Is Gender Identity Valid? (Re Debbie Hayton)
A reply to a controversial point of view from another trans woman
Today, I want to respond to the article ‘Why I became trans’, written by Debbie Hayton and published on Unherd last year. Hayton is a trans woman with views that are considered unusual in the trans community, and as my regular readers will know, I love studying unusual perspectives. I believe that, the more we debate things from fresh perspectives, the closer we get to the truth. This response is divided into six parts, with each part addressing one issue.
Part 1: Is gender identity ‘bunkum’?
In the article, Hayton questions the notion of ‘gender identity’. Indeed, she goes as far as to say ‘what if gender identity is bunkum?’ Hayton’s problem with the concept of gender identity is that there is no clear evidence for its existence, at least in the form commonly described in the trans discourse, i.e. ‘an innate and immutable feeling of maleness and femaleness’ that exists in everyone.
Previously, I have also questioned the existence of gender identity in this way, given that many non-trans people have told me that they don’t feel like they have a ‘gender identity’ themselves. My conclusion was that gender identity likely only exists in trans people, because of gender dysphoria. I think we develop this strong sense of gender identity precisely because of the mismatch between what we see ourselves as, and what other people see us as, often from a very early age. Hence, I actually agree with Hayton that the way ‘gender identity’ is understood in the trans discourse is probably wrong. Indeed, I have argued that it could be harmful for trans acceptance to insist that ‘everyone has a gender identity’.
However, even if the majority of non-trans people don’t have a ‘gender identity’, it doesn’t invalidate the fact that trans people clearly have one. Therefore, the existence of ‘gender identity’ is clearly backed by evidence, at least in the population of trans people. This means that, in any case, gender identity is certainly not ‘bunkum’!
Part 2: The real meaning of gender identity
The trans community is actually really diverse, and I really can’t speak for all trans people. But I can speak for myself. I certainly do have a strong sense of gender identity. It is the product of my life experiences, especially my childhood experiences. When most of your friends are girls, when your interests overlap more with the girls’ interests, and when boy ‘culture’ feels alien to you, you naturally ‘identify’ with the girls. For me, this started in early childhood, when kids sort out where they belong in this world. It has continued throughout my formative years. For example, liking the same music, TV shows and movies further strengthened my sense of ‘identifying’ with the girls. Even in college and beyond, my closest friends were girls. It would be natural for someone like me to identify with the girls more than the boys, right? You might say that this is all just stereotypes, but when there is an overarching pattern of connecting with one gender more than the other, that is also lifelong, then the formation of a strong identity makes perfect sense. It’s just as natural as someone who has lived in Canada all their lives strongly identifying as Canadian, or someone who has lived in Australia all their lives strongly identifying as Australian. My gender identity as a woman makes perfect sense in my life, and is personally important to me, in a similar way.
I am sure that the relationship ‘signalling’ that Hayton discussed in her article (see Part 3) also plays a role here. There are many feminine gay men out there who share many of my life experiences, yet they ultimately identify as gay men and not women. We know that, before puberty, trans women and gay men often share many similarities. Some gay men might even recall having ‘wanted to be a girl’ when they were children, just like trans women. Yet it is puberty, and the onset of sexual maturity, that separates the two. Perhaps gay men are ‘wired’ to ‘signal’ to the world, and hence their potential partners, that they are men. This would likely prevent them from continuing to develop a strong identity as a woman. Therefore, it could be said that my inborn mode of relationship signalling was likely essential to me continuing to develop an identity as a woman throughout puberty and beyond. However, even if relationship signalling was an essential component to the development of my gender identity, it clearly wasn’t the sole component, or the only important component. This would mean that ‘gender identity’ is not just ‘atypical sexual signalling’ as Hayton hypothesized. It is so much more than that. (However, the hypothesis of ‘atypical sexual signalling’ remains a valuable one. I will discuss this in the next part.)
Part 3: The atypical sexual signalling hypothesis is worth investigating
Hayton hypothesizes that trans people are trans because of what she calls ‘atypical sexual signalling’. I actually think this is probably the most important insight of the whole article. I have long been of the opinion that, if there is some mystery about human nature that needs to be explained, evolutionary biology should be the first place we should look for answers. Sexual signalling is an important part of reproduction in all animals, and humans are no exception. Therefore, it is something that should not be overlooked when trying to understand sexual orientation and gender identity. The empirical evidence to support Hayton’s hypothesis also exists: almost all trans people report feeling dysphoric about being seen as an attractive member of their birth sex, or being in a relationship where they ‘play the role’ of their birth sex. Given that this characteristic is common to almost all trans people, who otherwise vary in many other ways, I would say that this is a core characteristic of trans people. In other words, what Hayton calls ‘atypical sexual signalling’ is a core property of transness, although there is no evidence yet as to whether this is the root cause of transness itself, as Hayton seems to claim. (We must always remember that correlation does not prove causation.)
I actually wouldn’t call it ‘atypical sexual signalling’, because the ‘atypical signalling’ of trans people is not just limited to sexual relationships. It is clear that trans people would like to be seen as the gender they identify as, and would experience dysphoria if seen as their birth sex, even in contexts where there is no potential for a sexual relationship. Therefore, this ‘atypical signalling’ actually applies to all relationships with all other human beings, and should be described as something like ‘atypical relationship signalling’. This actually makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because the ‘programs’ that are essential for reproduction are often so strongly wired that they affect other parts of life too.
Part 4: The Blanchard typology only adds confusion
Hayton has, in other articles, expressed agreement with at least some parts of the Blanchard typology. In this article, she raises the concept of autogynephilia (AGP), which she interprets as sexually signalling to oneself, and hence consistent with Blanchard’s description of it as a ‘target location error’. However, as I discussed in previous articles, it is clear that most trans people do not have AGP. When trans women ‘signal’ that they are women, they are not signalling to themselves. Instead, they are signalling to potential partners that they are women. Moreoever, a ‘target location error’ like AGP would logically not require sexual signalling of any kind anyway. Hayton’s clumsy attempt at validating the Blanchard typology thus fails for the same reason the Blanchard typology fails: it is simply not consistent with empirical reality.
(Note that I am not denying that AGP exists. As a matter of fact, it does, and avoiding this topic will only give ammunition to trans skeptics. However, most trans people clearly don’t have AGP. On the other hand, most people with AGP are heterosexual men, who might fantasize about transitioning, but will never actually do it, because they know they wouldn’t enjoy real life as a woman. I also don’t rule out that a few AGP men might have transitioned into trans women to ‘fulfill their fantasy’, but they appear to be the exception, not the norm. Many of them also promptly detransition when the effect of hormones kick in and their sex drive becomes suppressed.)
Elsewhere in the article, Hayton also states that trans people sexually signal ‘in a way more typical of the opposite sex’. This would actually be more in line with observable fact, as discussed above. However, this would actually be inconsistent with the AGP explanation, because biological women clearly don’t sexually signal to themselves! In fact, acknowledging that trans people sexually signal ‘in a way more typical of the opposite sex’ would also invalidate the Blanchard typology more fundamentally, because the Blanchard typology clearly doesn’t allow for this. In the Blanchard typology, there are only two types of trans women, the AGP type and the ‘homosexual’ (HSTS) type, and neither type is in any way ‘more typical of the opposite sex’ when it comes to sexual relationships. Hayton’s attempt to reconcile the Blanchard typology and the idea of ‘atypical sexual signalling’ therefore fails to be internally consistent.
Given that the Blanchard typology only adds unnecessary confusion, I think we should abandon this approach. Instead, I think we should focus on studying atypical relationship signalling in trans people as a standalone topic in its own right, without a-priori bias from Blanchard’s theory. Perhaps we will find many useful insights there.
Part 5: Biology and gender identity is not an either/or choice
In the article, Hayton also raises the point that ‘sexual signalling does not supplant biological sex’. I don’t know why she thinks she has to say this, but among the many reasonable people I know, we are committed to respecting both biological differences and gender identity. It is clearly possible to respect both; it is not an either/or choice. Hayton then says that activists are demanding that ‘gender identity replaces biological sex’. This might be true of some activists, but again, most reasonable people would reject such an either/or approach. Reasonable people generally believe that society can and should come up with reasonable accommodations for trans people, which also respects biological differences.
While gender identity does not override biological differences, it should still be respected in its own right. The fact that the gender identity of trans people includes the element of ‘atypical sexual signalling’ means that it is intimately tied to sexual orientation. Repressing one’s ‘atypical sexual signalling’ is at least just as painful and harmful as repressing one’s sexual orientation. Therefore, if you believe it is the right thing to do to accept and accommodate people on the basis of sexual orientation, it is just logical to extend this to gender identity too. The refusal to acknowledge and accommodate gender identity would be at least as cruel as opposing gay rights. Moreover, to dismiss gender identity as just a ‘personality trait’ has strong parallels to dismissing gay and lesbian relationships as just ‘friendships’, something those opposed to gay marriage used to do quite a lot.
Part 6: Completely rejecting gender identity is very dismissive
From what I see, the overall tone of the article is one of being dismissive of the whole concept of gender identity. Gender identity is variously described as potentially ‘bunkum’, worthy of joining debunked concepts in history books, and ‘useful for autogynephilic transsexuals in a society that stigmatizes unusual male sexuality’. It is also unnecessarily pitted against biological sex as an either/or choice, a position most reasonable people would reject. As discussed in Part 4, there is no need to reject gender identity in order to respect biological differences. This is a dishonest talking point that has been made repeatedly by people with an anti-trans agenda, and it’s time we did more to debunk it.
While not explicitly stated, when taken together, the above points seem to support the view that society should reject the validity of ‘gender identity’ entirely. This would actually amount to a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the experiences of the vast majority of trans people, because they clearly have a strong gender identity. Moreover, as I demonstrated in Part 2, our strong sense of gender identity is rooted in the totality of our life experiences, and not limited to ‘atypical sexual signalling’. Thus, a society that rejects gender identity would necessarily mean a society that refuses to understand gender dysphoria properly. This would not be compatible with taking a fair and compassionate stance towards trans people.
As a Moral Libertarian, my position on basically every matter is that everyone should have equal moral agency to speak and act according to their sincerely held beliefs. Hayton is certainly entitled to her own free speech, but she is not entitled to speak for other trans people. Just because Hayton has her own views on the matter, it does not entitle her to invalidate the strongly held views of other trans people. Also, while Hayton is certainly welcome to question ‘gender identity’, others should have the equal right to question her point of view too, especially when there are faults in the argument that could have an impact on wider society’s understanding of the issue in question. In particular, I am concerned that the article seems to leave readers with the impression that ‘gender identity’ is an invalid or even dangerous concept that has been sustained by activists with an agenda, which would be a severe misrepresentation of the objective facts.
Originally published at The TaraElla Project https://taraella.substack.com, where I reply to interesting and controversial points of view in the trans discourse.