“I think, therefore I am.”
René Descartes, often called the father of modern philosophy (according to Wikipedia anyway), wrote these famous words in an attempt to be certain of his existence. Later thinkers typically define existence through experience, but its meaning still has to be analyzed. While I doubt that many transgender people consult philosophy texts as they clarify their identity, I believe they are gazing into overlapping pools.
The underpinnings of most controversy about trans identity today, whether serious intellectual debate or primitive invective, can be traced down to one source: the belief that it is a choice. Critics may call it a decision, a lifestyle, a delusion, or a fantasy, but never a given reality. Its essence is defined by external signs: clothing, hairstyles, preferred pronouns (as in J.K. Rowling’s first thunderclap: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like….”) In this view, social influence is obvious. Girls: oppressed by society’s expectations for your body? No problem; just become a boy! Boys: tired of warming the bench? You can easily beat the girls!
Trans people of all ages know the truth. When nearly 80% of trans students report harassment, assault, or disciplinary consequences at school, when 60% experience intense pressure from parents to change their identity, when 40% or more have considered suicide just in the last year, when more than 95% of the heterosexual cis respondents in one study would refuse to date any trans person, the notion of social appeal in gender transition is a peculiar fantasy indeed.
Personal stories of the agonizing struggle for acceptance are plentiful; ones of facile acceptance are not. Apart from a very few people who do have underlying neurotic complications, no one willingly embraces a false gender identity. One seeks to be who one really is. For trans people, that is not an easy path.
As outlandish as the transition-by-choice accusation is for those who know what it’s really like, it is the entrenched belief of a large segment of the population. It isn’t clear what evidence would convince them otherwise. Biochemical research has already uncovered intriguing pointers toward both direct genetic and prenatal hormonal causation, and MRI scans suggest distinctive brain differences. But these still-emerging results won’t affect those who regard XX or XY chromosomes as the beginning and end of the story. And the American Psychiatry Association, American Psychological Association, and WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) are simply dismissed as a conspiracy of corrupt money-grubbers (conspiracy theories seem quite in vogue these days in many areas).
So why are those minds so closed? Why are the most rational social media comments predominantly some variant of: “we shouldn’t have to cater to this delusion;” “this fad was only stirred up by a woke media a few years ago;” and “adults can do whatever they want, just don’t touch anyone under 18, because children aren’t mature enough to make such life-altering decisions.”
Which brings us back to the question posed at the beginning: how do we know? Trans people know their identity. The skeptic (blatantly prejudiced or not) finds this inconceivable, yet it is in fact the only way. There is no other diagnostic. Psychologists can and should help, but in the end the individual has to know, and they know it by thought.
It’s not, however, a matter of rational analysis, though obviously factual input is important. Most trans adults were aware of a problem with their assigned gender before they even knew what abstract thinking was. Neither cis nor trans children analyze whether they’re boys or girls. The difference for trans is that, mislabeled from the beginning, they have to question the mistake: “Why are they saying this? Am I wrong? Have I missed something?” And perhaps most importantly: “Is there a way out of this that doesn’t make me a social pariah?”
It’s not easy for children to question adults, especially hostile ones, and it may not happen for years, even decades. The longer they wait, the more uncertainty can grow from the shame that society tells them they should feel. And then we’re told that we’re making a profound life-altering decision that our poor adolescent or pre-adolescent brains aren’t capable of. But the only decision being made is whether one has the courage to face the opprobrium.
Transgender identity is not a choice, nor is it a mental illness. It is a mental condition (as is cis identity). Thinking is the only way to know, leading to self-identification. Anyone who thinks that is easy, or could be done for some ulterior benefit, has clearly not had to confront it. And it is not related in any way to the features of the brain which are known to be at or near maturity around the age of 18. The child is indeed parent to the adult.