A Student Considers Gender

This is a shorter, not-as-thorough rewrite of a previous post.

There I was, anonymously sitting in my Software Development Foundations class at my university, waiting on the first day of class. In walks my twenty-something lady professor, and I was immediately puzzled. She is quite tall for a woman, has a very flat chest, an unusual gait, and a masculine face. But many computer science students are not the norm, so I put these observations aside. Then, she began talking. I expected the moderately high voice of a woman, but was greeted with a voice I would associate with a man if my eyes were closed. Not exactly deep, but definitely not feminine. I completely ignored everything she said that first day, and only thought, “Huh. I wonder if she is a transsexual.” I decided no, that’s nonsense, and (mostly) paid dutiful attention the rest of the semester. Months later I was surprised to find out that my initial intuition was correct!

This and other experiences have caused me to ask an important question: “What is gender, and what are the transgender?” I found that the issue was quite complicated at the surface level, but all the rambling and shouting really can be unified into one cohesive view.

I started my journey by analyzing what the liberal side was saying. Their big argument seemed to be that the gender categories are completely created by society, so it is really to be expected that transgender people exist. The human psyche is just too varied and complex to fit into the small stereotypes of Man and Woman. Everyone is their own person, so we should just let them be who they are. And this resonated with me, as I know some women who say they feel like their brain is wired like a man’s and some men who say the opposite. These are not crazy people, they are just being honest with themselves. So I began to lean towards their side.

But I decided to be comprehensive and checked the conservative side to ensure I knew what the counter-arguments were. I was disheartened to find that I knew exactly what they were going to say. Gender identity is innate, and comes directly from biological sex. If you have a Y chromosome, you are a man. If not, you are a woman. I was disheartened because this seemed extremely arbitrary to me. Why does such a small and temperamental thing like genetics determine a very deep and profound part of my complicated psychology? Why is it that gender identity is binary while almost everything else in psychology and even physiology exists in a spectrum? It didn’t make sense.

As a religious man, I also considered that God made sure that a person’s gender identity will determine his or her sex. That is, if someone identifies as a woman, God will see to it that she turns out to be a female. But this is dangerous reasoning, and I already accept that the world is profoundly broken. Could this not be another aspect of that brokenness? A soul that is gendered contrary to its body is not hard to imagine.

Yet, despite my dissatisfaction with it, the conservative view still held sway in my mind. Something in it seemed to have truth. The reason I personally identify as a man is because I am male. But what does it mean to identify as a man?

With this question, the epiphany hit. Both the liberal and conservative views are correct! I affirm that genders are socially constructed, but I also affirm that gender identity flows directly from biological sex. The meaning of the terms “Man” and “Woman” are constructed by society, but they are constructed to be the story of the two sexes. “Man” is what society has decided it means to be male. “Woman” is what society has decided it means to be female. We take the two groups of males and females, make some general observations, and call this Man and Woman. Therefore, every male must fit into “Man” and every female must fit into “Woman.” If a female feels like she doesn’t fit, it might be that our concept of womanhood is flawed, not her gender identity. If a male strongly feels like he is a woman, then it might be that his conception of manhood is flawed, not his gender identity. To identify as a man means to participate in shaping Man at large. And to do that, I must only be male.

The liberals say that gender is constructed, and the conservatives say that sex determines gender identity. The conservatives are correct because the liberals are correct! The unifying insight is that gender is constructed from biological sex.

Now, two difficulties arise. What about the intersex? Which gender do they belong to? I think that this is a difficult question, so patience and leniency should reign. Maybe this can be determined by the presence or absence of the Y chromosome, maybe they should not try to belong to a gender, or maybe they should decide for themselves. But this situation is an exception to the rule, and I am sure most intersex individuals would agree.

A more problematic objection is applying this theory of gender to transgenderism. Some people have had irreversible surgery based on their belief that it will ease their gender dysphoria, and here I come, a boy telling them that they have always been wrong. I am aware that I could be the one who is wrong, and I ask forgiveness from you and from God if it is so.

But I must point out that over 40% of transgender people have reported attempting suicide, and this should cause the deepest lament. This number is comparable to Jews living in Germany during the Holocaust, so it cannot be due to oppression alone. The number is simply too high. Another fact is that 90% of suicides result in people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Therefore, the conclusion, outside of even my above discussion and only based on this one paragraph, leads me to believe that many transgender people suffer from an unresolved mental illness.

So should transgender people be objects of scorn, hated for advancing the hormones and surgeries that they feel will bring them peace, that in fact often do bring them some peace? Or should they be treated with compassion, aiming for lasting healing? Whatever you believe, it is undeniable that transgender people live with a profound anguish. This anguish is either based in the reality that they are truly trapped in the wrong body, or a fantasy – they do not understand who they are or that they are loved. The correct treatment is either surgery or counseling, depending on your convictions. I lean towards counseling, but I am certain that shame is not the answer.

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