“How Changeable is Gender?”

Today’s NY Times has a longish article by Richard Friedman with that title. It maintains

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that gender identity is a complex phenomenon, involving a mix of genes, hormones and social influence. And there is no getting around the fact that biology places constraints on our capacity to reimagine ourselves and to change, and it’s important to understand those limitations.

As conciliatory as this remark may seem, many feminists reading the article may find it objectionable in one way or another. Speaking out of concern for our blood pressure(s), let me say I think the most calming move would be to read it as a review article, full of information about what various science-oriented approaches are now claiming (or uncovering). I do also think that one should read it if one want to know what the science(s) is/are now saying, something that’s really useful to know for all sorts of reasons. Not least because one’s students will have views about the latest science that have passed through parents’ all too fallible interpretations.

One thing stressed: trying to change someone from gay to straight won’t work and is generally considered harmful. Of course, quoting the left-wing NY Times on that may not move everyone.

There’s a dearth of feminist references, which is a shame particularly since Ann Fausto-Sterling’s work anticipates much of what is said.

14 thoughts on ““How Changeable is Gender?”

  1. What exactly IS ‘gender identity’? There are a range of expectations about how males and females are supposed to behave, and a rosters of options and opportunities for men and women. If we don’t meet those expectations or want things that aren’t on the roster for our sex we are, on this account, gender-identity deviants—and, presumably, candidates for gender ‘reassignment’.

    Well folks let me tell you: I HATE BEING A WOMAN! I have always hated being female, from as long as I can remember and, if I were taller, I would have passed myself off as male. I’m straight—always liked men, never had any sexual interest in women. I don’t dislike my body or feel it’s alien to who I am, and I sure as hell would not want it chopped up surgically. I just don’t like the social role, expectations and options.

    Specifically: I am aggressive and crude, and I wish blue collar work were a fallback position for me. And I hate dressing up or taking care of my appearance. I’d be much more socially acceptable as a guy than I am as a woman. But the problem isn’t genetics: it is social expections and opportunities. And this rubbish about ‘gender identity’ smells very strongly as a reductio. I hate being female because of the expectations and options. I’m a feminist because I want those expectations and options changed.

  2. What he ought to have said is that HIS understanding of biology excuses his own restraints in attempting to understand the reality of gender, namely, he has not thought about or experienced sufficiently what it would mean for you if your sex and gender are not in seamless alignment.

    That, or he lives a very sad life, and he should be offered sympathy and encouragement.

  3. I hope people can read this post without thinking that the content of the article is endorsed. I certainly think that it would be surprising to find such an article had much sensitivity to the varieties of transsexuality. I still think that feminist professors are well advised to know what the discourse of the science inquirers looks like, perhaps especially when it is insensitive to feminist discussions.

    I was very relieved to see we’re moving beyond some simple biological determinism. That the author seems to have little or no understanding of the rates of suicide is tragic just as, similarly, he displays no understanding of how to think about a child who does not identify with his or her biologically assigned gender. At the same time, one could see him as quite deliberately not addressing such questions, which in any case are clearly beyond his understanding. This is a kind of intellectual humility that we dearly need.

    Please do speak more about what you are finding distressing. And please consider writing the Times editor. We need to enlarge such discourse.

  4. hbarber, I cannot tell you how I envy your clarity about yourself. I remember being told very early on that I could not make friends if I criticized the logic of people’s reasoning. Many, many decades later I have recently been told the same thing by someone to whom I turned for help. I hate that women are still hearing such things and, even more, that it still depresses me to be found “unlikeable” because I will argue back.

    We are, of course, still caught in the problem that Katy Manne pointed out, as we’ve discussed recently here a number of times: women who argue can pay a high price. And, as in the case of Papineau, the guys seem not to realize what they are doing.

  5. Dear Richard Friedman,
    In regards to your use of the phrase “social construct”:

    please consult– all the feminists.
    With thanks,
    one such feminist.

  6. I think it’s important to have serious discussions of disagreements, but gender identity is not “rubbish” and it’s hugely insulting for those who have to fight to have their gender identity recognised to treat it that way.

  7. This article is indeed problematic. And the notion of gender identity is sometimes used in conflicting or confused ways, and could benefit from some philosophical unpacking. However we define gender identity, it is surely not exhausted by gender norms (i.e. having a female gender identity is not the same thing as feeling comfortable with or endorsing norms or stereotypes of femininity). We need to say this to accommodate all of the women, trans and cis alike, who reject norms of femininity whilst identifying as women.

    That said, this unpacking needs to be undertaken with great care, given the importance of gender identity to trans people – and, with respect, I think hbaber’s comment above fails to do this. Gender identity clearly it not ‘rubbish’, and as Jender says, describing it as such is disrespectful to people who have to fight to have their gender identity respected. Also, hbaber’s comment gestures – I hope unintentionally – towards two unpleasant tropes: the trope of gender transition being forced on gender non-conforming cis people (this is a made-up worry that reinforces gate-keeping of essential health services for trans people) and the trope of genital surgery as mutilation (implied by the language of ‘chopping up’). With respect, hbaber, may I suggest that if you don’t want to come across as extremely disrespectful to and disdainful of trans people, these might be connotations to try to avoid.

  8. I did not engage in any personal attack and did not (for a change) use obscenity: ‘rubbish’ is G-Rated. And this business about ‘tropes’ is surely a stretch. Most importantly, disagreement, even disagreement about matters in which people have personal investments isn’t disrespect. And if I might add, I find this scolding, this attempt to educate me about how to behave properly in discussion, a wee bit patronizing and disrespectful.

  9. It’s actually hard enough for people who want to transition to get access to the treatment they need – so the idea that someone would be pushed into it is ridiculous given the number of reports I’ve heard from people dealing with gatekeeping therapists (which is where the gender role garbage gets shoved down one’s throat as a condition of access to treatment).

    Anyway, I’ve thought about the article a bit and I think there’s a big problem with confusing suicide rates with unsuccessful treatment. Transition helps but you’re still transitioning to an embodiment that is highly stigmatized in society, one where you can’t rely on the same protective entitlements you could before transition. You transition, but you still have a trans body and that comes with on-going difficulties and challenges of its own, things like getting the right legal documents, worries about passing through airport security, employment prospects, and so on (for trans women this is compounded by misogyny as well). You still have to work through the shame issues that revolve around an abject embodiment and really sadly, not everyone makes it By misattributing suicide rates to the failure of transition as a therapy, the article actually reinforces that stigma, potentially reinforcing the social pressures that lead to poor life prospects for trans people.

  10. Hi hbaber – just to clarify, I was not suggesting that you had violated the blog’s comment policy, nor did I say that you engaged in personal attack or used obscenity. My intentions were (a) to let you know that you seemed to me to be expressing disrespect for a marginalized group (on the assumption that you would not have intended to do this) and (b) to place a comment in the thread that voiced opposition to disrespect for trans people, in the interests of keeping the thread welcoming to anyone reading it who might find disrespect of that kind personally upsetting. I take that I’ve done both of these things now, so will have nothing further to say.

  11. Leah Carr, I’m very grateful for your drawing attention to the problematic nature of our initial discussions of the article, but I want to question the idea that he simply equates the suicide rate with unsuccessful treatment. Rather, he seems to want to say that (a) the treatment is inadequate and more is needed, and (b) the problems leading to suicide are multi-dimensional. Thus:

    Still, even if hormone replacement and surgery relieve gender dysphoria, the overall outcome with gender reassignment doesn’t look so good — a fact that only underscores the need for better medical treatments in general for transgender individuals and better psychiatric care after reassignment.

    Alarmingly, 41 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime compared with 4.6 percent of the general public, according to a joint study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute. The disturbingly high rate of suicide attempts among transgender people likely reflects a complex interaction of mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination and violence. The study analyzed data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which documents the bullying, harassment, rejection by family and other assorted horrors. (My stress.)

  12. Leah Carr, It was certainly a reasonable thought, so please do not apologize. I’ve been worried about how I failed to catch some concerns to trans people about this article and various comments, so I’m very relieved that at least I didn’t miss on this one.

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