When people say “trans women are women” what are they trying to say? Why does it matter? A lot of arguments around these issues have people going back and forth about whether trans women are women or men. People argue that “trans women are women” because identity, or perhaps brain sex and people argue that “trans women are men” because socialization, or physiology or biology etc.
First, we can talk about what gender identity isn’t. Looking at the gender bread person, a common model used by queer theorists to delineate the different components of gender we can see all of the things that it is not. First, it is not biological sex. It does not have to do with chromosomes, or breasts, or vaginas, or penises, or hormones. Second it is not sexual orientation. It does not have to do with who you are attracted to. Third, it is not gender expression. It has nothing to do with whether one’s behaviors are stereotypical of males or females or anything in between. It is indeed nothing to do with behaviors at all! So, it has nothing to do with your body, or your attractions, or your behaviors. Then what is left?
What is left is the concept of “woman” itself. So, when someone is saying their gender identity is that of a woman; they are saying that their self-concept is that of a woman. More concisely, “me = woman”. Likewise by saying “trans women are women”, they are saying “trans woman = woman”. What is going on here is the equating of two concepts. This is what it means to identify with something in general; you could say “me = American”, or “me = Democrat” etc. Other writers have noticed similar things and ridiculed gender identity as being essentially meaningless because it just has to do with a concept. However, it is not trivial at all. That is why people on all sides of the debate are so interested in arguing whether “trans women are women” is true or false. Why is this question so important to both trans people and their detractors? This question reveals something fundamental about human psychology, as is explained by a theoretical model known as “Relational Frame Theory (RFT)”.
Unfortunately most of the writing about RFT tends to be rather obtuse and academic. If you are a psychology nerd, I recommend the following video series on RFT by psychologist Joseph Rhinewine. Here are another two articles.
RFT is also the theoretical framework underlying ACT, and ACT is more accessible. This same psychologist has some great videos about ACT as well, and you can also read more about it here and here
Fortunately, we only need a few concepts from RFT in order to understand why it can be so important for someone to equate themselves with the concept of woman (or man) even when it has nothing to do with behaviors or bodies.
Arbitrary vs. non-arbitrary properties
The first of these concepts is “arbitrary vs. non-arbitrary properties” An example of a non-arbitrary property would be size. Some objects are smaller than other objects, and some objects are larger than others. This is a non-arbitrary property because it is universal. Everyone would agree that one object was larger than the other, if they measured accurately. It is also possible for an object to have arbitrary properties assigned to it. Take the example of a nickel. It has the non-arbitrary properties of being round, being made of metal and a certain size. It also has the arbitrary property of being worth 5 cents. People of all cultures would see the nickel as being round, mental and of its size. Only those that learn the meaning of the nickel being worth 5 cents would assign that value to it.
A dime has the arbitrary property of being worth 10 cents yet is smaller than a nickel. If you ask a young child which is more valuable, he will say the nickel is more valuable. Only when he learns the concept of value, and has achieved the level of maturity to understand such concepts will he see the dime as more valuable than the nickel. This ability is something that enables humans to create culture and all of the advances of civilization.
When I talk about objects I am not talking just about physical objects, I am also talking about words, sounds, concepts and ideas.
One property that is very important to understand is that the psyche does not treat arbitrary properties and non-arbitrary properties differently. They have the same psychological value.
All of these objects are related to each other through relational frames. Relational frames describe how two different objects are related to each other across various dimensions. An example of a relational frame is the “relational frame of comparison”, which ranks objects according to a certain dimension. We can say a nickel is greater than a dime in the dimension of size. We can also say that a dime is greater than a nickel in the dimension of monetary value. Another important relational frame is the relational frame of equivalence, which says two objects are equivalent, in English this is denoted by “being verbs”.(is, am, are)
Derived stimulus functions
One uniquely human capability is derived stimulus functions. This means that we automatically derive new relationships based on existing relationships. For example, if someone had never seen a quarter, and I were to tell them a quarter was worth more than a dime, they would also know that a quarter was worth more than a nickel. I would not have to teach them that. Looking at the relational frame of equivalence, when an object is equivalent to another object, we automatically derive that it is equivalent to all other objects that object is equivalent to.
The transformation of stimulus functions
The transformation of stimulus functions means that any psychological association with a given stimulus will also be carried over to any related stimulus. For example, say a person loves to eat ice cream. A natural response to a food that someone likes is to salivate. This person will also have a similar reaction to imagining ice cream or even potentially the words “ice cream”. Say this person hears the words “uachtar reoite”. This will likely have no effect, unless the person speaks Irish and knows those are the words for ice cream. Later, if the person learns this association, these words can acquire the salivating response.
These associations are not always conscious
Another thing that is important about these associations is that they are not always conscious. They might be unknown to the person that has them. A clever test that psychologists have come up with to test these associations is the Implicit Association Test This test measures these associations by comparing reaction times to different paired concepts. For example, a person with implicit racism will have a longer reaction time if they have to pair images of black people with positive words, than if they pair images of black people with negative words. These tests show that implicit racism is rampant even for those that don’t have conscious racism.
how does this apply to trans issues?
Lets return to the statement “trans women are women”. In terms of relational frames, this is saying that “trans woman = woman”. Here we are talking about the concept of trans woman and the concept of woman, we are not talking about bodies or behaviors. So all this is saying is that the concept of “trans woman’ is equivalent to the concept of “woman”. On the surface, this seems like a meaningless statement, however it has profound implications both in the psyche of people dealing with gender issues, and in how trans people end being treated.
First, looking at the identity component, if “me = trans woman” and “trans woman = woman” then “me = woman”. Why this matters is that because of derived stimulus functions, if “me = woman”, then “me” is also equivalent to every other concept that is equal to woman. So if someone has the association “woman = caring” or “woman = good”, then if “me = woman” then “me = caring” and “me = good”. Also due to the transformation of stimulus functions, the person’s self-concept then acquires all psychological associations with those concepts as well. Also, if one has the common association “woman is opposite of man”, then they acquire the inverse of all psychological associations with the concept of “man” as well. So if “me = woman”, and “man = brutal”, then “me = not brutal” etc. Some people identify as non-binary or gender-queer, which is saying “me = not woman” and “me = not man” or in some cases “me = woman” and “me = man”.
These networks also interact with rule-based behavior. People internalize various rules, which can be expressed in an if..then format. These are “shoulds” and “oughts”. For example, “before bed, you should brush your teeth”. These rules can also pertain to particular classes, “men should not show their feelings”, “women should be sweet and submissive” etc. Not following your “shoulds” causes psychological distress, and if they conflict with your impulses that will be a source of tension. It is important to note that these rules can also be held unconsciously and contradict with conscious beliefs. For example, a person can believe that it is okay for men to show their feelings, but simultaneously have an internalized sense that is wrong for a man to do that. This is very common.
If one holds the rule “men should not show their feelings”, this rule only applies if you also hold “me = man”. There are two ways to eliminate this association (actually three but we will get to the third one at the end). The first ways is to eliminate the rule “men should not show their feelings”. The second way to eliminate the association “me = man”.
Not only does this matter in terms of sense of self, it also matters in terms of treatment from others as well. People who hold the association “trans woman = woman” will act differently to a trans woman than those that hold the association “trans woman = man”. It is possible to hold either association, because here we are dealing with concepts which are arbitrary objects, and not non-arbitrary objects like breasts, penises, hormones, chromosomes and vaginas. It is important to see this, because if you hold one of these associations strongly, the other is likely to seem ridiculous or offensive.
Again, the psyche treats the non-arbitrary objects and arbitrary objects the same way. Also, even though the concepts of man and woman are arbitrary objects, they are almost certain to be associated with the non-arbitrary objects like breasts, penises, hormones and vaginas. Most people hold the association “woman = vagina” and “man = penis” also. Even those who consciously hold the belief that “trans woman = woman” and that woman is about identity and not bodies, are also likely to still hold the “woman = vagina” association unconsciously as well. Not, to mention that these associations also interact with low-level instincts which have a lot to do with bodies. This can lead to dissonance, as the remaining masculine characteristics of the body (in the case of trans women) contradict the identity me = woman. This causes dysphoria and distress and leads to the desire to change the body and eradicate those characteristics. However as this is not completely possible, it is likely that dysphoria will remain. In addition, the person is likely to seek validation for “me = woman” in order to affirm that side of the contradiction. However, like the body changes, this validation does not remove the basic conflict it only serves as a temporary salve.
This was my experience of transition, the dysphoria did not end because this basic conflict remained. There was never any peace, and it was so primally important that I be validated as a woman, and it was never enough. Likewise, I was still uncomfortable with my body because it still contained masculine characteristics, and there was no amount of surgery that would fix that either. In fact, it is the adoption of the trans identity itself that greatly increases dysphoria for this reason, even as it simultaneously solves other issues.
how to apply these ideas
There a few ways to apply these ideas in order to reduce dysphoria and the suffering from dysphoria. When I was describing some of the various associations, such as “me = woman”. I was careful to use “me” rather than “I”. That is because there is a hidden additional association there, which is “I = me”. Meaning the association of the being self “I” with the conceptual self “me”. This association is not essential, and indeed causes numerous problems. The practice of mindfulness makes it possible to weaken this association, and see that the being self “I” is indeed distinct from the conceptual self “me”.
ACT identifies mistaking the conceptual self “me” for the self as a source of psychological difficulties. By practicing mindfulness and defusion exercises it is possible to reduce this association. It is not surprising that many detransitioners who are are still dealing with dysphoria report meditation as being beneficial. A couple examples of these exercises are here and here A good ACT self-help book is “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris.
Another way to reduce distress is by uncovering and eliminating some of the rules (shoulds, oughts, and musts) that you hold about gender. These absolutist shoulds are known to cause distress in all domains, and gender is no exception. A form of cognitive-behavioral therapy known as REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) takes this as one of its core principles. There is a great book called “Three Minute Therapy” that describes some of these ideas in a self-help way.
A third way is to relax some of the psychological associations with gender. I have talked about this in ”relaxing gender schemas” and also here and here Men and women are both diverse. Men are cruel and kind, oppressive and gentle, nurturing and cold. The same is true of women. If you are holding a deep psychological association such as “men = bullies” or “men = unemotional”, it is helpful to meditate upon examples of men that have the opposite characteristics. Having friendships with such men is helpful as well. Something experiential is best, whether visualization or experiences of real life people. Men range in diversity from Martin Luther King to Stalin and everything in between.
Nothing I am saying here about trans identity is special to trans people. The things I am saying are about identity in general and psychology in general. Transgender and gender dysphoria are very human conditions. I am definitely not saying that trans identities are different than other identities and therefore are pathological. I am saying they are a human response to a human condition. The point I am trying to make is that transition is not the only solution to these difficulties, not to eliminate it as a solution entirely.