I had a conversation with a probably-trans friend last night which they1 found helpful, so I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on the subject with a broader audience, as it’s a perspective that I don’t think is heard from often, and may be helpful as a point of reference for people who are wondering if they are “trans enough”.
I am cis. I’m reasonably sure of this. I have asked myself whether I was trans, concluded that I was not, and am pretty confident in this conclusion2. You don’t hear much about this sort of experience, because from the outside it looks like a total non-event, so I thought it would be helpful for me to elaborate on what it feels like from the inside.
Ozy Frantz coined a term a while back, Cis by Default3, which makes the point that a lot of cis people just don’t have anything that you might describe as an internally felt sense of gender. I think this is true and is a very useful observation, and for quite some time I thought it was an accurate description of how I felt. Since then, I’ve decided that there are details that it doesn’t quite capture accurately for me that are worth unpacking a bit further.
I think the distinguishing features of cis-vs-transness can be roughly captured by three important questions:
- What was your assigned gender at birth?
- What would you like your gender to be4?
- How much do you care about the above?
Being trans is essentially having very different answers to the first two questions and caring about it a great deal. I think the significance of the caring part is often missed, because the people who talk about this the most (both cis and trans) are often the ones who care about it the most.
This model is a bit simplistic, so some caveats before I go any further:
- Gender/sex/etc constitute a very large bundle of roughly related parts. e.g. identity and presentation are different, and there are distinct gendered norms. People will rarely have the same answer to these questions for each of those aspects. That’s fine.
- I encourage very broad interpretations of the questions. Definitely no assumption of binary gender implied. Also it’s perfectly OK for your preference to be to not have a gender at all (i.e. being agender).
- Answers to these questions may change over time. The relevant period of time can be on an hourly basis for some people (e.g. genderfluidity).
- “Oh gods I have no idea” is a perfectly legitimate answer to any or all of these.
- “What would you like your gender to be?” is a slightly loaded phrasing, but I can’t think of a better one, so please let me emphasise here that I very strongly believe that your gender is whatever you choose or believe it to be.
You can think of the experience of this as breaking down into roughly four quadrants which get labelled as follows:
- Agree/Care – “Standard” Cis Experience
- Agree/Don’t Care – Cis by Default
- Disagree/Care – Trans
- Disagree/Don’t care – It Depends
I would consider myself to be in the “It Depends” quadrant. Someone in this category could reasonably choose to consider themselves cis or trans, depending on whatever seems important to them. For my part, I’ve chosen to consider myself cis – I don’t think I or other people would find it at all helpful for me to describe myself as trans, so I don’t, but other people in the same quadrant might make a different decision and that’s fine too. You could think of us as “ambiguously cis” (or, for people in this quadrant who have chosen to consider themselves trans, “ambiguously trans”) – there isn’t a particularly clear cut answer as to whether we count as cis or trans, so it mostly comes down to personal choice and social circumstance.
What does being ambiguously cis feel like? I don’t know. It depends. I can tell you what it feels like for me though: It’s not really that I mind being a man, I just wish someone had asked me first5.
If you wanted to simplify the vastly complex internal experience of human gender into a single number6, you might imagine that there is a percentile scale of 0-100 of “How much you would like to transition?” with 0% being “Under no circumstances would I choose my gender to differ from the one I was assigned at birth” and 100% being “Under no circumstances would I choose to live as my assigned gender at birth”, I’d rate myself somewhere in the 5-10% region.
Practically speaking, what this means is that if you dropped me into the Culture and gave me access to cheap and easy body modification technology and a society that was very encouraging of using it, I would absolutely experiment with different gender presentations, would give you pretty good odds that I would swap back and forth, and maybe slightly better than even odds that I would adopt a more feminine body plan as a default.
In the real world where transition is complicated and subject to social censure, it’s not even close to worth it for me, because my preferences here are really very mild. There are some circumstances7 where it reaches the heady heights of “I guess that would be nice”, but it’s really not a big deal for me. As a result I present as fairly generically masculine because it’s extremely easy for me to do so and not worth it for me to not do so.
Given this, I don’t think it’s in any way useful for me to identify as trans, but someone with essentially the same preferences as me who cared a lot more about them probably should think about identifying as trans.
Someone who cares exactly the same amount as me might still reasonably consider themselves trans if they were in different circumstances. I don’t know what those would be – I can’t really think of any plausible circumstances under which I would, but that doesn’t imply anything about what other people should do.
If you are in any way unsure about your position in this quadrant, there is a useful concept that I got from a post by Kelsey Piper a while back. Although I’m not the target audience, the point generalises very well and I still it found very helpful:
I have now talked with multiple bi women who’ve said ‘sometimes when I have a crush on a girl I get really worried I’m a Fake Bi and not really attracted to women and therefore I won’t ever get to kiss her.’
And I know orientation and labels and so on are complicated but I think there should be a rule that if you are sometimes scared you’re not bi which would be bad because it means you can’t kiss girls, you are totally and categorically allowed to kiss the girls
The generalisation is this: If you are worried that you are not (label) and that that would be bad because it would mean that you don’t get to (do the thing that label people get to do), I think there should be a rule that you are totally and categorically allowed to (do the thing).
I suggested “Disagree/Care” as the intrinsic definition of transness, but a useful extrinsic definition of “being trans enough” is if it would be helpful for you to view yourself as trans.
If you find yourself worried about not being trans because if you’re not you wouldn’t be able to do all these things that would make your life better, I think that you are totally and categorically allowed to do the thing that makes your life better. If you feel that life makes much more sense when you view yourself as trans, or you really hope you’re trans because that would mean you get to transition (in whatever sense of “transition” is helpful to you), that is a pretty big hint that you are not in the “It Depends” quadrant and that you are trans enough to count. The trans umbrella is large and it definitely has room for you.
This is essentially a variant on the model I proposed in “On Not Quite Fitting” – Binary identity labels don’t actually describe real categories, they describe complex cost-benefit analyses where each individual must decide whether something is worth it to them or not. I think this model is particularly important in the case of gender because both the benefits and, sadly, the costs are quite high for many potentially trans people.
I am not the person to give you advice on how to navigate that cost-benefit trade-off, as it contains a lot of trans specific experiences I don’t share, but feel free to use me as a reference point if you need convincing that you’re trans enough: If you care about your gender significantly more than I care about mine, it’s probably a subject you would find worth exploring.
Equally, I am definitely not someone you need permission from, but if you would find my permission helpful then you have it: Do the thing that makes your life better. If you’re worried if you count, you do.
- More specific pronouns TBD
- There is an idea that goes round that if you have asked yourself this question you’re probably trans. I don’t think this is true. On the contrary, I think if you haven’t asked yourself this question you probably haven’t thought critically enough about gender.
- Apparently they are sad that this was the only post people wanted to reference when their blog was deleted, so as a partial apology I will also note they have excellent pieces on neurotypicality and the curb cut effect that I also often reference.
- I don’t really care if this is for intrinsic reasons or is something you decided for yourself. Why should it matter to anyone else whether your preferences are intrinsic or not?
- This phrasing is not original to me, but I’m afraid I don’t remember who I have it from.
- and who doesn’t like simplifying things into a single number?
- Yes, I’m talking about sex. Apologies to any family members reading this who would like to be able to pretend that’s not a thing I do.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I find this framing pretty helpful for thinking about it.
“Agree/disagree” doesn’t seem quite complete, like it sounds like your ideal presentation might be genderfluid, or “somewhere between male and nonbinary” or “somewhere between male and agender”. I’m not sure if that reflects what you said or not?
But I’m not sure how people with an identity that IS like that categorise themselves in relation to a sex assigned at birth, it sounds like neither “cis” nor “trans” is accurate, but I don’t know what people would most commonly say. But “weakly whatever that is called” sounds like… something.
Okay, but what does this even mean? Surely useful words need some sort of non-circular truth condition?—something for the word to attach to other than “Because I said so”?
The reason philosophers of science say that beliefs need to be falsifiable, is because if there’s no way-the-world-could-be that would make your belief false, then it’s not clear what the belief refers to. If I said my gender is “blorpelblobben”, you’d probably have some questions, right? Like, about what the definition of “blorpelblobben” is, or what blorpelblobbens have in common, or something. If I said “I’m a blorpelblobben because I believe that I’m a blorpelblobben”, that wouldn’t explain anything. On the other said, if I said that I’m female, you’d probably have fewer questions, because you already have some probabilistic expectations attached to that word! But if you have probabilistic expectations about what female people are like, then it’s possible for the belief that someone is female to be falsified, right? Right??
It matters because if we understand the true structure of the underlying psychological condition that makes some humans wish they could change their biological sex (or “gender”, except no one seems to be able to explain to me what this “gender” thing is if it’s not “socially percieved sex”), it seems likely that this knowledge might somehow be useful in figuring out what the optimal interventions are, both for the individual, and for Society! I mean, if you believe there’s such a thing as “knowledge” of objective reality!
> Okay, but what does this even mean?
It means that we are in the process of taking an existing system of cultural norms and conventions and redefining them in a way that works better for people, and the way that seems to work best for people is to provide maximum freedom of experimentation, and to not attempt to socially enforce any sort of coupling between logically distinct traits even when they are correlated in practice, because it allows people the freedom to find ways in which they can flourish that work best for them.
> Surely useful words need some sort of non-circular truth condition?—something for the word to attach to other than “Because I said so”?
What makes your name Zack? What defines the boundaries of a nation? What makes something a game? What makes someone vegetarian? What makes a person attractive?
Many groupings of reality, especially descriptions of human beings, are socially defined, intersubective concepts, with no single definition, but instead defined by common agreement.
> The reason philosophers of science say that beliefs need to be falsifiable, is because if there’s no way-the-world-could-be that would make your belief false, then it’s not clear what the belief refers to.
First off, this is an extremely simplistic (and incorrect) view, both of philosophy of science and of what philosophers of science say. Popper said that (actually he said that they need to be falsifiable in order to be science), but Popper was referring to something more specific and also wrong. Many useful empirical claims are not falsifiable. “There exists a person named David MacIver” is not a falsifiable claim. “Black holes exist” is not a falsifiable claim. These are *true* claims, and you can present evidence that they are true claims, but if they were false claims then no possible evidence you present could demonstrate that.
Secondly, definitions, social conventions, and other subjective and intersubjective properties are not in general the same as empirical claims. They’re best viewed as tools of interpretation, and a more flexible set of tools of interpretation around gender seem to be helpful to people.
> On the other said, if I said that I’m female, you’d probably have fewer questions, because you already have some probabilistic expectations attached to that word! But if you have probabilistic expectations about what female people are like, then it’s possible for the belief that someone is female to be falsified, right? Right??
Why would that be the case? If you tell me something comes from a standard Normal(0, 1) distribution, I have probabilistic expectations about its behaviour, but there is no set of evidence you could present me that would falsify it (though there is certainly information that would be surprising).
(Also it’s very easy to falsify a belief that someone is female: They tell you credibly that they’re not female)
> > Why should it matter to anyone else whether your preferences are intrinsic or not?
> It matters because if we understand the true structure of the underlying psychological condition that makes some humans wish they could change their biological sex (or “gender”, except no one seems to be able to explain to me what this “gender” thing is if it’s not “socially percieved sex”), it seems likely that this knowledge might somehow be useful in figuring out what the optimal interventions are, both for the individual, and for Society!
You’re missing the point of that sentence. I agree that understanding the underlying psychological and biological mechanisms of the experience of gender (both cis and trans) would be great (although it’s certainly open to abuse). The point is not that the underlying reasons are uninteresting, but that they should not in this case be a factor in how you treat someone.
> I mean, if you believe there’s such a thing as “knowledge” of objective reality!
Gender is intersubjective, so not directly part of objective reality but part of an interpretive layer above it. Intersubjectivity is primarily defined by its utility in human understanding. It butts up against objective reality as having a direct impact on that which needs understanding, but is not intrinsically a feature of said reality.
Look, I don’t claim to understand gender fully either, because I don’t think there is a simple and straightforward way to understand it (and TBH I’d rather do away with the whole system entirely, but that’s a hard sell right now), but a system of increased flexibility and self-definition around it seems to work well with minimal downsides, and is entirely compatible with the rest of the way we use language and social conventions, and how our tools of interpretation interact with reality.
It may help you to consider which of the following statements and ask which you have problems with and why:
* A tomato is a fruit
* A banana is a berry
* A strawberry is not a berry
* An adoptive parent is a parent (https://conscienceandconsciousness.com/2018/07/11/transwomen-and-adoptive-parents-an-analogy/)
* A trans woman is a woman
Nobody is claiming that transitioning magically changes the underlying biology. If anything, trans people probably have a vastly higher working knowledge of the biology of their own sexual expression than most cis people do. What we are claiming is that a grouping that includes trans women and cis women under the same heading of “women” (and similarly trans men and cis men) produces a substantially healthier and more functioning society than one that does not, and that there are other ways of being that do not neatly fit into the gendered categories we have historically used that we should allow people to explore rather than policing.
I agree that words can be used in many ways depending on context, and that their meanings are socially defined by collective agreement. However, I see the function of such collective agreements, the reason they work as “cognitive technology” that makes humans more powerful than other animals, as being to reflect the statistical structure of things in the world. A standard visual metaphor here that I use all the time (to the extent that it felt right to put my secret (“secret”) blog under a dot-space TLD) is to imagine things as existing in a very high-dimensional configuration space. The most useful groupings of reality are ones that draw concept-boundaries around the regions of configuration space with unusually high density, so that we can spend our information-theoretically limited budget of short words on groupings with the most inferential power.
Let’s explore the “What makes someone vegetarian?” example for a moment. Vegetarian is typically understood to mean “a person who doesn’t eat animal flesh”, but this is a fuzzy category for at least a few reasons. For one, because we haven’t specified on what timescale “doesn’t” applies at: most people wouldn’t want to disqualify someone from being a vegetarian if they’ve ever eaten meat (e.g., years ago as a child). At the same time, the social consequences of the word (e.g., if you learn that someone is a “vegetarian” and you care about animal welfare, you’ll probably think more highly of them) are intrinsically tied to the not-eating-meat property in a way seems to require at least the possibility of policing (with increasing probability and severity of policing as the person’s gustatory behavior diverges farther away from the center of the fuzzy category): “you’re a vegetarian if you believe yourself to be a vegetarian” just isn’t workable.
Right, sorry, I was using “falsification” in a Bayesian sense where information that surprises a model should make you lower your confidence in that model (albeit not to zero).
(This may not have been quite what Popper meant by the word “falsification”, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, words can be unused in many ways depending on context!)
Like, if you tell me that x was sampled from Normal(0, 1), and x turns out to be 15, I’m probably going to have some doubts about whether you’re telling me the truth about where you got x from, even if your claim isn’t literally impossible.
I mean, you can choose to use that word in that way. Like, there’s no Divine Word Authority that will punish you for it. But it seems kind of useful to have a word—or at least a primary sense of a word, even if a more expansive definition might be used in some contexts—to talk about the set of humans who have a vagina and a womb and ovaries and two X chromosomes and breasts. You know the concept I’m talking about, right? Do we get a word to talk about that thing?
In terms of the configuration space visual metaphor, “female (self-identified)” is certainly a cluster if you project into the one-dimensional subspace spanned by “self-identified gender identity.” But insisting on looking at such a “thin” subspace throws away a lot of information!
Again, words can be used to correspond to somewhat different category boundaries depending on context, but in order for the word to be meaningful, you need at least the possibility of “policing.” If you said “Jane is tall; I bet she got that from her mother Sally”, but Sally adopted Jane, someone needs to be able to say, “No, that only works for biological parents, not adoptive parents; Sally isn’t Jane’s ‘mother’ if we’re talking about the heritability of height rather than who takes care of Jane.”
Now, you might say, “Oh, Zack, you’re just being paranoid—no one would ever try to reason that way about adoptive parents!” But I actually do see pretty mainstream left publications like the The Nation arguing that trans women should be included in women’s sports because “trans women are in fact women.” This seems pretty egregious to me!
I’m really not supposed to be talking about this topic this month, but when I saw your post, I couldn’t resist commenting, because I’m exhausted and heartbroken. I’ve been trying for more than a year to explain this hidden-Bayesian-structure-of-language-and-cognition thing to people who ought to be smart enough to get it, and … honestly? I realize this won’t be very convincing to people who don’t already see the thing (everyone thinks her own position is “obvious”), but I really have trouble believing that people are disagreeing in good faith. It feels like the only possibilities are either that I’m crazy, or they’re crazy, or they’re just fucking with me because it’s politically fashionable.
I was tempted to think that maybe it’s just that most people don’t have the linear-algebra intuitions to understand the univariate-fallacy/clusters-in-configuration-space thing, and all the actually-smart people who know math just don’t want to speak up because it would be too politically expensive? But if David MacIver is in on it too, that hypothesis is falsified. What’s going on? I feel really really gaslighted here (with respect to how I choose to draw the “gaslighting” category boundary).
I also want more flexible social norms around gender expression. (I was on HRT for five months and might start again!) But maybe there’s some way to get to the good outcome without destroying the faculty of language? Where are all the intellectually serious people?
> But if David MacIver is in on it too, that hypothesis is falsified. What’s going on? I feel really really gaslighted here (with respect to how I choose to draw the “gaslighting” category boundary).
> I also want more flexible social norms around gender expression. (I was on HRT for five months and might start again!) But maybe there’s some way to get to the good outcome without destroying the faculty of language? Where are all the intellectually serious people?
Zack, I’m going to stop disagreeing with your object level objections for now. I would be happy to talk to you about them further, but I don’t think the blog comments are a good place to do this. I would recommend that you stick to your planned month break and that we talk about this in some private forum with lower latency later. I’d even be happy to do an adversarial collaboration on the subject if you would like to.
I will however state some points where we agree:
I do not think any of these are incompatible with my position.
A thing I think it would be useful for you to consider is that many of the things that you perceive as a lack of intellectual seriousness are a mixture of a number of things with different underlying issues despite similar surface presentations:
I think to some extent our disagreements on this subject are all of the above, but the one that is most relevant to you is probably the intellectual tradition one. I fundamentally disagree with Bayesianism as a philosophical underpinning (though I think it is a powerful tool that can be very useful to consider in many contexts), but more importantly I think there are a number of Bayesian-compatible considerations that you would find useful. In particular I think you are currently over-valuing prediction over interpretation.
I’m going to need to think harder about how to adequately explain said intellectual tradition in a way that you would find useful. These previous notes on the subject and the linked review of trans like me are probably the closest I’ve got right now, but they’re not very close. I can also recommend some books that may help at the meta level: “Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology” and “Sorting Things Out” are both very good useful books that I think contain the shape of the sort of thinking I’m trying to get across. Miranda Fricker’s “Epistemic Injustice” is… well it’s worth understanding, although it’s very much written in philosopher-ese and that’s not entirely helpful. You might also find “Rewriting the Rules” helpful but it’s probably not a good book to read if you want a break from thinking about the object level issues.
Thanks, I’d enjoy discussing more later.