What is it and why is it so important?
The quick answers are: (1) Gender Identity isn’t anything at all; and (2) Gender Identity is important because it is used to justify body hatred, denial of physical reality, and serious, risky medical interventions in response to mental discomfort. Further, that mental discomfort is being amplified and encouraged by society.
Now let’s discuss Gender Identity in-depth.
“Gender Identity” is supposedly one’s “sense of one’s gender,” which is a circular definition. The problem is that this definition never defines the term “gender.” We are left to guess what it is, although we supposedly know it without question by about age four - but we apparently sometimes don’t realize what we know until we enter puberty, and sometimes not until college or beyond. The problem is that, if we divorce “gender” from biology and from stereotypes or societal expectations, there is really nothing left! What does it mean to think you are “male” or “female” if being “male” or “female” has nothing to do with your body or with stereotypes or other societal expectations?
While I don’t want to engage in too much guesswork, I suspect that the conclusion drawn by proponents of the theory that there are “trans children” is based on the fact that most children are aware that they are biologically male or female by around age four, in the same way they become aware sometime in infancy that they are a separate being from the rest of the world. They become aware not only that there are biological males and females in the world - with only the rarest exception of medically ambiguous individuals (which is like saying humans are bipedal, with the exception of those born with one or no legs, or paraplegia/quadraplegia) - but that they belong to one of those two categories. This is an awareness of the physical world around them and how they fit into it, rather than a deep insight into their psyches.
As a side note, in an effort to de-emphasize biological reality, proponents of the notion of Gender Identity describe biological sex as the “sex assigned at birth.” This implies that biological sex isn’t real, but is a random “assignment” by a medical professional who is not privy to our “real” gender - the one that lies in our minds. Further confounding any attempt to define Gender Identity (or intelligently debate this subject matter), the terms “gender” and “sex” are seemingly used interchangeably, so that, for example, one may have a different “gender” than one’s “sex assigned at birth.” Is one’s “sex assigned at birth” one’s biological “gender?” Who knows!
In addition to basing the claims regarding the unquestionable, firm awareness of Gender Identity on young children’s awareness of their biological sex, proponents of Gender Identity analogize awareness thereof to the awareness of one’s sexual attractions, which generally comes around puberty - although it may be confusing or unclear for some, who don’t really figure this out until college or beyond. Advocates of Gender Identity and “trans children” (or, in this case, “trans teens”) will allege that most “trans teens” become aware by the time they are in puberty, if they haven’t already figured it out, that they are actually a different “gender” than their biology would suggest.
In other words, in order to gain credibility for the existence of “trans kids,” “trans teens,” and the existence of a Gender Identity, advocates of these notions make analogies to awareness of biological reality and sexual attraction, assuming the same such awareness applies to the notion of being “trans” and to a Gender Identity. Since we as a society never would question a child’s notion of biological reality (because we have biological reality to support such knowledge), and we as a society no longer question a teen’s awareness of same-sex sexual attraction if they state it with confidence (now that we realize that conversion therapy is a terrible and ineffective thing, that sexual attraction is basically innate and rarely changes, and also, of course, that there is nothing wrong with being homosexual), how can we possibly question a child or teen who says they are “trans” and have a Gender Identity that varies from their biological sex?
Underlying “trans children” and “trans teens” is the notion of “true trans.” This is the notion that some people are born “trans.” The notion of “true trans” means that there are people who will never be happy in their own body because the mis-match between their biological sex and their Gender Identity will always cause them to feel ill at ease - even so miserable that they may want to commit suicide (a topic for another essay) - unless and until they can at least appear to have a biological sex that matches their Gender Identity, and be referred to and treated as if they are the biological sex that matches their Gender Identity. For some unexplained reason, appearing as, being referred to and treated as, the sex that matches their Gender Identity will enable them to function in the world. (I will further discuss why the alleged dilemma of the mismatch between one’s biological sex and one’s Gender Identity is nonsensical later.)
The notion of “true trans” (and the existence of “trans kids” and “trans teens”) relies on awareness of one’s Gender Identity. The real question is whether there is such a thing as Gender Identity, and, if so, whether it is, in fact, innate and stable. Let’s first dispose of the question of whether Gender Identity exists. According to advocates of Gender Identity, not only does it exist, but we all have one. This Gender Identity, as I already noted, is one’s sense of one’s “gender.” However, the real question in that case is: what is a “gender?”
Let me start with something I know - myself. I am a biological female. I am aware of this because my body is female. If I had any question of this as a young child (since I didn’t go around looking at other girls’ or women’s genitals and had to rely on being told I was a girl, and the trappings of the clothing and hairstyles that were imposed upon me by others), my adult body confirmed my female status with breasts, periods, curvy hips, and, ultimately, luckily, the ability to become pregnant. That is not to say that every female has breasts, a period, hips, or is able to, or decides to, become pregnant. It is to say that my understanding that I am female is not based on any great insight into my psyche, but is instead based entirely on external factors related to my physical body.
I do not think I am female because of the way I think, the things I like to do, or how I like to dress or adorn my body. In fact, I could never base my assessment of whether I am female on the way I think because I have no idea how other females, or males, think. I would venture to guess that no two females or two males think exactly alike. Of the approximately four billion biological females in the world, there are approximately four billion ways of thinking or feeling like a female, and that doesn’t take into account the other billions of females who have lived and died.
As to the latter two - the things I like to do and how I like to dress or adorn my body - not only does this also vary from female to female, but any attempt to categorize my “gender” based on what I like to do or how I dress would involve stereotypes. While society may have expectations as to how a female will dress, or what things she will do, these are only mildly related to whether someone is in fact female. In other words, there are tendencies in females toward certain preferences, but there is great variation among females (and variation in stereotypes over time and in different places).
Here, the notion of feminine versus masculine becomes useful. While we often assume females are going to be feminine and males are going to be masculine, that is not strictly true. Not only are there many very effeminate males and many very masculine females (not all of whom are homosexual), but there are very few females who follow every feminine characteristic, and very few males who follow every masculine characteristic.
We even have a name for girls who are extremely feminine. We call them “girly-girls.” And we call girls who are somewhat masculine “tomboys.” The vast majority of females, myself included, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Most females who fall in between have some rather feminine characteristics, some rather masculine characteristics, and some more neutral characteristics, with each female having her own unique set of, and ratio of, masculine, feminine and more neutral characteristics. (For this reason, the notion of being “non-binary” is nonsensical, requiring adherence to strict stereotypes by which to contrast the “non-binary” person from females or males - but that’s a topic for another essay.) Lastly, most people will vary from time to time, being more or less feminine, masculine or neutral in any given day, week, month or year. Thus, if Gender Identity is based on the degree of masculinity or femininity, it is by no means stable (more on that later).
Of course, as a whole, there are more feminine girls than feminine boys and more masculine boys than masculine girls, but that is similar to height. There are more tall boys than tall girls and boys, on average, are taller than girls. However, we would never make a determination as to whether someone is male or female based on their height. Similarly, while there are more feminine girls and masculine boys, we should never determine whether someone is a girl or a boy based on their degree of effeminacy or masculinity.
It is worth noting that many of the biologically female teenagers who now insist they are male are stereotypically feminine (and similarly, many of the biologically male teenagers who now insist they are female are, at least in many ways, stereotypically masculine). Thus, to the extent that anyone believes one can tell if someone is “male” or “female” based on the degree of masculinity/femininity, these teenagers would not be considered “trans” at all. Thus, advocates of the notion of “true trans” have had to concede that one’s level of masculinity or femininity does not determine whether one is in fact “trans.” Instead, advocates of “true trans” rely entirely on the notion of Gender Identity.
So we are back to the question: what is a Gender Identity? Divorced from biological sex or stereotypes/societal expectations, I certainly don’t have one. Those who insist it exists claim that it is a feeling that one is male, female, both, neither or something else - without regard to biology or stereotypes. What is this “feeling,” and how does anyone know they are male, female, both, neither or something else?
Thinking about the way so-called “trans” people describe the feeling that is a Gender Identity, I cannot help but think that it is wholly related to - depending on the person - either stereotypes/societal expectations or body dysmorphia (irrational dislike of aspects of one’s body), or both. That means Gender Identity is nothing at all, other than the degree to which one identifies with stereotypes and societal expectations combined with the degree of comfort one has with their sexed body. What I mean by that can be gleaned from some examples.
A little “trans girl” (biological boy) feels like he fits in with the girls. Perhaps he wants to be flamboyant, or gentle and quiet, and perhaps he likes to play with dolls, dress-up like a princess, have long hair and wear dresses. He thinks he is a girl, not because of some deep inner sense that he is actually a “girl” (whatever that might be) inside, but because he likes things normally (in a given society at a given point in time) associated with girls.
Now let’s consider a teenage girl’s (often sudden) “realization” that she is really a “boy.” What does she mean? If she is a lesbian and finds herself attracted to girls, she may not be too happy about how lesbians are generally regarded in society (although it’s much better these days, lesbians still get less respect than heterosexual girls, especially during the teenage years), and may prefer the thought of herself as a male. If she has many masculine tendencies, really doesn’t enjoy dressing up or doing “girly” things, and is well suited to masculine pursuits (sports, mechanics, etc.), she may think she will be a more successful male than female. Even if she is rather feminine, but bothered by teenage girl tendencies, like being “boy-crazy” or “catty,” and if her tastes are off-beat, and particularly if she doesn’t see herself as classically beautiful (let’s face it, the vast majority of teenage girls have no idea how attractive they really are!), or, worse yet, has an irrational dislike for her breasts, hips, or other feminine body characteristics (body dysmorphia, similar to anorexia), she may want to see herself as a boy.
For teenage boys, the dynamic is similar. A very effeminate teenage boy may wish to avoid standards of masculinity and negative judgment. Further, a boy who is not extremely masculine, but is attracted to women, may fear “toxic masculinity,” and doesn’t want to become offensive. He may seek to escape his strong sexual urges and what they may turn him into (a bad person, if he crosses any of the invisible lines that have been drawn since the “me too” movement, a very good and necessary movement, that may have gone a bit too far), and, at the same time, also avoid being judged not quite masculine enough. He may see being a girl as easier and less offensive.
The bottom line is that there is no clear definition of a “Gender Identity.” To say that it is a sense of one’s gender is to miss the point since one’s “gender” is not defined. Without consideration of my body, I have no idea what “gender” I would be, unless I fall back on stereotypes and try to consider whether I am more feminine or more masculine. If I do not consider my degree of masculinity or femininty, or realize that I am a mix of the two, I will not be able to choose a “gender” at all (other than “non-binary,” but that means that anyone who is not extremely feminine or extremely masculine is not really a woman or a man - a ridiculous, regressive and closed-minded conclusion).
Having established that there is no coherent definition of Gender Identity, reliance upon it for medical interventions seems unwarranted and unwise. Further, given that Gender Identity appears to align with one’s degree of effeminacy or masculinity, and given that these characteristics vary from day to day, month to month and year to year, there is no stability to Gender Identity. Detransitioners, at the very least, are proof that Gender Identity, if it exists, is unstable and subject to change as a child or teen matures. Studies showing that children with so-called gender dysphoria - or painful discomfort at the reality of their biological sex - will often become comfortable with their biological sex as they mature (without intervention) further bolster the notion that any alleged Gender Identity is rather unstable, at least before one is fully mature. Even advocates of the existence of a Gender Identity admit that a large segment of the population does not become aware of it until they are teens or young adults (hence Gender Identity is often asserted around puberty or in the college years or right after - although it supposedly is clear by age four). If this is something someone may not understand until college or beyond, why would we give a 12-year-old puberty blockers because they are so sure of their Gender Identity? What if they come to realize their so-called Gender Identity in fact matches their biological sex? (And isn’t this pretty much what happens with detransitioners, who sometimes believe in a Gender Identity, often into their twenties, and then comes to realize they were mistaken?)
One more thing bears consideration. Even if there were a Gender Identity - an inner-sense that you are “male” or “female” (neither, both or something else), wholly separate from biology - and even if it were stable, why in the world would that require anyone to alter their body’s appearance? In other words, if Gender Identity is unrelated to biology, why does it, in the majority of cases, require the person to alter their body to appear as the opposite sex? Why would a person’s Gender Identity have to match their physical appearance if Gender Identity is unrelated to biology? It’s a contradiction to say that one’s Gender Identity has nothing to do with one’s body and then to say that a “male” Gender Identity requires a body to appear as if it is male (or vice versa). If there were some way to define “male” and “female” that has nothing to do with biology, why then would such a term be so intrinsically related to biology as to warrant permanent changes to one’s physiology in order to appear like a biological “male” or “female?” Why can’t a person with a “male” Gender Identity look like a woman? Why can’t a person with a “female” Gender Identity look like a man? And why must society pretend a person with a male or female Gender Identity is the opposite biological sex? Why can’t someone with a “male” Gender Identity have a female body and be referred to as a biological female, and vice versa?
The obvious answer is that it is false to state that Gender Identity is divorced from biology. Rather, the use of the concept of a Gender Identity is really a way to escape the inevitable societal expectations associated with one’s biology. The proposed “solution” to the problem of having to deal with societal consequences of biology is to mess with the biology.
However, if Gender Identity is really just the degree of comfort with societal expectations associated with one’s biological sex, perhaps the better solution would be for society to ease up on those expectations. To the extent that society is a bit behind, wouldn’t it be better to encourage non-conforming individuals to buck the system? If society became better equipped at accepting gender non-conformity and the natural variation among males and females, and if we encouraged people to be brave in the face of old-fashioned standards, we could avoid unnecessary medical interventions and forced pretense in the name of a fictional Gender Identity.
To some degree, society has been moving in the right direction regarding stereotypes. We now have not only the Rue Pauls of the world, who dress in drag (ie. as if they were women) at times, but the Billy Porters who don’t dress as if they were women at all, but simply adorn themselves in what was previously considered feminine gear, while still maintaining their sense of being a man. We are now much more accepting of homosexuality, and we even have some famous lesbians like Ellen DeGeneris, who no longer feel the need to ramp up their feminine side. Ellen once stated that, when she first started her talk show, she had to wear jewelry, but later was able to do without it (once her audience was comfortable with her being not only a lesbian, but not being particularly effeminate). We already had Rosie O’Donnell, but she was a rare exception to the rule. Now the rules are looser, and stereotypes are more often ignored.
Unfortunately, however, at the same time that we are making room for much less rigid standards of femininity or masculinity, we are engaging in a sort of counter-movement. In that counter-movement, anyone who isn’t comfortable with rigid standards, instead of being accepted for their unique set of masculine/feminine tendencies, escapes them by being “trans.” This is unfortunate because the notion of being “trans” brings with it body-hatred, mutilation, and a host of potential health risks, including sterility. And we justify all this with the use of a vague, amorphous term - the Gender Identity. We need to be honest about the fact that the concept of a Gender Identity is society’s new way of enforcing stereotypes.
That having been said, if an adult would rather pretend to be the opposite sex and live as if they were the opposite sex in order to better fit into society, that is their choice. As long as they are mentally fit, and have a true understanding of the medical risks, and the fact that there is nothing inevitable about the choice to medically transition, it is one option available. It involves cosmetic changes, and a concerted effort to “pass” as the opposite sex, and will ultimately have some impact (varying in degree) on the person’s health and well-being. The adult has to weigh the good and bad of such a decision. Now that we have these medical and technological options, we can’t very well ban them - unless we deem them so dangerous as to have no redeeming quality - but the existence of individuals who are living decent lives in the face of these options probably militates against such a judgment.
We cannot justify these choices based on a non-existent Gender Identity. Rather, we have to be honest. Nobody is destined to alter their appearance to that of the opposite sex in order to match a fictional Gender Identity. There is no “true trans.” Instead, some people may or may not find themselves more suited to living as if they were the opposite sex in our current society, and may indeed benefit from such a choice despite the medical and psychological consequences thereof. These people are not “really the opposite sex” because of their Gender Identity. Instead, they are just people who choose to live a pretense because they enjoy the benefits of being seen as the opposite sex. We need not engage in their fantasy and pretend (as in statements like “trans women are women”) that they have a magical Gender Identity that actually makes them the opposite sex. Some people who choose to live as if they are the opposite sex may end up living a great life - and good luck to them. However, the fiction of a Gender Identity and the medical interventions that are justified based thereupon has caused, and continues to cause, untold harm to many who will eventually realize there is no such a thing. I believe many detransitioners would agree.
Now I ask the reader: Do you believe in a Gender Identity? If so, how do you define it without reference to gender? Is it divorced from biology or stereotypes? Feel free to answer in the comments section.