The world is quickly turning more tolerant. People can more freely express themselves, and problems, we didn’t think even existed previously, are now finding novel answers. One of these topics people are conversing is gender dysphoria. Can people be born into the wrong sex, and what is sex anyways? These are the questions I’m going to explore. First of all, before anything can ever be discussed, we need to explain our terms. What do we mean by sex and gender identity? It has roughly two dimensions: the biological and the cultural. Let’s start with the biology.
According to our scientific understanding, humans are roughly divided in two, those with XY chromosomes (men) and those with XX chromosomes (women). These chromosomes carry different genes. Since females by logic are the bottleneck of a population’s reproduction, males are the expendable sex more readily sacrificed in war, in hunting, or in the competition for mates. Theoretically, this would create different selective pressures for both sexes and affect their individual evolution and genetic makeup. And this is exactly what we observe in species with the XY sex-determination system.¹ Both sexes have their gender specific chromosomes that dictate which genes can activate. They receive different hormones in the womb and throughout their lives, which affects their physical development, brains, and thus minds. And women really do portray more empathy and care, as men produce more autistic individuals with shallower emotional understandings and more technical, narrower interests.
So, on average, some traits tend to cluster in the brains of men, and some traits tend to cluster in the brains women. Hence these traits are traditionally called masculine or feminine in the biological sense.
But this isn’t to say that we should force people into boxes. That’s not how our brains are at all. Most brains aren’t completely binary, but they drop somewhere in between the polar opposites, in some cases to the altogether adjacent side even. That’s how statistics work. Or some people may drop straight into the center with a very fluid gender identity. So although most men are more like men, and most women are more like women, there’s still this beautiful mosaic of gender trait combinations out there², which enriches the cognitive diversity and intelligence of humanity as a whole. And at the end of the day, if it’s possible, it’s always more accurate to treat people as individuals, not as representatives of their perceived group.
Maybe you’ve heard someone saying that gender is a “social construct”. This is the cultural side of the matter. They probably didn’t mean that biological sex doesn’t exist. They simply meant that there’s a very real cultural component to our idea of sex. For example, do you really think that wearing skirts, bra, high-heeled shoes, long hair or make-up has something inherently to do with women? Globally we will find cultures with men doing all of these things with the obvious exception of bra. Just 300 years ago these things were the norm even in the west. You can google up the former King of France, Louis XIV, and one of the first things you’ll find will be his legendary portrait, Louis with high heels, long curls and pantyhose, showing off his gorgeous legs. On the year 1701 they had a very different idea of what it meant to be a man. The social construct of gender isn’t static but reflects our culture.
They probably didn’t mean that biological sex doesn’t exist. They simply meant that there’s a very real cultural component to our idea of sex.
Although I said we should treat people as individuals, that’s not how human culture tends to work. At least not our western culture as it is now. Being a woman or a man is a very narrow box. Women are more accepted to portray traits seen as soft or weak. Men, on the other hand, are pressured to be unemotional and dominant. There’s tremendous value in being both of these things, but when one sex is barred from pretty much half of the human experience, that can be a problem. Nevertheless, these are the roles we’re expected to play in order to smoothly flow through society. Why is this?
What the brain is, fundamentally, is only a prediction making machine: if the machine does its job, an organism can react to its environment before the changes in it kill it. So, when all people are visually categorised into these two opposing teams, both portraying a clearly defined set of abilities, it makes it easier for us to predict the future states of our environment. It’s an intellectual shortcut. And if there’s a way how our species is lazy, it’s intellectual laziness. We hate thinking.
So now we have a shared idea of what we mean with gender and sex. Can someone be born with the wrong either or? We just discussed how people may have more opposing brains, like a man can have more feminine brains, for example. But does it mean he was born into the wrong body? Who says that feminine brains have to reside in a female body or the other way around? Look at this idea closely: because certain traits are found, on average, in the specific sex, so presumably these traits must always be found in the specific sex. Downright silly! As I already argued the complete opposite, there’s tremendous value in diversity. And now comes the idea that I believe is missing from the discussion of gender dysphoria.
We humans are symbolic creatures. Fundamentally, our world consists of stories we tell to ourselves. For instance, some psychologists argue that the story we tell ourselves about our past affects us more than our actual past.³ We’re creatures of narrative. That’s why a psychoanalytic treatment can actually traumatise a person further regardless of the actual experience, if the analyst manages to implant or reinforce habits of thought inside the patient’s mind, which tend to victimise, make one feel powerless and broken, creating these self-fulfilling prophesies. The world will truly become a dark place if that’s the meaning we learn to assign to it. But on the other hand that’s why cognitive therapy or practices like meditation work so well: train new, better habits of mind and things really change.
Or we may have a story about politics. Is your narrative about the one of global super capitalism, which has tried since industrialisation to destroy democracy and worker rights while simultaneously polluting the planet? Or is it perhaps the story of kings and nobles abusing their peasant peoples until free market capitalism was invented, which brought everybody supermarkets and iPhones, until even the poorest of us in the west had a material well-being surpassing the kings of our past? Same history, two stories. This is the power of narrative.
Symbolism is stories associated into objects and ideas. What stories does the nazi swastika tell? Or what about colours? Red symbolises love and emotion. Maybe that’s why it was such a girly colour when I was a kid, and I got mad as hell when I once had to wear a pair of red pants – just like someone would get mad from having to wear a swastika. Symbolism’s power is so strong to us that it even connects to sexuality. People can have the strangest fetishes, which is by definition, finding inanimate objects arousing. When our brain creates a strong enough symbolical link between an object and a certain set of associations, it will turn us on. It doesn’t matter how those associations are triggered.
So symbolism defines us, and in part, binds us. Gender has tremendous symbolical value. We believe, that the sex we belong in, dictates the range of responses we can act on in any given situation. We might think that if we want the right to portray masculine traits, self-esteem, leadership, we need to have a sizeable, muscly build and a low voice. Or, unless we’re female, we can’t show the empathy and warmth that resides inside. Maybe we’re afraid we wouldn’t feel authentic, or that people might reject us. But, supposedly, once we fulfil these superficial criteria, we can actually start living; that our deepest desires are contingent upon our clothes or appearance.
Also, we’re partisanic, tribal creatures. We all want to belong to a team. Nationalists want to belong to the team of their country, sports fans want to belong to the team of their sports club, metal music fans portray their team membership one way, and business students portray their team membership the other. Our clothes – or the way we talk or walk – are always a uniform soaked in symbolism, expressing our felt team membership. We have political teams or more philosophical teams, like being a feminist or a vegetarian. We get sad and frustrated unless we belong.
So because of this I can see the reason someone wants to change their sex or gender identity. But has he or she actually born into the wrong body? Now that I don’t believe. What about a woman with non-existent breasts and no curves to talk of. Was she born into the wrong body not feminine enough? Or a short man? Is he really a tall manly, man in a short man’s body? I believe this is all just projection: my suffering emanates from this single point, like my genitalia, and when I fix it, I’ll be happy and my problems solved.
The thing is, we can either go through the sex change operations, which I believe is anyone’s right as a free person, or we can do the mental or spiritual work in accepting ourselves, in changing the stories we tell ourselves, and trying to affect the symbolism we have adopted. I eventually learned to not get mad for having to wear red pants as a child.
So ultimately, when feeling constrained by one’s sexual identity, what is it except being a mental prisoner of this silly two-way gender paradigm? Paradigm, that as we remember, has very little basis in reality: there’s endless variety of different combinatory brains on a biological level (though some setups are more common than others), and on a cultural level there’s even less so of anything permanent to grasp. We could instead throw away with the roles, and just be whatever we are, when we are. If one day you hope to be a loving, nurturing force, do it. If some other day you feel like taking charge, being of value to the people of your life this way, you’re welcome. We are multifaceted creatures, and in accepting our beings fully resides a tremendous source of creativity; so argues the eminent creativity expert of psychology, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who’s studied our time’s most creative individuals in the field of business, technology and arts.⁴
So ultimately, when feeling constrained by one’s sexual identity, what is it except being a mental prisoner of this silly two-way gender paradigm?
Once I have breasts, once I have a dress, once I have a low voice, a beard or such, then life will be good. Or once I’m treated like the opposite sex, then I will finally feel loved and respected. This kind of thinking, extrinsic goals, psychology argues, is connected to anxiety and depression. On the other hand, intrinsic goals, such as growing as a person, practicing skills, doing meaningful work or developing a good philosophy in life, are correlated with happiness instead.⁵ It shouldn’t be about what we look like or what we own. We create our stories to either give us heaven or hell, and heaven or hell, quite logically, then resides in affecting those stories.
So, can we free ourselves from binary thinking? Can we change the stories we tell ourselves, which seemingly pressure people to go through invasive surgeries in order to feel the right shape? Can we not treat people as the sexual representatives for half the population on earth? Can we learn to wear red pants? I believe so, and If anyone has no objections, we might as well start now. But being born into the wrong sex, I would argue, is a cultural belief, not an actual, biological occurrence. And problems emanating from belief can be cured through belief. Maybe they should?
² Joel, Daphna, Zohar Berman, Ido Tavor, Nadav Wexler, Olga Gaber, Yaniv Stein, Nisan Shefi, et al. “Sex beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 50 (December 15, 2015): 15468–73. doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112.
³ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Chapter 7: The Mirror of Retrospection. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
⁴ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Chapter 3: The Creative Personality. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
⁵ Ph.D, Peter Gray. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders