What Makes a Man or a Woman?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader gets to the heart of the internal tension on the left when it comes to transgenderism:

I am confused by some of the ideological positions of gender progressives, and would appreciate if some of your readers can clarify an apparent contradiction.

On one hand, we are told that gender is simply a social construct; that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain,” as we all exist on a spectrum; and that we should break out of the rigid “binary” modes of thinking about male and female, allowing for a broader range of personal expression. This makes some intuitive sense: Men should be able to enjoy ballet and poetry and child-rearing without being cast as effeminate and unmanly, just as women who eschew oppressive standards of feminine beauty and sexuality are still women. A man or a woman is simply one who possesses male or female chromosomes and (except in rare cases) the corresponding sex organs.

But the transgender movement seems to disagree. It argues that a person who conforms outwardly to socially conditioned, feminine gender roles is actually and truly a woman, irrespective of sex, while a person who adopts stereotypical male behaviours and dress is actually and truly a man. How regressive!

Moreover, in arguing that a biological man can have a female brain or vice versa, the transgender movement seems to be saying that gender is not a social construct, but is instead rooted in biology—but, apparently, not the biology dictated by chromosomes. The alternative theory is that trans people’s bodies don’t align with their souls—a notion that, as a few readers pointed out, raises some interesting religious questions.

How to reconcile these contradictions? Is gender a mere social construct, or is it biological? And if gender is a meaningless social construct, while sex is a set of immutable biological characteristics, then why is there a push in progressive circles to eliminate sex-based protections in favour of gender-based ones?

For more on that tension, check out “The Divide Between Transgenderism and Radical Feminism,” a note I put together last fall featuring the work of Michelle Goldberg covering that divide for The New Yorker. Regarding the reader note above, I passed it along to the transgender reader who wrote the earlier note “Trans Issues Are Not Right/Left.” Adam replies:

Thank you for the thoughtful reply and the opportunity to participate, Chris! I am a longtime fan of The Dish and Andrew Sullivan and very glad to see your tradition of high-quality conversation continue at The Atlantic. And thanks also for thinking of me with that comment. I will offer a few thoughts.

My view, based on my life experience and a lot of reading, is that neither pure social constructionism nor biological determinism are adequate to explain the phenomenon of gender. Gender is a complex interaction of underlying biological difference and social norms, not a simplistic either/or.

I encourage people to research for themselves the science on gender difference and trans people. The transgender movement adamantly does not contend that a person is a man or a woman based on a stereotypical outward presentation. What we argue is that people have the right to express their gender in the way that feels right. And for the record, many, many trans people do not conform to gender stereotypes of any kind, before or after transition.

He also gets to what I’ve always seen as the silver bullet for the dilemma over whether to allow kids to transition: hormone blockers.

On the question of minors, the approach advocated by most experts is that parents be accepting (not trying to force the child to conform) and simply watch and wait to see what the child figures out. Medically, the most recommended for youngsters is hormone blockers that delay the onset of puberty while the child has time to develop a bit more and figure things out. If the child turns out not to be trans, they cease the hormone blockers and go through puberty as usual, no harm done.

Vox recently had a good interview with a psychologist who works with trans kids, and it may be of interest: “How to know if your child is transgender.”

In addition to pausing puberty to give an adolescent time to figure out if he or she is really a she or he, hormone blockers prevent intrusive and expensive things down the line. From that American Prospect piece I linked to earlier:

For adolescents who continue their transition, hormone blockers also help to prevent later surgeries; a boy like Alex who never grows breasts in the first place need not have them removed. By around age 16, Alex could start on cross-sex hormones, which would deepen his voice, cause hair to grow on his face and his chest, and prompt the other hormonal changes of a typical teenage boy. Genital surgery—a much less common choice in transgender men since the surgical techniques are less advanced than they are for transgender women—can happen as early as age 18.