Tag Archives: identity

Trans Without Transition? A Critique of Gender Identity


I think many people fail to realize that the very idea of “gender” and “gender identity” as opposed to physiological sex is a modern concept, invented by mid-20th century psychiatrists working with gender dysphoric trans patients. Robert Stoller famously defined gender identity as “one’s sense of being a member of a particular sex”. The concept is best illustrated by trans people, where a person assigned male at birth could have the “opposite” gender identity of being a woman which stands in contrast to her male birth assignment and the gendered expectations associated with that assignment. For cis people, they fail to be amazed about their comfort in their assigned sex. Like the old joke about fish not knowing what water is, cis people often fail to realize that their own felt sense of gender is actively at work behind the scenes, filtering their desires and perceptions. In contrast, trans people, especially pre-transition trans people, feel the mismatch between their gender and birth assignment so acutely it can lead to constant negative rumination, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. 

But what does it mean exactly to “sense” one’s membership in a particular sex? What kind of sense is this? Is it like proprioception? Or like the visual sense? Can we just “see” our gender clearly or does it require an act of hermeneutics?   Are we constantly sensing our sex? Or is it only evident in gender dysphoric people where there is a mismatch? This is like the old philosophical problem called the “refrigerator light problem” whereby we use introspection to ask ourselves if we are conscious, but are we conscious when we are not thinking about being conscious? If we were not conscious we would not know it either way, just like we cannot know if the refrigerator light goes off after shutting the door – the act of investigating corrupts the process of inquiry. Same with gender identity. Is it a construction made each time anew when we reflect on our gender or is it a stable psychological foundation that exists when we aren’t reflecting?

What is the nature of gender identity? Can it “stand alone” by itself or does it need to be connected to other psychological states such as desires? Presumably gender identity is a type of belief – we have a belief we either belong or don’t belong to the male-female gender binary as assigned to us at birth. With trans people, is it merely enough to have the belief that one is a different gender in order to be trans? Or must the belief be connected to a desire to transition?

A thought experiment: imagine an AMAB trans person who wakes up one day and has a startling realization: they are transgender! But they have zero desire to engage in any act of transition. They don’t want to change their name, their pronouns, their dress, their mannerisms, their voice, their body, etc. They are totally fine in the gender role assigned to them at birth. Yet they have an internal sense of belonging to the class of females. Is this situation even conceptually possible? Remember: the idea is not that one has a desire to change but is pragmatically frustrated but that there is no desire in the first place. All that exists is a free-floating belief that one is a different gender from the gender one was assigned at birth. Presumably if gender identity is a coherent concept then this situation is possible (ignoring for now the problem in assuming that metaphysical possibility can be read off conceptual possibility).

Some trans theorists implicitly assume that to be trans is to transition in some way. Paul Preciado writes:

In the middle of the Cold War, a new ontological-political distinction between “cis-“(a body that keeps the gender it was assigned at birth) and “trans” (a body availing itself of hormonal, surgical, prosthetic, or legal technologies to change that assignment) made its appearance. Testo Junkie, p. 127

Preciado just flat out assumes that if you are trans than you are “availing” yourself of some kind of transitional technology to change or move away from one’s birth assignment. If you’re a trans man, that might mean wearing a binder, or a packer, or STP, starting testosterone, etc. If you’re a trans woman, that might mean shaving your body or starting HRT, buying clothes traditionally found in the woman’s section, etc. For a non-binary person it might involve changing your name and pronouns, binding one’s chest, or wearing different styles of clothing.

But is my thought experiment actually conceptually incoherent? If the idea of “gender identity” is to make sense in its own right then it should be possible for there to be a trans person with a mismatched gender identity but with no desire to transition in anyway. Or perhaps it is impossible – if it is – then it shows there is something wrong with the idea of gender identity as distinct from physiological sex. It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc. I believe it is true that to be trans means more than just have a different identity. It means, as Preciado assumes but never argues for, that to be trans means to transition. There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. In a sense, the accompaniment of desires is a confirmation that the identity is not a fleeting whim or a random thought produced by the unconscious. The persistence of desire is in fact one of the defining diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.

Notice however that transition does not necessarily entail transition to medically relieve bodily dysphoria. The transitional elements could be done for some people without the assistance of medical technology. But availing oneself of legal technologies is certainly a valid and “complete” transition tool. Just to simply have one’s governmental ID match your felt sense of identity is a powerful feeling of validation. Furthermore, the position I’m putting forward is ecumenical between the “trans-medicalists”, who argue being trans is a medical condition defined by bodily dysphoria, and “maximals”, who want to expand the trans umbrella to be as inclusive as possible even for those trans people who don’t identity as gender dysphorics. For Preciado’s definition, bodily dysphoria is not the defining feature of trans identities. Rather, it is the desire to use multiple forms of transitional technology to reject one’s birth assignment. If a non-binary person is happy enough to bind and legally change their name, then that’s a form of transition. But where my position draws the line is with self-identified trans people have no desires to move away from their birth assignment.

But what’s the limit? If a trans person merely “transitions” through changing their gendered expression, is that enough to count as trans? I think the problem with trying to police gendered identities in this way is we cannot from the third-person realize the full psychological significance that expression has for different people. For some butch women getting a short hair-cut might be no big deal but from a trans boy it might mean the world. The same expressions can mean vastly different things to different people. For some people, the significance invested in how clothing is coded might be enough to satisfy latent dysphoria such that other transitional technologies are unnecessary. The point is that any kind of gatekeeping that tries to definitely say where “true trans” ends and begins will come up with the problem of trying to legislate from the outside what the internal felt sense of significance certain gendered activities have for some people. We will never be able to definitely build a singular set of criteria and apply them to all trans people picking out a unique shared characteristic. Trans people are perhaps one of the most diverse populations of people on the planet. I propose there is no “essence” to being trans, no necessary and sufficient conditions for being trans that are universal across all trans people. Instead, being trans is a family resemblance concept, a cluster concept that works in terms of paradigms, not necessary and sufficient conditions.

In conclusion, being trans is not just about identity. It’s about identity and desire. If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind.


Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

Is Dysphoria Necessary for Being Trans? The “Truscum” Debate


There’s a debate raging in the trans world that has been on going for awhile. The debate is between self-described “truscum” (also called trans medicalists) vs what I will call “maximals”. Truscum believe that gender dysphoria is necessary for being trans and that being trans is essentially a medical condition defined by dysphoria and the desire for “opposite” sexed bodily characteristics. The name comes from the idea of “true trans” – the idea that we can develop a way of determining who is “truly trans” vs those who are merely “trans trenders” i.e. cis people confused into thinking they are trans for whatever sociological/personal reason, perhaps because they want to fit into niche internet communities or what truscum would call the “special snowflake” phenomenon.

Before I go on further, I need to point out that trans medicalists have self-consciously reappropriated the term “truscum” to describe their position. A more traditional way of talking about this debate is in terms of separating “true transsexuals” from “transgender” people where “transgender” means those trans people who don’t want to medically transition and “transsexual” means those that have dysphoria and want to medically transition. But “transsexual” is a very outdated term that comes from the old-school psychiatric community. Try to read this post without thinking the term “truscum” is pejorative. As you will see, I believe there is a huge amount of truth in the truscum concept so I’m not bashing the belief system, merely using the term I see most often used by self-described trans medicalists.

In contrast, “maximals” believe that dysphoria is not necessary for being trans and generally want to expand the trans umbrella to be maximally inclusive. Maximals often lump crossdressers and gender nonconforming people into the “trans” category (though this is an oversimplication I will discuss below). Maximals don’t believe being trans is necessarily a medical condition or believe that if you’re trans there’s something necessarily “wrong” with you. Instead of defining trans people as those people with gender dysphoria, maximals often define being trans as the state of having a gender that is different from the gender/sex you were assigned at birth. This definition is maximally inclusive because it doesn’t require dysphoria in the definition. For example, if you are non-binary, perhaps agender, you might not have dysphoria about your body but your gender is different from the gender you were assigned at birth.

Let’s get some other definitions out of the way. “Gender dysphoria” is generally defined as a disconnect between the sexed body and your self-model of how you want your body to be. If you were assigned male at birth but feel your body should be female instead then you have gender dysphoria and vice versa for trans males.

So what’s the beef between these two viewpoints? Truscum often argue they are trying to help “real” trans people get better access to medical care for transition. They also argue they are trying to break down gender stereotypes insofar as they argue that if you’re a guy who enjoys femme clothing and makeup that doesn’t necessarily make you trans and vice versa for butch women. The idea is that crossdressing and gender nonconformity is not enough to be trans – one must be deeply dissatisfied with your sexed body and desire the “opposite” sexed body, otherwise we lose the very distinction between gender nonconforming cis people and trans people.

In contrast, maximals generally argue that the line between gender nonconformity and being trans is fuzzy and hard to pin down precisely. They deny that dysphoria is necessary because they want to deny that gender can be reduced to any physical characteristics such that if you have an assigned-male body you don’t necessarily need to medically transition in order to feel comfortable in a female gender identity or live your life socially as a female – and they would go further and argue society should accept these people as “real” women just as real as any other woman, cis or trans. Furthermore, maximals often emphasize that sometimes trans people transition not because they experience gender dysphoria but rather they experience gender euphoria. Gender euphoria is the joy one experiences in taking on a new gender identity, expression, pronouns, social existence, etc. Euphoria can also be achieved through medical transition. One might not necessarily hate one’s body but nevertheless desire to medically transition because one believes that would bring greater satisfaction into one’s life.

Another argument available to maximals depends on transgenderism in non-Western societies. Take native “Two Spirit” people, which is generally the term for trans/gender expansive people in Native American society. The argument goes that being Two Spirit cannot be so easily mapped onto Western ideas of transgenderism which typically revolve around gender dysphoria and medical transition. Instead, transgenderism in non-Western societies or historical contexts generally depends on a more complicated gender role system that is outside the Western male-female binary. But we must be careful because historical trans people sometimes did take steps to alter their bodies e.g. eunuchs in the Bible would sometimes self-castrate. So we can’t necessarily say that non-Western transgenderism is entirely divorced from gender dysphoria. And I will admit frankly I don’t know enough about these other cultures to definitely state anything about whether trans people in these societies felt what is now called gender dysphoria. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism has been around a long time before it was “medicalized” by the West into a pathological condition that needs to be corrected with HRT and surgery. For example, Two Spirit people would not necessarily believe there is anything wrong with being Two Spirit in the sense of it being a medical pathology.

But we need to be careful – I know a Two Spirit trans woman who does have dysphoria and has been on HRT to correct it – so Two Spiritism and modern medical transition are not at odds necessarily. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism in non-Western societies cannot just be reduced to Western conceptions of what it means to be trans because that would be trying to force a complex system of beliefs and social roles into something they’re not.

Another argument the maximals can make is refer to the complexities of how the drag world relates to the world of trans people. Most drag queens are just cis males who enjoy expressing a feminine self from time to time but ultimately don’t desire female bodily characteristics and like being able to come home and take off the drag and get back into guy mode. But if you know anything about drag you know that some drag queens eventually do go on to identify as trans and medically transition. But these drag queens often continue to perform as drag queens during their transition. Is that fair? Allowing trans women to compete in what is traditionally a male activity? The issue is complicated because gender is complicated and messy, with boundaries between different identities being fuzzy. This is what fuels maximalist arguments: gender noncomformity is an expansive phenomenon that reflects many complex facets of identity and social roles.

But clearly truscum are right that gender noncomformity in and of itself is not sufficient for being trans. A man who wears makeup is not necessarily trans just because it’s noncomformist for men/boys to wear makeup. Similarly, a woman with short hair who shops in the men’s section is not automatically trans otherwise we wouldn’t have a distinction between butch women and real trans guys. To think otherwise is to buy into sexist stereotypes that men must act/behave in a certain way in order to be “real men” and vice versa for women. Interests in cars or barbies does not define gender. Whether you are assigned male or female at birth cannot predict the range of interests and activities that someone is going to take up in their lifetime. Some men are femme and some women are masc and some people are very fluid in their gender expression.

So who’s “right”? Truscum or maximals? In my view that debate boils down to a false dichotomy and over simplification. I take a non-reductionist view of transgenderism. It cannot be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions universal to all trans people nor can it be reduced to any one physical condition or medical pathology. Where maximals go wrong is in saying that gender dysphoria has nothing to do with being trans. Gender dysphoria is experienced by almost all trans people in some fashion or another, but truscum go wrong in assuming this dysphoria can be defined neatly in terms of desires for the “opposite” sexed body. First of all, this relies on what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism” – the idea that men and women are total “opposites”. Instead, Serano argues that people overlook the massive similarity and overlap between the two sexes and further argues that the very idea there are only two sexes/genders is overly simplistic when we consider intersex phenomena and complex multi-gender systems in non-Western cultures where there are sometimes upwards of 5 different genders.

One thing philosophers learn is that there is often a grain of truth to all theories that have been developed by smart people. There are smart, informed people on both sides of the truscum debate. Both sides think they are doing something to help trans people achieve greater acceptance in society. But the problem with the “debate” is that it tries to reduce the phenomena of transgenderism into a narrow box. Both truscum and maximality are narrow-minded insofar as they try to reduce the complexity of gender and sex to a single ideological system.


Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Introspective Non-binary Identity vs Political-pragmatic Binary Identity

There are two broad types of trans people: binary and non-binary. Binary trans folks identify as either 100% women or men whereas non-binary folks identify as neither 100% men or women, both, or identify as agender, lacking any association with gender altogether (this is my best definition of non-binary off the top of my head though I’m sure someone could nitpick on whether it’s the best definition). But in a nutshell non-binary folks identify as outside of the traditional male-female gender binary whereas binary folks identify within the traditional male-female binary.

Most people would probably think I am a binary trans woman. I often refer to myself as a trans woman in casual discourse. I present in a fairly traditional femme way. I love makeup, etc. But I want to make a distinction between introspective identity vs political-pragmatic identity. Introspective identity is the identify revealed to you through careful and deep introspection on your gendered feelings i.e. what is the gender you feel yourself to be upon reflecting deeply on your gender? In contrast, political-pragmatic identidy is the gender identity you adopt in order to face the world at large, either politically or pragmatically.

My introspective identity is non-binary. I identity technically as non-binary femme. What I really am is just a femme person. When I really reflect deeply on my gender I don’t think I’m a man or a woman: I am a third option: a trans femme person. I’m trans insofar as my gender is different from what I was assigned at birth and I’m femme insofar as that is my gender expression. But politically I identify as a trans woman in order to join in solidarity with all women-identified people who are fighting patriarchical oppression. Pragmatically, it’s just easier to identity as a binary trans woman. Non-binary identities are harder to understand for the average cis person and I don’t always want to get into a complicated discussion about gender and identity.

Some trans people might think I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. Or that I am somehow being a bad representative of the trans community. Binary trans women might think I’m not “trans enough”. Non-binary people might think I’m appropriating their identity. But I really don’t think it’s that complicated. We all have a front we put on for others. We have fractured identities – presenting one way in front of family and another in front of friends and another in front of our romantic partners. My trans identity is similarly fractured. There is the “technical” definition of my gender and the “loose” definition of my gender. I don’t see why I need to present the technical definition in ALL situations. Sometimes it’s just easier to say “Yeah I identify as a woman”. I don’t feel conflicted when I use the woman’s restroom. And politically I don’t feel conflicted feeling myself included in the category of woman especially since this identification will help normalize the inclusion of trans women into the category of woman.

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Filed under Gender studies, My life, Trans studies