The Troubles with Gender

There is, as some of you may have noticed, a debate going on in the skeptics community about the – how shall I put this – status of trans women. I’m very busy writing a book on the subject of gender diversity, so I spend little time on Facebook and Twitter these days, but from what I have seen there are a lot of problematic arguments flying around in various comments. Let me make a few comments of my own on some key points.

1. Gender as a construct, and the hypocrisy related to how this is applied in practice

Judith Butler is frequently cited on the subject of gender as a social construct (Butler, 1990). Her work on queer theory did not arise in a vacuum, but followed from a criticism of heteronormative discourse in the 70s. It arose in part due to the essentialist nature of arguments about innate properties of genders that just happened to conform to social norms. In essence it is critical thinking about established truths concerning the nature of sexuality and gender.

In terms of transgender people – who at the time were forced to conform to the ideology of a largely heteronormative and patriarchal medical community – many feminists viewed trans women as the embodiment of gender stereotypes and gender construction. Trans women became a convenient target, being a highly marginalised group with little opportunity to respond. The deliberate demonisation of transgender people from feminists like Janice Raymond have had disastrous consequences for the availability of necessary medical care in especially the US.

This demonisation of transgender people by fringes of radical feminism still continues with people like Sheila Jeffreys, though most modern feminists recognise the bigotry that is central to their position. Judith Butler responded to a question by Cristan Williams in an interview last year where she asked Butler about the positions of Raymond and Jeffreys:

I have never agreed with Sheila Jeffreys or Janice Raymond, and for many years have been on quite the contrasting side of feminist debates. She appoints herself to the position of judge, and she offers a kind of feminist policing of trans lives and trans choices. I oppose this kind of prescriptivism, which seems me to aspire to a kind of feminist tyranny.

If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly misunderstands its terms. In her view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. For instance, gender assignment is a “construction” and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full. That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle.

One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself “constructed” and, therefore, not real. And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory.

If gender is a social construct, it is so for everyone regardless of being cis, trans or otherwise. We all navigate the same landscape of expressions and limitations. It is not the responsibility of every single trans person to be subversive of heteronormativity. Holding trans people to a higher standard than other people is simply put hypocrisy.

2. Biological sex as a fixed point of reference, and the fallacy of biological essentialism

Sex throughout nature, from a biological point of view, is rather complex. Sexual characteristics are morphological differences within a given species. In many species these are more plastic than in humans, but also human bodies have a phenotypic plasticity to them – a plasticity that is very evident to anyone who has been on hormone replacement therapy, or who closely knows someone who have.

I’m not going to dive into the large topic of sexual dimorphism, as that tends to need entire books, but there is a good article published in Nature earlier this year that provides a decent starting point for the topic. Even though sex is a lot more fluid in many other types of organisms than in mammals like us, the mechanisms behind sexual dimorphism in nature are still connected. The idea that human sexual dimorphism is completely distinct and somehow straight forward appears to me to be a fallacious argument imbued with normative bias.

Popular representation of biology also tends to be very heteronormative, as anthropologist Pamela L. Geller points out:

In Western society, the biomedical bodyscape predominates in scientific understandings of bodily difference. Its representation of sex differences conveys heteronormative notions about gender and sexuality (Geller, 2009).

Male and female – in the biology 101 text book sense – are ideal cases, and do not reflect the full extent of biological diversity. The superficial evaluation done when assigning sex at birth may be based in statistical significance, but is far from exact and final. The idea that extracting selected sexed properties of our bodies, like chromosomes or genitals, somehow dictates who we must be as complex social and cultural beings, comes across to me as absurd – an idea closely related to the natural fallacy.

It also follows that by insisting that one person’s gender is more real because it corresponds to the one assigned is, as Julia Serano puts it, …

… extraordinarily naive, as it denies a basic truth: We make assumptions every day about other people’s gender without ever seeing their birth certificate, their chromosomes, their genitals, their reproductive systems, their childhood socialization, or their legal sex (Serano, 2007).

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the social restrictions imposed by assigned sex without them necessarily being transgender. One study found that about 2% of the population does not identify very strongly with either of the commonly assigned sexes (Van Caenegem, 2015).

In the general population, gender ambivalence was present in 2.2 % of male and 1.9 % of female participants, whereas gender incongruence was found in 0.7 % of men and 0.6 % of women. In sexual minority individuals, the prevalence of gender ambivalence and gender incongruence was 1.8 and 0.9 % in men and 4.1 and 2.1 % in women, respectively.

Such studies are of course sensitive to what kind of questions are being asked, but they certainly reveal that there is nothing in the way we assign sex that by its nature necessarily dictates who we are and how we must understand ourselves. Such a claim is an ideological one, not a scientific one.

3. The hunt for the male and female brain, and the bias inherited from sexist ideology

Social restrictions based on observed and imposed differences in humans have sparked numerous attempts by scientists to look for innate explanations for these apparent differences. After more than a century of investigation, evidence of innate cognitive differences are scarce, if in existence at all. Many racist and sexist theories have long been abandoned, though remnants of these ideas still linger on both in the public mind and in various fields of science. An extensive review of this in terms of sex and gender has been presented by both Cordelia Fine (2010) and Rebecca Jordan-Young (2010).

Some take the lack of evidence for cognitive differences between the male and female brain to mean transgender people cannot possibly exist, but at the same time fail to realise that despite the lack of existence of such differences, people in general still largely identify as men and women.

Now, as with sexuality, there is likely to be a biological mechanism at play in all this. As one meta study on the biological basis of gender identity concludes:

Accumulating evidence indicates that prenatal biology likely contributes to transgender identity, but that its role may be interactive, rather than deterministic (Erickson-Schroth, 2013).

The effect of pre-natal hormones has been extensively studied in animals, but does not easily translate to the socially complex humans (Faust-Sterling, 2000). Still, a link is very likely – a link that will apply to us all, not just LGBTIQ-people.

As I elaborated on under point 1, Butler doesn’t claim that gender, as we experience it and navigate it, isn’t real to us – it most certainly is, but it is a space we all navigate during our lives. Many people do reject gender as a way of identifying themselves, and that is of course perfectly fine, but it is hypocritical to demand of transgender people, directly or indirectly by disallowing self-identified gender, that we must all choose either our assigned gender or no gender at all.

As Will Robertson points out in his recent post on the social construction of gender:

To say that something is socially constructed means that its existence is dependent upon social relations and the contingent meanings that we create. In other words, we construct it and give it meaning through our social actions. That something is socially constructed does not mean that it is “not real,” but rather that it is depends on social relations for its existence.

Conforming to certain ideas of what it means socially to be a woman or a man has often been forced upon transgender people by the medical community and the state. Many countries demand some level of genital surgery to allow people to change their sex assigned at birth. Such practices are by several organisations and institutions like Amnesty, the UN and an EU Commission, deemed as being in conflict with human rights. In other contexts, reducing human beings to the their genitals is considered dehumanising.

It is a common misconception that transgender people who transition do so exclusively through complex cosmetic surgeries. Surgery is by no means a fundamental part of being transgender. People choose surgeries for numerous reasons, regardless of being cis or trans or otherwise, but trans people are subject to much more scrutiny over this than other groups.

Gender dysphoria is a recognised state of being that is, regardless of underlying biological and social cause, a very real condition with, in many cases, very straight forward medical solutions – some of which include medically necessary surgery (Coleman et al., 2012). In other cases gender dysphoria can be alleviated by something as simple as acceptance and social inclusion.

4. The political value of identity labels, and their inherent exclusiveness

Feminists have long fought for, and found strength and power in, the identity woman. Especially white cis women have often done so at the expense of other women. The political power of strong identities cannot be ignored. They are valuable for the struggle for equality because they can provide a sense of unity. They can also segregate and discriminate for the very same reasons. Especially when we forget that these identities are not fundamental laws of the universe, but banners to unite under for a moment in time.

The trans identity exists in part because of the way we assign sex and gender to individuals. If we did not do that, there would be no borders to transgress. The “trans” before trans woman indicates her lived, unique experience. That doesn’t make her identity any less real. In fact when so many cis people say they are their gender rather than identify with it, they are essentially saying that they have never had to claim their gender and fight for it.

Maybe the struggles of transgender people have something important to add to how we as a society understand our bodies, our genders and our identities? In the words of Paddy McQueen:

Seeing our gender(s) as contingent and fluid, and produced through normalising frameworks of identity, can change how we experience our bodies and make sense of ourselves, in turn impacting on issues of social inclusion, belonging and freedom. By offering alternative narratives of gender identity and identification, we can disrupt and challenge the norms that underpin acceptable citizenship, thus creating the means for new claims for citizenship and ultimately new forms of political subjectivity. This can work to render the body less enslaving, but first we must learn to live and negotiate with differences and contradictions rather than trying to eradicate them in the name of the normal (McQueen, 2013).


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. United States: Routledge.

Coleman, Eli, et al. 2012. ‘Standards of Care, Version 7.’ The World Professional Association for Transgender Health. wpath.org.

Erickson-Schroth, Laura. 2013. ‘Update on the Biology of Transgender Identity.’ Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 17 (2): 150–74. doi:10.1080/19359705.2013.753393.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. Reprint edition. W. W. Norton & Company.

Geller, Pamela L. 2009. ‘Bodyscapes, Biology, and Heteronormativity.’ American Anthropologist 111 (4): 504–16. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01159.x.

Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. 2010. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Reprint edition. Harvard University Press.

McQueen, Paddy. 2014. ‘Enslaved by One’s Body? Gender, Citizenship and the “wrong Body” Narrative’. Citizenship Studies 18 (5): 533–48. doi:10.1080/13621025.2014.923705.

Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. annotated. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Group.

Van Caenegem, Eva, et al. 2015. ‘Prevalence of Gender Nonconformity in Flanders, Belgium.’ Archives of Sexual Behavior, January. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0452-6.

Feature image on the front page is from a Sinfest comic from October 2011.

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  1. Yeah there’s a LOT of people could do with reading this. I particularly appreciated:

    “If gender is a social construct, it is so for everyone regardless of being cis, trans or otherwise. We all navigate the same landscape of expressions and limitations….

    ….*It is not the responsibility of every single trans person to be subversive of heteronormativity. Holding trans people to a higher standard than other people is simply put hypocrisy*.”


  2. This was a good post, and one that cleared up some questions I had about gender as a social construct.
    This part:

    The “trans” before trans woman indicates her lived, unique experience. That doesn’t make her identity any less real.

    particularly stuck out to me, bc it seems like some people don’t understand that trans women are a subset of women, not some other category unrelated to women.

  3. Wow, I have to echo what I said on Will’s post. This was an outstanding, clear read, thanks for writing it.

  4. Great post about gender! Intersex people, as well as trans, have common issues with labels and gender identity. We deal with a lot of the same issues. Gender is more fluid than people think, plus I have met more people who fall in the middle and don’t want to pick a side.

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