On transgender identity

Recently this video published on Facebook featured members of the South Australian Transgender community making some interesting statements about their gender identity. The video was published for ‘International Transgender Day of Visibility 2017.’

I felt the need to respond to a number of claims made in the video, especially as it becomes clear that the video’s main purpose is to convince the audience of the need for gender neutral pronouns and for society at large to change their behaviour.

My response to the video contains my opinions, but also I sought to be as logical as possible.

I am well aware that the positions held in the video are subjective and emotional, and so answering their claims with logic or my own opinion may be seen as uncaring or ‘missing the point.’

All I want to do is voice a different perspective.

Additionally, the emotion of a position is not what is important, what is important is the action called for. The only reason I am responding to this video is because it is attempting to educate me and persuade me to change how I use language.

Being Self-conscious

One of the first lines of the video is:

“When you are transgender it can be hard expressing yourself.”

Which is followed with examples of how they feel self-conscious about their appearance.

A lot of people find it hard to express themselves. Almost everyone is self-conscious about their appearance. We are social animals, we live in packs, we evaluate each other and some among us become archetypes. There are levels of socially and culturally accepted norms, tastes, and expectations. This is what being human is, it is normal.

As someone becomes more genuinely comfortable with who they are and how they are living their life they begin to realise that a lot of the things they are self-conscious about are inconsequential. Especially entirely superficial things such as the examples given in the video.

I do not really care about your appearance. I care about how you act.

Uniqueness

“… my uniqueness isn’t a weakness.”

This is a nice notion. Similar to the ideal that: ‘anyone can be whoever they want to be and we can all be equal.’ But unfortunately, that isn’t true in the real world.

As a society and as a species there are things more important than an individual’s subjective identity or feelings. One of those things that is more important is social cohesion and function, which often involves rules and some measure of conformity.

Additionally, it is normal for people to like things that are familiar, not to mention that there is a time and a place for certain behaviours.

The point is, being unique is certainly not always advantageous or even neutral, it could be detrimental.

Cover your face with tattoos or piercings and see how you go with job applications. 

Transgender people have a high suicide rate and poor mental health. (An estimated 50% of transgender people attempt suicide at least once.) This is supposedly because they feel that they do not fit in, or that the wider society does not treat them equally (which it probably doesn’t because transgender people will always be a minority, and cannot expect everyone in society to treat them the same as the majority). If this is the reason they try to kill themselves, an equally important factor is the individuals mental resilience or failure to recognise the significance of being unique and seeking the support to cope with the added stress it brings (admittedly this could be societies and not merely the individuals responsibility, meaning society being more open to recognising transgender identity and being willing to help, but I think that great progress has already been made in  this area).

The ‘LGBTI People Mental Health & Suicide’ paper tells us that being trans “is not in itself a problem.” I agree that it is not a problem. But it could conceivably contribute to some other problems. We are to believe that all of their problems arise from discrimination and society’s failure to recognise them?

There is no chance that a problem could arise from an individual experiencing distress, anxiety, cognitive dissonance, and poor psychological resilience possibly due to a legitimate mental illness such as gender dysphoria?

It is not healthy to avoid even discussing that prospect.

Personally, I think it could be a weakness to be so obsessed with your gender identity that it becomes a central focus of your life and causes you significant psychological distress. If you are unable to handle criticism or function normally because you are so focused on reaffirming something that everyone else just accepts, then you do suffer from a kind weakness.

As I will mention repeatedly throughout this piece; if you suffer from actual abuse, discrimination, or violence due to your gender identity then in Australia you have been a victim of a crime and you can report it and help society punish criminals or those responsible.

It is written into Australian law that:

“every individual is equal before and under the law, and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law, without discrimination on the ground of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, breastfeeding or family responsibilities.”

If you feel that you have been discriminated against you can approach the Australian Human Rights Commission and they will investigate your claim with the aim of upholding Australia’s anti-discrimination acts.

“[My uniqueness] doesn’t make me any less of a person.”

No one claims that transgender people, or ‘unique’ people, are less than human.

“And it doesn’t make me any less of a man.”

Well yes it technically does. But, does ‘man’ in this context refer to your biological sex or your gender identity? Because if it is the former then yes it does because you are rejecting your biological sex. And if it is the latter then you aren’t exactly like a biological male, and you probably wouldn’t claim to be, so yes you are technically ‘less of a man.’

Would you even want to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense? Isn’t being transgender more like being somewhere between the two genders? (Later in the video they claim exactly this.)

Or by ‘man’ do you mean ‘manliness?’ In which case ‘manliness,’ is just how you behave or are perceived in relation to your culture or societies concept of ‘manliness.’ It’s inconsequential because if people do not think you are behaving appropriately enough like a man and all the while you are perfectly comfortable with your identity, then you should find it easy to disregard their opinion.

 “We spent too much of our lives pretending to be others, for others … too much time hiding, we’re done with hiding.”

A lot of people do that, and it is unfortunate. It’s good that you are done with hiding, just do not expect everyone to treat you like you are not a part of a minority.

“Why fit in when we were born to stand out?”

So, what do you want? You want to be unnoticed and treated as normal but you also want to stand out and be ‘done with hiding?’ And everyone in society is supposed to understand exactly when to acknowledge how different you are and when to treat you as entirely equal?

I guess we would defer to the transgender community on how to treat them in certain situations. But, the transgender community is diverse and does not have a centrally recognised group or leader that can inform the rest of us on how to treat them in each situation. So transgender people should be treated on an individual basis, and everyone needs to regulate their speech and behaviour in multiple different ways accordingly? 

This ‘treat me this way but also this way because I’m this but also that’ mentality seems like the cognitive dissonance that makes a transgender person’s subjective identity capable of causing them distress.

They acknowledge their biology but also reject it, but they know they cannot biologically change so they adopt a blend of male and female while not really being either and knowing they are forgoing being like most of society yet want to be accepted by everyone and have their feelings validated.

Sounds like cognitive dissonance (which by definition is accompanied by stress and discomfort).

Genes and hormones

“Our behaviours and fashion choices aren’t determined by our genes or hormones.”

Actually an individual’s behaviour and emotional state are likely determined in part by their genes and hormones. (But why the inclusion of fashion choices? It seems like a disingenuous attempt to obfuscate their argument.)

The following areas of study are ongoing and not ‘settled.’ Take what I quote with a grain of salt, but it is safe to assume that human behaviour, brain function, and emotions are highly complex and most likely result from many factors.

A first look would suggest that the consensus is hormones do influence behaviour.

A whole field of study called Behavioural Endocrinololgy has been studying how hormones may influence behaviour. And finds that:

“hormones do not cause behavioural changes per se. Rather, hormones change the probability that a specific behaviour will be emitted in the appropriate behavioural or social context.”

This study reports to have found a link between hormones and consumer behaviour (ironically mentioning that fashion choice is possibly influenced by hormones). Specifically that:

“women at peak fertility (near ovulation) are attracted to different kinds of men and show increased desire to attend social gatherings. Building on the evolutionary logic behind such effects, we examined how, why, and when hormonal fluctuations associated with ovulation influenced women’s product choices.”

While this study demonstrates that both hormonal and social factors influenced different behaviours of Rhesus monkeys.

“These studies demonstrate that the expression of consistent juvenile behavioral sex differences results from hormonally induced predispositions to engage in specific patterns of juvenile behavior whose expression is shaped by the specific social environment experienced by the developing monkey.”

While this study identifies vasopressin (on top of the already known influence of oxytocin) as a contributor to the behaviour of voles:

“To date, established functions of AVP [arginine vasopressin] in social behaviors have almost exclusively been described in males … whereas the regulation of complex social behaviors in females has mainly been linked to the related neuropeptide OXT [Oxytocin] … Interestingly, in the monogamous and alloparental prairie vole AVP was shown to facilitate paternal behavior … Also, in some other nonmammalian vertebrate species, the related nonapeptide vasotocin has been linked to complex parental behaviors.”

It is also possible to have a genetic predisposition (meaning an increased likelihood to experience) certain behaviours or conditions.

This paper elucidates nicely how the nature vs nurture argument should instead be thought of as two things that interact to influence people in areas such as mental illness.

And this example suggests that DNA traits influence our social navigation of the world; stating that:

“our DNA contains heritable variants that contribute to subtle differences in social cognition. These sequence variants are contained within genes that not only play a role in the relationship that parents may have with their offspring but also how we recognize or react to one another.”

Other studies also explore potential links between genes and addictions such as alcoholism.

Studies such as this one are exploring how:

“Genetic factors are important in the predisposition to alcoholism … It has been suggested that some alcoholics may be predisposed to alcohol-drinking behaviors because of innately high anxiety levels.”

And a final example states:

“Alcoholism is a complex psychiatric disorder that has high heritability (50–60%) and is relatively common … Vulnerability to alcoholism is likely to be due to multiple interacting genetic loci of small to modest effects.”

I am not an expert, but my point is that it is premature to assert that genetics and hormones have nothing to do with behaviour.

Discrimination

“People give me ‘side eyes’ on the street … I’ve been spat on, on the street.”

It is inevitable that some people in society will be rude and disrespectful, and there will always be horrible people in the world. These things happen. Being an adult means learning to get over it and move on with your life. Why would you let what some bigot thinks, or does in passing, affect you so much?

If you are truly happy and comfortable with who you are you would be more resilient and able to cope with these kinds of knocks.

“They yell abuse. Or worse.”

What does ‘worse’ mean?

Society can only combat the crimes or injustices it sees. Being secretive doesn’t help. If someone has committed a crime you can report it to the police and help ensure that the perpetrator is held accountable for their actions.

So far, the only discrimination described is ‘side eyes,’ being spat on, and having abuse yelled at you. While I do not think that anyone should have to experience such treatment, it isn’t the same as being lynched, excluded from certain venues, denied human rights, or deprived employment. Where are the actual crimes here? Where is the treatment that couldn’t be countered by being sufficiently resilient, having a friend to talk to, or seeking psychological support?

Counting Transgender People

“We’re ordinary people just like you.”

Well yes, you are human beings. Again, who says otherwise?

What is the point of saying this, other than to imply that there are people who think you are subhuman? People don’t really care what your chosen gender identity is. People just want to live their lives. The minority of bigots out there can be safely ignored.

If the point of this video is to emotionally persuade people to be extra accepting of alternative gender identities, my question is: Why isn’t a normal level of acceptance enough?

“Gender diverse people have existed for thousands of years across hundreds of cultures.”

So what? Looking to the past as a measure of somethings legitimacy in the present is fallacious. There are plenty of practices and beliefs that have persisted throughout history but are now gone, are still only marginal, or are just as insignificant now as they were then.

“And while our governments may not think we are worth counting. It is estimated that we are as common as redheads.”

This would still only be 1–2% of the population. (Although this is significantly higher than the estimate included in the previously linked Beyond Blue paper, which states: “Recent international estimates of the prevalence of trans people lie between 1:500 and 1:11,500.” This would mean between 0.2% to 0.008% of the global population.)

What would be the point of ‘being counted?’ You are still counted as citizens, as births, as tax payers, and in other ways. Why would you want the government to categorise you in even more ways? You want there to be some government enforced laws or practices in place that specifically targets 2% of the population (in a way that doesn’t also affect the other 98%)?

I fail to understand the obsession with categorising every one into smaller and smaller groups. Shouldn’t we be dividing ourselves into fewer categories and seeing fewer differences between us?

“We don’t strive to imitate your gender. We’re trying to express our own. And that’s no less real or authentic.”

That’s fine, I don’t know who actually cares. But transgender people are still biologically one sex. That cannot be changed. (By the way, a legitimate semantic argument could be made for authenticity or inauthenticity.)

However, the point is that a transgender identity is subjective and so how you choose to see yourself is authentic for you. But you cannot expect it to also be socially or culturally ‘authentic’ (in terms of the way the majority defines terms such as male, female, masculinity, or femininity). Although again, if you are truly comfortable with who you are and how you identify then other people’s opinions shouldn’t bother you.

“I’m not stuck in my body, I’m stuck in the preconceptions of others.”

Technically you are stuck in your body. And no, you aren’t stuck in the preconceptions of others. These preconceptions are based on the majority and on typical experience. If it offends you then don’t pay attention to it.  98% of the population should change their preconceptions to suit 2% of the population? Why do you need them to if you aren’t facing any real discrimination? Good luck getting 98% of the population to agree on anything.

But why doesn’t the transgender community change their preconceptions instead: specifically, that ‘almost everyone does not, or will not, accept us,’ or that ‘everyone should accept us.’

Be comfortable with who you are and disregard the opinions of bigots.

Just remember that most people are not bigots, they are probably just unfamiliar with—or totally uninterested in—your gender identity.

The Point of the Video

“I am and I always have been this person, and I want my pronouns to reflect that even if you are referring to my past.”

People change over time. It’s a fact. Individuals mature over their lifetime as they have new experiences and learn new things. My perception of myself now is different to how I perceived myself as an infant, or even a few years ago.

Although, maybe this person in the video hasn’t altered their sense of self or matured at all throughout their life.

We are two-thirds of the way into the video and we finally get to ‘the point.’ The rest of the video has been an attempt at emotionally appealing to the audiences sense of compassion.

The point of the video is that everyone in society should police the language that they use around 2% of the population. We aren’t even talking about discriminatory or offensive language, we are talking about semantically correct ways of referring to someone based on their biological sex instead of constantly using their name or some clunky or grammatically incorrect usage of ‘they, them, or their.’

“My pronouns validate how I’ve come to understand myself.”

It is not the duty of anyone else in society to help you ‘validate’ your gender identity. To try and force people to do so is ridiculous. Asking, or forcing, someone to validate your subjective identity will just lead to token acquiescence from most, at best.

“Please honour my experience over your interpretation.”

Will you offer me and the rest of the population the same courtesy? Why don’t you honour our experience, which is that in most cases someone that is a biological male identifies as a male. Why won’t you honour our experience over your interpretation? To expect everyone to conform to your subjective viewpoint is ludicrous.

“One thing is for sure, I didn’t choose this struggle, it was a surrender to the inevitable.”

Of course being yourself isn’t easy.

But is it not possible that it was so much of a struggle because being transgender is to be suffering from gender dysphoria and the resulting anxiety, depression, and poor psychological resilience?

“It is not safe for all of us to be open about being transgender.”

In Australia? If you are implying that people will be the victims of crimes based on their gender identity, then those people should report the crimes to the police or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The situation I can see you referring to is: people facing discrimination or abuse from their family, individuals, or a social group. In this case its either a crime or it is people being bigots and disrespectful. Report it to the police or learn to get over it. Australia has extensive anti-discrimination laws which give individuals the power to defend themselves against perceived or actual discrimination.

“We choose to be visible in the hope that one day it will be safe for everyone.”

If you are specific about these at-risk individuals, then society can work together to help solve the problem. Who does it help for there to be a nonspecific threat and an unidentified victim? How do we help you stand up against that? Is not calling you ‘he’ or ‘she’ going to help make society safe for every transgender person?

“We believe that all people can benefit from embracing diverse expressions of gender.”

In what way? And why do we need to ‘benefit?’ The only benefit indicated in this video is that you’ll successfully convince someone to police their language to help validate your subjective experiences. Additionally, should society embrace you simply for this unspecified benefit or because they truly accept you?

“Let’s celebrate the beauty of our differences.”

Only the beautiful aspects? Or are you claiming that all our differences are beautiful?

Presumably you don’t mean the aspects deemed beautiful by the wider society and culture, because as the transgender community would claim, the mainstream concepts of beauty and gender are not broad enough. So, I guess what you actually mean is: ‘let’s all see beauty in the same way that transgender people do, which is incidentally the correct way.’

Language policing in service of feelings

The video is calling for arbitrary alterations to language in service of a minority (a minority, incidentally, that has not reached—and probably cannot reach—a consensus on this issue due to how diverse they are).

What if red heads ‘needed’ everyone to stop calling them ‘red heads’ and instead start calling them ‘orange heads?’ All in service of validating their identity of course. Shouldn’t we all just honour their experience over our interpretations?

What if people with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder ‘needed’ everyone to instead say they have ‘Focus Impaired Restless Syndrome?’ All in service of validating their identity of course. Shouldn’t we all just honour their experience over our interpretations?

What if albino people ‘needed’ everyone to call them ‘melanin deficient individuals?’

You could apply this argument to countless little groups, and we could fracture each group into smaller groups and afford them all their own linguistic rules.

Impairing society’s ability to communicate solely in the service of someone’s subjective feelings is not a good idea.

In closing

It’s ‘politically incorrect’ to voice the kind of criticism that I have been voicing here. However, I think it is important to be able to discuss these topics broadly instead of merely within the bounds of socially accepted viewpoints.

If someone is going to try to persuade me, or educate me, or ask me to police my language around them then I have a right to ask questions or at least try to understand their perspectives, logic, or motivations.

It seems to me the ideological agenda of this video is to encourage people that they need to change the way they interact with people in order to validate a transgender people’s gender identity. But, I do not see that as a good enough reason for seeking to enforce grammatically, semantically, or factually incorrect language. The video did not satisfactorily demonstrate how widespread adoption of gender neutral pronouns would  make a positive impact for the transgender community.

So perhaps it is just a matter of respect and compassion. But someone cannot force me to respect them, and I cannot respect everyone equally or arbitrarily, that would make respect meaningless.

I cannot help but see this as an attempt at limiting freedom of speech. An attempt to guilt and shame people for using factually correct language. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t want less than 2% of the population dictating what objectively inoffensive words people should avoid in order to preserve the feelings of a non-homogeneous minority group.

 


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