The MintGarden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender

Have you ever planted mint in a well-watered garden? Probably not more than once. The stuff takes over, doesn’t it? Pretty soon you have more mint than you could use in a candy factory, and you’re hacking it back, treating it like a weed. Most people don’t mind a bit of mint,1 but most of us like other flavors, too — dill, basil, thyme, and others — and we’d like those to have places to grow without getting choked out by mint. Also, we’d maybe like to spend our time encouraging other things to grow, and not uprooting the mint.

Sometimes, when a trans person posts something, commenters ask questions which don’t seem to come up when a cis person posts something. The questioners are often well-intentioned. They’re often seeking genuinely to understand. And, when a trans person posts from an explicitly trans perspective, naturally the topic is often gender-related. So, gender comes up in these conversations, and fair enough. What is “a woman”? What is “a man”? When someone is apparently, in every way, one gender, but says they’re a different gender, what does that even mean? Is that real? Are there caveats?

But those questioners have just planted mint in the garden. And there’s a place for mint. Just not where you’d like to grow the thyme and the basil. Not in every garden.

When this happens, when a questioner wants to interrogate an aspect of gender, the trans poster can easily start to feel that it is their gender which is being interrogated, and not just the abstract concept of gender. There are many reasons why. Among them:

1. Gender as an abstract notion requires an act of will, for a trans person. Gender is very specific, for us. It has consequences, and some of them hurt.2 This disparity in life experience between cis and trans is just about the definition of the difference between a cis person and a trans person. One excellent definition of “trans person” is “a person whose gender is not universally considered valid.”3

2. People4 often do question the gender of trans people, and challenge it, and deride it, and try to define it. So this is a repeating, reiterating, recapituling, recurring, life experience for trans people which happens frequently, a lot, over and over, again and again.5 If the questioner were the first, it would not be an issue. But the questioner is the 10,000th, even though this is the particular questioner’s first visit to this garden. That ground has been pounded flat. It’s hard for a green shoot to gain purchase, and the people who live there are pretty tired of the dust kicked up as visitors walk around and ask Important Questions.6

3. Some people, with every good intention, try to spin the question artfully, to ask the question about gender in general (not your specific gender, no!) in an effort not to attack a trans person, to depersonalize the interrogation. They want to spare the trans person the pain, and so they talk about hypotheticals. But there’s no bright line, and pretty soon the trans person is aware that they are at the focus of the questioner’s attention, and the question “What is this?” is really a stand-in for “What are you?” — which is a really dicey question to ask, especially when the questioner knows what the trans person has already said on the topic. So, well-intentioned gender-in-general conversations also become poisoned.

4. Some people, with no good intentions at all,7 ask questions about gender in general as a rhetorical device, so that they can attack a specific person’s gender while retaining a semblance of plausible deniability. This further poisons discussions about gender generally.

5. These definitional questions recur again and again on trans people’s posts about all kinds of topics, but they almost never appear on cis people’s posts, unless the cis person has actually raised the topic themself. This is not a coincidence; it is a reflection of that fact that the gender of cis people is unquestioned. Individual commenters aren’t wholly to blame for this–we’re all stewing in cissexism here–but when they can’t acknowledge the pattern, trans people tend to shut down and lose interest in talking further. This is a rational, self-protective response.


So, trans people get tired of these questions. They can be good questions. Tasty, even. But they have their place, and often it’s not in the comment thread below a different topic, or a more specific topic.

Sometimes you don’t want mint.

But what about the people who want mint? Shouldn’t there be a place to enjoy the mint?

This is that place. Welcome to the mint garden! Rimonim and I have decided to tend this garden, and since “gender” is an enormous topic, it’s a big garden. We can’t take credit for the underlying landscape; there are interesting sight lines and repeated themes and grand vistas and little meditative hollows.

All we’re going to try to do is keep the mint hacked down to where the view is clear.


Rimonim and I wrote what’s above a few months ago, intending to get back to it, and he was busy, and I was busy, and we hadn’t pushed it forward… and then Caitlyn Jenner transitioned and suddenly everyone is critiquing her and talking about what makes a woman and spinning off conversations.

One of those conversations is in the the recent open thread, where Christopher and dragon_snap and Phil are having what strikes me as a very careful and caring conversation on this very topic. I reproduce it here, with some formatting fixes. I’ll comment as I have time.


Christopher wrote:

I hope this isn’t somehow over the line, but I found that Vox FAQ to be, well, confusing.

I still don’t quite understand what gender identity is.

So, I actually have tried similar thought experiments to the one described at the beginning of the article; gender and sex are a minefield of complicated ideas, so I decided to imagine something fairly simple. I switched out the terms “man” and “woman” for height terms.

“Okay, I’m [six feet tall], but imagine my mind was telling me that I was [five feet tall], I might wish that I weren’t [six feet tall]…”

And I had to stop there because I was already engaging in anti-trans language. Look at what happens when I switch it back:

“Okay, I’m [a man], but imagine my mind was telling me I’m [a woman], I might wish that I weren’t [a man]…”

If I were to describe a trans woman as “a man who wishes to be a woman”, that would be considered extremely transphobic in most trans-friendly circles.

The more acceptable description seems to be that a trans man is “[A man] who was assigned [a female gender] at birth. A trans man has always been [a man] for their whole lives.”. It’s very common to hear that a trans man has always been a man, and a trans woman has always been a woman.

But if I try to turn it back around I get “I am [a five foot tall person] who was assigned [the height of six feet] at my last checkup. But I’ve always been [five feet tall]”

That’s harder for me to wrap my head around. I’m clearly using the term “five foot tall person” to refer to something other than a measurement on a ruler, but I’m not sure what that something is.

Especially when we get to this part of the article:

Keisling and Ziegler explained that not all trans people undergo medical treatments to change their physical traits, perhaps because they are comfortable with their bodies,

So a trans man may well be okay with having a (for lack of a better term) “female” body, which means that when he calls himself a man he’s not talking in terms of what his body is, or what it should be. In fact, it seems entirely possible that he may wear “women’s” clothes; I think we can all agree that a man can wear a dress and it doesn’t magically make him stop being a man.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

I’m not saying “Rargh, he’s not really a man” because in order to do that I’d first have to have a definition of what it meant to “really” be a man. And I don’t. I’d really like to know what the definition is.


dragon_snap wrote:

@ Christopher

I’m not trans, but I do have a gender identity, and as a woman, a queer person, and a trans* ally (to the best of my ability), I’ve thought about all this quite a bit.

1) You might find Julia Serano’s description of her experiences with ‘gender sadness’ illuminating. This is taken from a page on her old blog, but I highly recommend her book “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” if you are interested in transgender issues, sexism/feminism, or intersectionality.

i doubt i could adequately describe what “gender sadness” feels like to someone who is not transgendered. i suppose that in some ways it is similar to other kinds of sadness. for instance, you know that feeling you get when someone you love more than anything breaks up with you? and it’s about a month or two after the big break-up and you are trying to get on with your life. but no matter how busy you keep yourself, thoughts about that person just keep popping into your head about 100 times a day, and everytime they do you feel a bit of sadness. well that’s kind of what gender sadness felt like for me during most of my life. while i was always struggling with it, i could still go out and have a few laughs or go about my business and be relatively productive and happy for the most part. but unlike most types of sadness or grief, which tend to get a little less intense with every day that passes, gender sadness just keeps getting more and more intense. and by the year 2000, i had reached the point where the sadness felt more like what one feels on the actual day of the big break-up, when you can’t concentrate at all and you are totally consumed with thoughts of the person you loved. that’s how i felt almost every day: consumed with gender sadness. literally every other thought i had was about gender, about my pain. i could not get around it. it sucked all of the life out of me. i stopped calling friends, stopped writing songs and listening to music, i would go into work and just stare at the computer screen without really doing anything. it hurt as much as any other pain (physical or emotional) that i had ever felt before. and i knew there was only one way to ease that pain: transitioning.

2) It might be helpful to consider that different aspects of a person’s identity are of varying importance to different people. For instance, to some people, their nationality might be an important part of their self-concept, self-image, and their sense of who they are (i.e. their identity). For some others, their nationality may be only a very small portion of of what they consider to be their core self. The same can be said of pretty much any other trait or attribute – religious background, sexuality, profession, ethnicity, (dis)ability, family role, etc. And of course, it likewise applies to gender idenity. For instance, though I have a fairly specific and narrow range of gender expressions within which I am comfortable, I don’t have a strong innate gender identity (though I identify ‘politically’ – for lack of a better term – as a woman, and with womanhood, due to the historical and current myriad issues with sexism, strict gender roles, etc). I sometime describe my gender identity as ‘shy’, because if I ‘put it in the spotlight’ by thinking about it too hard or too long, I end up feeling uncomfortable and upset. It’s pretty neutral or androgynous though I think, and somewhat fluid. (Sometimes I feel like ‘one of the boys’, and sometimes like ‘one of the girls’.) It’s also worth noting though that I feel very much at home in AFAB (assigned female at birth) body, and I identify strongly as cissexual.

3) There are many aspects of a person’s biological sex. Some of the main facets:

– hormones: estrogen and progesterone vs. testosterone
– hormone cycles: approximately monthly vs. daily
– chromosomes: there are two sex chromosomes, X and Y, and many configurations of one or more copies of the X chromosome and zero or more copies of the Y chromosome in humans. Chromosomal testing is very rare, so we don’t really have good data at all about how common the various arrangements are in general, or how they correlate – if at all – with being cisgender, transgender, and/or intersex.
– secondary sexual characteristics, eg: breasts vs. facial hair and deepened voice
– primary sexual characteristics: genitalia
– gametes: egg cells vs. sperm cells

Now if a trans woman, for instance, has the hormones, hormonal cycle, secondary sexual characteristics, and genitals commonly associated with being female, unknown chromosomes, and no male gametes in her body, there is a very strong case to be made for her to be considered ‘biologically female’, and it certainly would be very difficult to assert that she was ‘biologically male’. Moreover, many cisgender people lack one or more of the listed factors (eg, post-menopausal women, men who have received radiation therapy, women who have had a mastectomy, etc.), yet we would not consider them to be less ‘qualified’ to be considered ‘biologically’ female or male, as applicable, nor would we doubt their experience of their subjective gender.

Many trans people have spoken or written about their experiences with HRT (hormone replacement therapy) in similar terms to the following memorable passage (emphasis in the original):

I’ve been on estrogen for nearly eleven weeks, and I still count down the hours (seven) until I can take my next dose. […] It’s hard to describe, but everything just feels more natural now that my mind and body are no longer flooded with testosterone. It’s as though after 23 years, I have finally stopped trying to fill up a diesel car with unleaded gas. My brain was made to run on estrogen.

As well, I think it’s worth noting as well that many trans people experience body dysphoria and social dysphoria as distinct but related phenomena, which they they may experience at different levels of severity. Additionally, there are a great many physical changes that can be effected via HRT, electrolysis, and various non-genital surgeries. And of course there’s really no way to tell what genitalia someone has without looking at them naked from the waist down — which really never comes up an interactions with someone who isn’t an in-person intimate partner, and sometimes not even then!

Sorry my comment was so long; I hope there was some stuff in there that was helpful or interesting.


Phil wrote:

I want to write a comment here that discusses a question that Christopher raised and also some of my own mental stumbling blocks when it comes to trans issues and gender issues. I do not intend to be impolite, but it is possible my comment here may be triggering for people who are struggling with these issues in a more personal way.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

This is a question that I’m honestly trying to find a meaningful answer for.

I understand, as a writer and a progressive and a person who generally doesn’t want to cause people harm, that it is polite to refer to a trans woman as a woman, to use the pronouns that she prefers, and to use the name that she requests. I have no problem with that, and I understand that this use of language might be more than just politeness but might contribute to a space where someone feels safer.

In other words, I don’t want to sound transphobic or to do things that are transphobic. But, on another level, I don’t want to be transphobic. I can say that Janet Mock (for example) is a woman, but it feels like I’m being dishonest unless I also believe that Janet Mock is a woman.

Now, I don’t hold the belief that Janet Mock is a man, or that she is not a woman, or that being trans is a third sex. But if I’m going to hold the belief that she is a woman, then I feel like I need to understand what a woman is such that Janet Mock fits the criteria.

This might sound like a transphobic thing to say, and if it does, I’m sorry, but for me, finding out the answer to that question is the key to not being transphobic.

At the moment, the best I can glean is that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman (and a man is a person who identifies as a man). That’s functional from a rhetorical perspective, but it does render some common narratives illogical. (How can you, as a child, feel like “a person who identifies as a woman” — there must be something more, beyond simple identification, such that a person can reasonably say, “I have always known I was a woman” or “I have always known I was a man.” Or, “I did not change from being a man to being a woman, I changed what I identified as,” etc.)

The Guardian essay says this about Rachel Dolezal:

Dolezal might feel an enormous affinity to blackness – so much that she decided to identify as black – but her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence.

I feel like the Guardian essay engages in the logical fallacy of question-begging: Rachel Dolezal is not black because she is only choosing to identify as black, but trans people are the gender they identify as because they actually are that gender.


Guidelines:

So. At least two trans people (Rimonim and I) will be participating in this thread. Other trans people are welcome, too. However, since this is a thread for people to ask questions which may be shredding, fellow trans people, please participate only if you’re feeling sufficiently callused. Please look after your own resources and do not use up spoons you need for something essential.

Cis people are welcome, too (indeed, essential to the effort, since your questions are explicitly centered). We would appreciate it if you would make an effort not to be cruel, but we do want this to be a thread where people can interrogate matters like those I mentioned at the top. So, please do the best you can, and if you say something awkward, or poorly-phrased, or weirdly-conceived, we trans people will do our best to engage with it anyway.

All people, please remember that each of us only actually has one perspective. No single person has all the answers, and no single person can embody all of whatever it means to be “trans” or “cis” or “male” or “female” or “bi-gender”, or what-have-you.

Lived experience counts for a lot. If someone says that something happened to them and you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. DO NOT declare it to be impossible. Example: in a recent online discussion, Dana Beyer, who is an out trans woman who was assigned male at birth, casually referenced a traumatic incident in her life: her first period. Commenters scoffed and declared that it was patently impossible for a trans woman to have a period, and therefore everything she had said was suspect. Had they bothered to try to understand, they could have asked her. Or they could have googled her name and a few keywords, and discovered the key to understanding her comment: that Beyer is Intersex, and when she hit puberty, the unseen and unguessed-at uterine tissue in her abdomen started doing what uterine tissue does, and sloughed tissue… through the only aperture structurally available to it, her penis.

So, please, ALL people: when someone reports a life experience which you don’t understand, strap on your best humility and try, before you render judgement. Thanks.

I really hope we can have a good discussion. Again, welcome.

Grace

  1. I love mint. []
  2. So we’re clear: not just hurt like “that hurt my feelings” (though heaven knows that’s corrosive enough as an hourly diet) but hurt like “those broken bones are going to cost a lot of money and keep me out of work.” []
  3. Hat tip to http://nodesignation.wordpress.com/definitions/ []
  4. and not always cis people []
  5. It is, so that you cannot mistake my meaning, something which trans people experience a very great deal. []
  6. Sometimes that ground is pounded and salted so hard that even well-watered mint won’t take hold; Jan Morris, upon being asked for an interview, is reported to have replied with one sentence: “When I hear the word ‘gender’ I reach for my pistol.” []
  7. at least, not toward the trans person []

170 Responses to The MintGarden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender

  1. 101
    Mookie says:

    The sport analogy as a justification for a binary system of gender doesn’t really cut it, if you follow it through: the end result of de-segregating some* or all of professional sport would result in some men being roundly thrashed by some women. And some of the women doing the thrashing will be trans, as will some of the less successful men. And there will be a whole host of non-binary or unidentified people winning matches and besting opponents. How ~confusing it will be!

    (I’m not fond of the sport analogy; feels ratty, to me. It’s been worn a tad too much by anti-feminists and TERFs and anti-trans bigots who think it’s a foregone conclusion that men will always “win,” a “gotcha” they think “proves” that evpsych was right all along: male supremacy is real and natural and inevitable. It doesn’t, it isn’t, it won’t be for long. That male privilege continues to exist following women’s “liberation” likewise is not evidence that men are better; it’s evidence that patriarchy is pernicious, dogged, and can’t be cured with handwaving about gender-blindedness and Bad Choices. Cissexism, too. Racism, you betcha.)

    *no reason why there can’t be gender- and sex-neutral** leagues, along with homosocial leagues designated specifically for women, for genderqueer and non-binary people, and for men. More sport for everybody, less pressure for individual athletes to “prove” their identit(ies) or to interact with (and mollify) the hostile and the prejudiced, and more room for capable and talented athletes to develop and hone skills in an environment they might otherwise have felt unwelcome and alien in.

    **no arbitrary and somewhat dehumanizingly essentialist biological thresholds to meet

  2. 102
    Aapje says:

    @RonF

    Sorry, I’m a little late with this.

    I’m curious as to what you think of Ms. Rousey’s reasoning. I think she’s right.

    Sex surgery & hormone therapy doesn’t change the gendered gene expressions. Hormone therapy is also imperfect. So a transgender woman doesn’t have the same physical characteristics she would have if she was born as a woman. So most likely, a somewhat talented transgender woman will greatly outmatch a cis woman, even if the latter is more physically gifted than all other cis women on the planet. That seems unfair to me, so I understand the objection and agree with it. Especially given the safety issues of having an extreme strength disparity in combat sports.

    It’s also a slippery slope. There is a spectrum of people who are either transgender or have an ‘intersex’ condition, so you have people in that group whose physical characteristics are very close to talented male athletes. If you let those people compete in the women’s competition, then the entire justification for separate female sports evaporates. You get the same result you would have with integrated sports, where most women would have no chance to compete. The only difference is that the people who take all the top spots aren’t men, but transgender women & people with intersex conditions.

  3. 103
    Lee1 says:

    hormone therapy doesn’t change the gendered gene expressions

    Umm…that’s exactly what it does. That’s pretty much the definition of what hormones do, at least ones that are specifically related to sex and gender (to the extent that gender has a genetic basis).

  4. 104
    Aapje says:

    @Mookie (and also @nobody.really, since you touched on the same stuff)

    the end result of de-segregating some* or all of professional sport would result in some men being roundly thrashed by some women.

    Yes, weak men will be trashed by strong women. But a woman will probably never defeat the best man in any (strength-based) sport with a decent field of competitors. The strength difference is simply huge. Studies consistently find a large gap in strength between men and women, even when accounting for size. This gap is much larger than the normal gaps between talented male athletes, so her innate talent can never overcome the physical disadvantages due to her sex.

    This also bears out in sports. There are quite a few sports where men and women compete individually and are timed, so the gender segregation only really consists of ranking women separately. It is trivial to combine the rankings based on the timings and AFAIK this always results in the best women ranking below the best men. This is true for the 100 m sprint and the marathon, so both explosive effort and endurance. It is quite exceptional for a woman to even rank at the bottom end of a combined top-10, let alone be in a medal winning spot.

    Segregation in sports isn’t done to prevent people from getting ‘thrashed.’ A lot of men are soundly beaten by other men, but this is ‘fair’ because it was a lack of talent that did them in, not their gender.

    Imagine a girl who is very physically gifted and likes sports. If there is no segregation in sports, it is almost 100% guaranteed that she will never win an Olympic medal in a strength based sport, no matter how talented she is. In contrast, her brother with similar genetics has a much better chance. He is not discouraged from the start, as his exact talent isn’t known at a young age. So he can go on a journey of discovery to see how far he can go. He can dream. Without segregation, the girl’s dream is shattered before it even gets off the ground. I find this highly problematic, from an equality standpoint.

    Just because it is not something that humans cause, but nature dictates, doesn’t mean we cannot repair it a bit.

    And some of the women doing the thrashing will be trans, as will some of the less successful men.

    One effect of male->female hormone therapy is a reduction in muscle mass. So it is pretty much a given that trans women will not be very competitive, compared to men. The effect of male hormones on strength is also why female doping is somewhat similar to female->male hormone therapy. This is a picture of a female cyclist who used doping and who partially transitioned as a result (more muscle, beard growth, receding hair line, square jawline, growth of the adam’s apple)

    Doping abuse is also a major issue with gender desegregation in sports, women will be pressured to transition to improve their performance, even when they are happy with their gender. The only solution seems to ban people on female->male hormone therapy from competing, but then we are pretty much back where we started: transmen not being able to compete in pro sports.

    no reason why there can’t be gender- and sex-neutral** leagues, along with homosocial leagues designated specifically for women, for genderqueer and non-binary people, and for men.

    At lower levels, sex-neutral leagues can work and this also happens quite a bit. At higher levels, sex-neutral leagues will just result in women being excluded from the team or seen as liabilities. Remember when weak/unskilled kids would be picked last in gym class at school and would be put ‘where they could do little harm’? Preferably in a place where little happens (like way in the outfield). Do you remember how those kids would resent sports and hate being an outcast? That kind of psychological damage would be inflicted on some of these women.

    As for leagues for genderqueer and non-binary people, a major problem is that it will be very tough to find enough athletes. When I played team sports, the training venue was close by and opponents were not too far away. I doubt that you could even fill a quarter of a league with genderqueer and non-binary teams. The players would have to travel huge distances for both training and to compete. Then you would still have only one league, where most sports have several at different levels, so people can compete with others of somewhat similar skill. So your solution seems more of a theoretical win and a disaster in practice.

    Keep in mind that gendered leagues for women are already a daunting prospect in many sports. There are quite a few female amateur athletes who compete with men in lower level leagues, because not enough female players can be found for an league of their own. And this while (cis) women are 51% of the population. Depending on your definitions, genderqueer and non-binary people form a couple of percent of the population at most, AFAIK.

    Another issue is that in pro sports, money is a big factor. This is determined by the number of viewers. Splitting up sports doesn’t suddenly make sports fans watch twice as much sport. In female sports, it’s already a big issue that few viewers opt to watch. Instead, they tend to prefer the male league. Splitting up sports in more leagues will just result in more leagues with little cash flow.

    TL;DR version: there are no simple fixes for complex problems.

    PS. I’m ignoring the middle bit of your post, since it is criticism of things I do not believe. I just want to point out that believing that men have a considerable strength advantage isn’t the same as believing in male superiority. The natural differences between men and women also cause men to die sooner than women, so it’s not all sunshine and medals.

  5. 105
    Grace Annam says:

    Rimonim and I are working on a piece having to do with the physical aspects of trans bodies and how they develop. It’s not ready to go, yet, and I don’t have time to write more than briefly, this morning.

    I have followed Fallon Fox a bit, and the issue of trans athletes more generally. I know that the International Olympic Committee has ruled that following certain transition steps, trans athletes have no inherent advantage and may compete in their true gender.

    http://www.outsports.com/2011/9/12/4051806/moment-22-international-olympic-committee-allows-transgender-athletes

    Brynn Tannehill has done a thorough job of addressing whether trans athletes have an advantage:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brynn-tannehill/do-transgender-athletes-have-an-unfair-advantage_b_4918835.html

    I have more to say on this, but I don’t have time right now, so this will have to do.

    Grace

  6. 106
    Aapje says:

    Umm…that’s exactly what it does. That’s pretty much the definition of what hormones do, at least ones that are specifically related to sex and gender (to the extent that gender has a genetic basis).

    Hmmm, I see that I missed the word: ‘completely.’ If I’m not mistaken, the commonly used hormones don’t change the gene expressions completely. However, I’m not a doctor and not an expert on these things.

    Edit: I looked at Grace’s link and they do indicate that the medical consensus seem to be that the physical advantages are small or non-existent, so I may very well be wrong.

    I do have some knowledge of doping, some of which is hormone related. There is speculation that doping-use may have lasting effects. If that is true, having the ‘natural doping’ of being a man for many years would also be an advantage. But there is fairly little scientific research done about this.

  7. 107
    Aapje says:

    @Grace

    Do you know of any actual scientific studies that measured the strength of a decent sample of trans women and compared it with cis women? Your links only had ‘medical experts.’ In my experience, the average doctor tends to have very poor scientific training and as a result, often makes claims that she cannot prove with the evidence she has.

    The quotes in the HuffPo article have some vague terms, like this:

    Most measures of physical strength minimize, muscle mass decreases, bone density decreases, and they become fairly comparable to women in their musculature. After as much time as has passed in her case, if tested, she would probably end up in the same muscle mass category as her biologically born female counterpart.

    I would like to know what “fairly comparable” is. The doctor may consider 5% difference to be “fairly comparable,” but it would still be a huge advantage in sports.

  8. 108
    Grace Annam says:

    One of my chores ran shorter than expected, so I have a little time.

    Aapje:

    Do you know of any actual scientific studies that measured the strength of a decent sample of trans women and compared it with cis women?

    No. I doubt they exist yet, in a sample size large enough to be meaningful, and done with sufficient rigor. There are practical barriers, one of the largest of which is getting your samples without biasing them. Because of what happens when we tell people we’re trans, trans women tend to want to disappear (if we can), and so we can be hard to find. We can be especially hard to find if you want to study us, since in the past that has often not gone well.

    You would probably want to limit your sample to people who have had complete orchiectomy (either as part of GRS or by itself), and so your sample will be limited to people willing to tell you that, and some of us aren’t, especially for the sake of participating in a study which someone else is asking us to do, and not for something we actually want.

    For strength exercises you want to use only test subjects who know the movements, to prevent injury. So you’re limited to athletes. And most trans women (not all, but most) are not interested in training absolute strength, because people tend to interpret the results to us in ways like this: “See? You’re really a man. I can tell because of your shoulders.”

    You need to standardize the testing equipment. For instance, you can bench press significantly more weight on a Smith machine than you can using free weights. So the tests have to be specified rigorously.

    So such a study is perfectly possible but would take a lot of time and energy to do well. As far as I know it hasn’t been done, but it’s possible that it has been and I don’t know about it.

    Your links only had ‘medical experts.’ In my experience, the average doctor tends to have very poor scientific training and as a result, often makes claims that she cannot prove with the evidence she has.

    I agreed that “doctor” (or “nurse”) doesn’t tell you much. Any time one turns up at a medical scene, I ask them what their specialty is. Podiatrists and oncologists don’t get to “help”. Trauma surgeons, sports injury specialists and ED nurses (for instance) are welcome on the team.

    “Scientist” doesn’t tell you much by itself, either, and for similar reasons.

    In such cases as the IOC, I’d bet a nickel that “medical experts” translates to “specialists with directly relevant experience”, like doctors specializing in sports medicine, kinesiology, endocrinology, and so on, whose knowledge and work is likely to be relevant. But I haven’t dug into that point, and clearly if you want to know you would have to dig.

    “After as much time as has passed in her case, if tested, she would probably end up in the same muscle mass category as her biologically born female counterpart.”

    Anecdotally, I find this likely to be true because of my own experience. I’m physically active, and have an athletic build. I used to train toward the standard for my department’s tactical team, since I was on it. In that case, there is one standard for everone, regardless of age and gender. I can tell you than before hormone therapy, the standard was non-trivial but quite doable; for instance, I was usually third in the run on my team. After hormone therapy, I had to work much, much harder in order to pass with much less margin; the last two years I came in next-to-last on the run (among those who passed), and on one of those occasions pushed myself hard enough that I threw up afterward, something I had never done before. It was simply much, much harder to make the standard (which required that I place above the 90th percentile for women my age).

    I’m still strong, because I’m big and healthy and active. But there are cis women who weigh less than I do who are stronger. I’ve met some of them.

    I still run semi-regularly. I don’t compete, but I have run with cis women who can outrun me, as demonstrated by the fact that they’re still chatting at a pace where I’m not able to. The women I’m thinking of do compete, but they don’t place first, neither overall nor among the women.

    Years ago, I recall reading about a competitive runner in the San Francisco Bay Area who competed routinely and trained for it before she transitioned, and during transition, and after transition. Before transition, she placed routinely in the 75th percentile for men. After transition, still training as often and as hard, she placed routinely in the 75th percentile for women. She spoke eloquently about how frustrating it was that she would be working just as hard and watching people she used to pace with pull away in front of her. I now know exactly what that’s like.

    Other trans women have reported similar experiences to me. Every single one I have discussed it with, in fact. I have never once heard a hormonally transitioned trans woman say that she was performing at the same level she used to.

    Perhaps the best evidence we have right now is that trans women do compete, some very seriously, and we don’t take home a lot of first-place wins at individual events, and not once has one of us been ranked at the top of our event. Not once. If we do have a significant advantage, we should be ranking first somewhere. And we don’t. For those of us who compete both before and after transition, we don’t even do as well as we did before. For instance, Renee Richards did well, sometimes winning an event, and placing in her sport… but she didn’t place as high competing against other women as she did prior to transition when she had a male-typical body and competed against men.

    On a related topic:

    When we do win, there is always a push to disqualify us. One example of that is the case of Michelle Dumaresq:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelle_Dumaresq

    And it’s exactly that catch-22 which makes me a huge fan of Fallon Fox, even while I’m not a fan of UFC fighting. She literally cannot win. If she loses, then she loses, and if she wins, it doesn’t count because she had an unfair advantage. And yet, she fights anyway. Because someone has to be first, and go down swinging, and someone has to be second, and go down swinging, until enough of us have been beaten, however many that takes.

    She cannot win, and she fights anyway. I’ve never drawn that card, but I’ve spent my professional life training toward exactly that situation, having to win in a situation which is stacked hugely against me, knowing that I simply do not have the time and the resources to be so good that I can win every encounter, and that someday my number may come up, and I, too, will go down swinging.

    Such respect. Someday I really want to meet her and give her my best salute.

    Grace

    [edited because grammar and spelling]

  9. 109
    Grace Annam says:

    RonF:

    There is a fighter in the UFC named Fallon Fox who was born a man, went through puberty as a man but had gender reassignment surgery and is now fighting as a woman. The last woman she fought “reportedly suffered a concussion, a broken orbital bone, and required staples in her head.”

    Wow, that sure sounds brutal, doesn’t it?

    These fighters are hitting each other in the face with their hands, knees and elbows. Concussions and broken bones are among the most common injuries.

    Here’s an article I found by googling :

    http://michaelgleibermd.com/news/4-common-injuries-mma-ufc-fighters/

    The only thing that those injuries tell you is that Fox can fight. We knew that already.

    Ronda Rousey, the current female UFC champion whose last opponent lasted precisely 38 seconds in the ring with her, thinks Fox should not be fighting as a woman.

    Rousey is full of it. She is undefeated in 12 MMA fights, 11 of them in the first round. Fox has won 5 of her 6 fights. I’ve watched some of Fox’s fights. She’s good, but as a pro she’s not awesome. Watch her losing fight; it’s clear that she had an endurance problem. Endurance is specifically one of Rousey’s strong points. This is from her Wikipedia page:

    In a 2012 interview before her first match with Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey said “When I was doing judo my main advantage was my conditioning and my pace; I used to wear people out.” She had taken to heart a quote from Ryoko Tani to fight every five seconds as if it was the last five seconds of the match.

    If they ever fight, I will root for Fox, and Rousey will put her down. Because Rousey is the tougher fighter, and because Fox’s biggest weakness is one of Rousey’s strong points.

    Furthermore, Rousey can’t lose; if she wins, she beat Fallon Fox, the MAN! Woo hoo! If she loses, it’s because FALLON FOX IS A MAN!

    To the non-Rousey-specific question of whether Fox has an unfair advantage, this is from her Wikipedia page:

    There has been considerable controversy over whether or not Fox possesses an advantage over other female fighters. In an interview with the New York Post, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey said that she felt Fox had an unfair physical advantage due to having “the same bone structure a man has”. Eric Vilain, director of the Institute For Society And Genetics at UCLA, disagreed, stating in Time magazine that “Male to female transsexuals have significantly less muscle strength and bone density, and higher fat mass, than males”. Vilain reviewed Fox’s medical records and supported her right to fight as a woman.

    Vilain, who worked with the Association of Boxing Commissions when they wrote their policy on transgender athletes, was also quoted by Time as saying that, to be licensed, transgender female fighters must undergo complete “surgical anatomical changes … including external genitalia and gonadectomy” (see sex reassignment surgery) and a minimum of a subsequent two years of hormone replacement therapy, as two years is “the current understanding of the minimum amount of time necessary to obviate male hormone gender related advantages in sports competition”. When asked if Fox could, nonetheless, be stronger than her competitors, Vilain replied that it was possible, but noted that “sports is made up of competitors who, by definition, have advantages for all kinds of genetics reasons”, and said that it would be discriminatory to treat Fox differently than other athletes with potential genetic advantages.

    Time also noted that, as she has neither testicles nor ovaries, Fox probably has lower testosterone levels than most of her competitors. Fox says that she has less strength and endurance than her female training partner, and that she has to make up for it by perfecting her technique.

    Fox responded to the allegations made by Rogan and Rousey in a guest editorial for bloodyelbow.com. She claimed the advantage of taking estrogen resulted in bone density, which is also a side effect of taking testosterone. She challenged Rogan and Rousey to make such claims about black women, who have been noted scientifically to have the same bone density as white men. Finally, she questioned how a ‘”male frame”‘ can produce the massive “punching power” that Rogan speaks of without male muscle mass behind it.

    All of this was available to you with a little googling, Ron.

    Also, I don’t think I have ever seen or heard the phrase “born a man” when it was not immediately preceded or followed by ignorant behavior about or toward a trans woman. It is a devastatingly telling marker, right up there with “gay lifestyle”.

    It’s a fascinating turn of phrase; it slips so deftly under the radar, and is such nonsense. Because, of course, RonF, you weren’t born a man, either; it took you about fifteen to twenty years to get there.

    Grace

  10. 110
    Aapje says:

    @Grace

    Very interesting, thanks.

    When we do win, there is always a push to disqualify us.

    It’s very similar to what blade runners experience in sports. There is always the question: did they have an unfair advantage due to the blade?

    the same bone structure a man has”

    Interestingly, there is a male fighter with a metal plate in his head. Opponents have broken their hand while hitting it.

  11. 111
    JaneDoh says:

    Thanks for all the links and information, Grace.

    It actually makes a lot of sense that someone near the 75th percentile in performance for a man would also be near the 75th percentile in performance for a woman after transition. Male and female bodies are nearly identical at the cellular level–it is the expression levels for various genes and biological molecules that are different. If the chemical triggers are altered synthetically, the outcome should be very close to the result if those expression levels were solely due to “natural” (sorry–I don’t know a better word to use here) expression. No one expects otherwise for cis-gendered people who are triggered into puberty chemically due to medical issues.

    I totally get the fairness argument against doping, but surely people who have transitioned to the appropriate gender have their biochemistries MORE tightly monitored than the average person. It should be even easier to demonstrate that a transgendered person is within the “normal” range for their gender than for a cisgendered person. Arguments outside this scope (except for MAYBE the 2 years past transition argument, which was possibly set up to mirror the 2 years past doping practice rather than outright bigotry) seem to me to be appeals to irrationality.

    Interestingly enough, there was/is a lot of the same sorts of discussions about the effects of steroids on baseball players. Many people seem to have the idea that testosterone and its doping analogs are like magic chemicals that permanently make muscles exposed to high levels different from muscles not so exposed. While doping has always existed, a lot more people got interested after the whole Barry Bonds thing. Because of this widespread interest, there is a lot of discussion about what steroids actually can and can’t do for athletic performance surrounding doping, including some measurements (but mostly of the uncontrolled do-it-yourself variety).

    Many baseball fans are completely irrational on the subject–they look at photos of various players in the 90’s and then bloviate on who was obviously juicing from appearance alone. It is not surprising to me that when issues of gender identity also get involved, people get even less rational. It is not the same thing as what happened to Michelle Dumaresq, but the intense and humiliating attacks on Caster Semenya (wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caster_Semenya) show how ingrained the gender police are in athletics, and how much people like to pretend they can perceive biochemistry in body shape.

    I have no problem with people competing in the category reflecting their actual gender. This whole argument is the “but men will pretend to be trans to hang out in women’s bathrooms/locker rooms” thing moved to athletics.

  12. 112
    nobody.really says:

    I totally get the fairness argument against doping, but surely people who have transitioned to the appropriate gender have their biochemistries MORE tightly monitored than the average person. It should be even easier to demonstrate that a transgendered person is within the “normal” range for their gender than for a cisgendered person. Arguments outside this scope (except for MAYBE the 2 years past transition argument, which was possibly set up to mirror the 2 years past doping practice rather than outright bigotry) seem to me to be appeals to irrationality.

    This illustrates an issue in a tangible way. Why do we care about an athlete’s chemistry? And if we care, why should it matter that the chemistry occurs “naturally” or artificially?

    Instead of sorting athletes based on gender, could we sort athletes into different leagues based on their “chemistry”? Instead of having a boys’ league and a girls’ league, have a league for people whose testosterone is above X, and a league for everyone whose testosterone was X or lower. Would this render considerations of gender irrelevant? Ok, what if we measured for two chemicals? Three?

  13. 113
    Aapje says:

    When you measure testosterone, you will just get two main peaks, one for men and one for women. So the two leagues will just be:
    – one league that we can’t call a men’s league, but with pretty much only men
    – one league that we can’t call a women’s league, but with pretty much only women

    The people in between will still be an issue. Either they will play with the high testosterone people and will lack the testosterone to really compete; or they will play with the low testosterone people and will outmatch the other athletes in that group due to high testosterone. The latter will complain. Some women will also still complain about transgenders that compete with them, just like now.

    Measuring more wouldn’t change a lot, unless you make more leagues, but then you always keep the problem of edge cases.

    The main effect would be an enormous hassle to test all athletes, especially at the lower levels of sport. Right now it is very simple. If it looks like a man, male league. If it looks like a woman, female league. When in doubt, check ID. Only at the highest level of sport are there invasive tests. Extending invasive tests to all athletes for no real benefit doesn’t seem an improvement.

    Like I said before, a theoretical win and a disaster in practice. This problem simply doesn’t have perfect solutions, that is why I chose it :)

  14. 114
    Phil says:

    I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to read and participate in this discussion. After many irl conversations and some thinking, I thought I’d crystallize some ideas about sex and gender. Feel free to criticize or point out flaws in logic.

    I think the best definition of a “woman” we’ve come up with here is something akin to:
    A woman is a person whose brain tells them that they fit into the “cluster” of the human species typically known as women.
    Or, if you find the use of “they” offensive in this context, you might say:
    Women are people whose brains tell them that they fit into the cluster of the human species typically grouped as women.
    And men are people whose brains tell them that they fit into the cluster of the human species typically grouped as men.

    A few thoughts about this:
    1. My observation is that many people, and progressives in particular, have difficulty with polysemes, especially when it comes to words with political or loaded meanings.
    So, for example, when the first royal baby was born, my Facebook feed was full of posts and links that said, “No, the GENDER of the royal baby is not male, his SEX is male.”
    These were not necessarily posts from people who wanted to be open to the idea that the royal baby could be transgender, although I’m sure that’s also a valid concern; these were posts from people who wanted to make the point that “sex is physical, but gender is something that we perform.” While I could appreciate the sentiment behind that, I also think that it’s a little small-minded.
    “Sex” is a polyseme, that is, a word that has more than one meaning, even though those meanings may be related or connected in some way. “Sex” can mean the quality of being male or female, but it can also mean fucking. It can also refer specifically to a person’s genitals, as in, “He touched her sex.” And so forth.

    I found it curious that most of the educated people complaining that the baby’s SEX was male had no problem with the idea of using a single, specific definition of the word sex (they clearly did not mean the baby’s “intercourse” is male). But they were aghast that someone would use the polysemous word “gender,” which certainly does refer to the cultural, performed distinction between masculinity and femininity…but also means “sex,” as in the quality of being male or female.
    At least, gender is a synonym for sex if we go by dictionary definitions, common usage, and historical usage, which are pretty much all we have to go on when it comes to the authoritative meaning of a word.

    To me, it seemed that many people were comfortable with the word “sex” having multiple, somewhat related meanings, but felt it necessary to police the word “gender” such that we move, as a culture, to eliminate all but one meaning.

    So, when it comes to “man” and “woman,” or perhaps “male” and “female,” is that what we should do as well? If we say that a woman is a person whose brain tells her that she fits into the cluster typically associated with women, should we correct someone who says, for example, “Medical insurance should cover women’s medical procedures such as hysterectomies?” Or is there room for both definitions, such that a “woman” could also be someone who was born with a body that appeared to display the physical characteristics of someone born with two X chromosomes (or something like that)?

    2. Another thought about this: If being a “man” or a “woman” is a real thing that exists in objective reality, then that means that it is possible for someone to identify as a man or a woman even though they aren’t actually what they identify as. Politeness doesn’t alter objective reality, nor does culture. On the other hand, since we’re talking about a process that’s occurring in someone’s brain, it doesn’t mean that you or I can actually have knowledge of whether another person is a man or a woman.

    I agree with the people who have posted on here that, given the many pressures and difficulties associated with identifying as transgender even in the modern world, it is probably a safe bet that if someone tells you that they are trans, you can believe them. I also agree that it is not polite—and in fact, may be quite harmful—to contradict a person when they tell you what their sex is.

    In fact, given the relative rarity of trans people, it is far, far more likely that the hypothetical person who isn’t actually the sex that they present themselves as is presenting themselves as a cis man or a cis woman. (I also don’t think it’s polite to question the sex and gender of cis people, unless they invite you to.) But the fact remains that, based on the definition we’ve come up with, there isn’t going to be 100% overlap between identification and reality.

  15. 115
    Aapje says:

    But the fact remains that, based on the definition we’ve come up with, there isn’t going to be 100% overlap between identification and reality.

    True, but the overlap is 99+%.

    There are some consequences of that:
    – The assumption that sex=gender will be almost always be right, so people will keep making that assumption (as they also do about things that are true far less often).
    – Trans people are focal points. If I want to know something about women, I can ask half the population, if I want to something about trans people, I can ask only 0.3% (or something like that). The result is that trans people get (from their perspective) bombarded with questions and addressed by their trans identity. This is not limited to trans people. A similar effect is experienced by people who are small minorities in certain contexts: a man in women’s studies, a woman in IT, a gay athlete, etc.
    – Most people have no trans friends, nor go out of their way to find trans people online and thus will have little clue.

    I realize that this often results in a frustrating life experience for trans people. However, accommodations that are asked for, which probably seem very sensible from a trans perspective, often seem very onerous from the perspective of a person who almost never meets a trans person (like not saying ‘transgenders’, but ‘transgender people’ or being asked to apply the cis modifier, rather than assuming it is the default). Often, the first real experience with a trans person or ‘ally’ online is this kind of word policing, that seems very pedantic.

    The problem with that approach is that it comes across both very aggressive and superior, which makes people throw up their shields, rather than be open to new ideas.

    My observation is that many people, and progressives in particular, have difficulty with polysemes, especially when it comes to words with political or loaded meanings.

    In general I see a very strong focus on symbolism among progressives (although it happens among conservatives too, of course). There often seems to be more concern about the right terminology than about the right actions & ideas. Ironically, you see the application of stereotypes to people who use the wrong terminology like ‘black’ when ‘African-American’ was the preferred term. Since these terms are used to define ‘us’ vs ‘them,’ you see that new terms must be invented as soon as ‘them’ adopt the PC terms. So that’s why we are now supposed to use ‘people of color’ (but conservatives or the wrong kind of progressive should preferably not use that term, since then they need to invent a new word).

    Quite a few people want to prove to the world that they are good people. Actually doing good, like helping the homeless or giving money to good causes is rather invisible and is costly or takes significant effort. It’s much easier to do word policing online. It requires no thinking, just pattern recognition and the writing of a rote comment. It provides instant self-gratification, especially if a bunch of your friends all fall over each other to say the same thing. It is so tempting, that even very intelligent people fall for it fairly easily.

  16. 116
    Grace Annam says:

    Phil:

    I think the best definition of a “woman” we’ve come up with here is something akin to:
    A woman is a person whose brain tells them that they fit into the “cluster” of the human species typically known as women.
    Or, if you find the use of “they” offensive in this context, you might say:
    Women are people whose brains tell them that they fit into the cluster of the human species typically grouped as women.

    Phil, I’m curious to know why you wouldn’t say, “A woman is a person whose brain cells tell her that she fits into the ‘cluster’ of human [variation] typically grouped as women.” Why not grant/concede/acknowledge whatever that represents to our hypothetical woman?

    these were posts from people who wanted to make the point that “sex is physical, but gender is something that we perform.” While I could appreciate the sentiment behind that, I also think that it’s a little small-minded.

    Also, in my experience, it doesn’t work well. I was just making this point the other day in a discussion with some medical students. I’ve seen many conversations where well-meaning people say something like, “For the purpose of this conversation, “sex (male/female)” means the physical body, while “gender (masculinity/femininity)” means the social role. And I get what they’re trying to do, but it simply doesn’t work in actual conversation with real human being who speak actual English, in all its ambiguous glory, for exactly the reason you point out, that both “sex” and “gender” are polysemic. Everyone can nod and say, “Okay”, but five minutes into that conversation, it’s not working, because those words are very deeply coded in our psyches, and that’s just not how they, and we, work. To say nothing of the fact that I haven’t met a trans person yet who isn’t offended on some level when some officious dipshit tries to inform her that, no, she’s not actually a woman, she’s a “feminine male”, or no, he’s actually not a man, he’s a “masculine female”. Because those words have actual meanings to other people outside of the conversation, and trans people can’t just re-code their brains to step away from the fact that all gender terms have been weaponized against them at one point or another.

    So, yeah. Maybe the whole sex/gender as physical/social thing works for very short conversations among small groups of cisgender people. But if so (and I doubt it) that’s the only place.

    If we say that a woman is a person whose brain tells her that she fits into the cluster typically associated with women…

    Ah, much better. Thank you. :)

    …should we correct someone who says, for example, “Medical insurance should cover women’s medical procedures such as hysterectomies?”

    Depends on context. In many contexts, you could just say, “Medical insurance should cover hysterectomies” and leave it there.

    I know a trans woman who had testicular cancer before she had a complete orchiectomy. She found it unpleasantly jarring, as she self-educated in preparation for making medical decisions which might affect the end of her life, to be constantly reading “some men this” and “other men that” and “men with testicular cancer” and menmenmenmenmenmenmenmen.

    Sometimes you have to generalize. So generalize. But we do it more than we need to, and more comprehensively than we need to, as Richard pointed out awhile back when he tried referring to “penile circumcision” instead of “male circumcision” and found that it actually caused no problems whatsoever, that everyone understood him, and that it was more accurate.

    Recently, I had to define “binder” to a colleague, thus: “a tight wrapping around the upper chest designed to flatten and conceal breast tissue.” I could have easily have said, “…to flatten and conceal breasts.” But I knew that many trans men don’t like to talk casually about having breasts, and so I used more clinical, distancing language, which was also more inclusive, since a binder can in fact be worn by anyone and flatten the tissue of anyone’s breast.

    Or is there room for both definitions, such that a “woman” could also be someone who was born with a body that appeared to display the physical characteristics of someone born with two X chromosomes (or something like that)?

    Sure, “woman” is polysemic, as are most words, actually. We could attempt two definitions, the first one being what you wrote at first, and the second one being something like what you wrote second, perhaps, “a person born with a body typical of someone who has two X chromosomes.” The problem is that people will, as you observed, try to use just one definition and exclude the other, in order to advance their own purpose, which in cases involving trans women is generally to exclude trans women from public accommodation, public participation, and medical care.

    Also, the second definition is actually not as good, functionally, since it would include trans men.

    So in a non-combat environment, sure, let’s talk polysemic vocabulary. But in the environment I live in, let’s be very careful with definitions which don’t include all women, or all men.

    On the other hand, since we’re talking about a process that’s occurring in someone’s brain, it doesn’t mean that you or I can actually have knowledge of whether another person is a man or a woman.

    Right. We can have a nice bull session about “objective reality”, but in the absence of a way to measure it in a particular case, it’s just a bull session.

    I agree with the people who have posted on here that, given the many pressures and difficulties associated with identifying as transgender even in the modern world, it is probably a safe bet that if someone tells you that they are trans, you can believe them.

    An enlightened endocrinologist of my acquaintance likes to play a small trick on the audience when we do trainings for medical staff. He says, “There actually is a diagnostic, a single question which very accurately determines whether someone is trans.” And you can see the audience perk up, and lean forward a little bit. Sometimes he waits until someone says, “What is it?” And he says, “Ask them. If they feel safe, they’ll tell you.”

    It drives the point home. The best diagnostic we have, and the best diagnostic we’re probably going to have anytime in the next few decades, is to ask. It’s not 100%, but it’s probably over 99% if the answer is “yes.” (You’re not going to have hardly any false positives, but you might end up with a lot of false negatives.)

    In fact, given the relative rarity of trans people, it is far, far more likely that the hypothetical person who isn’t actually the sex that they present themselves as is presenting themselves as a cis man or a cis woman.

    Sure. Most trans people have passed themselves off as cis people for some part of their lives, for many reasons, including safety.

    Grace

  17. 117
    Aapje says:

    The best diagnostic we have, and the best diagnostic we’re probably going to have anytime in the next few decades, is to ask. It’s not 100%, but it’s probably over 99% if the answer is “yes.” (You’re not going to have hardly any false positives, but you might end up with a lot of false negatives.)

    AFAIK the transition process is intentionally ‘slowed down’ by the medical community, with separate stages, real-life tests, psychological evaluations, etc, all to ensure that that the gender dysphoria is permanent.

    So is it really true that you won’t get any false positives by asking a person? That seems inconsistent with the beliefs in the medical community.

  18. 118
    JaneDoh says:

    AFAIK the transition process is intentionally ‘slowed down’ by the medical community, with separate stages, real-life tests, psychological evaluations, etc, all to ensure that that the gender dysphoria is permanent.

    The medical community does all kinds of stupid things to people whose conditions cannot be easily diagnosed by tests they consider reliable, especially for issues that involve mental health. I think self-reporting is more reliable than the medical community on this one.

  19. 119
    Phil says:

    Phil, I’m curious to know why you wouldn’t say, “A woman is a person whose brain cells tell her that she fits into the ‘cluster’ of human [variation] typically grouped as women.” Why not grant/concede/acknowledge whatever that represents to our hypothetical woman?

    Oh, I thought about that when I was doing it and then I forgot to explain it. I wasn’t intending to cast doubt on the sex/gender of the hypothetical woman; it just seemed poor form to use pronouns that presume the womanness of a woman when you are trying to define what a woman is. It feels like a bad definition that uses the word you’re defining in the definition. (And since my definition is already basically doing that, it felt right to cut down where I could.)

    Like, if we were to use the definition of “woman” to determine whether someone is or is not a woman, then it would sound like sloppy thinking to say, “I propose that X is a woman because of her _____” and “I propose that Z is not a woman because of his _______.”

    I believe in using “they” and “their” as singular for hypothetical pronouns; it’s one of the only things I’ve ever written a blog post about.

    Also, I didn’t intend for this to be anti-trans, or even trans-specific. The purpose of this definition is to encompass all women, including those who are cis.

  20. 120
    Grace Annam says:

    Phil:

    I believe in using “they” and “their” as singular for hypothetical pronouns; it’s one of the only things I’ve ever written a blog post about.

    Fair enough. Thank you for explaining where you were coming from.

    Grace

  21. Pingback: The Mint Garden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender | Alas, a Blog

  22. 121
    Grace Annam says:

    Aapje:

    AFAIK the transition process is intentionally ‘slowed down’ by the medical community, with separate stages, real-life tests, psychological evaluations, etc, all to ensure that that the gender dysphoria is permanent.

    Well, no. All to ensure that it’s actually gender dysphoria, and not something else manifesting as gender dysphoria. They’re making a first-approximation diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and then at the same time or subsequently-before-treatment, excluding other possible diagnoses which will have different treatments.

    Gender dysphoria which goes away almost certainly wasn’t gender dysphoria to begin with.

    The “transition process” for which there are medical criteria is basically the run-up to genital surgery. Anyone who wants to can simply start living as male or female whenever they want to … to the extent that the society will let them. That used to be how everyone had to do it, pretty much, because the standards of care back then did not permit hormone therapy without a one-year real-life test. So trans women had to endure a year of living full-time as women with no facial hair removal and no hormonal intervention. Trans men had to endure a year of living full-time as men without the voice changing at all, and with no facial hair.

    Creating a standard like that certainly ensured that only the tough and/or the wealthy and/or the very-physically-fortunate transitioned, that’s for sure, because if you weren’t tough enough to survive the abuse attendant upon making a living while visibly trans, then chances were pretty good you’d die of suicide or self-medication via numbing agents like alcohol and/or other drugs. That’s precisely why the standards of care now permit hormonal intervention with a therapist’s letter… in theory.

    Nowadays, if you know where to look, anyone can get masculinizing or feminizing hormones via the Internet, if you’re willing to go it alone without medical supervision (and plenty of trans people are, when they can’t find a medical professional who will help). So the medical standards have also changed in part because the gatekeepers realized that people were simply walking around the wall. It takes longer and it’s less safe in some ways, but it’s safer in others — for one thing, you don’t have to deal with the very real risk of abuse at the hands of gatekeepers.

    So is it really true that you won’t get any false positives by asking a person? That seems inconsistent with the beliefs in the medical community.

    I was quoting a member of the medical community, an endocrinologist whose practice, by the time he retired, was majority trans people. He didn’t say, “you won’t get any false positives”, nor did I. He said

    “There actually is a diagnostic, a single question which very accurately determines whether someone is trans.”

    He said it was very accurate, not that it was perfect. And he was right.

    The part of the medical community doing the assessments — the psych community — has not exactly showered themselves with glory when it comes to trans people. It’s getting better, but the care is still often remarkably poor. Witness the treatment of a 17-year-old trans girl I know, who with the help of her family has been completely socially transitioned for over three years and is trying to obtain hormone blockers to halt the ongoing detrimental effects of puberty: she went with her supportive parent to two psych professionals, both touted as being very experienced in matters trans. One of them refused to give her a referral to an endocrinologist for hormone blockers — not cross-hormone therapy, mind you, but completely reversible hormone blockers — because she reported when asked that she trusted her family to take care of her and that she was not suicidal.

    That’s right. For the trans girl to get appropriate medical therapy, she had to be suicidal. Or say that she was when she wasn’t. Because before we can administer any meds to this girl which would delay (not prevent) a squaring face, facial hair, a dropped voice… we have to have not one, but TWO letters.

    Why is she not suicidal? Because she has received support. Now, in order to give her access to more support, to the next step in her transition, this psych “professional” demands that she BECOME suicidal.

    When those medical standards were developed, at root, it was all about the penis, and making sure that we didn’t damage one unless we really, really had to, because (sarcasm alert) no amount of caution is too much when it comes to a penis. (/sarcasm)

    There are no medical barriers to electrolysis. You can go have it done by signing a consent form in the electrologist’s office.

    There are no medical barriers to hair transplant. You can go have it done by signing a consent form in the surgeon’s office.

    There are no medical barriers to facial feminization surgery. You can go have it done by signing a consent form in the surgeon’s office.

    There are few medical barriers to radical mastectomy. Some surgeons require a psych referral, but some will do it after you sign a consent form.

    There are few medical barriers to orchiectomy. Some surgeons require a psych referral, but some will do it after you sign a consent form.

    But no one (at least in the US) will put scalpel to penis without two other medical experts signing off first.

    The endocrinologists and surgeons, on the other hand, have done much better than the psych professionals — because they facilitate and/or enable interventions which actually help.

    Gender dysphoria is a condition that can be treated rather easily. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to take care of a transgender patient.

    –Dr. Norman Spack, endocrinologist

    Or, as one commenter put it, elsewhere,

    What is essentially a biological or medical problem is being diagnosed by people [psychiatric professionals] that are as a group often either ignorant of or actively hostile to neurological, endocrinological, or other physiology based research and knowledge (not to mention experience) of the problem and treatment. As a profession they have largely been a failure in the treatment of transsexuals. Endocrinologists and surgeons have been heroes.
    –SarasNavel

    So those medical standards? Well-intended, but arising from a historically very flawed understanding of trans people, and being implemented in a profoundly transphobic society, and perhaps not the best place to go for evidence of what’s legit.

    Grace

  23. 122
    Elusis says:

    For the trans girl to get appropriate medical therapy, she had to be suicidal. Or say that she was when she wasn’t. Because before we can administer any meds to this girl which would delay (not prevent) a squaring face, facial hair, a dropped voice… we have to have not one, but TWO letters.

    Well, the Version 7 WPATH Standards of Care (pdf) are meant to shift treatment to a much more client-centered and client-paced approach. This girl is well eligible for a puberty blocker under the criteria articulated on p. 19, and I hope she and her family are able to look for another physician and mental health practitioner who are more informed and up to date on how to care for her. The mental health person they are currently using doesn’t appear to meet the criteria for competency outlined in the document.

    (One thing the WPATH standards don’t address is competency of primary care physicians working with TGNC people. One of my interns has a client whose PCP seems very eager to be helpful, but had no idea puberty blockers exist or that they should likely be prescribed for the very depressed, isolated teen he has been caring for as if the teen were a cisgender person with depression. We are… working on that.)

  24. 123
    Ampersand says:

    This is a response to some comments Sebastian H wrote on another thread.

    Yes I read all of your links yesterday, and the important thing to notice about them is that they are all arguing with mainstream feminism and allowing a lot more room for underlying deep differences than the social construction model suggests.

    Here’s a paragraph from Serano’s Ms Magazine piece, which I linked to yesterday:

    Dove-Viebahn’s post gives credence to those feminists who refuse to acknowledge cissexism or intersectionality, and instead frame trans issues solely in terms of male privilege. In the past, such feminists have dismissed trans feminism, depicting trans men as being “female” traitors who transition to attain male privilege and trans women as being entitled “men” who transition in order to infiltrate women’s spaces. While this rhetoric has mellowed somewhat over the years, some feminists still argue that trans women have no right to participate in feminism because we were not socialized female, or because we may have benefited from male privilege in the past.

    That is specifically, and unmistakably, a description of how many radical feminists have reacted to trans issues. If you think this argument is with mainstream feminism, then I think you’re right to say that you might not understand what constitutes mainstream feminism.

    The dominant strand of modern feminism believes that most/all of the differences between men and women are social constructs, which leaves trans people in an odd place of insisting upon differences which feminists classify as not really being real.

    Hmmn. I’m not sure how we’d determine what “the dominant strand” of modern feminism believes? I think that some mainstream feminists believe something sort of related to what you describe, but…

    1) I think the majority of feminists simply aren’t theory-heads, and aren’t especially strict about their theories or worried about seeming contradictions here and there. For most of the feminists I know, “trans women are women” and “your sex doesn’t determine your capacities” are both foundational beliefs, and there hasn’t been a lot of exploring to determine if these foundational beliefs contradict. And, honestly, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Not everyone needs to be a theory-head.

    2) I’m not at all an expert, and maybe there’s something I’m missing. But I don’t think there’s actually much contradiction between a social constructionist view and accepting the fact that trans women are women (and trans men are men).

    There’s weak social constructivism – which I think is the most common view among current feminists, although that’s entirely a subjective assessment. Weak social constructivism says that a man can want to be a stay-at-home parent and a woman can want to be a construction worker, and that both of them can be terrific at these things. There’s no behavior that is exclusively reserved to just one sex.

    This view is entirely compatible with the view that someone who self-identifies as a woman is a woman, and someone who self-identifies as a man is a man. No contradiction at all there. (Within this typology, I’d categorize Serano as a weak social constructivist.)

    (Years ago, I would have said “there’s no behavior that is exclusively reserved to just one sex, except for things like being pregnant.” But, because of reading trans writers, I now see that there are men who get pregnant. So really, for me, far from creating a contradiction with social constructivism, reading trans views have resolved an apparent contradiction, making me more of a social constructivist than I had been before.)

    3) And then there’s strong social constructivism, which says that “male” and “female” are entirely social constructs, with no greater reality whatsoever. Here I can see a dispute: If there is no such thing as anyone being male or female, then how can a trans woman (or a cis woman) claim to be female in some essential way?

    But I think I also see a way to look at this which resolves the apparent dispute: Women aren’t women in an essential way. There is no “essential” femaleness, or maleness, that exists outside of humans. That Linus identifies as a man, or that Lucy identifies as a woman, is a meaningless construct outside of the human mind; “woman” and “man” mean nothing to the cosmos.

    Women aren’t women in an essential way; women are women in a human way. In this view, a woman’s down-deep sense that she is a woman[*] is “real” in the human sense, but carries no outside-of-humans significance. And that’s true of all women, trans and cis alike. Ditto for all men.

    Viewed this way, I don’t think that even strong social constructivism contradicts trans feminism.

    [*] I’m not saying that all women, or all men, have such a deep-down sense. But many do.

  25. 124
    Ampersand says:

    (Anyone who is here because they followed my link on Twitter to the last comment on this thread: I wrote that tweet before writing this comment. So the comment I was referring to, is the one before this one.)

    And just today, I ran into a real-world example of someone who’d I’d describe as a “strong social constructionist” who doesn’t see a conflict between that and being fully accepting of trans people. From Laurie Penny, who self-identifies (I’m oversimplifying a bit, read the article for a fuller explanation) as personally genderqueer but politically female:

    How To Be A Genderqueer Feminist

    So here it is. I consider “woman” to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth. You could say the same thing about “justice” or “money” or “democracy” — these are made-up ideas, stories we tell ourselves about the shape of our lives, and yet they are ideas with enormous real-world consequences. Saying that gender is fluid doesn’t mean that we have to ignore sexism. In fact, it’s the opposite.[…]

    Only when we recognize that “manhood” and “womanhood” are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny, of the way we are all worked over by gender in the end.[…]

    I don’t want to see a world without gender. I want to see a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced, where there are as many ways to express and perform and relate to your own identity as there are people on Earth. I want a world where gender is not painful, but joyful.

  26. 125
    Pete Patriot says:

    1) I think the majority of feminists simply aren’t theory-heads, and aren’t especially strict about their theories or worried about seeming contradictions here and there.

    Nah. I think most mainstream feminists – even if they can’t articulate it and haven’t read the books – are full on devotes of intersectionalism and situated knowledge. (And yeah, people can pick up the outline of ideas without formal inculcation). By this stage that stuff is in the ether. That position just makes it extremely difficult for them to be anything but accepting and supportive of trans rights and arguments.

  27. 126
    Sebastian H says:

    I can’t really sign up on a Laurie Penny level of social constructionism. If you really believe that ‘justice’ is a made up category you have a hard time describing why we should care about oppression because that is just as surely a made up category too. A lot of it seems like just taking things back an extra level of abstraction for things you don’t like and pretending that solves the underlying moral problem. Its taking an insight too far. Yes somethings are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean everything is.

    “Women aren’t women in an essential way; women are women in a human way. In this view, a woman’s down-deep sense that she is a woman[*] is “real” in the human sense, but carries no outside-of-humans significance. ”

    I’m not sure how this helps you out of the social construction trap. You’re saying that some things are relational (existing only in relation to other objects and not freestanding). But so are all sorts of things. Electrical interactions require charge. You can’t usefully describe them without their relation to each other. That doesn’t make them unreal or non-essential. Yes, things that describe human relations can’t be described without reference to humans. That doesn’t resolve the question of whether they are accurate descriptions or not.

  28. 127
    Pete Patriot says:

    Penny:

    Their argument is pretty simple. It boils down to the idea that trans people reinforce binary thinking about gender when they choose to join the other team instead of challenging what it means to be a man or a woman. Greer has called trans women a “ghastly parody” of femaleness.

    I think it’s a bit deeper, the social constructionist problem is that if it’s all social then the justification for medical transition is kicked away. The other aspect is that if you view the gender binary as a dominance hierarchy (which is pretty universal in feminism), it’s not mere reinforcement – anyone who strongly embraces it is ideologically suspect.

    There’s also a important part of 2nd wave thought that women’s oppression is due to their ability to reproduce and founded on physical anatomy.

  29. 128
    Ampersand says:

    I think it’s a bit deeper, the social constructionist problem is that if it’s all social then the justification for medical transition is kicked away.

    I don’t think it is. You’re seemingly assuming that the social constructionist view is that if A) something has its origin in human society, rather than in some God-given or biological Essence Of Gender, then B) therefore no one should get a medical transition. But that’s completely illogical; “A” does not lead to “B.” If people are suffering or uncomfortable, and going through a medical transition of some kind brings them relief (and in many cases, life-saving relief) or joy, then that is more than ample justification.

    The idea that people are obliged to suffer is not a social constructionist view.

    The other aspect is that if you view the gender binary as a dominance hierarchy (which is pretty universal in feminism), it’s not mere reinforcement – anyone who strongly embraces it is ideologically suspect.

    That’s the view of too many radfems, but it’s a view which has been rejected by third-wave and intersectional feminism. Male/female may be a dominance hierarchy, but so is cis/trans; it’s obvious that self-identifying as trans is not a way of taking the dominant side. And to embrace the view you describe here WOULD be reinforcing the oppression of trans people.

    Can you link to even a single non-radfem feminist who explicitly argues the view you’re describing here? Because it seems to me that you’re talking about theory while ignoring reality.

    There’s also a important part of 2nd wave thought that women’s oppression is due to their ability to reproduce and founded on physical anatomy.

    I’m not sure that this is actually that important. But, nonetheless, unless 2nd wave feminists were unaware that some women are infertile, I don’t see how the inclusion of trans women changes anything.

    * * *

    I’m a little bit bugged by the “let’s you and her fight” element of conservatives arguing that there’s an essential and irremovable conflict between trans theory and feminism. (I’m not just referring to this thread; yesterday on Twitter Cathy Young was all over this subject.)

    I do think it’s important to push feminists and feminism to work on ending cissexism within feminism, but trans feminists are already doing that, and doing it with far more nuance and awareness than anything I’ve seen from conservatives so far.

  30. 129
    Mandolin says:

    I’m probably a strong social constructionist. I don’t necessarily think there’s an inherent gender identity as I usually see it defined.* I don’t necessarily think it’s true of sexual orientation either. (I do think the term inherent can be a useful first order approximation for both, but I’m skeptical of its detailed accuracy.) I also think that women’s oppression is related to anatomy, PLUS I’m probably an infertile woman; at a social level, the existence of some members of the class who deviate from the pattern doesn’t have to obviate the “utility” of an institution that functions based on the average of a sufficiently large population.

    But “not inherent” isn’t the same thing as “chosen” or “changeable” — let alone not the same thing as “should have been chosen differently” or “should be changed.”

    Some people who are assigned male at birth are women. Their birth-assigned sex is not consonant with their gender identity. It doesn’t matter whether that’s nature, nurture or a (probable) mix. Gender can be (and in my opinion is) both a construction and a fundamentally important part of daily life. After all, race is both.

    Trans people exist in our current gender matrix. That is–or should be–easy to respect. I’m a woman. Grace** is a woman. We had a different experience of getting other people to recognize that. If we came from a culture sufficiently separated from the contemporary U.S., our gender identities would probably look different, because the construction of gender is cross-culturally mutable (to some extent, which relates to other theories).*** If we came from another culture sufficiently separated, etc., our *identities themselves* would probably be different, because the construction of *identity* is cross-culturally mutable (to some extent etc.). Intelligence is a mix of nature and nurture; that doesn’t mean I’m not an intelligent person, just because I didn’t “have” to be based on genes. Grace and I live here. We live now. Who we are is a real thing. It doesn’t have to be biologically inevitable to be important, worthy of respect, and importantly, *true.*

    *Please note the end of that sentence. Also note that I am using “inherent” here to mean determined by biology alone.

    **I hope you’re okay with me mentioning you here. If you’re not, I’ll edit the text later.

    ***Even with the same label “woman,” what “woman” means–and thus the creation of identity that goes with it–varies.

  31. 130
    Sebastian H says:

    “If people are suffering or uncomfortable, and going through a medical transition of some kind brings them relief (and in many cases, life-saving relief) or joy, then that is more than ample justification.”

    But under the strong social constructionist view the moral valence of “suffering or uncomfortable” is socially constructed too. There are lots of people who derive real joy from inflicting non consensual pain and even more who become gleeful at making other people very uncomfortable. They are engaging in immoral acts. You can’t judge that without reference to interpersonal interactions, yet I’m still quite sure they are wrong.

    Now you can have a coherent position that it is all socially constructed. I’m not saying you can’t. I’m saying you can’t have that AND logically argue that the social constructions around sadism and other non consensual behavior are inherently worse than other constructions.

    Alternatively you could say that gender is just a social construction (and some things like just have other underpinnings that describe correct social/moral interactions). Then you have to justify why treating trans people with operations makes more sense than trying to get them to adjust to the social convention or not care about it. But that seems like at least something that can be explained or worked around. (I guess that is the strong social construction on GENDER but not EVERYTHING stance).

    I would tend toward a mixed bag. I think justice is a real thing that is described in culture through socially constructed (and sometimes false) ways. I think that gender is a real thing that is described in culture through socially constructed (and often false) ways. I’ll free admit that sorting through which are which is tough. But the strong social construction for everything stance gives away the field entirely. No point talking about it because the hardcore non consensual sadists can’t (by your grounding of justice) be any more wrong than anyone else.

  32. 131
    Grace Annam says:

    Pete Patriot:

    I think it’s a bit deeper, the social constructionist problem is that if it’s all social then the justification for medical transition is kicked away.

    A lot of people clearly believe this. Implicit in the belief are some things which may seem obvious at first glace, but aren’t so.

    Even if we concede a framework in which gender is entirely a construction of our society, that doesn’t mean a construct is not a real thing, or that participation is optional. The wall in my workplace is entirely a construction of my society, too, but that doesn’t mean that I can declare it inferior and walk through it. Too, even if MY gender is entirely a construct and we could all do a lot better on that and have a different outcome if we rewound to a few moments before my conception, we can’t actually do that. So even if MY gender is a construct, it’s still an apparently permanent part of me, and I still had to transition to live in this world and be at peace with myself.

    So when people say that it’s entirely nurture, that it’s all a social construct, I have two reactions (a) the evidence for that is not great, and actually all over the map and (b) even if that’s true, I still have to eat breakfast today and go to work, where most people probably haven’t gotten the memo that it’s time for all of us to enter a state of permanent satori and be righteous to everyone at all times.

    Ampersand:

    I’m a little bit bugged by the “let’s you and her fight” element of conservatives arguing that there’s an essential and irremovable conflict between trans theory and feminism.

    Yeah, but we also see it from TERFs. I don’t see any such conflict; the big overlap between feminism and trans rights in that Venn diagram is bodily autonomy.

    Mandolin:

    at a social level, the existence of some members of the class who deviate from the pattern doesn’t have to obviate the “utility” of an institution that functions based on the average of a sufficiently large population.

    This is really important.

    It’s also important to note that to some extent (and situationally), it doesn’t matter where you put yourself, but where others put you. Suppose that it’s absolutely true that trans women are women, full stop. That doesn’t keep people from firing us because they think we’re actually men, or actually another thing entirely. As Helen Boyd put it,

    Sometimes it’s easy to tell who’s on your team by knowing who else the people who beat you up like to beat up. By that logic, the LGBT as a boat for both sexual orientation and gender variance, makes perfect sense. The one thing I’m sure of is that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are willing to sink it, and all of us with it.

    So the fact that some members deviate from the class doesn’t prevent people from assigning me to it and treating me as a member of it. Apparently they find a utility in that sufficient to motivate them to do all sorts of things, especially if the act is without serious consequence to them.

    I hope you’re okay with me mentioning you here.

    I am. This is, after all, explicitly the thread where my gender is up for debate.

    Sebastian H:

    Then you have to justify why treating trans people with operations makes more sense than trying to get them to adjust to the social convention or not care about it.

    Well, if we must. But, fortunately, that’s a no-brainer. I’m at a loss to understand this belief, which is apparently widespread, that it’s possible to get trans people to adjust or not care about it. People apparently believe that the real problem with trans people is that we just haven’t tried hard enough. Somehow, they manage to miss the fact that trans people (those who don’t transition at age 3, anyway) try really, really hard to adjust, to not care. Sometimes we try right through the moment of self-destruction, and then no one has to worry about us any more, at all, at all. But the simple fact is that, “ex-gay” and “ex-trans” apologists notwithstanding, you can try, but over 98% of the time we don’t adjust and we don’t not care, because that’s not possible. And by the time other people are becoming aware that we’re trans, chances are pretty good that we’ve already tried pretty much everything, and that we already know where we sit, on that question.

    So, no-brainer on pure pragmatism: it makes sense because medical transition works pretty well, with an over-90% satisfaction rate, and talk therapy doesn’t work, with an under-1% success rate.

    But that doesn’t stop people from saying, basically, “If only there were some way we could get you to look down there between your legs and see, I mean, really see that which I believe to be there on the basis of other cues.”

    All that said, I’m not trying to browbeat you on this, Sebastian. When you say…

    I would tend toward a mixed bag. I think justice is a real thing that is described in culture through socially constructed (and sometimes false) ways. I think that gender is a real thing that is described in culture through socially constructed (and often false) ways. I’ll free admit that sorting through which are which is tough.

    …I pretty much agree. I think that gender is a thing usually arising out of biology, strongly in some, weakly in others, onto which various cultural schema have tried to map, all of them imperfectly. I think nature/nurture is a false dichotomy and a red herring. I also think that there’s ample proof that the human population varies widely, and that while it’s perfectly possible that many people don’t have much of a biologically-based gender identity, or have one which can be superseded through socialization, there are undeniably many people who plainly do have an essentially fixed gender identity. So even if we discovered somehow that 98% of us are blank slates until the moment the medic Declares The Genitals, 2% of us are just built differently. And 2%, or 1%, or even 0.10% is well within normal variation in a population, and not pathological. Just a variation. Another variation on being human, no better or worse than the more common ones.

    Grace

    ETA: On reflection, I’m not certain I agree with the bit I’ve stricken out.

  33. 132
    Grace Annam says:

    Sebastian H:

    Lots of people try to use evolutionary fitness for that purpose, but it doesn’t work well for gay people very often.

    Yeah, but 4 out of 5 evolutionary biologists agree that over 99% of people don’t understand evolution, and 3 out of 5 agree that, actually, no one does. It is effortless to point out things which seem maladaptive when all you know is “mutation + sex + survival of the fittest individuals”. Clearly there’s more to evolution than meets the eye. People who argue that “gay people are failed experiments because they don’t breed” or similar twaddle understand evolution in the same way that a toddler with a wooden play set understands trains, or someone who says, “There’s no gravity in space” understands physics.

    Grace

  34. 133
    Pete Patriot says:

    Can you link to even a single non-radfem feminist who explicitly argues the view you’re describing here? Because it seems to me that you’re talking about theory while ignoring reality.

    I agree that anglosphere feminism is full on intersectional, and with what – I guess – is your point that anyone explicitly voicing that view is a radfem by definition.

    But the issue isn’t theory, but that there is still substantial implicit support for it in reality. The unisex movement or anyone practising gender-neutral parenting would be a great example. They won’t spout of my statement, anymore than your team will quote Crenshaw or Haraway, but fundamentally they agree with it.

  35. 134
    Mandolin says:

    Sebastian, have you spent much time studying the social sciences?

  36. 135
    Mandolin says:

    So even if we discovered somehow that 98% of us are blank slates until the moment the medic Declares The Genitals, 2% of us are just built differently.

    For what it’s worth, this is not my argument. Construction would occur over years, not in the moment of birth sex assignment.

    It’s also important to note that to some extent (and situationally), it doesn’t matter where you put yourself, but where others put you.

    Well, yes. The fact that I probably don’t need birth control to control my fertility, due to probably not having any, doesn’t mean I don’t face barriers to my use of it for other medical reasons. When people assign me the term ‘woman,’ they often also assign me characteristics based on what they expect from someone with my physical characteristics and age. My actual situation has relatively little bearing on whether or not anyone asks when my husband and I will have kids.

    I’m not actually sure where your proviso follows from what I said — correction? addition? Anyway, yes, one is greatly affected by where one is put. How could you not be?

    I think I’m hitting my mildly grumpy space about gender, which I don’t mind discussing with you, Grace, in private if you want, but I’d probably rather not hash out on the blog right now.

    (Likewise, I’m unlikely to want to try to boil down years of academic research on social constructionism and cultural relativism, so I’m probably out now.)

  37. 136
    Mandolin says:

    So the fact that some members deviate from the class doesn’t prevent people from assigning me to it and treating me as a member of it. Apparently they find a utility in that sufficient to motivate them to do all sorts of things, especially if the act is without serious consequence to them.

    Wait — were we making the same point? I was trying to say that institutional structures can function based on approximation… my infertility doesn’t opt me out of oppression of women based on their reproductive capacity, and certainly would not have done so historically. (People assign me to the class “fertile woman” and treat me as a member of it.) Systems of oppression can continue to serve their function despite the sloppiness of approximations.

  38. 137
    Mandolin says:

    Sebastian — because it seems to me like you’re not really aware of the body of academic work on the subject. So, you are? But then you must not be hearing the combination of social constructionism and non-relativism for the first time. I mean, arguing against the position is fine, of course, but I feel like you’re asking me the equivalent of “but where is the transitional fossil?”

    The conversation might go better in person. Or not. I actually just wanted to provide an example of someone who is a social constructionist who supports trans rights.

  39. Pingback: Gender Identity, Perception of Gender, and the Tolerant Society | Navigating the Informationscape

  40. 138
    desipis says:

    I was going to expand on some comments I made earlier in the thread, but it ended up quite long and morphed into a full blog post. It’s largely related to the topic of this thread, so I’d still be interested in any responses from people here: Gender Identity, Perception of Gender, and the Tolerant Society

  41. 139
    Grace Annam says:

    Note to all: Various and sundry posts which went off-topic have been moved to the latest open thread.

    The topic of this thread is

    What is “a woman”? What is “a man”? When someone is apparently, in every way, one gender, but says they’re a different gender, what does that even mean? Is that real? Are there caveats?

    …and things sufficiently close to that, in my eyes or (in the event that I get hit by a bus) the eyes of another moderator.

    If you’re having to type such phrases as “bringing it back to trans issues” you’re probably far afield.

    Not every comment could be perfectly classified in a binary manner. But, like the poor, hapless doctor at the birth of a child, I did the best I could with what I saw while operating within the constraints given to me by the programmer who designed this system. Pity me.

    Grace

  42. 140
    Grace Annam says:

    Note: this comment and desipis’ reply, immediately below, were moved here from their original location.

    desipis:

    However, I do think taken on a whole, the reaction of certain people towards Greer’s opinion on trans women (or anyone with a similar opinion) could be described as “stubborn and complete intolerance”.

    Imagine that. An internationally-known academic proclaims that a class of people is mentally ill, and asserts that a surgery which relieves suffering in the lives of many of them is “inhumane”, and describes a class of people exactly contrary to how they describe themselves, and uses that contrary description to advocate that they not receive necessary medical treatment, or access to public facilities, or employment protections, and the reaction of some members of that class could be described as “stubborn and complete intolerance.” Who’d a thunk it? The nerve of some people, stubbornly not tolerating the bigoted assertions of a well-paid academic with a platform that they are not who they are, and do not deserve access to medical care and public facilities and employment protections. Why, next, even racial minorities might start to object to allegations that they are, as a class, dimwitted, dangerous and untrustworthy! Even they might start to demand special rights like those enjoyed by the vast majority! Where will it even end?!

    With equal rights for all, I hope.

    Grace

  43. 141
    desipis says:

    Grace:

    advocate that they not receive necessary medical treatment, or access to public facilities, or employment protections

    I haven’t seen anyone claim Greer has advocated these things. In fact in the recent interview, she explicitly said she wasn’t arguing for a prohibition on sex reassignment surgery. She might strongly disagree with certain ideas about what makes a woman, but she seems perfectly willing to tolerate them.

  44. 142
    Grace Annam says:

    Readers, there’s going to be some quoted high-octane anti-trans bigotry in what follows. Fair warning.

    desipis:

    I haven’t seen anyone claim Greer has advocated these things.

    Well, for the employment issue specifically, there’s the case of Rachael Padman:

    She was publicly outed in the press in 1996, that resulted in a controversy that led to the resignation of a colleague. That year Padman was elected Fellow of Newnham College. The college statues allowed only female members in the institute. The Principal Dr. Onora O’Neil knew that Padman had undergone a sex-change operation. Famed feminist Germaine Greer, who was a member of the college’s governing body, strongly opposed the appointment, saying that Padman was a man and male. But Fellows, students, and staff of Cambridge University supported Padman, and she was admitted without further opposition. Clare Longrigg published an article titled “A Sister with No Fellow Feeling” in 25 June 1997 issue of The Guardian making charges on Padman and contained uncompromising remarks from Greer. The article was retracted on 19 March 1998 as information was found to be false, and the accusation made by Greer was considered groundless. After the bad publicity, Greer resigned from the college administration.

    For the access to trans medical care, there’s her interview at the Cambridge Student Union:

    She further argued that the surgical procedures and medical treatments associated with transitioning are “unethical” because they “remove healthy tissue and create lifelong dependence on medicine”. She expressed hope that, in the future, there will be less emphasis on surgery, and more opportunities for individuals to exist within their own sexualities and orientations.

    When someone says that a given medical treatment is unethical, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that she thinks it shouldn’t be available to the people who seek it.

    To the question of bathrooms, I withdraw the specific claim. How can we know until she addresses the question? She’s certainly not afraid to be specific. This is the person who said that trans women are delusional men, that trans women don’t know what it’s like to “have a big, hairy, smelly vagina”, that “[she doesn’t] believe a woman is a man without a cock”, that “If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13 there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know”, who said,

    On the day that The Female Eunuch was issued in America, a person in flapping draperies rushed up to me and grabbed my hand. ‘Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us girls!’ I smirked and nodded and stepped backwards, trying to extricate my hand from the enormous, knuckly, hairy, be-ringed paw that clutched it… Against the bony ribs that could be counted through its flimsy scarf dress swung a polished steel women’s liberation emblem. I should have said, ‘You’re a man. The Female Eunuch has done less than nothing for you. Piss off.’ The transvestite [sic] held me in a rapist’s grip.

    I’m having a rough time with the notion that the person who stood by these views in a public forum as recently as four days ago might be okay with trans women using the women’s bathroom. But since I’m not aware that she has spoken to precisely that point, I’ll withhold formal judgement until we can be absolutely sure.

    Grace

  45. 143
    Grace Annam says:

    desipis:

    unlike Nazis, who are the historical epitome of intolerance, Greer simply has a history of being strongly opinionated.

    Greer is not a Nazi. Nor is she as bad as a Nazi. However, Greer has done a bit more than be “strongly opinionated”. Greer advocates for policy positions which have direct effects on the welfare of trans people. This kind of advocacy has historically done terrific harm to trans people. Exhibit A is the case of Janice Raymond, who wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, published in 1979, which made about as transphobic an argument as it is possible to make, one example of which I present here:

    All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

    The US government supported medical care of trans people, and trans people who could get past the vicious gatekeeping of the time were able to access that medical care… until 1981.

    Then, in 1981:

    The National Center for Healthcare Technology was a government funded body that reviewed metadata so that Health & Human Services (HHS) would be able to make evidence-based judgements about the efficacy of medical technologies. In short, they informed the US government on what was and what was not medically efficacious. The NCHCT had Janice Raymond… issue their position on the efficacy of trans medical care in a paper titled, “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery.” This position paper makes practically all the same assertions about trans people commonly found in far right-wing anti-trans propaganda; however, unlike other extremist group propaganda, this misleading report informed HHS’ position on trans medical care.

    In 1981, the US government excluded medical treatment of trans people from coverage, and private companies followed suit. Only now, over thirty years later, are we even starting to see such exclusions made illegal. My employer-provided health plan, for instance, has a one-line blanket exclusion for all treatments relating to a “sex change”, even though it has become illegal. The same is true of all of the local municipalities I have checked. I had to pay most of my own transition costs. The result for me and my family has been significant debt, which limits our options and opportunities in all the usual ways. But that’s small potatoes compared to people who experience suicidal ideation:

    A meta-analysis published in 2010 by Murad, et al., of patients who received currently excluded treatments demonstrated that there was a significant decrease in suicidality post-treatment. The average reduction was from 30 percent pretreatment to 8 percent post treatment.

    De Cuypere, et al., reported that the rate of suicide attempts dropped dramatically from 29.3 percent to 5.1 percent after receiving medical and surgical treatment among Dutch patients treated from 1986-2001.

    According to Dr. Ryan Gorton, “In a cross-sectional study of 141 transgender patients, Kuiper and Cohen-Kittenis found that after medical intervention and treatments, suicide fell from 19 percent to zero percent in transgender men and from 24 percent to 6 percent in transgender women.)”

    Clements-Nolle, et al., studied the predictors of suicide among over 500 transgender men and women in a sample from San Francisco and found a prevalence of suicide attempts of 32 percent. In this study, the strongest predictor associated with the risk of suicide was gender based discrimination which included “problems getting health or medical services due to their gender identity or presentation.” According to Gorton, “Notably, this gender-based discrimination was a more reliable predictor of suicide than depression, history of alcohol/drug abuse treatment, physical victimization, or sexual assault.”

    A recent systematic review of largely American samples gives a suicide attempt rate of approximately one in every three individuals with higher rates found among adolescents and young adults. According to Dr. R. Nicholas Gorton, MD, who treats transgender people at a San Francisco Health Clinic, “The same review also noted that while mental health problems predispose to suicidality, a significant proportion of the drivers of suicide in the LGBT population as a whole is minority stress.” He continues to conclude that, “[f]or transgender people such stress is tremendous especially if they are unable to ‘pass’ in society. Surgical and hormonal treatments — that are [also] covered for non-transgender insureds — are specifically aimed at correcting the body so that it more closely resembles that of the target gender, so providing care significantly improves patients’ ability to pass and thus lessens minority stress.”

    These studies provide overwhelming evidence that removing discriminatory barriers to treatment results in significantly lower suicide rates. [footnotes omitted]

    And even if someone doesn’t care from a moral standpoint whether trans people kill themselves, this denial of care has measurable economic costs for the broader society:

    One of the most severe results of denying coverage of treatments to transgender insureds that are available to non-transgender insureds is suicidal ideation and attempts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the average acute medical costs of a single suicide completion or attempt in the United States is $2,596 and $7,234 respectively. This only includes acute care and hospitalization costs. While there are studies that provide higher estimated costs per suicide attempt and completion, we choose to conservatively use the lower bound cost to keep estimates as relevant to health insurers as possible.

    Overall improvements in mental health. Transgender insureds who have access to treatment see rates of depression drop and anxiety decrease. Evidence supporting this conclusion comes from a meta-analysis of 28 studies showing that 78 percent of transgender people had improved psychological functioning after treatment. In another recent study, transgender women who had had any relevant surgeries had mental health scores comparable to women in general, while those who were not able to access care scored much lower on mental health measures.

    Substance abuse rates decline. There are numerous studies that provide evidence that substance abuse rates decline including one where participants, “describe how substance use was a coping mechanism for their gender dysphoria before they had access to treatment.” Another study found an overall reduction in substance use after receiving treatment.

    Other Benefits. Transgender people who are denied access to treatment and suffer from dysphoria associated with gender identity disorder sometimes turn to self-medication for relief. …Several researchers suggest that lack of early access to GID treatments and care costs more.

    Increased socioeconomic status for transgender insureds. Lack of access to treatment due to coverage denials also results in a greater likelihood of adverse socioeconomic consequences for the insured. A single group pre- and post-study demonstrated improvements in socioeconomic status or employment status in transgender patients after hormonal and surgical treatment. Additional studies conclude that transgender persons have higher employment rates after they have access to treatments.

    For the reasons cited above, Department staff concluded that ending these four types of discrimination will cost little or nothing in the short run and may produce longer-term cost savings and improved health benefits for transgender people. [footnotes in source omitted]

    In other words, anti-trans bigotry demonstrably causes death and suffering, and refusing medical care to trans people costs more than providing it.

    Grace

    [edited to add some links]

  46. 144
    Ampersand says:

    Desipis, regarding Greer and employment of trans folks:

    In 1996, Greer unsuccessfully campaigned against the appointment of Dr Rachael Padman to the fellowship at Newnham College on the grounds that Padman, who had sex reassignment surgery in 1982, could not be admitted without contravening the college’s statutes, since she was born (and, at the time, was legally still considered) male.

    So no, Greer’s transphobia has not been limited to just words. (Not that “just words,” when the words are said in public by an influential intellectual, can’t be legitimately objected to.)

    I think it’s also important to note that, in many of her language choices over the years, Greer has implied that it’s okay to talk about trans women with an attitude of contempt.

    I should mention, however, that Rachel Padman has publicly opposed “no platforming” Greer. Also, the linked article’s language – “born male” – isn’t language that I’d use nowadays.

  47. 145
    desipis says:

    With respect to Padman:

    If it’s acceptable to discriminate on somewhat arbitrary but somewhat functional basis that excludes roughly half the population, I don’t think that drawing the line on slightly different somewhat arbitrary but somewhat functional basis that excludes a slightly different half of the population can be described as a matter of “employment protection”.

    If Greer were advocating someone loose a job that had no gender related functions on the basis that person was a trans woman then I would agree that it is a employment protection issue. The particular gender function of Newnham College seemed uncertain at the time Greer made her arguments, but interpreting it as being an institution that excludes people who are biologically male isn’t any more or less bigoted than being an institution that excludes people who identify as men.

    As for sex reassignment surgery, Greer clearly stated last month that she wasn’t against it (emphasis mine):

    “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, all I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman,” she continued.

    “That happens to be an opinion, it’s not a prohibition. Carry on if that’s what you think you want to do.

    So it’s not a “stretch” to believe she doesn’t think it should be available, it’s something that’s plain incorrect to believe.

    I think it’s important not to read too much into Greer’s language. She uses some pretty denigrating language against old women. She certainly doesn’t do so to imply that old women, such as herself, ought to have less rights or be treated unfairly. I suspect it’s more that she’s acknowledging the simple fact about the way old women are inherently perceived by other human beings (including themselves), and implying that it’s healthy to express and acknowledge such perceptions rather than deny them.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Greer would be rather quite uncomfortable at the idea of trans women using the women’s bathroom, and that she might feel free to express that discomfort. I would be surprised if she were to argue for rules to exclude them, something which I think is necessary for “dislike” to transition into “intolerance”.

  48. 146
    Tamme says:

    Cis mouths are open

    Should be shut

  49. 147
    Grace Annam says:

    Tamme, cis people are explicitly welcome in this thread, as long as they abide by the moderation guidelines of Alas. If you disagree with something someone has said, quote it or reference it, and respond to the argument. Thank you.

    Grace

  50. 148
    Grace Annam says:

    desipis:

    I don’t think that drawing the line on slightly different somewhat arbitrary but somewhat functional basis that excludes a slightly different half of the population can be described as a matter of “employment protection”.

    You don’t think it’s a matter of employment protection for the person whose job is endangered… if the argument for that person to lose their job would only exclude a small number of people? If she loses her job, she was still protected, because she’s in a tiny minority? It sounds like that’s what you’re saying, but that seems to be to be obviously fallacious. Am I understanding you correctly?

    I think it’s important not to read too much into Greer’s language.

    Whether or no, we don’t have to read in. It’s facial meaning is pretty clear. And, as you point out, perhaps a bit inconsistent. After all, on one occasion she describes surgery (presumably genital surgery) for trans people to be unethical — not wrongheaded or inadvisable, but unethical, which in medical circles means you shouldn’t do it. So that would be a statement in favor of not performing that kind of surgery at all. On another occasion, she says she’s fine with people undergoing surgery… if they can get it, presumably.

    I’m reminded of the Dave Sim thread. Is Greer transphobic? Yeah, she is, on the basis of her own statements, which have been consistently anti-trans over time. You seem to be so eager to label what Greer has said as not anti-trans that I’m starting to wonder what’s up with that.

    Look, she characterized a trans woman whom she believed was a man as “a rapist” … on the basis of an overenthusiastic handshake. If she had characterized a cis man the same way for the same behavior, would you believe that she is “tolerant” of cis men? Or would you believe that her views were hateful?

    Grace

  51. 149
    Pete Patriot says:

    You don’t think it’s a matter of employment protection for the person whose job is endangered… if the argument for that person to lose their job would only exclude a small number of people?

    I think the point is that Newnham had already committed to discriminating against men, so anyone who steps up to oppose them discriminating against transwomen on the basis on gender expression is already on pretty shaky ground. They’ve conceded the point that discrimination’s okay and it’s really just a question of drawing the line to decide the ingroup. Also, if they’re intellectually consistent about gender = identity they’d want any transmen on staff sacked – so they can hardly claim to be fighting under the trans rights or employment protection banner.

  52. 150
    desipis says:

    Grace:

    I agree with what Pete said.

    If there’s a class of arguments that justify discrimination against men without it being “bigotry” or “intolerance” then there is also a class of arguments that justify discrimination against trans women without it being “bigotry” or “intolerance”.

    In the case of Newnham college some felt that by being a “women’s college”, the college was dedicated to the common experiences of people who identify as “women” while Greer felt it was dedicated to the common experiences of people who grew up with naturally female bodies. I don’t see how one of these positions can be “bigotry” or “intolerance” while the other isn’t.

    Is Greer transphobic?

    I’m not arguing about whether Greer is “transphobic” or “anti-trans”. I’m arguing about whether Greer is “intolerant”.

    When it comes to having a tolerant society it’s important to realise that tolerance is not about liking or disliking something, nor is it even inconsistent with hate. It’s quite possible to have a tolerant society which includes different groups that hate each other. A tolerant society isn’t about having a hippy pipe dream where everyone only has positive feeling for each other, it’s about having a practical policy of “live and let live” in spite of the negative feelings.

    I’m not arguing that Greer has a positive, puppies and rainbows, view of trans people. I’m arguing that she has a “live and let live” policy towards them; that is, she is tolerant of them.

    she characterized a trans woman whom she believed was a man as “a rapist”

    I think her use of the term “rapist” is related to this longer quote from her:

    When he forces his way into the few private spaces woman may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with hate mail, he does as rapists have always done.

    In short Greer believes in the freedom of associate, in that she should be able to privately associate with other people on the basis of her criteria and exclude others who don’t fit that criteria. She feels that there’s a private women’s spaces where being born with a biologically female body is the criteria, and that only people who fit that criteria have consent to enter the private space. She sees trans women as feeling entitled to ignore the lack of consent and entering anyway, in the same way rapists ignore women’s consent.

    I agree the language choice is very provocative, and the emotional baggage of the term “rape” clouds the underlying meaning of its use. I often criticise such hyperbolic use of language, however it is something that is quite commonly used in feminist language.

  53. 151
    Grace Annam says:

    desipis:

    In short Greer believes in the freedom of associate, in that she should be able to privately associate with other people on the basis of her criteria and exclude others who don’t fit that criteria. She feels that there’s a private women’s spaces where being born with a biologically female body is the criteria, and that only people who fit that criteria have consent to enter the private space. She sees trans women as feeling entitled to ignore the lack of consent and entering anyway, in the same way rapists ignore women’s consent.

    It’s always hard to know where to start when someone feels a need to explain to a trans woman why it is that some cis women want to exclude her. It’s almost as though you think we have never heard the arguments before, or maybe just haven’t thought this thing through.

    Yeah, I get the “lack of consent” argument on “penetration into women’s spaces”. Even if I didn’t grasp it the first time (and I did), I long ago lost count of the times the argument has been made. In one form or another, I get to experience that argument every day, and on workdays at least twice a day and in person.

    But this thread isn’t the place to talk about whether spaces set aside for minorities are okay, and to what extent, and how we define the boundaries. This thread is for the questions “what is a woman?” and “what is a man?” Fortunately, Greer is still on topic because that’s exactly the question she’s answering. Greer asserts that a woman is someone who menstruates. And yet, she does not inveigh against people assigned female at birth who never menstruate; she has her sights set on women who were assigned male at birth, which is a different thing. She wants to assert that biology is destiny, and oh, the irony would be hilarious if the results weren’t so dire.

    In trying to get a trans professor fired, Greer did not say, “This situation violates my freedom of association.” She said that Padman was not a woman. These are two different arguments, and to say that Greer meant to say one when she said the other is to assert that a famous academic and feminist thinker who has lived her life making academic arguments just didn’t articulate her argument well, or made the wrong one.

    She is a professional communicator, so I’ll do her the courtesy of believing that she meant what she said. She said that trans women are men. She has said it repeatedly. She has said it offensively. She has said it with exasperation. She meant it.

    And she’s demonstrably wrong. And as I pointed out above, people of lesser stature than hers have wielded what power they had to deny trans people medical care, so when she’s wrong on this, the consequences can be real, which is why people care.

    I have always meant, in this thread, to address the “biology is destiny” argument. I’ve largely written that piece. But today, this week, I don’t have time to finish it, edit it, and engage in the ensuing discussion. I’m going to be too busy dealing with the ramifications of the exclusion which goes on in my own workplace.

    Grace

  54. 152
    Mandolin says:

    It’s just like the anti-SSM arguments. “Marriage is between a man and a woman because they can have children.” Whenever I respond with, “Well, I’m probably infertile,” the response becomes “OMG I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you!” which, you know, is kind, but non-responsive to the argument. For logical consistency, either I shouldn’t be allowed to be married, or that criterion is not appropriate.

    I also menstruate irregularly and am sometimes amenharrhaic (um, I’d look that spelling up, but I don’t want to right now)–this is related to the fertility question. Yet I’ve never had someone question my right to belong to and associate with “the tribe that bleeds” as one TERF commenter long ago put it. Granted, I do actually bleed sometimes, but as Grace points out, some don’t. Either that means they’re not women either, or that the criterion is not appropriate. (In my experience, when pressed on this, TERFs will acknowledge that menstruation is being used as a shorthand for a constellation of traits and not meant to be taken as a single, literal criterion, but that just makes their unqualified repetition of the concept even more obnoxious.)

  55. 153
    Tamme says:

    “amme, cis people are explicitly welcome in this thread, as long as they abide by the moderation guidelines of Alas”

    I am not asking for these people to be banned.

    I’m just making it clear exactly how much I think their opinions, coming from cis people as they do, are worth.

  56. 154
    Mandolin says:

    Unfortunately, I think you’re not quite getting the Alas etiquette vibe. I’m not banning or moderating you, Grace has the thread well in hand. But if you could go a little heavier on the substance and less so on the abbreviated rhetorical flashes, I think people might be better able to engage with you and vice versa.

  57. 155
    desipis says:

    Grace:

    This thread is for the questions “what is a woman?” and “what is a man?”

    That’s fine, but it’s not the point I was getting at, and I didn’t move our conversation here (although I do understand why you did).

    And she’s demonstrably wrong.

    I don’t understand how someone can be demonstrably wrong about the boundaries they draw for an ontological concept.

    To use Mandolin’s marriage analogy, it’s not that fundamentalist Christians are wrong about what marriage is or isn’t, it’s that they have a minority view about what it ought to be. So in the legal context marriage should reflect the majority view, but at the same time, that majority view shouldn’t be imposed on the minority in their religious context. There is no wrong or right definition, just a question of what is appropriate in a given context.

  58. 156
    Ben Lehman says:

    I don’t understand how someone can be demonstrably wrong about the boundaries they draw for an ontological concept.

    Because gender is tied to real social norms, which aren’t infinitely mutable.

    Let me give an example. If I say “women are all bright purple, so if you’re not bright purple, you’re not a woman” I am wrong, because women are not all bright purple. If I start using my power to stop people who aren’t bright purple from, say, using women’s restrooms, or accessing women’s health care, or going to women’s shelters, I am not only morally in the wrong, but factually in the wrong, because my means of segregating “women” from “non-women” is utterly, completely, flat-out wrong.

    Even though gender is a social construct that varies over time and space, that doesn’t make it calvinball. I can still be just wrong about it.

  59. 157
    Tamme says:

    “I’m not banning or moderating you, Grace has the thread well in hand.”

    Then I will continue to speak.

    As for going heavy on the substance, I think the gender of the people speaking is extremely substantial

  60. 158
    Mandolin says:

    Then perhaps you should respect the rules and reasons Grace created this space, which she has stated. They overtly include cis voices. This is demonstrably not a place where cis mouths are meant to be closed. You are being disrespectful to her and her decisions as a trans woman about how and with whom to discuss gender identity. If you wish to further question the legitimacy of her project, take it to an open thread.

  61. 159
    Jane Doh says:

    Reviving an old, but very interesting thread. At one point, the discussion included a conversation about strong gender identity vs weak (or no) gender identity, and I said that I don’t feel either male or female, and had a hard time in my youth understanding that other people did feel these things strongly.

    Vi Hart has a great video called “On Gender” about this very thing that pretty much captures my experience with gender and identity. Others in the conversation may find it interesting if they haven’t already seen it.

  62. 160
    Grace Annam says:

    Thanks for that video, Jane Doh!

    Vi Hart:

    My condescending teenager attitude came from a false belief that other people are basically like me.

    Bingo.

    I didn’t care, therefore others don’t care, therefore if they act like they care, then it’s just an act for attention or drama or because they’re bored, because I know that if I were to act like that, it would be for those reasons.

    Yup.

    Everyone seems to want the Grand Unification Theory of whatever, including neurology, or gender. You can see this assumption embedded in most discussions about gender: “Gender is a social construct.” “Gender is innate.” “Gender is both innate and social construct.” Note the implicit “[in everyone]” at the end of each of those as we speak of “gender” as an abstract concept, as though it’s not a thing manifested by individual human beings. But why does it have to be one or the other in every person? Maybe in some people certain behaviors and self-conceptions are more innate than they are in other people.

    Maybe we are individuals.

    It can be really helpful to bear in mind that gender variance, whatever it is, is not what we think it is, because we see it through filters of our own experience and cultural context, including the concept of gender. So, whatever it is that we’re trying to understanding through a lens of “gender”, let’s call that “X”. It is plain that, whatever X is, societies map it in different ways, ways which are more or less useful for individual participants in each culture. Whatever X is, there is no reason to believe that it has to manifest strongly in every person, or according to a certain pattern (even if we happen to be very attached to a given pattern because it is the foundation for a lot of our assumptions).

    Whatever X is, in me, in the psyche I grew up with and the cultural context I grew up in, X could not ultimately be made to fit my society’s concept of “man”, but fits pretty comfortably in my society’s concept of “woman”, especially now that, in the last century, we’ve made that category vastly less limited.

    Other people, like Vi Hart, may have an X which doesn’t chafe against the assignment given by their society.

    Personally, I suspect that a lot of people (on the order of 50%?) are innately suited to the category they’ve been assigned, and then get lots and lots of confirmation-bias socialization, growing up. A whole bunch more (very roughly 25%?) are more tabula rasa, and can just accomodate whatever socialization they get. A few more (very roughly 23%) don’t fit well, but are able to function and make do, more-or-less. And then there are those who ultimately can’t hack their assignment. They cut against their society’s assignment successfully (“success” being slippery), or they die (by doing hazardous work, by jumping off a bridge, by drinking/injecting themselves to death by way of numbing the sense of helplessness at having no apparent options, whatever).

    So, variance in “X”, whatever it is, in a cultural mileu like ours, produces 98% people who declare themselves to be solidly male or female. But in a different cultural context the numbers could come out differently.

    One woman’s theory.

    Bottom line: construct what model we will, human beings are individuals, and some of us probably won’t fit our model. Human beings, as individuals, are fundamentally limited in experience and understanding. It’s an act of profound ignorance or arrogance to think that our model explains all, because we came up with the model. Every model should have room for exceptions.

    Grace

  63. 161
    Mandolin says:

    Whatever X is, in me, in the psyche I grew up with and the cultural context I grew up in, X could not ultimately be made to fit my society’s concept of “man”, but fits pretty comfortably in my society’s concept of “woman”, especially now that, in the last century, we’ve made that category vastly less limited.

    Yeah, this is how I’ve been looking at things lately.

    A few more (very roughly 23%) don’t fit well, but are able to function and make do, more-or-less.

    This being more or less where I am, with then a question of how that signifies, which I expect is a mutable answer depending on the person and situation.

  64. 162
    Jane Doh says:

    So little in human experience turns out to be binary that it isn’t surprising to me that gender identity isn’t either. It is unfortunate that the human preference for sorting and categories causes so many people pain.

    Grace, your description of gender and identity makes more sense to me than other models I’ve seen. If I weren’t living now with my society’s more broadened definition of “woman”, I would likely be less comfortable with my assignment. As it is, I am fortunate to be in a place and in relationships where “incorrect” performance of femaleness is not an issue for me, and I can more or less not think much about it (a luxury, I know).

  65. 163
    nobody.really says:

    Everyone seems to want the Grand Unification Theory of whatever, including neurology, or gender. You can see this assumption embedded in most discussions about gender: “Gender is a social construct.” “Gender is innate.” “Gender is both innate and social construct.” Note the implicit “[in everyone]” at the end of each of those as we speak of “gender” as an abstract concept, as though it’s not a thing manifested by individual human beings. But why does it have to be one or the other in every person? Maybe in some people certain behaviors and self-conceptions are more innate than they are in other people.

    Maybe we are individuals.

    I got to spend 4th of July weekend with my college-aged daughter.

    As the head of a college student organization, she finds herself constantly fighting for greater inclusion—where that means inclusion of Republicans, and Christians, and people who question the merits of state recognition of same-sex marriage, and people who support Hillary. The other people in the group also value inclusion, but conclude that inclusion means excluding the people my daughter advocates for.

    She is majoring in math and physical sciences. And she has received encouragement to enter these fields. She’s told about opportunities for women entering physical sciences. Yet she feels like an outsider in every room she enters. And she observes the dropout rate of women working in the physical sciences. And the professor who teaches the subject that she’s most interested in is a notorious creep.

    She recently broke up with her physics-major boyfriend. Regarding physics, this guy is seriously brilliant—and knows it. Regarding interpersonal relationships, this guy also had all the brilliance you might expect of a male college-aged physics major—but really doesn’t know it. A great guy in the making, but not quite ripe. And my daughter has finally concluded that it will have to be someone else’s job to help him develop.

    So over the weekend, my girl tells me that she’s exhausted. She says she no longer aspires for the heroic life of a pioneer. She’d prefer at least a little more community among like-minded people. But she hasn’t found them yet.

    I hug her. I kiss her hair. I tell her I love her—but I don’t have much else to say. Many of her ambitions seem to be at the other end of a road less traveled. I don’t see any easier paths to those destinations.

    * * *

    I reflect on this as I read Grace’s remarks. I’m grateful that Grace opened this discussion on trans issues. Yet I sense that she feels drained by the experience. I sense she feels fatigued by making herself an exhibit for interested amateurs to prod and poke. I feel for her. Yet, if trans people will gain some modicum of acceptance in society, I can’t see how this process can be avoided.

    This is a long way of saying, Yes, I hope we can all accept each other as individuals. And no, I don’t see acceptance as a substitute for my struggling to make sense of people identifying with a gender into which they were not socialized.

    As I’ve said before, on an abstract level I get that light has properties like a particle AND properties like a wave, and the conflict I perceive in that statement merely reflects a flawed intellectual framework that tells me that things that act like particles CANNOT simultaneously act like waves. But I also have first-hand experience with ocean waves, and with pool balls. And I get little satisfaction from statements such as, “Hey, you haven’t met every ocean wave and every pool ball, so you shouldn’t generalize. Some ocean waves might actually behave like pool balls, and some pool balls might behave like ocean waves; you never know!” There’s something about this statement about light that I have not internalized and integrated into my visceral understanding of the world.

    When I read Graces statement “Maybe we are all individuals,” I ache for her. I want to hug her, kiss her hair, and say I love her. I hope I can convey my acceptance, at least.

    Yet at the same time, it would be dishonest for me to say that I understand. My restless mind doesn’t stop at acceptance. And until I develop a model for understanding trans folk, there will be an intuitive level of empathy that we will not share.

    This is not a huge burden to me. I will shortly turn my attention to other matters. In contrast, I fear that Grace cannot turn off this consciousness of other-ness.

    I wish I could see an easier path. I don’t.

  66. 164
    Grace Annam says:

    nobody.really, I read your post at #163 the day you posted it, and several times since. You said an honest thing very kindly. I could never get my response to gel into something worthy of it. Let’s see if today is that day.

    I sympathize with your daughter. Many years ago, when I arrived at college, I thought I would be majoring in astrophysics. It took three lousy professors in a row to defeat that ambition, combined with struggling to navigate a pervasive sense of alienation, a rootlessness, which in retrospect had a lot to do with not understanding my gender, and therefore not being able to find a sense of belonging in any group, despite earnest searching and trying. In my classes, I saw what the other girls were experiencing, the casual sexism, but I couldn’t commiserate more than superficially, because they didn’t see me as one of them. I could pretend to be one of the guys, and be accepted to an extent there, but it was pretense, and so although I didn’t understand why at the time, it seemed unreal.

    Later in life, in a professional setting, I got to experience for myself what it was like to have an idea I put forward get panned but then accepted when someone else put it forward, and to have someone take credit for an idea which was mine, and to have excellent work deemed acceptable while the acceptable work of others was deemed excellent. It wore on me. I stuck it out for years, because I’m stubborn and idealistic, but ultimately I had to leave. Maybe it’s true that quitters never win and winners never quit, but if you never win and never quit, you’re an idiot. It sounds like your daughter is not an idiot.

    I’ve also experienced what it’s like to be very close to someone and have to cut that person loose, because the relationship has become corrosive and I have to make a safety call about spending my resources where I’m getting shredded. I think that pervasively alienated people have to learn to husband their resources in a way which other people don’t.

    I have felt that exhaustion. I feel for her. Now that it’s almost a year later, I hope she’s doing well.

    I reflect on this as I read Grace’s remarks. I’m grateful that Grace opened this discussion on trans issues. Yet I sense that she feels drained by the experience. I sense she feels fatigued by making herself an exhibit for interested amateurs to prod and poke. I feel for her. Yet, if trans people will gain some modicum of acceptance in society, I can’t see how this process can be avoided.

    One of the subtler challenges of transition is that people need exposure to you in order to process your transition, and to change their understanding of you, but that during that exposure, they’re going to make mistakes and say and do things which hurt, even if they’re operating with the best of intentions. Individually, these small rubs against the grain would be negligible, but collectively, they rub the transitioning person raw, and once you’re raw, each one hurts. That’s when the trans person has to withdraw, for their own good. But then the people who are supposed to be processing your transition are not getting the necessary exposure, and so they don’t make progress, and when you return the mistakes and the shreddings are waiting for you. And even introverts like me need social interaction and validation sometimes, so we can’t withdraw forever. If the time it takes to heal up from the daily shredding is greater than the time it takes to start to need human interaction, things can enter into a downward spiral of re-injury and scarcity of support.

    (Some people, when they do return to social interaction, cannot help but be on guard. People notice this, often unconsciously. For many people, it reads as masculine, and interferes acutely with their ability to see a returning trans woman as a woman. Which is its own death spiral.)

    This is why, when allies ask me, “What can I do, to support my cousin/sibling/whoever?” I answer: Practice. Practice where they can’t see you. Practice using the correct pronouns, out loud, in actual sentences. Do it when you’re brushing your teeth. Do it when you’re driving. Lay in those new grooves so that you make fewer mistakes than you would otherwise. And when you make a mistake, figure out what triggered the outdated association and then practice to re-groove that one, too. (For example, one person at church gendered me correctly without a problem… until my wife walked into the room. She then screwed up several times in a row and expressed frustration and bewilderment. But it was easy to see that she was habituated to thinking of marriage as containing a man and a woman, even though intellectually she is pro-marriage-equality, and therefore with my wife in the room, that’s one woman too many, and suddenly I’m getting the male pronouns.)

    But there’s a danger there, too. If you give that advice to people, and they clearly don’t follow it, then they’ve just told you that you’re not important enough to them to spend a few minutes a day, for a little while, working on something which you have said is very important to you. That’s useful information, knowing where you stand; I’ve used it as a criterion to distance myself from well-intentioned but shredding people who assigned a low priority to getting it right. (They’re under no obligation to do so, but I’m also under no obligation to expose myself to their failure to do so.) But that process of distancing can, itself, feed the gut feeling that there’s no chance, ultimately, of success. And that can lead to despair.

    Transition can be a very dangerous time. I don’t think people really understand why, even most trans people, and I don’t think most people have an ability to see it coming, because it’s so outside of their experience. Most people don’t have prior experience with being so resource-scarce that small mistakes really do matter individually.

    The fact that most people don’t have that experience is why it’s so easy to point and laugh at people who talk about microaggressions. But microaggressions lead to exactly the sort of withdrawing self-care which your daughter did, and which I do sometimes, and which members of many minorities do. Not because we’re special snowflakes unable to take a hit, but because even when you’re tough, if you take enough hits, you come to learn how many more you can take.

    One way to break this cycle, if you can pass as cisgender, is to find a community of decent people who never knew you before you transitioned. They won’t make the mistakes, and you can find cameraderie and belonging and unforced social interaction of a type you’ve never had the chance to experience before in your life, ever. For me, I joined an athletic league where strong, athletically capable women are valued, and where women who are trans are accepted as women, full stop. I have never been misgendered there, once, though most people know that I’m trans. They don’t understand how other people could possibly struggle with this. Ironically, their ignorance enables them to achieve a level of acceptance which seems to be fundamentally inaccessible to longtime members of my church community who have the best of intentions, or to people at my agency.

    In this way, the old standard of care, which required you to move far away and start a new career, remains effective… for those who are able to do that, and willing to cut their ties so comprehensively.

    If you can’t pass as cisgender, then that path is not available to you, and you just have to go down the hard road for as long as you last.

    And even if you find a path back to strength (a path which necessarily involves learning self-care), the knowledge of how far down you were never leaves you. In people who are able to be strong, it often engenders humility, and sympathy for others who are going through it. In people who are not able to attain strength again, it often engenders a constant anxiety about vulnerability, that in any moment you could get dragged off your feet, and that constant anxiety is a constant stressor as well.

    Yet at the same time, it would be dishonest for me to say that I understand. My restless mind doesn’t stop at acceptance. And until I develop a model for understanding trans folk, there will be an intuitive level of empathy that we will not share.
    This is not a huge burden to me. I will shortly turn my attention to other matters. In contrast, I fear that Grace cannot turn off this consciousness of other-ness.
    I wish I could see an easier path. I don’t.

    Neither do I. The process is inherently shredding. This is part of why I come back to these discussions. I know that I can do them, and I know when to take a break, and I know that their benefit extends to others.

    It’s also why I’ve become skilled at being very pointed. I don’t have time and energy to waste in shielding people who are free to walk away from the conversation. I used to prioritize the feelings of the people I was talking with a lot higher than I do now. But that takes my resources, to shield them from something which is their problem. I’ve been accused of being too emphatic, or uncouth, and I’ve gotten to the point where I have to laugh. Look at the load they want me to carry, for the sake of their social ease. Better to spend my energy with the people who are ready and willing to work on themselves, as I have had to do.

    This is another double bind: that many people who think they want to engage with these issues want me to look after their psychological well-being (though they would not phrase it that way). They want to be able to engage in this conversation safely, but don’t understand that trans people basically can’t, that this conversation uses resources and hits scar tissue. They don’t understand what it means that this conversation can be academic for them, that they can walk away from it, while trans people can never have this conversation academically, that, even when we try to pretend that it’s not, so that we can have the conversation at all, it’s always personal.

    As you demonstrated with your reply, it’s possible, at least sometimes, to be both kind and incisive. But people who are always kind are always vulnerable to people who are willing to treat them lightly. And if we have to withdraw for the comfort of others, we are then denied participation in the space we had to withdraw from. So, sometimes, I have to choose between kindness and withdrawal, or throwing a punch and remaining. In certain spaces, like this one, I choose to remain.

    But I’m glad that you and I were able to have this exchange. You went out of your way to be honest and kind, and I hope I have returned equal measure.

    Grace

  67. 165
    Elusis says:

    Grace, I devoutly hope that you’ll consider writing a book at some point, because your post at 164 is one of the best descriptions of the complexities of going through a social transition that I’ve ever read, and I hope more people, cis and trans, will get a chance to read it.

    Is it OK to post a link here? A Survivor contestant was just outed as trans by another contestant, using the “trans people are deceptive” trope, and it backfired on him – the other contestants were furious and kicked the outer off the island. It feels like a pretty astonishing and hopeful tipping point for public attitudes, given that this is an extremely popular and mainstream “family” TV show.

    The trans contestant, Zeke, has written a fantastic essay about the experience.

  68. 166
    Ampersand says:

    I second that call for you to write a book, Grace!

  69. 167
    nobody.really says:

    I second that call for you to write a book, Grace!

    Oh, and what would Amp know about that? :-)

    For what it’s worth, I recommended that Grace write a book long ago. I suggested a crime novel. But as Grace describes the frustrations of dealing with people throughout her transition, it wouldn’t take much for this new book to become a crime novel. Just sayin’….

    Thanks to Grace for the thoughtful reply—and for her concern for my daughter. Having cut ties with some folk, she travels solo these days—and seems the better for it. We’ll see.

    Transition can be a very dangerous time. I don’t think people really understand why, even most trans people, and I don’t think most people have an ability to see it coming, because it’s so outside of their experience. Most people don’t have prior experience with being so resource-scarce that small mistakes really do matter individually.

    The fact that most people don’t have that experience is why it’s so easy to point and laugh at people who talk about microaggressions. But microaggressions lead to exactly the sort of withdrawing self-care which your daughter did, and which I do sometimes, and which members of many minorities do. Not because we’re special snowflakes unable to take a hit, but because even when you’re tough, if you take enough hits, you come to learn how many more you can take.

    Thanks again for the reminder that emotional reserves are a depletable resource. No, most of us will never experience this kind of transition. But most of us have lived through periods of trial and depletion. I behave differently when I’m depleted than when I’m not.

    When people dismiss concerns about “snowflakes” and their microaggressions, I refer them to a scene in A Bug’s Life:The grasshoppers have enslaved the ants, but one ant showed insubordination. Most of the grasshoppers do not regard this as a threat. But Hopper, their leader, knows that while they have nothing to fear from a single insubordinate ant, they are vulnerable to a movement of ants. So he asks his fellow grasshoppers about the consequences of “small” harms. He pulls a grain of wheat from a dispenser and throws it at a grasshopper, where it bounces off. The grasshopper scoffs at the threat. Hopper does it again, with the same result. Then Hopper rips the stopper out of the dispenser, unleashing an avalanche of grain and burying three grasshoppers who had dismissed the threat.

    Clearly the threat posed by “small” harms depends heavily on the frequency of the harms. People who live without having to constantly justify their existence are not in the best position to evaluate the behavior of people who do.

    Thus, it makes sense for people who live in a hailstorm of microaggressions to adopt a guarded posture, and to avoid those who simply don’t understand.

    Yet I’m one of those people who don’t understand. So it remains helpful to me—and in the long run, for trans folk generally—when people like Grace are willing to venture out in the avalanche to talk to us.

  70. I’ll third the call for a book, not just because of what I have learned from reading Grace’s work here on Alas, but because her prose is just such a pure pleasure to read—an experience I covet more and more these days.

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