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The Epistemology of Transexualism

Jed Bland

The European Network of Professionals in Transsexualism Conference, Manchester, England. September, 1st., 1994. Later published in Crosstalk,by the Northern Concord.


The event that inspired me to write this paper was a small passage from the DSM III‑R.

Now, I might be doing it an injustice, for the definition in question may have been taken out of context. Clearly it is a comprehensive document, in which most people might find themselves a place.

There is an awareness that many of these categories may not be medical problems in origin, whatever their outcome, but psychosocial, and among the oldest of these may be transexualism. As Desmond Morris might put it, the problems of an old gene in coping with a modern environment. Perhaps, rather than changing the person, we should change the environment.

Yet if the person cannot survive in the environment and approaches a clinic, it is then a clinical problem. I feel that I'm preaching to the converted.

But the description that attracted my attention was that of the transvestite: "A gender disorder of adulthood." I had this picture of an eight year old boy, dressing and expressing himself happily, probably though in considerable secrecy, which deepens as teenage approaches, with the guilt of how awful sex is, especially if you do it by yourself. Then he is eighteen and, all of a sudden, he has a medical condition.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, of how our motivations in researching it, in writing about it and interpreting it, influence our understanding.

For instance the Brain Sex approach may be valid in its proper context but is probably being viewed through the gender divisive paradigm of our culture. I suggest that our understanding of transexualism is limited in a number of ways:

  • The remnants of the Victorian attitude that sex is bad and we should try to ignore it.
  • The fact that the majority of psychologists studiously avoid any conclusions that might embroil them in the gender controversy.
  • The perception of the unusual as abnormal and therefore unacceptable - something that should be treated and cured. It gives us a tunnel vision, restricting us to a clinical understanding, and to 'strange cases' that allow us to write scientific papers and which make material for the media

Let me make two propositions to you:

  • Transexualism is a natural condition of the human species.
  • Gender Dysphoria is a necessary part of human development.

Whether that's true or not is not relevant at this moment. It allows us to look at our subject from an entirely different viewpoint. What ever I do, I cannot get away from the dictionary definition of dysphoria; a feeling of being ill at ease, not even profound unease.

There is a sort of Newton's First Law in nature that says that an organism will stay as it is, unless moved by some discomfort. Thus the biology of a growing child, and changing social pressures produces a dysphoria catalogued by Kohlberg in his ages of gender stability, gender constancy and so on, as a boy sets out to become a man, and a girl sets out to be a woman.

I'd like to read a short passage to you:

We are born with certain genetic factors which are already fixed, for example male and female. However, the way in which that gender identity develops is open to societal interpretations and influences. Biological constituents may pre-dispose men and women towards expressing certain talents and traits; but, nevertheless, how these are expressed and come to fruition depends entirely upon the environment, both familial and societal, in which people are reared.

This passage on gender identity comes, not from a book on transexualism, but from a dissertation(1) about anorexia and bulimia in women, where the author puts up a strong case to suggest that they arise from the difficulties of finding a sense of identity as women.

Then again, there is growing concern about body-builders taking illicit steroids ostensibly to increase muscle bulk. Testosterone has, of course, acquired the unfortunate tag of being the male hormone. Among the men, is it not possible that there is a underlying feeling that having more of it, they become more 'manly.' Just as some m to f transexuals, on taking estrogens, have been heard to say that they feel more feminine.

Teenage is a period of considerable gender dysphoria for most boys and girls, but consider the mid life crisis. For many, this can be a crisis of their marriage. I was talking with a friend one evening and she confided that, as she became older, she felt she was becoming more assertive, more adventurous. Her husband had noticed this, but was also noticing his need to take things easy, to go with the flow. This shift in their relationship had caused a serious problem in their marriage, until they consoled themselves with the assumption that any biologist would make - that it was the change in their hormones .

But the children had grown up and left home. She no longer had need to be the nurturer, the family comforter. She was free to explore a new lifestyle, to be truly herself. Meanwhile, her husband had no longer a need to fight to make his career - he had arrived. Nor need he find the money to support a mortgage and family. In truth, it was biology and social experience working together in harmony.

Yet some men, who feel the need to relax in their identity at this age, as Archer and Lloyd(2) put it, to change from being fathers to grandfathers, find that all their upbringing has told them that this is 'sissy.' So the only way they can express this changing identity is as occasional 'women.'

The view is, of course, complicated by the defences that men put up against their sexuality. It is easy to suggest that men do this, rather than women, because of the urgings of their seminal glands. Perhaps an better answer might be found in the difference in male and female roles and the nature of their networks of relationships.

In the clinic, however, perhaps we should talk of 'acute gender dysphoria' and 'clinical transexualism.'

Many years ago personality was invented and, along with it, gender, and all down the ages there have been examples of cross gender living in nearly every culture across the world.

The one group that stands out is the Xanith of Oman, for they are allowed to change back and forth as they wish. The general rule is that once you've changed over, there's no going back. In general, too, such people do not breed - they do not pass on their genes.

Natural selection suggests that the species is preserved by the passing on of the genes of the fit members of the species. Those who are unfit do not survive to do so.

Is there, perhaps, a process of social selection, by which transexuals do not breed. It has been going on for thousands of years and there is no indication that their numbers are reduced, but genetics is not so simple as that.

Perhaps, though, there is some atavistic motivation, behind some of the law, where, rather than concentrating on the benefit of the person, seems obsessed with cast-iron guarantees that the transexual is 100% sterile?

Is transexualism an disorder or is it simply a part of the phenotype, that natural variability that has allowed our species, to adapt and prosper so well? Perhaps social selection is employed by various cultures in various ways to serve the needs of that culture, or in response to different social attitudes.

In the islands of Tahiti(3) and Samoa, among others, some boys are raised in the female role, called fa'fafine, to assist with what are seen as womanly duties. The process of choice seems to be intuitive. As one said - his mother knew by the way he babbled as a baby that he was probably fa'fafine.(4) It clearly was not a matter of choice, and an individual fa'fafine might well live to regret it, wanting perhaps children of his own and a partner.

With our Victorian attitudes, we label this ritualistic homosexuality. Yet, if we become less obsessed with the sexual aspect, we might see a larger picture.

One might suggest that the islands are peaceful. There is little need for warriors and little food is obtained by hunting. It then becomes seen as an intrinsic part of the social fabric, and, where the island might support a limited population, an important part of the economy.

The epistemology of transexualism encourages us to look for disorder, rather than order, disease rather than well-being.

Among the native American Indians, it was acknowledged that some boys were not temperamentally suited to be warriors, and some girls unsuited to be women.

. The name which is popularly used is Berdache, which is a great insult. The correct word, at least among the Lacota tribe of the Sioux nation, is Winyantecha.(5) To become accepted as Winyantecha was no easy path, but the rites of passage for any child, as it grew into adulthood, was often gruelling. Observed through their childhood by the tribal elders, social space was made for them. Let us propose that there was plenty of land to expand into, limited only by the presence of other tribes, against whom protection might be needed. Much of the food supply is, or was, obtained by hunting, in times past, some rather large game.

One might further propose that a large tribe became an important one. Yet life could be hard, the best use was made of everyone's talents, whatever they were.

This wider definition covers a very wide area, bordering on the new man or the new woman - anyone, in fact, that challenges existing roles.

It is becoming common to speak of a spectrum of gender dysphoria - an interesting choice of word. For the colour spectrum is a continuous range of electromagnetic frequencies - yet we perceive it as different colours.

So, if nature provides a continous (not necessarily linear) range of transexuality, society determines the role an individual should adopt.

How would its suppression or encouragement, in the past, or in the present, affect our culture's economy? Social history has some very large gaps - epistemology again. Yet we could re-read our studies of social history, from Engels onward, with a gender researcher's eye.

Certainly, while women are seen as neurotic, men hide their neuroses until it is too late. A much-quoted statistic, just lately, is that while more women attempt suicide, more men succeed.

What a waste of talent! Especially when you consider all those others who may not be working and living to their full capabilities. Farrell(5) suggests that, in America, "As boys experience the pressures of the male role, their suicide rate increases 25,000 percent." One might query his attribution of causation to correlation, but, if ever there was an example of gender dysphoria, this would seem to be it!

The swinging sixties and Carnaby Street in England, the hippie culture in America, and Roger's humanistic psychology appeared almost concurrently. It was no accident.

For women it was part of a long process of throwing off the tyranny of the fashion house, but more importantly, of discarding an imposed identity and a search to be themselves. While women have continued this process, the hippie lads put on their dark suits and conformed, for they needed a job, if they wanted to raise a family.

Recently, in Derby, we had a day's seminar entitled "Do Men Need to Change?" Many men to whom I showed the poster, or a copy of Farrell's The Myth of Male Power would visibly flinch. It would seem that men have been trained to embrace, and see as virtue, the very attitudes that oppress them.

To conclude, then - what are the messages we may derive from this?

While we each have enough to do concentrating on our own particular speciality, we should perhaps think of transexualism as simply an area with diffuse boundaries, within the variability of the human phenotype.

And secondly:

The present 'secret epidemic' of people arriving at gender clinics, may not be simply because the 'treatment' is becoming better known but, instead, be a symptom of the conflict brought about by the past few year's changes in Western social identity.


  1. Purdy.M. (1994) An Exploration of some Links between Women's Sense of Self in relation to Eating Disorders, and the Implications for Counselling. Unpublished dissertation for the Degree of Master of Education. University of Derby.
  2. Archer.J, Lloyd.B, (1985) Sex and Gender, Cambridge University Press
  3. 11th. July, 1993, London: The Sunday Independent - Michael Field (Agence-France Press) Tonga tries to shut the closet door on '50/50 men'
  4. Samoa: Where Men think they are Women (sic), Abigail Haworth in Society (London), date unknown
  5. Winyanktehca: Two-souls person Paper presented to the European Network of Professionals in Transsexualism, August 1994 Marjorie Anne Napewastewiñ Schützer, MA psy.
  6. Derived from US Bureau of Health and Human Services, National Centre for Health Statistics: Vital Statistics for the United States. (Washington DC, USGPO 1991) in Farrell.W, (1993) The Myth of Male Power, British Edition page 15, London: Fourth Estate.
GO TO THE TOP Attribution
Bland, J., (2003) The Epistemology of Transexualism The European Network of Professionals in Transsexualism Conference, Manchester, England. September, 1st., 1994.

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