Thursday, December 03, 2009

Proving (or Disproving) Gender Identity

One of the complaints that are often levelled at transsexuals (and other transgender people) is that the claim of cross-gender identity is not verifiable (or falsifiable).

Superficially, there is a considerable amount of truth to this. Gender identity, like any other form of identity is essentially expressed only in the form of what an individual can articulate. This is particularly thorny when transsexuals assert an essentialism to their identity, and separate that essential aspect from the social and physical aspects of gender.

As a line of reasoning, it's not a bad tactic - in large part because it is hard to refute with the kind of absolute observation that it implies. But, we can also draw a few interesting lessons from the science of physics. Almost every subatomic particle we know about is understood not from direct observation, but from inference. Observations that confirm larger particles contain small anomalies that aren't quite predicted by the original model. Eventually someone comes along and comes up with a model which describes a new subparticle and the mathematics of that describe the anomalies seen previously.

I will take as a given that there is at least some agreement that gender itself contains multiple axis which intersect with each other. The three that are fairly obvious to me are as follows:

- Physical Gender: This is nothing more than physical sex characteristics - primary and secondary - the contribution of biology.

- Social Gender: The social context in which we each live. Some of us live as men, others as women; and a few live their lives somewhere in between - often adopting the label 'genderqueer'.

- Gender Identity: This is what is between our ears. It is about how we experience the physical and social aspects of gender, and ultimately our emotional response to that treatment.

Clearly, none of these three exists in a vacuum with respect to the others. Social gender is driven by how others perceive us - and first impressions are often the result of observed physical gender. Lastly, Gender Identity impacts how an individual responds to the physical and social aspects of gender.

So, on what basis do we infer the existence of gender identity as distinct from the physical and social aspects of gender?

First, allow me to point out that there is no precise definition of 'man' and 'woman' in our society. There are women who are drawn to behaviours we would often consider to be masculine; and there are men whose behaviours are surprisingly feminine. In other words, their behaviours do not fit what is considered "typical" for someone of their physical gender. This is the first point of anomalous data.

The second aspect of gender that is surprisingly diverse is the physical. As we are learning, just because someone is born with a penis and testes, they aren't necessarily male with respect to chromosomal sex; and a vulva and vagina similarly don't guarantee that the individual is explicitly female when chromosomes are examined.

The third piece of the picture is the very existence of cross-gender identified people - whether we are talking about crossdressers, genderqueer people or transsexuals is quite irrelevant. The fact is that we have a small but significant number of people whose personal narratives fall outside of the man/woman binary even if they are otherwise male (or female) with respect to their physical and social genders.

These three dimensions are key to my argument, for the represent the kind of anomalies in experimental data that led scientists studying physics to suspect that the particles which make up atoms were themselves made up of other, smaller particles. We have a small, but significant group of people who claim identities which do not align with what their physical and social gender experiences would suggest.

In the spirit of other branches of science, we can't just discard evidence because it is inconvenient. This evidence in part leads me to infer that there is a dimension to gender that exists outside of the observable physical and social aspects of the topic. If there wasn't, it's hard to effectively describe the existence of cross-gender identity. The existence of people who fall outside of the binary in the physical and social dimensions further suggests that these attributes exist along a continuum.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will assert that gender identity as an axis of human experience that interacts with the physical and social aspects of gender provides an interesting and significant completion of the model.

The problem of verifying this attribute is non-trivial. Until we take a look at the experience of successful transsexuals (by successful, I mean those who transition and live a balanced, healthy life in their chosen gender).

That I know of, there is no objective test that can be applied that will unequivocally show someone to be transgender. But then again, there is no objective test that proves that someone is innately homosexual, heterosexual or for that matter any other attribute of our personalities really.

So, to understand it, we must use inference, and in particular I turn to the narratives of transsexuals who transition successfully. A reasonably common feature of many transsexual narratives is a lengthy struggle with a crushing sense of dissonance resulting from the disjoin between their physical, social gender experiences and their identity.

As they progress through the process of therapy, hormones and real life experience (RLE), most transsexuals report significant improvements in their experience of the world as the dissonance that they had previously experienced is alleviated. Many describe a state of euphoria once they cease experiencing the dissonance that has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember. (and it is not uncommon for cross-gender identity to be known and understood by the individual among their earliest memories)

If we can take these narratives at face value, then the experimental evidence is before us - namely that by taking steps to address the dissonance experienced on a daily basis, the dissonance is gradually relieved.

Again, applying a little bit of inductive logic, we can infer the existence of an unseen, but all too real, attribute that is influencing the individual's experience of the social and physical aspects of their gender. Not only is there evidence of an attribute having an impact on the person's experience of the world, but we can alter the nature of that impact for the individual.

Remember, that because we are dealing with an attribute that is not subject to objective examination, it is necessary to do examine it through subjective and inductive means. Consequently, the standards of care that WPATH publishes recommend a cautious, measured approach to treating people who present with gender identity related symptoms. For many transsexuals, transition periods of a decade or more are not unusual. This length of time speaks to a persistence and sense of purpose that cannot be overlooked, for it gives the therapists a great deal of time to evaluate the integration of the person throughout the process. There is research out there that makes it quite clear that for transsexuals, there is great benefit in transitioning.

The strongest evidence for the existence of gender identity comes in the form of how well transsexuals adapt to life in their chosen gender. While it may be true that a few are simply highly adaptable people, it is hard to believe that this would apply to all. Further, the fact that some people approach the notion of transition and then back away leads me to suspect that gender identity occurs along a spectrum, just like most other aspects of being human. (which is why I cited Intersex conditions earlier on in this essay - to make the point that even "absolutes" like male and female aren't necessarily as concrete as we might initially hope)

Further, if gender had purely social and physical attributes, then the tragic story of David Reimer would never have happened. Unfortunately it did, and in doing so, more or less destroyed the validity of any model that addresses gender purely as a social construct. The fact that David refused to be a girl, even when all of the social cues provided said otherwise, tells us a great deal about the persistence of underlying gender identity in individuals.

Have I demonstrated the existence of Gender Identity as an attribute separate and distinct from the physical and social aspects of gender? Not completely. What I have done is described the shape of the theoretical hole that gender identity fills, and pointed out that there is consistent - if somewhat subjective - evidence that the attribute's impact on an individual can be altered, although the attribute itself seems surprisingly difficult to alter.

5 comments:

MaggieClark said...

So very much I agree with here! We've already been over the triad of gender identity, for which I think we're absolutely in agreement, so I'll put that aside for now. (Love the physics metaphor, by the way.) I find it interesting that you use such specificity here, though:

The problem of verifying this attribute is non-trivial. Until we take a look at the experience of successful transsexuals (by successful, I mean those who transition and live a balanced, healthy life in their chosen gender).

Have you thought about maybe including the exceedingly low incidence of post-transitioning regret in your data set? There are some very interesting comments therein about how the slight incidence of regret that does exist is just further justification for the long-term transitioning policies presently in place, too -- so that seems like a region ripe for quantitative research into inner/outer gender identity conflicts.

I especially find your 'man' and 'woman' paragraph potent, and not just because it raises huge questions about how these concepts should be taught to very young children. You also write: "In other words, their behaviours do not fit what is considered "typical" for someone of their physical gender." And I find it interesting that we don't stress enough how different this "typical" behaviour set is between cultures -- much easier, I guess, to pretend that being a man and being a woman everywhere is the same!

Facetiousness aside, there are some really huge gender issues at work in that society-to-society dissonance -- not least of which is how much more happiness is reported in countries with clearly defined gender roles. That's a striking point when considering the role of self-identity in this discourse.

For many transsexuals, transition periods of a decade or more are not unusual.

This reminds me, actually, of an LGBT conference brief recently that reported the age of transition actually rising. Have you heard about anything to that effect? Would you say these assisted transition periods are in part responsible?

While it may be true that a few are simply highly adaptable people, it is hard to believe that this would apply to all.

And... just on a closing note, this is the one statement I don't think quite follows logically from the rest of your very thoughtful piece. With regard to orientation on my blog, we were just talking about personal characteristics that might make some people better "primed" for a particular sexuality, say. So what would the difference be here? I'm not saying all trans persons automatically share a measure of adaptability; but I would say it's also not very logically sound to rule out the possibility without assessment. If something about trans identity is essential to their person, then it follows that other aspects of their identity might be as well. That said, I don't know how one would even BEGIN going about assessing that.

Lots to think about here -- a really well framed piece: thanks so much for linking me!

Maggie

MgS said...

Hi Maggie,

Quantifying the post-transition experience for transsexuals is absolutely an area of study that has not been adequately explored. In fairness to the research community, it's devilishly difficult to put together a sizable population to follow after transition - transsexuals tend to want to vanish into the fabric of society.

I agree that the overall low rates of post-transition regrets are significant in the data to be explored. I was not intending to exclude it in my statements, but perhaps I was being overly specific and excluding by implication. Any serious investigation would, I hope, encounter that same fact independently.

Have you heard about anything to that effect? Would you say these assisted transition periods are in part responsible?

I've heard of that effect, although I haven't investigated the quantifying data in any depth. Superficially, I think it has more to do with a wider range of people transitioning - some older, some younger. More a result of increased awareness, and greater availability of support in online forums for people who might have otherwise suffered in silence.

There are some very interesting comments therein about how the slight incidence of regret that does exist is just further justification for the long-term transitioning policies presently in place

Hmmm...I guess I know a little bit more than many about what can happen when things go awry and someone who doesn't need to transition tries. Some of the tragedies I've learned about have left me with an appreciation for the cautiousness of many of the caregiving community - from therapists to surgeons. I'm sympathetic to the ethical considerations that such cases raise for all involved - including the patient.
I'm not saying all trans persons automatically share a measure of adaptability; but I would say it's also not very logically sound to rule out the possibility without assessment.

Agreed. More study is needed to understand the plasticity of identity in transsexuals. What I was actually alluding to is the obvious attempt to dismiss my point by simply arguing that transsexuals are "merely" highly adaptable people - which is an attempt to reduce gender to a Butlerian "gender is performance" model. (a concept which I find wholly unsatisfying, as it fails utterly to explain so many aspects of transsexual narratives)

maggieclark said...

Hi again, Michelle!

Sorry for my tardiness; you've got so many fantastic new posts up I've taken to reading and thinking about them enough to distract me from my original, burning question.

Specifically, you write here:

What I was actually alluding to is the obvious attempt to dismiss my point by simply arguing that transsexuals are "merely" highly adaptable people - which is an attempt to reduce gender to a Butlerian "gender is performance" model. (a concept which I find wholly unsatisfying, as it fails utterly to explain so many aspects of transsexual narratives)

I've read parts of Gender Trouble, but not the work in full; as well as a few other articles of hers in various journals. I think I might grasp what you're alluding to here -- especially with regard to the social dimension of gender, and the interaction between biochemical input and gender realization -- but I'd very much like to hear what I assume will be your much more articulate assessment of what the Butlerian gender model leaves out.

I'm also rather struck by this statement of yours, "transsexuals tend to want to vanish into the fabric of society." I expect I know a few transsexuals who have never told me they are, but of the ones I do know, talking about their gender identity as specifically trans is very important. One woman I encountered with online also very interestingly phrased her trans idea as a process in which it was just "fated" that she would spend part of her life in each gender -- and for this reason speaks openly and warmly of both parts of her journey.

Against this, I'm made to wonder about this tendency you reference, especially as it relates to the transitioning process. So much is done to support the transitional process up to the surgery (for transsexuals): is there a similar structure for post-op transsexuals? Is there a generally recognized need for it?

I don't automatically expect you to have answers, but your thoughtful and meticulous development of the medical processes in previous conversation leads me to believe you might possibly have insight here as well. If so, I greatly appreciate any response you might provide.

All the best!

Maggie

MgS said...

Hi Maggie - just a quick note - I will address each of your questions (possibly in subsequent posts on this blog - a couple of them deserve more detailed treatment than the comment space is appropriate for).

I'll try to do some of that over the course of the weekend (I need to rummage through some archives to find the more detailed critique I did of Butler's "Gender Trouble" book a few years ago.

MgS said...

Maggie,

My statement that transsexuals want to disappear into the fabric of society is primarily intended to reflect the difficulty that researchers face in putting together study populations that are large enough to be statistically significant.

Post transition and surgery, a lot of transsexuals still disappear from visibility with the caregivers that supported them through their gender transition.

Your observation that people who are trans are much more willing today to be open about their past and current status than was ever the case in the preceding thirty odd years is quite valid, and should not be ignored. However, that is a relatively recent phenomenon, and only really applies in the last ten years or so. Hopefully, that social openness will make it easier for researchers to take a lot of anecdotal evidence beyond the purely anecdotal and substantiate it more empirically.

Post transition support for transsexuals exists. Ideally, in the post transition life, the transsexual is finding themselves dealing with much more "mundane" issues (difficulties with the boyfriend, stress management, etc.) If gender related difficulties continue to be prominent, then ongoing work with their transition therapist should be engaged.

Sadly, the WPATH SOC do not speak clearly to post-transition follow-up at this time. It is my understanding that the working group that is drafting a new version of the SOC is exploring this aspect of the treatment paradigm.

I have addressed the more significant question of Butler's model of gender and my concerns/objections to it in a more detailed post here.