What Is Gender Identity?

The elusive true gender self

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#lgbt #ftm #transgender #trans

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the last decade, “gender identity” should sound familiar. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, you have a gender identity, as does everyone else. Apparently learning about it might be dangerous, at least at a tender age. Recently a lawmaker in South Dakota proposed a bill that would ban teaching about gender identity in elementary and middle schools. That bill went nowhere, but the phrase is entrenched in law: for example, in 2011 gender identity joined sexual orientation and sex as a legally protected characteristic in Massachusetts.

What is gender identity? That is not an easy question to answer. Massachusetts law is positively unhelpful: it defines “gender identity” as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance, or behavior.” But that just replaces the term to be defined with another one equally in need of definition. What’s worse, “gender-related identity, appearance, or behavior,” at least on one natural interpretation, seems too broad. Diana, Princess of Wales, identified as a princess (an identity related to gender, of course) — and she certainly appeared and behaved like a princess. Clearly it was not the law’s intent to include “princess” as a legally protected gender identity.

Turning to a more authoritative source, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) gives this definition of “gender identity” in their latest Standards of Care:

A person’s intrinsic sense of being male (a boy or a man), female (a girl or woman), or an alternative gender (e.g., boygirl, girlboy, transgender, genderqueer, eunuch).

This raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps the word “intrinsic” wasn’t meant to add much to “sense,” but it does hint that I have a special access to my own sex that I don’t have to my other attributes. I wouldn’t say I have an “intrinsic sense” of being bald, being tall, or even of being human, so why is my sex any different? Miley Cyrus, the singer and former star of the TV series Hannah Montana, is puzzled herself. “I’m always like, ‘It’s weird that I’m a girl, because I just don’t feel like a girl,’” she remarked in an interview with Billboard Magazine. (She doesn’t feel like a boy either.) As she says, she is female (a girl or woman) — why isn’t her intrinsic sense telling her that?Is Sex Binary?The answer offered in a recent New York Times opinion piece is more confusing than enlighteningarcdigital.media

There is a more pressing problem. WPATH defines “gender identity” using other special terms that also need defining, for instance “gender.” The meaning of that term is conveyed by giving examples of some “genders,” in the hope that this is enough for the reader to catch on. Yet further special terms are used in labeling the examples, like “genderqueer.” What does “genderqueer” mean? Here is WPATH’s definition:

Identity label that may be used by individuals whose gender identity and/or role does not conform to a binary understanding of gender as limited to the categories of man or woman, male or female.

Being genderqueer seems very different from being a eunuch, another example of a “gender.” A eunuch is simply a castrated male. These days, ritual castration is a rarity, and the usual way of becoming a eunuch is through treatment for prostate cancer. WPATH’s examples of “genders” have so little in common that it’s hard to know how to continue the list.

But the really pressing problem is something else: we are now going round in a circle. “Gender identity” is defined partly using “genderqueer,” and “genderqueer” is partly defined using “gender identity.” The WPATH glossary is not useless — it gives you at least some help in understanding one of these terms if you understand the other. But it’s of no help if you don’t understand either one.

Sally Hines is a Professor of Sociology and Gender Identities, which sounds reassuring. For assistance, let us turn to her recent book, Is Gender Fluid?Gender identity, Hines explains,

refers to each person’s internal sense of being male, female, a combination of the two, or neither. It is a core part of who people know themselves to be.

This definition has an advantage over WPATH’s because there is no circularity. But “internal sense” seems even more perplexing than “intrinsic sense.” (“Inner sense” is another expression that is sometimes used.) And what is meant by a “combination” of being female and being male? In the case of so-called “intersex” conditions — where the person’s phenotype has both female and male aspects — one can make some sense of this peculiar way of talking. It is quite clear, though, that Hines did not have intersex conditions in mind.¹

Perhaps Hines’s “combination” of “being male, female” was a misleading way of saying something straightforward, like: a combination of masculine and feminine personality traits and interests? Although a later page in her book suggests as much, it is unlikely that this is the correct interpretation. No one thinks that a very feminine man is prevented from having a male gender identity, or that a very masculine woman is prevented from having a female gender identity. What’s more, practically everyone has some traits more prevalent in the other sex, but “male” and “female” gender identities are supposed to be the norm, not rare exceptions.

Our last resort is the American Psychological Association. In 2009 the APA produced a report on “Gender Identity and Gender Variance,” written by a blue-ribbon committee. If the answer isn’t found here, it’s not found anywhere. Here’s what they say:

Gender identity refers to a person’s basic sense of being male, female, or of indeterminate sex.

Much better! No obscure phrases like “internal sense,” no confounding list of “genders,” and no head-scratching talk about combinations of the sexes. The APA definition is lifted directly from the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, the author of an influential book, Sex and Gender, published in 1968. (WPATH also cites Stoller, although the WPATH definition is not his.) This is how Stoller defined gender identity in a 1964 paper:

Gender identity is the sense of knowing to which sex one belongs, that is, the awareness ‘I am a male’ or ‘I am a female.’

This is Stoller’s account of what he called core gender identity — the awareness or knowledge of one’s sex. (“Gender identity” sans phrase, as Stoller conceived it, is much more expansive and not very well-defined.²) Sensibly, nothing “intrinsic” or “internal” is built in to the definition of core gender identity. If an “internal sense” is somehow involved, that should be revealed by careful scientific investigation, not assumed at the outset.

Stoller’s definition needs a qualification. As he points out, sometimes a person can “know” that he is male despite actually being female. This sometimes happens when a female baby with an intersex condition is raised as a male. Drawing on studies by the psychologist John Money, Stoller wrote: “Even when an individual has been reared in the gender opposite to the biological sex a clear-cut core gender identity develops wherein the person unquestionably feels that he or she is a member of the assigned sex, if no one raising the person questions it either.” That is, a female baby raised and socially treated as a boy, has (or sometimes has) a male core gender identity. Here the person does not know (and is not aware) that he is male, because he isn’t, and you can’t know something false. Instead, he apparently knows — he believes that he is male. Thus a better way of putting Stoller’s definition is to say that core gender identity is apparent knowledge or awareness of one’s sex. Usually this apparent knowledge will be the genuine article, but occasionally it won’t.

The definition from Stoller does not mention “indeterminate sex,” which appears in the APA definition. Stoller put that in elsewhere, to accommodate exceptionally unusual cases in which a person with an intersex condition “does not have a clear-cut gender identity as either male or female.” This is not important for our purposes, and we can ignore the qualification about “indeterminate sex” from now on.

The development of core gender identity in children has been extensively studied. At around ages 2–3 children know that they are either female or male, and over the next 2–4 years come to realize that their sex is not a temporary property, and cannot be changed by altering clothing or behavior. Psychologists have not found it necessary to posit an “internal sense” to explain the development of core gender identity, which should make us very suspicious that there is such a thing.

Title question answered, essay over? Not quite.

As Boston Children’s Hospital explicitly says, and as is implicit in the definitions quoted above, everyone has a gender identity. Usually a person’s gender identity matches their sex, but sometimes it doesn’t. Accordingly, there are two kinds of people, or so we are told: cisgender people, whose gender identity matches their sex (“cis” means on this side), and transgender people, whose gender identity doesn’t (“trans” means on the farther side).

(“Transgender” typically has a more inclusive sense in which it covers all types of gender-atypicality, but let’s use it here in the stricter sense in which it is opposed to “cisgender.” Note also that “transgender” is another of WPATH’s “genders.” This raises the circularity problem for the WPATH definition of “gender identity” again, because “transgender” is defined using “gender identity.”)

Transgender people may experience misery — sometimes prolonged and agonizing — which is often supposed to be caused by the mismatch between their gender identity and sex. This is called gender dysphoria, which WPATH defines as follows:

Distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth.

WPATH’s definition illustrates how the modish expression “sex assigned at birth” is an impediment to understanding. What the medical authorities did years ago is not unrelated to a person’s current dysphoria, but natal bureaucracy is not the sufferer’s primary concern.³ In this respect, the APA’s definition more accurately characterizes the phenomenon:

Gender dysphoria refers to the aversion to some or all of those physical characteristics or social roles that connote one’s own biological sex.

The APA’s definition is superior in another respect as well.⁴ It remains neutral on the causes of gender dysphoria. In contrast, WPATH’s definition is explicit about the cause. It is the “discrepancy” between gender identity and sex. As we shall see, this is a mistake.

We have just assembled three claims about gender identity which frequently appear in explanatory material about transgender issues intended for the general public. Together they form what we can call the standard picture, which we can set out as follows:

  • A: Everyone has a gender identity, which is usually stable. Non-transgender people have gender identities that match their sex.
  • B: Transgender people — in particular, MtF and FtM transsexuals, or transgender/trans women and transgender/trans men — have gender identities that do not match their sex.
  • C: A mismatch between sex and gender identity causes gender dysphoria.

Some prominent clinicians and researchers (although by no means all) endorse the standard picture. The psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, for example, maintains in her book Gender Born, Gender Madethat everyone has a “true gender self” which “begins as the kernel of gender identity that is there from birth.” Distress will result, she says, if one’s true gender self is not “in sync” with one’s “assigned gender.”

The standard picture is often further elaborated in a way that makes gender identity strongly analogous to sexual orientation but sharply distinct from it. Consider this useful (albeit over-simple) metaphor. A person’s sexual orientation is set by the positions of inner switches, one indicating attraction to males, and one indicating attraction to females. In a homosexual male the male switch is ON and the female switch is OFF; in a heterosexual male the male switch is OFF and the female switch is ON; and in a bisexual male both switches are ON. The adult positions of these switches are pretty much fixed at birth, and are impervious to social influences.

Likewise, there is supposed to be another pair of switches for a person’s gender identity, or “true gender self” — one indicating a male gender identity, and the other indicating a female gender identity. In a cisgender male the male switch is ON and the female switch is OFF, and in a transgender male the male switch is OFF and the female switch is ON. (A more realistic model might have more switches, or have dials, but we can keep it simple.) The adult positions of these switches vary independently of the sexual orientation switches, are pretty much fixed at birth, and are impervious to social influences.⁵

However — and here we finally come to the main point of this essay — the standard picture is wrong.

Start with A and B. Here they are again:

  • A: Everyone has a gender identity, which is usually stable. Non-transgender people have gender identities that match their sex.
  • B: Transgender people — in particular, MtF and FtM transsexuals, or transgender/trans women and transgender/trans men — have gender identities that do not match their sex.

Are they both true, understanding “gender identity” as core gender identity — apparent knowledge or awareness of one’s sex? Well, A is true, or close enough. What about B? Take trans women as an example. They are usually characterized as natal males with a history of gender dysphoria, which has led them to “transition” and live (as adults) more-or-less full-time as women. Trans women may or may not have had hormone replacement therapy or sex reassignment (“gender confirmation”) surgery.

Do all trans women have female core gender identities? No. It is easy to find trans women who say that they are male (and not female) — or men (and not women). Taking them at their word, they do not have a female core gender identity. So if we understand “gender identity” as Stoller’s core gender identity — apparent knowledge or awareness of one’s sex — then although A is true, B is false.⁶

Is there another kind of gender identity that all transgender people have, and which does not match their sex? Specifically, is there a kind of “female gender identity” that is shared by trans women? Here are some candidates: a sense of kinship with females as a group, a female-typical psychology, satisfaction at being socially treated as a female, a tendency to conform to the norms of female behavior, and a tendency to emulate female stereotypes.Is Sex Socially Constructed?Examining the argumentsarcdigital.media

Some of these are more promising than others, but whichever one we pick there will be plenty of so-called “cis” women who lack this kind of female gender identity. Some otherwise ordinary women attach little importance to their female group membership card, or buck the norms of female behavior, or have female-atypical psychologies, or are dissatisfied with being socially treated as female, and so on.

Hence, if there is a kind of “female gender identity” that trans women share, then some non-trans women will not have female gender identities of this kind. As the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper puts it: “I too believe that my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman.’” She has a point.⁷

Let us sum up. Interpreting “gender identity” as core gender identity makes A (“Everyone has a gender identity, and non-transgender people have gender identities that match their sex”) true. It also makes B (“Transgender people have gender identities that do not match their sex”) false. And if there is another kind of gender identity that does make B true (e.g., a sense of kinship with the other sex), it will make A false. Therefore, there is no kind of gender identity that makes A and B true together. The transgender/cisgender terminology, which naturally suggests that A and B are both true, is thus quite unfortunate. It does not help to say (as people sometimes do) that “cisgender” simply means “not-transgender.” Since “cis” does not mean “not-trans,” but has positive content of its own, this has the effect of smuggling A and B in through the back door.

What about C? Here it is again:

  • C: A mismatch between sex and gender identity causes gender dysphoria.

If we understand “gender identity” as core gender identity — apparent knowledge of one’s sex — C is very implausible. Some boys with gender dysphoria insist, and seem to be convinced, that they are girls. They therefore have female core gender identities. But some boys with equally severe gender dysphoria merely say that they want to be girls. Boys who want to be girls do not believe that they are girls and so do not have female core gender identities. It is not particularly credible that the causes of dysphoria in this latter kind of case are radically different from the causes in the former.⁸ If a boy says and believes that he is a girl, this is more likely to be an effect of distress at his sexed body or gendered social role, than a cause of it. A related issue arises from the fact that some males show no signs of dysphoria, or of identifying with the other sex, until later in life — perhaps after they become fathers. As children, they knew they were male, and so had a male core gender identity. If core gender identity changes in adulthood (and in at least some of these people it won’t), the more reasonable hypothesis is that this change is caused by late-onset dysphoria, rather than the other way around.

And whether the relevant kind of “gender identity” is core gender identity or something else, the fact that dysphoria not infrequently resolves at puberty (and sometimes earlier) presents a problem. Although it is disputed how often and in what circumstances that happens, it happens. On the standard picture, presumably a (permanently) “desisting” boy had a male gender identity all along. Why, then, did he suffer dysphoria? Whatever the explanation is, parsimony suggests that it also applies more broadly, to cases where the dysphoria does not resolve.

Imagine a grisly experiment, where we castrate an ordinary baby boy and raise the child as a girl, making appropriate surgical alterations to the genitalia. If the “inner switch” model is right, then the child is very likely to have a male gender identity — a male “true gender self” — and would be predicted to suffer gender dysphoria. That experiment has actually been performed a few times when newborn boys have lost their penises in an accident. The most famous was the “John/Joan” case, the subject of John Colapinto’s 2000 book As Nature Made Him. The experiment was a tragic failure: Joan reverted to John, and later committed suicide; John Money, the consulting psychologist, was cast as the villain of the piece. However, another case, where a baby boy was reassigned earlier, appears to have successfully induced a permanent female gender identity. Examining the patient in adulthood, the researchers describe her as “predominantly sexually attracted to women” (supporting the inner switch model of sexual attraction). There were signs of hormonal masculinization in the womb — “she self-identified as a ‘tomboy’ and enjoyed stereotypically masculine toys and games.” She also had “a ‘blue collar’ job practiced almost exclusively by men.” If a male true gender self was present, it was invisible — she had a female core gender identity with no indication of gender dysphoria. On present evidence, sexual orientation and sex-typed behavior and interests are strongly affected by the pre-natal environment. Core gender identity, on the other hand, is more labile and subject to social influences. This shouldn’t be surprising. There is no reason for nature to bother installing a special “intrinsic” or “internal” sense of one’s own sex, because ordinary ways of knowing about ourselves and our material and social environment can serve on their own.

If there is some kind of “gender identity” that is universal in humans, and which causes dysphoria when mismatched with sex, it remains elusive. No one has yet found a way of detecting its presence, and verifying that it is causally responsible for dysphoria.⁹ Summing up the state of the science of early-onset gender dysphoria, two psychiatrists wrote: “we have yet to learn the ‘causes’” of gender dysphoria, and “why the gender dysphoria of most children desists around puberty while it persists in others into adolescence and adulthood.” That was in 2012, but things haven’t changed much.

Transgender people are often understandably concerned about being thought “inauthentic,” or “imposters.” The standard picture (usually with the inner switch model added) can seem the only antidote, which is no doubt part of its appeal. But the majority who are not transgender have no reason to congratulate themselves on their authenticity — if that requires a true gender self then we are all imposters. Authenticity is a morally suspect aim in any case, since it diverts concern away from others to oneself. A productive and virtuous life with love, friendship, and an appreciation of truth and beauty is authenticity enough. And that can be accomplished whether one lives in a social manner characteristic of one’s own sex, the other sex, or neither.

The philosopher David Hume famously tried to discover the self by introspecting the contents of his own mind, and came up empty-handed: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I…never can observe any thing but the perception.” Miley Cyrus’s attempt to find her inner girl or boy was similarly fruitless: “I just feel like nothing.” Perhaps she should have emulated her boyfriend (and now husband) who, when asked “Do you like being a boy?,” replied “I don’t really think about it.” Be that as it may, David Hume and Miley Cyrus were searching in the wrong place. For both one’s self and one’s sex, looking in a mirror is a better method.

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¹Gynandromorphs, occasionally found in some species, are much better candidates for “combinations” of being female and male.

²Improving on Stoller, some psychologists think of gender identity as multidimensional — as having different more-or-less independent components, one of which is core gender identity. On this conception, no one simply has a “female” or “male” gender identity.

³In a faint acknowledgement of this point, WPATH adds the following parenthetical: “(and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics).”

⁴The APA’s definition is not perfect, however: a woman’s aversion to the female social role of throwing oneself on one’s husband’s funeral pyre would not be a kind of gender dysphoria.

⁵Ehrensaft fills out the standard picture along these lines. Admittedly, in a later book, The Gender Creative Child, she says that gender identity is partly influenced by “the culture surrounding both…nature and nurture” (emphasis added) and denies that it is “innate.” But she also says that “a small minority of people receive messages from their brain telling them that the gender they are is not in congruence with the or marked in their birth records. … It is those brain signals that are not malleable” (emphasis added).

⁶In fact, Stoller thought that all MtF transsexuals (more exactly, those who had early-onset gender dysphoria, and who are sexually attracted to males) have a male core gender identity, combined with a “powerful feeling of ‘somehow’ being female,” a “unique form of bisexuality.” (This is from Stoller’s 1976 book, The Transsexual Experiment.) See also Anne Lawrence, Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, p. 8.

⁷The philosopher Katherine Jenkins has a different and interesting suggestion for a kind of “female gender identity” that is common to both trans women and non-trans women. She proposes that having a female gender identity amounts to taking (at least some) “norms of femininity” to apply to oneself, whether or not one complies with them. A norm of femininity is something like a social rule that applies only to females — that they should appear or behave in a certain way. All trans women, Jenkins thinks, will have this kind of female gender identity. However, since a “norm of femininity” applies only to females, it is hard to see how someone could take the norm to apply to herself without believing that she is female. Anyone with a Jenkins-style female gender identity will therefore also have a female core gender identity, and so some trans women will be left out.

⁸That is not to say that the difference is clinically unimportant. There is some evidence that cross-sex beliefs (“I am a girl”) are better correlated with dysphoria that persists into adolescence than cross-sex desires.

⁹There are various psychometric instruments that psychologists describe as measures of “gender identity.” An older example is the Masculine Gender Identity Scale (MGI) and a more recent one is the Gender Identity/Gender Dysphoria Questionnaire for Adolescents and Adults (GIDYQ-AA). However, these do not purport to measure some factor that can point in a “female” or “male” direction, that is present in everyone, and that causes dysphoria when it points in the direction opposite to the person’s sex. The GIDYQ-AA, for instance, asks females questions like “In the past 12 months, have you had the wish or desire to be a man?” A yes answer pushes the respondent’s score towards the male end of the measure. This cross-sex desire is not something the respondent has in common with men whose score on the GIDYQ is also at the male end. Moreover, cross-sex desires do not cause gender dysphoria (discomfort with one’s sexed body or gendered social role) — if anything, the causal connection is the other way around.

Written by Alex Byrne

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