This was recently posed to transgender friend :-
‘I have long had a deep sense that, despite my bodily appearance, I am really black. I have long identified with black culture, and I am now making the transition to being black. I am darkening my skin and curling my hair. Do you have a problem with that and what help and advice might you offer them?’
This is, quite clearly, intended to challenge the veracity of being transgender and of transition, and to the more ignorant the parallels might seem to be good; skin colour vs sex, race/ethnicity vs gender, social cultural customs, and the idea of transition. So does the analogy hold up or fail? To understand this we need to consider the different elements and whether these are biologically or socially created.
We do of course recognise skin colour and sex (the set of physical sex characteristics that support reproduction) to be biological and heritable (genetically determined), evolutionary driven attributes. But gender is also biological and heritable, part of the vast set of hardwired ‘operating system software’ constructed by genetics and evolution that operates, mainly unconsciously, in our brains. Comprising gender identity and gender behaviours, gender, which is not to be confused with sex, has evolved from the earliest days of brain evolution: having a hardwired image of what we are built into our brains, along with a set of hardwired behaviours that support the associated gender role, significantly enhances survival and reproduction success. It is for this reason we see gender exhibited throughout nature and observed in many a David Attenborough documentary.
But we also recognise, and this being nature, that skin colour and sex are not binary, that is black or white, male or female. They exist on spectrums. Sex biology is hugely complex and diverse and the XX/XY chromosome hypothesis for a binary sex determination has long since been disproven. Intersex people exist. And the same is true of gender identity. This also exists on a spectrum and, roughly put, you can have a girl flavoured or boy flavoured or somewhere in between flavoured or… gender identity and associated gender behaviours ’installed’ in your brain. This is backed by a large body of scientific research, including research that has shown differences in brain structure and operation that correlate to the position on the gender spectrum an individual, be they cis or trans, identifies as.
So gender is biological and distinct from sex. Why, then, does it tend to be claimed to be a social construct? Well, societies divide the biological gender spectrum into distinct groups and then apply cultural rules, customs and beliefs, based on innate gender behaviours, to these groups. In our society we divide this into two, male and female, but others divide it into three while some native American tribes divided it into five. The confusion arises because we are vastly more aware of these social constructs than our biological gender, so tend to think and talk about gender in these terms rather than biological terms. Added to this societies also divide the sex spectrum into groups, generally two, male and female, and then often, because of their close relationship and similarities, treat sex and gender as one and the same, with sex used as the primary identifying attribute because, again, we are far more aware of this than biological gender. This greatly adds to the confusion over the nature of gender and its relationship to sex.
So what about ethnicity/race and the analogy to gender here? Well, we understand ethnicity/race divisions and associated cultural norms to be purely social constructs that have been shown to have no inherent biological basis. There is no evolutionary advantage to having a biological race identity, so this and the brain differences to support this don’t exist. And it is here then that the analogy fails – gender is biological and not a social construct whereas ethnicity/race is a social construct and not biological. But it does help explain how transgender folks arise and why they are so misunderstood.
Simply put transgender folks have, through biological mechanisms that are understood, flavours of biological gender that are misaligned with their biological sex, or rather they have a biological sex that is misaligned with their biological gender.
This has two consequences. Firstly, the mismatch between hardwired image, gender identity, and physical experience results in psychological confusion, conflict and distress. This isn’t ‘a deep sense’ or ‘feeling’ of being something else but an in your face and constant war between two opposing sets of neurological messages. Secondly, the mismatch between one’s natural gender behaviours and those expected by society, based on an assumption of gender at birth and instilled cultural customs, also causes psychological confusion, conflict and distress. This is not ‘identifying with a genders culture’, but a constant mental conflict arising from trying to suppress natural gender behaviours that fit with a gender group different to that assigned, and trying to learn and adopt behaviours that fit with the assigned gender group but which do not come naturally.
The consequences of these conflicts, gender dysphoria, manifests itself in many different ways, from birth and often severely - unusual behaviours, social difficulties and mental health problems, including depression, self harm, substance abuse and suicidality. Given these, the mistaken idea that gender is a social construct and the muddling of gender and sex, it is hardly surprising that transgender people are misunderstood. But put simply being transgender is not an ideology, belief or theory any more than autism is an ideology, belief or theory. It is a natural biological condition and, as per autism and as shown by research, cannot be caught, coerced, chosen, converted or cured.
This makes treatment difficult. The brain, as opposed to the sex organs, is central to who each of us are and our existence, and while it has a degree of plasticity, its ‘core hardwired’ functions, such as gender, cannot be altered (it is the most complex organ in the body). Treatment is therefore aimed at addressing the conflicts, based on the degree of dysphoria experienced. Social transition, that is expression of true gender, either occasionally or permanently, within society is the start point, and progresses through manipulation of naturally pliable physical characteristics, via hormone treatment, to surgery only for the most severe cases and where natural manipulation is not readily achieved. And while surgery does have its limitations, it is sufficiently effective, to successfully address an individual’s dysphoria and enable them to be identified in the appropriate sex group just as well as those natally assigned but whom, for a range of reasons, have variances in their sex characteristics (for example those who have had hysterectomies or who have Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome). The medical intervention is, of course, highly regulated, more so than most other life changing treatments, so that problem/regret rates are tiny, especially compared to similar life changing treatments, while it has been shown that appropriate treatment of those who are identified with the condition early (in childhood) have the best long-term outcomes.
But with no biological evolutionary driven racial identity or associated behaviours, there is no similar condition with associated psychological consequences for race/ethnicity. There is no racial dysphoria. Which is why transgender people have been recorded and existed throughout human history and will always be, no matter what, whereas transethnic/racial people haven’t and probably won’t. And it also explains why we have treatment programs for transgender individuals but not transethnic individuals.
So to answer the question do I have a problem with someone who ‘believes they are black and wants to transition’? Well, people should always be free to live their lives true to themselves, provided this doesn’t cause harm. But without a recognised medical/biological basis, many of the personal and varied reasons for such ‘beliefs, desires and actions’, whatever the racial direction, will, inevitably, be deceitful, exploitative and harmful. And in these cases I would have a problem. Either way there is patently no comparison, whatsoever, to be drawn to those who are transgender and I would also, therefore, have a problem with anyone who insisted there was, especially if this was ideologically motivated. So what advice, then, would I give this person?
Well, if we assume this is a genuine biological condition, I would tell them they will need huge courage and strength, because they will encounter many who will misunderstand them, deny them, laugh at them, vilify them, reject them, demonise them, discriminate against them, abuse them, bully them and persecute them for just being who they are. They will find groups that will try to eradicate them, by attempting to remove their rights, their treatments, their protections and will find many who hide behind and pervert ideologies, including religions, to justify their ignorance, bigotry, denial and persecution (such as the far-right racists who produce this sort of challenge). They will find many whose minds are closed and who not only refuse to consider the evidence, but who will deliberately use selective and false ‘evidence’ to try to support their ignorant prejudiced opinions. They will find groups who make up and promote propaganda, misinformation and lies about them, including claiming they are a threat to society, with the intention of turning others against them and who, when challenged, will claim they are being silenced, while turning en masse onto the challenger to then bully them into silence. They will find those who do understand and from whom they might expect support will remain silent. They will find themselves in a lonely and frightening place, portrayed and treated as a modern-day ‘witch’.
And I would tell them to be aware of the challenges of transition, that they are calling a halt to their existing life and starting over again and that this will be one of the scariest, most difficult and emotionally and physically painful things they, or anyone, could ever do. I would point out the consequences of this, that, for example, that they are likely to be thrown out and rejected by those to whom they are closest, lose their homes, their jobs and friends and that a lifetime’s social learning will have to be binned and relearnt from scratch, all in an instant. I would stress this is a journey that is undertaken only out of necessity, never out of desire and that they must therefore be absolutely certain that they have no other choice.
My advice would, therefore, simply be: Be absolutely sure and clear about who you are before you do anything and then only do those things that are absolutely necessary.
So that’s it, my answer. There is of course much more to the topics touched on here, including a raft of research papers. However, to examine and discuss these in depth would take a book. It is hoped though this gives some clarification for those with more open minds but who might otherwise be taken in by this crude, false and, quite frankly, disgusting ‘comparison’. And finally, as I reminded my friend, no ideology, no matter how hard it tries, can ever deny and suppress nature’s realities which always win through in the end. And transgender people are part of nature’s realities.