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Skepticism and trans beliefs

Someone got angry about my post on trans feelings, but on reading between the nastiness, she seemed to be mostly angry because she assumed I was claiming an “interiority” – her word – that my feelings were evidence of “interior womanhood.” I can understand why she thought that, because so many trans people do, but I don’t make any such claim.

Personally, I practice skepticism. In general I try to minimize the number of things in the world I take on faith. I find it comforting, particularly in understanding transgender feelings and actions. But in talking about trans phenomena, my skepticism conflicts with the way a lot of other people talk about those things. The key difference is in talking about transgender beliefs, specifically the concept of gender identity. But you don’t have to espouse trans beliefs to understand trans feelings or to argue for fairness and respect.

The typical story is that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men,” supported by a number of dubious and hotly contested brain studies. On this basis, everyone is asserted to have a “gender identity,” an “innate sense of their own gender,” and that is taken as the person’s “authentic,” essential gender. Often this is invoked to argue that it is the person’s destiny to transition. Genderqueer, genderfluid and other non-binary people are declared to be a mixture of brain genders on the basis of simple analogy, and the implication is that their only true path is to express gender in the corresponding proportions.

The critical thing here is that very few trans or genderqueer people have actually undergone a brain scan. Most of the studies that people typically cite were actually performed on the cadavers of trans women. Of course, trans people typically want to stay alive; many even frame it as transition or die. The official basis for determining gender identity is thus a simple declaration: “I’m really a woman.”

You can see why a skeptical approach would have trouble with all of this. If the primary basis for determining gender identity is a belief that we are “really” a different gender from what most people think, and I try not to believe anything without sufficient evidence, how can I as have any gender identity and still maintain my skepticism?

But wait, there’s more! The typical story is that gender identity is innate and unchanging, but anyone who has spent time around non-transitioners, non-binary people and people near the edge of the “transgender umbrella” like cross-dressers, drag queens, and people exploring gender, has seen things that give the lie to this idea. I’ve seen all manner of people who one day explain that they’re “just” men who feel a little feminine, and the next swear up and down that they’ve always felt like women.

In individual practice, one person’s determination of another’s gender identity is even more subjective than that. Typically, a simple claim of belief is not accepted without at least a declaration of intent to transition, but some people will overrule that based on their impressions of the other’s masculinity. Often, a person will accept another as trans (and thus as their desired gender) based on a declaration, but then question that gender if they do not demonstrate satisfactory progress in transitioning. Frequently, a trans or genderqueer person will make no profession of belief, but another person will make claims about that person’s gender identity based on evidence of transition, passability or impressions of femininity.

From a skeptical perspective, this evidence is unsatisfactory on three levels. First, we’re expected to accept gender identity on the basis of professed belief, which is inherently untrustworthy. Second, we’re asked to accept these beliefs as evidence of an innate, eternal state, even when they have changed. Third, we’re asked to accept beliefs, reported second or thirdhand, that are sometimes invented or assumed by the people reporting them.

Sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not going to spend years of my life resisting a belief in Satan or Pachamama, and then turn around and accept the Authentic Self without question. I don’t even really believe I have a pancreas, let alone an “interiority.” I accept that I probably do have a pancreas because the biologists seem to be right about fingers and sinuses and stuff, but claims of interior womanhood are a lot less reliable. So I don’t claim a gender identity for myself or anyone else.

The challenge is that I also want to be respectful and to fight for fair treatment for myself and other trans people. I can do that, because I don’t need to believe people’s beliefs to believe and honor their feelings, to treat people fairly and with respect. I just need to believe in their essential humanity. It works for me with Mormons and Buddhists, and it works with people who believe in gender identity. I wish more people would try it!


  1. Dear Andrea,

    Here again, you’re spot on with your writing. I’ve also been intensely skeptical of what I’ve read about transgenderism, and I’ve read a lot about it over the years. Mostly, I’ve been skeptical of myself, wondering how in the world I was so bad. Very depressed and at times suicidal.

    But I don’t feel this way any longer. Have you seen a documentary called “Just Gender”? It provides a wonderful overview all about gender and transgender and I highly recommend it. Also, Barbara Walters on 20/20 did a piece on transgender children that is available on YouTube:….h?v=YfqmEYC_rMI “A Story of Transgender Children.” After seeing this how can anyone deny that these innocent children are anything but their natural selves?



  2. Emma, I haven’t seen either of those, but I’ve seen tons of essentialist documentaries and read lots of books and articles. I don’t think they make a good case.

    In particular, I’m not convinced of stories about trans children. I grew up to be a trans adult, but I was not a trans child – I was a gender non conforming child. Why would I think that these “trans” children would grow up to be like me?

    And again, I don’t believe it’s helpful to classify people as trans or not trans. There are trans feelings, and beliefs about those feelings, and actions we take in response to those beliefs and feelings. Beliefs are evidence of beliefs, and that’s about all.

  3. People don’t like it when I tell them I don’t believe in any kind of innate personality or selfhood, and when my views are then reflected on the popular queer rhetoric of “born this way” I start to catch some pretty serious shade. The belief in an innate, unchanging, and abiding self is almost universally pervasive, even though such a belief has never been substantiated by any empirical evidence whatsoever.

    I think it’s really great that more trans people are being skeptical and criticizing the popular queer theories about trans people and gender. So much of the common trans narrative is so ridiculously cliche that it makes my head spin.

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