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.

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:


  1. Hey there Jack.

    I wanted to drop a comment, and tell you how much you have meant to me over the past 5 years or so. I struck up a brief convo with you as I was first figuring stuff out, and found you as a result of my searching for support. You were super cool and supportive, obviously, and those first steps have led me to my current state, which is okay. In the good way. I've always looked in to read your well researched and thought out entries, catching up as needs be, and you're always a great read. So, basically, fangirl gushing over, keep up the good work and all that.

  2. Well, thank you for the kind words! They mean a lot to me.

    A ghost no more, eh?

  3. Ha! Sorta kinda the opposite, but hey, that's my own personal way of looking at things.

  4. Now I am curious. Tell me about what you think about when you use the word "ghost"... ghost in a good way I mean.

  5. Oh, well, I put it over at Crossdream Life as well, but since you asked nicely:

    Transparency. The ghost in me, the soul, the reality, not the fleshy meat bag I walk around in. That meat bag isn't who I am. What you think you see, you don't really see. I am the ghost in that respect. The spirit.

  6. I understand. If the misalignment with body and soul cannot be resolved, we have to be true to our sense of self.

  7. Ny crossdreaming began when my father, on a walk with me when I was three, stopped and said "I understand you've been playing with yourself down there. Better stop, or you'll turn into a girl!" A straight sexologist might say, at this point, aha! an implanted fetish. Well, maybe; but if the seed was planted at that point, it certainly fell on fertile ground. My own conclusion is that the feminine is the basic sex, while masculinity is a trope devised to enter genetic diversity. However, Nature, for whatever reaons, has designed some males to take the journey back into femininity, and I was tapped for this destiny. Could be I am integrating my crossdreaming with my Pagan religious temperament. If so, what can I say? It feels very integrative. Keep on doing what you do! IanBrianna or Ian Quicksilver.

  8. //"I understand you've been playing with yourself down there. Better stop, or you'll turn into a girl!" //

    Now, that statement sums up what's wrong with our culture's view of both sex and gender. Woow!

    I get the pagan connection. A lot of "pagan" religions had a much more open attitude towards gender diversity, the shamans being the bridges between heaven and earth, male and female, any opposites, actually. I guess we are the present day shamans!


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