In my previous post, I wrestled with the first two of the following three concepts:
- Biological sex: one’s state of being male or female based on their reproductive structures
- Gender role: how males and females are expected to behave in any given society; i.e. masculinity and femininity
- Gender identity: one’s internal sense of who they are as male, female, both, or neither
To repeat, the existence non-intersex humans as male and female is one of the only widely accepted facts across the diverse perspectives in the gender debates. Non-intersex humans are male or female based on their chromosomes and biological reproductive structures. My last post showed that gender roles are based on stereotypes about how males and females act, and that those stereotypes are based on general patterns of behavior that are rooted in both biology (essentialism) and culture (constructionism).
In this post, I want to consider the relationship between biological sex and gender identity. Now, let me be frank. The very notion of gender identity has produced a lot of outrage among feminists, lesbians, conservative Christians, and parents both liberal and conservative, among many others (strange bedfellows, I know). But a posture of outrage rarely helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Whatever you think about gender identity, there are many beautiful people created in God’s image who have experienced a life-long, unchosen, complex, and utterly debilitating incongruence between their sexed bodies and their internal sense of who they are. If you’ve never sat with someone “in their puddle,” as my trans friend Kat has put it, you’ll never be in a very good position to evaluate the “concept” of gender identity. Because for some people, it’s not just a concept but a matter of life and death—sometimes quite literally.
There’s a name, a face, a story, and a friend under every word I write in all these posts. And I hope I will honor their humanity while discussing concepts that are much more than mere concepts to them.
In fact, it took me much longer to write this post than I had originally planned. Let me be as raw and real with you as I can. The more I focused on the “conceptual” nature of our conversation, the further removed I found my heart from people. So, I would talk to people, listen to stories, try hard to enter into their experiences, and then I’d revisit the concepts that I had originally been working through in my first or second or seventeenth draft, and I found my thoughts to be much more impersonal than I had intended. And so I re-wrote, re-edited, and listened, listened, and listened again to actual people.
I know I promised you that we would be dealing primarily with concepts and not all the relational stuff just yet. And I intend to continue into the conceptual. But I just don’t think we’ll properly understand the concepts until we listen to people.
So I wanted to share how others have described their gender dysphoria—a sense of incongruence between their gender identity and their biological sex.
- The way in which my gender identity seems to differ from my sex is that I primarily feel like an imposter within my own sex and my own body.
- Sometimes, it’s like a splinter in my mind in which I can’t stop thinking about how I don’t fit in. It’s as if I’m wearing glasses which color the world with a shade of gray, and if only I was born the other sex then that fog would lift.
- For me personally, it felt like an electric current through my body that caused my joints to ache, my stomach turn, my hands shake, and nausea in the most severe moments of dysphoria. Laying in bed at night, it almost felt that the electric circuits in my body didn’t quite match up, like cramming two wrong puzzle pieces together.
- I always feel something wrong in my subconscious anyway, like I’m a piece of play-dough that’s been pulled, squished around and ripped apart aggressively as a cathartic form of stress relief for someone else, then muddled back together into something not quite my original shape.
- It’s like a “creepy serum” got “injected all over my body to create an odd, numb yet painful feeling coursing through my blood vessels and seeping into my flesh. My torso and limbs feel like static, and not from pins and needles. My stomach is always uneasy and my whole body is slightly tensed up, yet tired as hell from all that time being stiff.
If these experiences are foreign to you (as they are to me), then please linger on these statements long and hard before we are tempted to say flippant things (as I have done in the past) like “feelings don’t determine who you are,” “it’s all just in your mind,” “why did you choose to be trans?” or “you’re just trying to be trendy.”
Some of these kinds of statements might contain some truth for some people. But they not only fail to appreciate the complexity and, at times, profound agony of some experiences, but they can come off as insensitive, uncaring, or downright offensive. We need to ask people to describe their experiences to us, before venturing to give our own commentary on their lives.
It’s with real people in our hearts and minds that we look at the concept of gender identity.
The Human Rights Campaign defines gender identity as:
One's innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One's gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.[i]
This is almost identical to my short definition above, and it more or less resonates with many other definitions:
- “Youris your internal sense of being male, female, both, or neither” (Hartke,Transforming,21).
- “Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or combination of these” (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, SIECUS).
- “Gender identity is a person’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or someone outside of that gender binary)” (GLAAD).
Other definitions are similar, though some use “gender” to define “gender,” making it difficult to understand what they even mean by “gender.” For instance, the popular Gender Spectrum website says:
“Gender identity is our internal experience and naming of our gender. It can correspond to or differ from the sex we were assigned at birth.”
If we use gender to define gender, it makes it tough to really know what people mean by gender. Earlier, the website says that a “person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between” their body, identity, and society. I can understand that gender might be related to these three things, but the question remains: what is gender itself? Does it have any properties, any ontological essence, or is it a state of mind? We’re told that it relates to body, identity, and society, but we are not told what it is.
I don’t want to belabor the point. But it’s so common for potentially meaningful conversations to never get off the ground because people throw around the term gender without defining what they actually mean by the term. It’s like that scene in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya says (in a Spanish accent): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In any case, for the rest of this post and other posts, I’m going to use “gender identity” to mean “one’s internal sense of who they are as male, female, both, or neither.”
How is Gender Identity Determined?
Several questions naturally arise from this definition. Where does gender identity come from? Does it have any ontological or essential properties? How is it related to one’s biological sex? And are there any tangible or objective ways to determine a person’s gender identity?
To that last question, some people say, “no, and there doesn’t need to be. Just ask the person and they will tell you who they are.” This is a very common response today. What I like about this approach is that it honors the actual person that we’re talking about and sees them as an authoritative voice in the conversation. “Nothing About Us Without Us,” goes the saying, and I think they’re right. How would you like it if a bunch of people were sitting across the room talking about you but didn’t really give two hoots and a holler to talk with you? Any discussion about gender identity, especially those related to transgender or non-binary identities, should listen to the person claiming that identity.
But we can’t stop here. Listening to and honoring a person’s self-declaration is necessary, but insufficient. After all, we’re not just talking about each person’s individual experience or identity, but about fundamental categories of human nature—categories that are basic to human civilization. That is, we’re not just talking about Aaron’s gender identity, but the categorical relationship between gender identity and biological sex. We’re talking about Aaron and anthropology.
So, are there any anthropological, theological, or scientific pieces of evidence that support Aaron’s declaration that his male gender identity supersedes his female biological sex? (I don’t have any particular Aaron in mind, by the way.) Yes, there are. In fact, there are at least two.
The one is more material and goes by the name the “brain-sex theory.” The other piece of evidence is more spiritual and has to do with the soul or spirit having its own sex or gender (people often conflate the two).
Do brains come in two different sizes, male and female? Could someone be born biologically female but have a female brain (or vice versa)? I’d love for you to linger on these questions for the next couple of days, and then we’ll dive in to the brain-sex theory in the next post.
Oh, and in an effort to help us humanize this conversation, I want you to meet my good friend, mentor, and fellow Limp Bizkit fan: Lesli.