On gender identity

Transgender individuals “are” the gender they identify as: a trans woman is and always has been a trans woman, and hence a woman, whether she was aware of it or not. (And mutatis mutandi for trans men). This should have been understood since the publication of “The Transsexual Phenomenon” by Dr. Harry Benjamin in 1966. Our understanding and nomenclature has evolved since then, but he had the basic facts straight.

Only relatively recently has a third gender become widely recognized: “non-binary” or “gender fluid”. Not identifying as either male or female, they have the preferred pronouns “they” and “their” (as singular referents).

One often sees the assertion that “sex” is binary, but “gender” is a social construct, or status (on a continuous spectrum): acquired or developed, and so not biological. The first assertion is demonstrably false. The second is also false, but we need to be precise about definitions.

First let us deal quickly with the sex error. Humans do not all have either XX or XY chromosomes. That would by itself negate the thesis in question. But beyond chromosomes, humans have more than two possible sets of reproductive organs. For example, some people with XX chromosomes do not have uteruses. One could go on; it’s not necessary. Sex (defined as the role played in sexual reproduction, a well-defined concept in biology) is not, rigorously speaking, binary.

The focus of this post is, however, on the “gender” discussion. Legacy understanding of sex and gender (and let us note that not every human language distinguishes these terms: “Geschlecht” is the German translation for both, for example) has it that there are men and women, and that’s the end of the story.

The opinion is easily found after nearly every online news story about a trans person, that chromosomes (only XX and XY) are the arbiter of gender, and hence unchangeable. “Transgender” is nothing but a flavor of the month (“Today I identify as a dog, and I expect to be given free food and petted all day”). The more “thoughtful” of these commentators tell us that it’s a neurotic disturbance, and we should seek therapy. But all have the core position that it’s a decision – a choice.

If gender is a social construct (in the sense that evolving social attitudes define it in any way), then they’re right. And they’re wrong.

I know they’re wrong because I’ve lived this reality from the beginning of my memory. So I know, with absolute certainty, that if it was “socially constructed”, it happened before I had a vocabulary that included “social construct” (and long before I had the slightest notion that there were sex-specific roles in society). In general, this is the experience of essentially every trans woman whose story has reached the public today. (“Essentially” allows for the infrequent exceptions that are to be expected in every aspect of biology.)

We know we are trans long before we know what it means. Our identification as girls usually happens the moment we are aware of girls and boys as different types of humans. We may (and often do) reject and repress the awareness because it’s scary, because society so obviously condemns it. We may continue to reject it for decades. But it is there from the beginning, and it never goes away.

We don’t know if trans identity is conferred somehow in genetics, or by hormones in the womb (both are plausible but the evidence is far from conclusive), or some other developmental phenomenon. What we unambiguously know is that it is as biological as any other part of our beings. We do not choose it, and it has nothing to do with any logical construct. It is our identity. We are women (and trans men are men) as completely as any other woman. Different from most: yes. But still women, and not by choice, and not by any social definition.

The phrase “social construct” came, I think, from well-meaning people who are confusing gender identity and gender-linked behaviors and personality traits. On the average, men are indeed from Mars and women from Venus. But essentially every behavior or personality trait that is statistically linked to one gender may be found associated with the other. We should be long past arguing about whether men can like feeding babies and women can be mechanics. That has nothing to do with gender.

Non-binary people fit seamlessly into this framework. They are united in an identity that is just what the label says it is, regardless of any different feelings of masculinity and femininity.

Gender identity is fundamental and immutable. It may be more important to some people than others. Most of us who have had to struggle against society’s rejection of ours find it to be one of the most important facets of our existence. We are not going to let this be defined away as anything that varies with social attitudes. We are who we are.

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