A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 4): Discourse

“What can be meant by ‘identity,’ then, and what grounds the presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent? More importantly, how do these assumptions inform the discourses on ‘gender identity’?…[T]he ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.” –Judith Butler

When Katy was 22, she discovered what it really meant to be transgender. Not only that, she found the lived experiences of transgender people disturbingly relatable. As a consequence, she came to terms with the fact that she was a transgender woman and began her transition. The first couple of years of her transition were difficult–she lost her job, her friends, and the relationships she once had with several of her closest family. She came to find that people often didn’t take her seriously, some straight men wouldn’t even look her in the eye, and she needed to be extra cautious in public spaces.

According to Butler, Katy’s transition altered her social position. Though she was never truly a part of the dominant culture, her transition made her lack of fit within it more obvious to others. In other words, though she was always marginalized, the sense in which she was marginalized changed and this change was due to discourses on gender.

A discourse is a body of knowledge and social practices that dictate how we think of and talk about the world (or some part of it). Stated differently, discourse determines what narratives we adopt, the language-games we play and the shape that our schemes take. According to Katy’s culture, people are (supposed to be) either masculine, heterosexual men or feminine, heterosexual women. Whoever deviates from the norm is considered less human as their existence is difficult for those who fit within the dominant culture to understand. This lack of understanding often stirs a kind of dread in the people Katy encounters because her existence challenges their own identity–the narratives they have come to adopt from their culture.

In order to deal with this dread while maintaining the discourses that have informed their worldview, many in the dominant culture come to perceive Katy as a mentally ill man in a dress, a sexual deviant, less than human. This narrative is reinforced and repeated in media, in the language we use, and in our practices.

The important point that Butler makes is that there is no person or position outside of culture, or the discourses that constitute their being. Therefore, no one is exempt from having to participate in discourses–including those on gender. The only choice we have is whether or not we affirm or subvert.


A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 3): Narrative

“The distinction between successive selves can be made by reference…to the degrees of psychological connectedness…On this way of thinking, the word ‘I’ can be used to imply the greatest degree of psychological connectedness.” –Derek Parfit

In her paper “Narrative, memory and social representations: a conversation between history and social psychology”, Sandra Jovchelovitch argues that narratives are at the heart of social norms and not only our own understanding of our individual selves, but our collective understanding of our history and present. She explains that “Stories allow us to retain and understand information, to deal with time, and give us at least the illusion of a stable identity. Narration is essential for our sense of self and our cultural history; indeed the organization of experience in terms of a plot shapes the very structure of our thinking and our sense of reality”.

Recall from parts 1 and 2 that our perceptions of reality are the result of construction and that our language plays a critical role in said construction. If Jovchelovitch is right, these constructions, including the self, are built into a narrative plot with a beginning, middle and an end. In other words, we take bits of unorganized information and put them together in a context that we can understand and work with, i.e., a story. This theory of the relation between psychology and history presents another challenge to the notion that we have access to things as they really are.

Let’s suppose that Katy meets a gentleman named Rick, who (as far as he knows) has never met a transgender woman before. His only understanding of trans women comes from the media that tends to portray transgender women as sexual ‘deviants’. He is surprised to learn that his experience with Katy contradicts that narrative–she seems no more ‘deviant’ than most of the people he knows–and becomes more accepting of transgender women as he constructs a new narrative.

As mentioned earlier, narratives are also at the heart of our sense of self. Rather than being a stable entity that persists through time, the self is more dynamic, i.e., it is constantly changing. Like many other transgender women, Katy’s earlier understanding of transgender women came from a narrative similar to that of Rick’s. She didn’t see herself in media representations of trans women and, as a result, didn’t realize she was a woman until later in life when something else caused her to experience a change in narrative–a change in her sense of self.

Derek Parfit argues that the most important connection between Katy’s past self and her current self is her memory which creates a psychological connectedness. While illustrating the significance of this connectedness, he considered what it means to talk about a future self in light of the fact that the self is constantly changing:

“If I say, ‘It will not be me, but one of my future selves,’ I do not imply that I will be that future self. He is one of my later selves, and I am one of his earlier selves. There is no underlying person who we both are. When I say, ‘There is no person who we both are,’ I am only giving my decision. Another person could say, ‘It will be you,’ thus deciding differently. There is no question of either of these decisions being a mistake. Whether I say ‘I’, or ‘one of my future selves,’…is entirely a matter of choice.

Stated differently, what is important isn’t that there is a stable self that is the same self in the past, present and future since there is no such thing. What is important is that there is a psychological connectedness between past selves, a present self, and potential future selves. This psychological connectedness is the constructed narrative of the self that gives us the sense of stability and persistence through time.


A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 2): Language-games

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein 

In the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, there is an idea known as the mental lexicon—“a store of information about words that includes semantic information (the words’ meanings), syntactic information (how words are combined to form sentences) and the details of those word forms (their spellings and sound patterns).” Recall in Part 1 when it was explained that knowledge of the world is organized around a mental web (network) of cognitive schemes: models, representations and frameworks that give meaning and structure to our experiences. The mental lexicon can be considered a critical part of the neurological basis for the mental web of innate structures Kant and Piaget argued for, and are the basis for our respective individual constructions of reality.

The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. The principle we will consider is the fourth. The fourth principle is the semantic relationships between words. “…[W]ords related in meaning must somehow be organized together in the brain, such that activation of the representation of one word also activates words that are related in meaning.” After being processed by the mental lexicon, the language inputs activate the conceptual system resulting in the generation of concepts, i.e., abstract ideas.

Trust me—there is a point to covering all of this science stuff first. What is important to understand is that our comprehension of the world is mediated by a complex process that is active in its construction. It is also important to understand that each person’s processing and construction are unique (as was argued in Part 1).

Do you remember Katy? Some people believe that even though Katy is a transgender woman, she is still “biologically male”, despite her protests to the contrary. Who is right?

On the one hand, Katy does have “male genitalia” and XY chromosomes, but she also has female-typical levels of estrogen and testosterone, and has developed breasts. Central to resolving this question is the notion of meaning.

Many of us intuitively believe in inherent meaning, the idea that words and statements have meanings that are essential, or necessary. In other words, there is an objective set of necessary criteria that constitute a “biological male”, and all must be present in order for one to be “biologically male”. However, there is a fatal problem with this view. What we ultimately decide on as necessary is partially determined by an element of choice (or preference).

What if instead of viewing meaning as inherent, we abandoned the idea in favor of something different? What might a word’s meaning be if not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meanings of words and statements are functions of their use. In other words, in order to understand the meaning of a word, or a statement, you need to understand how it is being used.

In his work Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced and developed the concept of language-games. Think of a paradigm case of a game: chess. In order for a player to play chess successfully, she must first understand the rules of the game, have an ability to identify patterns and anticipate the moves of her opponent. Like playing chess successfully, effective communication requires an understanding of how words are being used by being able to understand general rules, recognize patterns in communication, and anticipate what fellow communicators intend to convey by reading context clues.

Wittgenstein illustrates how this works with a simple example:

“Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.”

Before Wittgenstein, the traditional thinking was that language corresponds with reality and in order for concepts to be meaningful, they must be clearly defined. However, the notion of the language-game challenges this thinking. Rather than having to be clearly defined by a complete set of necessary and sufficient conditions in order to be meaningful, concepts have meaning by virtue of their relations to each other–what Wittgenstein called family resemblance (compare that to the mental lexicon discussed earlier).

Now let’s shift back to Katy. Is she a “biological male”? The answer to that question is determined by how we use the term. Those who assert she is are playing a particular language-game. A trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or TERF) might concede that she is a woman, but at the same time will still assert that she is “biologically male” in an attempt to invalidate her experiences without being too overt about it. In other words, even though Katy is a woman, she still has qualities that connote an element of ‘maleness’ that differentiates her from cisgender women in a way that makes her less of a woman. This is done by appealing to certain biological ‘facts’. According to the TERF’s language-game, being assigned male at birth due to having a penis makes one a “biological male”.

The good news for Katy is that’s not the only way to play.

A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 1): Naive Realism

“Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” –Immanuel Kant

In 1954, researchers Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril had a paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. In their research they surveyed participants who watched a particular football game. They found that the results “indicate that the ‘game’ was actually many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as ‘real’ to a particular person as other versions were to other people”. Not only that, but Hadley and Cantril found that the participant’s interpretations of events were biased towards the teams in which they were emotionally invested.

How is it that people can see the same thing and have different interpretations about what they are seeing? In philosophy, naive realism is the position that we have direct access to knowledge of the world as it actually is through perception. In social psychology, naive realism is the inclination to believe that we see the world around us objectively. Any disagreement between people is believed to be either due to lack of accurate information, poor reasoning, or bias. Naive realism helps us understand many cognitive biases, i.e., systematic errors in thinking. One disturbing implication of the social psychology literature is that naive realism leads us to significantly overestimate our objectivity, even when we are aware of our biases and take them into account. Therefore, it can be incredibly difficult for us to be objective, if that’s even possible.

In his influential work Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant attempted to reconcile two schools of thought about how we come to know things: empiricism and rationalism. The empiricists argued that we come to know about the world through the senses while rationalists asserted it was through reason. According to Kant, both accounts of knowledge, though they had important points, were incomplete. Knowledge isn’t purely a product of reason or sensory experience. It is a product of both.

Psychologist Jean Piaget took some of Kant’s thinking and developed the idea of the schema. Kant argued that sense data has no meaning or structure without something that can structure it and give it meaning, i.e., an innate structure. Piaget’s schemes are units of knowledge, or models, that provide a structural framework for understanding the world and interpreting information. Together, they create a kind of mental architecture composed of models that connect, intersect, and reference each other in a kind of metaphorical web of concepts, ideas, and images.

Consider your concept of “dog”. You likely have an intuitive understanding of what a dog is: generally, a four-legged animal that has fur, teeth, a tail, and barks (among other things). You are also likely to be able to differentiate dogs from cats, because you know that although cats are generally four-legged animals that have fur, teeth, and tails, but they meow instead of bark (among other things). Your schemas for “cat” and “dog” also likely fit under a more general category called “mammal” and you have an understanding of what these particular mammals have in common with other mammals (e.g., being warm blooded).

According to both Kant and Piaget, we cannot have knowledge without these structures as sensory data would lack meaning and context and the mind takes a very active role in constructing our experiences of the world and how we relate to them. Therefore, we do not have direct access to reality and what we do have access to is a kind of construction by our minds with the building blocks of sense data organized around schemes.

Okay – now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s consider a hypothetical transgender woman and let’s name her Katy. Depending on who you ask, Katy is different things. If you ask a social conservative, you might hear that Katie is just a mentally ill man in a dress. If you ask a trans-inclusive feminist, you might hear that Katie is, in fact, a woman. Both of these perspectives are the result of constructions of reality specific to the individuals constructing them.

Does this mean that both are right about Katy? Well, not exactly. Even though perception is subjective, it does not necessarily mean that all views are equally valid. One of the functions of reason and science is to help us arrive at a better understanding of the world, where “better” is more useful.

How Estrogen Made Me Crazy and Other Tales

One of the worst parts of my experience of gender dysphoria was the emotional numbness that began when I started puberty. It seemed that the more testosterone my body secreted, the less I felt and the more anxious (and depressed) I became. This emotional numbness would occasionally lead to angry outbursts and stunted the development of my emotional intelligence.

At one point, my parents suspected that I had Aspergers when they noticed I was withdrawn and socially awkward–and for a while I did, too. As it turns out, I was just a girl who was assigned male at birth, a.k.a. a transgender girl, experiencing a nasty side effect of gender dysphoria. If you have been following my blog, you probably already know that I am now on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as part of my transition. You also probably know that it has dramatically improved my mental health and, as a happy consequence, has removed the emotional numbness.

That being said, hormone replacement therapy did not make me emotional like cisgender women any more than it made me emotional like men (cis or trans). There is no such thing as a female emotional experience or a male emotional experience. Yes, hormones can influence things such as aggression and sexuality, but they do not dictate the whole of one’s experiences or behavior. Women are no more emotional (or mentally unstable) due to their hormones than men are. If this is the case, then why does it seem like estrogen makes women cry more? Why do they seem more “crazy”–especially during “that time of the month”? Let me start with the short answer to that question: misogyny.

Yup! That’s basically what it boils down to. The apparent phenomenon is more a product of individual and cultural perceptions of, and beliefs about, women than it is due to any objective fact. Though I have noticed that I can feel more now as a result of HRT, I don’t behave in any way that should make people think that I am mentally unstable or “overly emotional”, yet I am still treated as though I am. My words are now more easily dismissed on the basis that they don’t come from a place of rationality, even though a man saying the same things isn’t perceived that way at all–and I have had this happen to me countless times since I started my transition.

This, of course, is a bunch of bullshit, but there is something else that is even more bullshit: the notion that men are more rational. Trust me–men are just as irrational as women. The only difference is the way we interpret what they say and do. In other words, gender norms–a product of culture–shape the way we view the behaviors of men and women, and misogynistic notions are their result.

Gender Reveal Parties

I graduated high school in 2007 and in the ten years since I have watched many of my friends get married and have kids. Many of them post gender reveal pictures which often involve the classic gender signifiers pink and blue (pink for girls and blue for boys, of course). I am occasionally asked about my opinion of gender reveal parties and to tell you the truth, I don’t have strong opinions about them–even as a transgender woman. However, I do acknowledge some of the problematic implications of assuming a child’s gender based on their anatomy and I acknowledge how they can be a source of frustration, or even pain, for some people.

In order to understand why, we must consider what it is we are actually doing when we throw parties based on what kind of genitals a baby has. Our ideas about gender generally come from the notion that gender is an inborn, biological trait, i.e., boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Interestingly, many proponents of gender reveal parties also acknowledge the existence and validity of transgender people. In other words, they accept that genitals aren’t perfect predictors of gender.

I often observe that many of these individuals will justify their attitudes by saying that though genitals aren’t 100% reliable, they typically are (let’s say for the sake of argument) 98% of the time. If a child happens to be an exception to the rule, parents can adjust. Therefore, no real harm is done.

I don’t really care to argue against this, but I do care to point out that gender is an identity that is central to an individual’s sense of self. Regardless of whether or not gender is a natural (biological) fact or a purely cultural phenomenon, gender norms exist and they play a significant role in determining how we view ourselves and how we live. For example, it is often assumed that if a child has a vagina, they are going to grow up to be feminine and have heterosexual relationships. You may observe adults at a gender reveal party making comments about how the child will one day get married and have children with a male spouse. If the child had a penis, you might here those same adults talk about how the child would one day go to school and become a businessman, an engineer, or some other occupation that is viewed as masculine. The child will end up learning many of these same notions and will make decisions influenced by them.

In essence, what we are doing is perpetuating a set of norms that have a lot of power to shape us into who we are and what we will become and with cultural practices such as gender reveal parties, we are limiting certain possibilities for our children–even for those in the 98%.

Feminism and Intersectionality: What Often Gets Missed

When you ask five different people what feminism is, you’re likely to get five different answers. Person 1 might describe what many right-leaning individuals would call a “feminazi”: a far-left/Marxist feminist who often comes off as authoritarian and anti-men. Person 2 might describe someone much more moderate and Persons 3, 4, and 5 will differ as well. Perceptions of feminism vary for many different reasons but suffice it to say feminism means different things to different people.

Being a very diverse political movement and body of thought, there are many different ways to categorize feminists, but they are typically grouped into three different “waves” (some would argue there is a fourth wave, but we will stick with three for the sake of simplicity): the first wave, the second wave, and the third wave.

The first wave – First-wave feminism is typically associated with the suffrage movement which began in the nineteenth century and continued into the early 20th century. The major accomplishment of the first wave in the United States was the passage of the 19th amendment which gave women the legal right to vote.

The second wave – Compared to second-wave feminism, first-wave feminism was typically more moderate or conservative. Being inspired by the civil rights movement, second-wave feminists fought for greater gender equality in all parts of society. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is considered one of the major accomplishments of the second wave. Many second-wave feminists adopted far-left/radical politics and are referred to as “radical feminists”.

The third wave – Emerging in the 90’s, third-wave feminism gained popularity and set itself apart from the second wave with its adaptation of ideas from postmodernism, a philosophical movement that challenges many assumptions of more traditional philosophical movements collectively known as modernism. One major third-wave takeaway from postmodernism is the rejection of sex/gender essentialism, the notion that sex/gender is an essential, or natural, category that exists independent of culture.

Both the first and the second waves tended to be centered around the experiences and needs of white, middle/upper-class, cisgender women. As a result, many women of color, lower-class women and transgender women were not well represented, if at all. One of the things the third wave did was challenge the notion of a universal experience of womanhood. In other words, the third wave pushed the idea that there was no one way to be a woman. It did this by acknowledging that race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender and other identities intersect. For example, because of racism a black woman’s experiences and needs differ from some of the needs and experiences of white women. The idea that identities intersect is called intersectionality and was originally introduced by Kimberle Crenshaw.

In her book Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler argues that since there is no universal womanhood, feminists need to be cautious when it comes to deciding who feminism is for. Many radical feminists believe that feminism is for “women born women”, a concept that excludes transgender women–hence the term trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF. Butler warned that by drawing hard lines around who counts as a woman and who does not, feminists actually recreate the very structures of oppression they fight against.

In practice, many third-wave feminists have failed to heed Butler’s warning. Though transgender women are generally accepted in many feminist spaces, some so-called intersectional feminists still fall for the lie that trans-women have, or had, male privilege by virtue of the fact that they are assigned male at birth. This often happens as a result of centering the experiences of cisgender women as universal and since transgender women’s experiences tend to differ from those of cisgender women (for example, some trans women report not experiencing sexual harassment from men to the same degree or frequency as their cisgender counterparts), some feminists conclude that trans women have, or had, male privilege. However, if we take intersectionality seriously, this is a big mistake.