Tag Archives: Nature/ Nurture

What does dysphoria mean to me?

It took me a long time to come to the decision to transition, even though I have been out at home and work as transgender for over a year. I spent a lot of time asking would transition be right for me, whether I am “trans enough”, feeling like I was in a no person’s land.

Last week I was finally sure of my way forward; I changed my name to Sam, change my title to “Mr”, came out to the world yet again, referred myself to the gender clinic. I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time. But I realise that, while suffering from what is currently known as “gender dysphoria”, I’ve never really tried to explain to people what that means to me.

At its most basic, I simply cannot live with the category that society placed me in when I was born. Cis people feel more comfortable having a legal and social label that is related to their genitals, whereas this categorisation causes trans people great distress.

Does that mean I think I was “born with a male brain”? Er, not really. Humans have been designed by evolution to be uniquely adaptable; our brains develop as much after birth as before, meaning we can “download” our social and physical environment and adapt easily to the changing world we’re born into. We are not, contrary to popular belief, stuck with whatever our distant ancestors adapted to in terms of social roles.

But do I think something made me think of myself as male from the get-go? Yes I do, and that’s a whole different thing, because once you understand that a young trans person instinctively sees themselves as different to the sex assigned to them, you can start to understand what it is that makes them accumulate the social conditioning of the opposite sex. I naturally followed male cues, male instructions, male rules. I ignored female ones. I was effectively socialised male, particularly when I was young. I cared about guns and bullets and hated dolls not because of something innate and natural in me but because of the way society socialised me to fit the male role. If that didn’t happen, if we didn’t have a sense of self, for whatever reason, that filters and mediates the societal messages we get, well then I guess we’d all be walking gender stereotypes.

So what’s natural, and possibly innate, about me is simply the sense of self that initiated all this male socialisation. Fundamentally, and for reasons I do not fully know, I think of myself as a male and always have done.

I think it’s also important to note that people around me responded to my “boyishness”, and that reinforced it – so they weren’t just treating me as a girl, they were also treating me as a boyish person, and a gender non-conforming person. My socialisation was completely different than that of a cisgender girl.

Trans people’s socialisation is not straightforward

So when people say trans folk were socialised as their assigned sex, that’s just not true. I may have experienced some sexist treatment for being perceived (in some ways) as a girl, and considerably more cissexist treatment for being non-conforming, but I also experienced a lot of approval for my “masculine” traits and behaviours; I definitely absorbed the message “I am masculine and masculine is better” – I also developed ideas about femininity being more artificial and inferior. Of course it felt artificial to me because I wasn’t orientated that way, but now I can see that my own way of being, my own attitudes and behaviours were just as artificial, just as constructed, albeit constructed with a built-in notion of male superiority.

So, I hate it when folks say all people with vaginas have some sort of shared experience of womanhood that trans women never had. Trans women have a shared experience of womanhood that is a mystery to me – they have thought of themselves as female and absorbed the according social instructions.

I, on the other hand felt like an imposter, an infiltrator in girls’ and women’s spaces, and a lot of gender conforming girls and women shunned me for my “male energy”. I was an outsider; I fought long and hard to fit the category “woman” and I absolutely don’t believe I should have been shunned from it. Nor should I have had to spend so much of my life changing myself to try and conform to society’s ideas about what a woman should be. I understand and empathise with gender non-conforming folks assigned female at birth fighting to be accepted, included and recognised as women.

But being part of the lesbian community healed that wound for me – I was accepted as a woman, and my difference was embraced. I am glad I had that experience so that I know I am not choosing my current path for cisnormative or heteronormative reasons. But in order to reinforce that sense of belonging to the arbitrary category “women”, the lesbian community erases a deeper dialogue about transgender experiences.

I am what I say I am

As someone who has a fundamentally different socialisation experience from both cis men and cis women, but is forced to live in a world where cis people dominate the discourse and dictate the terms of our lives, I feel very strongly that only I can choose where best I fit in this false and imperfect system, and how best to deal with my situation. If I say that “I am a man” this does not mean I think I don’t have a vagina, it means that “I am a man” is the statement that best describes who I am in a world that has categorised everyone for the comfort of cisgender people. Equally, if it felt comfortable for me to do so, it would be just as valid for me to identify as a woman. Only I get to decide this, because only I am inside my own head and body.

In reality, I remain genderqueer – a person with an identity too complex to insert into a neat binary, but the binary is here and I have to deal with it whether I want to or not. And believe me, the gender and sex binary mutilates me in ways no surgery ever could. If I choose to take hormones or have surgery to ease my distress, that should not be anybody’s business but my own. Nor should transition be seen as something so very huge – HRT and reconstructive surgery are routine things; what really feels huge to cis people is the challenging of sex assignment as the natural order of things.

And to be clear, I do not believe that giving children the burden of a legal and social status according to their genitalia is “the natural order of things” – it’s just a tradition we go along with without thinking.

There’s another side to this. My need to stand in my power as a masculine person and not duck the issue by pretending to be someone I’m not. It has been incredibly hard for me to admit my maleness, to accept that if there is a “male gaze” then like it or not, I have it. I have experienced huge amounts of shame and denial about this. I cannot say that I “want” to be a man, but I am finally ready to admit and take responsibility for how much of a man I am.

Many other cultures treat what we call transgender people as spiritual and important. Alternative perspectives in society can often be hugely positive if we don’t try and co-opt or erase each other. To me, we are all interrelated, all of us who transgress gender rules and norms. Not the same, but natural allies. We should be working together to dismantle all aspects of gendered oppression.

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I am not a science experiment

Sometimes I could just go doolally listening to folks trying to trump social and cultural ideas with their clearly “superior” scientific sensibilities. The latest hoo ha on my LFAT page was over how “sex” cannot be socially constructed, for it clearly is a scientific fact. I blogged previously about this nature/nurture debate, but perhaps I did not make it clear just how much tension there is in feminist and trans circles between the scientific method and a more sociological approach. 

I’ll come back to this in a minute, but first, a personal history lesson.

My undergraduate degree was in chemistry. I was a bright young thing planning to save the world by solving the problems of ozone depletion, greenhouse emissions and world hunger. I was a nerd who believed in “facts” and loved the solid truth that if you took this chemical and that chemical and applied that process you’d get the same outcome every time. And I was good at it, a high flyer.

Lots of complicated things happened to me when I was studying that set me on a different path. But the overriding thing I learned from “pure, hard science” is that it was not going to solve the world’s problems because it had become unnecessarily powerful. It was something that had become blindly worshiped and followed in a manner akin to religion, and as such it was becoming increasingly used to control and abuse people. The Daily Mail would inform us on a daily basis that science tells us women are inferior, everything gives you cancer and (back then) global warming is not happening. If science said it, well it must be so.

I came to psychotherapy, which is a beautiful amalgam of art and science, when I realised if I wanted to really make the world a better place I needed to understand people. My Rogerian form of therapy had the added advantage that it does not seek to control – it works alongside people and allows them to be their own experts. It is the antithesis of an expert, authoritarian, scientific position, allowing people to discover their own truths and accepting these as valid.

Sandy, what does this all have to do with gender? I hear you ask.

Well, on all sides of the gender debate I hear people both invoking and dismissing science – invoking the science that seems to support them, even if it is bad science, whilst dismissing science that seems to be inconvenient as “junk”. Meanwhile, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding that scientists do not live in a cultural vacuum where they can see the world more clearly than the rest of us – science is riddled with blatant assumptions and errors of conclusion. Therefore, the only honest scientific consensus we can come to about gender is “we just don’t know enough about it yet”. Humans use knowledge as a form of control; we are far too reluctant to admit our uncertainty.

Science is a strong ally but a frightening enemy. Trans people are caught in a difficult double bind. Science could prove my existence and legitimise me, but science could also discover a mechanism to prevent people like me from being born. Science could find a test to make it easier for trans people to access services, but what if there are different mechanisms for being trans, and the test worked only for some of us? What if some of us are trans as a result of biology, whereas some are trans as a result of environment – would some of us be left out in the cold, less legitimate? And indeed, if being trans was proven to be a choice, would that necessarily mean the choice should not be made? That becomes a moral, rather than a scientific question, but it is true that we can be tempted to prove we have no choice in our existence as response to people’s looking down upon transgender lives as inferior and artificial. As if any of us, in the year 2014, live fully “natural” lives.

I see these tensions play out on my page the whole time. Some folks get jumpy when I post a science article that may clash with their own self-understanding, others are frustrated when things like social construction are discussed, unable to understand that there can be a genuine scientific underpinning to concepts like gender and sex but that by their nature these ideas are socially constructed, as all science is socially constructed, because no human being can fully stand outside of their culture and be truly objective.

The facts and figures may not lie, but the choices of what to count and when, what to note and what to ignore, how to categorise and divide, and how to interpret findings are all influenced by our socially susceptible primate brains. And that is a scientific fact. Probably.

Nature and nurture and why it’s a bogus debate

Let’s talk about love, just for a second, because it’s kind of complex and unknowable and I want to make a point about complicated things being turned into dumbed-down theories . . .

So, we know a few things about love. We know that it may be partially socially constructed (from Hollywood movies and songs, and suchlike) and partly biological (from hormones like oxytocin). We know that sometimes the concept of love is used in subtle ways to oppress women. I’m pretty certain, though, that if we saw it as only these things, we’d be accused of reducing something of value and importance. We might not really want other people’s definitions and theories imposed on our own experiences; love has a transcendent quality, that we “just feel” or “just know” in a way that can’t be reduced to biology or construction.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Yep, I’m drawing a comparison with gender. There are no proven definitions of what gender is, nor of where sex ends and gender begins, nor of how much gender is constructed and how much it is biology. Aspects of gender are oppressive, and for some, aspects of gender are valuable and meaningful. There is an endless and pointless nature/nurture debate over gender, and I’m getting a little weary of this unwinnable and pointless back and forth.

Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, talks about the “sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.” Personally, I have something a little more pithy to say about the nature/nurture debate:

It’s both. Get over it.

What troubles me is when people turn their own experience of gender into theory they apply to others, without taking into account their own subjectivity. Often, folks who experience themselves as monogender tend to follow “nature” theories whereas more androgynous or genderqueer people tend to think of gender as less real and innate, more fluid – this would make sense for people who don’t have a profound inner sense of gender, but they are disregarding those who do, by muddling people’s genuine sense of who they are with something that has merely been enforced by society. It would be like someone who has never been in love telling the rest of the world love does not exist, or someone who has been hurt by love saying it should not exist.

So some genderqueer or agender people assume theirs is the “real” experience and monogender people are somehow deluded; for them, gender cannot be real because they don’t experience it as real themselves. Monogender people are equally defensive of their own perspective, and can sometimes dismiss or cut across genderqueer or non-binary experiences, or say that explorations of social construction are deliberately eradicating of trans narratives.

When people disagree this much it’s probably because there are elements of truth on both sides, and a lack of empathy bridging the space between – the same thing happens with sexuality; bi people often think that “everyone’s bi really” whereas gay and heterosexual people tend to be suspicious that people could (or should) really be bi.

If we move in our heads from “either/or” to “both/and” maybe we can breathe a little easier with this nature/nurture conundrum. Everyone can have their identities and we can still talk about gender oppression, and challenge our social constructions around gender. We can get behind deconstructing an artificially reinforced gender binary but still accept gender diversity and natural difference.

We don’t need to forcefully maintain gender or forcefully eradicate it. Here’s a truly radical idea – what if we simply accept people’s self-experience and self-expression, and don’t privilege or validate some identities over others? Biology may well be the dominant factor in some but not all people’s experience of gender. Having a strong sense of gender identity or not feeling gendered at all are equally valid individual experiences that could be natural or constructed or a mix of both. The individual balance of nature and nurture is impossible to measure. More importantly, “natural” does not make something more valid; if we learned the idea of love from Shakespeare that doesn’t make it meaningless when we fall head over heels.

We are all the sum of our nature and nurture and the result, however mundane or unique, should be accepted as authentic.