People who are transgender experience identification with the opposite gender, the one that isn’t consonant with their biological sex (or their assigned sex, in cases where biological sex is non-binary like Turner’s or Klinefelter’s syndrome). This is the definition of what it means to be transgender, which I call transgenderness.
Common folks assume throughout their life that «gender» and «sex» are identical concepts, which shows that this conceptual distinction, made in the last century, has yet to become common sense. A corollary of this is that, when one meets a transgender person for the first time, one is flabbergasted. Suddenly someone appears not only proposing a radical idea, — that being of a certain gender does not mean having a certain biological sex, but rather self-identifying with it, whatever that means, — but also embodying this idea in their own selves. The radical idea of gender identity. My objective in this essay is to explore the coherence of this very concept and understand what it means to be transgender.
Aside from those who have an objection to the concept of transgenderness or some prejudice against transgender people themselves, most people accept the concept of gender identity very enthusiastically. People are always eager to learn about trendy ideas, for it enables them to mold their discourse in order to signal others progressiveness and group inclusion. (Perhaps it is the nature of social movements to be self-righteous — if one sees oneself as fighting for social justice, how could one understand the actions of any opponent except as a battle against justice? And how could such opponent be seen as morally sane and well-intentioned?)
But that is not all. This new view of gender also has, prima facie, great appeal. Of course people who were born with a penis have the right to shave their whole body, to wear dresses, to be socially deferential, to enjoy knitting, family care, and French literature, to have breasts, or to engage in late-night gossiping. Because that is what it means to be a woman, right?
Well, no. The big question that comes to my mind when it comes to gender identity is this: what actually constitutes womanhood or femininity? And is one identifying with? And the same goes for manhood or masculinity. I really don’t think that being a man means being assertive, dressing a certain way, having massive amounts of BRUTE STRENGTH, or enjoying a good beer whilst watching the Eagles take a beating from the Giants. Just like I don’t think that being a woman means any of the stuff mentioned in the last paragraph.
Being of a certain gender does not mean performing a certain stereotypical role, nor having a certain personality or mindset, and affirming the contrary seems to me very offensive to pretty much every human being ever, especially to women. That being a man or a woman would mean exemplifying certain patterns of thought and behavior — that’s the essence of a stereotype! If none of those can be the content of a gender identity, then what does?
Unfortunately, I still have not studied what’s called queer theory with any decent effort. But, from what I’ve seen on numerous blogs on transgenderness and endless internet discussions, the current gender theory in vogue do not escape the polarization between femininity and masculinity. This is obvious by taking a glance at the (partially plagiarized) Genderbread Person, even if it is not a comprehensive representation of ideas surrounding gender identity.
It seems to me that the concept of gender identity presupposes and reaffirms the notion of gender roles, otherwise what sense does it make? Moreover, it seems that people’s image of what it means to be a man or a woman do not escape the common-sensical formulation of gender roles. Isn’t defining oneself in terms of these two stereotypical, restrictive, and sexist roles precisely what one should avoid doing? And if one forgoes all patterns of behavior and thought in their formulation of (wo)manhood, then what is left to identify oneself with?
By asking those questions to myself, I came to entertain the idea that the concept of gender identity is either offensive and reaffirming of old sexist notions, viz. femininity and masculinity, or a meaningless term. If we’re going to dismantle gender roles and stereotypes, — which seems like a good thing, — we will end up dismantling «gender identity» as a meaningful concept.
This obviously does not entail that transgender people are lying, or that they have mental illnesses; perhaps it’d take a mental illness to think the above contentions entail that. (In fact, they might be more authentic than a lot of people, because they behave accordingly to their deepest feelings of who they are, instead of living on a sort of auto-pilot characteristic of most people.) What was said above does imply is that, however one feels oneself to be, one cannot feel that oneself is of a certain gender, because that would require gender roles to be defining of (wo)manhood.
But this conclusion is strong and it touches on matters of fundamental existential import to some human beings. Given that, and since I’ve reached it hastily, the above contentions count as an exercise in conceptual analysis, rather than any reliable exploration on the true nature of things.
One problem with this conclusion is that it makes mysterious the experience of transgender people. It is clearly false that all transgender identify themselves with certain gender roles. But nothing else seems defining of «gender», so what does it amount to? Is there a coherent concept of gender that allows for the possibility of transgenderness? Probably; people must have been working at this theoretical issue for decades. So right now I suspend my judgment.