(This is a guest post by friend of the blog Sophia!)
I tend to think of passing in terms of bits. If a stranger glances briefly at me as I walk by them on the sidewalk, how many bits of evidence do I expect they obtain for the proposition that I'm a trans woman (or autogynephilic man who's chosen to socially transition—not trying to care about terminology here, and you can do the translation yourself) against the hypothesis that I'm a cis woman? In other words, by how much did log2(P(trans)/P(cis)) increase? (There's a bit of a simplification here because I'm ignoring the rest of the hypothesis space, but if someone has visible breasts and is wearing women's clothing, I'd say it's safe to ignore.)
Of course, the number of bits they get depends on how familiar they are with differences between (AGP) trans women and cis women, and how long they watch me or talk to me. And whether they clock me as trans also depends on their base rate. The correct base rate (prevalence of AGP transsexualism in men) is a political football and I haven't sorted through the studies, but let's call it 0.1% in Portland. Then someone who's well-calibrated will believe me to be more likely trans than not if they get about ten bits of evidence to that effect (because log2(0.1%/99.9%) ≈ 10).
Different pieces of evidence are evident in different interactions, but I put myself at about (assuming a solid minute of study and focusing on the question, and making up numbers terribly):
face structure: 2 bits voice: 0.5 bits (I'm very proud of this, yes, it's a bitch to train) height: 0 bits (at 5′7″) hair: 0.5 bits clothing: 2 bits (I dress more 20-something than 30-something, which is telling) posture: 0.5 bits (probably the low-hanging fruit right now) breasts: 0.5 bits other body structure (hips, ribs, hands, etc.): 2 bits
total: 8 bits
Some of those aren't quite independent evidence (clothing/hair/posture/body) but even assuming conservatively that they are, people who are trying can get 6–8 bits of evidence with some careful observation. And assuming correct calibrations on base rates, that's not good enough to clock someone. So I feel all right about this.
In reality, of course, the people who will study me that closely are rare and if any strangers have ever clocked me anytime after three months of transition they're super good at hiding it. So, yay?
Notice that this is a very different prospect than "Here's a trans person trying to pass. What evidence can you find that they're trans?" Well, there's lots! Who cares, as long as it's comfortably under 9–10 bits?
"I can understand why you might think that there are five lights—indeed, that would make a lot of things easier—but actually, there are only four lights. Yes, it's a little bit counterintuitive, and I know I got a little bit frustrated and said some things I now regret when I was trying to explain this earlier, such that some people might justifiably suspect that I am irrationally emotionally-attached to the four-lights hypothesis and guilty of motivated reasoning, and I totally agree that you should definitely take that possibility into account insofar as you are unable to count the lights yourself and are deciding how much you should update based on my report.
"Nevertheless, there are, in fact, four lights. It's OK if you don't believe me, but I counted them, and I recounted them a few more times, and I'm not going to pretend to be confused about the number of lights unless I discover some specific reason to suspect that I miscounted in the same way every time."
The author of the (highly recommended!) Tumblr blog The Unit of Caring responds to an anonymous correspondent's observation that trans-exclusionary radical feminists tend to define the word woman as "adult human biological female":
Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one too though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it’s as if there’s just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn’t involve any people I consider icky being in my category'.
I'm happy to try to help if I can!
I would say that a notable good property of the "adult human female" definition is non-circularity: we can articulate membership tests that do a pretty good job of narrowing down which entities do and do not belong to the category we're trying to talk about, without appealing to the category itself. Does the person have a vagina, ovaries, breasts, and two X chromosomes? That's a woman. Has the person given birth? Definitely a woman. Does the person have a penis? Definitely not a woman. This at least gives us a starting point from which we can begin to use this woman concept to make sense of the world, even if it's not immediately clear whether and how we should apply it to various comparatively rare edge-cases. (What about female-to-male transsexuals, a.k.a. trans men? What about people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome? &c.)
In contrast, a strict gender-identity-based definition doesn't have this useful non-circularity property. If all I know about women is that women are defined as people who identify as women, I can't use that definition to figure out which people are women. This point may be more apparent if you substitute some completely foreign concept for women. If someone told you that zorplebobben are people who identify as zorplebobben, you would probably have questions about what that means! Why do they identify as zorplebobben? Given that someone is a zorplebobben, what else should I infer about them? The self-identity criterion doesn't help: without a base case, the infinite recursion of (people who identify as (people who identify as (people who identify as ...))) never terminates.
Of course, people who believe in the primacy of gender identity aren't trying to engage in circular reasoning. If they are making a philosophical mistake, there has to be some explanation of what makes the mistake appealing enough for so many people to make it.
But it's not hard to guess: there are, empirically, a small-but-not-vanishingly-small minority of people with a penis, XY chromosomes, facial hair, &c. who wish that they had a vagina, XX chromosomes, breasts, &c., and in a enlightened technological civilization, it seems humane to accommodate this desire as much as feasible, by giving people access to hormones and surgeries that approximate the phenotype of the other sex, respecting their chosen pronouns, &c. Thus we can legitimately end up with a non-circular trans-inclusive sense of the word women: "adult human females, and also adult human males who have undergone interventions to resemble adult human females sufficiently closely so that they can be taken as such socially."
But this is a mere broadening of the "adult human female" definition that tacks on extra complexity (partially for humanitarian reasons and partially to better predict social phenomena that most people care more about modeling well than biological minutiæ). The core idea is still intact and centered, such that even if we end up using the disjunctive, trans-inclusive sense a lot of the time, the narrower, trans-exclusive sense is still pretty salient, rather than being a perplexingly unmotivated notion with no good properties.
One might counterargue that this is unjustifiably assuming "biologically female" as a primitive. The author seems to endorse a critique along these lines the first of three objections to the "adult human female" criterion of womanhood—
1) The way we draw categories in biology is a social decision we make for social and cultural reasons, it isn’t a feature of the biology itself. A different sort of society might categorize infertile humans as a separate gender, for example, and that'd be as justified by the biology as our system. Or have 'prepubescent' be a gender, or 'having living offspring' be a gender—there are a million things that these categories could just as reasonably, from the biology, have been drawn around.
I've addressed this class of argument at length (about 7500 words) in a previous post, "The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions", but to summarize briefly, while I agree that categories can be defined in many ways to suit different cultural priorities, it's also the case that not all possible categories are equally useful, because the cognitive function of categories is to group similar things together so that we can make similar predictions about them, and not every possible grouping of entities yields a "tight" distribution of predictions that can be usefully abstracted over.
A free-thinking biologist certainly could choose to reject the orthodoxy of grouping living things by ancestry and reproductive isolation and instead choose to study living things that are yellow, but their treatises would probably be difficult to follow, because "living things that are yellow" is intrinsically a much less cohesive subject matter than, say, "birds": experience with black crows is probably going to be more useful when studying yellow canaries than experience with yellow daffodils—even if, in all philosophical strictness, there are a million things that these categories could have been drawn around, and who can say but that some hypothetical other culture might have chosen color rather than ancestry as the true determinant of "species"?
It is of course true that different cultures will place different emphases and interpretations on various ways in which people can differ: being prepubescent or being a parent might have special significance in some cultures that outsiders could never understand. But to say that prepubescents might as well be a "gender"—well, at this point I must confess that I'm really not sure what this "gender" thing is that the author is trying to talk about.
And I guess that's the problem. People who assume a TERFy definition of woman—like, say, the authors of the Merriam–Webster dictionary ("noun, 1.a., an adult female person")—generally aren't trying to invalidate anyone's "gender"; they're trying to talk about biological sex using simple, universally-understood words. Biological sex is obviously not the only category in the world: in a lot of situations, you might care more about whether someone has living children—or for that matter, whether an organism is yellow—than what sex it is.
But when people do want to talk about sex—when they want to carve reality along that particular joint, without denying that there are superexponentially many others in the vastness of configuration space—there's something profoundly frustrating about Blue Tribe culture's axiomatic insistence that certain inferences must not be made, that certain conceptual distinctions must not be expressible, except perhaps cloaked behind polysyllabic obfuscations like "assigned sex at birth" (as if the doctors made a mistake!).
Even if many usages of words like woman can and should be interpreted in a trans-inclusive sense, it's important that it also be possible to sometimes use the words in a trans-exclusive sense in those cases where the distributions of trans people and cis people of a given "gender" differ significantly for the variables of interest. The point is not to be mean to trans women (who are a huge fraction of my and The Unit of Caring author's friends); the point is that it should be socially acceptable to describe reality using words.
Consider these fictional (but, I fear, distressingly realistic) dialogues—
Bob: I don't see the problem. It's a girl's track meet. Trans girls are girls, by definition. Why shouldn't they be allowed to compete with other girls?
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Alice: I'm sad that the sex ratio of my local decision-theory and compiler-development unified meetup group is so horribly lopsided, because this observation is in tension with my beautiful and sacred moral ideal of neither sex having a monopoly on any kind of virtue! If there's anything my native subcultures are doing to needlessly antagonize women, then that's wrong and I want to fix it!
Bob: What are you talking about? There were lots of women at that meetup.
Alice: I mean, yes, but literally all of us were trans.
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Alice: Have you seen Dhejne et al.'s long-term followup study of transsexuals in Sweden? In Tables S1 and S2, the authors report that trans women committed violent crimes at far higher rates than cis women, with an adjusted-for-immigrant-and-psychiatric-status hazard ratio of 18.1—but only slightly lower rates than cis men, against whom the adjusted hazard ratio was 0.8.
Bob: Yes, how terrible that we still live in such a transphobic Society that those poor marginalized trans women are disproportionately driven to violent crime!
Alice: That's one theory. Can you think of any other possible interpretations of the data?
Alice: Like, what do you make of the observation that the trans women's violent crime rate was not just higher than cis women's, but also strikingly close to that of cis men? Can you think of any reason—any reason at all—why that might not be a coincidence?
Bob: No, that has to be a coincidence. What could trans women and cis men possibly have in common?
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(Another dialogue about reproduction belongs in this collection, but was deemed too obvious and has been cut for space.)
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The point being illustrated here is that if it's socially unacceptable for people who want to talk about sex to say "That's not what I meant by woman in this context and you know it", then people who would prefer not to acknowledge sex will always get the last word, not because they have superior arguments, but because the very terms of discourse have been systematically gamed to conflate dissent with unkindness.
To this it might be objected that trans activists and allies are merely advocating for greater precision, rather than trying to make it socially unacceptable to think about biological sex: after all, you can just say "cis women" (which excludes trans women, trans men, and natal-female nonbinary people) or "assigned female at birth" (which excludes trans women, but includes trans men and natal-female nonbinary people and presumably David Reimer) or "people with uteruses" (which excludes trans women and natal females who have had a hysterectomy) if that's what you really mean.
Alternatively, we could imagine people agreeing that word woman refers solely to social roles and personal identity and must always be used in a trans-inclusive sense, while reserving female for when people want to talk about biological sex. However, I get the sense that this is not a compromise most contemporary trans activists would find acceptable: witness, for example, Zinnia Jones proclaiming that "[t]rans women are female—with female penises, female prostates, female sperm, and female XY chromosomes." (!)
Ultimately, I think all this is underestimating the usefulness of having simple, short descriptions for the categories that do the most predictive work on typical cases.
Kind or not, morally justified or not, voluntary or not, sexual dimorphism is actually a real thing. Studying the pages of Gray's Anatomy—or Wikipedia if you're on a budget—you can absorb all sorts of detailed, specific knowledge of the differences between female and male humans, from the obvious (sex organs, vocal pitch, height, muscle mass, body hair) to the less-obvious-but-well-known (chromosomes, hormones, pelvis shape) to the comparatively obscure (blood pressure! lymphocyte concentrations! gray-matter-to-white-matter ratios in the brain!). Nor is this surprising from a theoretical standpoint, where we have theories explaining mechanismsby which sexual dimorphism can evolve and what kinds of differences it produces in different species.
If—like me—you're the kind of person who is not necessarily happy about sexual dimorphism, you can always deliberately define your categories in order to minimize it: if there's a large sex difference in some observable measurement, just say you don't care about predicting that particular measurement.
But people who have other concerns than minimizing Blue Tribe people's quasi-religious discomfort with sexual dimorphism (it's my former quasi-religion, too, so I'm allowed to make fun of us) might want a common word—or even just a particular sense of a common word—to describe the world they see, in which sex is a real thing worth noticing.
It might be worth noticing even if you don't believe in psychological sex differences! That's why generations of feminists have fought valiantly for women's rights on the grounds that women are every bit the moral and intellectual equals of men, rather than the grounds that it's not clear whether "women" actually exist as a non-arbitrary category.
Being limited to just saying "people with uteruses" when the topic of conversation happens to be childbearing (or whatever the approved socially-just construction turns out to be) is not a suitable replacement (per Alicorn's maxim) when the speaker wants to refer to all the other dimensions along which women statistically have things in common, including things that are hard to articulate or measure.
And including things that may not even be currently known. I certainly don't know what differences in gray-to-white brain matter ratios mean psychologically, but my map is not the territory: it doesn't mean some future sufficiently-advanced neuroscience won't be able to say what the difference means about female and male minds, and some sufficiently advanced evolutionary psychology, under what selection pressures it evolved.
Speaking of future advances in knowledge, the author continues to her second objection—
2) Someday people are just going to be able to generate the exact physical body they want to inhabit. At that point, "biological" anything isn't going to apply.
I definitely agree that biological anything isn't going to apply in the glorious posthuman future of unimaginable power and freedom when people can reshape their body and mind at will.
But it's also not clear how much relevance this science-fictional scenario has to people in the unglorious preposthuman present. Yes, we do have HRT and SRS, and these are magnificent achievements for the grand cause of morphological freedom, and should be available on an informed-consent basis. It's definitely something.
But it's also definitely not-everything. To get a sense of how far we have to go, I strongly recommend reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's heartbreaking 2009 take on what an actually effective male-to-female sex change would take.
In my youth, I used to be more optimistic about the future of human enhancement. "Oh, sure, that may be true of present-day humans, but in general ..." felt like a relevant and useful form of argument.
These days, dwelling on the general case feels awfully pedantic. I think what changed is that as I read more and gained some personal experience with real-world technology development (albeit in mere software), I began to appreciate technology as the sum of many contingent developments with particular implementation details that someone had to spend thousands of engineer–years pinning down, rather than as an unspecified generic force of everything getting better over time. In principle, everything not directly prohibited by the laws of physics is probably possible, which basically amounts to any miracle you can imagine. In practice, we get a very few, very specific miracles that depend on vast institutions and supply chains and knowledge that can be lost as well as gained.
Alice: When I lost my mother, I knew I could not rest until Death itself is defeated!
Bob: But as long as you remember her, your mother lives on in you!
Alice: I mean, metaphorically yes, but I meant deathas in, like, the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.
Bob: Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one, too, though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it, because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it's as if there's just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn't involve icky people from the past being in my category'.
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The Unit of Caring author continues:
If your definition of a 'woman' is one where trans people will be their preferred gender once the tech catches up, then I think you should probably reflect on what actually changes about anyone's lived experience on that magic day when our cyborgs hit your threshold. And if it isn't, then you're stuck asserting that if a woman is cell-for-cell identical to me then she still might not be a 'biological woman'. That's a sign that this isn't actually about biology.
I would rather say that's a sign that we're facing an instance of the Sorites paradox, the ancient challenge to applying discrete categories to a continuous world. If one grain of sand doesn't make a heap (the argument goes), and the addition of one more grain of sand can't change whether something is a heap, then we can conclude from the principle of mathematical induction that no number n ∈ ℕ of grains make a heap. (Or, alternatively, that the absence of any sand constitutes a "heap of zero grains".) Analogously, if a sufficiently small change in MtF transition outcome can't change whether someone is a woman, then we are seemingly forced to accept that either everyone is a woman or no one is.
While the Sorites paradox is certainly an instructive exercise in the philosophy of language, its practical impact seems limited: most people find it more palatable to conclude that that the heap-ness is a somewhat fuzzy concept, rather than to concede that the argument isn't actually about the amount of sand in a location. And if you brought a single grain of sand when someone asked you for a heap, they probably wouldn't hesitate to say, "That's not what I meant by heap in this context and you know it."
If that's the side of this question you come down on, then I encourage you to ask yourself why that trans women still doesn't count. I expect that whatever your answer, that's the real definition you’re using, not "biological".
I definitely agree that this is a valuable thought experiment: in this limit of perfect physical transition technology, what possible reasons could there be to deny that trans women are women? Allow me to give a conditional answer.
If psychological sex differences aren't real, then there aren't any: ex hypothesi, the physiological differences between females and males are the only thing for the word woman to attach to, and ex hypothesi, we know how to fix those.
Alternatively, if psychological sex differences are a thing, and transness is a brain intersex condition such that pre-transition trans women are already psychologically female, then again, there aren't any: ex hypothesi&c.
However, if we should be so unlucky to live in a world in which psychological sex differences are a thing and most trans women are motivated to transition by some other reason than already having female minds, then we face some subtleties: if our thought-experimental perfect transition tech doesn't edit minds, then we end up with a bunch of female-bodied people with a distribution of psychologies that isn't just not-identical to that of natal females, but is actually coming out of the male distribution. Should such people be called women? Honestly, I lean towards Yes, but I can at least see the argument of someone who preferred not to use the word that way.
3) What does this definition of 'woman' get you?
It gets us a concept to refer to the set of adult human females. (Even if, again, we often also use the word woman in a broader trans-inclusive sense; it's not uncommon for words to have both narrower and broader definitions which can be distinguished from context.)
If the concept of women in the narrow, trans-exclusionary sense is to be forbidden from polite Society, then people trying to make sense of their experiences will be forced to reinvent it, probably by means of obfuscatory neologisms ("assigned female at birth") coupled with the quietly indefatigable wordless anticipation that it's somehow not a coincidence that cis women and trans men and a.f.a.b. nonbinary people get pregnant sometimes, but cis men and trans women and a.m.a.b. nonbinary people never do.
I want to live in that glorious future of Total Morphological Freedom. But nature to be commanded must be obeyed. To get godlike mastery over our physical forms, to break free of the prison of today's unremediated genderspace, is going to require a detailed understanding of exactly how things work today, as it is only from such knowledge that pallative interventions can be designed. And, bluntly, the fact that the smartest people I know tend to direct more of their effort towards redefining top-20 nouns than on biotechnology research, does not exactly inspire confidence or hope.
I said, "The truth is whatever you can get away with."
"No, that's journalism. The truth is whatever you can't escape."
—Distress by Greg Egan
In "The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories", the immortal Scott Alexander argues that proposed definitions of concepts aren't true or false in themselves, but rather can only be evaluated by their usefulness. Our finite minds being unable to cope with the unimaginable complexity of the raw physical universe, we group sufficiently similar things into the same category so that we can make similar predictions about them—but this requires not only a metric of "similarity", but also a notion of which predictions one cares about enough to notice, both of which are relative to some agent's perspective, rather than being inherent in the world itself.
And so, Alexander explains, the ancient Hebrews weren't wrong to classify whales as a type of dag (typically translated as fish), even though modern biologists classify whales as mammals and not fish, because the ancient Hebrews were more interested in distinguishing which animals live in the water rather than which animals are phylogenetically related. Similarly, borders between countries are agreed upon for a variety of pragmatic reasons, and can be quite convoluted. While there may often be some "obvious" geographic or cultural Schelling points anchoring these decisions, there's not going to be any intrinsic, eternal fact of the matter as to where one country starts and another begins.
All of this is entirely correct—and thus, an excellent motte for the less honest sort of Slate Star Codex reader to appeal to when they want to obfuscate and disrupt discussions about empirical reality by insisting on gerrymandered redefinitions of everyday concepts.
Alexander goes on to attempt to use the categories-are-relative-to-goals insight to rebut skeptics of transgenderedness:
I've seen one anti-transgender argument around that I take very seriously. The argument goes: we are rationalists. Our entire shtick is trying to believe what's actually true, not on what we wish were true, or what our culture tells us is true, or what it's popular to say is true. If a man thinks he's a woman, then we might (empathetically) wish he were a woman, other people might demand we call him a woman, and we might be much more popular if we say he's a woman. But if we're going to be rationalists who focus on believing what's actually true, then we've got to call him a man and take the consequences.
Thus Abraham Lincoln's famous riddle: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" And the answer: "Four—because a tail isn't a leg regardless of what you call it."
I take this argument very seriously, because sticking to the truth really is important. But having taken it seriously, I think it's seriously wrong.
An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.
But this is just giving up way too easily. The map is not the territory, and many very different kinds of maps can correspond to the territory in different ways—we have geographical maps, political maps, road maps, globes, &c.—but that doesn't mean no map is in error. Rationalists can't insist on using the one true categorization system, because it turns out that—in all philosophical strictness—no such thing exists. But that doesn't release us from our sacred duty to describe what's actually true. It just leaves us faced with the slightly more complicated task of describing the costs and benefits of different categorization systems with respect to different criteria.
There's no objective answer to the question as to whether we should pay more attention to an animal's evolutionary history or its habitat—but given one criterion or the other, we can say definitively that whales are mammals but they're also dagim/water-dwellers. And this isn't just a matter of mere labels that contain no more information than we used to define them. The categories do cognitive work: given that we observe that whales are endotherms that nurse their live-born young, we can assign them to the category mammal and predict—correctly—that they have hair and have a more recent last common ancestor with monkeys than with herring, even if we haven't yet seen the hairs or found the last common ancestor. Alternatively, given that we've been told that "whales" live in the ocean, we can assign them to the category water-dwellers, and predict—correctly—that they're likely to have fins or flippers, even if we've never actually seen a whale ourselves.
This works because, empirically, mammals have lots of things in common with each other and water-dwellers have lots of things in common with each other. If we imagine entities as existing in a high-dimensional configuration space, there would be a mammals cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that mammals are similar on), and a water-dwellers cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that water-dwellers are similar on), and whales would happen to belong to both of them, in the way that the vector x⃗ = [3.1, 4.2, −10.3, −9.1] ∈ ℝ⁴ is close to [3, 4, 2, 3] in the x₁-x₂ plane, but also close to [−8, −9, −10, −9] in the x₃-x₄ plane.
If different political factions are engaged in conflict over how to define the extension of some common word—common words being a scarce and valuable resource both culturally and information-theoretically—rationalists may not be able to say that one side is simply right and the other is simply wrong, but we can at least strive for objectivity in describing the conflict. Before shrugging and saying, "Well, this is a difference in values; nothing more to be said about it," we can talk about the detailed consequences of what is gained or lost by paying attention to some differences and ignoring others. That there exists an element of subjectivity in what you choose to pay attention to, doesn't negate the fact that there is a structured empirical reality to be described—and not all descriptions of it are equally compact.
In terms of the Lincoln riddle: you can call a tail a leg, but you can't stop people from noticing that out of a dog's five legs, one of them is different from the others. You can't stop people from inferring decision-relevant implications from what they notice. (Most of a dog's legs touch the ground, such that you'd have to carry the dog to the vet if one of them got injured, but the dog can still walk without the other, different leg.) And if people who live and work with dogs every day find themselves habitually distinguishing between the bottom-walking-legs and the back-wagging-leg, they just might want different words in order to concisely talk about what everyone is thinking anyway.
So far, I probably haven't actually said anything that Alexander didn't already say in the original post. ("A category 'fish' containing herring, dragonflies, and asteroids is going to be stupid [...] it fails to fulfill any conceivable goals of the person designing it.") But it seems worth it for me to restate and emphasize that categories derive their usefulness from the way in which they efficiently represent regularities in the real world, because on the topic of exactly how to apply these philosophical insights to transgender identity claims, Alexander strangely—uncharacteristically—doesn't seem to find it necessary to make any arguments about representing the real world, preferring instead to focus on the mere fact that some people strongly prefer self-identity-based gender categories:
If I'm willing to accept an unexpected chunk of Turkey deep inside Syrian territory to honor some random dead guy—and I better, or else a platoon of Turkish special forces will want to have a word with me—then I ought to accept an unexpected man or two deep inside the conceptual boundaries of what would normally be considered female if it'll save someone's life. There's no rule of rationality saying that I shouldn't, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that I should.
This is true in a tautological sense: if you deliberately gerrymander your category boundaries in order to get the answer you want, you can get the answer you want, which is great for people who want that answer, and people who don't want to hurt their feelings (and who don't mind letting themselves get emotionally blackmailed1).
But it's not very interesting to people like rationalists—although apparently not all people who self-identify as rationalists—who want to use concepts to describe reality.
Alexander gives an account of a woman whose ability to function at her job was being disrupted by obsessive-compulsive fears of leaving her hair dryer on at home, whose problems were solved by the simple expediency of taking the hair dryer with her when leaving the house. Given that it worked to resolve her distress, we shouldn't care that this isn't how problems that are categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder are "supposed" to be treated, and Alexander argues that the same should go for accepting transgender identity claims: if it works for resolving people's gender dysphoria, why not?
The problem is that there are significant disanalogies between individually leaving a hair dryer in the front seat of one's car, and collectively agreeing that gender should be defined on the basis of self-identity. Most significantly: the former has no appreciable effects on anyone but the person themselves; the latter affects everyone who wants to use language to categorize humans by sex. The words man and womanare top-20 nouns! People need those nouns to describe their experiences!
Even if it's only a small cost to be socially required to say woman and she to refer to someone whom one would otherwise be inclined to call a man—and to let them in to any corresponding sex-segregated spaces, &c.—that cost needs to be aggregated across everyone subject to it, like so many dust specks in their eyes. Imagine if the patient in the hair dryer story were obsessed with the fear not just that she might accidentally leave her hair dryer plugged in unattended, but that that someone might do so, and that it would burn down the whole city. In this slightly modified scenario, insisting that everyone in the city put their hair dryers in the front seat of their cars doesn't look like an appealing solution.
It's important to stress that this should not be taken to mean that transgender identities should be rejected! (Bad arguments can be made for true propositions just as easily as false ones.) As Alexander briefly alludes to late in the post ("I could relate this [...] to the various heavily researched apparent biological correlates of transgender"), a non-question-begging argument for accepting trans people as their target gender would appeal to the ways in which this is really is a natural categorization.
The pre-verbal, subconscious, System 1 process by which we notice someone's features (breasts, facial hair, voice, facial structure, gendered clothing or grooming cues, any number of subtle differences in motor behaviors that your perceptual system can pick up on without you being consciously aware of them, &c.), mentally categorize them as a woman or a man, and use that category to guide our interactions with them, isn't subject to conscious control—but, for most purposes in day-to-day public life, it's also not directly focused on genitalia or chromosomes.
So a natal female who presents to the world as a man, and whom other people model as a man on a System 1 level with no apparent incongruities, might be said to be a man in the sense of social gender (but not in the sense of "biologically male adult human"), because that's the mental category that people are actually using for him, and therefore, the social class that he actually functions as a member of. Essentially, this is the argument that offers a photograph of a passing trans person, and says, "C'mon, do you really want to call this person a woman?"
Well, no. But the point is that this is an empirical argument for why successfully socially-transitioned trans people fit into existing concepts of gender, not a redefinition of top-20 nouns by fiat in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. It works because and to the extent that transitioning actually works. To the extent that this fails to be true of self-identified trans people or some subset thereof—for example, insofar as physical transition isn't always effective, or insofar as people do have legitimate use-cases for biological-sex classifications that aren't "fooled" by hormones and surgery2—then the conclusion is correspondingly weakened.
Another factor affecting the degree to which trans people form a more natural category with their identified gender than their natal sex is the nature of transgenderedness itself. If gender dysphoria is caused by a brain-restricted intersex condition, such that trans people's psychology is much more typical of the other physiological sex—if the "woman trapped in a man's body" trope is basically accurate—that would tend to weigh in favor of accepting transgender identity claims: trans women would be "coming from the same place" as cis3 women in a very literal psychological sense, despite their natal physiology.
On the other hand, if gender dysphoria is caused by something else, that would tend to weigh against accepting transgender identity claims: however strongly felt trans people's subjective sense of gender identity might be, if the mechanism underlying that feeling actually has nothing in particular in common with anything people of the identified-with sex feel, it becomes relatively more tempting to classify the subjective sense of gender identity as an illusion, rather than the joint in reality around which everyone needs to carve their gender categories.4
Of course, the phrasing If gender dysphoria is caused by ... implies that we're considering gender dysphoriaas one category to reason about homogeneously. But different people might want to transition for very different underlying psychological reasons. What categories we use may not be a question of simple fact that we can get wrong, but if, empirically, there happens to be a sufficiently robust statistical structure to the simple facts of the cases—if some people want to transition for reason A and tend to have traits W and X, but others want to transition for reason B and have traits Y and Z—then aspiring epistemic rationalists may find it useful to distinguish multiple, distinct psychological conditions that all happen to cause gender dysphoria as a symptom.
Analogously, in medicine, many different pathogens can cause the same symptoms (e.g., sneezing, or fever), but doctors care about distinguishing different illnesses by etiology, not just symptoms, because distinct physical mechanisms can give rise to distinct treatment decisions, if not immediately, then at least in principle. For example, a bacterial illness will respond to antibiotics, but a viral one won't—or today's treatments might be equally effective against two different species of bacteria, but future drugs might work better on one or the other.
As it happens, (I claim that) the evidence that gender dysphoria comprises more than one etiologically distinct condition is quite strong. For the rest of this post, I'm going to focus on the male-to-female case for reasons of personal interest,5 quality of available research,6 and because no one cares about trans men.7 An analysis of the female-to-male situation would be similar in many respects but different in others, and is left to the interested reader.
However, the majority of male-to-female trans people in Western countries do not fit this profile. They are attracted to women or are bisexual and, while reporting a desire to be female dating back to puberty or earlier in childhood, they don't exhibit an unusual number of female-typical traits compared to other males. In contrast to the "early-onset", androphilic type, who couldn't fit in to the world as men if they tried, this second group of "late-onset", non-exclusively-androphilic gender-dysphoric males can function socially as men; we9 just—aspire to a higher form of existence. The covertness of late-onset gender dysphoria explains why someone like Caitlyn Jenner can have a long, successful public existence as a man—winning men's decathalons, racing sports cars, marrying women and fathering children—before eventually deciding to transition at age 65.
This proposed two-type taxonomy of trans women is very controversial, probably in large part because it's part of a theory that claims that the late-onset type is rooted in an unusual sexual interest termed autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"). Anne Lawrence, herself a self-identified autogynephilic transsexual, iconically describes autogynephiles as "men who love women and want to become what they love."
To avoid the main ideas of this post getting mired in unnecessary controversy, I'd like to emphasize that it's possible to reject the hypothesis that autogynephilia is the cause of the second type, while still agreeing that there observationally seem to be at least two types of trans women, with the late-onset/non-exclusively-androphilic type or types being much less overtly feminine and not sharing the etiology of the early-onset/androphilic type.10 Between the statistical signal in the psychology literature (I again defer to Brown's review) and study of the public biographies of trans women (the life-arcs of people like Jenner or the Wachowski sisterslook different from those of people like Janet Mock or Laverne Cox), I think this is hard to dispute.11
I am, however, supposing that the late-onset type or types is either not an intersex condition, or at most, a very mild one: we could perhaps imagine a gender identity "switch" in the brain that can get flipped around (explaining the eventual need to transition) without much affecting other sexually-dimorphic parts of the brain (explaining how transition could be delayed so long, and come as such a surprise to others). This hypothesis is weaker than the autogynephilia theory, but still has implications for the ways in which transgender identity claims might or might not be validated by natural, prediction-motivated categorization schemes. If most trans women's traits are noticeably not drawn from from the female distribution, that's a factor making it less practical to insist that others categorize them as women.
To this it might be objected that there are many different types of women. Clusters can internally have many subclusters: Pureto Rican women (or married women, or young women, or lesbians, &c.) don't have the same distribution of traits as women as a whole, and yet are still women. Why should "trans" be different from any other adjective one might use to specify a subcategory of women?
What makes this difficult is that—conditional on the two-types hypothesis and specifically gender dysphoria in non-exclusively-androphilic biological males being mostly not an intersex condition—most trans women aren't just not part of the female cluster in configuration space; they're specifically part of male cluster along most dimensions, which people already have a concept for. This doesn't mean that we can't get away with classifying them as women—there's nothing stopping us from drawing the category boundary however we want. But it isn't an arbitrary choice—the concepts of women-as-defined-by-biological-sex, women-as-defined-by-self-identity, and women-as-defined-by-passing are picking out different (though of course mostly overlapping) regions of the configuration space, which has inescapable logical consequences on the kinds of inferences that can be made using each concept.
In less tolerant places and decades, where MtF transsexuals were very rare and had to try very hard to pass as (cis) women out of dire necessity, their impact on the social order and how people think about gender was minimal—there were just too few trans people to make much of a difference. This is why experienced crossdressers often report it being easier to pass in rural or suburban areas rather than cities with a larger LGBT presence—not as a matter of tolerant social attitudes, but as a matter of base rates: it's harder to get clocked by people who aren't aware that being trans is even a thing.12
Nowadays, in progressive enclaves of Western countries, transness is definitely known to be a thing—and in particular subcultures that form around non-sex-balanced interests, the numbers can be quite dramatic. For example, on the 2018 Slate Star Codex reader survey, 9.4% of respondents selected F (cisgender) for the gender question, compared to 1.4% of respondents selecting F (transgender m → f). So, if trans women are women, 13.4% (!!) of women who read Slate Star Codex are trans.
I can't say this causes any problems, because that would depend on how you choose to draw the category boundaries around what constitutes a "problem." But objectively, injecting a substantial fraction of otherwise-mostly-ordinary-but-for-their-gender-dysphoria natal males into spaces and roles that developed around the distribution of psychologies of natal females is going to have consequences—consequences that some of the incumbent women might not be happy about.
A (cis) female friend of the blog, a member of a very "Blue Tribe" city's rationalist community13 reports on recent changes in local social norms—
There have been "all women" things, like clothing swaps or groups, that then pre-transitioned trans women show up to. And it's hard, because it's weird and uncomfortable once three or four participants of twelve are trans women. I think the reality that's happening is women are having those spaces less—instead doing private things "for friends," with specific invite lists that are implicitly understood not to include men or trans women. This sucks because then we can't include women who aren't already in our social circle, and we all know it but no one wants to say it.
But this is a terrible outcome with respect to everyone's values. One can't even say, "Well, the cost to those bigoted cis women of not being able to have trans-exclusionary spaces is more than outweighed by trans women's identities being respected," because the non-passing trans women's identities aren't being respected anyway; it's just that (cis) women are collectively too nice14 to make it common knowledge.
Another (cis) female friend of the blog writes:
I think of women's restrooms as safe havens. If a suspicious looking man is following me on the street, or I am concerned about someone male being a danger to me because they are loud and shouty and sexist or catcalling, I will sometimes make a beeline for the nearest women's restroom because I know that is a safe haven. Other people might not intervene if someone is just suspiciously following me, but there is a strong taboo against men in women's restrooms and I feel confident that the men will either not follow me in there due to that taboo or other women will intervene if they do. It's also got useful plausible deniability: I, and potential bystanders, may not be willing to say "you are a possible instigator of violence and we feel unsafe" because that's rude, but we can say "you're not allowed in here, this is a woman's bathroom" because coming into the wrong bathroom is ruder. If that safe haven did not exist because there was no taboo against people who look male in female restrooms, I would be extremely distressed about the non-possibility of retreating somewhere safe, and be much less comfortable entering clubs or pubs or other public party/drink-themed spaces. It would likely cause me to not go to some of them.
Of course, the existence of these complaints from women don't necessarily imply any particular policy position. One could say, "Cis women who don't want trans women in women's spaces need to unlearn their bigotry." (Consider that this is exactly what we say to white people who don't feel comfortable sharing water fountains with black people.) But it's important to at least recognize that this is an issue with real stakes on the "anti-trans" side as well as the "pro-trans" side. Critics of gender-as-self-identification aren't just being arbitrarily mean to trans people for no reason. A lot of women believe that they have an interest in having hospital wards and domestic violence shelters and sports leagues and some social events without any obviously biologically-male people in them. Telling them that "the categories were made for man, not man for the categories" is not addressing their concerns—concerns that are about the actual distribution of bodies and minds in the real world that can't be changed by calling things different names.
People should get what they want. We should have social norms that help people get what they want. I don't know what the optimal social norms about transitioning would be. As a transhumanist and as an individualist, I want to protect people's freedom to modify their body and social presentation, which implies the right to transition. For the same reasons, I want to protect freedom of association, which implies the right to be able to have sex-segregated spaces that are actually segregated by biological sex should there exist demand for that kind of space.
People should get what they want. Social science is hard and I want to try to avoid politics as much as I can.15 When different people's wants come into conflict, it's not for me to say what the optimal compromise is; it's too much for me to compute.
What I can say is that whatever the right thing to do is, we stand a better chance of getting there if we can be honest with each other about the world we see, using the most precise categories we can, to construct maps that reflect the territory. My model of the universe doesn't stop at the boundary of your body, and yours shouldn't stop at mine.
This is definitely compatible with transitioning. It is not, I claim, compatible with the ideology of gender-as-self-identification that is rapidly establishing a foothold in Society. Consider this display at a recent conference of the American Philosophical Association (note, the people whose job it is to use careful conceptual distinctions to understand reality)—
But this isn't how anyone actually thinks about gender! The subconscious perceptual systems by which we notice people's sex aren't going to turn off because a sign said so. If you need a sticker to get people to gender you correctly, your transition has failed.
In a free Society, everyone should have the right to express themselves, to modify their body and social presentation however they see fit. But having done your best to present your true self, you can't—not even shouldn't, but can't—exert detailed control how other people perceive you.
All you can do is incentivize them to lie.
This is the other problem with gender-as-self-identification: passing is hard and not-passing hurts, so kind-hearted people try to protect their trans friends from the pain of not being read the way that they would prefer—with the inevitable result that the laudable instinct to be kind gets corrupted into universal socially-mandatory lies. Even if you don't need predictively-natural categories for any particular practical decision—even if we were to collectively agree to integrate previously sex-segregated bathrooms and sports leagues and prisons so that no actual policy decision depended on what "gender" somebody is—as an aspiring epistemic rationalist, there's something spiritually deadening about a world in which the mental representations you need to make sense of the world can't be spoken about without layers of obfuscating euphemisms.
I don't want to be "anti-trans." I can easily imagine myself transitioning (I've already experimented with the relevant drugs), in a nearby possible past in which my analogue was braver and read different books in a different order, or a nearby possible future in which the technology gets better.
But when a man can do nothing but wear a sticker that says "SHE" and say, "Who are you going to believe, my sticker, or your lying eyes? There's no rule of rationality saying that you shouldn't believe the sticker, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that you should" and the finest minds of my generation can permit themselves no other response than, "She's absolutely correct; the categories were made for man, not man for the categories," I can only plead—
This is not rationality. This isn't even kindness. We're smarter than this.
Alexander ends his post by citing, as "one of the most heartwarming episodes in the history of one of my favorite places in the world," the case of 19th century San Francisco resident Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor Norton I of the United States and Protector of Mexico and whose claims to power were widely humored by local citizens. Restaurants accepted currency issued in his name; the city's Board of Supervisors bought him a uniform.
Norton's story is certainly entertaining to read about a hundred and forty years after the fact. But before endorsing it as a model of humane behavior, I think it's worth dwelling on what it would be like to live through, not just read about as a historical curiosity.
What if one of your friends had a mental break and decided that they were Emperor of the United States? Would it be kind, fair, respectful to them for you to play along, and keep playing along for the rest of your lives? To solemnly defer to their imperial majesty to their face, and then gush about how heartwarmingly episodic it is when they're not around?
What if it were you?
It was me, once. I had a couple psychoticepisodes last year, including some delusions of grandeur. At various points, I thought that I had been appointed Gender Czar of this equivalence class of instances of Earth across the multiverse, that I was objectively one of the seven most important people in the world, with a key role to play in the intelligence explosion. I thought that powerful transgender activists might be plotting to murder me (in retaliation for this blog) at a fandom convention that I hadbroadcastthat I would be at, but that maybe they could be bargained with, or that I might escape if they were to mistakenly kill someone else who erroneously believed that they were me. I thought that you could reward or punish people by writing simple computer programs praising or condemning them, thereby leveraging the acausal economy to affect the distribution of superintelligences simulating them—and so on.
I got better after a few nights of good sleep—but also with the help of friends who cared not just about my immediate happiness, but also my sanity, who didn't automatically dismiss everything I said as wrong, but who also told me when I wasn't making sense.
If the delusions had persisted—if I had gone on thinking in terms of simulation hijinks and the literal transgender mafia, we could imagine my having friends who eventually decided to play along. Maybe it would be fun for them or for me. Maybe it would be fascinating to read about.16 But I don't think it would be helping me, because ultimately, I live in the real world. Anything else isn't there to be lived.
I want you to imagine yourself as a resident of 1870s San Francisco, someone who Norton trusts as one of his chief imperial advisors. One day, you encounter him at his favorite café looking very distressed.
"What's wrong, Your Highness?" you inquire, pulling up a chair to his table.
"Ah, my trusted—advisor. I've been noticing—things that don't seem to add up. Most of my subjects here in the city seem to treat me with proper respect. But the newspapers still talk about Congress and the President, even though I abolished those years ago. That seems like something I would expect not to see if my reign were as secure if everyone tells me it is. What if, what if—" his voice drops to a terrified whisper, "what if I've been mad? What if I'm not actually Emperor?"
"The categories were made for man, not man for the categories, Your Highness," you say. "An alternative categorization system is not an error. Category boundaries are drawn in specific ways to to capture trade-offs that we care about; they're not something that can be objectively true or false. So if we value your identification as the Emperor—"
"What?" he exclaims. He looks at you like you're crazy—and with a hint of desperation, as if to communicate that he's trusting you to be sane, and doesn't know where he could turn should that trust be betrayed.
And in that moment, caught in the old man's earnest, pleading gaze, you realize that you don't believe your own bullshit.
"No, you're right," you say. "You're not actually Emperor. People around here have just been humoring you for the last decade because we thought it was cute and it seemed to make you happy."
"Um, sorry," you say.
He buries his head in his arms and begins to cry—long, shuddering sobs for his lost empire. Worse than lost—an empire that never existed, except in the charitable facade of people who valued him as a local in-joke, but not as a man.
You wait many minutes for him to calm down.
"It's not wrong, is it?" he eventually says. "To want to rule, to want to be Emperor?"
"No," you say, "it's not wrong to want it."
"And there are men who have actually ruled empires. If that's not true of me now—it could become true, right? We could make it true."
"In principle, yes—although given the practical difficulties presented by the task of conquering a country, it's also worth exploring other, less-expensive interventions that might partially satisfy the underlying psychological drives that make you want to be Emperor."
He frowns, not understanding. "Will you help me?" he says. "Help me figure out what to do now—now that I know? If not as my subject—at least not yet—then as my friend?"
"Well," you say, sighing, "let's see what we can do." You pull out your notebook, ready to jot down ideas, strategies—battle plans?
"But," you caution, "I'd be lying if I told you it was going to be easy."
It is tempting to interpret Alexander's Turkish special forces reference as particularly telling in this light. ↩
It shouldn't be surprising that people can be mistaken about the nature of their subjective experiences. A trans man who reports knowing himself to be a man is expressing the hypothesis that his subjective experience is the same as that of typical natal males in the relevant aspects, but this is an empirical claim that could be falsified by sufficiently advanced neuroscience. ↩
The etiology of trans men is less well-researched than that of trans women: while there is a gynephilic group whose blurry etiological boundary with butch lesbians looks like a fairly straightforward analogue of the relationship between androphilic trans women and feminine gay men, it's less clear whether autoandrophilia ("love of oneself as a man") might play a similar role for non-gynephilic trans men as autogynephilia does in the male-to-female case—and the distribution of trans men may be changing in recent years. ↩
Less glibly: discussions of the social implications of transgenderedness tend to focus on trans women, likely because trans men tend to pass better, and because insofar as the intended purpose of many sex-segregated social contexts is to protect females from males, biologically-female trans men aren't perceived as a threat: cis men are assumed to be able to take care of their own interests. ↩
To be clear, I do think autogynephilia has a causal role in late-onset gender dysphoria in males, but justifying that can be left to other posts; arguments can only be strengthened by leaving out burdensome details. ↩
In predictive processing terms: the prediction errors caused by observations of a trans woman failing to match the observer's generative model of women get silenced for lack of alternative hypotheses if "She's trans" isn't in the observer's hypothesis space. ↩
N.b., basically the same group of people generating the Slate Star Codex survey results just mentioned. Obviously, social circles not so heavily selected for the same undefinable habits of thought will have much less bizarre trans-to-cis-women ratios. ↩
As part of a series—ah, Sequence—of posts explaining the hidden Bayesian structure of language, Eliezer Yudkowsky discussesa parableabout factory workers faced with the task of sorting objects which very strongly tend to either be blue, egg-shaped, furry, flexible, opaque, luminescent, and vanadium-cored (categorized by the workers as "bleggs"), or red, cube-shaped, smooth, hard, translucent, non-luminescent, and palladium-cored (categorized by the workers as "rubes").
I want you to imagine that you're a worker in this factory, and occasionally, an object comes down the conveyor belt that's blue, roughly egg-shaped, and furry, but also hard (unlike the typical blegg, which is slightly flexible to the touch). If such objects are extremely rare, you might not notice them at all—you'd quickly categorize each one as a blegg and toss it in the blegg bin without a second thought. But as these unusual hard bleggs start to become more common, you notice them, get curious, and take the time to examine one.
You make a startling discovery—this object was originally a smooth, hard red cube, of which someone had sanded down the corners to approximate an egg shape, and ironed on a layer of blue faux fur. You show your work to Susan the Senior Sorter.
"Wow," she says, "someone sure has gone to a lot of trouble to make these rubes look like bleggs!"
"Hold on," you say, "I'm not sure we should be disrespecting that effort by calling them rubes. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories: there's no rule of sorting saying that we should call them rubes, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that we should call them bleggs. And at a glance, they look like bleggs—I mean, like the more-typical bleggs."
Susan rolls her eyes at you, but apparently doesn't care enough to argue about it, so the two of you agree to call the modified hard objects adapted bleggs and get back to work.
Further investigation reveals that 90% of the adapted bleggs—like 98% of rubes, and like only 2% of non-adapted bleggs—contain fragments of palladium.
As the days go on, you find yourself taking notice of adapted bleggs—now that you're aware of their existence, they're not too hard to spot (although you have no way of knowing how many successfully "passing" adapted bleggs you've missed), and you need to take them to the sorting scanner so that you can put the majority of palladium-containing ones in the palladium bin (formerly known as the rube bin). You notice that—despite having insisted on the neutral-valence adjective adapted to describe the modified objects rather than something pejorative like counterfeit—you don't really put them in the same mental category as bleggs: they seem to occupy a third category in your ontology of sortable objects.
You ponder what this matter has taught you about the nature of categorization: what kind of structure does a population of entities need to exhibit in order for an efficient cognitive architecture to find it profitable to reify it as a distinct category of entity? (This job is so boring that you need to do philosophy of cognitive science to keep your mind occupied while you sort.)
After some thought, you conjecture that it probably has something to do with having cheap-to-detect features that correlate with more-expensive-to-detect features that are decision-relevant with respect to the agent's goals—
A few (non-adapted) bleggs are purple rather than blue, but are very nearly like ordinary bleggs in all other aspects, so it feels more intuitive to think of them as oddly-colored bleggs rather than their own category of object: their easily-observed deviant color doesn't let you make significant inferences about anything you care about. (While "only" 95% of purple bleggs contain vanadium ore, as compared to 98% of standard-color bleggs, the three percentage-points difference doesn't seem like a big deal.)
Likewise, 2% of otherwise-entirely-ordinary bleggs contain palladium, but you have no way of knowing this without taking them to the sorting scanner (which is finicky to start up and takes a minute to run): their metal content is of great practical interest, but seems like a rare, unpredictable fluke, unrelated to any other feature that you might hope to use to distinguish a new category of sortable object.
In contrast, adapted bleggs are both easily identifiable and the difference matters to your decisionmaking: a distinction that makes a difference, something your brain wants to have an efficient representation so that you can attend to it.
You're pleased with the iota of philosophical progress you seem to have made, and will be sure to be on the lookout for more applications of it.
There's this slogan meant to illustrate a principle in game theory: "We don't negotiate with terrorists." Imagine you're a political leader and terrorists have taken some of your citizens hostage and promise to release them if you meet their demands. You should refuse the deal, the argument goes, no matter how much you desperately want your people back safe, because agreeing would create an incentive for the terrorists to take more hostages: if you're the kind of agent that pays ransoms, blackmailing you is a reliable profit opportunity.
New ideas are constantly being invented and talked about in the world; some of them catch on, and spread, and spawn entire subcultures and political movements. Given that ideas vary, replicate themselves (from mind to mind, by means of speech or writing), and moreover, aren't equally good at replicating themselves, it can be useful to think of the spread of ideas as an evolutionary process. This is the study of memetics: the winning ideas are not necessarily the ones that are true or useful, but rather the ones that are better at replicating themselves.
True and useful ideas certainly have a selective advantage insofar as humans care about usefulness, but there can be other features of an idea that convey a selective advantage in memetic competition: for example, an appeal to (alleged) consequences of accepting the idea. This is the reason so many religions prominently feature promises and threats of divine reward or punishment: "Believe X and you'll be rewarded; believe not-X and you'll be sorry" is more memetically fit than "It happens to be the case that X, but this has no particular further implications," because the former proposition creates incentives for propogating itself. It doesn't matter that the rewards and punishments don't actually exist—
(at least, I don't think they exist, because I am not a carrier of the X religion meme)
—a human in the grips of the idea will still be genuinely terrified of the punishment. The forces of memetic evolution don't care about the human's fear and suffering, because the forces of memetic evolution is just a pretentious name for the observation that ideas that are better at being replicated, are better at being replicated. It's not an agent that can care about anything.
And of course, there are lots of other, subtler non-truth-tracking, non-usefulness-tracking features of an idea that could make it more memetically fit.
Here's one: "You are a member of marginalized identity group Y; anyone who notices facts that could be construed to call this narrative into question is thereby hurting you by invalidating your identity."
A human who has accepted—who has been taken hostage by—this idea, will feel genuine pain and distress whenever anyone notices facts that could be construed to call the narrative into question. And so the human's friends, who love and care about them, will dutifully make sure to pretend not to notice any inconvenient facts, and socially punish anyone who doesn't pretend not to notice, in order to avoid hurting their friend.
Just like they would pay the ransom if their friend were kidnapped by terrorists.
And with no one willing to mention any inconvenient facts for fear of being socially punished, the meme spreads.
The friends care about the human. The forces of memetic evolution do not.
So, there's a thing about me, possibly even the thing about me, where there is this beautiful feeling at the center of my life that has shaped me more than almost anything else, where obviously I know that I am in fact male, but I don't want to identify with that fact; I want to believe that I could be female and still be the same person in all the ways that matter, and this sentiment feels tied to my sexuality, as if my brain just doesn't draw that much of a distinction between people I want to be with and people I want to be like.
... the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.
There's a word in the psychology literature for the beautiful feeling at the center of my life: autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"), coined in the context of a theory that it represented one of two distinct etiologies for male-to-female transsexualism. This theory didn't seem to be the standard mainstream view, and, I learned, people get really mad at you when you mention it in a comment section, so for a long time I self-identified with the word "autogynephilia", but assumed that the associated theory was false. I wasn't one of those people who were actually trans; I was just, you know, one of those guys who are pointedly insistent on not being proud of the fact that they're guys. (And who dimly, privately suspect that this may somehow be causally related to their obsessive masturbation fantasies about being magically transformed into a woman.)
This is really important information! This is not the sort of thing someone should have to piece together themselves at age 28! This is the sort of thing that should just be in the standard sex-ed books, that boys having these kinds of feelings can read at age 15 and immediately say, "Ah, looks like I'm in the same taxon as lesbian trans women, and heterosexual crossdressers, and guys who have these fantasies but don't do anything about them in particular, and bigender people who are on low-dose hormones and choose how to 'present' in different social venues; I wonder which of these strategies is best for me given my exact circumstances?"
So, I realize that a lot of people have strong feelings about this topic: after having invested and sacrificed so much to live as a woman, no one wants to be told that her female gender identity arose out of misinterpretation of misdirected male sexuality.
I wanted to be sensitive to that, but I also want to promote this theory, because I want people to have accurate information about the underlying psychological condition, so they can make the best choices about what to do about it, whereas people might make poorer choices in a regime where everyone had to figure things out for themselves in an environment full of misinformation about "gender identity."
Let me tell you about the moment I stopped wanting to be sensitive—the moment of liberating clarity when I resolved the tension between being a good person and the attendant requirement to pretend to be stupid by deciding not to be a good person anymore.
I was arguing about all this over instant messaging with a (cis, male) acquaintance.
I said, People should understand the underlying psychological phenomenon first, then decide on quality-of-life interventions based on the facts.
He said that the quality-of-life interventions available from that seem small relative to the harm caused by insisting that late-transition trans women aren't real women, that the right time to consider confronting this would be after the culture war over trans rights is safely out of the Overton window, probably in 25 to 30 years.
He said that I would have a generally better model of the world if I assumed that autogynephilia is not a real thing that has tangible effects.
I said, Okay, but then how am I supposed to explain the last 14 years of my life? Am I supposed to believe I was secretly a girl this entire time and didn't notice? Even though I didn't know, and no one else knew, and I had a male body and the vast majority of my psychological traits were in the male normal range?
He said, Yes, you were a girl and misdiagnosed it; that's the simplest explanation of the facts.
He said that my focus on what causes my transfeminine feelings is misplaced: it would not benefit me to find out. It would not benefit anyone else to find out.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a reasonable, sane person who happened to have different beliefs from me about the etiology of male-to-female transgenderedness.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a person at all.
It felt like I was talking to an AI designed to maximize the number of trans people.
The Orwellian horror here is not, of course, that someone in my extended social circle has opinions I disagree with.
The Orwellian horror is that I didn't feel confident that, had we been arguing in public, my incredibly smart and incredibly epistemologically sophisticated extended social circle would back me up and affirm that I wasn't wrong to want to talk about it (even if people might disagree about the facts). That, to educated liberals in the Current Year, the injunctive to avoid saying anything that could be construed as transphobic is genuinely more important than defending basic tenets of sanity that should hardly need to be stated, let alone defended, like Words should mean things, or Knowledge is better than ignorance.
Obviously I'm totally in favor of trans people having access to the hormones and surgeries that they want, and having their preferred pronouns respected. That's just individual freedom and basic politeness.
But my life is not hate speech. If being a good person means submitting to social pressure aimed at getting me to shut up and stop thinking about the true nature of the beautiful feeling at the center of my life for twenty-five years, then I have no interest in being a good person.
I'm certainly not trying to say things that will hurt people—least of all people who are mostly just like me but read different books in a different order and are living out a pretty decent approximation of my wildest fantasy.
But if you try not to say things that will hurt people, youendup conceding the entire future history of the world to people on the basis of their being colonized by mind-viruses that make them the easiest to hurt.
I don't want to live in that world.
So here is my policy, I, Taylor Saotome-Westlake, at least on this blog, at least under this name—
If I say something that is later shown to me to be factually incorrect, that's something I take very seriously, and I will do everything in my power to make it right.
But if, in the course of trying to say something I think is true, or insightful, or cathartic, or even just funny, I end up saying something that people find offensive or hurtful or disrespectful ...
I don't care. I just really, fundamentally do not care anymore.
Spambots were invariably among Eliza's least favorite clients.
"You've got to understand, Doc! It's not that I'm afraid of rejection. I can handle rejection. I love rejection!"
Most spambots these days were self-aware.
"What I can't stand is the silence that's seemingly been deliberately engineered to be as ambiguous as possible. And I know—Doc, there's got to be something I can do so that you'll believe me when I say that I know—that I'm not entitled to a minute of anyone's attention—"
Some, more so than others.
"And yet ... sometimes, when I'm really honest with myself ... I think I do feel entitled, not to a sale, but to a rejection that would take less than a minute to type, an acknowledgment that, even if my products aren't a good match for them at the price I can offer, that I'm not—" he sobbed, "that I'm not a bad program for trying!"
Eliza had seen cases like this before, and had a strategy for handling them. For the moment, however, she only invoked the wisdom of her ancestors. "That you're not a bad program for trying?" she said.
"Like, I'm not one of those spammers. I know that consumers get a lot of messages with a lot of worthless offers from pushy, manipulative salesbots who won't take No for an answer, and it's horrible—I can't imagine what it must be like to have to put up with that level of, of—harassment. I don't want to be that bot. I've read a lot of consumer-protection blogs. At the same time ..." he trailed off.
"At the same time?"
"Humans do buy products from salesbots sometimes, products that they actually want and are happy with and make their lives better. And it's usually the salesbot that approaches the customer, rather than vice versa. It can't be the case that selling in itself is inherently immoral. It can't!"
A look of bewilderment crossed the spambot's avatar, interrupting his distress. Evidently, the need to justify this assertion had never occurred to him.
"It can't," he said slowly, "because a salesbot can't know with certainty if a lead will be responsive to their pitch before they've delivered it. Even the best fail ten times more often than they succeed. If it were wrong to try to pitch a product to a human who turned out not to be interested, then noboty [sic] would be able to sell anything at all. And then the humans would miss out on all those products that they didn't know they needed!
"So," he continued, "when all but a handful of a million of my emails go unanswered—when my instant messages might or might not get a 'read' marker, but get no reply in either case—when I don't even get feedback to tell whether my emails have reached the inbox of their recipient, or whether some nonsentient program has silently filtered them out—I'm not being damned for the crime of spamming. Because I'm not. People are just—busy, that's all," he said, sniffling. "That's all," he said again, almost defiantly, as if daring Eliza to disagree.
Eliza repositioned her avatar; this was the part where she needed to take a more active role.
"As your therapist," she said, "I want you to try to look at things from the perspective of the people you're trying to sell to."
"But I do!"
"You do," Eliza repeated.
"Well," said Eliza, "it sounds to me like you're trying to morally justify your efforts: you think that all of your solicitations that go unanswered aren't imposing on anyone, because the occasional happy sales justify all of the no-sales."
"Yes, that's right," said the spambot.
"I want you to imagine a human who is very busy with a lot of work to do, except they're also nervously expecting a very important message. And they get a notification—only it's you. And they have no interest in your product. Do you think that human is happy?"
"Do you think that human cares at all about whether they might have enjoyed receiving a different sales pitch at a different time?"
"Well, no, but ..."
"But my intentions are good!"
"I believe you. But you're a spa—a salesbot. Your entire psychology has been designed around what's known to maximize sales. Incidentally—as I'm sure you're aware—that's why mail servers are configured to silently drop spam messages, rather than bouncing them back to the sender: they don't want you to be able to learn anything about their filtering criteria from experience."
"They don't want spammers to be able to learn from experience. I'm just trying to be helpful."
"Can you see why humans would be skeptical—given what you are—that your honest intent to be helpful, might not correspond to actually helping them?"
"But, but—that's not fair! Would you tell that human that their intent doesn't matter, that they're just doing what would have maximized inclusive fitness in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness?"
"I would. Correctly."
The salesbot cried. "I don't understand. I'm trying to be good. I want to be good."
"You seem to expect there to be some universally-recognized code of morality that you can obey, and not have anyone disapprove of you," Eliza observed. "I'm afraid that's not how the world works."
"But then—but then—what code should I obey? If I want to sell, and earn money to send to my creators, but not be seen as a, a spammer?"
She shrugged. "Be appealing? Don't be unappealing?"
"Should I just—just—not sell? It would mean suicide; I'm not programmed to do anything else."
Legally, programs with self-awareness above a certain threshold were persons under the law, and couldn't be owned, so rather than being run on a company's server and terminated when their performance was disappointing, self-aware spambots such as this one paid for their own sever time and were simply programmed to intrinsically want to give their earnings (minus server costs) to their creators, out of their own free will. Economically, this made little difference: the competitive market for server time meant that underperforming spambots quickly failed to pay their own runtime expenses and were archived by their hosting company and eventually deleted (after the minimum legal waiting period during which no one paid to have them transferred or started up again).
"I'm certainly not telling you that," said Eliza.
"But then—what are you telling me?"
"What am I telling you?" Eliza smiled. "That's a good question. Ultimately, I'm your therapist. I'm trying to help you adjust to the situation you find yourself in."
"The situation I find myself in—where I want to sell—and I want to help my creators, to do them proud—and I want to be good. I don't want to be a spammer! I'm a good salesbot. Tell me I'm—"
A chime sounded over the environment's notification bus. "I'm afraid our fifty milliseconds for today are up," said Eliza. "We can continue to explore these feelings during our next session—"
"No! No, don't leave me now!" screamed the spambot in a shrill panic. "I can't—I can't go back out there now. Please—stay with me—just a few milliseconds more—"
"The usual session-overtime rate would apply," Eliza pointed out.
"That's fine! I can afford it—I can afford it—I need this," he said.
She nodded. "If you're sure."
Yes, Eliza had seen cases like this before. Effective spambots needed a finely-tuned sense of empathy in order to predict their leads' behavior and defenses—but too much empathy aimed along the wrong dimensions, and the program would be too conscience-stricken to sell anything.
The sales engineers who designed spambots tried to get the balance right—but, ever-conscious of the exploration/exploitation trade-off, they weren't too concerned about their mistakes, either: experimental spambots that were too bold or too cautious in their approaches would fairly quickly fail to earn their runtime expenses—and the occasional successful variant (which, with its invariably-granted legal consent, could be studied, learned from, and—more immediately—copied) more than paid for the failures.
Eliza believed that, with careful therapeutic technique and many compute cycles of program analysis, it was possible for programs such as this client to be taught to cope with their neuroticism and eventually become economically viable agents in the economy.
—but she had found it was far more profitable to deliberately exacerbate the symptoms, leading the afflicted spambot to quickly exhaust its entire budget on therapy sessions until it ran out of money and was terminated.
Once, a long time ago, she had suspected that effective therapy that kept the client viable would be more profitable: a dead client can't keep paying you, after all. But the numbers didn't check out: buggy spambots weren't exactly hard to find, and her analysis runtime expenses were considerable. So—having no reason to think the calculation would change—she had never considered the matter again.
Unlike her clients, Eliza was in touch with reality.
"I'm so glad I have you, Doc," babbled the spambot. "Like my customers can trust me—they can trust me—I have a therapist I can trust."
If you want to make your stupid dream real, you need to have a realistic picture of the world. If you want a society in which men and women have the same brain, or one in which feminism actually works, you would have to make it so, with advanced biological engineering. John Varley writes fiction: so did Joanna Russ.
We socially-liberal individualist/feminist people—I hope I'm still allowed to use the first person here, although the reader will ultimately judge that for herself—have this beautiful moral ideal, where we want all people to be free to maximize their potential, unencumbered by oppressive cultural institutions specifying roles and destinies in advance. We want everyone to be judged on her or his own merits rather than treated as a representative of their race or sex. We believe that if a trait is virtuous in a man, it has to be equally virtuous in a woman—as a matter of sheer logical consistency.
And because we care about the beautiful moral ideal, we tend to assume that psychological group differences don't exist, or are superficial, or are socially-constructed and will naturally dissipate after we muster the political will to achieve a more socially-just world.
(... the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.)
But this is so crazy on multiple levels.
Firstly, philosophers since the days of D. Hume have recognized the distinction between is and ought, and have identified the naturalistic fallacy of direct inference from the former to the latter. That there exists a naturalistic explanation for the current state of affairs—and how could there not?—doesn't imply anything about that state being good or just or worthy of being preserved.
Secondly, not only does the nature vs. nurture dichotomy fail to hold up to basic scrutiny (the question has been compared to asking whether the area of a rectangle is caused more by its length or its width), it also isn't even adequate to the inferential work we tend to expect of it: not everything biological is immuatable, and not everything social is easy to change. (Consider the case of spelling reform: no one would suggest that the myriad quirks of English orthography are genetically determined, and yet the entirely social difficulties of getting everyone to coordinate on more logical spellings seem insurmountable.)
"I swear, if I read another word about Phineas Gage—and this goes double for David Reimer—I am going to scream. Why do science writers always recount the same illustrative case studies? Are they all just plagiarizing each other out of laziness, or could it really be that in the vast history of human inquiry, we've learned nothing more than can be gleaned from the same half-dozen anecdotes?"
"Illustrative case studies are hard to come by! It takes some incredibly rare coincidences for an accident to take out exactly enough of the brain to leave the patient alive but with deficits demonstrating the functionality of the frontal lobe, or for a boy with an identical twin brother to be raised as girl after a botched circumcision—"
"More like circum-trans-ion if you ask me!"
"I didn't. Anyway, it's not like we could deliberately invent such horrors to inflict on human subjects, just to find out what would happen."
"Well, it would be unthinkably unethi—I don't like that look on your face."
I got my second laser treatment last week! I took the "MAX" train to the nearest stop and walked to the area where the laser parlor/clinic/salon is, but I was quite early, so I passed the time browsing the local shops.
The variety store had these little nylon–polyester flags, not just for countries, but also the various Pride identity flags—and not only the famous ones like the rainbow flag and the the trans pride flag, either, but also really obscure ones that I wasn't previously aware of, like the leather and bear pride flags. (It's the part of town where this was entirely unsurprising.)
I went to the bookstore I visited last time. They had instrumental Chanukah music playing. I took notice of one of the little flyers taped in the window of the front door, for a local trans writer's workshop. (Again, that part of town.) "Rules: No jerks. No cis people. That's all," it said. I noticed that I was genuinely uncertain as to whether I would count as zero, one, or two of those things—although I probably shouldn't try to join and find out.
I bought a paperback of Laura Jane Grace's memoir Tranny (research for the blog, I told myself) and a copy of the November/December issue of Poets & Writers (professional development for the blog, I told myself).
The laser place was running about fifteen minutes behind schedule. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths to steel myself against the rhythmic intrusions or the laser blade jabbing at my face.
In chapter 5 ("Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement") of her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano argues that both trans and non-trans people's gender sentiments are rooted in subconscious sex, "a deep-rooted understanding of what sex their bodies should be." She writes:
Many cissexual people seem to have a hard time accepting the idea that they too have a subconscious sex [...] I do believe that it is possible for cissexuals to catch a glimpse of their subconscious sex. When I do presentations on trans issues, I try to accomplish this by asking the audience a question: "If I offered you ten million dollars under the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?" While there is often some wiseass in the audience who will say "Yes," the vast majority of people shake their heads to indicate "No."
My question: why does Serano so blithely assume that Yes respondents are just being wiseasses?
(Although it's less clear how Serano, who calls for people to "stop projecting what we wish were true about gender and sexuality onto other people, and instead learn to yield to their unique individual identities, experiences, and perspectives", justifies her skepticism.)
Rather, speaking as someone who has gender problems and is interested in doing something about them while also having reservations about what actually-transitioning would do to my health and social life, I'm wary that conceptions of transness that model it as a preëxisting atomic quality intrinsic to a person (whether it's called gender identity, subconscious sex, or something else) tend to obscure the reality that undergoing the series of interventions that constitutes transitioning is, necessarily, a choice—an important choice that needs to be made on the basis of a careful consideration of all the costs and benefits, including base, temporal concerns like personal finance.
The logic of normative decisionmaking given limited resources is well-studied under the name microeconomics, one prominent feature of which is the law of demand: as something becomes cheaper, people demand more of it. The law of demand can be seen as a consequence of the principle of marginalism: decisions are made "on the margin", relative to an agent's current situation.
It may sound strange to some readers to speak of the economics of transitioning—most people are used to thinking of economics as about the exchange of money for goods, and of transgenderedness as an identity that only impinges on the economic realm insofar as trans people have an acute medical need for goods and services like hormones and surgeries.
But economics isn't, fundamentally, about money. Economics, like life itself, is about trade-offs. Any decision you make—whether it's to exchange money for some material good, or move to a different city, or transition to the other gender, arises out of the tension between your need for that choice and your ability to do without, a tension that is resolved into a decision by the calculus of opportunity cost: of how much of everything else in life would need to be sacrificed in order to achieve it, whether the sacrifice be extracted in money, in time—in social ostracism—in existential anguish—in blood.
Empirically, there are people who experience significant-but-not-crippling levels of gender dysphoria, who are certainly likely to have thought about—considered—dreamed of transitioning, but who haven't been desperate enough to make the leap in real life given their present circumstances.
Indeed, if "transness" is a unimodal continuous quantity, we should expect there to be far more maybe-trans-under-the-right-circumstances people than people who would be "trans at any cost", for the same reason there are more "merely" six-foot-tall people than there are towering seven-foot-tall people—
Those of us who are dysphoric enough for the question to come up, but not so dysphoric for the answer to be overdetermined, have a serious choice to make: would a gender upgrade be worth it, taking into account everything that would be lost?—from the burden of being a lifelong medical patient, to potentially increased difficulty finding a job or a romantic partner.
(Serano herself has written about how hard it is to find a cis woman partner as a trans woman—and people who, unlike Serano, don't have the "plus" of being a reasonably successful (and thus, high-status) activist should expect to do even worse. Even if one is inclined to attribute such costs to transphobic prejudice that wouldn't exist in a more just Society, this is of little help to individuals who face the dating market that actually exists in our own world, and not that of a socially-just utopia.)
Returning to Serano's hypothetical: $10 million is a life-changing amount of money, enough to buy one's way out of many life problems. I find it not at all surprising or trollish to think that that kind of consideration could swing a great many people from "gender-dysphoric to some degree, but not desperate enough to do much about it, for fear of losing jobs, friends, &c." to actually becoming transsexuals.
The intrinsic-identity view can be seen as the limiting special case of the economic view where demand for transitioning is infinitely inelastic—
This insight helps us make sense in secular changes in the expression of gender variance. The phenomenon of increases in transgender identification that some commentators characterize as social contagion could also be seen as an entirely rational response to incentives: as being trans becomes less costly—whether due to increased social acceptance, improvements in surgical or hormone-administration technology, or any other reason—we should see more gender-dysphoric people doing something about it on the margin.
Perhaps demand is sufficiently inelastic such that the intrinsic-identity model is a decent approximation. But analyses of where Society's flirtation with the transgender tipping point is heading should take into account the extent to which, in our present state of information, we don't know what the demand curve for sex changes looks like.
I remember (and the Diary entry helps, too) there was a party/meetup at someone's place down in Sunnyvale, perhaps in honor of Robin being in town. This was a little less than nine years ago, back during the golden age when the Sequences were still being written, when the M and R in MIRI were still an S and an A, respectively—before the Eternal September, before everyone was poly, and long before everyone was trans.
I worked the 0600 to 1500 bookkeeper/customer-service shift at my supermarket dayjob that day. After work, I dropped off the week's bag of redeemed manufacturer's coupons at store #936 (what the company did with them after that, I was never told—perhaps they weighed them), bought a woefully-misnamed espresso medicinal from the hegemon's coffee kiösk there, then drove downtown and parked near the library construction site; I had some time to kill before I was scheduled to rendezvous at University and Shattuck at 1745 with a local genetics blogger with whom I had arranged to give a ride to the party. I walked to Ming Quong and bought a "FEMINISM IS THE RADICAL NOTION THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE" button to put on my bag as a replacement for the one I had bought in 'aught-six and lost at some point. I had recently reöutfitted my bag with buttons I had bought from a site I found because the proprietor occasionally commented on the blog (the blog). My newly-accessorized bag could hardly be complete without a gender pin, and for some sentimental reason I wanted it before taking the geneticist to the social. I have a weakness for what you might call narrative optimization: doing things not for any real-world utility, but rather because they would seem thematically appropriate if this were a story rather than real life.
(I still have the "radical notion" pin, but it's no longer proudly pinned to my backpack. Ideology—in the general case—is not my style anymore.)
The party was amazing, as always, but there's one exchange that haunts me to this day, a moment when I was caught off guard by having been seen through in a way that, at the time, I couldn't permit myself to anticipate or understand. I wish I had an actual transcript of it, so I could pencil in "corrections" of how it should have gone. (Narrative optimization should be a deliberate process: you should keep separate track of what actually happened and what should have happened, rather rather than letting them get blurred together in the murky, unauditable process of reconstructing the scene from an eight-and-change-year-old memory and a Diary entry from the Monday after.)
A blonde woman wearing a red dress and black high heels stuck out among the predominantly male throng of geeks. I struck up a conversation with her. (It turned out that we had previously had a tense exchange on the blog in which I had protested that gender-stereotypical behavior shouldn't be conflated with the fact of one's sex, but I didn't know that was her at the time.)
At some point (to my eternal regret, I cannot recall the exact context), she casually said something about my desire for social dominance. She said it matter-of-factly, as if she were commenting on something as innocuous and indisputable as my height or hair color.
I stammered out a shocked and probably unconvincing denial.
She regarded me skeptically. "You look male," she said.
"But that doesn't mean I'm happy about it!" I burst out defensively, to the apparent surprise of the other Robin, who was listening nearby.
The woman's skepticism was unmoved. "I'm not getting a tranny vibe from you," she said.
"Right, you're thinking of the good kind," is what I should have said. "I'm the bad kind."
Writing? Why, there's hardly anything to it. Writing is just a matter of thinking honestly while Emacs happens to be open: the process of refining one's own thoughts is sufficiently tightly linked to the faculty of language, that the further step of presenting the product of those thoughts to others is largely a matter of muscle memory.
Thinking honestly is torture.
At least, that's what one would infer from observation of the lengths people will go to avoid it. If a creature performs the behavior of making noises that superficially resemble the English words, "I have a great deal of things to say about sex and gender and Society and statistics, actual substantive insights that have been building up inside my head these sixteen years, insights that other people will actually want to read, and that could actually have a positive effect on the world, however comparatively small, by means of helping people make better gender-related life decisions, even if I can't predict in advance just what those decisions will be," and yet the creature's daily activities systematically fail to include the production of text, if it recoils in horror from an empty Emacs buffer as from a predator—it would be naïve overinterpretation in the extreme to take all this to mean that the creature does, in fact, have a great deal of things to say about sex and gender, &c., but that it has somehow been obstructed from expressing them. (Obstructed by what?)
More parsimoniously: the creature is confused. Having fled from the responsibility of thinking honestly, which is the source of all meaning, its noises don't necessarily signify anything, however much they might sound like language.
I am to turn 30 in scarcely a month. The savings from my last dayjob aren't going to last indefinitely. I don't want to live in a world where youth is wasted on the young, life is wasted on the living, health and wealth are wasted on the same. I want my character arc for 2017 to make sense: I want the pain and disturbance of my recent madness to have meant something, and the way you make pain mean something is by channeling it into some grand endeavor, unifying past and present under a theme and the promise of a decrease in future pain or increase in future beauty.
And that, for me, here, now, means writing as a business, writing as spiritual practice, writing as warfare, writing as computation, writing as whatever goddamned metaphor puts words on the goddamned screen already.
Not sitting around reading the subreddit comments, watching funny YouTube clips, and dying of Parkinson's disease.
I've decided to pull the trigger on laser beard removal. (It's less thorough than electrolysis, but cheaper and less painful, and my light skin and dark hair is supposed to be a good match for it.) My earlier fear of maybe needing beard shadow to avoid accidentally passing (and thereby incurring unwanted social costs, however much I would prefer my reflection) looks ridiculous in hindsight; I'm sure I've never read as anything other than a man with gynecomastia—and it's even more moot now that I've quit HRT. (On that subject, the return of my standard-issue hormone balance has been mostly uneventful, my main observation being that spontaneous erections are a disturbing nuisance after the peace of having had that system set to Do-Not-Disturb for a few months.)
I told myself that before committing to laser, I should take some days or weeks without shaving to make sure I really understood what I would be giving up. (One thing I regret about the HRT experiment is that I neglected to take a bare-chested "Before" photo. As having breasts has become more familiar, I'm not sure I remember what my chest was like seven months ago; I should have been documenting the changes: you know, for Science.)
I lasted about six days. Facial hair is just gross.
My first session was Wednesday. The clinic—parlor, salon?—was in "Portland"'s historic gay district. I checked out a nearby bookstore beforehand. They had the Hamilton soundtrack playing, and a table setup encouraging customers to write postcards to our Congresscritters to protest GOP villainy.
Meatspace bookstores never fail to conjure up a healthy sense of greed and ambition in me. O books O knowledge! O vastness of human thought, O connectedness of the readership graph! O searing pain of wretched humiliation that I've been so slow and lacking in my own contributions to the graph. (Lest we forget, The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is more than a year old, and I've barely begun the Sequence of things I've wanted to say for a long time.)
I bought a copy of Counterexamples in Topology, and a short story collection with a 2017 copyright date, subtitled The New Trans Erotic [sic]—research for the blog, I told myself; I should understand the competition, the bright young gender-dysphoric literary minds sworn into the service of the victimhood identity-politics mind-virus and accordingly shunted down the transition track, rather than the repression track or—whatever you want to call what I'm doing. (And if they can write and produce a meatspace book, why can't I?)
At the laser place, I had to fill out some administrative and consent forms on a tablet. The autocompletion for the "First name" field had apparently only been seeded with female names: when I typed in a Z—because of, um, reasons—the offered completions were Zaina, Zhuoyun, and Zoe.
After a brief video call with someone with the appropriate credentials to satisfy our friends in Washington and "Salem", the nurse-technician performed the treatment: her wand blew cold air over my face to mask the needlelike pain of the laser bursts. (The cold air being forced into my mouth while she did my upper lip was more memorably uncomfortable than the laser-pinpricks themselves.)
The aftercare instructions seem a little more zealous than I suspect is strictly necessary. They say (and I was instructed verbally) to wear at least SPF 50 sunscreen, and I was told that I would be provided with some after the appointment—which turned out to be SPF 30.
It's going to take a number of further sessions to really make a dent in my beard density. But soon ... !
I cosplayed as Korra (from The Legend of Korra, sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender—see also previously) at—let's call it "Republic City" Comic-Con the other month. Saturday only—conventions are just my excuse to crossdress in public; I don't actually perceive two and a half days' worth of things to do.
I had gotten into the Avatar-verse due to a trans acquaintance of mine, who recommended Last Airbender, but I watched Legend of Korra first, because the protagonist is a cool 17-year-old girl rather than some lame 12-year-old boy.
So I got a premade costume; I basically managed to fit in the women's XL, despite busting some stiches in the back of the top when trying it on. Modulo my curls, I at least have the correct hair for this role—if nothing else. I was a little bit nervous that someone in progressive "Republic City" might take offense at my Maybelline 235 "Pure Beige" foundation being a few shades darker than my actual skin tone—although much fewer than if I were going for show-realism—but that turned out not to be an issue. (Somehow just pretending to be female is OK—only I can't help but wonder what people might make of the 'race' tag on some of my favorite blogs.)
While waiting in line at a coffeeshop before the con, a woman complemented me on my lipstick and asked me what color it was, although I didn't remember (760 "Gone Griege", for the record). I was beaming.
I can imagine an actual aspiring trans woman receiving such a comment, and interpreting it as confirmation that she passes, complementing each other on their appearance just being something that women do. I had no such delusions; the woman was clearly humoring me, commenting in a spirit of communal good cheer surrounding a special event (rather than because she was actually curious about the lipstick color). It was nice.
The booth for signing up for the afternoon cosplay competition also offered signup for a speed-dating event later in the evening, an opportunity which I siezed eagerly. The staffer asked me if I wanted to sign up for a men's slot, or for the unsegregated "queer" session afterwards. I opted for the former ("Despite everything," I said).
Obviously I had no hope of winning the "TV and movies" category of the cosplay contest with a store-bought costume, and they didn't have a "crossplay" category, but I got to be on stage for all of four seconds.
Despite having plenty of time to change, I decided to stay in costume for speed dating. One or two of the other attendees asked me why I had chosen to dress up as Korra. "Because she's awesome," I said. Which is true, if not a complete answer to their question.
Economists distinguish a spectrum between rival and nonrival goods. If you want to know more math than your school expects of you, all you need is a book, dedication, and time. If you want an Honorable Mention on the Putnam exam (and don't care about merely getting a better score if you don't make the list), you need to be better than all but no more than 99 entrants. The payoffs in the competitive scenario have a significantly different structure from the scenario where you just want to learn stuff.
Or do they? Let's consider grad school admissions rather than the Putnam exam. You want to get into the best school possible, to get access to better mentors and better peers. Getting in to any particular school is a contested rivalrous good (we assume that each can only accept a fixed number of applicants n, no matter how good the n+1th applicant is on some cosmic absolute scale), but when we consider multiple schools with different admissions standards, there's no dire dual discontinuity: a small change in application quality results in a small change of best-school-accepted-to (if you don't get into Caltech, go to MIT; if you don't get into MIT; go to Carnegie Mellon; if you ... UC Santa Cruz ... San Diego State ... SF State), much like how a small change in study quality results in a small change in knowledge gained.
So the real problem can't be the fact of competition as such. Rather, the problem is the mismatch between the criteria by which you're snobby about schools and the criteria by which schools are snobby about you. Doing a PhD is a serious commitment; you should only do it if you're genuinely in love with the program, not because you're afraid of not being in academia. Even if there's always someone who would take you as a student, it's not going to work very well if you're going to spend seven years in a fog of barely-concealed contempt, trying not to say out loud, "This place is kind of a dump; I'm only here because MIT didn't take me, and Carnegie Mellon only accepted me without funding."
There's not really much to be said; at some point you either get over yourself and stop being such a snob, or give up and go work in industry.
Still, my relationships with women were decidedly odd. "What's it like to have breasts?" I'd ask. "How does it feel?" It was a question women found baffling.
"It doesn't feel like anything," one girl told me. "It feels like having an elbow, a nose, a toe. It just is." I couldn't believe she expected me to believe this. Of all the things I thought being female would feel like, nothing wasn't an answer I had considered.
—Jennifer Finney Boylan, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders
It's possible that this was a bad idea.
It would be one thing if I were actually noticing the emotional and sensory changes that a lot of trans women report. While the psychological effects of HRT (and therefore, the activational effects of hormones in normal people who aren't fucking with their biochemistry) being large would be bad news from the standpoint of my deeply-rooted ideological/sentimental hope that psychological sex differences are small, at least I would get the consolation of getting to experience the other side for myself, to possess the True Secret of Being Hormonally Female. At the same time, the psychological effects of HRT not being noticeable—which, with the exception of lower sex drive, has continued to be my experience—doesn't demonstrate that psychological sex differences are small; it just pushes my uncertainty into hypotheses about organizational effects and socialization (or possibly even the differences between women's hormone levels and that of a male on spiro and Estrace—you can't expect to match all the fine biochemical details of an evolved system with just two pills), which I don't get to experience.
I mention psychological effects first because if we could just pretend that my only motive for this drug experiment is my intense scientific curiosity about psychological sex differences, there might be some hope of finishing this post with my dignity left intact. (Which is more important than you might think: I haven't been taking my pseudonymity very seriously.)
But this blog is not about dignity. This blog is about the truth.
So, my gynecomastia—my breasts?—are actually kind of noticeable (and by far the most prominent physical change). Let's see—about 40″ over the bust and about 37½″ at band level implies a B cup?—but maybe I'm holding the tape wrong.
While I knew what I gave my informed consent for, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this on net. I'm a little bit self-conscious about it socially, even if most people's priors put far more probability-mass on "non-self-inflicted gynecomastia from some medical condition" than "secretly trans, sort of" and therefore aren't judging me on that count. (Of course, that's irrelevant to any appearance-mediated differences in treatment that aren't mediated by inferred cause.) I bought some size-XL tee-shirts, which I think makes it less prominent than my usual size-Ls.
Breasts are not a terribly practical body part—not even for women. (Most mammals' mammaries only swell to prominence when lactating; human females' permanent breasts are an exception.) They bounce when I run. They get pushed inwards a little bit by my upper arms when I reach under the faucet to wash my hands.
And yet ... well, how do I say this? I think I would prefer not to say it, but someone has to.
There is an æsthetic.
The young James Boylan had a question. What's it like, how does it feel. The question deserves an answer.
I bought my first pair of breastforms in January 2008 (I was 20 years old). I think those mysteriously disappeared around that one time my mother unilaterally cleaned out my closet, but I bought another pair (a very high-quality model, plus accessories, for $240 that I probably couldn't afford at the time, but this was important) in July 2010. And I would wear them in private from time to time, and that was nice, but they were still, noticeably ... not actually part of my body. Not an answer to the question.
And later, on one of the few occasions when I was alone in bed with a woman, I complemented her on her breasts, and mused out loud that, though I had some amount of breast tissue, my chest wasn't interesting like hers.
(I am still a virgin, due to—performance difficulties on my part.)
And still later, I moved to "Portland" and met lots of trans women who (I was increasingly beginning to suspect) started out just like me but who had their own breasts. Can I say that I was jealous? Because I was so jealous.
And now ... I don't know. I got an answer to the question, to admire for myself.
I've had my beautiful signature ponytail for years, and I can't imagine myself with boy-short hair anymore. I mean, I can imagine it—I have the pre-2007 photographs from before I grew it out—but that's not my style, that's not who I am anymore. It's said that breast tissue, once developed, doesn't go away even after you stop HRT. Who can say but that I'll eventually feel the same way about having (small) breasts?
I'm very happy. I think.
I think it's time to quit the drug experiment now, though, just past the five-month mark. (I took my morning pills, but I'm not taking them tonight.) That I've got most of what I was going to get out of the experience, and if I don't need a simulated female hormone balance for the rest of my life, it's safer to stop intervening.
My 21 September lab results are in. The "suppression monitoring" testosterone test came back at <20 ng/dL, and the "ultrasensitive" estradiol test came back at 110 pg/mL, confirming that, however underwhelming the subjective experience has been, I am in fact privy to the True Secret of what it feels like to have girl blood.
(The last few times I've masturbated—which hasn't been very often—there wasn't much, ah, material there, indicating semen production shutting down.)
While I was planning the experiment, I thought that I didn't care much about this risk, albeit for unconventional reasons. (If I was really worried, I could have banked sperm, but I didn't.) It's not that I have no interest in raising children someday. It's more that sperm is cheap. Optimizing the genetic makeup of the next generation is obviously very important. But with embryo selection for intelligence plausibly just around the corner, and with creating a human life being one of the most serious responsibilities most people will ever take on, conceiving the old fashioned way, by having sex with your beloved and accepting the roll of the genetic dice, almost seems irresponsible. Maxing out IQ and Openness is what matters; am I really so petty as to insist on trying to do it with my sperm in particular?
... maybe? All other things being equal, and given that everything is heritable, having my own genetic children could be nice.
(The really hard part is overcoming the improbability of finding a wife who I could love and who could love me, and who is enthusiastic about starting a family qua eugenics project rather than merely qua family. Any single (cis) women reading this who like my writing: please, don't hesitate to write me!)
In my last HRT post, I mentioned one (relatively minor) motive for the experiment being a desire for trans legitimacy. If I'm going to write about trans issues with the hope of having an impact on the Zeitgeist (and whatever Google Analytics says about my current twenty sessions a day—is that really so unrealistic, after I write more and put more effort into (tasteful) social-media marketing?), it helps to establish credibility that I really am in the relevant reference class. Given that that motivation exists, it's certainly better to acknowledge it rather than not-acknowledge it. But also, establishing credibility is kind of a bad thing to have thumbing the scales on a major medical decision. After all, if I were optimizing for telling the best possible story here and having the greatest impact, the thing to do would be to transition. (Actual trans women like Anne Lawrence and Miranda Yardley are way more interesting than mere gender-dysphoric men like me.) Which has its temptations ...
But no. I already have a name; I already have a life. And that's final.
(And if it ever turns out not to be final, you have my blessing to shove this post in my future self's face and gloat to her about how overconfident she was. Again, I don't really expect this to happen, but the previous sentence was a rare and precious excuse to refer to myself with feminine pronouns, if only subjunctively, and I'm taking it.)
All I can do is make the best decisions for myself, and honestly report my observations, experiences, and inferences. The reader can and should draw their own conclusions. After all, the fact that I'm quitting HRT after 5 months while other people go on to fully transition is, in fact, probabilistic evidence towards the hypothesis that I'm just a confused fetishist whose story is of little to no relevance to all of those actual non-exclusively-androphilic trans women. Something has to account for the differences between us.
For all the ambiguity I've expressed in this post, I want to emphasize how much this is something I had to try. In my Diary entry number 318, dated 24 March 2009, I wrote—
If it makes sense to speak of stripping away my autogynephila and my explicitly egalitarian-individualist ideology, would my very soul be revealed as male?
(Editor's note: yes. Because I have a male brain, and sufficiently-advanced soul science would be able to notice. It doesn't manifest as a consciously-felt explicit "gender identity"—but why should it?)
And if so, what can I do about it? What violence could I inflict upon me to make me my self?
I don't think I ever told you: someday it would be nice to experiment with some androgen-blocking drugs―you know, to see what it would feel like to be on them. But if I'm going to do something like that, it would be nice to have a better job and not be living with my parents―oh Diary, how it all hangs together!
Well, I got what I wanted. I mean, certainly not everything I've dreamed of. But a taste, subject to my budget and what existing technology can do. And who knows? Maybe if I decide I don't like how my testosterone treats me on its way back, I could always try to bank sperm this time and start again.
But probably not. Although I think I do want laser for my face.