August 7, 2019

What to do about the transgender narrative?

The gender stereotypes  and the "male brain" versus "female brain" narrative live on. But there is no reason to think that stereotypical interests or abilities reflect gender identity. Photo Andrey Popov.

I got an interesting comment/question over at tumblr, where the author strongly argue that the "born transgender narrative is wrong". I agree with a lot of what they say, but still think that some of their objections are based on a misunderstanding.

This misunderstanding is based on the idea that arguing for an inborn component of gender identity development equals having to believe that  male and female brain are significantly different from each other, and that having a male or a female brain automatically leads to a specific set of behaviors.

There is nothing in the world I see that proves that the brains and minds of men and women are significantly different. Indeed, the radical new role of women in a country like my own (Norway) tells me that  the scientific dogma used to chain women to the kitchen stove were nothing but cultural prejudices.

All the same: We still face a constant barrage of stories, images and theories aimed at explaining why men and women are different. When I wrote my response over at tumblr, I searched for stock photos I could use to  illustrate the "born as a man or woman narrative", and a lot of them (the one above included) presented women as creative and emotional and men as logical and rational.

The truth is that there is little in contemporary research that proves that such a distinction makes sense on the individual level. It barely makes sense on an aggregated level, if at all.

But the fact that the male versus female brain model is misleading, does not in itself mean that your gender identity cannot have some kind of biological component. And that is what I try to explain over at my Trans Express blog.

For more on my take on the transgender narrative and "nature versus nurture", read my reply over at tumblr.

Further reading:


  1. "This misunderstanding is based on the idea that arguing for an inborn component of gender identity development equals having to believe that male and female brain are significantly different from each other, and that having a male or a female brain automatically leads to a specific set of behaviors."

    It seems to me that the main issue is that we haven't objectively found where, how, and why gender differences exist and yet we know that they do. The arguments that it's all based on socialization (i.e., nurture) is undone by the fact that transgender people exist, who often at very young ages such as me, adamantly insisting that they are not the gender they were assigned at birth.

    There are other aspects of human nature that are similar to gender identification including sexuality, talents, personality characteristics, mental health... whose origins are entirely unknown.

    I thus argue that just because these origins have not been identified that doesn't mean that they don't exist. The understanding and treatment of the brain is minimal. I imagine that in the future this current understanding will be compared with medical disease treatments with leeches, bleeding, and "unbalanced humours" which were common only in the 19th century.

    1. I believe it has been proven beyond doubt that the human mind is not a blank slate at birth, and that we are born with abilities that help us live and learn.

      The last part is important. Like other mammals human children have, for instance, an inborn drive towards playing, and playing is a way of training and preparing the mind and the body for adult life. Playing is also a way to help you find your place in the your community (or "pack", if you are a wolf). The drive for play is clearly biological, but the content of the games human kids play is clearly cultural.

      If transgender people did not exist, I would probably have believed that the way human children explore gender through games is purely cultural. So a kid assigned male would try to get their gender role confirmed by taking on males role when playing (whatever that role is in a specific culture), partly in order to prepare for such a role and partly for affirmation.

      Given the enormous pressure towards gender conformity, such a scenario leaves no room for gender variance. No male assigned kid would take on the female role in gender play, after they have understood the concept of gender.

      But as you point out, all of this is undone by the fact that transgender kids exist, and – I would add – the need for other kids to express the traits associated with "the other gender", even if they are cis.

      In fact, neither the gender identity nor the need to express masculinity or femininity (whatever that means in a specific cultural context) is fully determined by enculturation or socialization, and this is proven by the existence of the young rainbow rebels and the kids that comply only because they are forced to.


    1. Before I succumb to the joys of confirmation bias after reading this article:
      1. Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D. is a psychologist, not a neurologist. So, he must be quoting and interpreting from other researcher's work. He didn't provide references to those works so how much weight can I really give his article?
      2. The article was published over 5 years ago which is fine but in the meantime there's been other publications by researchers who report conflicting results.
      3. Speaking of conflicting results, if his article truly represented the up-to-date knowledge of the research community why do we still see such disparate findings?

      All that said I do feel that he's on the right track, and I'm glad you supplied this for us to read.

  3. imagine biological male/female does not exist, now say what gender-identity means. If there is no male/female, what can you identify as? The base concept must be sex: remove that and you pull the rug out from under 'gender identity'.


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