Trans theorists often use terms like “brain sex” and “mental map” to articulate different aspects of transgender experience. “Brain sex” is used to assert that everybody has an innate, a biologically determined gender identity (hmm). Studies about gray matter and limbic neurons will be pulled out to prove that there really are male and female brains and that transgender people have a mismatched brain and body. This “mismatching” is what supposedly causes dysphoria. Then there is the “mental map” description, where, between the legs, the brain expects there to be one set of genitals, but instead there is another. The brain is “programmed” for a vagina (actually, just the vulva, apparently), but instead, there’s a penis. Trans theorists will often appropriate the experiences of amputees who deal with phantom limb syndrome to legitimize this description.
On its face, these two ways of explaining transgenderism don’t clash; indeed, trans theorists will often use both concepts at the same time. However, these terms have their roots in separate approaches to describing transgenderism, one that posits the move from one sex to the other as bringing sex in line with gender identity, while the other position views the transition as bringing gender in line with sex identity.
To clarify this difference, I am presenting you with two quotes from three* different blogs. Both are written by men who call themselves transgender women. In both quotes, they are referring to transsexuals. In both posts, they refer to a body dysphoria (either “genital” or “sex”).
For the sake of this conversation, I’m using ‘trans’ to talk about transsexuals – we who feel very strongly that our operating system (brain, soul or whatever) does not match our hardware, and are compelled to make the change as a life continuing measure. …
… I think the real answer fits in nicely with the truth about our gender identities. Our identity is what it is, whatever body we are in, or even if by some wacky mishap we end up as disembodied brains in jars. I hope the latter never happens, but if it does, rest assured that floating grey blob is decidedly female. From there it comes down to what we need to do to get comfortable in the body we have. If we were able to go forward doing nothing and making no changes, yet comfortable in our identity, then by all means we should do so. For those of us so horribly uncomfortable that every measure must be taken to move forward, it’s really nothing more than being on the suckier end of the scale.
What I have is Genital Dysphoria. I can’t figure out why, I as a woman, was born with a penis. The solution is simple, and imminently medically possible. Rebuild my body as it should have been in the first place. For me the process will not be complete until my anatomy matches my identity. An advantage to my age is that after the surgery I will appear and function identically to a large number of post-menopausal cisgender women.
After stumbling through the STEM-inspired metaphor, it is understood in the above quote that transsexuals are people whose gender, which they assert they were born as, does not match their sex. Medical transition is optional, done to the extent that a person needs it in order to feel comfortable with their body.
This account of transsexualism is directly at odds with another version which describes transsexualism as sex dysphoria, with gender transition done out of conformity to social norms:
… by feeling ‘right’, I mean a feeling of physical congruence with the identity characteristics used by patriarchy to assign sex (and thence sex roles) to individuals. For example, in a person with a penis – a characteristic typically used to assign ‘male’ sex and hence to educate a person into the male sex role – I mean a feeling of comfort and naturalness that the penis is an appropriate part of the body. And by feeling ‘wrong’, I mean a sense of sex dysphoria; for example, that the penis – along with other sexual characteristics – is not meant to be there, and that the primary sexual characteristic should be a vulva …
… A transsexual girl may already have developed an identification with cissexual girls, based on the fact that she rejects “You are a boy” and is looking for another sex assignment she can accept …
… As a transsexual woman begins to understand herself as transsexual and as a person of female sex, she may – depending on the extent to which she accepts gender ideology – begin to identify herself more with the female sex role. As a result, many transsexual women will begin to form self-beliefs based on what they have learned about the female sex role in their sex role education.
In this version, physical transition is, by definition, a necessity, and adoption of the opposite-sex role is a result of 1) a rejection of one’s assigned sex role (because that assigned sex role was dependent on the genitalia the person does not want and 2) pressure from society for sex and sex roles to be congruent.
These two descriptions of transsexuality/transgenderism (no distinction is made in the posts) by men who identify as trans women, are in conflict with each other, yet they are both positions held by trans theorists. So which version is it, trans people? Which is the “right” one?
The second description is going to be more palatable to radical feminists, as it rejects the idea of an innate, essentialist gender identity. In fact, it was written by a “radical transfeminist” who recognizes gender as a patriarchy-imposed social construct … but evidently doesn’t see the harm in redefining “woman” away from the sex class the social construct of gender is designed for.
In my experience, while trans theorists promote both views, the majority favor the “gender identity do real” position more. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the majority of transgender men don’t go undergo the surgery that alters the primary defining sexual characteristic that distinguishes males and females (and what gender as a social construct is shaped around).
There are two major positions to take in explaining transgenderism: one posits that the transition brings anatomy in line with an innate gender identity, while the other states that gender is adopted to fit sex identity. These positions are inherently conflicted, but I don’t suspect this discrepancy will get resolved any time soon.