What it Means to Feel Male or Female: Response to an Article
I read an article by a trans-woman who was trying to explain what it means to “be trans.” I like to occasionally read these articles to make sure I keep an open mind about issues of gender and transition, and to see the sorts of things that people like my daughter, who claim to be the opposite gender and therefore must “transition”, are reading. In this particular article, the author argued vehemently that to question the feeling that one is trans is ridiculous, unfair, and illogical and, based on their comments, the nine people who had commented on the article at the time I read it, felt that the author expressed the feeling of being “trans” well.
From my perspective, none of the author’s arguments were new or persuasive, and I think they warrant response rather than unquestioning approval. Because, if one actually takes the time to think about these arguments, it becomes apparent that they do nothing to explain why anyone must “be trans.” Instead, these arguments actually serve to highlight the logical problems with gender ideology.
The three arguments the author uses to normalize “being trans” are as follows:
Point 1: The author of the article asked her daughters, ages 7 and 8, how they know they are girls. They said they just feel like girls. She asked them why, and they just laughed and said they just are girls, without explanation. When asked how they know they are not boys, they said they just know. The author argues that it is not fair or reasonable to allow the validity of this “feeling” only if it happens to match the biology of the person in question.
Point 2: The author asked the reader to do a thought experiment where you, a man or a woman, suddenly wake up with a different body that is the opposite sex (breasts or no breasts, beard or no beard, varying sex drive, etc.). Wouldn’t you still feel like the man or woman you were before, be upset with the new body, and feel trapped? And wouldn’t you be upset if other people denied your feeling just because they saw your body and said you must be what your body is? It is clearly reasonable for you to feel upset about this incongruity between your body and mind, and about others invalidating your feelings. As such, trans individuals’ feelings of upset at being in the wrong body should not be judged or questioned.
Point 3: The author explained how various body parts don’t make you male or female. After all, a female who loses her breasts (e.g. Angelina Jolie) or her ovaries is still a female, as would be a male who lost his penis or testicles, etc. The body parts aren’t what make you male or female. It’s the feeling of being male or female that makes you male or female. The grand conclusion was that “Gender comes from within”, it is not about your body or body parts.
I would counter these three arguments as follows:
Counterpoint 1: A little girl cannot be expected to give a good answer to why she is a girl or how she knows that—she is a child. However, this adult does have the context to know this. How does she know? Because 1) She has a female body, and 2) she was told that she is a girl because of that body. Had the girl been brought up alone, with wolves or people who did not use any form of language, she wouldn’t know she was a girl because “girl” is a word that is used by people in society to refer to young biological females. In society, however, girls (and boys) are informed from a very early age that they are girls (or boys) and adults know how to inform them of which they are because of their biological bodies. Interestingly, the author of the article asked her daughters if they felt like girls because she knew they were biologically female. Otherwise, she would have asked them how they know they are boys. Clearly their bodies played a role in how they were perceived and how they perceived themselves.
Here’s a new thought experiment. Imagine that you tell a little girl - to be clear, I mean a young child who was born biologically female - from infancy that she is a boy. Have everyone around her tell her she is a boy. Never show her male genitals or let her see how little boys urinate. Since everyone from day one told her she is a boy, she will absolutely believe it, despite, perhaps some cultural stereotype clues that might make her question. If you ask her how she knows she is a boy, she won’t have a good answer, but will probably say that she just knows it. You will have gaslighted her into thinking she is a boy. Now one day, when puberty hits, you will be in a lot of trouble when the evidence of her true nature will be undeniable and obvious. Until then though, she will simply think she is a boy.
Getting out of the thought experiment, the reality is that some boys don’t fit in with other boys in terms of the societal notions of masculinity, or girls with notions of femininity. Some boys and girls will feel so out of place that they may question their gender. This is particularly true if they are surrounded by people who stick to the stereotypes, and don’t allow for variation. If an effeminate boy is given the message enough that only girls like Barbie dolls, or dress-up or playing tea party, etc., and if he likes all those things and is reasonably observant and intelligent enough to make the clear logical leap, he will likely conclude that he is really a girl. Thus, from very early on, he would feel that he is a girl because he doesn’t fit the definition society is presenting him for what a boy is and rather, he fits the definition for what a girl is. This feeling that he is a girl does not make him “trans,” but just shows that he is aware that he doesn’t fit cultural stereotypes.
Why don’t we just accept declarations of gender that oppose biology? Simple - because there is something called material reality. If we take it as a given that a boy who says he is a girl is a girl, we are messing with that reality. But I have another question: why does someone who “feels like a girl” need a “girl-appearing” body if being a “girl” has nothing to do with your body? Why must they match? The author of the article said nothing to answer that question. So, given how dangerous it is to mess with the delicate chemical balance of the body and how risky some of the transgender surgeries are, why is it so bad to hope that someone can live in the skin they were born in? This is not judgmental of people’s feelings at all, but is just paying deference to the importance of a healthy body. It is possible to respect someone’s feelings while still being concerned and not over-reacting to those feelings with rash medical treatments. Clearly since, according to the author, gender has nothing to do with a body, but is just a feeling, medicalization of gender doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given the risks involved.
Counterpoint 2: The author contends, through the construct of a thought experiment, that dropping into a wrong body would be distressing, and analogous to the feeling of being transgender. However, in no way would suddenly dropping into an altered body mimic thinking you were born in the wrong body. People don’t, without medical intervention, suddenly change appearance to that of the opposite sex—if that happened, it would be a very strange phenomenon indeed. Similarly, if you suddenly were a different race and much taller or much shorter, or your face was totally different, you would feel very weird indeed. However is in no way similar to saying you hate the body you were born in and must alter it to be happy. Also, if your body suddenly changed, society would not think you were unbalanced for feeling out of sorts because it would be a perfectly reasonable, rational response to a sudden body change—which is bizarre in terms of material reality. If you were born in a healthy body and insist that it is the wrong body, that is not similarly rational or reasonable. While most people at times wish their bodies or faces were different (I know I have), we try to come to accept a healthy body as it is and be happy with our appearance. To the extent that society tells us we should love the skin we’re in, that is because it is maladaptive to reject your healthy body.
Instead, to reject your body, what you are really need to be saying is: (1) you feel that you cannot live with the stereotypes of society for your biological sex; or (2) you have a feeling that your body is wrong and needs to change—not because of a “gender identity,” since that has no meaning apart from the body and stereotypes, and since there is no reason that undefinable thing requires a new body — but instead because you just know you have to change your body’s appearance to ever be happy.
A feeling that you don’t fit the stereotypes for your biological sex while totally understandable, could be dealt with in at least three ways. First, society can be more open to gender non-conformity. Second, individuals who are bucking stereotypes can grow a thicker skin to deal with ridiculously judgmental people. Obviously, this is not easy, which is why the third way of dealing with not fitting stereotypes, transitioning, still might be the answer of last resort for some. The irony is that society credits itself for being kind-hearted and progressive by encouraging medical transition instead of simply encouraging non-judgmental freedom of expression when it comes to gender which, again, given the risks of medical transition, should be the preferred solution.
The feeling that you are actually in the “wrong body” is a problem in which you simply cannot accept your body. This is maladaptive— if someone wants to cut off healthy body parts, that is a problem. We may decide to treat it by cutting off those parts, but that is not the best way of treating the problem of not being able to accept one’s body. The better thing would be therapy to allow the person to accept the sexed body they have, just as it is better to appreciate your racial make-up, your facial features, your body type, etc. That you accept your body as it is does not foreclose expression of your gender any way. A man can wear make-up and dresses if he pleases, and a woman can have a crew cut and wear plaid shirts and baggy jeans, etc. An attempt should be made to accept your healthy body the way it is without rejecting it in favor of synthetic chemicals and surgeries to make it appear the opposite sex. If a given person simply cannot accept their sexed body, as an adult who has had in-depth therapy, then transition may be the answer of last resort.
Counterpoint 3: It is, of course, true that a given body part does not make you male or female. However, if that’s true, why then does someone who says they have a “male gender identity” need a penis or even a beard or a deeper voice? Why does someone who says they have a “female gender identity” need breasts, or a hairless face? The answer for those people, I would think, is that they want to appear and live as the opposite sex—and that includes wanting opposite sex body parts.
Wanting to appear as the opposite sex does not automatically make someone into a man. The definition of being a “man” is someone with a biologically male body and a history of living in that body. A masculine woman is not a man. A man’s penis may be cut off as may his testicles, and he is still a man because he still has a male body. Similarly, a human is still a human without legs or arms or eyes or kidneys or breasts or a penis. A pig is a pig even without its tail and its characteristic snout. That does not somehow remove biology from the definition of a human or a pig. I am still a human, even without many of my human body parts, not because of a feeling. My biology and history of living in my body make me a human—and, in my case, a female.
Granted, we could have a new definition of a “man” as “someone who wishes they had a male body.” Is this a useful definition? Why do this only for gender? Am I tall if I wish I was? Am I Asian because I really like the way Asian people look and I want to look like that, and surgeries might help me appear Asian? Am I 21 years old because I wish I looked 21 right now, and surgery might help me look more like a 21-year-old? Defining people based purely on their wishes is, to be blunt, silly.
Again, only with respect to gender would we even consider such a thing. Recall Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was crucified for saying she identified as black. Coincidentally, this coincided with Caitlyn Jenner declaring that she identifies as a woman. Jenner was applauded and put upon a pedestal at the same time Dolezal was vilified. If identity is simply what we feel like or wish we were, why aren’t we the race, the age, the body type we identify with? Why do we consider material reality for all things other than gender? And do we really want to ignore material reality?
That having been said, if someone medically transitions to a woman, they can have a female-appearing body and live in society as if they were a female, and eventually, they will have gained social experience as a woman. At some point, for that person, having lived so long as if they were female and with a female-appearing body, they might as well be categorized as female as they will likely be perceived as this by others. However, someone in a male body who simply declares “I am female” is not female based on the wish. That person’s male body and experience of life at that point is male.
Angelina Jolie, who has a female body, with or without her natural breasts, will still be a female because her entire body is female and she has always lived as a female. A mastectomy does not turn Angelina Jolie or any woman into a man. This obvious truth, that particular body parts do not determine whether someone is a male or a female, does not prove that being female “comes from within.” While a person’s wishes and intentions are certainly relevant in determining their actions and their personality, something called material reality—biology plus history—determines whether they are male, female, human, pig, short, tall, a particular racial make-up, a particular age, etc. Maleness or femaleness comes from biology and history. A medically transitioned person living as if they were the opposite sex might ultimately best be categorized as if they were the opposite sex. However, my teenage daughter, who wishes she were a boy, is not a boy, and I am not going to encourage her in that wish because she will be best off, with lower risk, if she can accept the healthy body she was lucky enough to be born with.
Conclusion: None of the arguments made by the author of that article have convinced me that we should normalize feeling alienated from your body, or thinking you are the opposite sex. Such maladaptive feelings deserve sympathy and care—not "affirmation," chemicals, and surgery.