The conversation over transgender rights covers a lot of ground, from the unfortunate rise of “bathroom laws” designed to scaremonger about trans people to the white-hot debate about how to best help young children who have severe gender dysphoria, or a visceral aversion to their body often accompanied by a sense that their identity is in conflict with the sex they were assigned at birth.
One thing almost every facet of this subject has in common, though, is a reliance on the concept of gender identity. At the surface level, the term is self-explanatory: Someone’s gender identity is the gender they identify with. For most of us, there’s a match between our body and our gender identity. Other people either identify with the “other” gender, with no gender, or with some other gender not captured by the binary we usually use to talk about gender (for the purposes of this article, I’ll be talking about folks who identify as male or female).
But gender identity is a subjective feeling, so it’s impossible to define it in a way that satisfies everyone. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that, for many of us, our gender identity is woven into our embodied existence in a way that makes it difficult to fully understand what it must be like to have a gender identity in conflict with our body. I’d argue this is doubly true for men — all else being equal, we’re less likely to experience certain forms of shame pertaining to our bodies, to be harassed on the street, to learn at a young age that our bodies can bring unwanted and sinister attention, and so forth. These experiences aren’t exactly the same as the feeling of gender dysphoria, but they’re related.
No one is going to definitively “answer” the question of what gender identity is any time soon. If you poke around online, you’ll see that different sides on this debate are light-years apart: Some people claim that gender identity is innate and set at birth or a very young age in the brain; others claim that it is entirely or almost entirely constructed, meaning that society imposes certain roles and expectations on us as we grow up, and these become our gender identity. (Suffice it to say that something can be both constructed and deeply felt — take the example of people who are willing to die for a political belief.)
But it would be helpful if everyone could at least get a little bit closer to understanding what the stakes are for people who feel deep gender dysphoria, and one thought experiment does that job quite elegantly. It comes from Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (though I first came across the reference in this blog post).
Here, via Google Books, is most of the excerpt in question:
I do believe that it is possible for cissexuals to catch a glimpse of their subconscious sex. When I do presentations on trans issues, I try to accomplish this by asking the audience a question: “If I offered you ten million dollars under the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?” While there is often some wiseass in the audience who will say “Yes,” the vast majority of people shake their heads to indicate “No.”
Just so everyone’s on the same page, let’s take “living as the other sex” here to mean making a good-faith effort to do whatever you can to pass as a man if you’re a woman, or a woman if you’re a man, short of surgery or other medical interventions (bringing medical procedures into the thought experiment muddles it a bit) — hair, dress, pronouns, other ways you present yourself, everything. And not everyone agrees with the concept of “subconscious gender,” but no need to get hung up on it: At root, what Serano is talking about here is gender identity and gender dysphoria.
A quick, small Slack poll didn’t turn up any colleagues who said they’d take the deal, and I wouldn’t either. When I try to think about why, it basically comes down to the sense that I would feel like people weren’t seeing me for who I am, which is important to me. The analogy I came up with is goofy, and to be sure it doesn’t capture 1 millionth of the anguish often associated with real-life gender dysphoria, but: I’m a liberal from Boston. If I took the deal, it would feel like I was wearing a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat out in public, as well as a New York Yankees jersey, times, well, a million — gender is a much bigger and more personal societal marker than politics and (obviously) sports fandom, and I wouldn’t be able to shed my new gender identity like a shirt or a jersey, since I had agreed to the deal. (I can’t emphasize enough that this is my attempt to understand the subjective aspect of this in my own way — suffice it to say gender identity isn’t really like rooting for a team or a political party.)
My crude analogy is just one way to work this through, of course — everyone will respond to this thought experiment in a different way. It’s not hard to imagine that some people are tired of the expectations that constantly weigh on them as a result of their gender, and who would happily take the deal. But it makes intuitive sense that Serano gets a lot of nos, and that people have trouble articulating exactly why. When she asks people to explain their answers, she writes, “they usually get a bit flustered at first, as if they are at a loss for words. Eventually, they end up saying something like, ‘Because I just am a woman (or man),’ or, ‘It just wouldn’t be right.’”
That’s why the thought experiment is so useful: It gives those of us who are comfortable(ish) with our gender identities a glimpse, albeit a fleeting and incomplete one, at what it would be like to experience severe gender dysphoria. Imagine waking up every day and having to put on that act in public — either out of concern for your safety, or because you lacked the resources to transition to a point that would make you comfortable, or for whatever other reason. It would get old, quick. It would weigh on you and wear you down and take a psychic toll.