by Jordan Levi
I don’t remember when I first came across the concept of gender identity, but it was definitely before Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) came out as transgender because I’m sure that would’ve confused me way more if it was my first acquaintance with the phenomenon. The concept of someone having gender dysphoria didn’t shock me. What did shock me was hearing that, after they’d been named one of Glamour magazine’s 25 Women of the Year, they non-jokingly said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.” If, for some reason, I didn’t think much about the issue before then, hearing that sentence immediately jolted me awake because my first thought was “If that’s the hardest part about ‘being a woman’ to you, then what could you possibly think a woman is?”
Transgender people started to become a much more common topic after that, but I feel like things didn’t really hit critical mass until some time in 2017. That’s when I started seeing their discourse go viral and pop up on my Twitter feed. From there I started arguing with TRAs (Trans Rights Activists) on Twitter and talking to some friends about it regularly, but I feel like I really peaked in October 2019. By then, I’d seen a couple of tweets saying “trans women are biologically female” go viral, but after I saw a blatant TIM (Trans-Identifying Male) with “biologically female” in their Twitter bio, I’d really had it. I posted this in a transgender subreddit, pretty much as a last ditch effort to see if any middle ground could be reached on this issue. You can tell my understanding of human sexual development was still shoddy, so after everyone danced around my question, I joined a bunch of gender critical and radical feminist subreddits like r/GenderCritical and r/GCdebatesQT (QT standing for queer theory) to get a better understanding of the topic.
The discussion around transgender theory’s only gotten more heated since then and, after learning a lot more about it and seeing various injustices happen to women since, I started an essay last year that I hoped would bring anyone who’s completely unacquainted with this issue up to speed. I still haven’t finished it because other obligations keep popping up, but after I got dogpiled for a tweet I posted back in February and also got subtweeted last week, I decided I’ll instead break the essay into a few parts and rework them as needed, so I can drop what I already have done as soon as possible. What really got to me about the subtweet was the fact that they’re choosing to continue calling TIMs women, while refusing to define the term ‘woman’ in any falsifiable way. I’ve been watching TRAs dodge this question for years and, while I do think topics like the athletic performance disparity between sexes is important — and I’ll touch on that in part three of this series — I feel like enough attention isn’t paid to getting TRAs to say what the terms man, woman, male, and female mean to them, which is where the disagreement fundamentally lies. You can say “trans women are women” and call me a bigot for disagreeing all you want, but without defining the term ‘woman,’ that phrase literally means nothing.
Defining our terms should be the first step in this debate, because either: A) we’re using the same definitions for these terms and TRAs have literally no ground to stand on, or B) we’re using different definitions for these terms, and we’ve all been talking past each other. If we’re using different definitions, then, to end this debate, TRAs need to both: A) rationally explain why the standard definitions for these terms are inadequate and B) offer alternative, falsifiable definitions for them, as well as explain why those are more appropriate. So far, I’ve seen them do neither. Their arguments about why the standard definitions are inadequate are either based on them conflating sex characteristics with sex itself or attributing more to these terms then neutral biology and the only four, broad definitions I’ve seen them give for these terms don’t stand up to the least bit of scrutiny. I’ll get into the definitions I’ve gotten from TRAs, but first I should explain what the standard definitions are for man, woman, male, and female. I also want to thank @FondOfBeetles, @zaelefty, and @SwipeWright on Twitter, because I only understand what little I do about sexual development because of them. Everyone should be following them.
The Birds and the Bees
To understand the terms ‘male’ and ‘female,’ we first need to know a little about sexual reproduction.
Sexual reproduction is when two gametes fuse to create a new organism. There are two forms of sexual reproduction and the first is believed to have been isogamy. Isogamous species, such as many fungi for example, have gametes that are similar sizes. Since their gametes are similar sizes, they’re said to have ‘mating types,’ rather than sexes.
The other form of sexual reproduction, anisogamy, is believed to have evolved from isogamy over one billion years ago. Anisogamous species, such as humans, have gametes that are different sizes, which is believed to be the origin of sexual dimorphism — the difference in sexual characteristics between the two sexes. Large gametes, ova, are produced by what we call females and small gametes, sperm, are produced by what we call males. There are only two sexes in anisogamous species, because we only produce two gametes.
Within anisogamous species, there also exist hermaphroditic and gonochoric species. Hermaphroditic species are either both sexes simultaneously (called simultaneous hermaphrodites, such as slugs) or they can change sex after birth (called sequential hermaphrodites, such as clownfish). However, gonochoric species, such as humans, have organisms which are only one sex, because sexual development for them is mutually antagonistic.
After a sperm cell fertilizes an ovum, humans start off as an undifferentiated zygote. About eight weeks after conception, sexual differentiation occurs and either the mullerian (female) or wolffian (male) ducts develop, since development of one inhibits that of the other. While a human’s karyotype is typical of their sex the vast majority of the time, karyotype doesn’t actually determine sex, it’s ultimately determined by which developmental pathway you went down after sexual differentiation. Even if someone never produces gametes, they still developed down one of these two pathways. Intersex people are often brought up in rebuttal to this fact, but using that gambit shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what intersex means.
Intersex isn’t a third sex or a group of different sexes between male and female, it’s a term referring to 40 or more conditions caused by atypical development of males and females. Most intersex conditions — or DSDs, differences in sexual development — are sex-specific. Sex is observed at birth for the vast majority of people, because the vast majority of people are born unambiguously either male or female. Sex is ambiguous for less than 0.018% of people born, which is where the term “assigned sex at birth” comes from, but even most of these people grow up to look unambiguously either male or female, and even those rare few that still look ambiguous are still either male or female regardless. Intersex conditions may cause abnormal sex characteristics, but sex characteristics don’t determine sex; it’s actually sex that determines sex characteristics, since those evolve based on which developmental pathway you went down, which determines which gamete your reproductive system would produce if it developed typically.
With those facts understood, we can now understand why every major English-speaking dictionary defines a male as roughly ‘an organism of the sex that produces small gametes’ and a female as roughly ‘an organism of the sex that produces large gametes.’ Note that it says, “of the sex that produces,” and not just “produces,” because, obviously, not all males and females produce gametes — whether because they’re prepubescent, menopausal, or due to atypical development, accidents, etc. — but they’d still be a member of one of the two sexes regardless, since there’s only two developmental pathways to go down. Every anisogamous species, including humans, currently has only males and females, and we have names to distinguish between many species by sex and even maturity within the sexes. A young male chicken is called a cockerel, an adult male chicken is called a rooster, a young female chicken is called a pullet, and an adult female chicken is called a hen.
Every major English-speaking dictionary defines a man and a woman as roughly ‘an adult human male’ and ‘an adult human female,’ respectively. These definitions have never changed, they’ve only been refined as we’ve learned more about sexual development. To say that citing this as evidence is an appeal to definition shows a fundamental misunderstanding of when using a dictionary to support an argument becomes fallacious, because — as I’ll show later — there hasn’t been another functionally coherent definition of these words offered and used in the first place. The only exceptions I can think of are when they’re used as slang or in a figurative sense, e.g., “man up” or “stop acting like a girl,” but obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this if genderists were calling themselves men or women in just a figurative sense. That’d still be blatantly sexist, but — at least in my opinion — not nearly as bad as saying that TIM’s are literally biological females or TIF’s are literally biological males, which is exactly what most genderists are arguing. They say this — not only by playing semantic games with the definition of ‘biological’ in this context — but also due to completely misunderstanding or by completely dismissing the scientific definitions of male and female in the first place, which I’ve already explained.
Any compromise we come to on this issue has to explicitly acknowledge these facts. Any talk of sex being a spectrum or a colonial social construct needs to be treated the same as flat earth theory and young earth creationism and be ridiculed out of public discourse for being completely unscientific and ahistorical. The issue is, if we acknowledge these facts, then, even if you want to change the meaning of the word ‘woman,’ you’d still need a word to refer to adult human females. It’s funny to me that TRAs will say calling TIFs and regular women (what they call “cis” women) just women reduces them to their genitals, but all the terms that they’ve concocted to refer to these two groups together instead have been things like ‘vagina owners,’ ‘people with a uterus,’ ‘birthing bodies,’ ‘people who bleed,’ and ‘people who get pregnant and bleed,’ which any reasonable person would see as light-years worse. Another thing is that bathrooms, sports, etc. are and have always been segregated based on sex, so regardless of what you’d redefine woman to mean, these spaces would no longer be called women’s spaces anyway, they’d have to be called ‘vagina-owners’ bathrooms,’ ‘birthing bodies’ sports,’ etc. This is because the usual argument isn’t that TIMs are women based on their sex, but based on their ‘gender identity,’ which we’ll look at now.
Gender vs. Gender Identity
Before we can touch on the meaning of gender identity, we need to define gender itself.
Radical feminists use gender in two senses: as a synonym of biological sex and, most commonly, to refer to the social roles and expectations imposed on each sex, what we’ll call masculine and feminine behavior. Queer theorists also use the term gender in two different senses: the first is synonymous with RadFems’ second definition, which queer theorists also call “gender expression,” and the second sense is to refer to gender identity. There are two important things to know here. Firstly, the term gender identity was coined by John Money — a documented pedophile whose first gender patient, as well as that patient’s twin brother less than two years earlier, committed suicide. Secondly, queer theorists say someone’s gender expression and even their pronouns don’t always match up with their gender identity, which is why they would refer to a preoperative, masculine, he/him TIM who’s attracted to women as a “butch transbian,” (trans lesbian) because they still consider them to be a woman anyway. This brings us back to the question of what ‘woman’ could possibly mean to them — which we’ll cover in the next section — but first we’d need to know what they mean by gender identity.
I’ve only gotten two definitions for the term gender identity before.
The first is roughly “someone’s gender-related identity,” which is the definition both a Victoria, Australia bill and the US Equality Act use. This definition is so circular it’s sad, aside from it being completely unfalsifiable. It’s remarkable to me that politicians think the public’s dumb enough to let that definition fly. The second definition I’ve gotten is roughly “someone’s internal sense of self,” which is also completely unfalsifiable and seems like a roundabout way of describing a personality or a soul. What makes the second definition especially counterproductive is the fact that many people have taken its inherent infalsifiability a step further and decided that, since you can theoretically perceive yourself as anything, your gender identity can actually be anything, leading to people self-identifying as things like a fish, a deer, a dragon, a tree, and more. To be fair, many transgender people don’t consider xenogenders to be real, but I’ve never heard a rational explanation why.
Anyway, neither of those definitions make the slightest bit of sense, so the first hurdle we need to cross before we can even have a good faith discussion of what man and woman means is getting queer theorists to define gender identity in a non-circular, falsifiable way. I can’t stress enough that, without doing that first, their argument’s already built on sand, so we’d only be talking past each other and running in circles. I’ve been looking for an adequate answer to this question from TRAs for years and those are the only two definitions I’ve ever gotten, so it seems like the emperor has no clothes and their argument’s based on faith in something they can’t even falsifiably define or prove the existence of. Keep this fact firmly in mind as we examine queer theorist definitions of the terms man and woman.
Queer Theorist Definitions
The most common definition I’ve seen TRAs give by far is that a woman or man is anyone who feels like a woman or man, “identifies” as a woman or man, or says they’re a woman or man. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these definitions are completely circular. None of them provide a single, solitary ounce of information and the first two are equivalent to the third, since we currently have no reliable way to determine someone’s feelings or inner identity aside from their word. Obviously, anyone can say anything, but that doesn’t make it true; we can’t determine if a statement’s true or not without there being falsifiable information to examine — information that’s verifiable independently of someone’s word. I assume anyone who uses one of these definitions either hasn’t given them any honest critical thought or they’re deliberately arguing in bad faith. Either way, if you press them hard enough, they’ll usually move the goalpost by changing their answer to one of the next few definitions.
The second answer I’ve seen them give, and by far the most ridiculous, is that the terms man and woman don’t have or need an objective definition, but one that’s merely subjective, or that they need neither objective nor subjective definitions at all. Spending five minutes with an infant is more than enough time to show anyone that without objective definitions, communication would be difficult, if not impossible. Aside from that, if the terms man and woman are both objectively and subjectively meaningless, then what could someone possibly mean when they say “trans women are women”? Conveniently enough, I’ve never seen any of those that argue this say that no words have any meaning, just these words specifically — a clear case of special pleading. In all honesty, I think people only resort to this answer when they can’t think of a definition and are desperate to justify that.
The third answer I’ve seen TRAs give, which is by far their oddest and that which gives testament to the astronomical levels of cognitive dissonance among some of them, is their equivocation of the “feminine” gender role or stereotype with womanhood itself and the “masculine” gender role or stereotype with manhood itself. Rather than recognizing, as radical feminists do, that both men and women can be either “masculine” or “feminine” and that gendered roles and stereotypes are sexist and regressive, they instead think that a boy who likes to play with Barbies could be a girl born in the wrong body or that a girl who likes to play with G.I. Joes could be a boy born in the wrong body. It shouldn’t take much thought to see how dangerous this idea is — especially for children, which we’ll get to in part three — or that, since gender stereotypes can be more or less fluid, the same person could, by this logic, potentially be considered a man or a woman in different time periods or even in the same time period in different places. The irrationality of believing that “masculinity” is equivalent to manhood and “femininity” is equivalent to womanhood is only outdone by taking this flawed logic one step further.
Their fourth answer I’ve heard is the belief either in gendered souls or the idea that male and female brains are fundamentally different and that transgender people’s brains more so resemble that of the opposite sex. I think the gendered souls theory is an unconscious assumption when giving the first three answers in a lot of cases, but obviously we have no proof souls exist in the first place, let alone gendered souls. The gendered brains answer sounds more plausible at first, but the truth is that data in this area is still heavily debated, with some neuroscientists arguing that the vast majority of brains are a mosaic of “masculine” and “feminine” traits and others arguing that brains are actually shaped by nurture rather than nature and — after differences like brain size are accounted for — that studies show no consistent difference between male and female brains whatsoever. Even if that were the case though, you’d think they’d advocate for some type of brain scan to verify that someone’s transgender, but I’ve never seen a single solitary person do that — I’ve literally seen some TRAs argue against doing it. Across the board, they all advocate for self-identification which eliminates absolutely all safeguards against predators, who could easily just lie and say they’re transgender, which forces us to ask what qualifies someone as transgender in the first place — a question which different factions of the transgender community all have at least slightly different answers to, which we’ll cover in part two. Most importantly, though, even if we were to have proof that TIMs have brain patterns typical of females, their bodies would still be male.
Before I wrap this up, I just want to be clear that I don’t care if a guy decides to wear a dress — that’s literally none of my business. However, if that guy decides to call himself a woman for doing so, then calls me a bigot for not considering him a woman, too, he just made it my business. Again, to have a productive conversation regarding transgender people, I’d need to hear a non-circular, falsifiable definition of gender identity, as well as alternative non-circular, falsifiable definitions for the words man and woman. So far, I’ve come across none of these, but I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong. If you’d like to rebut this, feel free to contact me on social media, I’m @SwamiNetero on everything. However, I do have one question I’d want you to answer, just to make sure you’re trying to discuss this in good faith: if I identify as an able-bodied, white woman, which of those things, if any, would be true and why or why not?
Thanks to everyone for reading, even if you were seething the whole time. I’ve got a couple of other obligations to knock out before I can organize part two, but I’ll get that done as soon as possible. In the meantime, go bully Biden and tell him I sent you.
Excellent, excellent article. I look forward to reading the rest of the series!
Me too! Wonderful to have it all laid out so cogently.
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