There are no identities lurking in the shadows of the psyche

Some people theorize that people can have a “repressed transgender identity” and that the process of deciding to transition is a question of determining whether one has such an identity. This frames the process of transgender identity development as a discovery process. If one has cross-gender feelings one needs to discover whether they are “really” transgender or it is from another cause. This idea is false and also dangerous, because once someone identifies with something, it becomes reified and leads to one acting from one’s self-concept rather than organic desire. Identities are constructed, not discovered. This is nothing special to transgender identity, it applies to all identities.

We see this idea in multiple contexts of religion and psychotherapy. In Hinduism there is a meditation called “neti, neti” or “not this, not that”. This is a process of seeing that one is separate from all identities/concepts. Mindfulness practice can help one be in the “observer self” the part that is distinct from all identities. Identities should be held lightly. Here is an essay from Paul Graham on the same topic, and here is an exercise on defusion from identity.

The queer community encourages the opposite of this process. It encourages the construction of more and more identities, inventing a blizzard of new terminology that is ever changing. It is not surprising that this happens, because the queer community is a haven for marginalized and vulnerable people and those struggling with their sexuality. Retreat into concepts is a way to keep one safe. People are where they are and need to do what they need to do for safety. However the retreat into concepts has a cost of disconnection from the instinctual desires of the body. It is particularly dangerous when these narratives involve the idea that one must change their body to be whole.

It is my belief that the adoption of transgender identity itself is at cause for some of the dysphoria people experience. I have known people who for 40 years have been mostly okay with being perceived as one gender, but after transition experience that perception as life-threateningly distressful. The only change here was that they adopted the transgender identity. For myself, I was pretty okay with being perceived as male as a teenager, and then when I transitioned that felt horribly threatening, after letting go of my transgender identity I am again okay with being perceived as male.

At the queer counseling center I worked at, one of the directors told me that there was a 400% increase in transgender clients in the last few years. I believe this is because the queer cultural explanation of cross-gender feelings has changed. Rather than people saying “you must be gay/lesbian” they say “you must be trans”. I see disturbing parallels between “lesbian until graduation” which was a common idea when I was in college, and the explosion of young people identifying with the FTM-spectrum identities. The difference is that “lesbian until graduation” can be an adventurous time in college, while “trans until graduation” has permanent severe consequences as changes cannot be completely undone.

When people speak of encountering a “female self” or a “male self” this is a very real part of the psyche. However it is not an identity! It is instead what Jung called a complex or what is referred to in IFS as a part. These are very real things. In IFS, identifying with a part is referred to as being blended with that part. This is considered to not be an ideal state, instead if one can remain in the observer self referenced above, one can see that they are bigger than this part and allow it the appropriate place in their psyche. It is quite right that they should not be repressed. However, there is a middle way between repression and identifying, that is simple acceptance.

28 comments

  1. Wow, this was a really interesting read, and it touches on one of the fears that I have and that’s that I’m seeing patterns (I.e. Being transsexual) where none exist. That I’m looking too hard for evidence that I’m transsexual, when maybe I’m just a dude who likes to do girly things. I touched upon it a bit on my very first post.

    1. I’m glad you found it interesting. To my mind, the question of whether one is “transsexual or a dude who likes to do girly things.” is not a question that has an objective answer. They are two different narratives that could explain the same feelings. There are any number of reasons you might prefer one or the other.

      Best wishes in sorting out these difficult issues.

    2. “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.” -Judith Butler

  2. Intolerance of gender nonconformity may be internal
    and/or external. Either way we may find ourselves being punished by ourselves or others. Be gentle.

    1. I agree with that. Indeed I think it is important to be yourself and listen to these parts of the psyche that are coming up. Being oneself, in all of the ways that are gender-conforming and all the ways that are not. However I don’t think they are “identities” unless one identifies with them.

  3. I agree there is nothing innate or essentinal about gender identity, I simply people would stop believing it is invalid just because it’s a social construct. I like your blog very much, I see your thoughts on the subject are close to mine, I will be checking your blog more often. Peace!

    1. I agree that Western culture has this unfortunate idea that things that are physical are real and things that are socially constructed are less real. I think that is one of the things that makes these issues difficult to talk about. Social constructs have profound effects on our lives and people die by the millions over them in holy wars and such.

      Also knowing they are social constructs doesn’t enable us to immediately dismiss and ignore them either. They are very real, and if I say something is constructed it doesn’t make it any less real!

      1. Well put.

        In everyday common sense, the psychological/phenomenological isn’t really intellectualized. We are used to thinking that our experience is a direct connection with given objects and psychology only factors when we develop repressions, delusions and mental sicknesses. A typical retort by one particular dysphoric masochistic emasculation fetishist was along the lines of, “Well, if my dysphoria is simply a result of how I have come to think, than I can simply think it away”. Implying that for a psychology to be meaningful, there must be something mediating it beyond psychology.

  4. I think a key question with regard to deconstruction of essential trans identity is whether it is positioned within a liberating deconstruction of all essential gender identity, or whether it just restores a default cis identity.

  5. I like this article a lot. I have felt for long time that this process of equating the self with labels or “identities” is spiritually damaging. Labels are useful, and we can’t get away from them, but we don’t have to equate them with our core essence. I devoted a whole chapter in a book I wrote about this, though not discussing how it applies to gender identity. To me this is the lesson of the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s journey to the underworld.

    1. This sounds interesting 🙂
      What does this myth talking about? Have you got some link? Thank you
      I think past civilizations have so many things to teach…

  6. Again….these vague references to some obscure pagan mythologies leave me totally nonplussed and thoroughly unimpressed when it comes to addressing what I was led to believe was an exploration of what can be done to prevent the current TG narrative from ruining even more lives.

  7. Im working on a better way of putting gender that wont result in dysphoria. Yes identity does result in dysphoria, i experienced developing dysphoria in my 20s after going all my teens without it and then overcoming it once again when i learned about how gender is constructed by society through gender roles and male domination over thousands of years.

    Trans may have stumbled on a important thing, and a thing which exposes their way of thinking as the cause of their dysphoria.

    Historically, behaviour tastes and interests have been coded masculine and feminine and by coding them this they are gendered. In all cultures concepts of masculine women and feminine men have existed, and how dysphoric these people were we will never know. They may not have had dysphoria if they were aware that sex roles were just roles people took in response to environmental survival and reproductive needs and that they fitted in doing certain tasks for their own reasons and they knew both sexes were capable of a wide range of tasks but did what they did for a reason. Like for example they knew men could cook, but it was what women were doing due to the men doing other things rather then it being wired in the brain etc. Up to about 100 years ago, everything was about morality, and ensuring women got married before reproduction etc rather then being about interests and abilities because then most people lived a daily grind so they had less time to think about identity. Some people though still cross dressed for what ever reason and some men had tastes so far out of masculinity expectations they cross dressed fulltime, but may have not had the gender dysphoria checklist of today.

    In society most things that get coded as masculine as things that are instrumental. Most things that get coded as feminine are expressive. Male and female bodies get referred to as masculine and feminine but in a different context, and sometimes graded based on instrumental and expressive perceptions. If a man has any physical features that make him more expressive he will get labelled feminine and this may seem harmless but its the root of the problem, it is the very thing that could send the person along the trans path because a link between him and the opposite sex is made and its a false link. What happens is in his mind two baskets are created, and in each goes all the things he likes that are expressive and all the instrumental things about him, what was once in one place is divided and then the baskets are labelled as masculine and feminine. Over time all of society gender junk end up in the baskets, in his expressive basket labelled as feminine will be all the physical features he is told are feminine. These may include a smoother jawline, softer skin, expressive eyes, nice hair, soft spoken, caring, and interests in art, fashion and clothing. And because society has made most expressive things for girls, he will take in some gender junk from the female social role, mostly the stuff put there at the expense of girls. In his instrumental basket now labelled masculine will be all the things about himself that are coded as masculine, along with a negative check list of all he is not or doesn’t want to be and all he does to resist that pressure. Unfortunately if things are extreme his male physiology will be coded masculine, and in the same basket as the personality traits and interests assigned to men and he wont be able to link together his expressive side (now coded feminine and in a separate part of his mind) and his male body. He may identify at first as a feminine man, then start wearing womens clothes, and then wanting female features because his expressive traits have become linked with female biology.

    The only way to fully break the problem is to clean out both baskets and get rid of both baskets and this can only be done by getting rid of concepts of masculine and feminine because its impossible for feminine man or masculine woman to really sit in the mind and not gather societys gender baggage as a link is established between tastes interests and a persons sex. If something is feminine it links back to the role expected of women and if its masculine it links back to the role expected of men in a fast way.

    Everything other then the male body thats in the masculine box is instrumental. Functional clothing, less detail, direct speech, tools, machines, personality traits that make it easy to get on and run things, with less interaction and be more systematizing. People with strong instrumental role orientations will fit the cultural constructs of masculinity very well, so if male will have less chance of gender dysphoria though it can still be a result of other things. The male body is said to be better at being instrumental due to more strength and not giving birth, but thats more related to culture then biology.

    Most things in the feminine box are expressive, communication, interaction, nurturing and decoration etc. But in the natural environment women did a lot of the instrumental tasks too which may be why society has tolerated a little more fluctuation in sex role behaviour for women, as long as they go along with reproductive expectations. If a man has an expressive role orientation he will get a sense of being more “feminine” then many actual females and will have a greater affinity for the thing associated with being expressive. This is not trans but its a step towards trans and its these people who end up trans quickly when they are exposed to trans.

    Gender non conforming expressive orientated males and high instrumental orientated females are the ones who will go straight to dysphoria once those baskets of gender already in them get activated.

    This is what happens then. In the expressive male the expressive basket he has coded feminine becomes his female self, everything in his instrumental masculine basket is to be got rid of, his male body, any interests he had that are coded male and all the baggage of where he struggled with masculinity. Throwing out clothing, items from the past, giving up interests or even changing who one dates as nothing that will contaminate the new self can remain. He will feel great and have escalating dysphoria at the same time, and he will find he cant get rid of that other basket, and will be focused on getting rid of all the individual things in it.

    He will gender other people when he enters the trans scene, he has a real radar for the traits associated with masculinity and femininity and of recognising them in others, and when he meets people who have traits outside their role he is quick to start seeing them as trans. He will start by telling females they are masculine or more masculine then him, and they may be gender queer or trans and he will feel his female persona threatened by those who identify as female but are not displaying the things he has come to see as feminine. (This is why butch women and trans women are running into problems)

    Females get their baskets activated when they are repeatedly told they are masculine or trans, and are set up against their biology in the same way. The only way out is to give up that masculine identity and embrace the original instrumental orientation behind it, that way its possible to be it without getting an over eye gendered view of oneself.

    When instrumental and expressive are separated from masculine and feminine they take a new shape. They can occupy the same space in varying amounts in a may that does not seem to the mind like a mixing together of the sexes. Its also easy to see how nothing is fully instrumental or expressive in its self, its more how the things are arranged. The colour pink can be instrumental or expressive depending on what its used for, if pink is used as a shade for its look its expressive and if pink is used to symbolize something it becomes instrumental. This is why they make clothes for women with non functional pockets, they are an instrumental looking item of clothing but are really being used expressively. They still may be called masculine looking, but really they are still inline with expressive bs instrumental as they dont function. This is why they dont put as many details on most menswear, if its there it does something. A woman in a mans suit as a trend is still expressive as its not serving a function if its worn outside a setting where a suit serves a function. This is why you get men mostly wearing the clothing for the activity they are doing, because thats whats instrumental, to start wearing menswear out of the right setting as a trend is a shadow of gender non conformity and its happening more now with men. Because clothing of any kind can default to expressive if its outside of a function, and because women are allowed more instrumental leeway before they are outside role women can be still seen to some degree as inline with their role wearing menswear trends as long as they are done as fashions and as long as they are not done exactly like men in roles where they would get instrumental status.

    As soon as men start experimenting with fashions they find they have limited room, because they are soon out of role as things default to expressive once they are giving off a look over a function so even suits that are not just standard suits start to be seen as a bit camp. When it comes to activity, men have more room as men can cook, clean and sew as long as they are not being too service orientated and nurturing, they must be trying to earn a living through it and aiming to make it a skill they develop. They must do it in an instrumental way which under this system leads to competition over doing it better then others. When men use their expressive side to be instrumental, they are let back into masculinity to some degree. When women use their instrumental side to be expressive they are let off, if women can build houses she must build houses for the poor, not to make profit etc and if she does so she can do a thing considered for men but be let off in the end. Its here where the lines get blurred and it becomes clear that it depends just on how far out of expectations someone treads, and its more complex then just stretching the traits out on a spectrum.

    The sex roles are there to maintain the power dynamic between the sexes, not just to sort out tasks and reproduction. Today we have no environmental reasons for sex roles. In the past a man wearing expressive clothing on a battle field would be killed as he would be spotted, and women would have had to limit certain jobs while pregnant etc.

    1. “The sex roles are there to maintain the power dynamic between the sexes”

      Sex and sex roles (sexes being associated with the associations for which “sex” has meaning at all) are reflexively intelligible.

  8. Thats biological essentialist nonsense and you know it. Sex roles are taught and reinforced by male power.

    See the basis for gender critical is really sex roles, and at present its got focused on gender identity and attention has gone from sex roles, but not for long.

    Sex roles are what patriarchy is defending, and if it has to transition those who dont fit them it will do.

    People like you with your dicktionary terms make me sick.

  9. I’ve never really understood the TG perspective, the idea of a female or male self. Given that our experiences of what female and male are are inherently within the context of society, our models of male and female are therefore projections onto the people we see around us who exemplify those roles. There is no ‘essential’ femininity, or ‘essential’ masculinity, as our perceptions of what that entails are created in a dynamic relationship between what we have been told we are, and what we see in others.
    In other words, if a young boy feels ‘feminine’, it means he looks at girls and sees aspects of himself in their behaviours, less so in other males.
    As I write this, i realise that of course there is some essential thing, hidden under the layers of social conditioning. If we re-assign someone’s gender at birth, they usually experience a dysphoria, which implies that social gender conditioning has some relationship to genetic imperatives..

    1. The normal TG perspective differs from the normal conservative view of boys are boys (otherwise he is confused), in the girl trapped in a boy’s body narrative. The mistake of both is in thinking that there is an essence of gender beyond it’s associations (“expressions”).

      “As I write this, i realise that of course there is some essential thing, hidden under the layers of social conditioning.”

      No essential thing as such, but rather a collection of generally polarising variables which aim to reinforce socialization. A person born with a “penis, is likely to have a higher threshold of aggression,and is likely to be affiliated with associations of maleness. It is one’s relationship with associations of maleness/femaleness, that determines how “male” or “female” they feel.

  10. And- identity is permission. A gay identity is permission to self to be attracted to others of the same sex, and act on that attraction. Before identity, a person could have a desire but feel it was not permissible. So, identity is greater freedom.

    1. Perhaps, although I would suggest it is letting go of the previous identity that was denying permission to accept same-sex attraction that gives the permissions. This doesn’t mean that adopting the gay identity can’t have other benefits, such as providing community, a sense that there are others like you, etc.

  11. I resonate with your insights on what identity is, and what the process of identifying is, even though I’m not trans. It was through the work of a jungian psychoanalyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, that I started to reconcile with my womanhood. So many spiritual traditions talk about this dis-identifiication to any kind of “label”. I am this gender, race, profession/job, a parent, a friend, a lover, I am this “story”. None of these things is at the core of the self, however. For me the easiest way to access that (genderless, ageless, faceless, everything-less) core is through the body with its experiences, and that experience is sexed because the body has sex at its constitution. I hope I am making sense: my female-sexed body is the path to the genderless core of the self.

  12. I think a better word than identity would be “persona”. A man adopts a female persona, but his gender is still male. People are confusing gender with persona. You can choose your persona, but you cannot choose your gender. Your persona is how you present yourself to the world. That is a right. But your gender is determined before birth and never changes. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. There is a big difference between these two terms. – aps

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