Jazz Jennings, teenage transgender superstar, turns to the camera: “To all of the kids out there who are hearing this book for the first time, I just want to say that you can be like Jazz … stay true to who you are no matter what, then one day things will get better, and you will be able to live your life as your true and authentic self.” She opens up the first page of her children’s picture book, I Am Jazz, and begins: “for as long as I can remember my favourite colour has been pink …”
Jennings is a media sensation. Since the age of six, she has been publicly identified as a transgender child. Her family featured in a hit American TV show, which followed her transition process, and this success has led to modelling gigs, an autobiography, and a lookalike children’s doll. She is also the founder of a company that manufactures mermaid tails made of rubber: a video of Jennings swimming in a pool wearing one of these tails is her most popular YouTube upload, with over 2.4 million views. Aged fifteen, Jennings gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine, in which she spoke about the source of this fascination: “A lot of transgender individuals are attracted to mermaids and I think it’s because they don’t have any genitals, just a beautiful tail. I definitely secretly dream of being a mermaid. I’m not really attracted to boys; I’m attracted to mermen.” This whimsical innocence is a key aspect of Jennings’ public persona, and she describes her trans identity with an equal degree of uncomplicated sincerity: “I have a girl brain, but a boy body. This is called transgender.”
This way of conceptualising the experience of being trans has an instinctive appeal. We are used to speaking of our identities in this way, drawing a distinction between an outer, artificial self and an inner, authentic one. The nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold expresses this sense of a deeper and truer layer of feeling, which is obscured by the superficial:
Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel—below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel—there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.
Although it can be difficult to find this core self, it’s there waiting for us. We are encouraged to look inwards to discover the real me: the person uncorrupted by the world around, unique to us, fixed in time, able to guide us to a happier way of being. This is the true and authentic self that Jennings describes, Arnold’s “central stream of what we feel indeed.” The transgender movement depends upon this idea of the self. It is impossible to understand the idea of having a “girl brain, but a boy body,” unless you accept that there is a core identity within every one of us that is separate from—and more authentic than—our outer selves.
Social Justice activists claim that the trans phenomenon has always been a part of the human experience. In the words of one Guardian writer, “whatever culture, country or epoch you choose to research, you will find a history of individuals who, if they lived now, we might now refer to as trans people.” Activists explain the recent increase in trans identification as the result of greater acceptance: people who would previously have hidden their true identities have now been empowered to reveal them. They insist that there has been no actual increase in the number of trans people, only a new recognition of their existence.
Contrary to these claims, the trans phenomenon, as it is currently understood in the west, is not a human universal. Far from it. Yes, there have been people in all times and places, who have defied gender expectations in one way or another, but it is simplistic in the extreme to describe them as transgender in the modern sense of the word. The contemporary trans movement is the product of our particular historical moment. It is far more complex than most people realise and its success is the result of recent events, which include the rise of social media, the development of new medical technologies and wider shifts in the political climate. Alongside these factors, the trans ideology relies upon a peculiar model of identity that is a relatively recent innovation in the west. This is the concept of the true and authentic self that Jennings expresses so strikingly, but which is by no means unique to her. This idea has come down to us from early Christians, was transformed into its modern incarnation during the Enlightenment, and reached its apotheosis in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This article is about the ways in which the trans movement relies upon this identity model, and the flaws inherent to it.
The Trans Narrative
But first it is worth pausing to outline some of the complexities within the trans movement because—although the core beliefs are consistent—there are some significant points of tension in the trans community, which may not be apparent to outside observers.
Jazz Jennings expresses an older—arguably somewhat old-fashioned—version of the trans narrative, which states that a trans woman is a woman trapped in a man’s body and a trans man is a man trapped in a woman’s body. This may be the view that you’re most familiar with, as it has been around for several decades. This version of the narrative takes a rather biomedical view of the issue. The claim is that some people are born with their brain sex the wrong way round: although men ought to have male brains, and women ought to have female brains, for a small proportion of the population this is not the case. Such people express profound distress at the incongruity between their brains and bodies, and pursue medical transition in order to alleviate that distress. This normally involves a mastectomy for natal females, surgery on the genitals, hormonal treatment, and possibly other interventions, such as facial feminisation surgery.
A newer version of the trans ideology, which is more popular among young activists, takes a subtly different approach. Adherents to this position see the older trans narrative as too restrictive, in that it only offers two identity options: man or woman. Proponents of the updated view insist that gender is a spectrum along which everyone, trans or cis, is positioned. You may not realise it, but you have a gender identity, which is some combination of masculine and feminine traits and can be categorised according to an ever evolving typology. Facebook now offers 71 gender identity options, but you’re welcome to invent your own if you don’t feel that any of these terms accurately describe your sense of self. Only you can determine what your precise gender identity is, and once you’ve discovered it, you can achieve harmony by expressing it, through your clothing and mannerisms, and by asking others to use your preferred name and pronouns. Crucially, you do not need to medically alter your body in order to qualify as trans. A natal male with a penis and a beard (and no intention of removing either) is still a woman.
As recently as ten years ago, it was perfectly acceptable for progressives to say that, while trans women could be regarded as women in a social sense, they were not actually female: that is, they were not members of the group of human beings who have XX chromosomes, produce large and non-motile gametes and possess anatomical features such as vaginas, ovaries, and breasts. A key principle of the second wave feminist movement was that, although biological sex was fixed, gender stereotypes were the products of culture. This idea percolated into the progressive mainstream and, in the early decades of the trans movement, most supporters took the view that the word sex referred to the real, material differences between men and women, while gender referred to those differences that were socially constructed and hence subject to change. You might have been born with a male sex, but, in terms of behaviour and preferences, you could be as feminine as you liked and, if you wanted to, you might even choose to transition and live as a woman full-time. You wouldn’t actually be female, of course. Just as adoptive parents are not biologically related to their children, trans people were not considered to be biologically the same as the opposite sex. While no one believed that a trans woman was really female, most progressives were willing to act as if this were the case, and considered it obnoxious to do otherwise.
We’ve gone far beyond that now. Among younger and more fundamentalist Social Justice activists, it is now accepted that trans women are female and have always been female in every sense of the word. As one natal male puts it in a video produced by Teen Vogue, “when I say I’m a woman, I don’t just mean I identify as a woman, I mean that my biology is the biology of a woman, regardless of whether or not doctors agree.” Given some obvious but awkward facts about human reproduction, the definition of male and female has had to be adjusted. Here is the new definition: a female person is a person who identifies as female. That’s it—there are no material qualifications whatsoever. The definition of sex is now based purely on inner mental state.
The original man trapped in a woman’s body narrative made sense to most people, given our familiarity with this notion of identity. Even if we have never experienced such a feeling, the idea of a disconnect between the inner, authentic self and the outer, artificial self is intelligible to many westerners. However, casting away biological sex entirely is a more reckless innovation. The idea that ones sex can be changed simply by force of will strikes most people as implausible. We can accept that the mind wins out over the body, but only up to a point.
Activists have also sought to backdate their ideology by retrospectively recognising various historical figures as transgender. This includes women who disguised themselves as men in order to access certain professions—such as medicine or the military—who are now said to have been expressing their inner male identity all along, rather than making a pragmatic decision in response to the stifling restrictions placed on women in their own times. By this logic, Joan of Arc was supposedly trans. So was the Roman emperor Elagabalus, since he sometimes cross-dressed. Even people who did not make any effort to physically imitate the opposite sex—such as the lesbian diarist Anne Lister—are also sometimes described as transgender.
Activists take the same approach to people from non-western cultures. Of course, all societies include people who disobey gender norms: by having sexual relationships with members of the same sex, or by adopting clothing or mannerisms that are inappropriately masculine or feminine. Such behaviour is often violently punished in illiberal societies, although occasionally gender non-conforming groups can occupy established positions. The hijra, for instance, are feminine Indian males (often castrated) who perform a recognised function within Hinduism.
However, contemporary westerners are highly unusual—probably unique—in believing that gender non-conforming people can literally become members of the opposite sex through cosmetic surgery and hormones. It is even stranger to claim that biological sex is determined entirely by one’s mental state, and that physical appearance is irrelevant. Not only is the western trans narrative odd, it is almost unintelligible to members of most other cultures.
Take the travesti, a group of cross-dressing males in Brazil, who typically work in the sex trade. They are commonly referred to by westerners as transgender, and, ostensibly, they do look quite similar to trans people in the west. The travesti adopt feminine names and clothing, and alter their bodies by taking female hormones and injecting silicone to give the appearance of breasts. Western trans activists use groups like the travesti as evidence that their own understanding of gender identity is a human universal, found in all cultures and historical periods in exactly the same form.
However, the travestis’ understanding of themselves is quite different from the model we’re familiar with. As the anthropologist Don Kulick writes in his ethnography, the travesti do not accept the western trans narrative: “What is evident in travesti talk about transsexuals is their firm conviction that one can never change sex … Not only do sex-change operations not produce women, and not only do they rob one of all possibility of experiencing sexual pleasure, travestis believe, but they also invariably result in insanity.”
Kulick quotes one travesti who insists that, if you are born with a penis, then “you are a man and you will die a man.” In the West, statements like these would be enough to get someone banned from Twitter or even investigated by the police, as is becoming increasingly common in the UK.
The Origins of Authenticity
So how did we get here? Why has a significant proportion of our society’s elite—supposedly far too rational to succumb to magical thinking—come to believe something so peculiar? The full answer to this is complex and well beyond the scope of this article, but one important part of the explanation is the western understanding of identity, which is rooted in the Christian tradition and predates the emergence of the trans movement.
Of course, trans activists do not like this suggestion. They invariably see themselves as secular and rational political actors, and mostly identify as atheist or agnostic. However, I am by no means the first to draw parallels between contemporary Social Justice activism and a particularly fervent form of Christianity. John McWhorter was perhaps the first to lay out this argument, and James Lindsay has recently published an in-depth analysis of what some call The Great Awokening. The parallels are striking. There is the emphasis on privilege (original sin), and the checking of it (confession). There is the belief in an unbounded, unassailable, undying (and unfalsifiable) matrix of oppressions, which sounds an awful lot like the Christian concept of evil. Social Justice activists also have their clergy, their scripture, and—above all—their heretics.
It should be no surprise to us that, even in these apparently post-religious times, our culture remains determinedly Christian. Two thousand years of religious tradition have left their mark. One aspect of this is the lingering adherence to a model of identity that prioritises the inward over the outward, and it is this that has had such a profound effect on the trans movement.
Christianity is unusual among religious traditions because it places a great deal of emphasis on the private relationship with God, rather than on outward displays of piety. This attitude encourages a rather detached understanding of the physical self, even a view of the body as simply an encumbrance fastened to the mind. St Augustine writes of his body as an adversary, describing his physical impulses as an “enemy … [which] held my will in his power and from it he made a chain and shackled me.”
Historians of philosophy such as Charles Taylor, Lionel Trilling and Charles Guignon date the emergence of the modern identity model to the European Enlightenment, although the foundations were laid by earlier Christians, such as Augustine. The mindset that has emerged in the West observes, in Guignon’s words, a “sharp distinction between inner and outer that enables us to think of the true self as something that lies within while the false self is something outer.”
You do not have to read the Enlightenment philosophers to see this in action. The 2016 Disney film Moana provides a charming example of this model of identity. At one point in an opening musical number, Moana is urged by a wise man to listen to her heart when deciding whether or not to leave her community:
You may hear a voice inside
And if the voice starts to whisper
To follow the farthest star
Moana, that voice inside is
Who you are.
I could provide a hundred more examples of this message in western fiction: look inside, find your true self, listen to your heart. It is easy to forget how odd this attitude is among human beings.
There is a concept in anthropology, made famous by Marilyn Strathern, that observes that the western model of identity is profoundly different from that found in other cultures. Most people, in most times and places, are more likely to understand themselves as what anthropologists term dividuals, rather than individuals. That is, they don’t see themselves as western-style indivisible units, separate from the world around them.
If you ask a modern westerner to draw a picture of herself, she will usually draw an isolated human figure. She might even draw just a head and shoulders. Aside from clothing and some accessories (such as spectacles), the self portrayed stops at the edge of the body.
By contrast, if you ask the same of someone who comes from a culture that recognises people as dividuals, such as the Melanesian people studied by Strathern, he won’t stop at the boundaries of the body. He might draw his spouse, his children, other members of their family, his house, his most prized possessions, his livestock. This is what the self is to such people—these other people and objects are what give meaning to their lives. Without them, they would be utterly different people. When you are a dividual, you are defined by your experiences and relationships to other people and things.
If you understand your identity in this way, then the idea of finding your true and authentic self makes no sense. If you don’t believe that you possess a core self, which is fixed from birth and totally separate from the environment around you, then what is there to find? Westerners are so immersed in the language of inner authenticity and outer falsehood, that it can be difficult to recognise that this is not the only way of viewing the world. Most people do not recognise the existence of a real me, but for us it is often central to discussions of identity.
As the philosopher Carl Elliot writes,
We shouldn’t be surprised when any of these people, healthy or sick, use phrases like “becoming myself” and “I was incomplete” and “the way I really am” to describe what they feel, because the language of identity and selfhood surrounds us. It is built into our morality, our literature, our political philosophy, our therapeutic sensibility, even our popular culture.
He’s not referring to trans people, but rather to sufferers of BIID (Body Integrity Identity Disorder). These are people who feel so deeply alienated from one or more of their limbs that they want them amputated. When they can’t persuade doctors to do it, BIID patients will sometimes deliberately maim themselves to destroy these parts of their bodies. They believe that, on the inside, they are amputees. Elliot quotes one sufferer who insists that her obsession is rooted in “a desire to see myself, be myself, as I ‘know’ or ‘feel’ myself to be.”
For a variety of reasons, BIID has not achieved anything close to the social acceptance that the trans phenomenon has. Most people regard BIID sufferers as bizarre and doctors are extremely reluctant to perform the surgeries they demand. Regardless, the two phenomena share similar assumptions about the nature of identity: that it is possible to be born in the wrong body, which is at odds with the true self, and that it requires medical intervention to alleviate the conflict. The rhetorical similarities are uncanny, and this should give us pause when considering the claims of the trans narrative.
Finding the Real Me
No one knows exactly what causes people to develop BIID. Nor do we know exactly why people become trans. We do know that there are certain clusters of traits found in some groups of trans people and not others: three major categories have been identified by researchers. When we speak of trans people, we are not necessarily speaking about people like Jazz Jennings, who transition in childhood, are consistently gender non-conforming and experience acute physical dysphoria. There is controversial but strong evidence that some people are motivated to transition later in life for sexual reasons, or as a way of expressing other forms of distress. To be trans in the contemporary west can mean a wide range of things and it is highly unlikely that neuroscientists will ever find a single factor that explains why the desire to transition arises in some people and not in others. The group of people who describe themselves as trans is simply too diverse.
If they don’t find the common factor, it will not be for want of trying. Many studies have been conducted, some of which suggest that the brains of trans people may be more similar to those of the opposite sex, while others have found no discernible differences. This is a challenging area of research, in part because of the difficulty in controlling for the effects of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, but also because of the ideological issues at play. Researchers who do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy on trans issues are liable to be socially ostracised, thwarted by their academic institutions or even dismissed. Producing rigorous research on this topic is not easy.
The neuroscience of sex differences is complex and contentious. Some eminent scientists argue that there are innate psychological differences between men and women on average, while other eminent scientists argue against this position. We don’t yet know for certain which side is right, or how trans people might fit into this spectrum of innate differences. When we ask whether or not there are average psychological differences between men and women, trans or cis, we are in the realm of science, and it is scientists that we should turn to.
But when it comes to categorising people based on their brain differences, the question becomes political. Even if it were proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are significant and meaningful differences between male and female brains on average, it would still not be obvious that feminine males should be classed as women and masculine females classed as men. Some people would look at the young Jazz Jennings and see a little boy with interests and behaviours more typical of a little girl. Others see a little girl whose male body is in need of medical alteration. No neuroscientist is ever going to be able to tell us which of these groups is right or wrong, because this is fundamentally a question of how we as a society choose to regard sexual differences. When a person feels strongly that their authentic self is at odds with their physical sex, how should we respond to that feeling?
The stakes are high. We are talking about irreversible medical procedures, which cause sterility and long-term side effects. Trans activists are also pushing for legal reforms that go well beyond laudable efforts to protect trans people from violence and discrimination. As I write, a Canadian human rights tribunal is considering whether workers should be allowed to offer intimate services to customers based on their biological sex, rather than their subjective sense of gender. The claimant—who has male physiology, but identifies as a woman—insists that beauty therapists should not be permitted to refuse to wax a client’s male genitals if that client identifies as female. Cases like this are the inevitable consequence of legislative reforms proposed by trans activists, which effectively rewrite the definitions of male and female. Too few people realise how radical this movement really is.
And yet its ideological foundations are shaky. The core idea of the trans narrative—that we are all possessed of a gender identity, which is more true and authentic than our physical bodies—depends on claims that do not withstand scrutiny. Not only is it unwise to write legislation based on incoherent principles, but it also does real harm to vulnerable people desperate to find themselves. We could spend the whole of our lives waiting for our true and authentic selves to come along. They never will.
The real me is fundamentally an illusion. For some people, it might provide a compelling way to understand certain thoughts and feelings and I don’t doubt that this is how Jazz Jennings sincerely conceives of her identity. It can be a comforting idea, particularly for people who live in oppressive environments that restrict their natural impulses. It is also a useful way of expressing your desires in a society that still holds strongly to the idea of inner authenticity. But it misrepresents the messy reality of our lives, and the ways in which our identities are constantly being shaped by the world around us. Although we all have some innate predispositions, the real me isn’t a fixed entity that we can discover if only we try hard enough. Searching for your true and authentic self is like chasing a shadow. You might focus all of your energies on trying to discover it, only to be ultimately disappointed. The trans narrative promises unhappy people the hope of self-actualisation: “stay true to who you are no matter what, then one day things will get better.” The trouble is, they might not.
There is unfortunately no conclusive evidence that the process of transition (either social or medical) actually alleviates distress in the long term. For some people, living as the opposite sex (or as some non-binary gender identity) can make them feel more comfortable in their own skin, and they should be free to make that choice without fear of stigma. But the increasing number of people flocking to the trans movement—many of them vulnerable young natal females—may well find that the promise of discovering the real me is an empty one. The growing community of detransitioners attest to the long-term suffering and health problems that can result from the decision to transition. Sometimes, searching for your true and authentic self can just make things worse.
What if, instead of obsessing over the search for the real me, we accepted that people are complex, imperfect and ever-changing? What if we faced up to the many and varied reasons why people might feel a desire to transition, and saw the trans movement within its historical context?
The trans movement has grown more and more detached from reality, and an increasing number of people are starting to recognise this. Its claims may appeal to an understanding of identity that has deep historical resonance, but they don’t withstand scrutiny. There’s no inner sense of truth coming to save us, and our bodies are not aliens to be battled with—they’re all we’ve got. As the singer Rufus Wainwright puts it, “these three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat are all I love and know.” We need to make peace with that reality.