I think many people fail to realize that the very idea of “gender” and “gender identity” as opposed to physiological sex is a modern concept, invented by mid-20th century psychiatrists working with gender dysphoric trans patients. Robert Stoller famously defined gender identity as “one’s sense of being a member of a particular sex”. The concept is best illustrated by trans people, where a person assigned male at birth could have the “opposite” gender identity of being a woman which stands in contrast to her male birth assignment and the gendered expectations associated with that assignment. For cis people, they fail to be amazed about their comfort in their assigned sex. Like the old joke about fish not knowing what water is, cis people often fail to realize that their own felt sense of gender is actively at work behind the scenes, filtering their desires and perceptions. In contrast, trans people, especially pre-transition trans people, feel the mismatch between their gender and birth assignment so acutely it can lead to constant negative rumination, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
But what does it mean exactly to “sense” one’s membership in a particular sex? What kind of sense is this? Is it like proprioception? Or like the visual sense? Can we just “see” our gender clearly or does it require an act of hermeneutics? Are we constantly sensing our sex? Or is it only evident in gender dysphoric people where there is a mismatch? This is like the old philosophical problem called the “refrigerator light problem” whereby we use introspection to ask ourselves if we are conscious, but are we conscious when we are not thinking about being conscious? If we were not conscious we would not know it either way, just like we cannot know if the refrigerator light goes off after shutting the door – the act of investigating corrupts the process of inquiry. Same with gender identity. Is it a construction made each time anew when we reflect on our gender or is it a stable psychological foundation that exists when we aren’t reflecting?
What is the nature of gender identity? Can it “stand alone” by itself or does it need to be connected to other psychological states such as desires? Presumably gender identity is a type of belief – we have a belief we either belong or don’t belong to the male-female gender binary as assigned to us at birth. With trans people, is it merely enough to have the belief that one is a different gender in order to be trans? Or must the belief be connected to a desire to transition?
A thought experiment: imagine an AMAB trans person who wakes up one day and has a startling realization: they are transgender! But they have zero desire to engage in any act of transition. They don’t want to change their name, their pronouns, their dress, their mannerisms, their voice, their body, etc. They are totally fine in the gender role assigned to them at birth. Yet they have an internal sense of belonging to the class of females. Is this situation even conceptually possible? Remember: the idea is not that one has a desire to change but is pragmatically frustrated but that there is no desire in the first place. All that exists is a free-floating belief that one is a different gender from the gender one was assigned at birth. Presumably if gender identity is a coherent concept then this situation is possible (ignoring for now the problem in assuming that metaphysical possibility can be read off conceptual possibility).
Some trans theorists implicitly assume that to be trans is to transition in some way. Paul Preciado writes:
In the middle of the Cold War, a new ontological-political distinction between “cis-“(a body that keeps the gender it was assigned at birth) and “trans” (a body availing itself of hormonal, surgical, prosthetic, or legal technologies to change that assignment) made its appearance. Testo Junkie, p. 127
Preciado just flat out assumes that if you are trans than you are “availing” yourself of some kind of transitional technology to change or move away from one’s birth assignment. If you’re a trans man, that might mean wearing a binder, or a packer, or STP, starting testosterone, etc. If you’re a trans woman, that might mean shaving your body or starting HRT, buying clothes traditionally found in the woman’s section, etc. For a non-binary person it might involve changing your name and pronouns, binding one’s chest, or wearing different styles of clothing.
But is my thought experiment actually conceptually incoherent? If the idea of “gender identity” is to make sense in its own right then it should be possible for there to be a trans person with a mismatched gender identity but with no desire to transition in anyway. Or perhaps it is impossible – if it is – then it shows there is something wrong with the idea of gender identity as distinct from physiological sex. It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc. I believe it is true that to be trans means more than just have a different identity. It means, as Preciado assumes but never argues for, that to be trans means to transition. There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. In a sense, the accompaniment of desires is a confirmation that the identity is not a fleeting whim or a random thought produced by the unconscious. The persistence of desire is in fact one of the defining diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.
Notice however that transition does not necessarily entail transition to medically relieve bodily dysphoria. The transitional elements could be done for some people without the assistance of medical technology. But availing oneself of legal technologies is certainly a valid and “complete” transition tool. Just to simply have one’s governmental ID match your felt sense of identity is a powerful feeling of validation. Furthermore, the position I’m putting forward is ecumenical between the “trans-medicalists”, who argue being trans is a medical condition defined by bodily dysphoria, and “maximals”, who want to expand the trans umbrella to be as inclusive as possible even for those trans people who don’t identity as gender dysphorics. For Preciado’s definition, bodily dysphoria is not the defining feature of trans identities. Rather, it is the desire to use multiple forms of transitional technology to reject one’s birth assignment. If a non-binary person is happy enough to bind and legally change their name, then that’s a form of transition. But where my position draws the line is with self-identified trans people have no desires to move away from their birth assignment.
But what’s the limit? If a trans person merely “transitions” through changing their gendered expression, is that enough to count as trans? I think the problem with trying to police gendered identities in this way is we cannot from the third-person realize the full psychological significance that expression has for different people. For some butch women getting a short hair-cut might be no big deal but from a trans boy it might mean the world. The same expressions can mean vastly different things to different people. For some people, the significance invested in how clothing is coded might be enough to satisfy latent dysphoria such that other transitional technologies are unnecessary. The point is that any kind of gatekeeping that tries to definitely say where “true trans” ends and begins will come up with the problem of trying to legislate from the outside what the internal felt sense of significance certain gendered activities have for some people. We will never be able to definitely build a singular set of criteria and apply them to all trans people picking out a unique shared characteristic. Trans people are perhaps one of the most diverse populations of people on the planet. I propose there is no “essence” to being trans, no necessary and sufficient conditions for being trans that are universal across all trans people. Instead, being trans is a family resemblance concept, a cluster concept that works in terms of paradigms, not necessary and sufficient conditions.
In conclusion, being trans is not just about identity. It’s about identity and desire. If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind.