Friday, March 1, 2019
Byrne on gender identity
What is it to have a “gender identity”? , 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 and . 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 Transgender activists tend to resent this comparison, but they have a difficult time explaining what is wrong with it. 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 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. , 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.