September 13, 2015

The Two Traditions of Thinking about Transgender

There are two major strands in modern sexology, both going back to the late 19th century. One is binary, gender conservative and interprets gender variation as mental illness; the other is liberal, trans-positive and understands sex and gender as complex continuums.

I have read a lot of transgender history. Too much, probably. This also applies to the science of transgender and the philosophy of transgender.
In her book Sex and Temperament from 1935, Margaret
Mead presented an amazing variation in gender roles
and expressions in different cultures, debunking one
and for all the idea that all masculine and feminine
behavior is inborn.
(Cover of 1950 Mentor paperback edition).

There is one important lesson I have learned from all of this: Every single original idea  had been presented before 1915.

The binary, pathologizing, tradition

100 years ago you would find it all:

The binary theory of two completely separate sexes, male and female, was already there. So was the idea that gender variations are perversions threatening society's "evolutionary fitness".

As now, many researchers argued that transgender conditions was caused by variations in the presence of hormones in the womb. This applied to sexual orientation too; many researchers had some difficulty keeping the two apart, then as now.

Others argued that it had to do with bad upbringing, blaming -- for instance -- strong mothers and weak fathers. Feminists, homosexuals and "primitive", non-white, people could also be blamed for spreading these "diseases".

Then, as now, the main fear was of the feminization of boys. Society needed strong, masculine, rational boys to fight wars, colonize the world and govern society, and because of this the emotional, feminine sissies -- gay or trans -- were a threat to the system.

(Tomboys and FTM transgender were also a problem, but did not constitute the same threat to the social order. After all, the fact that women wanted to be men made sense; the MTFs, on the other hand, had to be mad to desire the life of a woman.)

This binary tradition can be traced from Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and his book Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. via the Freudian psychoanalysts and John Money of the 20th century, up to the current autogynephilia theory of Ray Blanchard.

What unifies this tradition is not the explanation for what causes gender dysphoria or gender identity conflicts. The researchers will blame it on inherited degeneracy, hormones or feminist mothers, all depending on the researcher's natural inclinations and cultural context. What unites them is the need to present gender variation as something unnatural and unacceptable.

In this tradition it is also easy to see a distinct lack for empathy for the transgender clients, patients or research subjects. The disgust many of the researchers feel for gender variant people is very clear.

The bearded patriarchs of pathologizing binary sexology:
Krafft-Ebing and Blanchard. These two are, together
with John Money, the most of obsessive of the
collectors of "sexual paraphilias".

In the Freudian tradition, psychoanalysts would gladly torture their patients in order to condition them away from their unwanted behavior (using electroshock, nausea inducing drugs and forced hospitalization).

Today Blanchard and his followers still believe conversion therapy for transgender kids is a good idea, and they never doubt their right to dismiss the identity of trans women (calling them men) and reducing crossdressing to a sexual "paraphilia".

The liberal continuum tradition

The continuum approach and the idea that crossdressers and transsexuals represents healthy cases of human diversity, was also present in 1915.

In fact, you could argue that this tradition has been as strong and influential as the binary one ever since.

Within this tradition the researchers have been much less likely to think of transgender conditions as diseases or mental illnesses. Or -- at least -- they will not question the legitimacy of the transgender person's identity or sense of self.

These researchers are also more likely to explore a large number of variables when discussing the causes of transgender conditions -- biological, personal and cultural -- as well as the complex interactions between them.

Researchers in this tradition tend to feel empathy and love for transgender and queer people. As doctors and therapists they genuinely try to help them find peace with themselves.

Magnus Hirschfeld also postulated the binary of the absolute
man and the absolute woman, but he did not think of them as
realistic goals of gender development. Instead he argued that
everyone belonged somewhere between these two extremes.
This is the basis for the continuum theory.
(From Hirschfeld: Geschlechtskunde. vol. 4, Stuttgart 1930)
Among the big names in the continuum and diversity tradition we find the German master of sexology, Magnus Hirschfeld, his student Harry Benjamin, the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey and trans-activists/researchers like Susan Stryker, Joan Roughgarden and Julia Serano.  The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead also belonged to this tradition.

Reverse engineering or forcing round pegs into square holes

An important difference between the two traditions is that researchers in the binary tradition seems to "know" the answer to their research question from the very beginning.

The question is not whether gender variance is pathological or bad, that is already given in the theories they are basing their research on. The question is how to explain why some people derail from the norm in this way.

The binary mental map is normally anchored in the idea that sex is for procreation, and any sex or gender identification that does not lead to natural procreation is "evolutionary maladaptive", and therefore pathological.

Proper gender roles are defined on the basis of 19th century ideals of proper masculinity (aggressive, rational and proactive) and proper femininity (passive, emotional and reactive). Deviations from this "division of labor" is considered a threat to the survival of humanity (which is implicitly understood to be white, Western, patriarchal society).

It is this intellectual "lock-in" into a way of thinking that has already defined what is constructive or destructive, that makes it so hard to discuss transgender lives with these researchers. They have been socialized into a scientific tradition that requires them to think this way, and they simply do not understand appeals to facts that lie outside this intellectual framework.

The thinkers in the continuum tradition are in general much more open-minded than the binarists. They tend to underline the complexity of sex and gender and are much more willing to question the whole paradigm or world view underpinning Western ideas of sex and gender.

Margaret Mead, for instance, spent a lot of time researching gender variation in other cultures, concluding that gender roles were too diverse to be based on biological evolution alone.

I believe it is this openness to complexity that makes them more likely to accept and respect the stories told by transgender people. Although, it may also be the other way around: Their ability to see the whole person behind the unexpected behavior or identity, forces them to question the prejudices of their day and go several steps beyond tradition and scientific dogma.

Because of this they often try to "reverse engineer" the transgender and queer paradoxes. Instead of starting out with some pseudo-Darwinian model of "evolutionary fitness", they start out accepting the diversity they see, and then try to explain how this gender variation may contribute to the survival of society. Joan Roughgarden's research on sex and gender diversity in the animal kingdom is an excellent example of this.

Crossdreamer thinking

A new example of this kind of "transgender reverse engineering" is found in crossdreamer philosopher Felix Conrad's approach to gender dysphoria and being transgender.

Unlike some crossdreamers he does not accept the binary, pathologizing, narrative as is. Instead he starts with exploring his own feelings and his own suffering, using that experience to try to explain what is really going on with him.

He does not dismiss the binary model out of hand. In fact, he spends a lot of time over at his site discussing the idea that he could be a "transvestic fetishist" or an "autogynephiliac", but find all these approaches lacking. They do not explain what he is experiencing.

And like most thinkers belonging to the non-binary tradtion, he does not think he has found the final grand theory that explains it all.

The following podcast is, as I see it, an excellent example of the humanist, continuum tradition being very much alive and healthy today. In this episode Felix tries to explain why some transgender people come to understand what they are at a later age, using another personal experience to approach the interaction between biology and culture.

Be warned, though: Felix uses irony and humor to spice up his philosophy.

Video originally posted over at transcendmovement.

Further reading

For a good discussion of the development of the the two strands of transgender research and philosophy, see: How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, by Joanne Meyerowitz

Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money's Diagnostic Concepts, by  Lisa Downing, Iain Morland  and Nikki Sullivan, gives an excellent view into the thinking of one of the most influential researchers on intersex and transgender in the 20th century: John Money. The authors explain why Money was not as liberal as he believed himself to be, and why his classifications of "sexual paraphilias" was nothing but a  continuation of the stigmatizing "perversions" of his predecessors.

There are many other books that discuss the history of science on gender and transgender, as well as the complexities of these pheonomena. Here are some of my favorites:

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!