July 14, 2020

Sex, gender, biology and culture in the chaos that is the transgender debate

Photo of chromosomes with the caption: You are not a chromosome

You need both biological and cultural perspectives to understand what makes transgender people trans. Some anti-trans activists deliberately try to ignore this fact  is in their quest to invalidate transgender people. Here's why they do this.

Recently I got a question over at tumblr from a person who wanted to understand their transgender friend a little better, and who wanted to know more about concepts like sex and gender.

For those of us who are debating sex and gender on a regular basis, the answer might seem pretty straightforward. For those who are not well versed in the gender debate, however, what may seem straightforward is normally not.

You can read my answer over at tumblr: What is the difference between sex and gender?

The article basically presents the five different phenomena people refer to when using the term "sex":
  1. Biological sex
  2. Sexual characteristics
  3. Gender expressions
  4. Gender roles
  5. Gender identity
Much of the confusion and misunderstanding found in gender and transgender debate is caused by people not being able to distinguish between these different phenomena.

There is one interesting dimension I did not explicitly discuss in that article, and which might help us understand the current sex/gender/transgender debate a little bit better. 

This dimension reflects the difference between biological and cultural processes, and the interactions between them. It is used in the arguments of both trans and anti-trans activists, but not in the way many people think.

Simplistic presentations of the sex/gender/transgender debate explains that anti-trans people focus on biological sex, while trans people argue on the basis of culture and socialization.

This is not correct. Most of the participants in this debate, on both sides, argue on the basis of biology and culture, but they do so in very different ways.

TERFs: From socialization to biological essentialism

The "gender critical" trans-exclusionary "radical feminists", for instance, argue that only cis  (non-transgender) women can be recognized as women, because only they have the life experience needed to understand women.

This is a cultural argument. It is misleading, for sure, as it requires that all women share the lived realities of Northern European and North American middle- and upper class white women like J.K. Rowling (who has very little in common with a female farmer from Ghana) , but it is a cultural argument all the same.

Indeed, our upbringing does shape the way we are and think of ourselves, and we all have to look into how social structures and inherited belief systems creates and upholds oppression and social exclusion. This applies to gender roles,  race, sexual orientation, gender identity and more. So the starting point of the TERF approach is actually a useful one.

J.K. Rowling has become the TERF poster girl. She says that trans activists argue that "sex isn't real". I have never heard of a trans activist who denies the existence of gametes, chromosomes or genitalia. What trans people argue is that gender identity cannot be reduced to biological sex. In other words: Rowling has created a straw man based on a misreading of modern science.

However, due to aggressive transphobia they have increasingly ended up focusing on chromosomes and genitalia, changing their overall narrative from socialization to "only biology is real."

They now most often leave out the cultural "gender assignment at birth" bit, taking the gender judgment of doctors and midwives for granted. Gender now equals biological sex. Indeed, many of them argue that gender does not exist!

The reason they have ended up in this intellectual backwater is that the "gender assignment bit" leaves room for "mistakes". The assigned gender might not always equal gender identity, and that leaves room for the idea that gender might be something else than biological sex. That leaves room for transgender people, and the TERFs cannot have that.

This line of reasoning is reinforced by many of these activists having bought into some kind of pseudo-positivsm. By positivism I mean the belief that only the hard natural sciences – the ones that measure physical things – can provide real evidence about anything.

This is a kind of 1960's scientism, from a time when some natural scientists believed that everything in the world could be explained by atoms colliding. Few natural scientists believe in this kind of simplistic reductionism these days. In fact, biologists are very careful distinguish between biological sex, gendered behavior and as far as humans go: gender identity. I suspect that many of the TERFs have not moved beyond what the text books and the popular press told them some 30 to 40 years ago.

The  truth is, however,  that their own ideology does not allow for this kind of intellectual shortcuts. Feminism is, and always will be, about seeing through the cultural and political ideas and practices that keep women in check.

It says a lot about their state of mind that they are disregarding their own philosophy to such an extent that they are now arguing like their old enemy: the men of "The Patriarchy".

Right wing fundamentalists: Essentialism with a cultural twist

The old Patriarchy, as exemplified by the Victorian medical establishment of colonial Britain, actively promoted "natural essence" narratives, as they could use these narratives to keep women, people of color and queer people under control.

As these men saw it women had, for instance, an inborn capacity for child rearing and none for political leadership. Because of this it made  sense to deny them the right to vote. Men were supposed to lust for women (and definitely not want to be one) so any variation here had to be a sign of mental illness or radical subversiveness.

The "natural essence" was "natural", so any violation of that "essence" had to be "unnatural", i.e. something very bad and threatening.

Contemporary right wing religious fundamentalists are also likely to believe in a biological "sex essence" that explains the differences between men and women. It is supposed to guide decent folks to a proper understanding of how God and Nature want men and women to feel and behave.

It is as if men and women are born with different versions of the Human OS, an operating system that compels women to become the perfect housewife and men to become the strong and steady breadwinners.

But these people may also make use of cultural arguments. They have to in order to explain the existence of trans people.

If the gender binary is a natural aspect of God's perfect Nature, how can transgender people even exist? They have been seduced by sin.  They have been deceived by the transgender cult. These fundamentalists therefor argue strongly for the need to raise children in a God fearing environment, a cultural argument if there ever was one.

Indeed, they often talk of a "culture war", where everyone they fear and despise are part of an overall conspiracy aimed at overthrowing God-fearing Christians (or Hindus, or Muslims or Jews).

In "the West" the concept of gender violations is based on the old Judeo-Christian concept of "the fall". Ironically, the TERFs make use of similar arguments, even if they have replaced the concept of sin with male oppression and mental illness. The basic argument is the same: A violation of the gender binary is a violation of the eternal laws of God or Nature or their version of feminism.

Transgender activists: Biology meets culture

Transgender people often focus on the cultural aspects of gender, because socialization explains the ways in which transphobia and homophobia affect trans people, and how they force many of them to stay in the closet. This bigotry also explains the suffering they are facing if and when they do come out.

Still, the majority of trans people will, like me, refer to some kind of biological component when they discuss the complexities that might have caused their gender mismatch. I think the reason for this is that it is hard to explain why someone would end up trans in a cis-/heteronormative world without such a component, given the aggressive ways people are disciplined to become both cis and straight.

There is no way the "transgender cult" made me trans. I grew up in a community where there were no visible transgender role models of any importance.
Julia Serano can serve as an example of a leading trans activist
and thinker that takes a systemic approach to what makes
trans people trans.

It is not impossible to come up with purely psychological explanations for why trans people become trans, and such theories are not  more invalidating than the ones including biology as one of many components. Still, as far I am concerned, I find them less convincing and meaningful, at least as far as my own life experience goes.

The systemic nature of contemporary science

Please note that I am talking about  biological components here. It seems to me that most experts in the field, being those transgender activists or scientists, agree that a gender identity is born out of a complex interplay between genetic, hormonal, personal social and cultural factors. The way gender variance plays out in a specific environment at a specific time is most certainly influenced by culture.

These days scientists, both in biology and in the social sciences, are much more likely to take a systemic approach to the world, in the sense that any phenomenon is the end result of a complex interplay between various phenomena. You cannot understand the world by watching atoms collide, and this especially applies to psychological phenomena and social systems. There are feedback loops and cascading effects. There is even chaos influencing who we are and what we become.

I have found that most trans-activists  have very open minds about what causes gender identity mismatches and gender dysphoria. Few of them make use of the "trapped in the wrong body" trope (unless they use it as a metaphor for their experience of body dysphoria), and few of them believe that their own gender identity is a social construct only.

Indeed, I have found that transgender people are among the ones most likely to have a nuanced view of sex and gender. They are often better informed about the latest research on these phenomena, mostly because they – unlike their opponents – have spent years thinking about what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. They have been forced to see beyond the stereotypes.

This is also why most trans people who feel at home in the binary ("I am a woman and not non-binary"), find it easy to understand and accept non-binary trans  identities, and why non-binary trans people can relate to those who think of themselves as predominantly male or female.

The trans-activist stereotype

It turns out, however, that this more nuanced and complex narrative is hard to swallow for people who long for a simpler and more easy to understand view of the world, and a view that does not threaten their power and influence.

This explains why anti-trans activists may accuse trans people for committing two intellectual crimes at the same time:

1. The the trans activists are gender essentialists, believing in the biological "female/male brain trapped in the wrong body" narrative.

2. They are Post-modernist/Liberal/Marxist/Anarchist relativists who do not believe in any form of scientific reality and who argue that there are some 187 genders or more.

And yes, we are apparently arguing for both standpoints at the same time. This makes little sense, obviously, but sense in not a core property of the current sex/gender/transgender debates.

The reason for this lack of understanding is twofold, as I see it:

The first is political and tactical. TERFs using the "only biological sex is real" narrative may perfectly well know that reality is more complex – especially lesbian TERFs, who have seen the "sex is for procreation" trope used to invalidate their own identity. Still, the idea that gender can be reduced to gametes, genitals or chromosomes is so much easier to communicate.

Again and again we see tranphobes ridiculing the idea of a gender spectrum ("187 genders"), by reducing gender to gametes or chromosomes. This is not a scientific argument. This is a way of controlling the language in such a way that it becomes impossible to discuss a persons experience of being a man or woman or neither or both. They are literally removing everything that truly makes us human – feelings, ideas, passions, abilities, and personality traits  – in order to uphold their beloved binary.

Defining gender on the basis of chromosomes is not a scientific argument. It is a linguistic and cultural one.

As for the second reason: As noted above, it seems to me that many of the transphobes truly believes in this simplistic story. They clearly do.

The world is complex. Deal with it!

If we look at the world as interconnected systems, the idea that gender identity equals XX or XY chromosomes become idiotic, not only because the theory is not true, scientifically speaking, but because the way we feel and think about sex and gender is also colored by our language, history, our personality and our personal experience.

The transphobes are basically trying to weaponize abandoned text book versions of 1960s science to invalidate transgender people. They often succeed in doing so, because mass media has fed them even more simplified and popularized versions of those text book narratives throughout their lives. Moreover, most cis people have never been forced to think critically about sex and gender. For them biological sex and gender identity always line up, so the TERF narrative sounds like "common sense."

This is slowly changing, I am glad to say, but it will take time to bring all people into the 21st century. The good news is that more and more people do understand this. And I suspect the fact that transphobic TERFs are fighting side by side with right wing extremists, racists and religious fundamentalists will make even more people see the pattern:  Transphobia is, like racism, misogyny and homophobia, tools used by the people in power to keep their power. 


  1. "Much of the confusion and misunderstanding found in gender and transgender debate is caused by people not being able to distinguish between these different phenomena"

    here Jack I would prefer to think its more like not wanting to rather than not being able to. Once you admit these distinctions are real and nuanced, you destroy your simplistic black and white model which many cling to for assurance.

  2. Yes, you are probably right about that. We have the work cut out for us: We need to explain the nuances over and over again.

  3. We transgender people are valid and exist. It's as simple as that and, I perceive that society is inexorably, however slowly, coming to understand and accept us. Like me, I'm sure that you well remember the homophobia of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Here we are 40-50 years later and from what I see gays and lesbians are largely out, proud, and simply living their lives.

    The other day I was visiting with a friend (cis lesbian). We talked about how are lives are affected by the coronavirus. I mentioned that I miss exploring the world but that I wonder how well I'd be accepted as a trans woman. She nodded and saw how this is certainly something I would need to think about and be prepared for.

    I was unsettled for a day or two afterward. After all, she and my other cis lesbian friends have assured me that there's no doubt in their minds that I'm a woman which is reinforced as I live my life in the Seattle area where as far as I can tell I am seamlessly treated like any other woman. My friend's reaction informed me that at least when looked at closely I'm visibly trans.

    For a moment or two I thought about having more facial surgery, perhaps even on vocal chords. I quickly tossed out that thought: recovery sucks and it's terribly expensive. And, at bottom, no matter what I do — even if I perfectly pass, which is unlikely — I will always be a trans woman, not a woman without that qualifier.

    I then wrote a note to myself, including:
    Like ones sexuality, skin color, cultural background, education, or life, being trans isn’t my primary identity. I am a lady then and now. I arrived here by a different route than cisgender women, but I’m here all the same.

    If I’m going to see the future I want, I need to live and breathe it.

    I think that's the main point I'd like to make. As with gays and lesbians back in the day we trans people need to emerge with pride and carriage, steadfastly claiming our spaces as the ladies and gentlemen that we are. It's scary at times but through the interactions and familiarity gained by cis people we will increasingly become known as normal people like anyone else.

  4. "I am a lady then and now". Sure, life is complicated, but this is the core, the important part. I admire you greatly, Emma!


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