THE SEX-GENDER DISTINCTION
Let's start with the much-touted "sex-gender distinction". As we'll see, thinking through the implications of this distinction is helpful for getting to the core of transgenderism.
According to the proponents of sex-gender disassociation, biological sex is a feature of one's body and organs, their arrangement and behavior. It's goes along with the primary and secondary sex characteristics which are a result of one's genetics. Most people have a very clear and determinate biological sex: male or female. Men have male sex characteristics; females have female sex characteristics. So far, so good. Of course, there is a small portion of the population which for various reasons (genetic or hormonal aberrations, etc.) are not determinately members of one sex or another. The assignation of a sex to these people is difficult, though it does not obviously threaten the notion that humans tend to naturally have a determinate biological sex.
On the other side of the sex-gender divide is the thing we call gender. Biological sex, we said, is based on the physical sex-characteristics humans tend to have by virtue of their genetic makeup. But obviously when we look at people, noticing physical features associated with their biological sex characteristics (bone structure, gait, musculature, fat deposits) is only part of how we determine someone's biological sex. Socially, there are a large number of culturally developed behaviors and signals that are usually associated with biological sex.
These behaviors are myriad and cover all sorts of areas in human life. For example: hair styles, standards of dress, posture, cultivated interests, leisure activities, modes of speech, modes of self-restraint, sources of self-esteem or public dignity, moral codes, assigned familial roles, vocational work, etc. Gender has always, across most cultures and civilizations, been characterized and differentiated by such things.
Now, it is obvious that many of the behaviors which make gender differentiation and assignment possible are associated somehow with biological sex. Common physical differences and behavioral differences which, we assume, arise from brain chemistry, seem to lead to the cultural expectations which create gender stereotypes and ideals. However, there are perhaps equally many features which contribute to gender differentiation in any particular culture, which are basically arbitrarily assigned to one biological sex or another. For example, certain colors or clothing fabrics are seen as feminine in some cultures, but as masculine in others. We could try and justify one association over and against the other, but in reality there is no evident reason why such things should have any intrinsic relationship with one's biological sex.
From this fact, that many behaviors and signals are arbitrarily associated with gender and can be easily reassigned or appropriated by members of both sexes, we arrive at a handy conclusion: the specifics of gender differentiation are culturally constructed and mutable. In other words, there is no such thing as the "real" nature of the masculine or feminine genders. Velvet is not "really" a feminine fabric, drinking beer is not "really" a masculine behavior.
So, to recap: thus far we have distinguished biological sex, which is a genetic and physical characteristic of one's body, and cultural gender, which is an (at least partially) constructed set of signals and behaviors by which one performatively indicates one's biological sex. Now we can turn to transgenderism.
WHAT DOES TRANSGENDERISM MEAN, REALLY?
Assuming transgenderism is real, what is going on? The transgendered person has a certain biological sex. This much is generally clear. But the person claims that they are not "really" a member of that sex. How is it that they're not "really" a member of the sex? There are two basic ways of answering this question, as far as I can tell.
- The person recognizes that they have a body that is of a particular biological sex, but experiences long-term dysphoria over their own biological sex. Either they are repulsed by their own body, or experience frustration at the absence of sex characteristics of the opposite sex, or have some sense that they "ought" to be of the other sex, based on strong self-identification or something else.
- The person disassociates from the gender norms associated with their biological sex and prefers to abide by the gender norms associated with the opposite sex.
In the second case, it's clear that the person cannot reasonably claim to "really" be a member of the opposite sex, because the norms they're appropriating (hairstyles, modes of dress, physical activities) are arbitrarily associated with biological sex in the first place. If being female means having long hair, wearing makeup and speaking in a ditzy voice, it is impossible to be "really" female, or "female on the inside", since no one is "really female" or "female on the inside", not even biological females. Likewise with the reverse.
The first case is more difficult, because the claims are more profound. What's most striking about instances of the first case—something which was long recognized by the professional psychological community until political forces prevailed—is that the dysphoria over their own physicality experienced by transgendered people of this variety is similar to other body dysphorias, which are associated with various common eating and exercise disorders. Some people still take pains (great pains) to point this out, but media and political pressures have made it a very dangerous line to take.
In order to be "right", the person claiming to be transgendered in the first way above would have to have some feature within themselves which was "really" configured to be biologically male or female, while the rest of their physicality was biologically configured to the opposite sex. Defenders appeal to the notion that someone can have "female" brain chemistry while having a male body, and vice versa. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this claim.
More commonly nowadays, though, is a mysticism about one's "true self", which makes it unnecessary to talk about brain chemistry, because the transgendered person is presumed to simply and immediately "know" who they are "on the inside". Phenomenologically, having never had the experience of knowing who I "really" am "on the inside", I am deeply skeptical about this line. It sounds like the sort of thing that would arise from repeated self-assertion and the cultivation of a conviction, rather than some interior light.
This leads us to some further objections. First, note that there is no analogous phenomenon for any other aspect of the human anatomy. For example, we do not hear stories of people who knew that on the inside they had a differently shaped nose, or freckles, or differently colored eyes, or a different height, even though these physical characteristics are associated with certain stereotypes and have definite cultural significance. What we do hear are people saying they "wish" they had these differences, or expressing dislike for the characteristics they do have, insofar as they see them as deficient. From this perspective it's about as odd to have someone say that "inside" they are "meant" to have a different sexual anatomy, as it is to have someone say that "inside" they were "meant" to have a different skin color, or bone structure. Phenomenologically, these features of one's anatomy are not available immediately to one's consciousness or known inwardly, they are discovered in experience and by exterior self observation. There is no evident reason why the sexual anatomy should be so radically different.
So, if it seems that one's "true" physiology can't be known by immediate self-reflection, how is it known that a person is "really" a member of the sex opposite to their actual physical anatomy? In practice claims of this nature, even when they concern sexual anatomy, seem to be "known" based on features of gender performance. The knowledge of one's "true sexuality" is based on one's preference for the behaviors and signs culturally used to differentiate between the two sexes. In other words, the "true gender" is known by the preference for an arbitrary and culturally constructed gender type. But if this is the case, then it would seem that the "true gender" isn't so "true" after all, but is just another layer of performance based off of a set of arbitrary cultural norms. And this would force us to conclude that the phenomenon of transgenderism is just another constructed performance of a person's sexual identity, and not the expression of something real which resides in a person, which determines that they are "more truly" a member of a biological sex different from the one reflected in their anatomy.
Of course, no one wants to admit this, because it would put some holes in the mainstream propaganda in favor of transgenderism's legitimacy as a way of performing sexuality. Twitter would not be pleased.