Might it be true that the gender of some people’s souls doesn’t match the sex of their bodies?
In the ever-driven politics of the language of gender, the word “cisgender” has been forged. Without harping on too much about it, it’s a word that, in my view, has been created in part to destabilise the notion of “normal” as far as gender goes, so that what most of us took to be normal until now can be spoken about as simply one condition among the others. To be “cisgender” is to have physical makeup – including chromosomes but especially including sex organs – so that by examining your physical structure, a person can tell whether or not your gender is male or female. In short, your gender matches your body. This is hardly a “condition” as far as most people are concerned. You might think: Ducks look like ducks, cats look like cats, males look like males (if you look closely enough, anyway) and females look like females. Granted, there are cases where body organs are not fully formed, or where people have genetic abnormalities (for example where instead of being XX or XY, a person’s sex chromosomes are XXY). But that is not what is in consideration here.
Being anything other than “cisgender” means that a person cannot tell whether you are male or female just by examining your physical structure. You might be genetically XY and you might have a penis and look in other respects like a man, and yet you might perceive yourself (i.e. you might identify) as female. According to this type of analysis, a person’s gender – their perception of themselves, which is an objective reality about themselves – and their body’s sex are in essence independent. They usually go together (meaning that a person is cisgender) but there is no rule that they should, and sometimes they do not.
There’s a way of analysing all of this which is pretty cynical – and I may as well admit that it’s an analysis that I subscribe to. According to this analysis, there is no reason to automatically privilege a person’s perception of themselves over their bodily reality. Here’s a very simple (simplistic?) description of that cynicism: If you have the body of a human but you perceive yourself as a cat, then we do not say that there’s a mismatch between your body and your true species, we just say that no matter how seriously you take your perception of yourself and no matter how unable you might be to think of yourself any other way, your beliefs and perceptions have simply failed to align with reality. We don’t consider species reassignment surgery for you (imagine just for now that we have the ability to do this), but instead we would prefer that you live with the fact that you’re just not a cat. This comparison isn’t intended to belittle those who do identify with a gender that differs from their bodily sex. It’s an extreme example where I think we’ll all see the point more clearly. Another way of expressing this cynicism is to ask the question: “Why assume that if there is a disagreement between the way a person thinks and that structure of their body, then the way they think is the deciding factor? Why favour perceptions over biology? What if this is simply a condition that could be classified as a delusion?” In the world of mental health, the disorder is well-known. According to the standard text, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the disorder is called Gender Dysphoria, a condition describing “people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with.” These are not, however, issues that I will pursue here (nor do I intend that these issues dominate the discussion). The real issue that I want to talk about is what follows.
Never mind what I think about the true and false of any of this. This is all really just the backdrop for the question I want to pose. This cynical reply to the question of gender-body mismatching is one that, I think, comes naturally to somebody like me who thinks that human beings are physical creatures. If you’re physically male, then you are male, and if you believe otherwise about yourself then your beliefs are false, plain and simple, end of story. If you are physically male but perceive yourself to be female, then you are suffering from gender dysphoria, and you are mistaken. This applies to all physically grounded philosophies of mind: Eliminative materialism, nonreductive physicalism, emergentism, property dualism or hylemorphism – or any of the others.
But what if you’re not any sort of materialist about human beings? What if you’re a substance dualist who thinks that we are really not bodily creatures? Indeed, in the popular literature on transgender identity, it is common to read of people describing themselves as being “born in the wrong body” or having “a male body but a woman’s soul.” Assuming that gender is a mental or psychological characteristic, that is, a trait of the soul – the true self, while biological sex is a trait of the physical body, why shouldn’t this sort of mismatch, in principle, be possible? Now of course a dualist might still believe that transgender beliefs about one’s self still amount to false beliefs. But it is at least available to the dualist, in a way that it is not available to the materialist to believe that you can be a woman trapped in a man’s body.
What do you think? Do you think that the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches presupposes substance dualism? Is it helped by substance dualism? Is it compatible with materialism, or would that amount to something like a person who thought he was a cat?
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- Playing fast and loose with aggression and sex
- Purgatory requires dualism