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Can animals be transgendered?

June 10, 2016

There is a theory among certain groups of people that gender differences are all a myth; there are no characteristics that differentiate women from men and boys from girls; it is all made up, arbitrary and cultural.


Whereas I believe it is true that many gender differences are arbitrary and cultural, or perhaps merely overstated, there is one aspect of the human condition which is fixed within men and women – sexuality.

One frequent misconception I often confront is the idea that sexual orientation is a distinct and fixed concept, but gender identity is not. This is illogical. A gay person is gay because they are attracted to a member of the same sex. How can one be attracted to the same sex without a concept of the “same”? In order to be attracted to the same or opposite sex, each person much have an intuitive sense of self, including sex identity.

Sexual orientation is necessarily two sided. First, the brain has to be able to identify the sex of others of the same species. When you or I do this, we consciously look for features, more so if the person is androgynous; we say: smooth skin, small hands – must be female. This conscious calculation is based on what we are unconsciously inclined to notice. Our ability to reason makes us categorise certain features into the camps “male” and “female”.

As a result, we sometimes erroneously mark someone as male who is female or vice versa; but most of the time, we are right, and we can guess the sex of someone without having to break down their features and analyse them. Indeed, the conscious analysis may well get in the way of the intuitive sense of male or female. It is a bugbear of trans people everywhere that children have an uncanny knack for noticing when someone’s presented gender doesn’t quite match their chromosomal sex.

In order to have a sexual orientation, our brain must also know its own sex. This is an innate understanding, but obfuscated by complicated human thinking. Our gender identity and sexual orientation do not appear to be related, because we are able to mentally separate them. When a hamster is attracted to another hamster, it does not experience a thought process. We, on the other hand, do. Humans have a complex relationship with attraction; an entire language specifically for describing it. So, what is instinctual feels rather less animalistic than it is, and subsequently the dull, necessary connection of sexual attraction to sex identity does not register strongly. We do not have to think: “I am male, therefore I am attracted to females of my species.” That all happens behind the scenes. Whatever we consciously think about our attraction, considerations of our own sex identity do not often feature.

No one needs to have a social concept of man or woman in order to be attracted to members of their own species. Children with no understanding of gender still sexually experiment – it is something they know about without influence or instruction, suggesting sexuality is all unconscious and instinctual. If sexuality is unconscious and instinctual, you do not use reasoning processes to determine the sex of your mating partner. You use instinct – an intrinsic and fundamental part of the brain which governs the behaviour of the simplest animal life forms.

Here is where female brains and male brains are fundamentally different. Assuming that both brains are heterosexual, the heterosexuality works differently for each sex. In the female, heterosexuality means she sees a male and experiences a desire to mate. The exact reverse is true for the male. In order for one brain to be attracted to males by default, and the other attracted to females by default, the brains must be different in that one single, significant way. Moreover, it is clear that they are different right from the off. How do we know? By examining sexual orientation. It is generally agreed that sexual orientation is identifiable from a young age and is not changeable or transient. This suggests that sexual orientation and its brother, sex identity, are determined in early development.

This is for reproduction purposes. In order for sexual reproduction to be possible, the brain must know: “I am male, and therefore I must mate a female.” Bats do not have a concept of third wave feminism. They do not philosophise on gender. Animals cannot analyse physical characteristics as we do – they can unconsciously absorb information from scent or sight, but this information means nothing without the understanding of its significance. The part of the brain that acknowledges the information that Ahead, There Is A Female must make a connection as to the significance of this observation. Think of it in simple programming terms: if Male, then Female+Mate=true. If Female, then Female+Mate=false.

Other parts of reproduction and sex-segregated characteristics are the same way. Female mammals do not have to be taught to nurse young – even if they are copying older females, in order to do say they must have an in-built understanding of their own sex. If they did not, males might copy and adopt female roles – they might try to nurse young when they are not able. After all, they cannot read biology books, and receive no social pressure by tattooed fathers and uncles. The fact that animals stick to their “gender roles”, such as they are, suggests that these roles are bound to instinct, and that the instinct carries a necessary sense of sex identity.

As with all things neurological, integral parts of sex identity formation can go wrong, and cause complex issues. If the brain is programmed to consider itself male when it is in fact located in a female body, the owner of the body will not be able to perform the sexual or social functions they are inclined to perform. For humans, this creates profound dysphoria.

True transsexuals (as opposed to people with other gender concerns) undergo sex reassignment surgery to align the body with the brain, under the understanding that it is safer, less costly and more effective than “a bit of harmless brain alteration” which would also destroy their sense of identity. In fact, it is infinitely more effective, since there are no known neurological fixes for transsexualism – it is not even known what part(s) of the brain the condition resides in, or sex identity in general. It is only clear that the condition is permanent and that altering the body works for all true transsexuals.

Understanding that sex identity disorder exists because sex identity is innate, how do we explain the tendency of trans people to align themselves to gender stereotypes? Well, since it is in our nature to analyse, spot patterns, acclimatise, and appropriate culture, people with sex dysphoria copy the arbitrary social trends of their society in order to mimic man or womanhood. Transmen may cut their hair short and transwomen may wear dresses. These actions provide some reprieve, as they help society see the individual as their sex identity as opposed to their chromosomal sex. For a true transsexual, this is not a lasting solution.

Imagine that overnight, all the stairs disappeared and were replaced with ramps and lifts. Indoor environments became more spacious and easier to access – all to aid paraplegic people in wheelchairs. Would such people cease to want to be cured of paraplegia, just because their world is now convenient? It is unlikely. Paralysis causes personal problems which are not solvable by society; moreover, everyone has a burning desire to become what they think they should be in order to feel comfortable. However much society opens up to difference, it will never be able to entirely eradicate an individual’s sense that they must change the faulty parts of themselves in order to attain greatest happiness. Society can – and should – make life easier for these people, but such changes will never replace the offer of a true cure.

Transsexualism is just the same. Because it is internally motivated, is would not matter if every single gendered behaviour evaporated overnight – if men all started wearing pink frilly dresses and women all donned crew cuts, or if the two were entirely indistinguishable from each other in all ways environmental – transsexual people would still exist. The internal mechanism that determines sex identity is exacerbated by, but not dependent upon, preconceptions over gender roles.

Indeed, many trans people who were concerned with gender roles before transition cease to become interested in them afterwards. The liberation from the “wrong body” gives them the cure they seek; they are then free (and more inclined) to analyse gender roles, and how much they really mean. It is natural to draw the assumption that they don’t mean much, and that sex identity is more important, not fixed by wearing a dress or biker boots. Post-transition, trans people often invert expected gender stereotypes of their acquired sex; transmen may wear nail polish, transwomen may style themselves like butch lesbian women. They are no longer dependent on these displays of “gender identity” in order to be correctly received. The fear that flouting gender stereotypes will lead to their being defined by their chromosomal sex, instead of their sex identity, has vanished, because there is little danger of a mistake – they no longer look like their chromosomal sex.

The certainty that sex identity is innate and required for all sexually reproducing species (except hermaphrodites) raises the interesting question of whether animals can have confused sex identity. I’ll avoid saying “dysphoria” because that is a human phenomenon which describes the feeling of incompleteness and the perception of having been cheated out of one’s birthright. Non-human animals experience none of this; however, they may be able to suffer damaged sex identity which leads them to fail to preform the correct reproductive behaviours for their physiology.

Whenever we see homosexual sex acts in nature, we wonder what it’s all about. If it is habitual across the species, we perceive that it serves a social function; if it is rarer, we think that it is a genetic differentiation, as it is for humans. Whichever way, we characterise the difference in terms of sexual orientation. “My dog is a lesbian,” you might hear someone claim. Of course, we don’t know the dog’s “orientation”, because orientation is a state of the brain that we cannot see. We judge the dog’s behaviour and see that a female dog unusually tries to hump another female dog. There is a hypothetical possibility that the dog does this because it doesn’t know that it is female – its sex identity tells it that it is male.

This is less likely than a difference in sexual orientation, judging by human statistics. Also, notice that I picked a female dog, not a male dog – because of the behavioural requirements. A male dog with confused sex identity would not hump at all, but rather wait to be humped; something which we can’t observe. But the notion of possible animal sex identity disorder is interesting, because it raises questions about our assumptions of other animals and their social constructs.

Take the bonobo. It’s well-documented that they’re not fussy, sexually. They’ll do whoever: male, female, the lot. We assume this lack of preference has to do with orientation, but it could equally be to do with sex identity. The bonobos may have no sense of: if Male, then Female+Mate=true. They may merely shag indiscriminately and as a result, baby bonobos come, therefore it is not maladaptive. Indeed, it’s adaptive, because it forms closer bonds; hence, potentially a mutation that creates an absence of clear sex identity becomes the status quo of bonobos under survival of the fittest.

Of course, all this is entirely spurious. I simply wanted to highlight that our understanding of sex identity is intensely human focussed, when in fact we have no particular reason to think that only humans experience the condition of sex identity cross-wiring. We can’t give questionnaires to the animals, so we will never know what they “experience” about anything. But since it is quite clear that all sexual reproducers have sex identity, the view that transsexualism is a human disorder – and therefore potentially a social construction – is informed only by conventional assumption, not fact.

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From → Gender Politics

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