The ferocious transgender dispute is framed by the language of gender identity. To reach any resolution, though, we need to understand what everyone has at stake and to question our own basic assumptions. The truth about what it means to be transgender is a window into human nature, sexual desire, and the limits of language.
“… ‘Beth’ Elliott, a supposed male ‘transsexual’ in a lesbian conference.”Berkeley feminist newsletter Dykes and Gorgons, 1973
“Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.”World Health Organisation, 2020
Transgender people are at the centre of a political storm. The intensity and toxicity are new, but it has been brewing for at least half a century. As the terminology evolved from “transsexual” and “transvestite”, to “trans” and “transgender”, the number of people considering medical transition has mushroomed. But in these intense debates, we are left with more questions than answers. When people say, “Transwomen are women,” what does that mean? What makes someone trans? Should young people transition? And what does it mean to be a man or a woman, anyway?
Clarity and balance are needed, but instead, governments, universities, charities and even doctors are promoting a suspiciously theological notion of gender identity in that we are informed that to be a man or woman is an internal experience, determined by something like a male or female soul. In this framework, sex is merely assigned at birth; transgender people suffer a mismatch of sex with their gender-soul, and they transition to align their gender-soul with their body. Psychiatrist Robert Stoller coined gender identity in 1964 for the “essentially unalterable” knowledge that “one belongs to one sex and not the other”, theorizing a contributing biological force.
Previously in Culturico, I pointed out how that descriptive notion became definitive as trans campaigners lobbied to divide men and women, not by sex, but “innate gender identity”. Then, in the human rights lexicon, gender identity took its place alongside sexual orientation and other protected characteristics. In time, though, the gender identity model has attracted much criticism. If nobody can experience being somebody else, or communicate the private experience of self, what does it mean to say you feel like a man or a woman? If gender identity is held to be inborn and fixed, it does not seem to be true in young people who desist (1, 2) or those who detransition (3).
Gender identity cannot even explain why people transition, because a desire to change one’s sex is not the same as a perception one is the opposite sex. But this is only part of the story. It’s possible that believers in gender identity are trying to communicate something that seems real to them, but without the language to define it or explain it. In this essay, I will try to explain the source of belief in gender identity, and examine its limitations, in the hope that this might help both the adherents and their friends and relatives.
I start from the principle of evolution, and in this case mind as well as body. Like the other great apes, human beings have evolved preferences and behaviours which have served us well (4), from finding sweet foods tasty, spiders scary and excrement disgusting, to finding potential mates enticing. And just like other animals, male and female humans experienced sexual competition and selection (5), which has resulted in the bodies and minds we know today.
Differences in psychology obviously include sexual attraction, as in other animals (6). Overwhelmingly, men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men. But sexual attraction requires potential partners to recognize one another and signal their fitness. Famously, peacock males have spectacular feathers that they use to attract peahens, but peafowl are far from unique. For humans, our attractive features that sexually signal to prospective mates include V-shaped torsos in men and women’s permanent breasts (7-9).
When resources allow, human sexual signalling goes far beyond our bodies. Signalling is so ingrained in society that it hides in plain sight. As sexual beings, we show it in our clothing (10), hairstyles (11), makeup (12), even the way we walk, move and interact – and flirt – with each other. And while in many animals the male is the more colourful, women tend to be more adorned than men (13). Perhaps this is because, in contrast to most great apes, humanfathers contribute to child-rearing (14); consequently, women need to attract quality, committed mates, and they compete for them (15).
Although the way social norms arise from in-born human nature will be complicated, this might explain why men and women have such distinct patterns of dress and presentation (16): we are simply displaying our sexually attractive animal selves.
To recognize sexual signalling in human beings is like being reminded that we are breathing. It might not be a commonly expressible concept, but we all participate. Those of us who are atypical in our signalling get labelled – queer, butch, effeminate, other less complimentary words. And now, arguably, “trans”.
I think transgender people are better described as those who change their sexual signalling to that of the opposite sex. Even as being trans has a sense of the subculture that’s grown up around transitioning, at core, it connects to social and medical transition. Every aspect of transition – from changing clothing and hairstyle, makeup, and hair removal, changing the pitch of our voice, to surgery and hormones in medical transition – relates to sexually attractive features of the opposite sex. Far from being mere “gender stereotypes”, these are all durable, meaningful signals that are integral to our sexuality and social relationships. This reframing of what it means to be transgender implies that instead of a singular cause of “mismatched gender identity”, being trans can be a diverse phenomenon with multiple causes – because human sexuality is also diverse.
The transgender movement stakes a claim to young people we had previously recognized as simply non-conforming. No wonder, then, some lesbians and feminists see it as an existential threat. No wonder, too, this movement demands the concept of gender identity, which reduces the compulsion to transition to a single cause – “born in the wrong body.” Further, it divorces the trans experience from the diversity of sexual desire. As the activist who popularized “transgender” admitted, the public “cannot deal with the word fetish”.
The question we should perhaps be asking is not Why are some people trans?, but rather, Why do some people feel the need to signal in the same way as the opposite sex?
Clearly, there are different reasons why a male might want to sexually signal in a female way. One possibility could be quite simply to attract heterosexual males (17). But I’m particularly interested in autogynephilia, a specific form of male-to-female transsexualism, partly because I fit this pattern and partly because autogynephilic-type transsexuals are prevalent in transgender activism. Autogynephilic males often follow a similar pattern of behaviour: previously unremarkable males, usually female-attracted, they transition in mid-life often after marrying women and sometimes fathering children.
Autogynephilia was coined in 1989 by the sexologist Ray Blanchard to denote “a natal male’s tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman”. In 1991, Blanchard suggested that “autogynephilia is a misdirected type of heterosexual impulse, which arises in association with normal heterosexuality but also competes with it” (18).
It can, however, cause severe psychological distress in heterosexual men whose focus of desire is their own – lamentably male – body (19, 20). If they are the target of their own sexual interest, then they feel inexplicably compelled to change their own sexual signalling – clothes, hair, and makeup – and bodies to match. Autogynephilic transsexuals are therefore a window into male desire. Normally, heterosexual males can plausibly deny the objectifying focus of their sexual interest. After all, nobody can read your mind. But by transitioning, autogynephilic trans women inscribe their characteristically male, heterosexual desires onto their own physical bodies. The male erotic attraction to women’s long hair, made-up faces, and shapely bodies is undeniable when it’s precisely those attributes that transwomen change.
Whatever the cause, certain people’s need to signal in the same way as the opposite sex may be ingrained in our nature. That does not imply there are gender identities, but it does imply that the demand for transitioning will be here to stay, so it makes sense to at least understand why transitioning exists.
A central concept to transgender campaigning is that there are “trans children” (21), and the belief in an inborn gender identity “essence” practically compels it. But I believe that the distress reported in young people around being male or female can be explained by our evolved psychology and sexual signalling, rather than gender identity.
There is certainly a strong associationin young people between gender non-conforming behaviour, gender dysphoria, and – later in life – being attracted to the same sex (22). Separately, gay men and lesbian women seem to have some features within their brains that are more typical of heterosexual members of the opposite sex (23). This makes sense if our brains have pre-programmed, sex-specific circuits (24) controlling differences in behaviour, including sexual signalling and orientation (25), which are activated much more strongly after puberty. For this reason, it’s plausible that gender nonconformity in children might also lead to wishes or beliefs (26) around being the opposite sex, perhaps due to intolerance or to a desire to fit in with their playmates. A major concern is that by labelling children as “trans”, we are putting children who would become gay or lesbian on a path towards major, sterilizing medical interventions – a new gay conversion therapy?
Recently, there has been a huge increase in the number of transgender-identified teenage girls. US physician and researcher Lisa Littman described the phenomenon as “rapid onset gender dysphoria” where girls with no history of cross-sex behaviour suddenly identify as boys, or as non-binary (27). The distress that follows is well described, particularly the desire to remove or bind their breasts, the most visible female sexual signal. This makes sense if these children conflate sexual signalling with biological sex. Essentially, they don’t want to signal as women, so they feel they are not women. (To note, there is a strong co-morbidity with autism (28): both conditions involve difficulties with inter-personal relationships.)
Understanding dysphoria in these girls as a socially contagious response to adult sexualization points to possible ways to alleviate it: restrictions on social-media-driven objectification of girls’ bodies and counselling to affirm their right – as girls – to break social norms. Instead, some of these girls are being unquestioningly “affirmed” with hormones and mastectomies (3), a practice even paediatric gender clinicians recently spoke against. I fear this is a medical outrage in the making.
Equally worryingly, gay and autogynephilic teenage boys and young men, who might envy and desire those same female sexual signals, are being cheered into transition by an aggressive online trans community. Young men seeking gender transition are being denied the chance to understand themselves, not as “women in the wrong body”, but as males with an unusual sexuality (29). They deserve to make well-informed decisions about their own lives, including the lack of evidence for transition as a long-term fix for their distress (30).
Finally, I think our evolved minds explain why we find it so difficult to agree on facts and language about transgender people.
The changes that transgender people make are a remarkably honest guide to the pervasively sexed and heterosexual nature of society. Top of the list are names, pronouns, and sex markers. Surely, this reflects the way that the heterosexual mating game is embedded in our very language (31). Distinct male and female names, pronouns, even the concepts of man and woman, carry sexual significance, letting everyone know who is a potential mate or threat. But at the same time, all our communication, and the civilization it enables, depends on words having agreed meanings.
That means that society has a dilemma when medical transition is possible, because the sense of man and woman can indeed change – or at least become ambiguous—in transgender people. This is instinctively understood, yet hard to articulate. We recognize people as male or female, neither by gender identity nor their gametes (32) but with neurological circuitry we evolved over millions of years (33, 34). Our inborn sex recognition cues in on the effects of sex hormones and is amplified by sexual signalling (35). This distinction did not matter until medical transition prised it open, but we have not yet developed language to deal with it. The public will, by and large, treat trans people as they seem to be and resist impositions that appear to defy reality.
Consequently, political opponents in the trans debate cannot even agree on the terms. We are trapped in a paradox. The biological and medical categories of male and female (36), and the vast consequences of the difference, cannot be ignored, but neither can our evolved minds that perceive those differences. The concepts of man and woman are probably hardwired into the structure of our brains by natural selection, and they do not seem amenable to redefinition. This can create horrible cognitive conflicts in our minds, for example when political progressives are asked to define women. We should expect this – our brains are not infinitely reprogrammable blank slates. If this is true, the question of whether transwomen are women cannot have a single answer that satisfies everyone. But in our rush to re-engineer man and woman as self-declared gender identity heedless of context or circumstance, even where biology matters a great deal, we risk making communication impossible and putting consensus out of reach.
I’ve argued that invisible, unfalsifiable gender identities are not necessary to define our core beings or explain the trans experience. All that’s required is to accept humans are animals that evolved like any other. We don’t need to believe in gender-souls. As trans writer Andrea Long Chu put it: The primary function of gender identity as a political concept – and, increasingly, a legal one – is to bracket, if not to totally deny, the role of desire in the thing we call gender.
I conclude here with the thought that the rush to legislate gender identity is a tragic mistake. Gender identity is a weapon that has enabled some trans campaigners to inflict serious harms to women’s rights. It has led to the labelling of children as “trans” – what future generations will make of our child gender clinics remains to be seen. It has led to completely intractable conflicts. Over fifty years, the arguments over transgender have settled nothing, simply grown larger and fiercer. Transgender disputes are a time bomb which may in the end tear countries apart.
Crucially, nobody should need to invent a magical gender identity to be themselves. Transgender and gender non-conforming people would be better off accepting that we have the same human need as everyone else for sexual signalling, or socially acceptable public sexual expression – just in a slightly different way. Trying to identify out of our sex has not resolved the problem; let’s try and look for answers within our sex, based on reason, not ideology.
Debbie teaches physics to 11-18 year olds, helping them develop an understanding of science. Debbie is also busy as a trade union officer, standing up for teachers. As a trans person, Debbie has written extensively about what it means to be trans and how trans people can be included in society without compromising the rights of other vulnerable groups. Bylines in The Times, The Spectator, The Morning Star, The Economist, Quillette, Unherd and elsewhere. You can find Debbie on Twitter @DebbieHayton.
I would like to acknowledge my friend Marcus for his insight, for our fruitful discussions, and for his invaluable contributions to the manuscript. Thank you so much!
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