Transgenderism, Gender Pairs, and Ambiguity


After reading a number of online discussions regarding the nature of transgenderism, I have noticed that many LGBT community members are attracted to a particular characterization of transgenderism. On their view, a transgender person is someone who identifies with a gender different from their sex.

In this post, I explain why this characterization is unclear and why further clarification is needed by proponents of this view.

What does it mean for someone to ‘identify with a gender different from their sex’? This definition of transpersons comes up in almost every discussion, yet I have never been told what it is supposed to mean. It is multiply-ambiguous and appears to imply, on some readings, theses that many proponents of this view outright deny.

It is confusing language because the phrase ‘gender different from their sex’ seems to suggest that their gender is non-identical to their sex, but gender is not sex to begin with — so we are told. This characterization might have developed as a means of communicating the difference between the two, albeit not so clearly. Though, I have no clue as to the origin of this view.

An explanation I have heard is that genders usually pair up with sexes, e.g. man with male, woman with female. In which case, someone identifies as a gender different to their sex if the pair which is their gender and sex is neither of the following: {man, male}, {woman, female}. But this confuses me. Transgenderism is a clear indication of the non-coextensiveness of sex and gender. So how does gender “pair up with sex”? Gender is not sex, and is not supposed to be determined by sex.

How is there a pairing between the two? How is there a pairing between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’? You could say that the phrase ‘gender different to their sex’ just means ‘statistically unusual gender-sex pairing,’ but if there are certain gender-sex pairs which are considered normal or abnormal (more technically, as an outlier in a normal distribution), then it seems that they are more than a merely conventional pairing. This comes across as a rather natural explanation to me.

Now, if gender norms are culturally relative and if gender is a social role or pattern of behavior, then one’s gender is partially constituted by extrinsic factors.

But we would, then, need an explanation for why there is a normal distribution of persons having this gender-sex pairing. In which case, if we are looking for something parsimonious and explanatorily rich, the biological view will win against competitors; or so I think.

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