Biological essentialism vs social constructivism
Biological essentialism (or biological determinism), is the idea that behaviours, interests or abilities are biologically pre-determined, rather than shaped by society. In an essentialist interpretation, innate differences between men and women result in ‘natural’ gender divisions – with men inherently (innately) better at decision making and women better at nurturing.
Feminists, Freudians, and queer theorists have all challenged biological essentialism. Second wave feminists argued that gender-based inequalities and differences were not natural, and were instead socially constructed. Girls are not inherently worse than boys at physics (due to having pink and fluffy brains) but rather, are often denied the opportunities offered to boys. Social constructivists demonstrated the many ways in which observed gender differences between men and women are socially engineered. Some went a step further, arguing that gender is purely a learned behaviour or a performance.
Brains are complex, and social constructivists, like the popular science writer Cordelia Fine, have rightly debunked the simplified and shoddy science that underpins essentialist claims that men are from Mars with their manly brains, and women are from Venus, with feminine brains.
Gender identity and the neurology of ‘trans brains’
Where then does gender identity fit in?
Some scientists have conducted neurological imaging studies on trans people, exploring whether there are specific, sexually dimorphic areas of the brain in which trans people differ from their assigned sex (the sex they were presumed to have at birth).
Published research findings, often with low sample sizes, have been interpreted as indicating that trans women have a brain more similar to a cis (not trans) woman’s brain than to a cis man’s brain. Such findings have been publicised in newspaper headlines as proof of the existence of trans people.
Such scientific studies, and their shallow interpretation and presentation in the media, have received strong criticism from a wide number of transgender commentators. There are a range of extremely valid reasons for criticism:
- The suggestion that one specific variable can define ‘transness’ is reductive and overlooks the ways in which society, culture and experience impact on every individual including on the structure of the brain.
- The reliance on any study as legitimacy for human rights is extremely dangerous – if the study results are later rejected, what happens to these rights?
- The idea that any brain can be easily classified as male or female is simplistic and overly binary.
- The suggestion (made by inaccurate media representation of the studies) that one specific variable can be used as a diagnostic test for transness also fills people with fear that any such test could be used by gatekeepers to judge who is accepted as trans and who can be denied support and denied rights. Any such diagnostic test would be entirely at odds with autonomy, with respecting people’s lived experience, with self-identification and dignity.
These reasons for fearing how science will be politically used, or for criticising simplified interpretations of scientific data, make total sense and have historical antecedents – I understand the fear and upset.
Rejection of biology
However, such comments very often seem to take one step further, rejecting not only biological essentialism and the unhelpful simplified, ‘soundbite’ biology loved by the media, but also moving into a sweeping rejection of any mention of a link between biology and gender identity. A culture in which the very mention of biology is discouraged.
This is where as a cisgender (not trans) parent of a transgender child I feel uneasy. I’ll attempt here to explore this from my cis parent’s perspective.
Pathologisation of diversity
For many decades, psychologists and psychiatrists have been aware of trans children expressing distinct gender identities at an early age – 2 or 3 years old.
Across the twentieth century mainstream medical convention, with some exceptions, rejected out of hand any possibility of a biological underpinning to gender identity. The consensus then was that a trans gender identity was a delusion, a mental illness that could, and should, be ‘cured’.
For young trans children, misogynist male psychologists and psychiatrists, frequently working in the field of sexology, focused their attention on the mother.
Therapy and treatment for young trans children focused on presumed maternal abuse or maternal failings.
Does it even matter why trans adults are trans?
When I hear people say ‘does it even matter why people are trans’ – when I hear people dismiss as offensive and unnecessary any consideration of any biological influence on gender identity, I have an emotional response. I also see this reaction in some other parents of trans children (though certainly not in all).
The denial of any possibility of a ‘biological underpinning to gender identity’ is historically tied up with the denial of the existence of younger trans children. The erasure of the existence of younger trans children has caused untold suffering.
As a parent of a trans child who is loving life, it makes me think of the trans children from decades past (and present in too many places in the world) who were traumatised and institutionally abused by medical systems designed to prevent or convert their gender identity. Neither the genitals = sex = gender approach of simplified biology, nor the feminist ‘gender is a social construct’ mantra, left any space for younger children to be trans. Trans children did not fit with either theory so therefore could not exist.
Impact of denial on families
Denial of the possibility of some young children being trans makes me think of the consequences of this denial. It makes me think of the mums who were coerced into distancing themselves from their trans daughters, based on some unsubstantiated theory that an overly close mother-‘son’ bond might lead to a child ‘misidentifying’ as female. How unbelievably cruel to do that to a family.
Shon Faye, whose work I greatly admire, recently wrote that she disagrees with anyone who suggests gender identity is innate and that it should not matter why people are trans. CN Lester, another writer whose work, and excellent book, I’ve learnt a lot from, critiqued the reporting of the research study under discussion and recommended reading work by Cordelia Fine, author of ‘Delusions of Gender’.
This particular recommendation makes me want to cry.
Delusions of gender as a book has real merits in its debunking of simplified biology, in its understanding that gender-based inequalities are not natural, and that men are not inherently better at parking. So far so commendable.
However, Cordelia Fine replaces the simplified biology of biological essentialism not with nuanced and complex biology, but a nod to social constructivism. Her work is routinely used by those who argue that gender is merely a ‘performance’ and that trans identities do not exist, except perhaps as a non-conforming person’s misguided response to gender norms.
The view that gender is purely a construct and therefore not ‘real’ is pervasive and extremely dangerous. Adherents of this view may well tolerate trans adults – with a patronising assumption that trans adults made a ‘choice’ to ‘change gender’ as a response to their non-conformity. But whilst adherents of social constructivism may begrudgingly tolerate the existence of trans adults to some degree, they allow no such tolerance for younger trans children.
The gender as purely a social construct contingent see social influence and gender stereotyping as the only reason for trans identities. They see no valid reason for the existence of young trans children.
Some of the more fringe, actively transphobic, elements of this group, throw their hate and bile at parents of trans children, accusing us of child abuse, demanding that the state take our children away, demanding that children be protected from ‘transing’.
The recommendation to read Cordelia Fine hit a particular nerve as ‘Delusions of Gender’ had a direct impact on my family. We had a family friend who was unable ‘ideologically’ to accept the possibility of the existence of a trans child. They rejected our child and through that rejection, our family entirely. In a parting gesture, they pleaded for us to read ‘Delusions of Gender’. This very book had been the germ of our now former friend’s belief that any trans identity is a delusion, and that pandering to childhood delusion is parental abuse.
Through my shock and upset, I was struck at the time by the unbelievable arrogance. The recommendation that instead of loving my daughter, I should ‘read up on Fine’ and learn that gender isn’t real. This was not to be the first such recommendation.
Fine’s work is populist and best selling, and over the years I’ve had countless similar comments from ‘well meaning’ individuals. It is not that I am ignorant or closed minded, far from it, I’d hazard I know more of Fine’s exploration of gender than those dabblers. I have read, considered, understood the theoretical position being proffered. The same cannot however be said of the Fine pushers. Their position is based on an assumption (from those who have no first hand experience of trans children) that trans children do not, indeed cannot, exist.
The recommendation to read Cordelia Fine is also, depressingly, front and centre in the advice that the UK Children’s Gender Service’s website provides for parents of trans kids. No space here for a clear and much needed message that ‘some kids are trans – get over it, try to be kind’. Instead they present a false dichotomy between simplified biological essentialism reduced to mention of “a boy’s brain in a girl’s body” and “academic psychologist Dr Cordelia Fine” and “gender as a social construct”, with differences based on experiences rather than biology. Parents wondering whether to accept and love their trans child are instead advised to read about the delusion of gender.
When parents and their children reach the children’s gender service in the UK, if they are allocated one of several apparently deeply transphobic clinicians (clinicians who hold so much power over trans children and families), they may then endure literally years of probing and questioning on parental views on gender, as the clinicians probe for the ‘root cause’ of gender diversity.
The social constructivist view also makes me think of the school teachers and class parents and wider community who argue that a child is too young to make a ‘choice’ to be trans and should wait until adolescence or adulthood. Who don’t see the harm of denying a child a happy childhood.
It makes me think of the people who look at us with suspicion, hostility, scrutiny, when I mention I have a trans child. Of the parents who steer their child away from ours, in case being trans is socially contagious.
It makes me think of the people who are no longer in our family’s life, who are unable to see a trans child as anything other than ‘social conditioning gone wrong’.
It makes me think of the people online and in person who target parents of trans children and accuse them of child abuse for loving their child. It makes me think of the haters who want trans children erased from our schools and communities. Who want trans children to be marginalised, made invisible, kept apart from other children.
The existence of trans children poses a challenge both to the simplified biology of biological essentialism and to social constructivism (the idea that gender is merely a performance).
Who cares whether or not biology has any role?
Many people argue that it should not matter whether being trans is partly influenced by biology or fully shaped by culture, society and upbringing. They argue that acceptance will not come through identifying a ‘cause’ for transness, but through people getting to know trans people.
I imagine and hope that acceptance will gradually emerge for trans adults. I think things are slowly moving forward.
What about trans children though? How do we ensure that gains in acceptance and visibility and legislative rights do not leave out trans children, the most vulnerable, those without a voice.
Too many advocates for the rights of trans adults are silent on the topic of young trans children. Many have no understanding or awareness that trans children exist. Others, consider trans children too controversial, too divisive to stick up for.
Trans children are nearly completely invisible. And whilst there remains a default assumption that gender identity is shaped not at all by biology but purely by culture and upbringing, then there will remain a reluctance to support younger transgender children.
Those who believe that gender is purely a performance, who believe that trans identities are socially constructed, do not believe in the existence of young trans children.
The erasure of trans children allows haters to paint themselves as crusaders saving children from being socially influenced or indoctrinated into being trans.
With no openness to the possibility of a trans child being part of natural diversity, they look for a reason. With young children it is blame the parents. With older children it is social contagion. In the first scenario they advocate removing children from abusive parents. With the second scenario they ask that trans identities never be mentioned, embraced or supported at school. For parents who are afraid and unsure how to react to a trans child, they advise conversion therapy.
Yet, as soon as people open their minds to the idea that there might be a (complex, messy, unattributable) biological underpinning to trans identities, that trans children exist, and have in fact, always existed, the whole deck of cards upon which the transphobes build their hate comes crashing down.
This opening of minds is possible. This opening of minds and shifting of world view happened to me.
Growing up as a gender non-conforming feminist, tired of sexist societal restrictions and expectations, I was instinctively drawn to a social constructivist view point. I had never met a trans person, but had subconscious, lazy, uneducated assumptions about trans people being enthralled to gender stereotypes. I have former friends who are still tied to this world view.
My world view was shaken when I had the good fortune to have a child who opened my eyes. An assigned male child who was insistent, consistent and persistent that she was a girl from the youngest age.
Learning to reset my assumptions
At first, I really struggled to accept my child as a girl. I told her she was wrong. Mistaken.
I did not believe it was possible for a young child to be trans.
I was certain that this child was too young to understand or reject gender norms or sexism or heteronormativity. I knew they were not making a choice, and certainly weren’t being influenced to be trans (she had never come across any representation of a trans person and I was unconsciously transphobic). She wasn’t even gender non-conforming in her interests. A suggestion I sometimes hear (from people who have barely met a trans person) that she was repressing internalised homophobia in infancy is absurd.
She had a persistent, consistent, insistent knowledge that she was a girl that withstood all forms of persuasion.
Like hundreds of parents all around the world who have experienced the same, I had to learn to reset my assumptions about gender identity. I learnt to love and accept my child for who she is. I have never looked back. She is happy and thriving.
I see how people who emphasise ‘gender as a social construct’ utilise that simplistic maxim to make my daughter’s life impossible. How they use it to argue against her rights. How they use it to accuse parents of abuse.
I see how people who claim genitals = sex = gender similarly use simplified biological essentialism to argue that my child is defined and invalidated by parts of her anatomy.
Neither the simplified biology of essentialism, nor simplistic social constructivism, leaves space for my daughter to exist.
Is there an alternative paradigm?
Holistic views of gender
I recently had a short email exchange with Julia Serano and she kindly shared a chapter she wrote on this topic back in 2013 (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive – chapter 13: Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality). What follows is what I took away from her chapter, adapted into my own words – I recommend reading her chapter first hand.
In this chapter, Julia critiques the failings of both simplified biology, (gender determinism) and social constructivism, which she terms gender artifactualism.
She outlines how biological essentialists and biological determinists, (often genital obsessed religious conservatist non-scientists), misrepresent and misunderstand biology and science. They present a simplistic last century school child’s version of human biology, assuming that a simple gene or hormone or chromosome works unilaterally triggering a domino rally of binary outcomes.
She also outlines the failings in social constructivism. For decades children’s gender services were dominated by social constructivists who believed that children could not really be trans and that such children could be engineered into accepting their assigned gender. Yet these efforts failed. Medical consensus is now absolutely clear that conversion therapy is unethical and ineffective – conversion therapy did not change a person’s gender identity, merely produced shame, self-hate and depression. Julia notes that gender identities are often ‘profound, deeply felt and resistant to change’. She notes that some people have a fluid gender identity, and that some people do experience a shift in their identity over time, but that such shifts do not result from external pressure and are ‘almost always inexplicable, unexpected’.
She advocates rejection of both simplified biology (biological determinism) and social constructivism (gender artifactualism). In its place she presents a holistic model of gender.
This holistic model of gender acknowledges that biology is complicated. Human biology is not the simplistic yes/no on/off approach that non-scientists and biological essentialists like to pretend. Real biology is complex, multi-faceted, interactive. Just because some people misuse (simplified) biology, does not mean biology itself is essentialist, deterministic, reductionist or sexist.
Julia notes that ‘the human genome has 20,000-25,000 genes. Any given gene or hormone is affected by countless different interacting factors. Because genes and other biological factors act within intricate networks, any given factor will push a system in a particular direction, but will not single-handedly determine a particular outcome’.
Julia argues that ‘while our brains are shaped by learning and socialisation, they are not infinitely plastic ie they are not blank slates. Some traits have a strong intrinsic component’. She notes that though ‘socialisation has a significant impact on brains and behaviours’ it ‘cannot fully override certain intrinsic inclinations’.
She makes a comparison with left-handedness, which is observed in utero before any socialisation. Even with societal pressure to conform to right-handedness some individuals maintain a preference for using their left-hand.
A holistic model of gender allows space for a biological underpinning to gender identity. A holistic model of gender considers the complex interactions between biology, society, experience.
Biological underpinning to gender identity
A wide number of scientific studies have concluded that there is a durable biological underpinning to gender identity.
This supports what other parents with experience like mine have been saying for decades from their lived experience. This backs up what some trans adults remember from their earliest childhood memories.
There is increasing evidence of trans children who have clear gender identities at a very young age. This evidence of young trans children is present in diverse countries and cultures across the world.
The growing scientific consensus of a biological underpinning to gender identity led to the global endocrine society publishing a position statement last year:
“The medical consensus in the late 20th century was that transgender and gender incongruent individuals suffered a mental health disorder termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and subject to external influences. Today, however, this attitude is no longer considered valid. Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity. Individuals may make choices due to other factors in their lives, but there do not seem to be external forces that genuinely cause individuals to change gender identity.”
(for the full position statement and more on the studies see here)
I welcome this consensus. I view it with hope that it will help open eyes and minds and hearts to the existence of trans children like my daughter.
I would happily share this scientific consensus on a biological underpinning to gender identity with a wider audience – I see in it hope of greater acceptance and support for trans children.
However I note that since the publication of this evidence based position statement from the medical establishment, I cannot recall having seen this printed in the media or even referenced in the few articles commissioned by trans authors. Indeed quite the opposite – more often there is a strong resistance to any mention of biology.
Do we have to reject biology?
I understand the scepticism around how biology can be misused, but surely that does not mean this should be rejected outright?
Whilst supporters of trans rights shy away from biology and science, it allows transphobic groups to present themselves as champions of science and rationality. Claims that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Transphobes focus on gender as performance, as fake, as a delusion. Whilst a huge part of what we call gender is socially constructed, my child’s gender identity is not a choice, is not a delusion, is not a product of societal or parental persuasion.
Transphobic groups like to focus on what they simplistically call biological sex. They describe biological sex as a simple binary reality, with gender identity operating on some parallel dimension outside of biology. My daughter is 100% biological. She does not have a magic gender identity spirit disconnected to her biological body. Her biology is no less real or valid than the biology of cis girls. It is not essentialist to claim that her identity is an integral aspect of her biological reality. The true essentialists are those trying to present a simplified and fraudulent version of biological science, utilising distorted, cherry picked and biased pseudo-science to support a transphobic position.
Acknowledging biology without essentialism
The argument that we should avoid science in case it is essentialist or in case it is used against trans rights is a false logic.
- It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst acknowledging that a person’s felt and expressed gender identity is a complex interplay of biology, culture, socialisation and experience.
- It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst simultaneously recognising that identity is neither fixed, nor binary.
- It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst arguing very strongly against diagnostic testing for ‘transness’ or biological gate-keeping and identity policing.
- It is possible to acknowledge the biological underpinnings of gender identity whilst maintaining that the only way to know someone’s gender identity is to ask them, and that a right to self-identification is a basic part of dignity
My daughter is real and valid and deserving of rights, equality, respect and dignity regardless of our current understanding of science.
But science already has plenty of evidence that trans children exist and that there is a biological underpinning to gender identity and I see no reason not to talk about this. Having a trans child (or being a trans child) does not mean rejecting science.
We should embrace science
My daughter is growing up with a love of science. A thirst for knowledge. I’ll teach her all the science I know, on microbiology, on chemical reactions, on photosynthesis, on plate tectonics. On neurology, on genes, on hormones and gender identity. On sample sizes, on causality, on peer review, on rigour, on interpretation and data manipulation.
Biology is rich and complex and we have so much still to learn. If she carries on with a love of science she will learn things far beyond my knowledge. Science (high quality science) is full of wonder and excitement and discovery.
We should not be afraid of saying loud and proud that we support science. We should be clear that those attempting to attack or dismiss transgender children and adults not only lack empathy and kindness, they also lack sophisticated understanding of science, of biology, of complexity.
Trans children exist.
They know it.
Parents know it.
Science knows (a bit about) it.
Stand up for trans children
I am (and always will be) learning. Friendly feedback is welcomed.