Saturday, June 30, 2018

Transgender is a Pan-Cultural and Trans-Historical Phenomenon

In my writings, I will often say that gender diversity and transgender identities are a “pan-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon.” What I mean by this is that if you consider other cultures, or look back through history, you will find examples of people who we would now (in this time and place) describe as falling under the transgender umbrella. This includes (but is not limited to) people who identified and lived as members of a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, people who belonged to “third gender” categories—an umbrella term sometimes used to describe established gender categories that fall outside of the man/woman binary, which are fairly common in non-Western cultures), plus people who are gender non-conforming in all sorts of other ways.

At the end of this post, I will provide a list of books that describe such examples of gender diversity across cultures and throughout history. Or you could check out the Wikipedia page on this topic.

This evidence strongly suggests that gender diversity occurs naturally, rather than being a product of culture or modernity. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the phenomenon occurs entirely independent of culture—after all, our self-understandings and the labels we use to describe ourselves are most certainly influenced by cultural norms and the language and concepts we have at our disposal. But what I am saying is that there has to be some natural (likely biological) component to this gender diversity. The alternative hypothesis—i.e., that within each of these cultures, there is an entirely unique socially-based “cause” that accounts for this gender diversity—seems utterly preposterous, and is in dire need of being lopped off with Occam’s razor.

At this point, some readers may be inclined to ask, “Well then, what is this natural/biological cause?” To which I would reply: “Why do you even care?” I mean, some people are introverted while others are extraverted; some people are optimistic while others are pessimistic; some people are cautious while others are fearless. I could go on and on. Do you find yourself asking why people turn out to be all these different ways? Probably not. You probably just accept all these outcomes as part of natural human diversity. I’d encourage you to consider gender diversity in a similar manner. It just is. Some people simply turn out all these different ways.

But for those who are relentless in their pursuit of an answer to this question, here is my two-cents: First off, it is extraordinarily unlikely that there is any one single “cause”—if there were, it would almost certainly have been discovered by now. This means that gender diversity is most likely what biologists call a “quantitative” or “complex” trait, influenced by numerous biological and possibly environmental factors. I discuss this in great length (and in a manner accessible to non-scientists) in Chapter 13 of my book Excluded. Or to put it a different way, those people who imagine that some day there will be some simple definitive test to determine who is (or will become) trans, well, don’t hold your breath—that is not how complex traits work!

Second, even without knowing which precise factors give rise to gender diversity, there is a simple explanation for it biologically. The existence of intersex people demonstrates that, for every possible sexually dimorphic trait there is (whether it be chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, etc.) there will be some outcomes that fall “outside of” or “in between” what is considered “standard” for female or male in our society. Given this, if there is such a thing as sexual dimorphism in the brain (which is admittedly controversial, although I address it in the aforementioned Excluded chapter, and to a lesser extent in this essay), then we should expect it to similarly vary across the population. This is a simple, yet highly probable, explanation for why gender diversity and transgender identities are a pan-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon.

I will end with this pan-cultural/trans-historical reading list for those who are interested. Note: Many of these books are older, and may use outdated language to describe gender-variant people. I put this list together back in 2012 while I was writing Excluded, so unfortunately it doesn’t include more recent books on the subject.

  • Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing: Sex and Gender (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).
  • Patrick Califia, Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997), 120–162.
  • Gilbert Herdt, Same Sex, Different Cultures: Exploring Gay and Lesbian Lives (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997).
  • Gilbert Herdt (ed.) Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History (New York: Zone Books, 1996)
  • Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
  • Serena Nanda, Gender Diversity: Cross-cultural Variations (Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 2000).
  • Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
POSTSCRIPT: I also highly recommend Kit Heyam's 2022 book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender. 

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