Sunday, July 12, 2015

Evaluating identities: beyond Jenner and Dolezal.

In contemporary American society, few concepts are as central as “identity” to how we understand what it means to be human. The relationship between personal and social identity--not only what it is, but what it should be--is often hotly contested. The Internet exploded last month with two high-profile examples: Caitlyn Jenner, a celebrity transgender woman, and Rachel Dolezal, a now-infamous woman who identifies as Black despite a personal history and genetic background that ordinarily marks one as White in the racial categories of the United States. With varying levels of sincerity and understanding of the issues involved, many people are asking, "Why is it okay for a man to become a woman, but not for a White person to become Black? Where does it all end? Do you have to respect someone's self-identification as a cat?"

Before I give my own take on it, I need to take care of a few preliminaries. First, here is a very short list of highly recommended reading:

Desmond-Harris, Jenée. "How to make sense of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP official accused of passing for black." 
St. James, James. "6 Reasons Why Being Called a Cis Person Is Not Oppressive."
Read, Max. "From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics."

I suggest reading them before moving on with the rest of my blog post, but if you're impatient or don't want to take my word for it, reading them afterwards works too. Just: read them, if you haven't before.

Second, this blog post isn't an academic research paper. I'm not providing a literature review. I wouldn't be qualified to provide a lit review. I provide some representative citations and links to support some of my claims (and some of them have lit reviews), but they are meant to say, "here is the kind of evidence that has led me to my conclusions," not, "aha! here is the proof!" I'm always in favor of people doing their own research and drawing their own conclusions about what subject matter experts are thinking, or not thinking.

Finally, in the time-honored tradition of locating oneself in one's own identities before talking about identity in general, I can tell you that I am a cisgender White man. (I'm also polyamorous and bisexual and Christian and married-but-not-legally and lots of other identifiers, but gender and race seem the most salient to mention here.) I don't take it on myself to make declarations about what it means to be a woman or to be Black or what have you. I am taking it on myself to speak up out of personal loyalty to people with great integrity who are dear to me, out of respect for the women and people of color I have learned so much from through reading and conversation, and out of my vested interest in supporting a particular method in evaluating identities (for when the talk does turn to polyamorous bisexuals). I'm not talking as an ally--a problematic label that I rarely aspire to--but as someone with a conscience that's been tugging at me.

Okay then, with the preliminaries out of the way...

There are a bewildering number of identities people are claiming these days. Along with the ones already mentioned above, there is demisexual, demigender, agender, genderqueer, asexual, aromantic, aracial, biracial, multiracial, transabled, transpecies and many more. I don't have any particular links that I can recommend over others. Google can easily get you the gist of the claims and counterclaims. My point in listing them is that, even if one feels philosophically or ethically constrained to respect any and all self-identifications an individual may disclose, there comes a point where one just can't. One can be polite to the person standing in front of you, but one can't buy into the story they're telling. Different people have different breaking points. Being a stubbornly empirical sort, I have four questions that I have found to be useful in drawing my own conclusions.

1. Is the identity cross-culturally attested? 

I'll be blunt: I'm dubious about any core identity that is only claimed within a particular geographical region or by people who fit a particular demographic profile. Transgender folks are found all around the world. Transgender folks belong to all races and ethnicities. (In the United States, trans women of color are especially at risk for violent assault.) There are trans men and trans women. (And even people who identify as both trans and non-binary, which is outside of the scope of this blog post.) In contrast, I haven't been able to find documented cases of people claiming a transracial identity outside of the American context, and those Americans are White.

2. Is expression of the identity documented to occur in some cases at an early age?

I am cautious about the "born this way" narrative for legitimizing LGBT+ folks, for a lot of reasons (one example). However, it is true that the example of people who show early awareness of their belonging to a gender or sexual minority provide support for the claim that it's not a conscious choice or the result of a process of psychological development extending into adulthood, i.e., it's not a matter of pretense or habituation.  Parents have reported children expressing transgender identities as young as age 3 [2], and many transgender young people have reported that their first awareness of their identity came at age 11 or younger [3]. (See also the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline for transgender folks for more background info.) It is significant that Rachel Dolezal soon claimed that she "was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon” when she was five years old--she has to know that it is a narrative that could give her legitimacy if accepted by society.

Of course, her family of origin disputes that claim, and we don't hear in the media about parents freaking out over such behavior. Since freaking out by some American parents over every given little thing is one of the most reliable and predictable contemporary phenomena, its absence in this case speaks volumes.

3. Is expression of the identity persistent?

The less said about conversion therapy the better, okay? It's depressing and it doesn't work. Not for queer folks, and not for transgender folks either [2].  The number of older adults transitioning as social condemnation lessens is another sign that transgender folks don't "grow out of it" or "snap out of it." (It does appear to be true that a majority of children presenting with gender dysphoria do not end up as transgender adults, but feeling uncomfortable in one's body is emphatically not the same as being trans.) I can't really say anything about the apparent persistence, or lack thereof, of transracial identity. It doesn't happen enough to study in any systematic way.

4. Is there a plausible mechanism or marker for how the identity develops?

Not all identities are claims about the type of body one has (or should have), of course. When I had my born-again experience as a Christian, society didn't expect me to look or sound or smell different. When talking about gender and race, though, we are in fact talking about bodies, and therefore at least in part about the science of biology. Even when we are talking about personality and self-perception and affinities, we are talking about phenomena that are biologically mediated.

Although there is no evidence that it leads to behavioral or intelligence or skill differences, decades of neuroscience supports the idea that, on average, it is possible to identify structural differences between male and female brains. Some researchers have further found differences in brain structures in transgender folks that "did not differ significantly from controls sharing their gender identity but were different from those sharing their biological gender" [4], e.g., those structures in trans women were similar to those structures in cis women but different from those structures in trans men. One possible explanation is that it "might be the result of the fact that the development of the sexual organs in the fetal life occurs well before the sexual differentiation of the brain" [4],  with prenatal hormones playing a major role in "feminization" or "masculinization" of the developing brain.

Of course, the concept of biological gender is itself very hard to pin down, since neither chromosomes nor hormone levels nor any specified set of anatomical features are shared by all men or all women: "Humans like their sex categories neat, but nature doesn't care. Nature doesn't actually have a line between the sexes. If we want a line, we have to draw it on nature" [1].  About 1 in 5000 female babies is born with an under-developed or absent uterus and vaginal canal, which are frequently pointed to as the gold standard for womanhood because of their critical role in pregnancy and childbirth. Some women are born with testes. Given the empirical reality of human physical sexual diversity, it doesn't make sense to either reject the legitimacy of trans women's (or trans men's) identities or to accept their legitimacy but insist they aren't "real" women (or men), especially after the initiation of hormone replacement therapy. The natural variability of human bodies is also the reason it makes no sense to question the sincerity of those trans folks who decide against radical surgical alterations of the bodies they were born with. (One of the most moving statements I ever heard a trans person make was, "I wasn't born in the wrong body. This body is awesome!")

I am unaware of any genetic, hormonal or anatomical marker that can be definitively linked exclusively to one race or another. Skin color, facial features and hair texture are the most common points of reference, but the Desmond-Harris article cited above does a good job of explaining why they are unreliable. Certainly there aren't observed brain structure differences between races as there are between genders. I also have not seen a plausible mechanism proposed for how one could develop a transracial identity outside of a conscious choice or the result of a process of psychological development extending into adulthood.

In case it isn't obvious from my post so far, I fully affirm the gender identities of trans folks but feel no obligation to validate the racial identity of someone who considers themself to be transracial. I don't think that intellectual assent (or dissent) should be the end of the conversation, though. Identities aren't passports or club cards, and the point of identification isn't to merely keep the social bureaucracy running smoothly. Anyone who claims a particular identity takes on a large number of obligations along with any real or perceived benefits.

One of those obligations is to respect one's metaphorical elders and the struggles of one's peers. I can't summarize all the different negative reactions to Dolezal's inistence that she identifies as Black, and I wouldn't try, even if I thought I could pull it off. But one recurring complaint is that she didn't grow up personally experiencing all the crap (and joy!) that comes from being Black in the United States. On the one hand, I don't think experience alone defines identity. A typical Nigerian immigrant fresh off the airplane has little to no experience being Black in this country, or as a racial minority more generally, but they're very obviously Black here (though not ethnically African American as usually conceptualized). On the other hand, that hypothetical Nigerian immigrant should also hesitate before jumping into a leadership role in an organization dedicated to protecting and advancing Black lives in the American context unless nurtured for that role by African Americans who respected their perspective as a West African immigrant.

Dolezal could have been a great NAACP president for her local chapter as a White person with close ties to the African American community. Theoretically, she also potentially could have been a great NAACP president as a self-identified transracial Black person after thoroughly vetting that identity and its origins with the demographic group she claims to be a member of. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry showed what the start of that vetting could theoretically look like.) Taking that position of leadership and others without directly addressing questions of authenticity, passing and skin-color privilege--when she has to know the urgency of those questions for generations among African Americans--undercuts her claim to be Black and is suggestive of ambivalence in her own mind. If Tiger Woods, Barack Obama,  Zoe Saldana and Touré can openly face that tension within their community, so can Dolezal.

For some transgender folks (and their allies), the closest analogous behavior is things like the uproar over the "Night of a Thousand Vaginas" fundraiser for abortion funds in Texas last year and the public statement accompanying the decision of a Mount Holyoke College student group to cancel a performance of The Vagina Monologues earlier this year, specifically on the grounds that the work excludes the experiences of trans women. It is certainly true that not all women have vaginas, as discussed above. Nor do only women have vaginas, as many trans men will quickly and rightly point out. And trans folks pay real costs--social, medical, financial and even physical safety costs--when they are constantly excluded by cis folks as not being "real" women or men. But women have fought for generations for the right to control, admire and accurately describe their own bodies. And the great, great majority of those bodies have had and continue to have vaginas. Meanwhile, less than five years ago, lawmakers in Michigan and Florida had fits that the words "vagina" and "uterus" were uttered on the floor of their chambers. When the bodies of women are still under attack--successfully, in far too many cases!--solidarity should mean not publicly undermining some of the strongest defenses against those attacks.

Not everyone agrees with me, and solidarity with them means I don't, say, go around on social media shaming them for their disagreement. But I do feel I put my metaphorical money where my mouth is, on this principle. As the movement for marriage equality has snowballed over the past few years, I have gotten to listen to a constant stream of "couples language." It is undeniably exclusionary, and the erasure of polyamorous families from the conversation has tangible negative effects on the health and well-being of families like mine. All the same, my queer community has sought marriage equality since at least 1968, a little less than a year before the Stonewall riots. I am not going to drag down same-sex couples in the United States by declaring that cause illegitimate, just because it doesn't yet explicitly address my more narrow interests. That's what it means to claim an identity as part of a community.


1. Dreger, Alice. "Sex Typing for Sport." Hastings Center Report 40, no. 2 (March 2010): 22-24. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 19, 2015). 
2. Mallon, Gerald P., and Teresa DeCrescenzo. "Transgender Children and Youth: A Child Welfare Practice Perspective." Child Welfare 85, no. 2 (March 2006): 215-241. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2015). 
3. Reisner, Sari L., et al. "Monitoring the health of transgender and other gender minority populations: Validity of natal sex and gender identity survey items in a U.S. national cohort of young adults." BMC Public Health 14, no. 1 (December 2014): 1-19. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2015). 
4. Simon, Lajos, et al. "Regional Grey Matter Structure Differences between Transsexuals and Healthy Controls—A Voxel Based Morphometry Study." Plos ONE 8, no. 12 (December 2013): 1-10. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 19, 2015).