Gender reasoning exercises: Symbol, substance, and tabooing your words (More Trans, module 1-1)

moretrans-logoIn most episodes of Gender Analysis, I try to present useful insights into the various concepts behind contemporary transgender issues. By examining questions about transness on multiple levels and from many different perspectives, I aim to help viewers develop a more accurate and practical understanding of gender-related topics.

I’m passionate about that, but at the same time, I don’t want to be some uncommon beacon of truths and aphorisms. I want to help everyone see these things as I see them. I want to have thousands of people doing what I do as they encounter and grapple with ideas throughout their lives. These are teachable skills, and I’m certain that my viewers can understand them.

Much of my overall approach is based on certain philosophy techniques from the rationality blog Less Wrong. These encompass a wide variety of tools for clearer thinking about beliefs, evidence, ethics, physics, consciousness, and many other subjects. I’ve found some of these approaches to be very handy when thinking about gender, and I’d like to explore one particular set of techniques for clarifying the use of language and how words connect to concepts. This is largely drawn from the Less Wrong posts “Taboo Your Words” and “Replace the Symbol with the Substance”. I recommend reading both of them – I’ll summarize their basic lessons here.


A very simple guide to disambiguation

Even when two people are using the same word or phrase during a discussion of a given topic, they may mean two distinctly different things by that word. They could be referring to two very different concepts or groups of concepts. This can be a source of great confusion when trying to articulate your own thoughts or communicate them clearly to others.

One well-known example is the question, “If a tree falls and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”

One person may answer:

“Yes, of course it produces a sound.”

And another may answer:

“No, nobody perceived any sound.”

But what they’re disagreeing about is something other than whether this tree simply “makes a sound”. What do they actually mean?

A word isn’t some fundamental, irreducible substance with no underlying structure – it serves as a compressed reference to a concept. But there’s a tradeoff: in reducing a concept to a single convenient shorthand, a word can discard a great deal of nuance and complexity. If you aren’t specific enough when using a word, the word itself won’t always compensate for that oversight.

One way to encourage precision in communicating concepts is to treat the word at issue as taboo, and remove it from your vocabulary entirely. If you didn’t have that word, what explanation would you replace it with in a given context? What do you mean when you use that word? “If a tree falls and nobody hears it, does it make a ______?” A what?

Consider how this could best be phrased in concrete, practical terms.

One person may fill in the blank for the falling tree question with:

“Yes, of course a falling tree produces pressure waves transmitted through the air.”

The other may fill in the blank with:

“No, at no point did any person experience the auditory perception of these pressure waves.”

When detailed explanations are provided, it becomes clear that these two people aren’t disagreeing about whether falling trees produce sound in the form of pressure waves, or whether any person was present to hear this tree fall. They’re just using two different concepts that can both be described using the same word: sound. Now that each one understands what the other means, they can proceed to have a more fruitful discussion.

Some people might still be tempted to ask, after all of this, “But does it really make a sound or not?” Nevertheless, there isn’t a simple yes-or-no answer to that, and this technique isn’t meant to provide such an answer. The meaning of “sound” first needs to be clarified, or the question is so vague that you can’t expect a clear yes or no – because saying “yes” or “no” to this question would be just as vague. That’s it. That’s your answer.


Practice 1: “Is a trans woman a woman?”

This technique for clarifying terms and concepts might seem obvious to some people. I use it every day – it’s almost a reflex for me, and I don’t usually think about the most basic steps of the process. But for many others out there, this is an unfamiliar approach that rarely makes an appearance in their everyday analysis of life, and they can benefit from learning this skill explicitly.

Right now, most discussion of transgender topics among the general public is taking place at the level of a naïve disagreement about the effects of falling trees:

“Yes, it makes a sound!”

“No, it doesn’t!”

It seems rare for these debates to reach a point where the concepts at issue are examined more closely and split apart in order to identify their most relevant components. Many of today’s supposed “big questions” about transness, gender, and identity are actually just surface-level disagreements over terminology and categories. The nature of these disputes can be usefully clarified by means other than repeated shouting at one another.

Here’s one of the most frequently asked questions about transness: “Is a trans woman a woman?” This tends to elicit answers along the lines of:

“Yes, a trans woman possesses this one quality of women!”

“No, a trans woman lacks that other quality of women!”

In this case, it’s clear that the word “woman” is being used to refer to different properties. Erase the word “woman” and think about what’s really being asked here. When someone says, “Is a trans woman a woman?”, they could be asking any one of several distinct questions. These can include:

  • “Does a trans woman have ovarian tissue?”
  • “Does a trans woman have a uterus?”
  • “Does a trans woman have XX chromosomes?”

If by “woman” you mean “has ovaries, a uterus, and XX chromosomes”, then no, a trans woman would not be a woman under this meaning. On the other hand, if this question is intended to ask:

  • “Do trans women honestly and authentically consider themselves to be women?”
  • “Do trans women generally go about their lives in a manner similar to most other women?”
  • “Can I regard a trans woman as being a woman for most practical purposes in everyday life?”

The answer is yes, a trans woman is a woman under this meaning. This is why it’s important to specify what you mean by “woman”: if you don’t, it’s easy for two well-intentioned parties to end up talking past each other. Here, the technique of tabooing a word can help to reveal whether a dispute focuses on genuinely differing beliefs about the real state of the world, or the most appropriate scope and boundaries of a defined category. For instance, these parties likely don’t disagree on the questions of whether a trans woman has ovaries, or whether she honestly considers herself to be a woman. But if they never bother to look beyond the simple tug-of-war over “Yes, trans women are women!” versus “No, they’re not!”, the word “woman” is just getting in the way of clearer communication.

Again, if you’re expecting that this can be resolved in some conclusive way such that the question “But is a trans woman really a woman?” can have a universal yes-or-no answer, this isn’t going to happen. The word “woman” is used to convey many distinct meanings here, and if you don’t know which particular meaning is intended, a “yes” or “no” would not be very useful for effectively communicating anything.


Practice 2: Genitals and what they represent

Content note: descriptions of rape and sexual assault.

This technique can be extended beyond just words, because there are many more kinds of symbols that attach to meanings and concepts. For example, parts of the human body can serve as symbols that represent certain meanings. In the ongoing controversy over trans people’s use of public restrooms and locker rooms, trans women’s bodies and genitals have often been the subject of intense scrutiny, described in terms such as “male anatomy”, “male sex organs”, “male genitals”, and so on. The mere possession of a penis by some trans women has frequently been cited as a reason why they shouldn’t be present in women’s restrooms or locker rooms, with various lawmakers and organizations characterizing this as a “security concern” or a matter of “safety”.

My bill essentially states that it is ok for a facility to segregate by gender and if you are preoperative or nonoperative then you use the facility apporpriate for your genitalia and you have no right to enter a facility of the opposite gender. I see this as a privacy, safety and a security issue…

– Rep. Graham Hunt (R-WA)

What exactly is the nature of this supposed threat to security or safety posed by trans women’s bodies? In a court filing regarding H.B. 2, the state of North Carolina managed to find a former FBI agent who made these broad statements about human sexuality:

These rules and social customs are not only because of potential deviant or criminal abuses, but also due to the “normal” sexual interest and attraction of the vast majority of society. For example, some adolescent high school boys or college males (who are not abnormal or sexual predators) might want to get into the girls’ locker room. … The raging hormones and immaturity of young males drive the activity. …

For these reasons, changes in access policies made to accommodate a very small minority of society ignore the reality of the sex drive of a very large majority. Allowing a man to use woman’s rest room, locker room, dressing room, shower, or dormitory room simply because he says he feels like a woman would seem to be reckless, to ignore thousands of years of human experience, and to ignore potential criminal activity.

– US v. North Carolina, “Defendants’ and Intervenor-Defendants’ Brief in Opposition to the United States’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction”, 17 Aug 2016 (Exhibit M, “Expert Declaration and Report of Kenneth V. Lanning”)

Such testimonies provide useful clues as to what individuals are trying to convey when they make the argument:

“Penises should not be present in women’s restrooms or locker rooms.”

Clearly, there are already many issues with this argument: declaring that men’s sexual violation of women is “normal”, insinuating that the rape of women by men is the only kind of rape which should concern us, and assuming that only penises are used in the act of rape or sexual assault and that no other body parts or objects are ever used for this purpose. But even putting these problems aside, this argument still fails on its own premises.

Here, penises are cited in order to invoke a wider range of physical and behavioral phenomena. A penis alone does very little outside of being controlled by the other bodily systems of a person. What is being expressed here when the penis itself is treated as some inherently self-explanatory reason why the body attached to it shouldn’t be present in women’s facilities? In place of saying “penises”, those making this argument could be saying:

  • “Male-typical patterns of sexual interest should not be present in women’s restrooms or locker rooms.”
  • “Male-typical patterns of sexual urges and sexual response should not be present in women’s restrooms or locker rooms.”
  • “Male-typical patterns of erectile function should not be present in women’s restrooms or locker rooms.”

However, even if these are justifiable concerns, the physical realities of trans women’s bodies significantly impact the relevance of these concerns in this situation.

  • A frequent feature of gender dysphoria is strong discomfort with one’s original genitals. Many trans women would be uncomfortable having their penises seen by others at all, and many don’t wish to use these genitals sexually, let alone to commit forcible rape or other sex crimes in a public area.
  • A large number of trans women take hormonal medications which reduce their levels of testosterone and increase their levels of estrogen. This treatment can alter and moderate the overall nature of their libido, and they often no longer experience sexual urges as frequently or intensely as they once may have. Additionally, many experience their sex drive prior to treatment as an uncomfortable and unwelcome presence that they are reluctant to engage with at all.
  • Hormone therapy can cause extensive atrophy and shrinkage of the genital tissue, as well as infertility and severe erectile dysfunction – a number of these medications are also used for the “chemical castration” of convicted sex offenders or prostate cancer patients. Many trans women may be largely unable to experience erections spontaneously or in response to sexual stimuli.

These traits are not universal or observed in every individual trans woman, but they do occur frequently, and show a very different distribution among trans women compared to cis men. The shape of a trans woman’s genitals is thus more of a technicality in this circumstance: it no longer reliably represents any of these concerning or threatening properties, as it does when attached to a cis man. As a symbol, her penis does not connect to those meanings.

The prevalence of this argument in public debate over trans issues illustrates how these conceptual conflations can be more than an oversight or miscommunication. They may also be constructed and advanced specifically for the purpose of spreading misinformation – in this case, by grouping trans women with cis men on the basis of this one shared characteristic, and inaccurately ascribing cis men’s abilities, tendencies, and actions to trans women as well. Most people may not be aware that this characteristic is a superficial one and that the relevant traits being implied are largely absent, as the public’s understanding of gender dysphoria and hormone therapy is usually not very detailed. A more accurate grasp of these phenomena would undermine objections to trans women’s penises being present in women’s restrooms and locker rooms.


Practice 3: “Am I transgender?”

I often receive messages from people who’d like my help as they work to figure out whether or not they’re transgender. The question “Am I trans?” can seem rather imposing and all-or-nothing, especially when phrased so bluntly. But it’s really not. The phenomena involved in gender and transness are very complex, and so this question may actually be referring to a wide variety of other lines of inquiry. When you peel back the label and look at the concepts underneath, it’s clear that this question is far from monolithic – it’s made of many smaller parts.

If we taboo the word “transgender”, which detailed and concrete questions might someone ask in place of “Am I transgender?” These could include:

  • Am I experiencing some of the most characteristic symptoms of gender dysphoria?
  • Do I feel uncomfortable with the sexed features of my body?
  • Which sexed features of my body would I change if possible?
  • How do I feel about the idea of my body aging under the influence of testosterone or estrogen?
  • Do I wish I had been born as another sex?
  • Do I feel I have more in common with women than with men, or vice versa?
  • Do I feel it’s more accurate to describe myself as a gender other than the one I was assigned?
  • Am I more comfortable in masculine-coded attire, feminine-coded attire, both, or neither?
  • Would I prefer to take a differently-gendered name?
  • Do I derive comfort and affirmation from presenting as another gender in private? In public?
  • Am I compelled to transition, while also reluctant due to the perceived commitment, social adjustments, possibility of harassment and discrimination, or other factors?
  • Would I, on the whole, feel better and more fulfilled if I were to live in all areas of daily life as a gender other than the one I was assigned?

The idea that the question of “Am I trans?” must be decisively confronted all at once can be offputting to people who may be trans – yet it really doesn’t have to be. Gender is comprised of an incredible number of variables, and it’s something that everyone experiences somewhat differently. Each of these components can be contemplated in relative isolation, without it being necessary to provide a singular answer to the larger question of one’s gender or identity. This can help a person develop an understanding of themselves at a more comfortable pace, exploring these questions when they’re ready.


Homework: Cracking concepts and disentangling definitions

The techniques I’ve outlined here are very straightforward, but they do require some deliberate thought, imagination, and practice. Here are some gender-related questions for you to explore using these approaches. There are plenty of possible answers – this isn’t primarily about finding the correct ones, it’s just about getting used to intentionally and explicitly navigating these concepts and their structure.

  1. Locate three distinct and separate physical phenomena that have each been referred to with the term “biological sex”. How can definitions of biological sex be constructed to affirm or contradict trans people’s genders?
  2. Name three specific and relevant differences between a trans woman voicing an identity as a woman, and a cis man voicing an identity as a helicopter. How is the term “identify” used to obscure these differences?

If you’d like to send in your answers, post in the comments below or email Have fun!


Recommended reading

Next: Answers (module 1-2)

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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5 Responses to Gender reasoning exercises: Symbol, substance, and tabooing your words (More Trans, module 1-1)

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