Ozy Frantz introduced zirself to me by saying that “I major in gender studies, but I am not that kind of gender studies student. Promise.” So far this claim has been entirely borne out and Ozy’s blog is actually really good. I still usually avoid reading it, because even a good blog on gender has to be responding to and referencing the bad blogs on gender, and even short little quotes from them make me want to smash something and that something is often someone’s skull. But it really is actually really good.
I am particularly intrigued by the latest post, Cis By Default, which is related to a conversation we had last week. Ozy thinks that some people have really strong gender identity, and other people don’t really have any gender identity at all and just sort of end up not trans-gender because why bother with the social stigma and aggravation that produces?
It also helps explain my own personal experience. I am probably one of the people Ozy calls “cis by default”. I obviously can’t be sure, but I feel like if I woke up tomorrow magically transformed into a (hetero) woman, my first two thoughts (after “WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON???”, of course) would be “Huh, cool, this probably makes it much easier to find a mate” and “Darnit, now I’ve got to deal with this whole menstruation thing”.
[EDIT: Girlfriend just asked me “Wait, if you woke up magically transformed into a heterosexual woman, your first thought wouldn’t be about having to break up with me?” Awwwwwkward.]
And then I’d get into some very rational comparisons to my personality, like “Oh, good, this socially legitimizes my lack of interest in sports”, or “Nice, now it’s attractive for me to project my standard vibe of passive lack of interest in my surroundings, instead of having to try to appear dominant and take-charge all the time.” But I don’t envision any kind of visceral “But oh no I feel truly male this is an offense against the natural order of things!” being anywhere up there.
And as Ozy predicted, this did make me – if not actively prejudiced against, at least confused by trans people for a long time. My thought processes were something like “Gender seems pretty irrelevant, so I wonder why they’re going to so much trouble over this.” And I was actually rounding off to my own experience – maybe these were men who weren’t aggressive or interested in sports, and so they decided that they should become women. Which was kind of dumb. Which was more or less my opinion of trans until I was, I dunno, twenty or so.
What changed my mind was a sort of complicated string of medical facts.
First I learned about phantom limb sensations. These aren’t exactly rare or controversial; over half of amputees have them. The theory is that the brain has a map of how the body should look which does not always correspond to how the body does look. This map isn’t even necessarily based on pre-amputation sensations. Some people born without limbs still have phantom limbs. In another case reported by Ramachandran, a woman whose hand had been deformed from birth needed an amputation; she reported the resulting phantom limb was non-deformed. All these suggest that the brain’s map is at least partially hard-wired rather than based solely on experience.
Later I learned about the exact opposite phenomenon, body integrity identity disorder, where a healthy person with four healthy limbs feels like one of their limbs is “wrong” and has a strong desire to get it amputated. This was originally classified as a psychiatric disease and even dismissed as a subset of amputee fetishism, and to my disappointment Wikipedia still mostly treats it along these lines.
But I’ve heard that some of the same neurologists working with phantom limbs think this is also a disorder of brain-body mapping; that for some reason their brain’s map of their body doesn’t include a perfectly healthy limb and so it feels foreign. Some very preliminary MRI studies seem to have borne this out, and there are other signs that there’s something biological going on too (the limb involved seems to be disproportionately associated with the nondominant hemisphere of the brain).
More convincing to me is that the disorder has a very non-psychiatric resolution: if patients are able to amputate the offending limb, they are perfectly happy and never have any further complaints. Compare this to a more psychiatric population like hypochondriacs, who if you treat one of their fake sicknesses just come up with another, because the underlying psychological problem that makes them want to feel sick hasn’t gone away. After hearing this story I decided to count the previous dismissal/marginalization of these people as a huge failure of psychiatry and as exactly the sort of thing I need to watch out for.
And this segued nicely into stories of people who believed that some of their gendered body parts (breasts, genitals) are wrong and not really part of their bodies. It has all the features that gave body integrity identity disorder a red flag for being organic rather than psychiatric: very strong desire to remove offending body parts, different distribution of comorbidities you see with a lot of genuine psychiatric disorders, and removal of the offending body part makes the person pretty happy. It seems that the same logic that says BIID sufferers may have a map of their body that doesn’t include their left leg or whatever could give these people a map of their body that doesn’t include their penis or their breasts or something.
Of course not all transgender people have this kind of very medical-seeming aversion to a specific body part. But the medical-aversion type of people often also have the typical transgender “I feel my gender identity is wrong” belief, and it would make sense that if some sort of “gender” variable got switched somehow this could produce a gender-inappropriate body map. The existence of gender-inappropriate body maps, and of this whole literature of people’s brains sometimes telling them things about their bodies that aren’t true and then it causes great distress, makes the idea of an isolated gender-variable switch much more plausible.
And if it’s possible to have a gender variable get switched, then it’s much more parsimonious to believe that the people who say they feel like their gender variable is switched actually have this gender variable switched, rather than that they’re acting out for some sort of weird social reason. Especially if it’s hard to think up a weird social reason that would be worth it.
Caring about gender still doesn’t make internal subjective psychological sense to me, any more than having some kind of mental “pants type” variable that says I should be wearing blue jeans and gets deeply distressed whenever I wear khakis.
Then again, I naively picture my body map as being such that, if I got a third arm for some reason, I’d just shrug and see if I could leverage it into a career as a the most confusing basketball player ever, instead of desperately wanting it amputated. So maybe my naive predictions about what variables do and don’t matter to my brain aren’t very good.
So I have two hypotheses. One is Ozy’s hypothesis that some people have gender identity and others don’t, and for some people that gender identity matches their biological sex and for others it doesn’t. A second hypothesis is that everyone has gender identity, but if it matches your biological sex it’s impossible to notice (just like the analogy where fish don’t understand the idea of water) and if it doesn’t match your biological sex it becomes obvious (just as a fish would no doubt notice being taken out of water).
It sounds like the best way to distinguish between the two of these would be to check for cis- people with strong gender identities. Do any of you cis- people out there have a strong, visceral feeling of “Oh, thank God I was born a man/woman, because that’s just obviously what I ought to be – and if I magically transformed into a woman/man, I would want to get surgery/hormones/etc to change back as soon as possible” or something like that?