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