The problem of extrapolating the idea of “innate gender identity” from MTF folk to FTM folk.

In earlier posts I have been critical of the construct of “innate gender identity”. One problem I have talked about is the problem that low-level instincts and imprinting that may lead to transgender identity are called “gender identity” and the high-level narratives that transgender people use to explain themselves to themselves and others are also called “gender identity”. I use the term identity to describe the high-level narratives, because that is what we generally mean when we use the term identity, say when someone identifies as Irish or a Goth or Republican or something. Even those identities have low-level biological correlates. We know for example that conservatives tend to have a stronger threat response and a stronger disgust response than liberals. The important point is that the high-level narratives are culturally specific and do not necessarily arise from the low level instincts. People with the same low-level instincts can arrive at different identities depending on their circumstances and their environment.

The classic transgender narrative holds that people have an innate gender identity and if their bodies are different than this identity they will undergo tremendous suffering and the only way to end this suffering is to attempt to change your body as much as possible to one of the opposite sex and socially convince people that you are a member of that sex. Only then can you be your true self, and be free of the suffering of gender dysphoria.

There are some good reasons that the idea of innate gender identity came into fashion. The most classic is the tragic story of David Reimer. In short, psychologist John Money had the idea that gender identity was established around age 2 or 3, and established in response to socialization. Therefore, if you raised a natal male as a girl, he would adopt a female identity. John Money found the perfect subject to test his theory on in David Reimer. David Reimer lost his penis in a circumcision accident as an infant. John Money believed that if he was raised as a girl, he would develop a female identity and could be given estrogen at puberty and become a well-adjusted woman, albeit without reproductive organs. Money reported this case as a success, and indeed my undergraduate psychology textbook of 20 years ago referenced this case as support for Money’s theory.

However, in the late 90s, this story was exposed as false. David Reimer did not adjust to life as a girl, hated taking estrogen, and demanded to be put on testosterone and ended up living as a man, eventually marrying a woman. Sadly, his story ends tragically, as he committed suicide in his 30s.

A later study was done on 16 male children that were raised as girls because they were born with the genital abnormality known as cloachal extemony Of these children, 8 out of the 16 identified as male and transitioned, and all 16 had “interests more typical of males” This is half, a very large number, but also illustrates how even though these children were male except for their genital abnormalities they had different outcomes of identity. This is because the identity is a response to these low-level instincts and not the low level instincts themselves. These 16 people with identical histories developed different identities. Much the same way as people with cross-gender feelings or instincts can develop different identities depending on their cultural circumstances and even their own choices.

That is where the idea of “innate gender identity” originated, from studying male children that were raised as girls due to lacking a penis for one reason or another. Then this idea was extrapolated further. If there is some innate gender identity, then natal females must also possess a similar identity, and if they have an innate male gender identity that will cause the same problems. This idea is also being extrapolated onto children, but that is a subject for another post.

There are two assumptions here that aren’t necessarily true. One is that the cross-gender feelings of trans people are from the same cause as the feelings of natal males raised as girls, the second is that natal females with some degree of male identity will have the same dynamics as natal males with some degree of female identity.

I tend to focus more on MTF issues and male detransitioners because that is what my experience is, but I think there will be (and already are) many more female detransitioners, in part due to the way this gender identity idea is even less of a fit for what is actually happening there.

People are identifying as non-binary, outside of gender entirely, identifying as one gender at one time, being dual gender, identifying as a different gender a different time. Taking T for a while and then stopping, inventing new pronouns, etc. So, now the idea as the gender identity is innate, yet sometimes it is fluid, and sometimes it changes and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is still innate and if you try to change it that is wrong, but sometimes it changes on its own. Huh? There are also those with a strong persistent male identity as well. These dynamics exist among MTF-spectrum folk as well, but are more common among FTM-spectrum folk.

Historically, there has been approximately a 3:1 ratio between MTF transitions and FTM transitions. However, a recent study has shown in recent years that the amount of people presenting with FTM issues has grown to even exceed the number of MTFs presenting at gender clinics. Something which suggests social causes are at play.

So, the question is, why is this happening? Why is there a huge increase in the number of FTM transitions (even more than 3x because the number of MTF transitions is increasing as well). Some people say this is because of greater awareness. I think it is because of a shift in the cultural milieu.

There are biological factors correlated with FTM transition. We know that both interest conditions such as CAH and endocrine conditions such as PCOS are correlated with FTM identity. These lead to masculinization of behavior and in some cases physical masculinization and likewise in some cases male identity. Again the presence or absence of these factors don’t make anyone’s transition more or less “real”.

I am believer in behavioral functionalism, which is to say in order to make sense of why a behavior is happening it useful to look at what functions it serves for the person that is engaging in it. So, the question becomes what functions does this process of identifying in these ways serve. First, an important part of identity is being part of a group and creating a sense of affiliation with the group.

So then the question is what is the function of these identities and this community. It is my belief that it is fundamentally a reaction to a conflict between being who they are and the cultural expectations placed on females. A reaction to societal stereotypes of women, objectification, misogyny, and in some cases particular traumatic experiences particularly around men. The particular themes vary but these are common ones.

The reason why behavioral functionalism is so great, is by understanding the function of the behavior it can make things that seem really strange on the surface become clear. For example, it can be puzzling on the surface why there are so many FTM-spectrum folks coming out of women’s colleges, but if you understand the function of safety from men, it makes sense because both transitioning FTM and going to a women’s college both can serve the same function of safety from men and getting away from misogynist expectations.

In fact as I had said once before, a lot of this looks like “lesbian until graduation” of 20 years ago which also served the same function of getting away from misogyny. The difference is that this trend involves testosterone and permanent body changes that can’t be reversed. So that is a disaster. Lesbian until graduation might leave behind a few broken hearts and might be an interesting youthful adventure. Any woman who takes T and returns to female identity will be dealing with the permanent effects of testosterone.

Again just as the existence of “lesbian until graduation” does not deny the existence of those who retain a long-term lesbian identity that is healthy for them, neither does the existence of “trans until graduation” deny the existence of those for who testosterone use and male presentation is right. The difference is that it is important to find better ways to distinguish between the two before people take T if possible. How to do this? I don’t know, but I suspect looking at misogyny, gender schemas, dissociation and trauma is a good place to start.

Also, if we do end up with a lot of female detransitioners, it will eventually lead to a backlash that will also effect those that seek these treatments to improve their quality of life, so everyone should be concerned with this, no matter what your political stance on trans issues.

27 comments

  1. Interesting interpretation of the classic “transgender” narrative.

    I read through your linked previous post in an attempt to try and deduce your solid standpoint on “innate” gender identity. Personally, I don’t like the use of the word gender in this context, I always have preferred ~sex~ as a descriptor.

    What I struggle with personally when it comes to the classic “transgender” narrative (as you recount it), is firstly, the importance of convincing others that one is that other/desired gender and secondly, that after attaining that goal (assuming it is in fact a clearly defined and attainable goal, remembering that the same people also state that gender is NOT binary, but rather, an infinite spectrum or continuum) one is now free to live forever and ever (amen) as their “true” self.

    If (on the other hand) in fact a person is mentally predisposed to operate as one sex or the other (ignoring the multitude of visible identifiable or testable genetic physical sexual abnormalities possible) should it truly make a difference to the individual themselves whether they convince society of their sex or not?

    One must be as best they can, their “true” self (sooner or later) whether society agrees or not would you agree?

    Perhaps they’ll never truly personally realise who and what their heart tells them they are, but what can be done to change biology? and because they can’t change biology should they NOT at least try to do the best they can (on their own terms) with what life has given them?

    I too am a believer in behavioral functionalism, sadly though, I think that too often these days things like political correctness, fear and the united agendas of some human fractions cloud and override what was once a natural human inclination towards behavioural functionalism and it’s purpose. (this may explain your observation as to the how recent this phenomena seems to have become “understood” by lay-people and thus, grown).

    1. A common error is even to think of gender even as a spectrum. To think gender, is to think of what is reflexively associated with maleness or femaleness.

      1. ok then, so when the traits could be attributed to both male-“ness” (as you put it) and female-“ness”?

        driving a big truck for instance, was once considered exclusively a male undertaking, and even now, people are shocked when they see a semi stop and a woman get out and yet they can not deny what they see and as it happens more and more often (like many things before it, nursing for instance) where will it lie?

        there’s no spectrum you say?

        Stereotypes are bullshit, but I do believe “Gender” (how one expresses themselves on a inter/personal level) exists.

        That said, I can think of one thing that is NOT considered (by most of society) to be interchangeable between males and females despite what “transgender” folks are fighting and lobbying to try and achieve

        1. “ok then, so when the traits could be attributed to both male-“ness” (as you put it) and female-“ness”?”

          The meaning wasn’t what can or can not be attributed to maleness & femaleness, but rather that there is no gender identity (let alone “spectrum”) behind what we come to think as the “expressions” of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”

    2. “If (on the other hand) in fact a person is mentally predisposed to operate as one sex or the other (ignoring the multitude of visible identifiable or testable genetic physical sexual abnormalities possible) should it truly make a difference to the individual themselves whether they convince society of their sex or not?”

      If someone’s predisposed to *act* as the sex other than their natal sex (as opposed to *wanting to be* the sex other than their natal sex without being surface-level different from other members of their natal sex, which is also transsexualism but an entirely different form), the only adaptive outcome is being seen by society as their transitioned sex. A natal female who acts male — and note that this is a very different thing to being a butch or GNC woman (if they were the same thing, you’d expect to see a lot of butch lesbians in D&D groups, on 4chan, or in non-queer bands) — or the inverse, even if they don’t actually fit what is considered the gender roles of their transitioned sex, makes a lot more fundamental ‘sense’ to others in their transitioned sex even before you factor in gender dysphoria.

      Of course, the majority of people with transsexualism don’t have that specific morph. Blanchard fucked up even when trying to categorize it, in that he used the term HSTS to refer to both people of that morph and people who act like very GNC members of their natal sex.

  2. Very good article, TWT, and there’s more I’d like to comment on when I have time.

    For now, I’d ask your thoughts on if this relates to one of my long-held suspicions — that many MTF trans folk are really gay or bisexual underneath, but so repressed they won’t allow themselves to be. Homosexuality still carries a brutal stigma in many religious cultures.

    1. Some cultures do stigmatize homosexuality more than transgenderism, and I think that will sometimes lead to people adopting a transgender identity in those cultures. Just look at Iran where transsexualism is at least legally accepted, and homosexuality is punished by death.

      The thing I try to talk about a lot is that the same feelings will be expressed in different ways in different cultures. A lot of our current explosion of people identifying as transgender has to do with cultural shifts. It is not just the feelings but the meaning that you ascribe to them that lead to various identifications.

  3. Hi MC. I am an MTF trans woman and I share that long-held suspicion ofyours about myself! 😛 I can say that when I was in a supportive long-term relationship and was fully accepted for being bisexual, as I identified I still felt like shit all the time and suffered crippling dissociation and depression. It’s only since transitioning that those has gone away, for the most part. My attraction to men has become more pronounced amd I have acual desire to act on it. Wrather than feel slightly unfulfilled in my relationships with women and assuming I must be bisexual and crave intimacy with men. I suppose this supports your theory as well as the fact that I suffered severe torment from men in elementary and high school. I also suffered severe rejection from women as a feminine guy. It’s hard to say, and it could completely be the case that transition is how I reconciledwho I was with how I was being treated by people. However, the psychological benefits are overwhelming, which is why I persist. Otherwise my skepticism would win.

    1. In the end I think all that matters is whether transition improves your life or not (and whether there is something else that might improve your life more). The reason I talk about the potential causes a lot is because I think understanding the causes can help find the best ways to work with these issues, and to fight against the idea that transition is valid if it relates to brain sex and invalid if it relates to trauma (not to mention also fighting against the fallacy of the single cause).

    2. That may well be true for you, April, and of course I’ve had others suspect it of me! But it really doesn’t apply to me. I’m MTF trans and I’ve had several opportunities to be involved with guys. I’ve been mildly curious, but never felt anything like the excitement I get when I think about being with an attractive woman.

      1. Well that shows the lovely (and confusing) fluidity of human sexuality 🙂 I have had a few opportunities with men and it’s hard for me to discern whether Im actually into them, or simply into the validation they provide. If I know a man is into me it makes me feel pretty, which is a feeling that doesn’t come often these days :/ It’s also a source of attention, which I haven’t been getting from women since I started transitioning.

  4. I definitely agree. I think some healthy skepticism is necessary when dealing with gender confusion. There are so many factors and influences that it’s hard to be sure if it is right for you. I’m always baffled that most trans people revile de-transitioners or anyone with radical opinions about transgenderism. Those were the most helpful to me, as they allowed me to consider every possibility of what could be going on with me before deciding what to do about it.

  5. You throw out some interesting ideas but then don’t close the loop. Clearly the case of David Reimer and those 16 case patients who were raised as girls without pre knowledge they were born as males is indeed strong evidence that gender self identification is imprinted very early in the brain and more than likely before we are born. The fact that some of these patients remained as females but yet were very much towards the masculine side of the spectrum (according to the study) is more than sufficient evidence for a biological explanation.

    David Reimer did in no way suffer from any dysphoria. He knew he was male and once this information was conveyed to him he proceeded to reverse a grave error.

    I suspect if were to raise a child without a push towards either gender role you would find that some would happily and very naturally adopt a gender role opposite to theit natal sex. Indeed many do and are happy to transition once they are old enough. I know personally of one who is an extremely happily and well adjusted young woman.

    I strongly believe that Harry Benjamin was right and that John Money was wrong. That being said however, not everyone who suffers from gender dysphoria should transition. The solution you choose for yourself will be highly personal and ultimately will find you a happier person provided you choose the right one.

    1. Again, you show that you have barely bothered to read what you are commenting on. Also you show that you are intellectually disingenuous in that we have had this discussion before, yet you repeat the same false suppositions in the oxymoron of “innate identity”.

      “I suspect if were to raise a child without a push towards either gender role you would find that some would happily and very naturally adopt a gender role opposite to theit natal sex.”

      Gender will be intelligible to the individual on the basis of their relationship to the affiliations which are associated as male-like/masculine or female-like/feminine. Just as their is no given way in which gender is associated, their is no given way in which biological variants figure in how gender is associated, let alone how the individual relates oneself (self identifies).

      The stupidity of the notion of “innate identity” is the stupidity of projecting any one of the most fickle gender associations onto biology, such as the masculine associated of monster trucks.

  6. “Gender will be intelligible to the individual on the basis of their relationship to the affiliations which are associated as male-like/masculine or female-like/feminine. Just as their is no given way in which gender is associated, their is no given way in which biological variants figure in how gender is associated, let alone how the individual relates oneself (self identifies).”

    I can read this statement twenty times over and I come to the same conclusion: it is complete and utter gibberish.

    1. “Gender will be intelligible to the individual on the basis of their relationship to the affiliations which are associated as male-like/masculine or female-like/feminine.”

      Gender has no meaning beyond the associating of things as either masculine or feminine.

      “Just as their is no given way in which gender is associated,”

      There is nothing that necessarily makes the masculine thing masculine, nor feminine thing feminine.

      “their (*there*) is no given way in which biological variants figure in how gender is associated”

      The difference between the sexes is not in terms of type, but of dimension. A boy can be born with every typical biological variant which typically reinforces his socialization, but there is no given way in which biology will figure in how he comes to think.

  7. I’ve been doing a lot of reading back and forth between radical feminists and transgender activists and have been sensing that they were both embracing absolutes for the sake of socio-politics and/or safety rather than searching for truth. While a lot of the science is still out, this is the best take I’ve seen on reality.
    Thanks

  8. I am an FTM person who is really struggling with identity. I already detransitioned and retransitioned once. At this point, I believe I would have been better off never transitioning in the first place. Once I was far enough down the path to realize that I may have made a mistake, it was too late to walk away entirely – transition had already cost me family and friends in addition to changing my body. No matter what I do, I’ll carry my transition with me.

    To be clear, I’m very much an advocate for transgender rights. Some transgender people need access to transition. My wife is one such person. But I’m not convinced that transition is the only answer, nor that it is appropriate for all of us. It bothers me that we have pretty much stopped looking for alternatives and any barriers are labeled “gatekeeping” despite that doctors and therapists actually do have a duty to “do no harm” – and that will look different for different people.

    I want to encourage research into these issues so that those who will actually benefit from medical transition have access without inappropriate barriers and so that those of us who would benefit more from healing underlying trauma, etc are not steered in the direction of transition without first addressing those issues. (No, this does not mean that people who experienced trauma but who are otherwise good candidates for transition should be barred from transition or required to jump through a bunch of hoops solely because of their histories… it means that I want people to actually have access to the services that will help them to heal, whatever that means.) I want people to be healthy, resilient, and empowered.

    If you are interested, I’d like to talk with you privately about your theories related to “gender identity” – I believe my experiences may be relevant to understanding what some ftm people go through and why some of us transition and later de- or re- transition. Please contact me via email if you’d like to talk.

    1. I do agree with most of what you say. I think gatekeeping makes therapy difficulty as the person does not feel safe to open up when the therapist has power over something so important to them.

      I’d love to talk with you about your experiences, I will email you.

      1. I want to be really clear in saying that gatekeeping is not only inappropriate, but it also violates the ‘do no harm’ oath and is absolutely harmful to a therapeutic relationship. I think sometimes we use different definitions for the word, ‘gatekeeping’. When I use it, I mean the act of placing inappropriate, unwarranted barriers between patients and care that would otherwise be helpful / therapeutic.

        If a patient presents with clear contraindications (i.e. a well-established and active diagnosis of a personality disorder that affects identity, a medical condition that will likely be worsened to the point of causing significant harm to the patient if given hormone therapy, a history of trauma or negative experiences with gender roles as the basis for desire to transition, etc.), I do not consider it ‘gatekeeping’ for a medical or psychiatric professional to require additional treatment prior to transition or refuse prescriptions/letters altogether as long as the professional is acting on behalf of the patient’s best interests, without prejudice for gender-nonconformance, and with the experience and training to make those decisions.

        Unfortunately, there’s a lot of gray area here and there are a lot of professionals who are inexperienced, prejudiced, and otherwise unwilling or unable to provide appropriate care without inappropriate barriers. How do professionals sift through clients to know the difference? I don’t know – that’s why we need more research, we need more training for all professionals who work with this population, and we need to help those who are questioning gender to feel safe fully disclosing with the knowledge that they won’t be inappropriately blocked from transition. Today, we don’t have the answers that would allow those judgement calls and we definitely don’t have an adequate stock of experienced professionals, so I tend to err on the side of ‘it’s better to have a few regretters than to block access to people who are in need of treatment and who will benefit greatly.’

        Thanks for reaching out – will respond asap. Have a good one!

  9. TWT: You do realise that your post comes across as incredibly misogynistic.

    Transitioning to a male has certainly given you a healthy dose of patriarchal attitudes, you have ‘mansplaining’ down pat..

    This post is just so wrong that I don’t know where to start.
    Condescending, folk tales masquerading as ‘facts’, defining trans men as being ‘physically sick’, just a ‘reaction’ to ‘real’ men and what they do, or just ‘women’s herd instinct’. Never mind, once they get into the real world they will soon learn take on their proper role in life…to service men… and realise it was all just a mstake…..sigh.

    Basically you are saying: “Women cannot possibly make major decisions about their lives, because….”. Oh, well pat them on their pretty little heads and tell them not to be silly then….

    FYI, trans men have always been around, just that they were ignored…by men that is. They were tucked away in all sorts of areas. The difference is that they can transition openly now. No longer ignored by the sexologists and gatekeepers as ‘inconvenient truths’ that shatter their stupid little gender theories.

  10. I think this story is beautiful however it ended in a very tragic manner. Overall, I love transgendered people in the sense thaty they have the guts stray away from gender norms. Those who transition obviously are not afraid of rejection and being comfortable with themselves. Stories like David Reimer make me believe that gender is innate in some ways while there is some truth that the brain is plastic when it is immature. Nevertheless, let us be more accepting of the diversity that we see amongst ourselves. The age where all men should learn how to be strong and women be inferior and submissive to men should be over.

  11. Do the cloacal exstrophy studies really show that the non-transitioners developed female gender identities? To me it more clearly shows that transitioning, especially underage in the 90s, is a difficult process even in cases where it’s both socially and mentally adaptive.

    There are a lot of trans until graduation just as there are lesbians until graduation, and they’re going to be the ruin of us all, but — despite what the detransitioners obsessed with presenting themselves as ‘trutrans’ so their readers assume there must be no such thing as ‘trutrans’ will tell you — they’re not impossible to distinguish from trans men. Generally, once you’re involving neuter gender identity (even the more ‘trutrans’ forms of it) in the whole thing, that’s a pretty massive red flag.

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