Elinor Burkett, a journalist, filmmaker, and former professor of women’s studies, published a piece in the New York Times last month expressing frustration with the way in which certain trans individuals describe their transition. She points to Bruce Jenner (still using the male pronoun and name at the time), who told Diane Sawyer that his “brain is much more female than it is male.” Burkett discusses the problematic nature of the idea of male vs. female brains – a biological hypothesis of gender difference that has been used to justify the positioning of women as the inferior sex. Burkett suggests that the “born in the wrong body” expression commonly used by trans people is offensive, “reducing [women] to our collective breasts and vaginas.”
The link between the female body – whether on the level of hormones, chromosomes, or organs – and traditional notions of femininity is problematic for certain feminists. Myself included. The question of how to reconcile my social constructionist views of gender norms and my belief in the legitimacy of the trans experience has often crept into my mind, but I recoiled from it. I was afraid that even having the question was wrong, that I’d make a mistake along my search for reconciliation, or that, worst of all, I wouldn’t find reconciliation. But I can’t be a good ally if I don’t educate myself, and that involves facing my questions.
Laying out some terms is a good place to start. Gender essentialism is the idea that one’s sex corresponds with either masculine or feminine behaviors. Gender identity may refer to a person’s identification with gender roles (masculine, feminine, both, neither) and/or to the self-conception of the sex of one’s body. The bodies of transgender individuals do not match up with some aspect of their gender identity.
In a sense, transgender people defy gender essentialism. That’s because their experience runs counter to the idea that genitalia correspond with set, innate gender identities, roles, and expressions.
But where some of us social constructionists get mixed up is when it comes to transitioning to bring the body in line with gender identity. Is doing so an assertion that gender is in hormones or body parts? Is it an essentialist action?
In her fantastic article, trans writer Kat Callahan makes a helpful distinction between gender dysphoria and sex dysphoria. The former is discomfort or distress caused by a discord between gender identity and the body broadly; the latter term describes a physical “mapping” problem between the body and a person’s self-concept of what the body should be like that causes great distress and discomfort with one’s body. Callahan described her experience with sex dysphoria: “In my own case, my issues with processing testosterone, referred to as androgen receptivity issues, and empirically observable physical ‘mapping’ issues in how sensations are passed from body to mind indicates that my own issues with physicality are not to be found in my mind—but rather in the body.”
In a thread dedicated to the question I’m dealing with here, Reddit user “viviphilia” describes her experience: “Personally, before I knew what a vagina was, I felt like there was something wrong in my perineal area. I felt like I should be able to do the splits, like that area should be able to come apart, but something inside me was holding it together so it wouldn’t open up. When I first heard about surgery, I wondered if I could cut that area open so that it could come apart, so that I would have a hole there. When I first learned what a vagina was, around age 8, I knew immediately that’s what I should have…”
Sex is not as dimorphic as we’re accustomed to treating it. A lot goes into determining physical sex, including gonads, genitalia, chromosomes, genes, and hormones, but we’re assigned a sex at birth based on genitalia alone. One theory suggests that one stage of prenatal sexual development is the formation of gender identity – one’s sense of being male or female. It could be that the brain is programmed to expect certain things about the body that don’t materialize if another stage of sexual development goes in the opposite direction. This research roundup shows the many processes and stages involved in the formation of sex. It’s not a perfect resource, as the author slips into the claim that gender roles are biological in certain portions of the article. But it does provide some insight into how the different stages of sexual development, one of which is self-conceptual, may conflict with one another.
I think these points offer a way to answer Burkett’s criticism of “born in the wrong body” rhetoric. It’s not that the body isn’t feminine or masculine enough for some who transition, but that the brain’s conception of how the body should be doesn’t match the physical reality. This concept of a “sexed brain” is very different from the essentialist idea that women’s and men’s brains predispose them for certain behaviors and capacities (gender roles). It’s rather about the perception and experience of one’s own body.
For some trans individuals, their gender expression corresponds with what is normally expected of someone of the sex they transition to. Some trans women are very feminine; some trans men are very masculine. But the opposite and everything in between the extremes occurs as well. For confirmation that being trans does not require gender norms and body sex to align, all you need to do is check out Ryan Mazariego’s Youtube video describing his experience as a feminine trans man.
I do think Burkett has pointed out a legitimate problem – the idea that femininity is rooted in brains or breasts or estrogen. But perhaps Bruce was right about his brain being female – in the sense of self-conception.
I don’t want to generalize the experience of being trans by claiming that the medical/scientific theory advanced above applies to every individual who transitions or wants to. I can see, for example, why some transgender individuals may transition in order to bring their bodies in line with their gender expression without significant sex dysphoria – something societal pressure, along with the threat of violence, may make necessary for comfort and safety. And seeing that as legitimate doesn’t require abandoning the social constructionist view of gender. But the theory does ring true to the experience that some trans individuals recount, and it also helps me see that my views on gender roles and my support for trans individuals who transition are not in tension.
In Part 2, I’ll address the other main criticism Burkett put forth in her article concerning male privilege and male-to-female transitioning.