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."
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.
It's saddening to me that people who don't fit in their assigned gender have to defend their typicality relative to the other gender, and cisfolk basically don't. Someone who was just like me mentally, but was born with male genitals and brought up as a male, would probably report this kind of discomfort; there are plenty of ways in which I am non-stereotypical. And yet as a person physically and socially female from birth, I don't stick out like a sore thumb; people (least of all me) do not seem to wonder if maybe I'm really a guy on the inside; no one wonders if I'm overcompensating for something should I spin around in a twirly skirt. I'm within tolerances for my assigned gender, basically. It is an unfairly distributed cis privilege that I have, that this is all the analysis anyone requires of me.
Lucidfox, you sound like you are within tolerances for femininity. Be welcome. Help yourself to your name and your pronouns and whatever bodily interventions are medically available to you.
This sounds a lot like my experience of coming out in my late teens/early 20s.
I ultimately short-circuited it by deciding that introspection about how to label my sexual identity wasn't getting me anywhere, and in particular that trying to constrain my behavior based on my model of the behaviors most closely associated with a particular label was downright insane... I did better to actually look at the behaviors I actually wanted to perform, establish whether those preferences were stable, and then (optionally) pick the label that most closely matched those behaviors.
To couch this in the language of cognitive bias, I think there's a kind of anchoring effect going on here... you've latched onto some specific attributes associated with categories like "trans" and "male" and "female" and etc. (in much the same way that I did with "gay" and "straight" and "bi" and etc.), and it is skewing your judgments.
That said, I do recognize that "what kinds of people do I want to have sex with?" isn't quite the same sort of question as "what kind of person am I?", but I suspect similar issues are in play. You might fi... (read more)
I have longed for a Less-Wrong style discussion of transsexuality. It appears to me that practically all discussion of this assumes that there is such a thing as inherent gender and that it can differ from that suggested by the arrangement of your genitals at birth. I would love to hear an account of the subject that gets away from that kind of essentialism, and provides an account of what transsexuality is that taboos all mention of sex and gender, and replaces the symbol with the substance.
I think it's helpful to consider transsexuality as cosmetic surgery. It's another case of "I'm unhappy with certain aspects of my body and I want to change them." Currently, doctors in the US won't perform this cosmetic surgery unless you convince them you're an X trapped in a Y's body.
The cosmetic surgery viewpoint goes beyond binary sex choices of male and female. Given better technology, in the future one could choose to be a blue-haired futanari catgirl. Why? Not to fit some story about finally becoming one's true gender, but simply because it could be fun.
I hate to sound callous, but I don't really care why people want to change their bodies. I am simply glad for them when they feel better about themselves afterwards.
To respond to your question: Yes that's a bad thing, but I can extrapolate the moral trajectory. In the past, more people disliked transsexuals and total body revision wasn't even on the map. Today, transsexuals are making inroads and some fringe people are speculating about more extreme modifications.
There are other times where I disagree with society giving different amounts of approval to things. For example, more people are for medicinal marijuana than for completely legalizing it.
I'm at a loss for how such an open-minded and kind statement could be interpreted as callous. It just sounds like the obvious Right Thing. Am I missing something here?
I'm not sure the right approach involves trying to clarify this idea of "inherent gender". I think I'd rather treat it the way Yvain treats "disease" here: look for the various characteristics people track using gender terms and address them separately.
First thought that occurred to me while reading. If you know who you are apart from categorizations, why does it make so much difference whether it fits into a particular category? If someone told me that I wasn't really male, but fleem, and had been fleem all along, I would still be me.
Cis people often don't "feel like their gender" every day, or every minute of every day. I've momentarily "forgotten" I'm a woman, while I'm doing something else. It's just that we don't have to think about it so much because other people take it for granted that we are gender we say we are. I wouldn't take it as a sign that you're "not the real thing."
I'll only add some Tarskis':
If I'm psychologically different from typical men, I desire to believe I am psychologically different from typical men. If I'm psychologically different from typical women, I desire to believe I am psychologically different from typical women. If I would be happier thinking of myself female, I desire to believe I would be happier thinking of myself as female. If I would be happier acting culturally female, I desire to believe I would be happier acting culturally female.
It's interesting to me that you identify as lesbian, given that you say you came to the realisation of your trans status relatively late, as of the trans people I know (I know quite a few as my wife is very involved in LGBT politics) the straight- or bi-identifying ones realised they were trans relatively early, while the lesbian-identifying ones many seem to have realised in their twenties (in at least two cases I can think of, after getting married - luckily in both cases to bisexual women).
Maybe it's partly your sexual orientation that was/is clouding the issue for you? If before transitioning you felt like (or thought you felt like) a straight man, is it possible that you are somehow thinking, at least in part, "I can't be a woman because I am attracted to women"?
Either way, whether you're 'really' trans or not has no real meaning - there is no 'real' you, as opposed to an 'unreal' one, as you, like all human beings, are a mass of different, often conflicting, drives. And likewise, there is no platonic essence of transsexuality/transgenderism against which you can be judged. And both 'you' and 'transsexuality' are at least in part cultural constructs which only exist ... (read more)
@OP: I don't quite see a reason to fret this much over the social construct of gender. "Real woman". Sure there is a typical female brain that lo and behold is probably different in basic quantifiable ways from your brain, I'm also willing to bet that your subjective experience probably isn't exactly like the experience of having that brain. Its possible your brain is basically identical to the average male brain, but more likely it isn't and is perhaps in "objective" ways more similar to the female average brain.
What does this have t... (read more)
Huh, I wonder how I missed this post the first time around; I was already questioning my gender when it was posted. (It sounds like I'm in the same boat you were in two years ago; 21, biologically male, feel like I'm almost definitely trans (several other similar details too), but still have a lot of "And yet..."s.)... (read more)
Your story (and TheOtherDave's) reminds me of that of Jennifer Diane Reitz.... (read more)
OP here. In case you've found this post via Google (as I did unexpectedly, having found my own post when searching for something different) and are wondering how I'm faring now, rest easy: I transitioned years ago, and now live a much, much happier life now than I did when I wrote this post. I live as a woman, I've become a lot more social and (IMO) a lot less socially awkward, friends and strangers don't even realize I'm trans (or if any do, they aren't showing it and aren't treating me any differently).
I didn't regret my transition even once.
My views on ... (read more)
I'm 22 and still struggling with the question of my gender identity*. I've realised that I'd be happier living as a female if I could just switch, effortlessly, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to deal with all the social repercussions.
*(I've wished I was female intermittently since childhood, but never really thought more of it until recently; when a friend I'd known for ages, who had presented as male, began her transition)
And I know that I'm, in many ways, more masculine-minded than I'd like.
Actually, ... (read more)
A couple of years ago, I happened to take a very interesting grad-level anthropology course entitled simply "Masculinity" at the same time that I was having some perfectly normal doubts about my sexuality. Most of my time in the course was spent butting heads with the professor who felt that most of evolutionary psychology consisted of a way to roll us back to the dark ages on issues of sexual equality, but long story short, I came out the other end doubting whether not just gender (the cultural aspect), but sex (the biological aspect) was just ... (read more)
Being a materialist and accepting Darwinian thought all the while trying to be as rational as possible will lead you to realize that many many rationalizations we accept for what are considered "correct" or "common" values are false. Some outrageously false. I think I'm not overstepping in saying that either a majority of or a large minority of LW posters would agree with this.
I can understand a change in values following a updated world view. But please remember is does not translate into should. Sure scrap some values, after intros... (read more)
The "am I really a woman question sounds to me like the dangling node described in How an Algorithm feels from inside. It's a notion that has gotten really confused because of all these different pressures around you.
I love your phrasing.
Really? That doesn't seem incoherent, just incredibly unlikely. Could you elaborate what you mean by "sexism"?
Perhaps someday: transexual differences caught on brain scan - New Scientist... (read more)
Disclaimer: in large part, I am trying to persuade myself.
I feel similarly, and I begin to suspect that my brain is treating it like a moral, rather than empirical, proposition. Consider: "If I am evil, then I wish to believe I am evil"? No. It should read: "If I am evil, then I wish to fix that problem."
How then can Tarski apply to a morally-charged proposition? It's probably better not to go around thinking... (read more)