Recently, I listened to a fascinating interview between journalist Andrew Sullivan and medical doctor Dana Beyer on Sullivan’s Dishcast podcast. It occurred to me that Beyer was giving a biologically essentialist case in favor of the identification of transwomen as women.
That case began by focusing on David Reimer, subject of the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. As a baby, Reimer’s penis was accidentally removed as a result of a botched circumcision. His parents were told to raise him as a girl, being assured that what determines whether people act or identify as boys or girls is entirely a matter of socialization. Consequently, Reimer’s parents thought that if they told their son and everyone else that he was a girl, then David would think of himself as a girl. But that’s not what happened. Despite his parents’ best efforts, Reimer came to think of himself as a boy, and eventually learned the truth behind his upbringing.
Reimer’s case is much discussed by conservatives, who point to it in support of their claim that gender isn’t merely the result of socialization, but instead depends on biology (in particular, sex) to some significant degree.
Perhaps Reimer’s case does show that. I think it does. But Beyer invoked it to show something else: a person’s sense of gender identity is also biological. Why? Because he had no social source from which to draw his sense of gender identity. Consequently, he must have known it innately.
If Beyer is right, this is important, because you’ll often find something like the following argument from gender-critical feminists: while there’s something it feels like to be gay (namely, a felt attraction to people of the same sex), there’s nothing it feels like to be a man or woman. Consequently, to say “I feel like a man” or “I feel like a woman” is just another way of saying you’re drawn to stereotypically masculine or feminine ways of acting. But if you equate, say, feeling like a man with wanting to act in stereotypically masculine ways of acting, then this is to reify gender in a sexist way; it is to say that all it is to be a man is to act in stereotypically masculine ways, and all it is to be a woman is to act in stereotypically feminine ways.
But Reimer, despite being raised to act in stereotypically girlish ways, somehow knew he was a boy. In other words, Reimer shows that it’s possible that you can just know—primitively, it seems—that your gender identity is “man” or “woman” independently of social cues.
Now, against this, a conservative or a gender critical feminist could point out that Reimer thought he was a boy because he really was a boy. After all, penis or not, he was born with a penis and had all the features typical of biological maleness. By contrast, when a male identifies as a girl, or a female identifies as a boy, they’re not correct, because, biologically, they’re not what they identify as.
Whether that’s true or not, though, it’s beside the main point. The main point is that one of the main arguments against the possibility of self-identification as a proper basis for gender—namely, that there’s nothing it “feels like” to be male or female—doesn’t work, because, if Beyer is right, Reimer shows that even if there’s nothing it feels like to be a boy, you can still know you’re a boy despite all that.
Beyer doesn’t just take this to mean that there is a biological basis to gender identification; she goes further with it. According to Beyer, trans people are people who are biologically intersex: they have, e.g., male bodies while having female brains. Or at least: they are people in whom the part of the brain responsible for their gender identity is, to varying degrees, at odds with other parts of their bodies.
Let’s say Beyer is right about this (for some people—many gender-critical feminists, I’m guessing—, this will be a hard pill to swallow, depending as it does on there being male and female brains). What follows?
To see what follows, let’s imagine a different intersex case, namely, someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. Imagine that this person identifies as female and so, when she is old enough to consent, she decides to have surgery to remove her penis. She has a vagina, she identifies as a woman, and she thinks of herself as wholly female. Is there a sense in which she’s wrong?
I think the conservative could still say there is a sense in which she is wrong. He could, for example, say that she’s not a woman, but is rather intersex. That said, one thing I don’t think the conservative could legitimately say is that she is a delusional man. That’s actually important, because while the idea that transwomen are delusional men is considered by much or all of the left to be hate speech, it’s not such an uncommon idea on the right. Consequently, Beyer’s argument is a way of altering at least one trope among conservatives.
More than this, it allows conservatives to accept Sophie Grace Chappell’s analogy between trans people and adoptive parents: according to Chappell, just as adoptive parents are not parents in all the usual senses that biological parents are, they are, for all that, really parents in some important senses. Similarly, even if the conservative thinks that a trans person is not a man or woman in all the senses that natal cis men and women are, thinking of trans people as intersex people who identify more with one sex than another. As a result, that conservative can think that a trans man (or woman) is, important ways, who they say they are.