Friday, March 1, 2019

Byrne on gender identity

What is it to have a “gender identity”?  At Arc Digital, Alex Byrne examines some proposed definitions of the concept and common assumptions about it, and finds them problematic.  In earlier posts, we looked at Byrne’s views about whether sex is binary and whether sex is socially constructed.  As his earlier articles did, Byrne’s latest piece brings the cold shower of sober philosophical analysis to a discussion that is usually overheated and muddleheaded.
Byrne begins by considering various proposed characterizations of “gender identity.”  As he notes, they are often circular, or too broad, or define the notion in terms of other notions which are no better defined than the notion of gender identity is, or make reference to an unexplained and dubious “intrinsic sense” or “internal sense” of what one’s gender is.  The clearest conception, in Byrne’s view, is the notion of “core gender identity” as one’s belief or supposed knowledge that one is male or female or of indeterminate sex.

However one defines gender identity, Byrne notes that what has become the “standard picture” among people who comment on this issue comprises the following three theses:

(a) Everyone has a gender identity, and for “cisgender” people it matches their sex,

(b) “Transgender” people have gender identities that don’t match their sex, and

(c) This mismatch causes gender dysphoria.

But each of these claims, notes Byrne, is problematic.  The first problem, Byrne says, is that (b) is false, at least if we think of gender identity as the belief that one is male, female, or of indeterminate sex.  For there are cases in which (b) is not true.  For example, at least some “trans women” would affirm that they are males (though not men), and indeed would affirm that one cannot be a trans woman without being a male.  And in that case, Byrne says, it is not true of all transgender people that their gender identities don’t match their sex.

In order to salvage (b), Byrne argues, one would need a fairly loose criterion of gender identity that amounts to one or more of the following: feeling a kinship with a certain sex, exhibiting behavior stereotypically associated with that sex, feeling satisfaction at being treated as a person of that sex, etc.  On this interpretation, “trans women” would be males who have a female gender identity in the sense of feeling kinship with women, exhibiting stereotypically feminine behavior, feeling satisfaction at being treated as a woman, and so forth.

The trouble with this, though, says Byrne, is that if that is all that “gender identity” amounts to, then (a) will not be true.  For there are “cisgender” women who don’t feel an affinity with other women, don’t exhibit stereotypically feminine behavior, don’t feel satisfaction at being treated as women, etc.

So, in Byrne’s view there does not seem to be a notion of “gender identity” on which both (a) and (b) are true.  Jargon like the terms “transgender” and “cisgender” is thus not well-defined, since it presupposes that (a) and (b) are both true.

Then there is (c).  One problem with it, says Byrne, is that at least some boys who suffer from gender dysphoria say, not that they are girls, but that they want to be girls.  In that case, there is no mismatch between their gender identity and their sex, if gender identity amounts to a belief about what one’s sex is.  Another problem is that in at least some cases it seems that gender dysphoria is the cause of a mismatch between gender identity and sex rather than the effect of such a mismatch.  Then there are cases of resolved dysphoria that don’t seem plausibly interpreted in terms of a mismatch, as opposed to some other kind of confusion.  Again, the notions in question are simply not well-defined.

Another indication of how ill-defined these notions are – one that Byrne does not discuss in this current article – is the parallel between the notion of being “transgender” and the notion of being “transracial.”  Transgender activists tend to resent this comparison, but they have a difficult time explaining what is wrong with it.  Rebecca Tuvel and others have defended the notion of being transracial, precisely on the grounds that it is no more suspect than the notion of being transgender.  But of course, one could just as well argue in the opposite direction, to the effect that, since the notion of being transracial is suspect, so too is the notion of being transgender.  

And then there are other parallels that could be drawn.  Since they endorse the notion of being transgender and see that the notion of being transracial is on a par with it, Tuvel and others bite the bullet and endorse the latter too.  But would they also endorse the notion of being “transspecies” and affirm that if a person self-identifies as a reptile, we ought to go along with that?  What if a person tells us that he self-identifies as a stone, or as a pencil, or as the number 3?  Should we go along with that too?

Presumably even the most progressive of progressives would admit that a guy who tells us that he is a snake or a pencil or the number 3 is just deluded (though I admit that these days you really cannot be sure).  There is a point at which they will acknowledge the absurdum to which a thesis about one’s “self-identity” has been reduced, rather than embrace it.  There really is no difference between a person claiming to be a snake or a pencil and a person who is merely pretending to be a snake or a pencil or who is merely deluded into thinking that he is a snake or a pencil.

To clarify the notion of transgender identity, then, we need an explanation of exactly what the difference is between, say, a male who claims to be a woman and a male who is merely pretending to be a woman or who is merely deluded into thinking he is a woman.  And the trouble, as Byrne shows, is that the key notions needed in order to do this are themselves not well-defined.

Byrne notes that an analogy is often drawn between the notion of gender identity and the notion of sexual orientation, though he does not say much about the latter.  In an earlier post, I suggested that the notions are indeed parallel in such a way that if the former is problematic, then the latter will be similarly problematic.  And it does seem that difficulties of the kind Byrne raises in his latest article when considering the notion of gender identity might also be raised when considering the notion of sexual orientation, at least if sexual orientation too is regarded as a kind of “identity.”

To a first approximation, “sexual orientation” has to do with the stable object of one’s sexual desires.  Someone who is only ever sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex is said to have a heterosexual orientation, and someone who is only ever sexually attracted to people of the same sex is said to have a homosexual orientation.  So far so good.  But sexual orientation is commonly thought also to involve a kind of identity.  For example, it is held that having same-sex desires is in some sense constitutive of what one is, of one’s nature.  The idea seems to be that to be gay is to be a man who is naturally attracted to other men and to be lesbian is to be a woman who is naturally attracted to other women.  People don’t just happen to desire to eat and drink.  Having such desires is part of their nature as human beings.  And in a similar way, according to the common view, someone who is gay or lesbian doesn’t just happen to be sexually attracted to people of the same sex.  That attraction is, the view says, part of their very nature.

Now, from a purely biological point of view, a “trans woman” is male.  That is why gender is usually distinguished from biological sex.  Similarly, from a purely biological point of view, sexual organs and appetites have a heterosexual function.  Specifically, sexual organs have the biological function of enabling copulation with someone of the opposite sex, and sexual arousal has the biological function of prodding people actually to copulate with someone of the opposite sex.  

(Naturalists typically analyze a trait’s biological function in terms of the reason why it was favored by natural selection, and evolutionary psychologists have speculated about whether homosexual desire might be explained in terms of natural selection.  But even if these theories were more than speculations, they wouldn’t cast doubt on the claim that sexual desire has the biological function of getting people to copulate with someone of the opposite sex.  For the theories hold, not that natural selection favored same-sex attraction per se, but rather that it favored some other trait causally correlated with same-sex attraction.  That sexual attraction of any kind came to exist in the first place would still have to be explained in terms of natural selection favoring creatures who had a disposition to copulate with people of the opposite sex.  Same-sex attraction would be an alteration of an appetite that serves a heterosexual biological function, just as pica is an alteration of an appetite that serves a nutritive biological function.)

Note also that, just as gender dysphoria is said to be caused by a mismatch between gender identity and sex, so too it is said that distress and confusion about one’s sexuality can result from a mismatch between sexual orientation on the one hand, and the sexual desires that as a matter of biological fact are usually correlated with being either male or female on the other.  And just as it is said that the solution to dysphoria is to embrace one’s gender identity and have others embrace it too, so too it is said that the solution to distress and confusion about one’s sexuality is to embrace one’s sexual orientation as a kind of identity and have others embrace it too. 

Now, with all of this in mind, it seems that the conventional wisdom about sexual orientation can be summed up in claims that parallel claims (a), (b), and (c), which Byrne identifies as part of the conventional wisdom concerning gender identity.  The claims would be:

(d) Everyone has a sexual orientation, and for heterosexuals it matches the biological function of their sexual faculties,

(e) Homosexuals have a sexual orientation that doesn’t match the biological function of their sexual faculties, and

(f) This mismatch causes distress and confusion about one’s sexuality.

Interestingly, these three claims seem to be problematic in a way that parallels the difficulties Byrne sees in claims (a), (b), and (c).  Start with (e), and recall that Byrne pointed out that the problem with the parallel claim (b) is that some transgender people would deny that they have a gender identity that doesn’t match their sex (e.g. some “trans women” would assert that they are males, even if they do not regard themselves as men).  Similarly, if sexual orientation is supposed to involve a kind of identity (such as a gay identity or a lesbian identity), then it isn’t true that all homosexuals have a sexual orientation that doesn’t match the biological function of their sexual faculties.  For some people with same-sex desires reject the very idea of a gay or lesbian identity.  They don’t see same-sex attraction as somehow constitutive of what they are or of their nature.  Rather, they see it as just something they are afflicted by, which conflicts with the inherently heterosexual function they take their sexual faculties to have.  (Of course, gay rights advocates would object to this attitude, but what matters for present purposes is simply that some homosexual people do in fact have the attitude, whether or not one thinks they should.)

So, in order to make (e) come out true, one will need a looser notion of “sexual orientation,” one that doesn’t involve a kind of identity.  Presumably that looser notion would simply involve stably having sexual desires of a certain kind.  A heterosexual orientation would involve stably having sexual desire for or attraction to people of the opposite sex, and a homosexual orientation would involve stably having sexual desire for or attraction to people of the same sex.  (The desires have to be stable because a heterosexual person can have fleeting same-sex desires – say, as a result of drunken experimentation, viewing some titillating pornographic image, or what have you.)  

The trouble now is that, just as (a) came out false given the looser interpretation of “gender identity” needed to salvage (b), so too (d) will come out false given the looser interpretation of “sexual orientation” needed to salvage (e).  For there are heterosexual people who simply don’t have much in the way of sexual desire at all.  They may rarely if ever think about sex and shrug with indifference at the prospect of never engaging in sexual activity.  And yet, if they were put into a situation in which sex was in the offing, they would be willing to engage in sexual activity with the opposite sex but be put off by same-sex activity.  So, they are heterosexual, but they lack a “sexual orientation” in the looser sense of stably having sexual desires of a certain kind.  

Then there is (f), which faces difficulties in some ways analogous to those that Byrne says face (c).  For in at least some cases, it seems that it is not that having a homosexual orientation causes distress and confusion about one’s sexuality, but rather that feeling distress and confusion about one’s sexuality causes a person to judge that he has a homosexual orientation.  And sometimes this judgement is reversed later on.  As with the notion of transgender identity, so too with the notion of gay or lesbian identity, the question of what exactly the causal relation is between the identity on the one hand and feelings of distress and confusion on the other is not as clear-cut as is often supposed.

So, as Byrne argues, while notions such as exhibiting behavior stereotypically considered feminine (or masculine), feeling satisfaction at being treated as a woman (or a man), etc. are clear enough, the notion of “gender identity” is not well-defined.  And in a similar way, while the notion of feeling sexual attraction for people of the same sex is clear enough, the notion of “sexual orientation” as a kind of identity is, arguably, also not well-defined.

Related posts:


  1. I hope your book on sexual morality contains a thorough section on what male and female are and how we distinguish them.

  2. I wonder if a version of the private language argument can be made against the notion of gender as inner identity i.e., whether one "feels" like a man or woman "inside". For such a feeling, if it exists (which is doubtful) cannot be described using language, in which case saying that one feels like a man "inside" means as much as saying that one feels like a schwibba.

    Another issue which Byrne could have highlighted but unfortunately didn't, is that transgenderism, in essentializing affinities and behaviours as masculine or feminine, is undoing the progress made by feminists towards bringing about equality. And this is seen in policies presupposing the truth of transgenderism, for they harm actual women, as is argued here.

    The cause of all this is ultimately the culture of contraception, as this article eloquently argues.

    1. Private languages exist. They're called emotions.

    2. How are they private languages? The very fact that we have words for them shows that we can perceive the emotional states of others.

  3. @Sri Nahar would you say that private language is a synonym for internal language?

    1. @Cogniblog,

      I don't know what you mean by «internal language», but in my earlier comment, I was referring to Wittgenstein's beetle-in-a-box analogy.

      The analogy, in brief, is that if everyone had a black box which contained what they call a beetle, but nobody could see any "beetle" other than their own, then the term "beetle" would not function as a name, since nobody would know what "beetle" actually means, since no person would know what other persons mean by that term (let's assume that these "beetles" are not describable in terms of other words).

      The same would apply to claims like «I feel like a man/woman "inside"». Since this inner identity they supposedly have is inaccessible to any others, words like "man" and "woman" lose all meaning.

    2. The same would apply to claims like «I feel like a man/woman "inside"». Since this inner identity they supposedly have is inaccessible to any others, words like "man" and "woman" lose all meaning.

      So you mean that since there would be no objective meaning to terms man/woman other than what one feels this sentence would become more like "I feel like someone who feels like man/woman"?

      And Can you elaborate on how this all would count as an argument against above thesis?
      I can anticipate some defender replying with how we should just let people be what they want to be, would that miss the point?

    3. Yes, if being a man or a woman is about some inner state that isn't accessible to others, then those words cease to have any meaning, since nothing is conveyed by uttering those words. If so, then claims like "trans-women are women" become meaningless, and that has significant positive consequences for actual women, as feminists point out, since the transgender ideology is used by males to gain access to women-only spaces, such as bathrooms or shelters.

    4. (contd.)

      The issue is not with say, males identifying as women wanting to dress up in stereotypically feminine clothing or displaying stereotypically feminine mannerisms, but with them forcing other people to accommodate all their desires. Women shouldn't be forced to let "trans-women" into their bathrooms, for instance. Or be forced to include the latter in women's groups.

  4. Private language is not a possession of a super-personal semantic system - it's immediate first person access to the meanings we use words to represent. The meaning of a word is what it's about, not how it's used.

    1. Okay. I guess I had an (understandable) misinterpretation of what "private language" meant.

  5. I have heard people try to claim that there are evolutionary functions that homosexuality serves. They say that it's purpose is to have homosexual people assist their siblings who are single parents in raising their children. But this is a crazy theory because because attraction to same sex people just isn't the same desire as wanting to help raise your sister's children.

    1. As Greg Cochran argues, the cause of male homosexuality is likely a virus. It's too much of a Darwinian load to be an adaption.

    2. @Thursday the cause of male homosexuality is personality related.

  6. This reminds me a bit of As someone who has read feminist theory, and doesn't suscribe enough to call herself a feminist, but has seen the rising problem with eliminating the meaning of women / men from language, I also tend to suscribe more to the second wave notion of gender, as socialization, rather than a self constructed out of nowhere notion. However, I don't think sex transition is possible. All this seems to amount to social engineering. If gender identity is a deeply held belief, we can't assume it's not influenced by something outside, or as a reaction to something. Even if the roles were coercively imposed ("that's not feminine!"), it doesn't seem a good response to alter one's body irreparably in order to achieve something that it's not there in the first place. For all their denying of binaries, gender ideology NEEDS the binary man-woman in order to keep assuming transgenderism as a possibility.

    1. «For all their denying of binaries, gender ideology NEEDS the binary man-woman in order to keep assuming transgenderism as a possibility.»

      This is a very astute insight. Thank you.

    2. Yes, Mariela, you have hit upon a very telling point. If being a transwoman meant "I feel like women feel" and "I feel comfortable being treated like a woman", there has to be a STABLE terminus for "how women feel" and "treated like a woman". But if both the feminists and the pro-trans movements get there way, there CAN'T be any stable distinction between how men and women are to be treated or how they typically feel. The only source of such distinction (in their theories) is from unacceptable discriminatory treatment from the past, and as we correct those wrongs, there will cease to be any actual distinction between "how a man is treated" and "how a woman is treated". Or between "how a woman feels" and "how a man feels". To put it more clearly: it will eventually cease to be true that a penis is not a "male" organ, it is merely an organ that some men have and some women have, and (on their social theories) there can't be any significant meaning to there being a predominant set of feelings that most who have a penis share and a predominant set of feelings that most who have vaginas share.

    3. oops, "is not a "male" organ," should be is a "male" organ.

  7. One of the odd things about today's world is how much self-proclaimed skeptics have embraced the transgender ideology. They will claim that they are materialists who reject the notion of a ghost in the machine, but then embrace talk that seems to presuppose that sometimes there are male ghosts in female machines and sometimes there are female ghosts in male machines. There is something very odd in materialists who agree that people can be trapped in a wrong body.

    1. Not if their worldview is just front that they put up so that they can justify their lifestyle and opinions, which are ultimately handed to them by a society that requires them to function...

  8. Ed,

    Sometimes I don't comprehend all of your blogposts, but this is the first one I had a formidable time understanding. But I think the conclusion (that gender identity & sexual orientation are undefined) is very original and good.

  9. further absurdities of that position:

  10. The question is whether,
    IF I am biologically male (that is, if I have small, tail-propelled gamete cells rather than large static ones);
    AND IF I experience in myself certain preferences, inclinations, predilections, or other relevant qualia;
    AND IF my cultural stereotypes inform me that those qualia are more-commonly experienced by persons who are female than by those who are male (my own experience notwithstanding);
    does it follow that I am "female on the inside?" ...or, am I merely an atypical male? ...and possibly less-atypical than I think, inasmuch as my culture's sex-specific stereotypes of qualitative experiences might be overgeneralized, misleading, or involve qualitative feelings which are difficult to clearly describe?

    I hold...
    - that the brain is a bodily organ;
    - that the conscious mind is at least partly immaterial;
    - that animal sensations are felt as qualia and then interpreted, granted meaning, by a self-aware mind capable of categorizing them;
    - that bodily development (whether of a male, or of a female) may be impeded or perverted from its natural telos;
    - that just as sex organ development may be impeded (producing underdeveloped genitalia) or perverted (producing ambiguous or trans-sex genitalia), so too the instincts and behavioral traits which are "hardwired" in the brain may be impeded or perverted in their development;
    - that a brain in which sex-specific development is impeded or perverted is likely to produce qualia uncommon to persons of that biological sex;
    - that a reasoning mind OUGHT to characterize these atypical qualia as merely interesting (if they don't interfere with living life according to one's biological sex) or annoying and burdensome (if they do), but NOT, ultimately as representing some kind of Cartesian-Dualism-style "ghostly reality."

    It is not, therefore, that a man with these qualia says, "Oh, this is what it feels like to be a woman on the inside." It isn't.

    It is, instead, that a man with these qualia says, "Oh, this is what it feels like to be a man whose brain development has been scrambled a bit by some atypical hormonal imbalances."

    1. Another option would be to reject those cultural stereotypes which designate those preferences and predilections as masculine or feminine, for they restrict self-expression which doesn't harm the individual or others. And this is why the trans ideology harms women -- they reinforce those stereotypes which imprison women to certain roles and affinities.

  11. Is gender binary? In the Philippines, a baklâ , bayot (Cebuano) or agi (Hiligaynon) is a person who was assigned male at birth, but usually, have adopted feminine mannerisms and usually dress as women. They are often considered a third gender . Many bakla are exclusively attracted to men, but are not necessarily gay. Some self-identify as women.

    1. Gender is almost never binary, in almost every society there is a group of people who are biologically male but are not socially "masculine", be they the «ευνούχοι» of ancient Greece, the «مخنث» of the `Arab world, the «hijrā» of India and suchlike. Given that gender as a category is socially constructed, a «baklâ» who calls himself a woman is not a woman, because he doesn't meet that society's criterion of what constitutes a woman. The same goes for "trans-women" in general.

    2. What caused them to be "assigned male"? What are "feminine mannerisms"? What does it mean to "dress as women"? If these statements don't really signify anything, then you are just making electrons appear on a computer screen in no discernible pattern.

  12. The bible is clear. god created man. Woman was created for man. so her identity is about a purpose to help her hisband. not have her own accomplishments and so not her own career or interfere in mens careers.
    Because of this women are not innately as motivated as men and so can never intellectually keep up with the men relative to the intellectual circles they move in.
    One can see in anything women do not have interest and so accomplishment in half the things men do.
    The difference between men and women is not just sex bodyplans unlike animals.
    In fact this is why there is no such thing as homosexuality/gener identity issues amongst animals.
    they all are willing bisexuals but never exclusively homosexual.
    this shows that with people its a identity problem and not a physical one except the physical influences the identity/thoughts.
    jesus talked about sex dysfunction while insisting man/women was the only moral/true relationship.

  13. I'm very disappointed.

    Every system, skin, circulatory, muscular, visual can be defective(abnormal,dysfunctional). So too the brain:structurally, intellect and behaviorally.

    The point, is our response: if we use
    our affliction selfishly,as a device for gain or corruption.
    The leper may not be at fault for their disease, but if they deliberately infect,wallow in pity, or
    make unfair demands, then they fall away from a loving and properly ordered relationship with others and our Lord.

    Notice the same is true for beauty, power, riches, wisdom. All of these can be used in a disorder way.

    Just as 2000 years ago the exact cause for a disease may not have been known, we may not know the cause of homosexuality or gender disorder.
    We don't need to say God wouldn't allow us to be
    born or acquire(like cancer) these disorders.
    Rather, in humility and trust we accept that we
    are outside Eden, and can be born or acquire physical or mental illness.
    To suggest we can't be born with abnormal
    sexual identity or attraction (like being blind)
    may not be a moral failing.
    I caution when people say "God doesn't make mistakes....he created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve".
    No doubt God does not err.
    But people are born blind and the sun can give you cancer and maybe genetics, hormones or imprinting might cause anomalies in sexual thoughts.
    The issue is, if born blind, you don't demand
    to drive the bus.
    If you have disordered sexual thoughts you don't act on them. You don't demand rights to engage in disordered acts, you don't demand to call cancer "normal", you don't demand to call your sexual disorder "normal".
    God doesn't err. But we are not in Eden, and God
    allows defects of every physical structure, including our brain.
    This does not excuse our actions. When we can, we seek a cure, where there's no cure we forebear.

    Your comments above
    They harm Christians because they make us sound ignorant.
    Our Blessed Mother, could not have the intelligence of her son(no one could) but I
    don't question her( or other women )
    having a purpose outside that of their spouse.
    You mistake complimentary with subordinate.