As some of you might have noticed, this blog has picked up some readers, which is exciting. Unfortunately, I’m a bit perplexed as to what I should write about next, so here’s a poll!
Or, does typology have any medical bearing on treatment? It seems the answer is a resounding no according to a litany of research on the topic.
A 2016 study of Chinese trans individuals (Yang et. al) found that sexuality has essentially no correlation with PCS (physical component summary) and MCS (mental component summary) of the measured quality of life. Table 3 indicates that the associations between orientation and PCS ranged from -0.005 to 0.098, all of which were far below statistical significance. It was the same for MCS; a range from -0.012 to -.121 that did not achieve statistical significance (the most accurate model has a correlation of -0.066). Now of course we could attribute this result to sample bias, statistical error, or using faulty statistical models, but luckily there are a host of other studies that replicate the finding.
Meier et. al 2013 found no differences in mental health variables between FtM individuals, other than a minor difference in anxiety (the only difference was between androphilic and ambiphilic individuals, all other comparisons were statistically insignificant). We should also note the interesting change in sexual orientation reported by FtM individuals during the process of transition (which I’ll eventually get around to a post on).
Nieder et. al reviewed the entire literature and found just 10 studies (which is sufficient for a literature review in the field) reporting on the association between sexuality and transition-related outcomes. Just one of these studies reported a difference;
Given the intense debate surrounding the predictive, outcome-related value of sexual orientation after transition-related interventions (Lawrence, 2014; Veale, 2014, 2015), it seems remarkable that out of 10 follow-up studies (Table 1), only one reported or found a significant association according to the outcome measures between groups based on sexual orientation at all (Wierckx et al., 2014). They found that trans women who are attracted to men (unfortunately mostly referred to as ‘homosexual male-to-females’, which pertains to the sexual orientation according to the sex assigned at birth) had higher sexual desire compared with trans women who are attracted to women
Further, sexual orientation was not associated with the prevalence of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) (Wierckx et al., 2014). However, quality of life was not
assessed within this study.
Given the literature’s confirmation that sexual orientation is not related with transition-related outcomes, it is necessary for medical professionals to ask for sexual orientation? Perhaps, in scenarios that are directly relevant; STD prevention, sex therapy, relationship counseling/therapy. But to the majority of the health professionals that trans individuals will encounter, it seems entirely unnecessary for them to ask and inquire as to the deeply personal nature of their sexual orientation.
Even more, this casts doubt on the diagnostic value of the purported ‘autogynephilia’. If we can classify ‘autogynephilic transsexuals’ and ‘homosexual transsexuals’ into two different categories, but the outcomes don’t differ, is there any value in differentiation?
Some Other Readings
A description of historical gatekeeping which importantly mentions the factor of sexual orientation
The Harry Benjamin Society standards
His book depicting the prototypical classification scale (page 19)
Assumptions about sexuality in the trans community
All of this goes to show the gatekeeping that arose from sexual orientation classification
Update – 11/16/18
Given that I choose a poor title for this piece, I’ll clarify what I had intended to communicate with the wording & the thought process I went through went writing & publishing this piece at midnight.
I was searching for more research for another piece when I came across the Chinese study (Yang et. al), recalled the existence of Nieder et. al (the literature review) and thought that the two could work together to make a coherent article on how it isn’t necessary for one’s medical professionals to inquire about sexual orientation (and thus the false ‘typology’) in order to impact decisions on providing treatment to patients. The articles linked in the Some Other Readings section articulate the issues with medical professionals asking about sexuality and using that to deny or delay treatment, which was is my primary criticism of the use of sexuality in medicine in trans-specific contexts (which is not to say that I oppose it). The existence of gatekeeping was intended to be a theme throughout the piece (and is something that I am eventually going to get around to writing on). Even more, the piece’s even larger overarching goal (as is the blog’s) is to criticize Blanchardianist ideology & criticize autogynephilia typology.
The “re”formulation of the title as “Or, does typology have any medical bearing on treatment?” helps contextualize the original purpose of the piece (as do the links to Kay Brown’s articles), but the chosen title then influenced the irrelevant and poorly worded content of the piece.
But the language I used obscured all of this; Medical professionals is far too broad of a term to refer to the individuals I intended to refer to: psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists – those who very often make diagnoses of trans individuals; the people who’ve been reported denying letters, recommendations and treatment because of sexual orientation; the paradigmatic gatekeepers. There are plenty of valid instances to ask for sexual orientation (although there may be more prudent and sensitive methods of obtaining the necessary information): for risk assessments for STD prevention, some therapeutic contexts, and so on as commenters on the Reddit thread insightfully pointed out. Even more, my crude estimation of the makeup of medical professionals trans people encounter could be false in many instances: it could be, for instance, that a trans individual is post-transition and encounters their primary physician far more than their psychiatrist (if they even have one).
A longwinded way of saying I’m sorry for choosing such a poor title.
Daphna Joel is one of my favorite researchers in the neuroscience field (along with Jordan-Young, Fine and a set of others – almost all of whom are implicitly supportive of trans people, the rest haven’t voiced any opinions or comment on trans people). But unknown to many is that she also does research specifically on trans and nonbinary individuals.
The first paper she published in the field is Queering gender: studying gender identity in “normative” individuals. The paper develops a new “Multi-GIQ” scale for measuring gender identity in both trans and cis individuals. The scale is used in a sample of 2225 individuals contacted over the internet. Joel et. al plot the data on several charts with interesting visualization techniques, showing some interesting results.
Just by visual inspection we can note individuals that identify as men that feel more like men than women and vice versa. There is also some level of bigenderism among several individuals. We can easily point out that a cis-trans binary focused on identification as a gender not typically associated with the gender assigned at birth is incoherent because it obscures the reality of identification: many “cis” individuals would be classified as bigender under nearly all definitions of bigender, and many would be classified as agender. These gender identities are very commonly considered “trans”. Even more, there are several cis individuals who have feelings that contrast the gender they were assigned: a woman feeling much more like a man than a woman.
While ‘qu\r’ individuals obviously had the most non-normative identities, substantiative numbers of supposedly normative individuals wished to be that of the ‘opposite gender’. If we’re operationalizing gender dysphoria as such, which many people in the trans community do, then that begets the conclusion that cis people can be dysphoric (something I’m perfectly willing to accept despite odd pushback).
Taken together, our findings suggest that dichotomous gender categorisation does not reflect the complexity and multiplicity of gender experience. Rather, our study provides supportive evidence to non-binary theories of gender (e.g. Corbett, 2009; Dimen, 1995, 2003, 2005; Goldner, 1991, 2003; Harris, 1991, 2005) that perceive gender as fluid rather than dichotomous, and consider all human beings, not just gender nonconforming individuals, to have complex assemblages of gendered selves (Harris, 2005).
Specifically, 36.6% of our non-Queer subjects reported that they sometimes feel as the ‘other’ gender (of these, 24% received scores above 1), 63.7% reported that they sometimes wish to be the ‘other’ gender (of these, 34% received scores above 1), 49% did not always wear clothes ‘appropriate’ to their sex (of these, 26% received scores below 3) and 41.9% were sometimes discontent with their sexed body (of these, 52% received scores above 1). These findings suggest that except for discontent with one’s sexed body, which is by its very definition dysphoric, the other types of feelings should not be viewed as reflecting gender dysphoria but rather the complexity and multiplicity of ‘normal’ gender experience.
While I appreciate the concession that cis individuals can experience dysphoria via discontent with ones sexed body, the dismissal of alternative definitions of gender dysphoria is somewhat annoying: I’ve seen many individuals attempt to reconcile ‘all trans people have dysphoria’ with the acceptance of a variety of trans individuals by (re)defining dysphoria as the wish to become another gender. The research shows this method is untenable in maintaining a coherent cis-trans binary.
Thus, Coolidge et al. (2002) reported that 2.3% of children scored in the clinically significant range of a six-item DSM-IV-based GID scale. Other studies report cross-gender behaviour in 2.4–10.4% of boys and 3.3–22.5% of girls (van Beijsterveldt, Hudziak, & Boomsma, 2006; Zucker, Bradley, & Sanikhani, 1997), the wish to be the other sex in 1–13.3% of boys and 2.8–13.3% of girls (Wallien et al., 2009; Zucker et al., 1997) and feeling like the other sex or more like the other sex in 4.6–10.4% of children (Wallien et al., 2009). Lai et al. reported that 1.9% of adult males and 7.3% of adult females were gender dysphoric
Some interesting results from the literature (which confirm the results of the study) which seemingly contradict Kay Brown’s claims that gender dysphoria is more common in “male” individuals. I suspect that this is not a result of intrinsic prevalence of being trans among the populations, but rather a product of societal norms (my post about butches and ftms could be enlightening as to how identity can obscure prevalence as well as my unsupported estimate that more trans men live as butch women than trans women live as feminine men). Regardless, there needs to be a lot more research into prevalence of gender dysphoria and trans identity among various populations.
Our results also do not support the prevalent view in contemporary psychoanalytic and critical theories that individuals have a binary sense of gender and that the heterosexual– homosexual binary constitutes, stabilises and naturalises the male–female binary
And while I adore this study, Joel et. al completely misrepresent Butler’s point here. It’s to be expected given that Joel is a neuroscientist and Butler is a continental philosopher who uses some complicated language and terminology that requires copious amounts of references to comprehend completely. Correlates do not disprove Butler and co’s claims about how sexuality and gender are produced by society, the discourses that surround the identities and how closely the two are related. Even more, Sedgewick and Butler would very likely not say that individuals simply “have a binary sense of gender”, their claims have much more to do with the discourses that surround gender than introspection. Butler’s work almost specifically breaks down the idea that binary gender is universally present. Despite many ‘normative’ individuals having decidedly ‘non-normative’ identities, they continue to uphold a societal system of binarism documented time and time again. From a more logical standpoint, the binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality implicitly accepts the idea that there are two mutually exclusive and immutable genders that are universally present: homosexuality for same and heterosexual for different. Even more, Butler more specifically claims that the heterosexual matrix naturalizes the male-female binary through its application of heterosexuality to everyone until it is stated or shown otherwise. Despite my adoration for Joel, it seems she is out of her depth when she wades into the philosophical feminist literature attempting to disprove descriptive statements about culture and discourse using individual representations of internal gender identity.
Jacobson and Joel recently published two studies relevant to our inquiry into the nature of gender identity. An Exploration of the Relations Between Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in an Online Sample of Cisgender Individuals. and Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study.
The first notable thing that I want to highlight is not exactly related to gender identity or gender politics, but rather feminist politics and how MRAs (men’s rights activists) portray feminism politics. Table 2 indicates that 76.2% of women say they hold feminist views, 20.6% say ‘to some extent’ and only 3.2% do not. This is mirrored among men with moderately more negative reactions: 48.5% yes, 39.6% to some extent and 11.8% no. Contrary to the MRA narrative that ‘only 16% of women are feminists’, it seems as if a much larger portion are. Admittedly, this is not a representative sample and should not be extrapolated to the population as a whole, but it’s an interesting result that bears repeated testing with the same/similar questions.
As evident in Figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, many participants had what may be termed “queer” feelings, such as feeling both as a man and as a woman (38%) or as neither (35%), wishing to be the “other” gender (38%), or wishing to have the body of the “other” sex (35%)
A cross-cultural replication of the 2013 study, Joel again shows that a view that only trans people identify as genders other that they were assigned at birth is untenable and empirically false as a basis for cis-trans distinction.
The percent of binary individuals ranged between 8.8 and 40%, depending mostly on sexual orientation, with the highest percentage of binary individuals found in the exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual groups, which did not signifcantly differ (p=.80), and lower percentage in the mostly heterosexual, bisexual, and mostly homosexual groups
The results also indicate that strict gender roles marginalize a majority of the population of cishet individuals. There may be correlations between identified gender and gendered performance, but that is definitively a product of social norms that are produced and reproduced by gendered performance and there exists a large population of individuals who defy these norms.
The present findings conflict with the common postulation of direct relations between biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation in two major aspects, which are clearly evident in Fig. 1. First, while scientific discourse usually perceives gender identity as a clear-cut, binary personality structure, our data reveal large variability in individuals’ gender identity with about a third feeling at least to some degree as the “other” gender. Second, and out of line with the idea that an “atypical” sexual orientation would entail an “atypical” gender identity, variability in gender identity was evident throughout the sexual attraction continuum, with an almost complete overlap between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals in the range of scores on the different measures of gender identity. Moreover, even at the group level, only some non-heterosexual groups were significantly different from the exclusively heterosexual group. In fact, the finding that the group of exclusively homosexual men was not significantly different from the group of exclusively heterosexual men on any of the measures of gender identity is particularly in conflict with views strongly linking sexual orientation and gender identity. Our findings are in agreement, however, with the view that sexual orientation and gender identity are mostly distinct constructs.
Their summary of how the findings impact discourse on gender identity are good, but the bold part needs a large asterisk. The fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are coherently separate constructs is definitely a culturally specific phenomenon. In some cultures, gender and sexuality are not exactly considered distinct (see Thailand for example with gender identities and sexualities almost being considered identical in common parlance – which could have confounds when one looks at the Individualism vs Collectivism Hofstede scale and how it relates to the proportion of ‘nonhomosexual transsexuals’ in a country). In others, they’re interrelated in complex ways. Even more, the construct of sexuality is temporally and spatially-specific: cultures like that of the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed homosexuality not as a man loving another man, but a man being penetrated by a man – the act of penetration was not denigrated or deemed the same way as being penetrated was and moreover was not part of the same category. Foucault’s History of Sexuality is especially relevant on how sexuality and power are interconnected. And while gender identity and sexuality can be considered distinct constructs in the most abstract sense, we must also take note on how closely interrelated and intertwined one’s experiences of sexuality and gender identity fit together.
This finding is important because it highlights the fact that gender identities do not conform to narrowly defined dichotomous framings and suggests that identification with the “other” gender or wish to be the “other” gender or to have the body of the “other” sex are not necessarily a sign of gender dysphoria. Thus, our findings may normalize diversity in an area usually thought of as homogeneous, and by doing so help represent queer and transgender identities as belonging on the same gender grid as cisgender identities rather than as distinct phenomena.
One of my many gripes with the trans community (unfortunately transfeminists have many) is the insistence on telling individuals who have cross-gender feelings and urges that they must be trans in some fashion, that ‘only trans people want to be the “opposite” gender’, that ‘cis people don’t obsess over looking like the “opposite” gender’. It reifies an arbitrary distinction between cis and trans and while self-validating and potentially externally affirming, problematically erases the experiences of cis individuals who do in fact experience the feelings that many claim they don’t. Here it is in writing, wanting to be the “opposite” gender/sex cannot be the operationalization of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria contemporarily can be considered a polysemic construct rather than a homogeneous term, perhaps best represented by a Wittgensteinian family resemblance (see my article on ftms and butches on family resemblances and how they relate to gender).
More generally, our study adds to a growing body of literature that challenges dichotomous conventions within the science of gender and sexuality (for a recent review, see Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate, & van Anders, in press).
Most excitingly for me is my discovery that Joel is writing a new paper that reviews the research on gender and sexuality.
We can note that among many sexuality subgroups, men have higher scores on the ‘wish to be the “other” gender” item, and that both items varies non-monotonically with sexuality.
Again visual inspection yields individuals that dislike their sexed body and want to have the body of the “other” sex. Furthermore, the individuals are notably not exclusively homosexual.
The graph from the discussion on gender roles above.
There are numerous other little important results that if I were to include and discuss them would make this post much longer than would make it useful or readable.
Jacobson and Joel released another 2018 study, Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study. It used a European-American sample of individuals rather than the original Israeli sample of the pioneering study, compromising a cross-cultural replication. It also introduces terminology not used in the pioneering study; “gender diverse”. I appreciate the movement away from ‘qu\r’ and while I think it’s the best solution, more could be done to clarify that genderqueer/nonbinary people can be transgender.
Again, there are AMAB men that feel like women and AFAB women that feel like men, cis men/women who feel like men and women, and cis men/women who feel somewhat unlike men and women. Also of note is that trans women/men feel less like women/men and more like men/women than cis women/men, again rebutting the idea that only trans people ‘feel’ like their gender.
Again, we note large numbers of cis individuals that feel like neither gender or as both genders, as well as trans individuals having higher rates of this (we see all of these values are quantifiable and almost all are significant in Table 2).
While we can easily note that trans and gender diverse individuals have much higher nonbinary scores on average, the range of these scores is almost identical among the 6 groups. This precludes the idea that nonbinary scores can, in every case, discriminate trans/nonbinary individuals from cis people (without forcefully categorizing individuals to best fit preconceived notions of the categories that best fit ones’ ideology).
And yet again, cis women and cis men have higher feelings of validity about their actual gender, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately this was not broken down by sexual orientation, but it’d definitely be a great exercise to see how homophobia/lesbophobia/biphobia/etc affects conceptualization of one’s gender identity as valid or invalid.
Implications for Trans Discourse
Joel et. al 2013
- While the studies may be dismissed on face value by TERFs for using terms like ‘gender identity’ (of which I’m personally skeptical of, but that’s aside from the point) and directly referencing trans people in a supportive manner, Joel is famed in the radical feminist community because her researchers has important implications in the field of neuroscience of sex differences, namely that there are no “male” or “female” brains. In response to any claims about trans brains, they’ll typically cite Joel’s 2015 PNAS study while ignoring the nuances of the ‘trans brain studies’ (which they tend to homogenize into a monolith) that don’t necessarily claim that ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains exist. Many are reliant upon specific non-sexually dimorphic regions of the brain where trans individuals show atypical areas, values or signals, or make claims about the similarity of trans brains to cis brains that doesn’t create constructs of male/female brains. The long story short is that she’s widely cited in TERF spaces and has some level of credibility among them.
- A common TERF claim is that “women don’t have gender identity” or “only trans people have gender identity”, both claims that are ‘disproven’ by the study. Gender identity was found to be persistent throughout large portions of the cis population, and many individuals reported ‘feeling like a woman’ / ‘feeling like a man’, things TERFs claim that do not exist in women (despite trans people pointing out that they often don’t understand the concept and/or don’t relate to it). [I’m separately skeptical about claims of feeling like a man/woman]
- Another TERF claim about gender identity is that women have non-normative gender identities because societal misogyny disassociates them from their femaleness (the latter clause likely being true). But the study indicated that men have slightly higher non-normative gender identification, making it dubious to claim that misogyny is the cause of non-normative gender identity.
- Yet another claim is that linking gender identity to sexual orientation, which is a claim that the study tested and disproved. There was no significant (non-scientific meaning) association with non-normative gender identity. Overall, r values were low. Even more, sexual orientation was not related with discontent with one’s sexed body; lesbians were not more likely to hate their body that heterosexual women.
- Figure 7 indicates that qu\\rs have higher values of discontent with ones body, indicating that assertions that ‘all women are unhappy with their body’ are misleading and ignore the extent that trans individuals are unhappy/dysphoric about their body.
- Gender roles aren’t upheld by trans/qu\\r individuals: “Men were more compliant with dress code than Women, and both Men and Women were more compliant than Queers”
Jacobson & Joel 2018
- The research further confirms the results laid out above: that cis people have gender identities and “feel” like men/women, that sexual orientation and gender identity are very weakly linked (and not in a monotonic manner)
- The second 2018 study we analyzed indicates that cis women and cis men have very similar feelings of non-normative gender identity. Even more, trans men/women and gender diverse individuals have much higher rates of feeling like neither gender or both genders than cis people do. It also confirmed results from previous studies about the interaction between sexuality and gender identity.
- Essentially everything found in the Israeli sample was replicated in the predominantly English-speaking sample, lending further validity to the results.
Some Other Readings
A few of these were from the studies themselves, but I think should be highlighted for their specificity of the topic
Martin et. al 2016 A Duel Identity Approach for Conceptualizing and Measuring Children’s Gender Identity (Warning for binarism)
Julia Serano (who I’m somewhat critical of) has a great essay describing the complexities of cis terminology
And a Tumblr post that articulates more specific problematic results of the cis-trans dichotomy rather than my accuracy-based analysis
Survey results highlighting the issue of casting the cis-trans binary onto nonbinary people
The Five Ws
A further elaboration on the difficulty between drawing clear lines between ftms and butches, continued from my post here.
Gloria Anzaldúa first elaborated on her concept of the borderlands in “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”. The bilingual nature of the book emphasizes the foundation for her Chicana feminism that has been so central to modern postcolonial feminism, intersectional feminism and “third wave feminism”. In essence, she analyzes the invisible “borderlands” between groups of individuals typically cast and portrayed as opposites, breaking down dichotomies and emphasizing the intersections, all while critiquing the Western colonist thinking of binaries.
Judith Halberstram was among the first to apply the concept to the conflict, interplay and discourse between FTM (female-to-male) transgender individuals and butch lesbians in Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum. He expands on the points brought up in criticism and support of his older piece F2M, and in doing so touches upon the “border zones” that are explored in Borderlands. I’ll highlight the most important passages
Jones eloquently and forcefully articulates the limits of a monolithic and absolute
model of hormonally and surgically defined transsexual identity. His description of
the wild variability of masculinities and identifications across butch and transsexual bodies refuses, on the one hand, any notion of a butch-FTM continuum; on the
other hand, it acknowledges the ways in which butch and FTM bodies are read
against and through each other for better or for worse. His understanding of transgender variability produces an almost fractal model of cross-gender identifications
that can never return to the binary models of before and after transition, transsexual and nontranssexual, or butch and FTM.
So while it is true that transgender and transsexual men have been wrongly folded into lesbian history, it is also true that the distinctions between some transsexuals and lesbians may at times become quite blurry. Many FTMs do come out as lesbians before they come out as transsexuals (many, it must also be said, do not). For this reason alone, hard-and-fast distinctions between lesbians and FTMs are not always helpful
Using various butch, trans male and other gender diverse autobiographies and narratives, Halberstram explicates the instability and complexity of gender identity among lesbians and transmasculine individuals.
Finally, in relation to the project of making concrete distinctions between
butch women and transsexual males, all too often such distinctions serve the cause
of heteronormativity by consigning homosexuality to pathology and by linking
transsexuality to new heteronormative forms. For example, in a popular article on
FTMs that appeared in the New Yorker, Amy Bloom interviews several FTMs and
sex reassignment surgeons to try to uncover the motivations and mechanics of so-called high-intensity transsexualism
The places where the divisions between butch and FTM become blurry have everything to do with embodiment. As JordyJones suggests, many of those who take hormones might not make transgendered subjective identifications, while many self-identified transgendered men might not take hormones or pursue surgeries. Indeed, the labels butch and transsexual mark yet another gender fiction, the fiction of clear distinctions between categories.
There are many butches who pass as men and many transsexuals who present as gender ambiguous, as well as many bodies that cannot be classified as either transsexual or butch
However, in the border wars between butches and transsexual FTMs, FTMs are often cast as those who cross borders (of sex, gender, bodily coherence), while butches are left as those who stay in one place. The use of the term border war is both apt and problematic for this reason. On the one hand, the idea of a border war sets up some notion of territories to be defended, ground to be held or lost, permeability to be defended against. On the other hand, a border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and porous
If the borderlands are “uninhabitable” for some transsexuals who imagine
that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those
subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally. Prosser’s cartography of gender relies upon a belief in the two territories of
male and female, divided by a flesh border and crossed by surgery and endocrinology
Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross
from point A to point B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity. These distinctions do not map onto categories “transsexual” and
“nontranssexual” in an easy one-to-one correspondence.
The one thing that disappointed me in this essay was her retreat from the radical statement that ““There are no transsexuals. We are all transsexuals”. It was perhaps hyperbole, but it emphasized the instability, incoherence and fundamental nonexistence of gender categories. Despite that, it’s a good analysis and review of the differentiation of identity.
Gayle Rubin (a noted sex-positive feminist who has greatly influenced my politics) also wrote about identity in regards to trans men, butches, gender dysphoria and queerness. In The Transgender Studies Reader, Rubin introduces the concept of “butchness” and how it is placed historically within lesbian feminist and lesbian communities. Even more, she explains how it relates to gender dysphoria:
Butch is also the indigenous lesbian category for women who are gender “dysphoric.” Gender dysphoria is a technical term for individuals who are dissatisfied with the gender to which they were assigned (usually at birth) on the basis of their anatomical sex. Within the psychological and medical communities, gender dysphoria is considered a disorder, as were lesbianism and male homosexuality before the American Psychiatric Association removed them from its of official list of mental diseases in 1973. I am not using gender dysphoria in the clinical sense, with its connotations of neurosis or psychological impairment. I am using it as a purely descriptive term for persons who have gender feelings and identities that are at odds with their assigned gender status or their physical bodies. Individuals who have very powerful gender dysphoria, particularly those with strong drives to alter their bodies to conform to their preferred gender identities, are called transsexuals.
Unfortunately, she starts off by reducing transsexual identity to transition, a notion that has rightly been problematized in modern trans discourse, but it is understandable given the time period. What’s important is her emphasis that gender dysphoria is not something unique to trans people, it’s something experienced by butch women (which unfortunately she stops short of the important claim that it exists in more gender categories).
Within the group of women labeled butch, there are many individuals who are gender dysphoric to varying degrees. Many butches have partially male gender identities. Others border on being, and some are, female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs), although many lesbians and FTMs and the areas of overlap between butchness and transsexualism disturbing. Saying that many butches identify as masculine to some degree does not mean that all, even most, butches “want to be men,” although some undoubtedly do. Most butches enjoy combining expressions of masculinity with a female body. The coexistence of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of “butch” and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.
Further breaking down arbitrary notions of cis-trans identity (a model I’ve criticized for the recreation of dichotomies that trans politics typically professes to break down – also see my piece on Daphna Joel’s research), she points out that non-normative gender identity is present among individuals typically considered “cisgender”.
Sometimes lesbians use the term butch to indicate only the most manly women. But the equation of butch with hypermasculine women indulges a stereotype. Butches vary widely in how masculine they feel and, consequently, in how they present themselves. Some butches are only faintly masculine, some are partly masculine, some “dag” butches are very manly, and some “drag kings” pass as men. Butches vary in how they relate to their female bodies. Some butches are comfortable being pregnant and having kids, while for others the thought of undergoing the female component of mammalian reproduction is utterly repugnant. Some enjoy their breasts while others despise them. Some butches hide their genitals and some refuse penetration. There are butches who abhor tampons, because of their resonance with intercourse; other butches love getting fucked. Some butches are perfectly content in their female bodies, while others may border on or become transsexuals
Rubin breaks down dichotomous interpretations of butch, femme, trans and cis categories by emphasizing the range of gender identity, embodiment and experiences among butch lesbians. We can note that some of these narratives are nearly identical to that of trans men: it is difficult to create a clearcut distinction between trans men and lesbians without trapping people on one side or the other in contrast to their identity. Even more, the reification of a contrasting butch and ftm identities erases those who never transition out of one category or the other, that fit into both, live their lives as both and die as both. As emphasized in the last essay, any attempt to claim individuals living in this ‘border zone’ ends up making it more difficult for people to live their lives in that border zone.
No system of classification can successfully catalogue or explain the infinite vagaries of human diversity. To paraphrase Foucault, no system of thought can ever “tame the wild profusion of existing things.” Anomalies will always occur, challenging customary modes of thought without representing any actual threat to health, safety, or community survival. However, human beings are easily upset by exactly those “existing things” that escape classification, treating such phenomena as dangerous, polluting, and requiring eradication. Female-to-male transsexuals present just such a challenge to lesbian gender categories.
And as I would argue, butch lesbians present a challenge to the trans community’s gender categories that set up strict binaries between butch lesbians and trans men, or rather butches and ftms. Queer theory and its antecedent post-structuralism provides a poignant critique of territorializing bifurcations which shows up in Butler’s Gender Trouble, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and so on.
Although important discontinuities separate lesbian butch experience and female-to-male transsexual experience, there are also significant points of connection. Some butches are psychologically indistinguishable from female-to-male transsexuals, except for the identities they choose and the extent to which they are willing or able to alter their bodies. Many FTMs live as butches before adopting transsexual or male identities. Some individuals explore each identity before choosing one that is more meaningful for them, and others use both categories to interpret and organize their experience. The boundaries between the categories of butch and transsexual are permeable.
The permeable nature of these boundaries alludes to a possible conceptualization of these gender categories as Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance concepts’ as Jacob Hale has utilized to analyze society’s meaning of women in reconstructing Monique Wittig’s assertion that lesbians are not women. Perhaps we can see the relationship between butches and ftms as the intersection of two family resemblance concepts, the border wars being a result of contests over who fits or does not fit within each category, political disputes resulting from the ambiguity of criterion necessary for membership augmented by social disparities, self-identification and ideology (as depicted in this analysis of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts of ‘woman’ vs ‘man’). But again, the family resemblance concept does not lend itself particularly well to an anti-essentialist anti-foundationalist politics that emphasizes the difference of similarity and similarity of difference as a means for grounding solidarity while rejecting binaries. As such, my embrace of family resemblance concepts has always been reluctant and pragmatic in the need to explicate the complexity of identity to those ‘stuck’ in regressive understandings of gender as strict binaries.
A sex change is a transition. A woman does not immediately become a man as soon as she begins to take hormones. During the initial states of changing sex, many FTMs will not be ready to leave the world of women. There is no good reason to harass them through a transitional period during which they will not quite fit as women or men. Most FTMs who undergo sex reassignment identify as men and are anxious to live as men as soon as possible. They will leave lesbian contexts on their own, when they can, when they are ready, and when those environments are no longer comfortable. It is not necessary for gender vigilantes to drive them out. Some FTMs will experiment with sex change and elect to abandon the effort. They should not be deprived of their lesbian credentials for having explored the option.
This passage is particularly relevant to modern gender politics for two reasons:
- It explains why trans men are often seen in women spaces (female-only spaces, lesbian dating apps like Her) and why trans women are sometimes seen on gay dating apps like Grindr: a period of transition, experimentation and testing identity where one tries to figure out where exactly in the modern gender schema they fit
- The proliferation of nonbinary identities, in particular nonbinary lesbians and gay nonbinary individuals, can be seen as a method of carving out a new space for gendered performance and sexuality to exist by rejecting the binaries of gender ideology. But of course, idle speculation should not outweigh the voices of those involved.
Lesbian communities and individuals have suffered enough from the assumption that we should all be the same, or that every difference must be justified by a claim of political or moral superiority. We should not attempt to decide whether butch-femme or transsexualism are acceptable for anyone or preferable for everyone. Individuals should be allowed to navigate their own trails through the possibilities, complexities, and difficulties of life in postmodern times. Each strategy and each set of categories has its capabilities, accomplishments, and drawbacks. None is perfect, and none works for everyone all the time
Community is not a homogenous unit of individuals akin to a “Borg collective”, it’s a rhizome perpetuated by negotiation with individuals asserting themselves as members, not without conflict but with plenty of it. There is no reason why ‘the’ ‘lesbian community’ cannot include trans men, trans women and nonbinary individuals of all colors and stripe other than that of rigid gender terrorism: the insistence on immutable, contrasting and opposing genders that are simple and neat. It’s society’s love of fitting people into boxes applied to gender.
Feminism and lesbian-feminism developed in opposition to a system that imposed rigid roles, limited individual potential, exploited women as physical and emotional resources, and persecuted sexual and gender diversity. Feminism and lesbian-feminism should not be used to impose new but equally rigid limitations, or as an excuse to create new vulnerable and exploitable populations. Lesbian communities were built by sex and gender refugees; the lesbian world should not create new rationales for sex and gender persecution.
A necessary read for those self-described “gender critical radical feminists” who terrorize trans, nonbinary, lesbian and queer individuals for their identities, bodies, relationships, experiences and existences that justify the ideological schema of radical feminism (used here to describe ‘TERF’ radical feminism).
Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. T e fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism.
There are some important points that are made within the ending paragraph of this piece, but the conclusion falls flat into the depths of liberalist identity conceptualizations rather than the radical negation of identity. An analysis of identity categories reveals the rigid bases these categories are founded upon, not built for fluidity and negotiation, but for categorization and the subsequent oppression. It is only through the wholesale rejection of identity can true liberation be realized.
And of course the piece that I referenced in my previous piece, Consuming the living, (disremembering) the dead in the Butch/FTM border wars, makes the points in the strongest, most pungent manner.
If people insist on appropriating this corpse by locating it definitively within any particular identity category, they must explain away multiple inconsistencies, ambiguities, and ambivalences in self-identification, self-explanation, behavior and presentation by using concepts of denial, repression, fear, and internalized prejudice and shame that all tend to diminish the agency of the subject once animated in that dead flesh. To justify belief in different, solidly located outcomes, all that need shift is the content of these schematic rhetorical devices and those aspects of life to which they are applied.
Undeniably, an important characteristic of ftm subjectivity is masculine subjectivity in persons assigned female at birth and raised girl-to-woman with fairly unambiguous female embodiments for at least part of our lives. Once we try to be more precise about the relative notions of masculine subjectivity, however, matters become extremely complicated. Masculine subjectivity cannot be simply reduced to self-identification as a man, as not all ftms self-identify as men in any simple, nonproblematic way. Several alternatives are available here. Some ftms, such as David Harrison, self-identify as transsexual men and view that as “a different gender from what people commonly think of as man”. Michael M. Hernandez writes, “My sexual orientation is queer. I consider myself to be a hybrid of woman and man, and thus lesbian as well as gay”.
Indeed, some butches might have richer, more solid male or masculine self-identifications than do some ftms. Consequently, drawing a distinction between butches and ftms in terms of masculine subjectivity threatens to elide both some ftms’ self-identifications and some butches’ self-identifications relative to the categories “man”, “male”, and “masculine”
Yet some butches also avail themselves of some of the same reembodiment technologies, including exogenous testosterone, breast removal and chest reconstruction, hysterectomy, oophremectomy, bodybuilding, and genital alteration through piercing.
As Zachary I. Nataf notes, in some cases, self-identification might be the only distinguishing characteristic. Indeed, in some cases there may be no distinction at all, since some people self-identify as both butch and ftm.
It is no doubt misguided to try to locate one or two necessary or sufficient conditions by which to demarcate butch/ftm differences. Most people who participate in trans communities take it as already given that there is no one characteristic that provides a sharp distinction between nontranssexual women and nontranssexual men, although it would be fallacious to draw from this the conclusion that there is no distinction at all. Elsewhere I have argued that the dominant cultural definition of woman in the contemporary United States has thirteen defining characteristics, clustered into several groups and weighted differently. None of these thirteen characteristics is necessary or sufficient for membership in the category “woman”. Rather these characteristics are best understood as Wittgensteinian family resemblances: resemblances that some women, to greater or lesser degrees, share with some other women, just as I share some resemblances with some members of my biological family to greater or lesser degrees share with others in my biological family.
Analytically pursuing definitions of ftm and butch in terms of Wittgensteinian resemblance characteristics would render a descriptively adequate distinction more likely than would attempting to draw a sharp distinction based on one or two clusters of characteristics such as masculine subjectivity and male reembodiment. Concerns about how such a definition of ftm would likely function, however, stay my hand, for it could easily provide a paradigm paralleling the coercive medicalized construct of the “real”, “true” or “primary” (female-to-male) transsexual.
The dilemma of providing definitions for identity categories has haunted me in my time in the qu\r community, as I tend to refuse to provide stark demarcations for determining membership in one category or another, but am also quite skeptical of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts due to the implicit wars over membership in categories that would recreate the aftermentioned “true transsexual” politics (also see Kapusta’s thesis on the fights over membership and the necessity of dissemblance that quickly makes a family resemblance untenable).
Ken Morris and Candance Hellen Brown propose to define transsexual in terms of desire, writing, “It is not surgery which defines a transsexual, but the internal visualization and experience of the body as being of the opposite [sic] sex, which creates the desire to bring the body into conformity with the internal image.” This proposal is unsatisfactory on four accounts. First, it either classifies as transsexual those butches who desire at least partial male reembodiment or, if it is tightened to require desire for “complete” reembodiment, it implies that ftms who do not have this desire are not transsexual. Second, it is transsexual-centric at best to classify as transsexual someone who desires reembodiment but elects not to act on that desire and does not self-identify as transsexual, as Morris and Brown’s definition implies, since they propose that desire based on internal visualization and somatic experience is sufficient for membership in the category “transsexual”. A third problem is that not all transsexuals report having any positive visualization or experience of their pretransitional bodies as bodies that are culturally encoded as male; some ftms, instead, talk about being disassociated from their bodies or unhappy with their bodies and do not form a positive visualization or somatic experience until their bodies are hormonally or surgically altered. The fourth problem is more directly relevant the classification of historical individuals into contemporary categories: just as some contemporary people are able to form desires for reembodiment only under the condition that they are aware that reembodiment is a possibility for themselves, Morris and Brown’s definition ignores relationships between having a desire and having concepts through which to form or make sense of a desire.
Identity is always doubly relational (at a minimum). We form and maintain our identities by making continuous reiterated identifications as members of some category U(s). This is accomplished both positively and negatively by repeated identification with some (not necessarily all) members of U, and by reiterated identifications as non-members of some other category T(hem). Identifying as and identifying with, while closely related, are not identical. Identifying as U always involves identifying with some members of U, but the converse does not hold; for example, I identify with leather dykes – as a result of historical ties, continuing friendship circles, and some semblances of sensibility and values – but I no longer identify as a leather dyke.
Hale’s piece is one of my favorite refutations to “true transsexual” politics that helps explicate the nuances of trans identity in the face of gendered society and the norms that result, as well as the specific focus on trans male identity. I highly recommend reading the entire piece.
A recent work that reflects on Hale’s Consuming the Living is Weiss’ The Lesbian Community and FTMs.
In 1998, Dr. Jacob Hale wrote “Consuming the Living, Dis(re)membering the Dead in the Butch/FTM Borderlands.” He discussed the competing claims by lesbians and FTMs regarding the gender identity of historical figures. The title refers to a ‘borderland’ between butch lesbian identity and FTM masculinity, which consumes the living, “disremembers” the psychological identity of the dead, as well as “dismembering” their physical status as FTMs or lesbians (depending on which side of the line you reside).
There is no evidence that the combatants have changed their positions, or their fervor. The line is real. It is sign of difference, a line of demarcation, and an identity distinction of great importance to both lesbians and FTMs. Nonetheless, I contend that the border may not have a long future. There are converging trends in sexual identity that suggest such a result. These changes primarily affect the younger generation in their teens and twenties. First, the old labels are shifting in meaning. ‘Lesbian’ is moving away from a primarily political discourse of ‘woman-identified woman.’ ‘FTM’ is moving away from a primarily medical discourse of ‘sex change.’
Second, sexuality and gender among the younger generation have changed and begun to blend. Many young people now identify as ‘genderqueer,’ a word suggesting the conjunction of both gender and gayness, and pluralistic challenges to the gender binary (Weiss 2004 a). ‘Lesbians’ can have sex with men–can even be men (born male-bodied or female-bodied). ‘FTM’ can mean ‘female towards male’ and refer to a lesbian, a woman and/or a man. Such a person may have sex with women, or men, or either.
Third, differences among sexuality and gender are regarded as personal differences, not identity differences. Being a woman who has sex with women, but who considers oneself masculine does not require identification as ‘butch.’ Being a woman who considers herself transgender does not mean abandoning one’s identity as a lesbian and taking on an FTM identity.
“Here is how one lesbian described herself and her friends in 2002:”
One of my friends identifies as a female-bodied butch. He says he is neither a womon nor a lesbian, and he takes only womyn lovers. Another friend says that s/he is a lesbian and also a man. Yet another says s/he is a masculine womon. I know two people who identify as transgendered womyn–one is a biological man and the other a biological womon. The bioman dresses and lives as a womon; the biowoman dresses and lives as a man. Both call themselves lesbian. I have come to understand that, although there is not yet a name for my desires, I am a womon, a lesbian womon, and a femme, who deeply desires male presence in female bodies. I love men on top of me and inside me. This is my kind of lesbianism
There are also lesbians who consider themselves transgender but want to remain women:
I routinely speak before groups of young queers like Jesse who refuse to identify as gay or straight because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t even select their partners by sex.
The works I summarized and analyzed today demonstrate the false dichotomy between ftm and butch identities and problematize the purported clearcut bifurcation between the rich identities. By the utilization of a single characteristic to attempt to cleave ftm from butch or vice versa, advocates problematically ignore the lived experiences of both butches and ftms. The deconstruction of the butch-ftm dichotomy has further implications for contemporary gender politics: cis vs trans, straight vs gay, trans vs drag queen, trans vs gender nonconforming, bisexual vs pansexual, male vs female, gender vs sex, and other gender/sexuality binaries. And while single-characteristic conceptualizations of the distinction between butch and ftm fail, so do Wittgensteinian conceptualizations that use a litany of characteristics to distinguish the two groups by reinforcing ‘trutrans’ politics and medicalization of personal identity. The essays here provide clear reasoning for the necessity of anti-essentialist gender politics in our rapidly shifting world of gender and sexuality identities.
Some Other Readings
Butch Wonder’s work on the conflict between butch women and trans men
Queer Like Us descriptions of various individuals gendered lives
Matt Kailey’s piece on ‘the Great Divide’
Slate’s article on the ‘border between butch and trans’
An analysis of the conflict in the show The L Word
A Medium narrative on the coloniality of trans and butch identity
A reading of Stone Butch Blues through the lens of the border wars
FTM Trans Theory VS. Trans Narratives by Emily Nelson
For years, clinicians, therapists, researchers, and transfolk alike have remarked that “younger transitioners”, transkids, “homosexual transsexuals”, “early onset” (whatever label or demarcator in fashion) MTF transsexuals simply ‘pass’ better than “older transitioners”, autogynephilic transsexuals, “late onset” MTF transsexuals. For years, I wanted to conduct a study about this. Well, now we have clinical data to test this observation.
Who would have realized that male-attracted females are more gender-typical.
The Dutch have long contended that age of onset was the salient signifier, while those in North America contend that it is sexual orientation, specifically “homosexual” vs. “non-homosexual”, which readers of my blog, and those familiar with the literature, know gives a strong signal / correlation with autogynephilia in MTF transsexuals.
‘The Dutch’ have published empirical studies showing this is the case for a number of other variables, while showing sexual orientation is a lesser factor. Furthermore, the homogenization of North American trans researchers to represent Canadian researchers and then Anne Lawrence is interesting considering that a number of clinics that Brown and Blanchard and co. criticize are also from North America. Moser, a critic of Blanchardianism, is also from North America. The clinics in my area don’t follow Blanchardianism, neither have any of my therapists or psychiatrists.
In the graphs below, a higher score means more gender incongruent appearance (i.e. ‘readable’), while a lower score means more gender congruent (i.e. ‘passable’).
Modern society has the unfortunate phenomenon of gender stereotypes and gender norms that are enforced on trans and GNC individuals. This means that people who choose to present themselves as something incongruent with their gender, they are ostracized. This effect is magnified for trans people who choose to present in this manner (feminine trans men, masculine trans women).
Interesting results, but the lack of controls for choice in presentation is problematic. I can’t tell what the lines are supposed to represent, but I’m guessing that it’s either error bars or range, either of which add some important caveats. If it’s error bars (my initial interpretation), then it seems as if the correlation is inconclusive. If it’s range, then we can’t make claims about universal ‘passability’ because there’s such a large range of results. I’d be interested to see the results for GNC cis lesbian, GNC cis straight, GC cis lesbian and GC straight women as a reference point, of course using a subgroup of post-transition trans people to ensure we aren’t comparing mid-transition trans people to cis people.
Or yet another way of putting is that the least passible androphilic is the same as the average non-androphilic transwoman
Assuming that the bars represent the range, then she’d be wrong. The least passable androphilic trans women is far higher than the average for non-androphilic trans women.
There’s one other interesting graph in the study that Brown ‘forgot’ to include. The only about BIS (Body Image Scale) that measures how satisfied an individual feels about their body.
We can clearly see that the difference between androphilic and non-androphilic trans women is negligible, visually and statistically:
With regard to overall body satisfaction (i.e., BIS scores), no significant differences between sexual orientation and onset age subgroups were found in both natal sexes.
If non-androphilic trans women and androphilic trans women are equally satisfied with their body image, then it begs the conclusion that non-androphilic trans women are (relatively) content with their gender atypicality and probably even choose this. Among cis lesbian women, there is a much higher rate of chosen gender atypicality, as in “butch lesbians”, and the phenomenon of butch lesbian trans women has been documented by Leslie Feinberg.
If we hypothesize that the salient signifier is sexual orientation and NOT age of onset, then we would expect that the relative score for early onset would be intermediate between androphilic and both non-androphilic and late-onset (which is predominately non-androphilic at 79%).
The homogenized ‘Dutch’ believe that age of onset is a more significant signifier for a number of other variables, not exclusively passability.
That is to say, variation in the data is explained completely by sexual orientation and that the variation of passability with respect to age of onset is from the correlation between sexual orientation and age of onset.
The conflating of saliency with a variable explaining all of the variation of passability is disingenuous. The fact that one variable has the most significant single variable explanation does not mean other variables do not matter, or that 100% is explained by one variable.
However, given clinical experiences with each, the meaning of age of onset is quite likely different. If 43% of non-androphilic transwomen really did have an early onset… why do they all wait so long to socially transition?
I’ve given this some thought and come to the conclusion that if the etiology of FEFs is the internalization of gender dysphoria, then of course non-straight trans women are going to socially transition later on average. Regardless, we know this isn’t universally the case: Grossman et. al 2006 found that a majority of trans youth are non-“homosexual”:
While youth used a variety of terms to describe their sexual orientation, a majority of the FTM youth (15) used the word “queer”; other terms chosen were heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian, with four youth not wanting to label their sexual orientation. In comparison, of the MTF youth, 14 identified as heterosexual, 8 as gay, 4 as bisexual, 3 as trans, 1 as lesbian, and 1 did not to select a label.
Now this is self-evidently anecdotal, but the only adolescent trans girls (I hate the term ‘girls’ but it’s the only applicable term I can think of here) that I’ve met are lesbians. And there are some interesting result about passability in this study too, so I recommend giving it a read.
We are still left with an open question. Why do androphilic transwomen pass so much better than non-androphilic? Three possible hypotheses exist, 1) Having a truly earlier age of onset and social transition age, they experience less masculinization from endogenous androgens. 2) Self selection for passibility as they are motivated to fit into society better, being both physically and behaviorally extremely gender atypical (and not autogynephilically motivated). 3) Actually being, as a group, intrinsically more physically gender atypical. (That is to say, that the etiological cause for their behavioral gender atypicality causes physical atypicality as well.)
I think that this passage, particularly point #3, really exposes Kay Brown for her beliefs. She doesn’t believe trans women are women, otherwise she wouldn’t say “gender atypical”. Feminine trans women are gender typical, because femininity is associated with womanhood. Masculine trans women are gender atypical, because masculinity masculinity is associated with manhood. The only way you can conclude that “androphilic transwomen” are “gender atypical” is if you consider their gender to be equivalent to the sex they were assigned at birth which is almost universally male.
There have been hints from a number of studies that there is a correlation between sexual orientation and subtle gender atypical facial physiognomy. A new study just how strongly supports this observation. Using a deep-layer neural net AI trained to categorize faces as heterosexual or homosexual, can differentiate between two faces, one of a heterosexual and one of a homosexual, of the same natal sex at 91% accuracy for males and 83% for females.
Citing this incredibly controversial study without referencing any of the controversy is a c h o i c e. The study has some serious methodological and logical flaws throughout, and is entirely based on the psuedoscience of physiognomy. This Medium article articulates the points better than I could. By ignoring social signaling and how the choices of what to wear (glasses, makeup) and shaving, they base their conclusions on biology rather than the obvious conclusion: that stereotypes exist. And even more, this Calling Bullshit piece explains the scientific flaws with how the study interprets its results.
The study could alternatively support the conclusion that lesbian women (cis and trans) and straight women (cis and trans) can be grouped together based on physiognomy (not one that I believe).
Onto the second article.
There is no “standard” to which behavior should “conform”. There is only behavior, period
Her first mistake is confusing the prescriptive for the descriptive. People using gender nonconforming (very often researchers studying trans people) are not saying that people should or should not conform to anything, just that they do or do not. She also seems to have missed the point as to what standard the term refers to: societal standards. It is far more socially acceptable to be a masculine man and a feminine woman than the reverse (something that has been noted by Brown herself). Conform can alternatively be interpreted as conformation to the majority, or what is most typical of the population. Gender nonconforming is a useful term politically in the first sense because by emphasizing societal standards, we offer a way to highlight those who are harmed by them and advocate for their abolition.
However, if we look at, study in depth as scientists, a species we can say that there are behaviors that are far more commonly performed by them than other behaviors seen in other species. These we can label as “typical” for that species. If we see a behavior in a given individual of a species that is uncommon for that species, we may label it “atypical”; but we would never label it “non-conforming” since we can’t really say what standard that a given species should “conform” to.
Again, nothing about gender nonconforming terminology talks about what standard an individual should conform to (as that would be a prescriptive statement), it’s describing how conformity (a social phenomenon used everywhere in the social sciences, and sometimes in the natural sciences) functions in punishing feminine men and masculine women. This is actually something recognized later in the piece, where she uses the word conform to describe the same phenomenon, while failing to recognize the meaning of gender nonconforming:
Given the religious (or related social views of gender) prejudice, one can easily see how children who exhibit these gender atypical behaviors are placed under tremendous pressure to “conform” to gender behavior standards that tend to skew to the gender typical, or even an exageration of typical behavior.
But even deeper, is my objection to the post-modernist idea that there are no intrinsic sexually dimorphic behaviors in humans, that there are only socially constructed roles.
The everpresent postmodern (-‘ist’ in this case) strawpersyn persists. Nothing about postmodern analysis precludes the existence of sexually dimorphic behavior and some queer theorist researchers have even incorporated that into their analysis.
This notion would state that since all differences in behavior observed between the human sexes are socially constructed and maintained, there must be a socially defined standard to which we can conform or not.
There is a socially defined standard to which we can conform or not, but that is not because of ‘differences in behavior observed between the human sexes are socially constructed and maintained’ (which is definitionally true if anti-constructionists would bother to read Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?), it’s because we can observe this in society.
Thus, both of these ideas reduce any behavior that is seen in an individual that is uncommon in that person’s sex to an act of “gender non-conformity” either by accident or by will… but never by nature. I find both the notion that we stand outside of nature to be scientifically preposterous and philosophically offensive.
The assertion that gendered behavior is caused by social differences rather than nature isn’t saying that we stand “outside of nature”. Her logic is a non-sequitur. The nature-nurture dichotomy has been explicitly criticized by the so-called “post-modernists” she’s alluding to (she never names them by name, but the ‘postmodernists’ that study sex and gender usually fall into the category of queer theory). Dichotomies are constantly questioned by post-structuralists, including true-false, gay-straight, man-woman and so on. My favorite example is Judith Butler:
Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology, including the problemaic nature/culture distinction, has been appropriated by some feminist theorists to support and elucidate the sex/gender distinction: the position that there is a natural or biological female who is subsequently transformed into a socially subordinate “woman,”with the consequence that “sex” is to nature or “the raw” as gender is to culture or “the cooked.” If Lévi-Strauss’s framework were true, it would be possible to trace the transformation of sex into gender by locating that stable mechanism of cultures, the exchange rules of kinship, which effect that transformation in fairly regular ways. Within such a view, “sex” is before the law in the sense that it is culturally and political undetermined, providing the “raw material” of culture, as it were, that begins to signify only through and after its subjection to the rules of kinship.
This very concept of sex-as-matter, sex-as-instrument-of-cultural-signification, however, is a discursive formation that acts as a naturalized foundation for the nature/culture distinction and the strategies of domination that that distinction supports. The binary relation between culture and nature promotes a relationship of hierarchy in which culture freely “imposes” meaning on nature, and, hence, renders it into an “Other” to be appropriated to its own limitless uses, safeguarding the ideality of the signifier and the structure of signification on the model of domination.
and so on. For post-structuralists, a nature-nurture, nature-culture dichotomy is as incoherent as the man-woman dichotomy. Fausto-Sterling (who is not a post-modernist, but I expect would be similarly criticized by Brown) similarly criticizes the distinction between biology and culture in Sexing the Body (another fantastic read that shows how sex isn’t a natural phenomenon).
In other pages of this blog, I’ve made reference to the single most sexually dimorphic behavior in humans: androphilia (sexual attraction to adult males). In female humans, it is extremely common to be attracted to men. Approximately 98% of women are attracted to men while only approximately 5-10% of men were attracted to men. One could object to this being a ‘natural’ phenomena and say that social expectations have defined this. But it would not fit the evidence that has been amassing that sexual orientation is neither “chosen” nor “taught”.
The entire division of behavior by sexual orientation is a social construct. We can note that sexuality is constructed differently in many societies: Latin America and ancient Rome didn’t conceptualize penetration and being penetrated as equivalent forms of sexuality that are both classified under the label ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’. In fact, penetration was classified as
Further, why should humans be unique in the world? Most mammalian species are sexually dimorphic in their sexual attractions. (No, I’m not denying that same sex behavior occurs in non-human species… only saying it is not as common as other sex attraction.) But, this isn’t the end of the story.
I will quote Daphna Joel and Lutz Jäncke on this matter.
Joel [29,30] has recently suggested that such evidence may be found in animal studies reporting that the effects of sex on the brain differ even to the point of opposition under varied environmental conditions and that sex-by-environment interactions may differ for different brain features. For example, Reich et al.  found that three weeks of mild stress reversed a sex difference in the density of CB1 receptors in rats’ dorsal hippocampus. Thus, what was typical in one sex category under some conditions (i.e. low density of CB1 receptors in non-stressed females and high density of CB1 receptors in non-stressed males) was typical in the other sex category under other conditions (i.e. following three weeks of stress). A different sex-by-environment interaction determined the density of CB1 receptors in the ventral hippocampus, as the same manipulation (three weeks of mild stress) eliminated a sex difference in the density of these receptors in the ventral hippocampus.
In contrast to humans, genetic, developmental and environmental conditions can be highly controlled in laboratory animals. Thus, the variability of factors that might interact with sex to affect the brain (such as age, stress, housing conditions, nutrition, history of drug exposure; for references and review, see [29,30]) is greatly reduced. Consequently, brains of laboratory animals in a specific experiment are expected to be less heterogeneous compared with brains of humans in a single study. Therefore in laboratory animals, differences between the sex categories may indeed reveal the effects of sex rather than the effects of some chance difference between the sample of females and the sample of males in the study.
Although in animals there is probably no equivalence to gender as a social system, there are still environmental variables that, in addition to physiological variables (e.g. weight), correlate with sex category (e.g. number of animals in the home cage ). Studies in laboratory animals that use sex category as a variable should take special care to either control for (physiological) and avoid (environmental) sex differences in these variables, or systematically manipulate them.
This research has also been strongly influenced by animal research, where it is much easier than it is in humans to study genetic differences in terms of sex/gender, including at the molecular, hormonal, and neurophysiological levels 1, 2. However, it is not a simple endeavor to transfer results and interpretations from animal research to explain human behavior and cognition, since there are still some substantial differences between humans and other animals. One major difference is that the brain of humans is different in many respects from the brain of most other animals, although the human brain comprises the same neurons as even simpler constructed animals. The human brain comprises the largest number of neurons compared with all other animals in absolute terms 3. In addition, it is characterized by extreme, and in the animal kingdom unprecedented, interconnectivity that provides the necessary basis for the computation and storage of information, which is necessary for human learning and culture 4. This huge neural network is also significantly plastic and can be shaped by individual experience and practice
Let’s move on.
Had the strong social construction hypothesis of all gendered behavior been true, there would have been no correlation. We can reject this hypothesis.
Specifically note that she said correlation. Without causation, we cannot reject the social construction hypotheses because we could have not controlled for enough socioenvironmental variables.
This likely also extends past adolescence to explain the rather dramatic differences in passability between androphilic transwomen and gynephilic transwomen
Interesting how she overstates the ‘passability’ difference.
Being gender atypical in brain organization, it would naturally lead to later androphilia, gender atypical motor skills (feminine walk and hand gestures), and gender atypical vocal production (feminine or “gay lisp”).
Unfortunately, brain organization theory doesn’t have enough evidence to support it, especially given the predominance of the theory in contemporary neuroscience research. Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm is a great read on this topic.
One would, at first glance, believe that those who hold the strong social construction hypothesis as true would then have no qualms about accepting gender atypical children and adults without reservation as breaking stereotypes.
Many do. For example, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Monique Wittig, Gloria Steinem are all examples of radical feminists who are in favor of trans people’s existence.
But, as we can easily discern, they often do not, as demonstrated by the minority movement within the gay and lesbian (mostly lesbian) communities of being “gender critical”
Overwhelmingly, adherents to gender critical ideology are women and most theorists are (or at the very least profess to be) radical feminists (the followers are somewhat different).
They philosophically approve of people being gender atypical… but only to a very specified point, accepting the gender normative roles that were established during the early Gay Liberation Movement.
I spend quite a bit of time reading and contesting gender critical ideology, so I like to think that I’m “educated” on it. I can definitely say that radical feminists and gender critical feminists believe themselves to be against gender roles. Their issue with trans people is that they:
- Believe that gender nonconforming people are erased by ‘trans ideology’. This is because they so often see female-attracted trans men transitioning (or very often themselves) who were previously butch lesbians, and male-attracted trans women that used to be feminine gay men. From their point of view, transitioning and claiming oneself to be a man/woman erases GNC individuals and turns them into gender-conforming individuals. A butch lesbian is GNC, a masculine man is not. A feminine gay man is GNC, a feminine woman is not.
- Believe gender roles are reified by ‘trans ideology’. While I do have gigantic issues with certain trends within some trans subcultures and communities, they by and large misrepresent the trans community to conclude that trans people reinforce gender roles. From their POV, telling feminine men that they must be women means that femininity in men is unacceptable and treated with transition. On the /r/GenderCritical sidebar (right side), there is a diagram that helps elucidate their actual beliefs.
By erasing the lived experiences of trans people and ignoring those important things called gender dysphoria and freedom, they construct their narrative that ‘trans ideology’ reifies gender roles. Now I do agree that ‘gender critical’ feminists tend to uphold and reinforce gender roles, it’s for quite different reasons than their lack of support for transition (which has more to do with a fundamental reification of the beauty of ‘original bodies’ and narratives about mutilation). When discussing and analyzing gay men and trans people, they tend to uphold the exact stereotypes they profess to oppose.
The moment that an individual steps past that point, there will be those who will denounce them as hewing to the very stereotypes that they break, but in the opposite gendered sense, denying that underlying sexually dimorphic behavior as valid.
They are (usually, but it varies based on the topic: they are often very opposed to drag queens) completely fine with feminine men, in fact that’s exactly what they wish trans women to live as. The unnecessary mutilation of their bodies is what they oppose (but as we all know, transition is neither unnecessary or mutilation).