t mean that they actually have the mind of the opposite sex, because there is no such thing as having the mind of the opposite sex. I could not say that a male person in such a situation was actually a woman without being intellectually dishonest. It’s just objectively not true. If it were objectively true, I would say that. I have no personal reason to not want that to be true. I am not attacking anyone here.

        1. Ok then, but let’s be ACTUALLY humble here. First some basic distinctions.

          And this might as well be a set of reasons why I don’t believe psychology is a legitimate science.

          Objective/Subjective

          You everywhere and always have your experiences of “objective” reality mediated by the nature of your subjectivity. Even something as basic as your experience of time and space is mediated by the nature of your own awareness. You do not have an objective grasp of reality, and any account of such a thing would have to be understood with respect to the subjective structures responsible for meditation to such a “reality.” Thus, there is no such thing as a real objective/subjective distinction. The two are inextricably bound together. Therefore, it is illogical to place “truth” in the objective, and “false” in the subjective. You cannot actually in fact say that “color” wasn’t “smelled,” because you can’t actually separate the reality of the “chemicals” from the reality of their subjective apprehension. In a world were the majority apprehended color “smellingly,” it would have simply been understood as part and parcel of the real character of “color” since we can’t actually know in our own experience what is contributory via subjective structure and what via objective independence.

          You can declare the experience qualitatively different but people who experience this still use the words “smell color,” to describe it, which is significant enough to take seriously.

          The Brain

          The brain is not labeled. I will assume a one to one correspondence with the phenomenal concrete experience and the structure of the brain. But this correspondence is always mediated by abstract concepts. And these concepts are completely incapable of capturing the nature of the absolute concrete (which is to say qualitative experience). You can deploy concepts like “response,” “signal,” “process,” “emotion,” “identity,” etc…. But these are mere abstractions (conventions). And there is no reason to believe that either experience itself or the brain are comprehensible using these terms. Probably it is impossible for a system like the brain to understand itself, in a way analogous to the inability of mathematics to be set up on a self-consistent axiomatic basis. The structures of the mind cannot be employed to comprehend their own structure by use of that self-same structure without falling away into serious difficulty.

          You confidently declare that men and women don’t have distinct brain structures, but I don’t see what this proves. The brain is dynamic and holistic for one. And there is both structure and process, for another. Also again, you don’t have any means to accurately mediate between your IDEA of a mental experience and the nature of the material correspondence (if there even is any). Furthermore, men and women do posses structurally distinct mentalities as evidenced by the fact that one is sexually arouse men, the other by women. You don’t think that would register some neuronal signature?

          Really it doesn’t matter, because people don’t need to “objectively” verify their experiences via brain scans or psychology theories. You have it all backwards. The experiences are the primary realities. As scientists we need to respect the reality of these experiences.

          Claiming that their is no such thing as gender identity because we don’t have evidence for it is absurd. The experiences ARE the evidence. We are trying to account for these experiences, not declare them non-existent, or give them a meaning that isn’t what the people experiencing them would give them. Furthermore, even if you knew the brain completely, and could presumably predict what a person is experiencing. It is at least possible that the person could disagree and claim to experience something else. You aren’t really ever in a position to challenge that with “objective evidence.”

          Also gender identity is about selfhood not “mind.” The claim is not that they have gendered mind, but a gendered self.

          And yes there are plenty of reasons such a “mechanism” might have developed. Gender identity is intimately connected to sexuality, so it might have developed (if we are going to go off on evolutionary speculation), as a means to ensure the person did everything they could to be sexually desirable (i.e. by aspiring to be the best “man” or “woman” they could be). Not to mention the fact of sex-specific body perception), which would no doubt fulfill a host of adaptive functions.

          I’m not angry at you. Just the general tendency of people to dismiss these experiences or separate out their meaning (i.e gender dysphoria from gender identity). It simply doesn’t seem very respectful. Though it would not admittedly be as bad if it weren’t so common in universities.

          Honestly it seems to me that the nature of experience (as opposed to physical objects) forces psychs to resort to ideological theorizing as a way to get a better “grasp” over a thing that is utterly insensible to them. And this means that they are constantly violating the empirical reality of experience in line with their ideological commitments.

          I honestly hope people can adopt as least an agnostic view toward this

      2. John,

        “Do you know what you sound like?

        “If I smelled color, I wouldn’t except society to accept the reality of my experiences.” ”

        If we go back to my OCD, as I said I do expect people to accept the reality of my experiences of having extreme anxiety in certain situations, but I don’t expect them to accept as rational my fear that my I will contract a terrible disease if I walk through a doorway without performing a particular ritual properly.

        1. My apologies for being so aggressive and hostile. I didn’t mean to come off that way. It’s been a rough week, and someone did something similar to me, so I did the stupid thing and payed it forward. Civility is important. And I understand your view. The world is a mess. And in some respects you are no doubt correct. But this is also, much of it, beyond the knowledge of really anyone.

  2. it’s simply a desire to be, that’s all, the simple-minded justifications and speculations as to why are mostly irrelevant. it’s a desire that can, to a significant extent, be satisfied in meaningful ways.

  3. On the one hand part of me feels I shouldn’t wade into today’s most high stakes pointless semantic argument when I don’t feel I have any stake in it. I’m not a prescriptivist anyway. On the other hand I find the question of what definition “woman” or “man” could have that would make sense of the experience of gender dysphoria to be an interesting question.

    I don’t think it’s about identifying with, but I don’t know a satisfactory definition for what a transgendered person is identifying as. I think a good definition of man or woman would start with prototype theory, but really the problem is our understanding of these concepts is intuitive. We learn what man/woman/boy/girl mean before we leave about sex organs or chromosomes, and we quickly and automatically identify the genders of strangers we pass on the street without much thought and without necessarily being able to pick out a particular trait that gives them away. But it may go even deeper than that. The fact that genetics and prenatal environment are known to influence sexual orientation means that whether we will eventually be attracted to men or women is partially determined before we’ve even seen a man or woman let alone learned the meaning of the words. How would this be possible unless the concepts of man and woman are partially wired into our brains from birth? Indeed this shouldn’t be a surprising possiblity as practically any animal instinctively recognizes the genders of its species.

    So what I think is going on here is that the definition of man or woman is really just “I know it when I see it.” We are evolved to recognize gender. I suspect we are also evolved to know our own gender, and that it is normal to have a deep biological need to be seen as our gender. In this theory, occasionally someone has a hardwired concept of their own gender that doesn’t match their genitals, resulting in gender dysphoria. This presents a philosophical challenge because the categories “woman” and “man” are treated as more fundamental than any trait that could define them. On the one hand this is a big red flag for bad epistemology, but on the other hand it would not be surprising to find we had evolved to treat this particular category that way.

    1. >as practically any animal instinctively recognizes the genders of its species.

      Which animals besides humans recognize gender as a concept? (I asked my cat of she identifies as a cis gender cat or as a transgender cat and she just yawned and went back to sleep.)

      1. I’m conflating sex and gender in this post. Perhaps the post would have been clearer if I had only use the term sex, though it has become conventional to talk about transgenderism as being about gender, so I used that term, but I’m not drawing a distinction between the two and I don’t think the distinction is helpful here.

        More generally I think the sex/gender distinction is built on a false dichotomy between traits that are affected by biology and those affected by society/culture. Lots of things are both. Moreover the notion that in order to talk about a way people differ by sex/gender we must first take an implicit position on the non-obvious question of how that difference comes to be to have a word for what the trait varies by strikes me as bad practice.

      2. You are confusing the concept with the reality it is suppose to capture and which humans are suppose to recognize. Moreover, it is possible for cats to have concepts without having language. Thus, “name,” “concept (or map),” “felt empirical reality (or terrain).” Cats no doubt possess “mapping” capabilities in order to navigate the environment they live in, including felt recognition of differences in sexual behavior (a empirical precursor to the human concept of gender). A cat can have, theoretically at least, a concept of gender without possessing a name for that felt recognition of difference. They may or may not have a felt gendered self, though I doubt it as they don’t recognize themselves in mirrors. So this felt difference is never rendered along a self/other axis. We should not be too confident we understand the mentality of other animals. We do that often enough with human beings.

        1. I don’t think I am making such a confusion, though I can see people are confused by my use of the term gender. I would expect it to be uncontroversial to suggest your cat instinctively classifies other cats as male/female, which is all I was claiming about animals in general. Whether a cat has a gender identity I don’t know and don’t make a claim.

  4. The experience has a particular qualitative content that is proportionately assigned its meaning, value, and significance by the experiencing “I.”

    The fact is the mind is paralogical. This means that quantitative and logical analysis are precluded from relevancy. It also means that psychological theories can never be anything but paralogical. There is a hypothesis that mtf transsexuals are “extreme homosexuals,” which implies of course that there is mild or moderate homosexuality, which logically entails the idea that homosexuality is a type of intensive quantity. If it is a quantity (there is no evidence of course that it is), then there must be units by which such an amount is made coherent and comprehensible. So the theory entails the existence of a paralogical entity called a standard unit of homosexuality by which this mental attribute is supposedly “measured.” Now this psychologist doesn’t think gender id is real because he doesn’t understand it, so instead he proposed that mtfs transition because 1) gay men don’t want to have sex with them; and 2) homophobia. Neither is true. Neither respects the empirical reality.

    Now this has implications. If a synesthetic person claims to smell color, do you think think it is appropriate to theorize in way that eliminates the paralogical nature of the lived and felt reality of that experience? Do you think it is appropriate to interrogate such an individual to the extent that they are made to feel as if there experience has no reality (no meaning or significance) simply because it is not logically comprehensible? How would you even construct a model of such an experience? How do you make a paralogical “object” into a logical one without utterly stripping the experience of its lived and felt empirical reality?

    I think appeals to neuronal structure and process only begs the question. And I’m not even talking about the problems with attempting to locate what is effectively an idea of a mental process in the living matter.

    I say these things not because I believe you are guilty of these practices. But because this kind of practice of speculating about the nature of a lived and felt reality (which is independent of the ideas we form about it) only serves to alienate transgender people, to make themselves feel as if their experiences aren’t meaningful. My fear is that by pretending that experiences must be logically comprehensible to be real or meaningful, psychologists are truncating aspects of experience, and giving the public a distorted picture of mental life.

    I saw a philosopher attempting to discredit the identities of transgender people by parsing dictionary definitions of gender identity. And the worst part is that this person thought that critiquing some abstract idea that other people have about this experience is the same as discrediting (or illuminating) the nature of another person’s mind. Psychology perpetuates this by pretending that scientific practices can be brought to determine the meaning of other people’s experience. They can’t.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with almost all of it and would emphasise that anyone pretending that experiences must be logically comprehensible to be real or meaningful would certainly be very misguided. Moreover, any psychologist attempting to determine the meaning of other people’s experiences for those people would be similarly misguided, as you rightly assert. How third parties are to view the acts associated with such experiences is quite another matter, however.

      1. I guess my point more than anything else is that unfortunately there are gender ideologies that have a vested intellectual and emotional interest in these experiences being “discredited,” in a way that is vastly different from that of synesthesia etc. Nobody tells synesthetic persons that they are delusional, or need to read a physics textbook, or are anti-reality, or that people who smell color invalidate the experiences of those that see it, etc…. So such people aren’t as liable to freak out over whether some proposed theory accords with them or not.

  5. A thoughtful piece, thank you.
    I agree that each individual have their own gender expression to grapple with, and that this is a personal and subjective process, but I don’t think anyone gets to choose their sex. If you were born a male, you are male. You only get to define what kind of a man you want to be.

  6. A good read, thanks. I suppose I am a male with some characteristics some might see as feminine. I like musical theatre and ballads and strong female characters and singers (Streisand, Springfield, Reddy, Jane Fonda, Julia Gillard, Kamala Harris etc) but no dissonance.

  7. The ‘impasse’, such as it is, isn’t between transactivists and feminists; it’s between transactivists and reality.

    No amount of trying to redefine womanhood as a mental state is going to change the fact that there are two sexes and you don’t get to choose your own.

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  8. Males are males and females are females from birth to death and that never changes unless someone is suffering from a mental disorder.

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