July 19, 2017

The Transgender Clash of Narratives

Much of the conflicts and misunderstandings in the transgender debate seems to be caused by what we can call the clash of transgender narratives. As I see it, they do not have to be in conflict.
Photo: Jupiter Images

The trapped in body narrative

We hear the phrase over and over again: "I feel like a woman trapped in a man's body." "I feel like a woman trapped in a man's body".

For many (but not all) transgender people, the phrase does capture something essential about how they feel about themselves, especially if they are suffering from gender dysphoria, a deep sense of discomfort caused by a mismatch between their assigned gender and the way they feel gender wise.

The narrative is popular among sex and gender researchers steeped in the neurophysiological tradition.

The main explanation given is that during the pre-natal brain development of a fetus it is exposed to an unusual flow of hormones that feminizes the brain of male to female transgender persons and masculinizes the ones of those assigned female.

This model  does leave room for nonbinary persons and those who do not fully identify with one or the other gender, as the exposure to this unusual hormonal mix may vary. However, these people are often ignored in the debate.

The main problem with this narrative is that many of its supporters have a tendency of turning the concept of female or male into a well defined "thing", and that the definition of a woman or a man is reduced to a well defined list of abilities, interests, personality traits and expressions.

To get past medical gate keepers trans people have for years tried to live up to these idealized archetypes of what being male and female is or should be, in order to get access to hormones and surgery.

The problem is that the differences we see between non-transgender men and women as regards these variables are very small, to the point of  nonexistent, and to the extent they are meaningful, they only make sense on an aggregated level.

To put it this way: A woman who is an outgoing, assertive, fighter pilot interested in maths and computing, is still  a woman.

The social construction narrative

While the first narrative is dominated by biology and the natural sciences, the other one is born out of philosophy and the social sciences. This explains why the social construction narrative so easily disregards the role of the body in gender variance or biological causes for gender dysphoria.

Instead the social construction narrative focuses on the role of upbringing, cultural mores, and the way language shapes thought.

We are socially conditioned into a world view defined by language and power, and in the modern world the dominant way of thinking about sex and gender is that there are two separate genders with unique abilities and personality traits. Because of this there are separate gender roles, and that is why we  have a society ruled by men (the Patriarchy). Men are deliberately or unconsciously using the narrative to control women.

By referring to contemporary cultures that have different gender models, and to cultural variation throughout history, the social constructionists argue that these gendered relationships have nothing to do with nature, but everything to do with power and language.
By deconstructing the language and
system that imprison us, philosophy
aims at setting us free.
Illustration: Digital Vision

Their most convincing argument is probably the modern liberation of women. While women in the early 20th century were considered incapable of becoming scientists, politicians, police or soldiers, they are now dominating higher education and even surpassing boys as regards maths in the schools of some countries.

Most (if not all) gender stereotypes have turned out to be nothing but prejudices.

Within this narrative diversity and malleability as regards identity and expression is the natural way of things, and the gender binary is the unnatural model.

The main problem with this approach is that it is hard to explain why some people, and not others, become transgender, in spite of them growing up in similar environments and even in the same families.

Moreover, if the social conditioning is so strict, and human gender is so flexible and malleable, why doesn't everyone become straight and cisgendered? Why on earth would someone feel compelled to expose themselves to homophobic and transphobic ridicule and harassment, if they could just as well live as what society defines at "normal".

Indeed, this is the argument made by some transphobic "radical feminists". They use the social construction approach to invalidate the identity of trans women, arguing that you cannot be a woman unless you are raised as one, so trans women who say they feel like women are either lying or mentally disturbed.

However, as both gay and transgender people will tell you: They did not choose to become this way. They are real. Their feelings and experiences are undeniable. And as the great majority of scientist in the area will tell you: They are not mentally ill.

Bridging the narratives

The main trend in current sex and gender research on the biology side is to think of body, mind and culture as one complex system of interactions and feedback loops.

Genes define a potential, hormones activates some of these potentials and ignore others. Environmental factors -- from toxins to stress -- may also activate or deactivate genes (epigenetics) and culture and language definitely influences the way we unfold ourselves in the world.

The complexity of such systems makes it much, much, harder to sort people into clearly defined boxes with no overlap between them.

This is why you can say that same-sex attraction has a biological basis while at the same time argue that homosexuality (the explanation for why this attraction takes place) is a social construct. In all cultures men make love to men, but the way they explain why they do so will vary. The biological "wiring" for sexual attraction is also a continuum, and not a binary, as is any biological drive towards identifying as one or both genders.

In the same way you will find male assigned persons who in some way or the other associate themselves with women in all cultures, but how they do so and their explanations for why they do so will vary.

This is also why I will argue that the "man trapped in a woman's body" is helpful as a metaphor in a specific social context, but useless as a well defined scientific explanation that is supposed to be valid for all human beings.

This is also why I believe the social construction approach to gender is very helpful, but that the dogmatic insistence that biological sex and social gender have absolutely nothing in common is not.

The Western mind is good at dichotomies, binaries, linear explanations, at reducing the cause of everything to one simple explanation or factor. As soon as we accept that complex systems like the human mind and body and its interaction with the environment is far from simple and linear, transgender lives become understandable.

The problem that remains

Still, as transgender people we are still left with one hard riddle: What does gender identity really mean in such a complex world? What does it mean when I say that I identify as a woman, even if I live and present as a man? If my identity is not defined by my interests or personality traits, then what is it?

Well, first of all, if this is a complex system dominated by biological, psychological, social and cultural feedback loops, personality traits may still play an important role.

A male to female trans kid who hates rough and tumble play and an female to male trans kid who loves it may still say that this trait is part of who they are as gendered beings. But their respective preferences do not in any way prove that they are men or women.

As many therapists will tell you, transgender people also often gravitate towards stereotypical interests or expressions, because they by doing so are more likely to be affirmed as their target sex, in role playing or in real life. That affirmation means a lot in lives where respect and love are rare commodities.

This is not that different from the way young straight cis girls embrace Barbie dolls and unicorns, because by doing so they  will have their gender reaffirmed by others. Kids love to be loved and they soon learn what makes their friends and parents happy.

Young girls are not wired for pink, but they are wired for seeking out the comfort and safety of friends and family, and if pink brings them that comfort, so be it. But in no way does their Barbie fascination prove that they are women or any interest in guns that they are not.

I suspect that what drives transgender people to identify with their target sex (in varying degrees and with varying intensity) is not a complete set of traits and abilities, but rather an instinctual drive towards living as a man, woman or nonbinary person in the world.

This factor X is not defined by stereotypes. It is simply a trigger that compels both cis and trans people to seek acceptance as gendered beings. And yes, that trigger has probably biological roots similar to the ones found in many animals.

So in me there is an instinct that insists that I am a woman and that I should explore the world as a woman. But since I was born with a male body, was raised as a boy and still find myself presenting as a man, I am left with a jarring dissonance between what my inner drive tells me to be and the life I have to live.

Again: the term "a woman in a man's body" makes sense as a metaphor, even if we can spend days discussing what the word woman means to me and in my life.

Further reading:
 The Massey University Study of Transgender People
The cause of crossdreaming - an alternative model
Articles on gender, gender variance and transgender
Julia Serano: Transgender People and “Biological Sex” Myths


  1. There is also the spiritual model which notes that biology and instincts are not absolute determinatives of behavior. Humans and animals can override their biology by choice. In animals, this is done to put instinctive reactions on hold in order to deal with something more important to survival, like refusing to mate when a predator is near. Humans are more complex, and can go against their biology for other reasons: political, religious, and deeper spiritual responses. When a Trans-kid says they are a woman trapped in a man’s body or vice-versa this may not be a biological issue, but a spiritual one. Consider the idea of a two-spirit person, or the possibility of an imprint from a past life. I don’t necessarily believe in past lives, but my, or anyone else’s, belief doesn’t invalidate individual experience. It’s just as valid a model as the biological.

  2. Very, very well considered and written, Jack. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for your comments! I agree, this can also be apprached as a spiritual problem. I tend to think that the biological and spiritual are interconnected, so the transgender journey - whereever it takes you -- is both.

  4. an excellent contribution Jack... you are a real teacher because you seek to make peace with your fearless and diligent insights and comments... you are honest and kind and this is a gift to a future Human culture that has learned from its conflicts... ☮ ∞ ☯


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