Gender Identity, Perception of Gender, and the Tolerant Society
There’s been a bit of chit-chat around the gender-sphere lately about a petition pushing for Germaine Greer’s speech at the University of Cardiff to be cancelled. The petition was based on the fact that Greer had expressed trans-exclusionary views and on the premise that:
Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society.
Many of the responses reached a more moderate conclusion, that: Greer should still be able to give her talk in spite of her views on trans gender people. A common opinion is that Greer’s views might “have sold just fine forty-odd years ago” but now are outdated, and that Greer’s view “will die with today’s [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist] leaders and in a decade or so, among feminists it will be confined to a few cranks.”
In this post I’m going to argue that Greer’s views ought to be heard because of, not merely in spite of, her views on trans-gender people. I’m not writing in order to specifically defend Greer or her views; she is enough of an intelligent and independent thinker with more than enough experience as a provocateur to defend her own views. Nor is this a post about the issue of academic freedom or censorship; I’ve already made more than a few comments on that issue in the thread over at Alas.
This post will argue that while trans-inclusive views on gender have made an important contribution to our collective understanding and appreciation of gender, and that protecting trans individuals remains an important social justice goal, alternative views on gender, particularly a perception rather than a self-identification based view, will continue to have a significant contribution to make to the gender debate and are an aspect of people’s gender that should not be suppressed. In short I’m arguing for the inclusion of views on gender that might be trans-exclusionary (but not the exclusion of trans-inclusionary views on gender).
The Argument For Trans-Inclusive Views On Gender
Curiously these arguments seem rather difficult to dig out. Over at the Alas thread on the petition, Ampersand made the following comment:
I don’t think we ARE going to get to a good place of understanding, if Germaine Greer is one of the parties and I am the other. It is the position of most feminists I know that trans women are women, and trans men are men. It is Greer’s position that this is not true. Our positions on this matter are irreconcilable. There’s really nothing more to be hashed out there; there is no compromise to be had.
The argument seems to be little more than a simple assertion. His observation from the Mint Garden thread is that this is common amongst feminists:
I think the majority of feminists simply aren’t theory-heads, and aren’t especially strict about their theories or worried about seeming contradictions here and there. For most of the feminists I know, “trans women are women” and “your sex doesn’t determine your capacities” are both foundational beliefs, and there hasn’t been a lot of exploring to determine if these foundational beliefs contradict.
Consistent with Ampersand’s observations, Aoife from FreeThought Blogs said the following in her post about the petition:
I’ve seen three reasons why Greer should have her university platforms. The first- that her views have merit- we can dismiss out of hand. Trans women are women, end of story.
I find it a little curious that someone who is part of a skeptics community wouldn’t see the ideas that are commonly supported by a bald face assertion as exactly the ideas that most need to be examined and tested in the public sphere.
Ampersand did eventually provide some links to someone willing to provide a substantive argument. One seemed to do little more than construct a strawy Victorian perspective on gender essentialism to knock down. Another seems to be based on the argument that if we all just believe “trans women are women” is true then society would be a better place. As an atheist who grew up in a Christian environment, I find such fallacious arguments distinctly unappealing.
The link of most significance is to this post from Genderqueer Identities that provides quotes from Julia Serano’s book Excluded. I haven’t read Serano’s book, however some of the quotes from Serano’s book are important to my argument so I’ll reproduce them here:
[A holistic view on gender] moves away from the trite and overly simplistic “nature-versus-nurture” debates about gender and sexuality, and instead recognizes that biology, culture, and environment all interact in an unfathomably complex manner in order to generate the human diversity that we see all around us.
[Gender is] an amalgamation of bodies, identities, and life experiences, of subconscious urges, sensations, and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture
…all human behaviors, including those associated with sex, gender, and sexuality, are complex traits—that is, they arise through an intricate interplay of countless biological, social, and environmental factors. Because there are many different inputs that may influence our sexes, genders, and sexualities, there will always be a wide range of variation in potential outcomes, rather than one or a few discrete outcomes.
…it is through our individualized brains that we experience and respond to the world around us. So the notion that one can point to a specific behavior or preference (e.g., some aspect of gender or sexuality) and claim that it stems entirely from biology, or entirely from socialization, is flat our incorrect.
The Argument For Perception-Based Views On Gender
This argument isn’t specifically an argument for why trans women aren’t women, rather it’s an argument that an understanding of gender based on perception, a perception that generally excludes trans-women as a consequence, is a valid and important way to understand gender. That said, I’m going to start the argument by agreeing with everything I’ve quoted from Serano’s book.
There is a key point I think needs to be acknowledged given the above observations. Despite the fact that we might acknowledge all the nuance and complexity that Serano ascribes to gender, we fundamentally lack the language to clearly discuss that nuance and complexity. Any attempt to do express thoughts on one aspect will unavoidably avoid, conflate or exclude other aspects.
While it’s understandable that the avoidance, conflation or exclusion of particular aspects of gender might be disconcerting, I don’t see any value in being so sensitive as to cause discussions to devolve into a war over the meaning of words. If a football coach were to say he only wants “real men” on the team, then I think it’s clear the words are referring to players with the stereotypical male traits of strength, toughness, etc. I don’t see it as constructive to assert that the such words, by necessity, imply a broader rejection or condemnation of people lacking in those traits, or that such people are worth less in other pursuits or otherwise less human (even if it is frequently correlated with such implications).
Likewise if Greer is using the word “women” to refer to people born biologically female should not be seen as a broader rejection or condemnation of trans women, that people who see trans women as women need to have their opinions changed or that trans women are worth less in other regards or are less human. To me it appears as though Greer is simply observing that the commonality between people born female is significantly strong enough to justify the word “woman” as being limited to that commonality. It’s possible to have an inclusive society where some people use words in more narrow ways than others. The English language is full of words with multiple meanings and using one particular definition is not some de-facto dismissal of the ideas behind the alternative meanings.
Indeed Serano observes that we experience the world through our individualised brains, that there are many different inputs, and that there are many potential outputs. She also observes that our conceptions of gender are based on an amalgamation of many things. Combining these observations we arrive at the conclusion that individuals will hold many different conceptions of the meaning of gender.
The fact that Greer makes a personal observation that biology is a dominant factor in the way she sees gender is just another part of that messy amalgamation. Serano talks about avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches to gender in her book’s introduction. I would argue that artificially excluding views such as Greer’s from the broader discussion is just invoking a different type of one-size-fits-all solution.
Perception of Gender within the Gender Landscape
Previously in the Mint Garden, I had made a lengthy comment on how I saw the diverse range of factors that are part of gender aligning to some of the more comment language and issues discussed within feminism (including some grammar edits):
Looking at the spectrum from physical to behaviour traits that are related to gender I see the follow broad categories:
1) Primary & secondary sex characteristics (“physical sex”).
2) Perception of, and sexual attraction to primary & secondary sex characteristics (“sexuality”).
3) Behaviour about having and emphasising one’s own sex characteristics and attracting those with the desired sex characteristics who also desire one’s own sex characteristics (“sexual behaviour”).
4) Homosocial behaviour focused on learning the above behaviours, competitiveness against those with the same sex characteristics, and establishing a pecking order within that group (“homosocialising”).
5) Gendered behavioural traits that are unrelated to sex (“gendered behaviours/gender roles”).
Looking at individuals with uncommon interactions of these categories, some gender issues become evident. For example an uncommon combination between the first two is where someone is attracted to people with the same sex characteristics as themselves (i.e. homosexuality). An uncommon combination with the fifth, could result in an effeminate man, or a masculine woman, who otherwise doesn’t have any sort of gender identity concern.
When it comes to trans people, an uncommon combination of the first and the third, would result in someone with one set of physical sex characteristics but the expectation to have and use the opposite (i.e dysphoria). While an uncommon combination of the first/second/third and the fourth could result in someone who is a straight female comfortable with their body, but feels they ought to be part of the male group and treated as a male in social situations (or vice versa).
However, there’s a conflict that arises from the fact that homosociality, as a social behaviour, isn’t unilateral. This means that the behaviour is based on both how an individual identifies their gender as well as how others identify the individual’s gender. If there is a conflict between these two, then there will be a conflict over whether that individual should be treated as part of the homosocial group. If we’re going to consider a person’s gender as something that ought to be respected, and include the nature of a person’s relationships as a fundamental aspect of their gender, then I think we have to consider that feelings on both sides of that relationship need to be respected.
The important point buried in that last paragraph is that gender isn’t something that exists solely as attributes of an isolated individual, but rather one person’s gender includes aspects of how that person perceives other people’s gender, and includes how they feel inclined to act as a result of those perceptions. That is one’s perception of gender is an inherent part of one’s gender identity.
No one specifically responded to that point but I asked rimonim (a trans man) if the idea was consistent with his own experiences and he agreed:
What I could understand was that it is not okay to cry in front of others, that it’s important to act tough in front of your friends by doing stupid stunts and being able to drink liquor straight, that it’s embarrassing to fight “like a girl” (e.g. scratching) and that I needed to fight “like a boy” (punching, etc).
I definitely tuned into male socialization even though I was putatively a girl.
Reading this, I wonder how what I wrote above plays into being trans. It seems “tuning into male socialization” would mean seeing a collection of individuals, identifying them as male, identify male as meaning like-me, and then have a desire to socialise with people who had the trait like-me. Does this make sense to you?
It does–I don’t know whether that’s all that’s at work, but I absolutely think that is part of it, for both trans and cis people.
Of course the contemplative and introspective thoughts of a couple of people on the internet aren’t the strongest basis on which to found an argument. These things can easily be waved away as merely the constructed shadows of a gendered culture that will fade to the point of being “confined to a few cranks”.
To explain why I think the issue of homosociality, and hence the perception of gender, is important and shouldn’t be glossed over in the name of trans-inclusivity, I’m going to cover some of the evidence I’ve read about and then describe how I see that as guiding choices about structuring societal responses to gender issues.
Evidence on the Perception of Gender and Homosociality
The first thing to do is to step back from humanity and consider observations of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Let’s look at what’s been observed about Chimpansees:
Within a chimp community, a male hierarchy, ordered more or less in linear fashion, establishes social standing, with one male at the top or “alpha” position… females have their own hierarchy, albeit much less straightforward… Status is either maintained or changed through communication and social interactions, such as physical competition and grooming.
These groups are patrilineal… It is important for young, immigrant females to develop relationships with other females in their new groups because this is one of the strongest relationships in bonobo society… Because females within the community are unlikely to be related, it is unusual that female bonobos show such strong affiliation with one another in parties and within communities. Paradoxically, males in bonobo communities are related to one another and show little affiliative behavior… One of the most significant and defining characteristics of bonobo societies is sexual behavior. Sex serves purposes other than reproduction such as appeasement, affection, social status, erotic games, reconciliation, excitement, and stress reduction.
In both species we can see that social relationships between individuals of the same sex are distinctive, and that the sex of an individual will significantly affect the nature of it’s social relationships. It is difficult to imagine how, for example, immigrant female bonobos would consistently develop strong relationships with the new females if they weren’t able to instinctively identify the females from the males and instinctively adjust their behaviour accordingly. None the less, it still demonstrates that such behavioural patterns can arise outside of the influence of existing human culture.
Moving to the study of humans, neuroscience has identified areas of the brain that are specifically focused on facial recognition. This gets interesting when studying individuals who have problems with facial recognition (Prosopagnosia). A 2012 study of people with developmental prosopagnosia (DP) revealed that even though they had an impaired ability to identify faces, they were still able to identify the gender of the face:
…the current study forced DPs to make gender judgements based on internal components and precluded them from using grooming and makeup cues. This minimized ceiling effects and likely engaged face-specific mechanisms. Additionally, by including inverted and scrambled face conditions, the current study demonstrated that DPs use similar information as controls to determine gender.
This suggests that there are specific structures in the brain that are dedicated to determining another person’s gender (or perhaps more specifically someone’s “biological sex” given the stimulus was limited to natural facial features and not the social cues commonly linked with the term “gender”).
A different study into children observed that different sexes utilise different parts of the brain when undertaking a facial recognition task:
Results suggest that girls and boys may use different neuronal systems in the processing of faces and facial affect.
Other research has identified that there are specialised parts of the brain for perceiving the human body, which suggests that specific and gendered structures for other-person gender perception would extend to cover all naturally apparent aspects of a persons physical sex.
If we shift into the behavioural domain, we see behaviours that are likely impacted by those structures. For example, a study of people interacting with strangers found that:
Compared with men, women seem to have a knack for fixating on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they’ve just met, a new study suggests. That tendency might make women better at remembering faces, researchers say.
Another study found that women were significantly better at remembering other women’s faces than those of men:
We found that women remembered more male and female faces than men, and that the female advantage was especially pronounced for female faces, indicating a strong own-sex bias in women.
And another showed not only that men also have a same-sex bias, but that is likely a complex affect between gendered mechanisms of recognition and gendered facial features:
Interestingly, the own-gender effect for men was larger when faces had been encoded under divided attention. An explanation in line with this is that men in comparison to women may rely on less elaborate encoding strategies (Guillem & Mograss, 2005) that are less holistic and more based on features. This may have facilitated men’s processing of male faces, which had been rated as more distinctive, when attention was limited and resulted in a better memory for male than female faces.
These studies show a simple mechanism, based in biology and not culture, that could cause a bias towards homosociality amongst individuals who commonly perceive each other as being of the same gender.
Building on the Evidence
As I noted earlier, proponents of trans-inclusive feminism appear to base their approach on the simple assertion that “trans women are women”. The only feature accepted as a common indication of being a particular gender is a declaration of self-identification with that gender. Under such an understanding of gender, it’s not possible for on individual to directly observe someone’s gender. The consequential conclusion, is that groups engaging in homosocial behaviour can’t be doing so on the basis of innate perceptions of other’s gender, but rather on some alternative and therefore, arbitrary and socially constructed set of criteria.
This seems to be the argument of one of the critics of homosociality theory:
Homosociality is now sometimes described as multiple (Bird); as organised in relation to material rewards or a patriarchal dividend (Connell, Gender); as affective (Evers); as organised through heterosexual relations (Flood); and so on. These approaches have great potential explanatory power and deserve further investigation. Unfortunately, much extant research on these themes retains the premise that men innately seek identification and communication with other men. The mysterious malepolitik is thus privileged over men’s relationships to femininity, or women’s relationships to masculinity. This makes it difficult to articulate any conception of human motivation outside the schema of values most closely identified with the habits of male fraternisation, whether multiple, pecuniary, affective, heterosexual or otherwise.
The problem for this criticism, and the rejection of an innate perception and response to other’s gender, is that as I’ve demonstrated above, the identified premise is not so much mysterious but rather an innate behavioural bias supported by evidence across multiple areas of psychology.
To understand why appreciating these mechanisms is important to feminism I think it’s helpful to look at the social outcomes that result from this behaviour. For example, a doctoral study into persistent male domination of corporate leadership in Germany observed the following:
Companies’ diversity measures primarily focus on women, especially the advancement of women to leadership positions, where common measures include trainings, coachings, and mentoring programs for women, the establishment of women’s networks, flexible working models (mainly directed at women with care responsibilities), re-entry programs, and special recruitment measures for women as well as girl’s days.
The present research, however, demonstrates that there is a hidden driver within the top management which prevents an opening of the leadership group to include more diverse personnel… there is a positive feedback mechanism at work (coordination effects) which secures a strong cohesion and closure in the top management… Diversity management measures keep failing because they do not take into account the systemic forces in the top management. The majority of change interventions aim at empowering excluded groups without addressing the inherent logic of leadership systems.
Insisting that gender be seen as socially constructed and having no (directly observable) basis in biology would close off investigation into innate behaviours that underpin significant gendered social phenomenon that feminism seeks to address. As noted in the quote above, solutions founded on ignorance are unlikely to have the desired results.
The moral concerns I have a less to do with potential intellectual insights and more to do with the implications of imposing strict social sanctions on aspects of gender. To understand why imposing social sanctions on people expressing perceptions of gender is problematic, we need to look at the process by which people develop their own gender identity. For example, this study into gender development found:
Consistent with the social cognitive theory of gender self-regulation, the findings of this study show that children first learn to discriminate and evaluate gender-linked conduct and later to guide their own conduct by self-evaluative reactions. The youngest children disapproved of peers’ cross-sex conduct but did not apply evaluative standards to their own gender-related behavior.
The findings do not support the view that children were striving to match their behavior to their gender labeling… Their behavior conformed to gender-linked stereotypes regardless of level of gender conception.
The findings taken as a whole reveal that from an early age children adopt traditional patterns of gender-linked conduct. Neither gender constancy nor gender knowledge appear to drive this conduct… children learn the social sanctions against cross-sex behavior and social approval for same-sex behavior… Eventually, children adopt self-evaluative standards for gender-linked behavior and regulate their own conduct through anticipatory self-sanction.
The study observed that children perceive the gender of other children before developing the sense to govern their own, a sense that does not depend on an understanding that gender is constant or being consciously aware of cultural gender rules. This suggests that children’s perception of the gender of other children (and adults) is an early and foundational element of how they develop their own gender identity.
Indeed, if trans children have a gender identity that conflicts with the way their gender is instinctively perceived by other children, then the trans children would instinctively anticipate certain behavior would not invoke social sanction even though it would, and vice versa. This difference between instinctive expectation and actual outcome would likely contribute to the distress that many trans children experience.
In response to this problem, many trans advocates are proposing we entirely suppress people’s instinctive perception of other people’s gender. In place of gender system based on people’s innate perception they want to create a gender system based on people’s self identity. This would certainly be an outcome that would reduce the distress of trans people.
The problem with this approach is it involves direct social coercion to override an aspect of people’s gender. This is something that has historically had bad outcomes. The many attempts to convert homosexual people to heterosexuality have resulted in both failure and harm to the individuals involved. It was an attempt to control, not how people classified others’ gender, but rather how they classified their sexual attractiveness. The outcomes were so bad that “happy marriages” punctuated by repeated homosexual affairs were classified as a success. Likewise attempts to control individuals perception of their own gender have equally resulted in disturbing failure.
Schala, a trans woman who used to comment at feministcritics, made the following observation long before the current kerfuffle:
People who hold tightly to their sense of maleness or femaleness could somehow feel robbed of it when someone claims it for themselves without having a ‘birthright’ to it, in their opinion (the opinion of those resistant to it). It challenges the basis by which they think of themselves as themselves.
Without a landmark anywhere, people might feel lost.
An illustration (perhaps extreme) of the potential for harm that such approaches hold can be seen in the comments of the Ms Magazine blog thread Ampersand linked to. There trans feminists were objecting to legislation that enabled discrimination against trans women in the provision of counselling services to victims of sex crimes. The explanatory memorandum quoted in the thread explains with an example:
A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.
It is entirely understandable that victims of gender based crimes will have emotional reactions towards particular genders, reactions governed by the victim’s perception of gender. Victim counselling is a clear case where biases of the victim should take priority over that of the counsellor, particularly where they may impair the value of the counselling if not respected. Further victimisation of vulnerable people who don’t perfectly fit the politically correct vision is exactly the sort of consequences one would expect from a dogmatic and authoritarian approach to social problems.
Given how an individual self-identifies is strongly correlated with how they will be perceived, regulating gender perception is likely going to be less burdensome on individuals than regulating gender identity or sexual attraction. Yet, for the reasons I noted above it’s still going to strike at the core of people’s own gender identity and is an approach that will likely fail. The vision put forward by trans advocates is indeed appealing, however it’s fundamentally based on an idealised and unrealistic understanding of human nature. (Those who are inclined to construct utopian visions disconnected from the reality of human nature should probably go into economics).
An Alternative Vision for Gender Solutions
Rather than reaching for the social authoritarian hammer and attempting to socially punish those who express perceptions of gender that diverge from trans feminist orthodoxy, I think we need to develop social norms that allow and even embrace people’s perception of gender, but do so in a way that channels it away from producing conflict and harm to others, particular in a way that challenges the gender identity of trans people.
To clarify what I’m talking about consider the problem of aggression and violence amongst boys and men. Over time our society developed sport as a way for boys and men to channel their innate bias towards aggression in a way that doesn’t cause harm to others. This theory is backed up by studies, one of which found:
Shahar’s results demonstrated [sports participation caused] an improvement in traits relating to participants’ self-control, such as self-observation, problem-solving skills, and delayed gratification — which ultimately led to a decrease in the incidence of aggression.
Girls had a much weaker response to sports programming than their male classmates, Shahar’s research showed. Statistically, there was little change in the female population. Shahar reasons that girls do not often suffer from the same aggression problems as boys, and are less likely to exhibit a passion for sport.
I think we need similar social institutions like that of sport to address the conflicts that are identified within the sociology of gender. I’m not sure exactly what such institutions would look like, articulating any such vision would certainly be beyond the scope of this post, but I do think it represents a more positive approach for gender thinkers to take than attempting to contrive ways to suppress people’s sense of perception. Such thought needs to include input from all perspectives on gender.
I suspect that accepting or even encouraging people to organise within groups of based on perception of gender (e.g. women born as female, men born as male, etc), but in ways that don’t overflow and impose themselves on broader society, will need to be a part of any solution. I also suspect that it will involve parts of feminism that see innate male homosociality as a source of gender class injustice, see innate female homosociality as a force to counteract that injustice and hence see female groups based on innate perception of gender, rather than self-identification, as an important part of the broader social justice movement. I also suspect that given the limitations of our language that such groups will need to simple labels such as “woman”/”women”/”men”/”man” in ways that might not directly correspond to their uses in a broader trans-inclusionary context.
I realise that the distress that trans people experience may drive a desperation that will make authoritarian approaches seem appealing. My arguments may not be convincing enough that people deviate from their approach. However, I do hope I’ve at least made enough of a case to demonstrate my views aren’t due to prejudice or a lack of empathy for trans people, but rather are formed from an understanding of human nature based on evidence, reason, and an empathy for all people.