Symbol, substance, and tabooing your words, part 2: answers (More Trans, module 1-2)

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

moretrans-logoIn the previous episode, we reviewed some simple Less Wrong techniques for forcing yourself to look beyond an individual term for a concept, and consciously think about the actual substance of what it’s referring to. For instance, instead of asking “If a tree falls and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”, this can be rephrased as “If a tree falls and nobody hears it, does it make pressure waves that propagate through the air?” By removing the word itself from a statement, and replacing it with a longer and more detailed description of what the word aims to represent, you can clarify both your own thoughts as well as those of others.

Contemporary debates over transgender issues can often become mired in trivial arguments about definitions, obscuring the more important substance of these controversies. Transphobic groups’ exploitation of this confusion in order to spread damaging misinformation about trans people has further muddled these discussions. Conversely, clarifying these relationships between symbol and substance by mapping out the details of the specific concepts involved can be of substantial benefit to the public’s understanding of trans people and gender issues. This approach removes a great deal of repetitive, unproductive noise from the conversation, such as ongoing arguments over whether trans women are “really women”.

Last time, I asked viewers how they would apply these techniques to other significant transgender topics:

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?

While there are many possible answers to these questions – and I hope to hear some that I haven’t thought of – here are just a few potentially useful pathways to follow when exploring these concepts.


How to construct biological sex

One of the most widespread notions of “biological sex” is a highly simplified binary division based on sex chromosomes: people with a Y chromosome are considered “male”, while those without a Y chromosome are considered “female”. This is a common definition among the general public, and numerous legislators in the United States have proposed bills containing some variation of this language in order to restrict trans people’s use of public restrooms and other facilities.

Even though this definition is an oversimplified rule of thumb that neglects to account for many complex aspects of sex and gender, it’s often used because it facilitates the misgendering of trans people. It encourages disregarding the gender a trans person lives as, in favor of focusing exclusively on specific segments of microscopic genetic material that have little direct relevance to their everyday experiences as a woman or man in society, such as using a restroom.

Of course, this is far from the only possible definition of biological sex, even though it may be the only one that most people are familiar with (Ainsworth, 2015). Another definition, primarily used by biologists and other scientists, refers to the differing sizes of the gametes produced by organisms which reproduce sexually (Roughgarden, 2004, pp. 2326). The production of the larger egg cell is considered definitive of a female member of a species, while the production of smaller sperm cells defines the male member of the species. This is considered a reliable guideline in biology because it embodies a general principle observed among sexual organisms: various evolutionary forces do not favor egg and sperm cells of a similar size, which inevitably leads a species to develop larger eggs and smaller sperm.

For instance, even in the unique case of a genus of Brazilian barklice where the ovum-bearing member uses a structure similar to a penis to penetrate the genital opening of the sperm-bearing member, the female is still considered female and the male is still considered male. The distinction is based on gametes rather than sexual anatomy, regardless of the female’s apparent penis and the male’s apparent vagina.

Another practical definition of sex had previously been enacted by the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations. This standard was intended to target hyperandrogenism among cis women athletes, a condition where a woman’s body produces a higher-than-typical amount of testosterone, potentially conferring some degree of supposed athletic advantage (Jordan-Young, Sönksen, & Karkazis, 2014). If an athlete had a testosterone level of 10 nmol/L or greater, she was considered ineligible to compete with women unless she underwent medical or surgical treatment to reduce this level. While this rule has recently been suspended, it did serve as a concrete definition based on a specific biological aspect of sex, and was intended to regulate an individual’s entrance into the practical gender category of “woman”.

Additionally, some attorneys and advocacy groups have made the legal argument that a person’s identified gender is both an aspect of their biological sex, and should be considered the foremost determinant of their sex (Levasseur, 2015). This definition is based on these facts, among others:

  • Identified gender is not something that can be changed, any more than one’s chromosomes.
  • Gender identity likely has a fixed biological component.
  • The contemporary medical consensus on the most effective treatment of an incongruence of visible sex traits and gender identity recommends altering those physical sex features to align with the individual’s gender identity.

The identity-centered definition works to encourage legal and societal acknowledgement that a trans person is the gender they voice themselves as. In doing so, it’s meant to help trans people exist in all areas of society as their genuine selves, without being invalidated by other misgendering definitions that may be imposed upon them by others.

While this is just a limited selection of possible definitions of biological sex, it’s clear that the construction of these definitions can be decided on the basis of a large number of factors. One of those factors is how the person constructing the definition wishes for trans people and other gender minorities to be labeled. This complicates the naïve assumption of a simple chromosome- or genital-based model as the singular, objective determinant of a person’s biological sex.


The man who identifies as a helicopter

When I posed the question of how a cis man who claims an identity as a helicopter is different from a trans woman who claims an identity as a woman, this may have seemed absurd – and it is. But it’s also a comparison that’s been made in the wild by many individuals who apparently believe that this, or other parallels involving nonhuman creatures or objects, constitutes substantive criticism of trans people’s very genders.

Although it seems to be a remarkably trite bit of rhetoric, it’s worth examining as an extreme case: even an argument as brazenly disingenuous as this one can still gain significant traction among many, who find it truly convincing regardless of its straightforward deception.

When a trans woman says “I identify as a woman”, and a cis man says “I identify as a helicopter”, which descriptions could replace the word “identify” in those sentences? What is it that each of them is actually expressing with their use of the term “identify”?

A trans woman who voices herself as a woman is typically doing so on the basis of very significant personal traits and life experiences, and she expresses her identity as a genuine and honest declaration of who she fundamentally is. She’s likely felt a longtime discomfort with the physical features of her assigned sex, the social roles expected of men, or the presentation typically associated with men. She’s likely pursued aspects of medical transition or social transition that have significantly improved her mental health and overall well-being, and she probably goes about her life more comfortably and successfully as a woman than she did as an apparent “man”. She’s willing to face the significant harassment, discrimination, and other societal hardship that comes with her identification as a woman and her life as a woman, because to her, this is nevertheless very much worth it due to the deep and irreplaceable personal fulfillment that her embodied womanhood provides to her.

A cis man who says “I identify as a helicopter” is making a flippant and rude remark in the midst of a conversation that likely serves no purpose other than to express open hostility towards the identities of others. This claimed identity will not persist in his life beyond the end of the conversation. He hasn’t experienced any sort of ongoing, consistent disidentification with his human features or a deep personal sense that the features of a helicopter are more appropriate to who he is at heart. He does not intend to go about his life in the role of a helicopter, nor does he even wish that he could. Life as a helicopter would not resolve any psychological issues for him or improve his overall well-being. The choice of a helicopter as an object of supposed identification is arbitrary and clearly is not meant to reflect a significant component of his self on the same level as a person’s gender. The idea to claim an “identity” as a helicopter likely originated around the time he learned that transness exists and became distressed by this.

In reality, there is no particular similarity between the phenomena of a trans woman’s gender and a cis man’s helicopter argument. “I identify as a helicopter”, in this context, is expressing something along the lines of:

  • “I know very little about the actual lives of trans people.”
  • “I consider trans people’s identified genders to be a contradiction, impossibility, or delusion.”
  • “I’d like to trivialize and dismiss trans people’s genders by belittling them with a preposterous comparison.”

This is not an internal identity in any useful sense that we usually understand identities – it carries no substance of any such significance to the individual claiming it, and is solely directed outward against the identities and lives of millions of people. Here, the term “identify” is being used in perhaps the most superficial way possible, reduced to a hollow label that can be shuffled around and stuck to nearly any concept regardless of its relevance to the phenomena referred to by gender identity. Crafty usage of a word like “identify” is not sufficient to cause these two circumstances to take on meaningful similarities in reality. They did not possess those similarities before the term was applied, and they won’t afterward.

This plain trickery nevertheless fools many, because they find it difficult to see differences in clearly distinct situations once the same word is conspicuously and intentionally used for both. While it’s obviously not necessary to go through these analysis techniques in detail to reject such a self-evidently assholish assertion outright, this explicit procedure may still be useful for those who continue to struggle to see past the label “identity”.

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  • Ainsworth, C. (2015). Sex redefined. Nature, 518(7539), 288291.
  • Jordan-Young, R. M., Sönksen, P. H., Karkazis, K. (2014). Sex, health, and athletes. BMJ, 348, g2926.
  • Levasseur, M. D. (2015). Gender identity defines sex: Updating the law to reflect modern medical science is key to transgender rights. Vermont Law Review, 39(4), 9431004.
  • Roughgarden, J. (2004). Evolution’s rainbow: Diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

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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6 Responses to Symbol, substance, and tabooing your words, part 2: answers (More Trans, module 1-2)

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