Gender Identity and Rationality

by lucidfox5 min read1st Dec 2010113 comments


IdentitySex & GenderAlief

Not sure if I would be better off posting this on the main page instead, but since it's almost entirely about my personal experiences, here it goes.

Two years ago, I underwent a radical change in my worldview. A series of events caused me to completely re-evaluate my beliefs in everything related to gender, sexuality, tolerance, and diversity -- which in turn caused a cascade that made me rethink my stance on many other topics.

Coincidentally, the same events caused me to also rethink the way I thought of myself. This was, as it turned out, not very good. It still makes it difficult for me to untangle various consequences, correlated but potentially not directly bound by a cause-effect relation.

To be more blunt: being biologically male, I confessed to someone online about things that things that "men weren't supposed to do": my dissatisfaction with my body, my wish to have a female body, persistent fantasies of a sex change, desires to shave my body, grow long hair and wear women's clothes, and so on and so forth. She listened, and then asked, "Maybe you're transsexual?"

Back then, it would never even occur to me to think of that -- and my first gut response, which I'm not proud of, was denying association with "those freaks". As I understand now, I was relying on a cached thought, and it limited the scope of my reasoning. She used simple intuitive reasoning to arrive at the hypothesis based on what I revealed to her; I didn't know the hypothesis was even there, as I knew nothing about gender identity.

In the events that unfolded, I integrated myself into some LGBT communities and learned about all kinds of people, including those who didn't fit into notions of the gender binary at all. I've learned to view gender as a multidimensional space with two big clusters, rather than as a boolean flag. It felt incredibly heartwarming to be able to mentally call myself by a female name, to go by it on the Internet, to talk to like-minded people who had similar experiences and feelings, and to be referred by the pronoun "she" -- which at first bugged me, because I somehow felt I had "no moral right" or had to "earn that privilege", but quickly I got at ease with it, and soon it just felt ordinary, and like the only acceptable thing to do, the only way of presentation that felt right.

(I'm compressing and simplifying here for the sake of readability -- I'm skipping over the brief period after that conversation when I thought of myself as genderless, not yet ready to accept a fully female gender identity, and carried out thought experiments with imaginary conversations between my "male" and "female selves", before deciding that there was no male self to begin with after all.)

Nowadays, gender-wise, I address people the way they wish to be address. I also have some pretty strong opinions on the legal concept of gender, which I won't voice here. And I've learned a lot, and was able to drive my introspection deeper than I ever managed before... But that's not really relevant.

And yet... And yet.

As gleefully as I embraced a female role, feeling on the way to fulfilling my dream, I couldn't get out the nagging feeling of being somehow "fake". I kept thinking that I don't always "think like a real woman would", and I've had days of odd apathy when I didn't care about anything, including my gender presentation. Some cases happened even before my gender "awakening", and at those days, I felt empty and genderless, a drained shell of a person.

How, in all honesty, can I know if I'm "really a woman on the inside"? What does that even mean? I can speak in terms of desired behavior, in terms of the way I'm seen socially, from the outside. But how can I compare my subjective experience to those of different men and women, without getting into their heads? All I have is empathic inference, which works by building crude, approximate models of other people inside my head, and is so full of ill-defined biases that I have a suspicion I shouldn't rely on it at all and don't say things like "well, a man's subjective experience is way off for me, but a woman's subjective experience only weakly fits".

And yet... transpeople report "feeling like" their claimed gender. I prefer to work with more unambiguous subjective feelings -- like feeling I have a wrong body -- but I have caught myself thinking at different times, "This day I felt like a woman, and that day I didn't feel like a woman, but more like... nothing at all. And that other day my mind was occupied with completely different matters, like writing a Less Wrong post." It helps sometmes to visualize my brain as a system of connected logical components, with an "introspection center" as a separate component, but that doesn't bring me close to solving the mystery.

I want to be seen as a woman, and nothing else. I take steps to ensure that it happens. If I could start from a clean slate, magically get an unambiguously female body, and live somewhere where nobody would know about my past male life, perhaps that would be the end of it -- there would be no need for me to worry about it anymore. But as things stand, my introspection center keeps generating those nagging thoughts: "What if I'm merely a pretender, a man who merely thinks he's a woman, but isn't?" One friend of mine postulated that "wanting to be a gender is the same as being it"; but is it really that simple?

The sheer number of converging testimonies between myself and transpeople I've met and talked to would seem to rule that out. "If I'm fake, then they're fake too, and surely that sounds extremely unlikely." But while discovering similarities makes me generically happy, every deviation from the mean -- for example, I consciously discovered my gender identity at 21, a relatively late age -- stings painfully and brings up the uncertainty again. Could this be a case of failing to properly assign Bayesian weights, of giving evidence less significance than counterevidence? But every time I discovered a piece of counterevidence, my mind interpreted it as a breach of my mental defenses and tried to route around it, in other words, rationalize it away.

Maybe I could just tell myself, "Shut up and live the way you want to."

And yet...

I caught myself in thinking that I really, deeply didn't want to go back, to the point that I didn't want to accept the conclusion "I'm really a man and an impostor", even that time when it looked like evidence weighted that way. (It's no longer the case now that I've learned more facts, but the point still stands.) It was an unthinkable thought, and still is. Even now, I fail to apply the Litany of Tarski. "If I'm really a man, then I desire to bel--" Wait, doesn't compute. If that were true, it would cause my whole system of values to collapse, and it feels like stating an incoherent statement, like "If sexism is morally and scientifically justified, then..." It feels like it would cause my entire system of values to collapse, and I can't bring myself to think that -- but isn't that the danger of "already knowing the answer", rationalizing, etc.?

It also bugs me, I guess, that despite relying on rational reasoning in so many aspects of my daily life, with this one case, about an aspect of myself, I'm relying on some subjective, vague "gut feeling". Granted, I try to approach it in a rational way: someone used my revelations to locate a hypothesis, I found it likely based on the evidence and accepted it, then started updating... or did I? Would I really be able to change my belief even in principle? And even then, the root cause, the very root cause, comes from feelings of uneasiness with my assigned gender role that I cannot rationally explain -- they're just there, in the same way that my consciousness is "just there".


When I heard about p-zombies, I immediately drew parallels. I asked myself if "fake transpeople" were even a coherent concept. Would it be possible to imagine two people who behave identically (and true to themselves, not acting), except one has "real" subjective feelings of gender and the other doesn't? After applying an appropriately tweaked anti-zombie argument, it seems to me that the answer is no, but it's also prossible that the question is too ill-defined for any answer to make sense.

The way it stands now, the so-called gender identity disorder isn't really something that is truly diagnosed, because it's based on self-reporting; you cannot look into someone's head and say "you're definitely transsexual" without their conscious understanding of themselves and their consent. So it seems to me outside the domain of psychiatry in the first place. I've heard some transpeople voice hope that there could be a device that could scan the part of the brain responsible for gender identity and say "yes, this one is definitely trans" and "no, this one definitely isn't". But to me, the prospect of such a device horrifies me even in principle. What if the device conflicts their self-reporting? (I suspect I'm anxious about the possibility of it filtering me, specifically.) What should we consider more reliable -- the machine or self-reporting? On one hand, we know how filled human brains are with cognitive biases, but on the other hand, it seems to me like a truism that "you are the final authority in your own self-identification."

Maybe it's a question of definitions, like the question about a tree making a sound, and the final answer depends on how exactly we define "gender identity". Or maybe -- this thought occurred to me right now -- my decision agent has a gender identity while my introspection center (which operates entirely on abstract knowledge rather than social conventions) doesn't, and that's the cause of the confusion that I get from looking at things in both a gendered and genderless way, in the same way as if I would be able to switch at will between a timed view from inside the timeline and a timeless view of the entire 4D spacetime at once. In any case, so far, for those two years since the realization I've stuck with the identity and role that I at least believe is the only one I won't regret assuming.