I Don’t “Get It” Either
That grand curmudgeon H.L. Mencken wrote
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
People like simple answers, even scientists do. Without being able to reduce problems down to idealized abstractions, we would never be be able to make any progress. But as Lawrence Peter Berra purportedly said, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”. In the best case, we have a good rule of thumb that we can usually usefully apply, and in the worst case, we have something that sounds plausible and elegant, yet leads us in entirely the wrong direction.
When it comes to many aspects of the human condition, we enter a territory where there are plenty of people peddling simple answers, but those answers conflict both with the answers given by other people and with at least some of the available evidence. Questions like what it means to be conscious, why people are gay, why they are left handed, why people dream, what it means to be Australian, whether red really exists, whether honesty is really always the best policy, what leads two people to fall in love, what is the best way for society to organize itself, what is the best economic policy, and on and on.
It’s no surprise then, that people aren’t in complete agreement about what gender is, what it means to be a woman or a man, and so on. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see that lots of people don’t properly fully grasp transsexualism. In fact, I would say that anyone who claims that they do really understand these things in their entirety ought to be regarded with deep suspicion.
One place where you see over-simplified views of transsexualism is from people who know next to nothing about it, and work based on some gut-level intuitions, the people who “don’t get it”. In my real life, I’m hardly ever situations where this kind of ignorance comes up, but I do see it on the Internet, even on broad general-interest sites like reddit and youtube, the topic comes up once in a while and you get to see people making misguided, misinformed, or just plain transphobic remarks. In those situations, I’ll often try to knock down their cardboard stereotypes and limited ideas of natural gender variance, and open their eyes to the complexity of the real world. But I don’t want to make those arguments here, because other people have prepared a lot of Trans-101 material that covers this ground, and because I want to explore another aspect of oversimplification.
There are other ways that transsexualism gets over-simplifed, and that is done by those very people who would try to explain it to others in the hope of spreading more tolerance. I am one of those people, but I have to say that despite all I’ve been through, I don’t understand this condition at all well. At best, I understand it well enough to get a sense of our collective ignorance and how poor some of our classic tropes are.
For example, one usual simple answer for a transsexual woman is “My womanhood is as genuine as any other woman’s”. It’s a simple idea, and said with passion and the right surrounding context it is usually persuasive. But depending on the definitions we use, its truth may be nonverifiable or even demonstrably false. Certainly if someone narrowly construes womanhood to genetics or reproductive function, some transsexual women are denied womanhood due to that severe oversimplification (as are some cissexual women!), but there are other, harder-to-dismiss, ways someone’s womanhood can be called into question.
If womanhood comes, as many transsexuals seem to believe, from some kind of internal knowing (which itself seems like a form of mental essentialism), I have no way to know that my experience of “knowing” that I am a woman is the same as the “knowing” that other people experience. It’s nonverifiable. (That shouldn’t be a surprise; likewise, there is no way to know whether I have the same kind of consciousness as others [maybe they are all p-zombies], or whether my experience of pain is like theirs.)
If, on the other hand, we take a stance that “existence precedes essence”, and that as Simon de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born a woman, but becomes one”, we can see womanhood as something that arises from the form and capabilities of the adult female body and the way in which that person is treated by the wider world. As someone with breasts and a vagina, someone who the world sees and treats as a woman, and has lived as such for many years, it seems fair to say that I am a woman now—my lived experience correlates well with that of other women and poorly with that of men. But that raises the question of what I was when I first started to transition. Many transsexual woman would say “I was always really a woman (or before that a girl)”, and I would love to believe that too, but it that can hardly hold if womanhood is defined by a complex set of externalities, none of which seem to apply prior to transition.
Some people would say that there are externalities they can point to. Feminine behavior as an adult, gender variance as a child, and so on. But much as some transsexuals can ignore some externalities (e.g., “you don’t need a vagina to be a woman”), we can turn the tables on them and write off other externalities—namely the small set incongruities they would use to justify their identity. For example, gender variance is present in a lot of children who grow up not to be transsexual, but grow up to be gay or lesbian cissexuals. Likewise, most of us would argue that being outside of conventional gender roles should not be enough to deny someone womanhood or manhood. If I can write off being a little butch as an adult as irrelevant, how can I cling to being a little feminine as a child as meaningful?
Others point to sex-differences research that purports to show differences between male and female brains and says that transsexuals have brains corresponding to the sex they identify as. There are two problems here; the first is that sex-differences research has a long history of telling the culture in which it is undertaken exactly what it wants to hear. Women suddenly became much more capable in the eyes of science when they were needed in factories during the second world war, and became more fragile again when the boys came home and they needed to be encouraged to return to the role of home-maker. When women were seen as less skilled mathematically, science tried to tell us why, and once women attained similar mathematical achievement, those studies were discredited. So I have a healthy skepticism for sex-differences research. But even if it were solid, without actually being tested myself, I have no idea whether my brain would pass muster. Some scientists currently claim female brains are bad at spacial rotation, but I’m excellent at it—should I be proud of my smarts (I score better than average men or women) or fear for the truth of my gender identity? What if I fail whatever “girl brain” test they come up with? Probably I’ll be able to comfort myself with the fact that there are bound to be cissexual men who pass the test and cissexual women who fail it; that it is true in the average, but not always. That life is, in other words, more complicated than the simple idea of male and female brains would have us believe.
But aren’t I boxing myself into a corner? I seem to be skeptical of the idea of innate womanhood, but if that is the case, what was it that drove me initially? Where did that belief that I was really a woman come from? Some outsiders who “don’t get it” sometimes claim that transsexualism is a kind of delusion. In debating them, I can refer them to the psychiatric literature that denies that diagnosis. I might even be able to persuade the more stupid ones by saying “Who on earth would wish this in themselves?”. And yet, I can’t help wondering about all those other people who have sincere beliefs about themselves where they too say “Who on earth would wish this in themselves?”.
There are certainly other people who believe things about themselves that I find hard to square with reality as I perceive it, and whose sense of themselves seems to be warped. Such people include those who believe they were abducted by aliens; people with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), who believe themselves to be too fat, no matter what; and, people with body integrity identity disorder (BIID), who believe that they would be better off without their left arm or right leg and might describe themselves as transabled. I see alien abduction as someone drawing entirely the wrong inferences from phenomena such as sleep paralysis and progressively reinforcing their convictions. Is it possible that as a child I drew some poor conclusions, and like an oyster making a pearl from a grain of sand, I created a cross-gender explanation? I certainly can’t prove to anyone that that isn’t the case.
In other words, if someone says, “You didn’t transition because you were really a woman back then, you did it because you were fundamentally broken in some way,” there really is nothing I can say to refute that. I’d certainly like to believe it isn’t true, but I couldn’t even make that claim before I transitioned, let alone now that my transition is a distant memory. In fact, the my utter failure to find any good answer for why I should need to be woman (beyond saying “this makes me happier and feels right, the alternative seems to increasingly lead towards misery and suicidal thoughts”) used to leave me in a death spiral of self doubt. That continued until I finally got over myself and decided that even if “to be happy” wasn’t a very scientific or rational answer to a “why?” question, it was nevertheless the best and most believable answer I was likely to get.
Even if I don’t understand the why of gender dysphoria, I do know that my gender dysphoria had a vivid and unpleasant reality to it. I do know that transition was something that changed things dramatically for the better, and to my surprise, surgery was a far more positive experience than I ever expected. My life now, years later is a good one. In the sense of Simone de Beauvoir I have become what I am now, a woman. But both then and now, when I try to look at why explanations like “some people thought I was a girl even when I was a boy”, “I always knew”, “I have a female brain” and so on strike me as politically useful but ultimately, I find them unsatisfyingly simplistic. When I look back, I see a tangled mess that no one can entirely make sense of.
Thankfully, you don’t always need to know why things are the way they are to figure out the a good way to handle the situation. We don’t need to know why people are gay or lesbian or bisexual to know that we should to treat them fairly. We don’t need to know why people are left-handed to know that we shouldn’t cater only to right-handed people.
I’m pleased to have faced up to things at a time when enough people “get it” well enough to know what’s right to allow transsexual people to be happy. I’m very happy that I followed a path that ultimately took me to a pretty good place. In that sense, answering the why question well is irrelevant. But it does mean that even as I argue with, and try to enlighten, people who “don’t get it” on the why front, people who are skeptical and confused, at some level I’m right there with them. I don’t get it either. I don’t think anyone really does.