Unpicking the "It's Homophobia" critique of trans Identity work and 'Gender Incongruence'.
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Hi, this is part two to the earlier blog, "why trans gender is NOT homophobic" which you can find here
In that blog I covered the logical progression of ideas that are the consequence of linking a trans gender Identity with arguements of 'orientation', and why that leads to false assumptions of what a trans gender identity is. In this blog we delve a little deeper into how that whole conversation can be untangled, but first I want to get specific on what is being referred to when using some terms:
Orientation: The social categorisation of people, based on "being, (existing) relative to us being with (someone else)" A category that describes people, with reference to ideas of what they are, and who they choose to partner with in life.
Sexuality: Physical attraction (that part of us that is to some degree our embodied person. what turns us on) This sits along side deterministic ideas of "being born as" and yet is not an argument against choice, or free will. It merely describes the physiological inter subjective affects and effects of our bodies, which of course we can never escape from.
Gender incongruence: The most recent world health organisation publication, ICD-11 defines gender incongruence as "a marked and persistent incongruence between an individual's experienced gender and the assigned sex", with presentations similar to the DSM-5 definition, but does not require significant distress or impairment.
Note the language carefully. "experienced gender" and "assigned sex". Sex is assigned at birth by a doctor who looks at genitalia. Therefore it is assigned by social actors external to the person. "experienced gender" is a term that references the persons embodied perception, and therefore physicality. The WHO has placed gender incongruence in the sexual health section of the ICD 11. Not the mental health one. (there is a gender and sex terminology wrinkle here, but hold not to that thought for now)
Gender dysphoria: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) Gives one overarching diagnosis of gender dysphoria with separate specific criteria for children and for adolescents and adults.
In adolescents and adults gender dysphoria diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning. It lasts at least six months and is shown by at least two of the following:
A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
A strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
A strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender
A strong desire to be of the other gender
A strong desire to be treated as the other gender
A strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender
Note the binary nature of the language and the words 'other' and 'desire'. We will come back to this.
Gender identity: The sense of ones self. The experienced gender, to use the term above, resulting from the embodied person.
So, with those preliminaries out the way, lets delve into the work of unpicking this.
WHO made Who?
The difference between Gender Incongruence (physical - aka biological) and gender dysphoria, (psychological) is often misconstrued as a lack of clarity in the literature and used as a means to obscure what a trans gender identity, or just gender identity is thought to be, or whether it exists.
The world health organisation employs a bio - psycho - social model of health/illness. As such it has made a distinction here between the the two terms. It is important to note that the WHO also accepts the notion of 'gender' or 'gender expectations' (sometimes called roles) as being socially constructed by ones society, and distinct from the ways in which we describe physical sex.
Trans scholars, and people in general, often refer to the sex of a body as being on continuum, or scale. This seems odd given that most people have been brought up with the XX/XY concept from the work of Edmund Wilson and Nettie Stephens, first described in the early 20th century.
As I said in part 1:
Diversity as a function of physical bodies simply does not fit into a binary mutually exclusive model.
But how is this continuum created? we know men and women are different right? Of course, but the complexity of the human system means theres overlap.
Part of that complexity is that XX/XY isn't in itself a great descriptor of a persons 'sex' I've used it here as a form of shorthand to illustrate the point. but the above graphic could easily be rewritten with the terms replaced with Gonads, Hormone levels, hormone receptors, secondary sexual characteristics, and even the old chestnut, of penis and vagina.
And, heres the kicker, since the brain lives in that great big walking petri dish that is our body, it gets affected to, and therefore we can suggest that the sense of ones self is affected by all the above and eh voila... its not hard to see how people can then feel themselves as different to the socially fixed ideas of being either a man or a woman.
Feelings. Tricky things aint they? But they come from a physically derived place. hormonal action, and thus we don't have direct control over them like we do with thoughts and knowledge. If you'll forgive me a re write of Descartes famous line:
I feel (different) therefore I am (probably different)
I say probably because of course one has to have a way of recognising that difference, which is the very thing trans and intersex people have been fighting for. The epistemic injustice (restriction of knowledge) around the complexity of sex and sexed bodies is well entrenched and has its roots in theocratic and pseudo scientific justification of what Judith butter and others have since called heteronormativity.
I've written about this before, but it's worth reiterating here. The term 'gender identity' seems at odds with the idea of a social construct of gender. Because what one is arguing for is an intrinsic sense of self via the sexed body, which the WHO has termed gender incongruence. It's a wrinkle of the language that is annoying, but also is an attempt to separate the concept from orientation arguments, since a more correct term of "sexed identity" feels very deterministic, and too close to 'sexual identity', an often heard shorthand for sexuality and orientation descriptors.
Having said that, Gender Identity being "the experienced gender" as per the WHO wording above is bringing in elements of the social construction and situated knowledge of the person.
This is an interesting point, since for those who become recognised as genetically, or physically inter-sexed, that recognition often comes much later than birth, usually via medical procedures. So they then have knowledge, which will invariably, affect their sense of self. Ergo it would follow that Gender Identity is part biology and part social construction. (remember that bio-psycho-social model?) Of course those that disagree with the model of sexed causality above might suggest the latter is a scocial 'contagion' (i.e. wrong, *cough transphobs cough*). But it seems quite simple, that if the genders of 'man' and 'woman' are themselves socially constructed gender identities, then so to would be the ones that sit in-between, in the more nebulous liminal spaces.
So what of gender dysphoria then? the DSM term.
The DSM lists gender dysphoria as "significant distress or problems functioning" as a result of the presence of 'Gender incongruence'. Of course the point of contention here is that both have been previously categorised and or described by some as a Psychosis, i.e. a belief in something that is 'not true'.
However, here we get into a short discussion on the philosophy of science. The "not true" portion of that statement is interesting. How do we know what is true? Knowledge usually takes the form of a true justified belief in something, such that one can say one "knows" If either the truth, justification or belief is shaken here then the knowledge becomes unstable. Philosophically, Gettier Problems do this, and there is a link to some examples in the article by Stephen Hetherington, which I've referenced in the bibliography below.
So then the question becomes how would we have 'known' that gender dysphoria was a belief in something "not true" ? Via pointing to the examples of people who are not trans and suggesting they are right, by virtue of their sheer volume and over whelming percentage as representation of the human condition. This is whats known as positivism. an approach to enquiry that points to the existence of things as proof that theories of that particular things existence must be correct. It relies on knowledge. For example: 'All sheep are white'
The truth of this statement relies on the one making it only ever having seen white sheep, or having been told by a source they trust that all sheep are white. What we call primary and secondary data respectively.
Think about why you as a the reader read the statemtn and immediately saw it as false. Because you may have seen a sheep of a different colour. or heard of them. Thus you 'Believe' something that challenges the statements truth. You have a justification (evidence) for that belief, and thus can be said to 'know' the statement is false.
I'm not going to go into the specifics of this argument with regards to humans because I've already written something on this in the blog "so what is social construction" which you can read Here. But bear in mind that in seeing a sheep of a different colour, you also have to believe it is actually a sheep and that you actually saw it.
The main point that I am making is that the falsehood of gender dysphoria is based to a large extent on the argument that it is rare. It is not common. It is ab normal. These terms have been shifted in the discourse to mean "wrong' and therefore 'false" much like the historical resistance to homosexuality in the late 20th century.
However, as the author Karl Popper stated in his book, the philosophy of science, falsification provides us a better model of scientific discovery than does positivism. According to Popper, we prove things wrong, not right. Ergo we cannot point to millions of people that are not trans (the white sheep) as proof that trans (a sheep of a different colour) does not exist. Why? Simply because when one looks for the casualty of gender identity in non trans people, we find it relies on the same causal factors as a trans one does, those being physicality and social construction. (we've already covered the falsification of a binary sex above..so you can see where this leads)
Side note: An interesting out come of the above, is that IF one believes that gender dysphoria is the outcome of a psychosis then one would also by consequence deny the validity of a non binary identity, as logically what has been 'fetishised' by those with a psychosis is 'womanhood'. Ergo they want to be or believe themselves to be, a woman. So a in this analogy, not only are sheep black or white but also grey sheep cannot be deemed real" As a result rare simply means rare. NOT wrong or false. There are more straight people in the world than gay. But gay people exist. They too are told they are wrong, but today in much of the western world its simply accepted that gay is merely a difference, not a problem that needs fixing.
Staying with this theme, there are more people with brown eyes than any other colour, but similarly, eyes of a different colour are not deemed wrong. People don't suggest that the wrong colour eyes simply don't exist, or that they should be fixed so that they are the proper colour.
Why? because eye colour is both visible and deemed unimportant politically. It's not something that is seen as defining who, or what you are. Gender dysphoria cannot be seen and it very much is something that, along with gender incongruence, has huge personal and political implication for societal views of who and what a person is.
Mental health is still seen as a poor second cousin to physical health. Yet mental health is a societally embodied health. so we need to shift this impression of "not real" which is seen with so many issues, such as depression and other types of "mental health" stigmatisation. Trans gender people live at the intersection of many many facets of life and this is another such intersection, the social attitudes to physical and mental health.
But, people say, Gender dysphoria needs treatment. Another critique that is levelled at the trans population. "just be as you are" why do you need cross sex hormones? And it is here that we hit the orientation snag. Like I suggested in part 1, if one simply adheres to the performative model of gender, then many lesbian and gay men can't get their head round trans peoples performance of gender and the idea of them having sex in gendered ways. If you add the perfomativity model of gender to a psychosis model, that is itself underpinned by ideas of binary sex, one can quickly see why many gay and lesbian people are at odds with trans concepts. Particularly given those words in the DSM that I said I would come back to: the "other gender" and "desire" Oddly though, the answer to all this is found when we examine another criticism, the oft heard cry of .. "why are we fixing the body to match a disordered mind, why not fix the mind to match the body?
In taking cross sex hormones the trans person is able to deal with an embodied discomfort. they are 'fixing the mind' Because our identities, like any one else's, reside in the mind as an outcome of that walking Petri dish I mentioned earlier. The physical changes that are brought about by cross sex hormones are for the most part secondary to the effort of reducing the mental discomfort of a person who is walking around in a body that hitherto scientific and social discourses have denied and diss-enabled the existence of. Also, you'll remember I drew a distinction between orientation and sexuality at the top of this article. Referring back the definitions as written, Orientation is seen as a way in which we describe human sexuality. It is not human sexuality in itself. This nuance is key to realising that whilst orientation might change, it can do so idenependetly of sexuality and attraction. As in the case of yours truly. Who was at one point socially orientated as "straight" man, and is now, by virtue of transition orientated as a "gay" woman, with no really change to sexuality as such.
As a consequence then I hope we can now see that far from being one individuals psychosis, gender incongruence and the mental condition of gender dysphoria, result from a person living within bio psycho social mechanisms, some of which are entrenched in a rigid, binary & systemic model of gender. Trans gender therefore could be construed as the human capacity for breaking free of such constraints. We are not upholding the gender binary, as Dr Taylor suggests at the outset of part one, rather, most of us are upsetting it, as an expression of foucauldian power.
Until next time, stay safe, love each other:
Believe Persevere. Achieve. Bibiliography.
Butler, J. (2006). Gender Trouble. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Collins, P. (2016). Intersectionality (key concepts). 1st ed: Cambridge Polity Press.
Fricker, M. (2011). Epistemic injustice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Popper, K (2010) The logic of scientific discovery, 3rd edn Routledge. London.
Pylypa, J. (1998) “Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body” in “Arizona Anthropologist Issue13: pp 21 – 36. Hetherington, S., 2020. Gettier Problems | Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy. [online] Iep.utm.edu. Available at: <https://www.iep.utm.edu/gettier/> [Accessed 14 March 2020].