by Jason Stotts
There is a new movement underfoot now, coming from the transsexual community, to rename non-transsexuals “cis-sexuals”. The name comes from a play with the Latin prefixes. The Latin prefix “trans-” means “across” and is used to signify that one’s gender is “across” (different than) one’s biological sex: that while one might be biologically female, one might feel like a male. In contrast, the Latin prefix “cis-” means “on this side” and is used as a contrast to “trans-” to signify that there is not this sense of sex and gender being across from one another and that they are on the same side: that is, that sex and gender align.
My purpose with this essay is twofold: First, I want to argue that the idea of a “cis-sexual” is fundamentally misguided and is the result of epistemological confusion. Furthermore, that such a term is neither necessary nor appropriate and that it must be avoided. It should be understood that I attack this concept in the interest of truth and not in any way out of animosity towards transsexuals. Frankly, being sex-positive, which I am, does not mean having a lack of epistemological standards or being absolutely permissive regarding sex. Second, I want to discuss transsexualism as a phenomenon that is primarily the result of fetal developmental problems, but which may also be psychological in origin. I want to briefly show that it is not volitional and, moreover, that it is not a moral issue.
Transsexual and Cissexual?
There is currently much debate about whether transsexuals experience their “sex/gender misalignment” as a result of physiological reasons, as a result of psychological reasons, or a combination of both. I am going to address physiological transsexualism and psychological transsexualism separately. The combination, of course, will combine elements of each.
Let’s start, though, by noting that concept formation is a process whereby a person abstracts essential characteristics from existents and integrates this into a mental unit that one uses to understand a broad range of existents. In order to do so, one casts as wide a net as one can for things that are likely to fall under a concept as well as things that are obviously not part of the concept. Concepts are formed using the normal cases of the existents. That is, in the way in which we usually find these things in reality and where there are no problems with the growth or development of the existent (if it is a living existent) and where the existents are undamaged. For example, you don’t use diseased oak trees as exemplars of oak trees (nor, for that matter, do you use acorns, which are potential oak trees), rather you use full grown healthy oak trees.
Now, this relates to transsexualism because if it is true that transsexualism is a result of the brain incorrectly forming or of hormones incorrectly releasing, then they are damaged cases and are, for that reason, epistemologically non-normal. If, on the other hand, transsexualism results from psychological reasons, they are non-normal in the statistical sense and are not damaged cases, at least in the direct sense. There is no moral import from non-normality: morality is about a person’s chosen actions and character, and not about unchosen facts about himself. In the normal case of humans, one’s biological sex matches how one feels about the fit, or appropriateness, of that sex. Realistically, transsexuals do need a special term to signify how they are different from the normal case person.
Where the term “cis-sexual” goes wrong is that it tries to signify that agreement between sex and gender is somehow different than the normal case. However, it needs no special signifier because it is the normal case and special signifiers are only used to highlight the difference between a normal and a non-normal case. If this point hasn’t sunk home for you yet, spend a minute thinking of concepts you know and then think about differences from normal: a broken X, a good X, a red X, a small X, a fast X. The modifier tells you in what way the particular existent X is different from the abstract normal case of X and this is not necessary for the normal case.
Biology, Neurobiology, and Fetal Development
Now, to complicate things, there is another factor that needs to be discussed: neurobiology. Although the subject is not perfectly understood, there is mounting evidence that one of the things that can happen to a growing fetus in utero is that certain hormones that help to actualize or suppress certain sex characteristics are either released at the wrong time or in the wrong amount and cause neurochemical changes to happen that are incorrect for the actual sex of the fetus.
Basically, the brain of the fetus has been affected in such a way as to be more like a brain of the sex other than what the rest of its body is. Let me repeat this, because it is exceedingly important to this issue: the brains of some, perhaps even all, transsexuals that are born as women actually have brains with are much closer to male brains, and vice versa. There are differences in their brain structure and chemistry that make their brains more male than female. Indeed, this has been confirmed in multiple studies and with MRI scans. So, there is no doubt that for a least some, and maybe all, transsexuals, there is more than just a psychological feeling of something being wrong. There literally is a mismatch between brain and body.
One case of this that is better understood is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or AIS, which is: “when a person who is genetically male (has one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to male hormones called androgens. As a result, the person has some or all of the physical characteristics of a woman, despite having the genetic makeup of a man.” I personally can’t imagine being in the position where I knew my body and brain didn’t match and I would think that I, too, would want to receive treatment to correct this developmental defect.
At this point the research has not progressed to the point where it is understood what percentage of transsexuals suffer from this neurochemical problem, as opposed to a strict psychological problem. It’s also not well understood whether the dramatic hormonal changes of puberty actually serve to help correct this to any extent or only serve to reinforce the phenomenon. Thus, in some cases of transsexualism, the phenomenon is caused either primarily or exclusively by neurochemistry and thus is outside of the volitional control of the person (which is not to insinuate that psychological transsexualism is inside of volitional control either). For an easy to read summary of much of the neuroscience to date, pick up Simon LeVay’s Gay Straight and the Reason Why, which goes into the neurobiology in depth and does a better job than I could hope to do with these issues.
Now, to take a slightly different tack, part of the problem with people’s understanding of transsexualism is the concept of “gender”. Sex is an aspect of living organisms that do not spontaneously reproduce. While there are some organisms that reproduce asexually through cellular division, humans are not this kind of creature. In sex, there is necessarily a male and female: all organisms that reproduce sexually have males and females. All cases of sexually reproducing organisms where a particular organism is neither male nor female is a damaged case.
But what is this concept of “gender”? What aspect of reality is trying to be captured by this word? It’s obviously not the physical sex of the person, since if it was, the concept of gender would be redundant and unnecessary. Indeed, this thing “gender” must be something different than sex, but which has some connection to sex. What these people are trying to capture with the word “gender” is actually something that does not need a new concept: it is simply the societal sex role.
Every society has roles that members of each sex are expected to fulfill. In some societies, women are thought to be the inferiors of men and have no rights or privileges in society, their role is simply to be subservient to a man and to take care of his domestic needs and bear his children. In some societies people of a certain skin color are considered superior and anyone that does not look the same is inferior and their role is to serve the superior race. The point is that societies impose, or try to impose, roles upon its members. One of the most common methods is using the physical sex of the people, since that is something that every person has and which can typically be easily discerned.
In our society, for example, we have seen the sex roles rapidly changing since the founding of our country. For example, at the founding of our country the role of women was to stay in the house and to tend it and bear offspring. At the same time, the role of men was to work hard to support his family. Things have changed since then and although these ideas are still around, they are no longer enforced. But sex roles cut much deeper than simply this. There are proper types of garments for each sex to wear, proper types of haircuts that are acceptable, proper types of grooming that is required, and even expectations about how a person will engage in sex. For example, there is a strong societal sex role in our society, from christianity, that women should not like sex, unless they are married, and then they are only supposed to tolerate it. Any woman who violates this sex role gets social censure and is degraded with pejoratives like “slut” or “whore.” Each society will come to some understanding of the “correct” way for men and women to act and from that point on will try to enforce the sexual roles onto its members. Whether this is desirable or preventable is a good question.
When some people feel like their “gender” doesn’t match their physical sex, what they are actually feeling, in cases of psychological dissonance (i.e. cases whose cause is not neurobiological), is that the societal sex role doesn’t fit their self-conception. They are rebelling not against their physical sex, but against what society tells them must follow from their physical sex; what the “correct” way for a person of that sex to act is. This is at least one source of psychological transsexualism, and I think it’s most common source, and the easiest solution to it is to just deny the validity of the societal role and cast it off. However, few people are able to question the status quo to such a degree and unfortunately accept it as a fact. Since some people accept it as a fact and they nonetheless cannot accept that they should be that way, they instead rebel against their physical sex — a thing that can now apparently be changed. A transsexual, so he or she believes, has no power to change the societal sex role, but his or her physical sex can be altered. For many transsexuals, this means that they will begin to present themselves to others as if they were the opposite sex. They will assume the societal role of the other sex and other societal sex characteristics (manner of dress, action, speech, etc.). This is the first stage of transsexualism and many transsexuals never proceed beyond it. Those who want completely change their sex will have hormone replacement therapy and/or sex reassignment surgery to completely bring their body in line with what they think it should be.
Unfortunately, no matter how much a body looks like the other gender after surgery and hormone therapy, it is not currently able to actually be a body of the other sex because it is incapable of sexual reproduction as that sex: a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual will not start producing eggs after surgery and a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual will not start producing sperm. Surgery for “sex reassignment” is not magic and will not change our genetic code nor make us capable of reproducing as though we had naturally developed as the other sex.
To return to our point, since a psychological transsexual feels that they cannot be their true self as the sex they are, since the societal sex role for their sex prevents them from behaving in accordance with their self-conception, they feel that the other sexual role would liberate them to act in accordance with their true self. Of course, this line of thought is probably not the literal line of thought they follow mentally. It is unlikely that the average transsexual person thinks about the societal sex role and its connections to their authentic self. Nonetheless, I think that this is the actual process that they go through in their development and their understanding of their difference from the people around them. Unfortunately, to introduce the empty concept of “gender” into this equation only serves to obscure what is really going on.
What should be done?
Ultimately, until transsexualism is better understood and better solutions exist to help transsexuals correct their dysmorphia or come to terms with it in a healthy way, we should try to be supportive and understanding, as best as we can, and certainly not to treat transsexualism as immoral (only someone completely ignorant of the relevant issues could think it a moral issue). However, what we should not do is allow a corruption of our language to be perpetrated. We must vehemently deny this concept of “cis-sexual” as based on faulty epistemology and bad concept formation. Transsexualism is statistically rare and to define non-transsexuals as “cis-sexuals” is simply bad epistemology and sloppy thinking.