Doesn’t the existence of trans people imply an underlying biological fact of the matter regarding gender?

This was inspired by a discussion elsewhere. If someone identifies as the opposite gender doesn’t this implicitly mean there’s an underlying fact of the matter and a biological reality to gender rather than it just being a social construct and nothing more? It’s one thing to say certain roles and expectations are constructs (women like pink and wear dresses, men are stoic and like sports etc) since they’re not tangible things intrinsic to everyone but it’s another thing to say gender itself is a construct when the very existence of trans people seemingly contradicts that.

If a woman has intense feelings of actually being a man and desires to make their physical body match their mental state doesn’t this logically mean it’s actually “like something” (known in philosophy as qualia) to be a man or vice versa implying it’s a real thing that everyone has by virtue of being human? Even being non binary doesn’t seem to refute the notion that there’s an underlying biological fact of the matter since in order for someone to wholeheartedly say they don’t “feel like” a man or woman it means those two states actually exist and are something that can be experienced internally. It seems like the logical equivalent of sawing off the branch you’re sitting on to make your argument stronger when it does the exact opposite.

Is there something I’m missing or is my argument reasonable?

It’s interesting what you wrote. I’m not good at figuring it out.

It really needs a summary statement.

I don’t think your argument is valid. If someone identifies as the opposite gender from their birth gender, there is nothing in their mere existence that implies a biological component to their gender identity. Based on existence alone, gender identity could be purely a developmental thing.

A much more significant implication comes from twin studies. If you look at twins who were raised separately for whatever reason, if one twin identifies as the opposite gender, the other twin is significantly more likely than the average population to also identify as the opposite gender.

However, the correlation between one twin and the other both identifying as the opposite gender is nowhere near 100 percent. Since the correlation is somewhere around 30 percent (maybe? I think? I’m basing this off of my memory so if someone has better numbers please post them), the implication from this is that there definitely is a biological component to gender identity, but development plays a larger role.

Why? People identify as other social constructs all the time.

That, and qualia aren’t real.

What do you mean? Are you saying subjective experience isn’t real?

No. At least not in all cases.

I’m one of them. I’m genderqueer. (Some would say transgender, but to me that’s too associated with transitioning in most people’s mind; I’m a nontransitioner).

Meanwhile, author Julia Serano, in her book Whipping Girl, distinguishes between identifying with a different gender and having a different schematic diagram in one’s brain that expects a different sexual morphology. She calls the latter “brain sex” and if what she’s talking about is on target, that’s definitely an underlying biological fact.

By definition, though, anything that is anchored in biological difference isn’t gender. Gender is specifically defined as the penumbra of socially held notions about a person that are conventionally attached to that person’s perceived sex, but which aren’t built-in as part of it.

No, I’m saying qualia aren’t real. Subjective experience is not the same thing as qualia - as Dennett spent some considerable energy explaining, the special properties of qualia are what vanish when you look at how they relate to actual conscious experience.

Just to clarify, when you say biological, do you mean genetic? I ask because you’re comparing biological with developmental, which IMHO are orthogonal. Something biological can be genetic, but it could also be due to environmental exposures to various chemicals, exposure to different levels of hormones in utero based on someone’s mother’s health, how one is raised, whether one gets adequate nutrition in their developmental years, and so on. All those other things can change someone’s brain structure just as much as what’s in their DNA, and in that sense would still be biological.

I did, but I hadn’t considered things like chemical exposure or dietary health.

There are a couple of widespread “understandings” that many people think of as socially progressive, but aren’t; which are, in fact, conservative and limiting.

The first is that it is gender-affirming to believe that the healthy, perhaps inevitable, response to realizing (or ceasing to avoid the fact) that you identify with the other* gender is that you transition. Socially (i.e, presentation) if not also medically. What’s conservative and limiting about that is that it proclaims that your sex must match your gender. In the old days that assertion was combined with the notion that you better police your way of behaving so that all your observable gender attributes properly match your sex. Now the expectation is that you will present as the sex that matches your gender. Raise your hand if you don’t see why that’s limiting and conservative and I’ll try to explain it.

The second is that if it turns out that there’s a built-in biological (chromosomal or hormonal or neurological) cause for people identifying with a gender other than the one expected of their sex, that makes it beyond our control and therefore everyone’s got to accept it and discard any transphobic attitudes they might otherwise have. And (hence) we should all hope for such a finding and embrace anything that looks like it supports that. What’s conservative about that is that gender is social, therefore the connection of gender to sex is social, and those of us whose gender development went in a different direction aren’t doing a damn thing wrong and everyone should accept us regardless or whether there’s any built-in biological diffs. And what’s also conservative is that it leads to a limiting definitional model for what “okay” gender variance looks like.

I think the problem with the OP’s line of thinking is they’re assuming there’s something biologically innate about “being a man” or “being a woman.” As far as I know, no research has turned up evidence that trans women and cis women share characteristics that they do not share with men, or vice versa. If this were the case, it would be possible to create a test to medically diagnose transness. It’s not possible, because there’s nothing in our genes that requires certain people to use makeup or wear skirts or like sports. The closest thing to a biological, innate difference between men and women are the hormones and glands that affect our behavior and development, and we have already created medical techniques to overcome those.

Honestly, in the long run I think being transgender is a result of the strong divide between genders that exists in modern culture. Radical feminists often claim they want a world without gender, and I agree that such a world would be better. But then they go on to explain the world should be focused on biological sex, which is just gender in disguise. In my view, people are people, and whatever risk exists when men and women interact is not because of anything innate, it’s the fact that we live in a culture where men and women are acculturated to be predators and prey, respectively.

In a world without gender, where everyone could express themselves as they please, the idea of being “transgender” would be meaningless. If you want to be feminine, be feminine. If you want to be masculine, be masculine. If you’re attracted to a certain kind of person, be attracted to that kind of person. No one’s genitalia or genetics should be involved in any of this, other than perhaps enjoying sexual acts involving a certain arrangement of genitals, and that’s not something that needs to be first and foremost on everyone’s minds as it is today.

Back in the day @Una_Persson patiently presented the data showing that indeed there is brain structural basis to gender, albeit not without overlap. I am unqualified to argue the point but will share one recent article I can find that supports the contention.

It does seem that gender identity is minimally not exclusively a social construct.

To return to the premise of the OP sans the actual evidence, which wasn’t really the point. The point is that there is indeed something real to gender identity, beyond roles and accoutrements, beyond choice of embracing one or another social construct of identity as one becomes a Rotary member, or converts to a religion. @AHunter3 (and perhaps their cited author Julia Serrano) wants to define “gender” as the socially held notions of gender roles and accoutrements, and substitute the phrase “brain sex” for “gender identity”. I’ll defer to them as more knowledgeable than I am about cutting edge usage in gender-queer communities, but common and medical usage makes a distinction between “gender identity” and embracing “gender roles”.

A cis-male can be very comfortable with their male identification and yet embrace roles and accoutrements, that are, within their culture at least, considered more female. Likewise a cis-female, who is comfortably female identified, should not be limited to roles defined by the specific culture as female ones. Embracing conventions consistent with socially held notions of a gender that one does not identify as, rejecting ones consistent with your identity, does not gender discordance make.

Here is the study you are likely thinking of, a 2012 literature review of twin case reports. Not of twins raised separately.

The most recent (2022) large scale register based population study found zero concordance among identical twins, however, yet some among non-identical twins.

They specifically criticize pooling of case reports as subject to publication bias.

I’m not sure what to make of that honestly other than that twin studies seem to be a bit unsettled.

I think this is just semantics. Does this relate to ‘is there something biologically innate about being a male or a female’? Is this the same question?

This is well put.

In our social world, there are a lot of people who are dismissive of gender (defined here as “the social, not the built-in physiological”). The dismissive folks use the word “just” a lot when dismissing it as nothing but a bunch of silly cliched stereotypes and boxy roles like “the man works and the woman stays home and cleans house” or whatever.

Right alongside them are a lot of people who think of men as very very different creatures than women. Some believe these differences are directly coded for. Brain differences, hormonal differences, etc. Others believe these inevitable differences are situational but that the situations are directly bolted onto the hardwired biological: maybe the mind and fundamental personality of the male would respond in the same way if he were pregnant but that’s not a situation he’ll be in; perhaps the mind and personality of the female person would react just like that of a typical guy if she were enough stronger than her dating prospects to be at virtually zero risk of rape or molestation by them and also viewed as a potential source of sexual violence herself, but that’s not a situation she’s likely to encounter. Etc. So these people, too, think men and women are a set of utterly different experiences and it results in being different people.

What set of experiences (including the experience of having different brain-wiring, if it exists) do you suppose leads one set of people to be dismissive of sexist expectations and role restrictions and a different set of people to think gender is quite real but that theirs isn’t the one that was expected for them based on their morphology?

I have my own notions of how I got to my own viewpoint. I do get tired of encountering the dismissive folks’ disinterest / unwillingness to explore that. And also the emphatic formulaic gender conventional-wisdom that repeats certain understandings of fundamental gender with a similar disinterest / unwillingness to do any thoughtful exploring.

The only biological implications stem from the neurology necessary for a person to form a subjective concept of gender in their mind. It is not a contradiction to assert, as many do, that gender is socially constructed.

Imagine a feral child - take society out of the picture. Is it possible for such a person to develop a concept of gender, in isolation? Maybe, I say, depending on how loosely you define gender. Is it possible to develop gender dysphoria with no societal cues to base one’s internal gender stereotypes on? I think not.


I hope I’m not one of the dismissive folks. I was trying to look at this from a linguistic perspective. If we want to update the definitions of the words “man” and “woman”, so be it. It gets complicated when the new definition of man or woman references the old definition. It gets confusing.

I look at it as people compliment one another, especially through friendship and love. I don’t think a lot of people think men and women are very different creatures, more like a facet of being human.

My sense is that much is not known, other than there is some wiring and even structural contribution. My leans are to reality including multiple contributing factors interacting with spectrums of tendencies both innate and learned and cultural/subcultural, and of varying fluidity. With different answers likely true at say seven than at say twenty seven.

I could not agree more. There are many facets to being human. Sports figures like Lia Thomas pose difficult questions, like who gets to participate in sports as a woman, and how do you define ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Maybe we need a new definition of both. But we can’t use circular reasoning. Because then you get definitions like ‘a woman is someone who identifies as a woman’.