I want to examine the transgender phenomenon in its own right. Leaving aside how we can/should respond to people claiming that they identify with the opposite sex, I want to examine those claims in themselves.
- Can a claim that “I am really a woman” be made by a man in an accurate and honest way? (And similarly: Can a woman “Really be a man?”, and “Is gender a spectrum?”)
- Is there a biological basis that might underlie such a claim?
- Is there an evolutionary advantage to the human species in producing variations along a gender spectrum that are (to some degree) independent of the binary determination of sex? (This question is not extended to exclude the existence of intersex people, but it does exclude them from the scope of this essay.)
My answer to each of these questions is “Yes”. I’m now feeling confident enough in those answers that it’s time to invite scrutiny from points of view outside my own head.
Can a claim to be transgender be honest and accurate?
Neural networks (like the ones we carry around in our heads) are very good at classifying things. The ability to say “X is a stick” and “Y is a snake” rapidly, and with confidence, has been critical to our survival. When we first learn to classify things, we do it in terms of immediately visible characteristics. Over time, as we learn more, we revise our classifications. So, when watching The Lion King, we might say “Simba is a lion, Mufasa is a lion, and Scar is a lion.” By the time we get to the middle of the movie, we might say “Simba is really a naive prince, Mufasa is really a dead king, and Scar is really a traitor.”
So, when we say “X is really a Y”, what we are saying is “As we learn more about the thing, and as we learn about how to classify things, we must revise our classification of X to say that it matches category Y.”
Our sex determines (among other things) external anatomical characteristics. These are noticeable and allow us to classify people as ‘male’ or ‘female’ easily and reliably. Other characteristics are influenced (but not determined) by our sex. Height is one of the least controversial ‘influenced variables’:
If all we knew about someone was their height, then we could say that someone with a height of 165cm ‘might well’ be a woman, while someone with a height of 180cm is ‘almost certainly’ a man. However, we tend not to claim that a six-foot tall supermodel ‘is really a man’. There are a couple of reasons for this:
Height forms part of our first impression of someone. When we assess the ‘real truth’ of something, we tend to assume that our first impression needs to be replaced with our later understanding. This is a bias that might mislead, but it’s worth being aware of this tendency.
Height is something that isn’t very important, especially in societies that don’t climb trees very often. When we assess ‘who someone really is’, what we tend to be talking about is “How can I predict this person’s behaviour?” (Hence “Scar is a traitor” is preferred over “Scar is a lion with a dark mane” when we think about ‘who Scar really is’.)
So, to the extent that a man might ‘really be’ a woman (which I’ll use as my default example in this section, no insult intended), we could say that this statement is honest and accurate if our first impression (based on external clues) is that the person is a man, but our revised impression (based on our expectations of behaviour) is that they are a woman.
Do we expect different behaviours from men and women? We certainly should, because the scientific evidence is pretty clear. It’s not just that study. And it’s not just one society or nation. Men and women are not the same. Which is not to say that the differences are exactly huge.
This chart shows the biggest difference identified between men and women in one of the more detailed studies into the psychological differences between the sexes. 15 variables (10 aspects and five categories) were considered, and this is the one with the biggest difference between the sexes (the ‘agreeableness’ category). Women are, in general, a bit nicer than men. (By the way, the variable that showed the smallest difference between sexes was ‘intelligence’, with a strong probability that the difference observed was due to chance, not an actual difference between men and women.)
The study found that 12 of the 15 variables measured showed sex differences that were ‘statistically significant’ (very unlikely that differences in the measurement were caused by chance). Therefore, a really good classification technology that could measure lots of variables at once (a neural network) would be able to classify people as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and get it right more often than it gets it wrong.
Given the strong overlap between the male population and the female population, we can see that a small minority of men will be ‘more female’ than most women, and a small minority of women will be ‘more male’ than most men.
Therefore, if we think that behaviour is more important than appearances, we might well say “This person who looks like a man is actually a woman” or “This person who looks like a woman is actually a man.” We can expect that the more a person ‘crosses the line’ into the territory of the opposite sex, that this statement will have a stronger degree of truth. And so, when Eddie Izzard talks about having male and female characteristics, it’s hard to disagree with his description of his experience. (Although it might not be genetics.)
Is it based in biology?
Behaviour in pigs is sexually dimorphic as early as 1 month of age… If males are castrated during neonatal development (first 2 months of life) and treated acutely with oestrogen during adulthood, they display sexual behaviour that is characteristic of females. In other words, biology influences behaviour in mammals, but it’s not purely determined by your genetics. If you mess with someone’s hormones, you can change their behaviour.
We know that a person with an X and a Y chromosome will be male (leaving aside rare cases and intersex people). We know that a person with two X chromosomes will be female. We are learning about ‘epigenetic inheritance’, which is when you inherit something from your parents that isn’t genetically determined. Epigenetics is tricky, and we don’t understand it fully. But there is real evidence that the influences on parents (particularly mothers) have an impact on unborn children.
We can’t prove that the experience of being transgender (“I am really the opposite of what my body suggests”) is based in biology. But biology certainly provides pathways that could cause a person to behave according to the opposite expectation, and so it’s entirely possible that people don’t have an experience of ‘choosing’ to be transgender; they might as well try to change the colour of their eyes through willpower as change the characteristics that drive self-perception. Although the mechanisms remain to be determined, there is strong support in the literature for a biologic basis of gender identity.
Is there an evolutionary advantage?
Having established that transgender people are real, and that the choice is made on their behalf by biology, the question remains whether the species benefits from having transgender people, or whether transgender people are an aberration or a disease. By default, when something appears to be from Category A, but is actually from Category B, our instincts tell us that it is poisonous (rotten fruit follows this pattern). Are transgender people poisoned, or poisonous? Are they a feature?
Deuteronomy 22:5 takes the view that transgender people are detested by Jehovah. Murders of transgender people continue today. So the instinctive response is in place. The first piece of good news is that the continued existence of transgender persons has not brought down society, despite the failure of extermination efforts.
But why might it be good?
One of the first clues that person is transgender is that they prefer the activities favored by the opposite sex, and (well before they start to form a sexual interest) they prefer the company of the opposite sex. Descriptions of two-spirit people in Native American culture indicate that transgender people would take part in activities that were normally reserved for the opposite sex.
It might be very useful to have some men in the tribe who prefer to spend their time alongside the women, and most of their time doing women’s work. In the event of a sneak attack, they can probably fight well enough that the women can escape. Indeed, Eddie Izzard is not the only transgender person who thought of joining the special forces, there’s more than one who made it in and served with distinction.
It might be very useful to have some women in the tribe who prefer to spend their time alongside the men, and most of their time doing men’s work. They’re certainly able to fight as bravely as any man. This isn’t new. Although when people talk about a woman’s role in terms of evolutionary explanations, they emphasize the baby-making role. Certainly, those societies that keep pregnant women safe from threats are going to produce more children who survive. However, any society that can be destroyed by a black swan event will eventually be destroyed. Having a few women who are out exploring and fighting means that if home base is destroyed, the society can survive.
It’s also worth noting that some cultures believe that transgender people have special powers. It seems possible that someone who never quite fits in with the people around them will have a strong incentive to develop diplomatic skills. It seems possible that someone who is constantly reminded that ‘the inside doesn’t always match the outside’ will ask more questions about unfamiliar phenomena. These habits could help someone perform well at work that involves dealing with a mystery (technical and spiritual occupations).
Conclusion / Discussion
This essay does not seek to prove that transgender people are real, that the experience of being transgender is not a choice, and that transgender people are valuable. Rather it seeks to demonstrate that a case can be made that transgender people are real, that the experience of being transgender is not a choice, and that transgender people are valuable. This case should be considered in addition to the moral arguments in favour of treating transgender people with decency.
There are a number of assertions that I’ve made where I haven’t provided any references or citations. I am convinced that those assertions are true; I’m interested in evidence that disagrees with my convictions, if it’s out there. If you have an opposite conviction, that’s OK. You don’t have to believe anything I’ve said if you don’t want to.
Some readers will form an impression that I’m attempting to advance an agenda of political correctness. I’d invite those readers to form a deeper understanding, perhaps by reading my essay that discusses how I don’t particularly want gay marriage to be legalized.