May 12, 2014

On the Various Shades of Transgender

Photo: anopdesignstock 
On why it is impossible to draw firm and unambigious borders between the different shades of transgender.

faekingit over at tumblr asked the following question:

"Though I’ve seen other people do this before, I’m curious to get my own responses.

Yes, I’m truscum, but I’m open to listening to answers without flipping out and threatening you with death or something. I probably won’t even reply unless there’s something I want to correct.

And the question is this - what exactly makes you another gender if you don’t experience sex/body dysphoria (not dysmorphia, keep in mind the difference)? How do you feel, say, in the case of a demiboy, “partially male”, without using gender roles and stereotypical expectations and gender expression to describe it? Answers are appreciated; ignore it if you want since I’m “disgusting true scum”.

The question forced me to try to simplify the complex matter of sex, gender and transgender in a way that makes sense, even for those who do not know all of the background. It is an impossible task really, but this was my attempt:

"I am gender dysphoric, so I can relate to your view of the world. But let me try to answer, anyway, as I believe much of the fighting going on in this area is caused by some basic misunderstandings.

People do not agree on what they mean by gender. In the social sciences it refers to culturally defined mores and ideas. In biology it refers to the end effect of a complex interplay of biological, environmental and social factors. Needless to say, your choice of point of view here makes a huge difference.

Blank slate vs. biology

Personally I find the "blank slate" idea of everything sex and gender being cultural or political hard to understand. We are also animals, with all the instincts and drives that this entails.

But it is equally clear that much of what people understand as typically male or female is cultural. Female liberation has shown us that there are few differences between the sexes as regards personality traits, abilities, temperaments and expressions.

Dimensions of gender

So none of the following dimensions alone determine whether you are a man or a woman. Nor can they be used to decide whether you feel like a man or a woman:

1. Personality traits, including abilities
2. Sexual orientation
3. Genitals and other bodily features
4. Femininity or masculinity, in the sense of a drive towards expressing whatever your culture defines as being such.

There are masculine women who love women, and who feel like women. There are masculine female bodied persons who love women, and feel like men. There are people assigned female at birth who love men, and who feel like men... You catch my drift.

The in-betweeners

But there are also those that are unsure about their sex identity. Some feel that they are neither, or both, at the same time. These people are as real as you and I.

Others again move from one position to another as they grow older. They often find that they have repressed a side of themselves condemned by society. What they thought was depression was really dysphoria. This has been my experience.

And what is even more important: Some are truly identifying with the "other sex", but decide to live and present as their assigned sex, for both valid and not so valid reasons.

This diversity tells me that human nature is not exclusively binary, even though most people find themselves at home in their assigned sex.

The personal remix

If gender is, as the biologists claim, the end result of an interplay of genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, environmental, cultural and psychological factors, this diversity is exactly what you would expect.

Every single human being is a new remix of an eternal song. There may be a new beat or a different orchestration, and the new mashup does not necessarily lead to a clear cut feeling of being a man or a woman.

It is this that leads many to dismiss the truscum gospel. If they feel at home in the zone in between (or beyond) the traditional genders, that feeling is still a reflection of a gender mix. They are transgender in the sense that they transcend the traditional genders.

For them gender dysphoria is not necessarily an issue (although it may be). They may still suffer severely from being caught in this zone, however. The society around them demands allegiance to one of the two genders, and since they -- like all of us -- long for love and affirmation, they may experience much fear and loneliness.

Communication breakdown

Here is the problem: For many people living outside the binary, it may be hard to understand other transgender people who feel a painfully strong misalignment between mind and body, in the sense that they identify fully with their target sex.

The life experience of the non-binary transgender makes it easy for them to conclude that a clear binary sex identity must be an effect of social conditioning. After all: It is this social conditioning that has made their own lives such a living hell. In other words: They may believe that we should all be able to live outside the binary.

Inborn sex identity

Hadn't it been for my own dysphoria, I would most likely have believed them. But my own experience tells me that there is a fifth bullet point to add to the list above: An inborn sex identity that is not defined by its content, but that determines how you orient yourself in the world.

I often compare this inborn sex identity to hunger. We all feel hunger, but the hunger itself does not define your personal taste or your local cuisine. Another example would be disgust, which is clearly an inborn instinct, but it is social training that eventually determines what you feel disgust for. It takes some time before kids develop an aversion against eating flies, for example.

Such an inborn sex identity would compel a child to seek a role as a man or a woman when growing up, but that identity would not determine what that behavior should be. Culture fills the sex identity with content.

The suffering of gender dysphoria is an effect of the misalignment between this sex identity and the body (called "gender incongruence" by modern psychiatry). Gender dysphoria is not causing the misalignment.

This may sound like a trivial detail, but in the truscum debate it is essential. Because the truscum try to establish gender dysphoria as a kind of perfect litmus test for determining if you are transsexual (in the sense of identifying fully with your target sex).

(I am using the term transsexual here, as I resent the truscum attempts at taking over the word transgender.)

Beyond dysphoria

There are people who identify fully with their target sex who do not experience what the medical establishment has defined as dysphoria. There are non-binary people who suffer from dysphoria. Dysphoria can therefore not be used to determine who is transsexual and who is not.

At best it can be used as a proxy or an indicator for determining what kind of health services they should get. But to be honest with you: I find even that approach questionable.

But couldn't you use this inborn sex identity to divide the true truscum from the rest of the transgender community? After all, people like you and me clearly exist. There are those of us who would have been much better off had we been born with a body of the other biological sex.

But it is hard to do so. As I pointed out above: Even though you and I feel this way, not all people do. There are no clear borders. There are no impenetrable walls between the genders. Even the inborn sex identity may vary in intensity. If you live close to one of the ends of the spectrum, the binary makes sense. For others, it doesn't.

Nor can you put up a clear wall between binary and the non-binary people, again because reality is too complex, fluid and many-faceted.

And why should you put up such walls? There is no need to do so!

Unless, of course, you think it is a good idea to join the ranks of those who deny the diversity, and leave the rest of us behind. That is exactly what people think the truscum gospel is about, and that is exactly why you meet so much hostility."

Click here for the original XD Express post and links to the tumblr discussion

See also Gender Reloaded, my blog posts on the dimensions of sex, gender and gender identity.


  1. What is it to identify as something?

  2. "What is it to identify as something?"

    Now, that is a very good question. In the transgender debate I have seen at least three different meanings of this.

    1. Psychological: Acknowledging that this is a side of you that is essential in your life and explains important parts of what you are.

    2. Social: A side of you that is so important to you that you feel a need to flag it and defend it against people who try to invalidate it.

    3. Existential: A fundamental part of your being. Something so important that you would have been a completely different person without it. In this case it does not matter if you present this side of you to others or not.

    Yes, the three overlap, for obvious reasons.

    For me being transgender is an existential identity. However, I do not identify as a crossdreamer. Crossdreaming just reflects a side of me being transgender.

  3. You said that identification is acknowledging or explaining something about oneself, but this is on the basis for which one already thinks of oneself as a self.

  4. @Anonymous

    At the moment you use the word "I" you think of yourself as a "self".

    If you are a serious Buddhist (or post-modernist), I guess you could call that self an illusion, but the illusion is real.

    I do not think of my Self as an illusion.

    The longer I live, the more convinced I am that there truly is an underlying entity that seeks to unfold itself in the world. For me writing this blog has been about exploring the trans side of that Self. I am exploring something that already exist, even if I was not conscious of it earlier in life.

  5. So what would be the conditions for which "I" is meaningful?

  6. I am afraid you have to elaborate. I do not understand the question.

  7. "At the moment you use the word "I" you think of yourself as a "self"."

    So you are saying that selfhood is given in the usage of "I"? So then how is "I" used?

  8. Freud was wrong about much, but his understanding of the "Ich", "I" or "ego" makes sense to me. When we use the word "I" we refer to the conscious parts of our Self (total psyche).

    The transgender tragedy is that so many of us suppresses our true identity and believe that our "I" is all there is. The "I" of a many transgender is the end result of a desperate attempt to conform in order to achieve acceptance and find love.

    The most important work such a transgender person can do is to identify, understand and embrace the repressed parts of the total Self and in this way become a more complete person. Jung calls this the process of individuation.

  9. "Freud was wrong about much, but his understanding of the "Ich", "I" or "ego" makes sense to me. When we use the word "I" we refer to the conscious parts of our Self (total psyche)."

    Was not Kierkegaard correct in saying?

    "But what is the Self? The Self is a relation that relates itself to itself; or it is, in this relation, that which relates it to itself (the Self is not the relation, but that the relation relates itself to itself)"

    And Heidegger?

    “So far as Dasein(self) is at all, it has Being-with-one-another as its kind of Being”

  10. I haven't really thought of the transgender condition in the way Kierkegaard approaches the Self.

    But I did include an existential bullet point, so I am open to the idea. Kierkegaard's sense of despair and the transgender dysphoria may be related, but they are not the same. But in both cases increased self-awareness is the recommended approach.

    But that is not what you are getting at, is it? You are more interested in understanding the Self as an effect of the interaction with others.

    I guess I am more in line with Jung here. The Self is something inborn, a potential with a drive towards some kind of fulfillment, but the interaction with the world around it shapes its expression.

  11. "But that is not what you are getting at, is it? You are more interested in understanding the Self as an effect of the interaction with others."

    Is not Hegel, Kierkegaard and Heidegger correct in saying that selfhood is only possible and meaningful in the relating between self and others? That is to say that at any instance, identity of any mode is the way in which it is being related?

  12. A conscious identity is only possible in relationship to others. And the Self can only unfold in relationships to others. But not all of the Self is created in this way.

    But for me there is also inborn parts of the Self: personality traits, drives, temperaments, abilities that are there the day you are born. They are realized in the world, with others, but they are already there before you see the first smile of another person.

    Looking at it at another angle: We are also animals, and the most primitive animals unfold this kind of unique potential, each in its own unique way.

    We are not blank slates when we are born.

  13. So where selfhood/otherness is the activity of relating between people, you seem to be projecting the ways in which people relate from eachother, onto the conditions which the relations are abstracted.

    Say if I am a successful boxer, if you were to project the essence of boxing onto the conditions that made me a successful boxer.

  14. @Anonymous

    Well, I guessed this was all leading up to the "essence" debate.

    You say: "So where selfhood/otherness is the activity of relating between people, you seem to be projecting the ways in which people relate from eachother, onto the conditions which the relations are abstracted."

    There is no essence of boxing, but there are underlying, inborn, drives that make people box: A drive for competition, aggression, power, sex.

    These basic drives and instincts are not socially constructed. They can be found in all animals.

    The ways they play them out in our communities, though, are cultural and is shaped by our interactions with others. So the human Self unfolds where our animal side meets language and culture.

    Gender dysphoric transgender women are not born with a full package of expected female behaviours, temperaments, interests and abilities. But they are born with a need to express themselves as women.

  15. "There is no essence of boxing, but there are underlying, inborn, drives that make people box: A drive for competition, aggression, power, sex."

    I think that this can be broken down into perhaps two factors.

    1. Conditions that vary from person to person, in this case a higher level of testosterone, thus perhaps higher aggression & strength. But these things alone do not give how boxing is related to or what boxing can be, simply that being strong and aggressive means that you are more likely to affiliate with boxing. Verdict is that conditions that vary person to person, do not include how the conditions may be related, or if they figure at all in how the person thinks.t

    2. Our pals Hegel, Kierkegaard and Heidegger have showed us that selfhood is the way in which the codefined self/other is being related. In everyday sociality, I am used to thinking of myself and others as fixed & distinct entities, but in actuality at every moment I am thinking of myself as a self, it is the relating of myself to someone in this or that way and never in the same way.

  16. You can successfully fake your personality when you are with others, but will you feel good that people like your social mask and do not know your true-self?


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