August 29, 2021

Why are Trans People Trans? (Part 3): Psychoanalysis and the Inversion Model

Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, androphilic female impersonators and crossdressers living in Victorian London (1869). I do not know their real gender identity. Photo colorized by Crossdreamers.

In part 2 of this article  I discussed the most popular ways of explaining what makes trans people trans today. In this final part I will discuss  psychological explanations for transgender identities, as well as the debunked two type model.

The Psychodynamic Model

Sigmund Freud was wrong about most things, but that does not stop him from being the most important psychiatrist of all time. His study of the subconscious helped debunk the quasi-rationalistic idea that what we are consciously aware of is all there is to the psyche. 

These days practically all psychologists and psychiatrists accept the notion that there are parts of our psyche we are not consciously aware of, and that what is hidden there does influence our "ego" (the conscious side of our mind.) 

Indeed, the concept of the unconscious is necessary if you want to make sense of the life journeys of many trans people, as social and cultural oppression makes they hide their transgender side deep down in their own minds, to the point where they can no longer recognize it for what it is. Crossdreaming and gender dysphoria are ways for the mind to bring that side up in the light of day again.

Unfortunately, Freud's thinking did not really help queer and trans people in the long run. His psychoanalysis (which is part of the broader psychodynamic tradition) became instead a tool for oppression. 

Freud's original ambition was to base his theories in neurology. That is hard even today, and at his time it was impossible. Because of this Freud decoupled his study of the mind from the study of the body. This is what caused the main problem with many psychodynamic approaches to gender formation, and not only the Freudian one. 

There are no good ways of confirming or falsifying such theories for good. You may come up with two contradictory hypotheses regarding why someone assigned male end up identifying as a woman, without having a good way of proving which one is the right one.

Sigmund Freud

Maybe trans women have become too attached to their mother, because of a weak father who have failed at socializing them into male society. They therefore identify with the mother. Or maybe trans women have become so attached to a strong father that they want to replace mother as his love object. 

Are trans men suffering from penis envy? If so, are trans women suffering from vagina envy? There is no such thing as vagina envy, the Freudians say, so no. Because everyone wants a penis. Do they now?

Maybe trans women become trans because their mothers have been depressed? Or where their mothers depressed because they had a trans kid?

I have met crossdreamers who think they are trans because they had female relatives who dressed them up as girls when they were young.  I do not believe they were lying about what happened. This clearly happens way more often than one should expect.

Still, the immediate questions that have to be asked are: (1) What about all the trans women who where not  dressed up as girl when they were young? And (2) what about all the cis men who where dressed up as girls, but who nevertheless feel safe in their cis male identity as adults?

I should add here that Freud himself was split between the idea of the gender neutral, bisexual, origin of the self, and the idea that the libido is masculine and that the penis is the main signifier of sex.

Many early psychoanalysts actually doubted that gay and trans people could be effectively "cured". Many of Freud's later followers, however, did not  catch on to this subtlety, and  after the Second Wold War many psychoanalysts started policing the existing gender system. 

Indeed, we also see some bizarre overlap between psychoanalysis and behaviorism, a school of psychology that did not recognize the subconscious. The behaviorists saw men and women as rats in a maze, automata that could be reprogrammed by using punishment and reward, stimulus and response. 

This lead to aversion therapies, where gay men where given electroshocks while being forced to watch gay porn, and trans women were given nausea inducing while wearing feminine clothing. The idea was that these negative associations would make them straight and cis. This kind of unethical torture never worked, but the psychiatrists wanted them to work, so they kept on using these methods.

I am not saying that psychodynamic talk therapy is of no use. Quite the opposite. I think it can be of great value to trans people suffering from dysphoria. But you cannot use stories like these to explain what makes trans people trans in general.

Note that contemporary psychoanalysis has become influenced by queer theory and shows a much greater respect for gender diversity these days. Unfortunately this has not led to the tradition becoming less speculative.

I am 100 percent sure that personal life experiences, including childhood experiences, shape the way  trans identities unfold through time. But there is no way one  psychological phenomena can explain the diversity of transgender identities. I have learned to know a lot of trans people, and they are as diverse as cis people as far as personality traits, interests and abilities go.

The Two Type Inversion Model

One recurring topic in research on transgender people is the idea that there are more than one type of them, each with a completely different cause. The reason for this is mainly that some scientists are not trained at considering the social and cultural differences between various "tribes" of trans people. 

John Radclyffe Hall's  novel The Well of Loneliness
(1928) explains lesbianism as a sort of sexual inversion,
and the protagonist even refers to the sexology of the
early 20th century. Photo of Radclyffe Hall.

Being raised as a woman is a different experience than being raised as a man. Being sexually attracted to men leads to different dynamics than being attracted to women.  In trans people this may lead to different ways of handling and expressing their gender incongruence.

As noted, I believe there is wide "rainbow" diversity of trans people, and their lives are all unique. Yet, I also see clear patterns across groups defined by assigned gender and sexual orientation. You find gender dysphoria with depression and anxiety in all of them. 

You also find crossdreaming all over the place, as in using clothes and mannerisms to explore the role of the target gender. The way this is done may vary on an aggregated level (as in flamboyant drag vs. closeted crossdressing), but the need to express "the other side" is found everywhere in the trans community.

I have found no coherent, stable and persistent patterns in traits, behaviors or physiology that justify a theory of mutually excluding categories of trans people.

That has not stopped people from trying to establish such divides, though. That applies to both scientists and trans people.

The most popular and persistent approach is found in variants of the inversion theory. This theory is based on the premise that gender identity can be reduced to an effect of sexual orientation, which again is expressed through gender stereotypes. 

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

The theory became popular in the late 19th century. The sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) described inversion as as anima muliebris virili corpore incluse, or "a woman's soul confined within a man's body". 

This basically meant that all gay men were seen as  some kind of trans women. Their femininity was an expression of  a female sexuality, which again could be seen as some kind of female anima or soul. This meant that the feminine gay man was not seen as a threat to the gender binary. Inside "he" was a heterosexual woman.

In history books you will read that the theory was soon abandoned, as there were too many masculine gay men and feminine lesbian women around to uphold it. 

Moreover, this positive image of gay men as traditional women did not go down well in the homophobic and transphobic parts of society.

Anyone who truly knows something about gay men and lesbian women knows that for every feminine or transfeminine gay man, you will find a masculine (or even hypermasculine) one. For every butch lesbian there is a femme

Furthermore, gay and lesbian people come in all shades as far as gender expression go, as do straight people. And of the male assigned people who are attracted to men (being "androphilic") most often identify with their assigned gender. Female assigned people who love women ("gynephilic") are also for the most part cisgender (non-transgender). In other words: The whole theory is based on a misleading stereotype, and nothing more.

The theory was, in part, based on the observation of female impersonators and entertainers (drag queens in today's language). The doctors clearly believed that they were all homosexual. This was not the case, but they probably never asked them. This means that the only MTF (male to female)  transgender people they had to recognize as gynephilic were the closeted "crossdressers" (known as "transvestites") who came to their offices to seek help. It was this that led to the two type model. On the one hand you had the "effeminate gay men", on the other "the transvestic fetishists".

MTF trans people in Berlin bar 1933. 

Both groups consisted of male assigned people who crossdressed (relative to their assigned gender), but only the androphilic ones could be seen as "proper inverts" (as real women have to love men) according to this approach. 

So the scientists had to come up with a different explanation for the other group. They found this explanation in sexual fetish theory.  Gynephilic MTF  transfeminine people were fetishists who got turned on by wearing female clothing. 

Given that trans people are as sexually driven and motivated as cis people, is should come as no surprise experienced presenting as their target gender arousing. After all, the dream of being recognized as your real gender made the possibility of having sex as your target gender possible. The doctors found this incomprehensible (as real women love men, remember) and therefore reduced the identity of these trans women to a sexual perversion. 

Much less was written about trans men, but most of the so-called experts seemed to think of all trans men as "inverts". Gay trans men did not exist in their world. They have always existed, of course, but their invisibility in the medical community has made it even harder for them to be recognized. 

The inversion theory was all but dead by the 1920s. However, the idea that there were two distinct groups of trans women (but not trans men) lived on. 

MTF androphilic trans people drifted towards gay culture, while MTF gynephilic trans people often tried to establish a straight male image of sorts, with a dash of natural feminine expressions (as in the "transvestite" clubs and organizations of the 1960s and 70s). I am sad to say that some trans people played along with the two type narrative, trying hard to present themselves as "real transsexuals", i.e. trans women who loved men. This probably accentuated the differences in the eyes of the doctors, even if the differences were a product of culture, not nature.

Ray Blanchard and his two type model

In the lated 1980s Ray Blanchard relaunched the inversion based two type model using new terms and new explanations. I am not going to go into a long deconstruction of his theory here. I have written extensively about it already (see links below). 

I have also thoroughly documented that his activism is anchored in his transphobia. Indeed, he is currently actively helping transphobic feminists and white supremacists in their attacks on trans people. He is not the independent and objective scientist he think he is. Far from it.

Because of his activism his idea that androphilic trans women are "effeminate gay men" and gynephilic trans women "autogynephiles" (i.e. straight men who suffer from an "erotic target location error") have been thoroughly tested by other scientists. They have falsified his theory over and over again. 

His is a theory that requires a water tight divide between the two types. The "autogynephilies" get aroused by the idea of being a woman, Blanchard argues. This is, as he sees i,  a misdirection of a straight male sexuality. 

The "homosexual transsexual" on the other hand (a deliberate slur aimed at invalidating the identity of straight trans women) is trying to attract cis men by appearing as a cis woman. She is not in love with her inner woman. These women can therefore not have sexual fantasies about being a woman.

But many of them do. Indeed, Blanchard's own data shows as much. In order to get around that hurdle Blanchard has claimed that androphilic trans women who report erotic crossdreaming are lying. They are actually deceitful "autogynephiles", he says. The trans women who seems to agree with his theory are not lying. This is, of course, ridiculous, as  later research has confirmed. 

It is true that gynephilic and bisexual MTF trans people are more likely to report erotic crossdreaming than the androphilic ones, most likely for cultural reasons, but there is a significant overlap between the two groups. This means that the only consistent difference between the two categories of trans women is that the members of one group loves men and the other loves women or are bisexual. That is a human made categorization that tells us nothing about the cause of transgender identities.

By the way, Blanchard is not really that interested in FTM trans people. For a long time he stuck to the traditional story of there being practically no gay trans men around, and he still argues that there is no erotic crossdreaming among those assigned female at birth. There is.

The two type model is dead.


It has turned out that it is impossible to find a coherent psychological narrative that can be used to predict the creation of transgender identities. 

The fact that we find gender incongruence, gender dysphoria and crossdreaming in all groups of transgender people, regardless of assigned gender or sexual orientation, is a clear indication of them sharing at least some of the factors causing transgender identities.

This means that the more complex "Rainbow Model", with a biological component, is the one most likely to explain transgender identities in a meaningful manner.

Tailcalled has asked why trans women transition. I can expand this question into one about trans people in general, trans men and trans women.

My answer is simple: Most trans women and men transition because of gender dysphoria and/or finding out that the gender role they are forced to play does not fit with their experienced gender, their fundamental nature, if you will.

There are trans people who do not transition, for a variety of personal, social, political and/or economic reasons. But they are still the gender they experience themselves to be.

Relevant articles found at this site

Other articles


See also Books on Crossdreaming, Sex, Gender and Transgender Lives


  1. As I read this just now it occurs to me: It is what it is. We are what we are.

    Maybe the larger question is why society finds finding a rationale for being trans important. Why don't we try to figure out what makes a cis man or cis woman? Sure, there are people trying to determine that but as you wrote it's seemingly impossible to define what makes a man or woman. And frankly, for lay people like me, I go about my life not caring about this. It is what it is.

    Likewise for homosexuality, bisexuality, etc. Somehow society has — at least here in the US — largely come to accept that gay people are gay. It is what it is.

    I wonder if in a hundred years that the concept of transitioning will be seen as a quaint historical notion. Children will simply be raised to find themselves wherever they find themselves on the sexuality and gender spectrums.

  2. I think you are right. But in a hundred years they will probably have other "culture wars" based on another way of dismissing people they do not like.

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