Richard J. Severson
According to a recent study, there are at least 1.6 million people who identify as transgender in the United States.1 In the 13- to 17-year-old age group, nearly 1 in 5 identify as transgender. Why are so many young people rejecting the biological givenness of their gender? Is this a copycat phenomenon, a sort of “semantic contagion” as philosopher Ian Hacking surmised with regard to the widespread appearance of multiple personality disorder cases in the 1970s?2 I think it is more complicated than that.
There is ample evidence that the availability of new medical treatments can lead to the diagnosis of previously unknown (or ignored) medical conditions. For instance, Peter Kramer argued that panic anxiety became a common mental disorder only after the invention of Xanax in the 1980s.3 Possessing a medical technology to treat a disease goes a long way toward making the disease itself seem more “real.” I wonder if the same principle applies to new categories of self-identity. After all, why would I try to change my identity from being a boy to a girl (or vice versa) if the medical capacity for such changes (hormone supplements, surgeries, etc.) were not available to me?
I don’t think the availability of new medical technologies is the only reason for the emergence of transgenderism, however. To experiment with our own self-identities—to become the poets of ourselves—is a requirement (or practical necessity) of modern individualism. To push the boundaries of self-expression to include what prior generations thought of as biologically determined categories is part of our ongoing cultural evolution. Some people are happily experimenting with the body electric in ways that Walt Whitman could not have imagined.
Another factor germane to the emergence of transgenderism pertains to the evolving interplay between emotions and feelings. Typically, emotions communicate body states to the brain and trigger necessary responses through the autonomic nervous system. Feelings are more complicated. Like emotions, feelings motivate actions. When angry, for instance, we tend to raise our voices and make threatening gestures. Emotions are usually involuntary reactions, feelings less so. We are held accountable for outbursts of anger, but not for flinching when surprised. Feelings are the prelude to agency and deliberation, which means that we have some measure of control over them. After more than a century of practice in the therapeutic arts of exploring our own feelings, however, I suspect bodily communications (emotions) have become more feeling-like and subject to conscious exploration.
Feelings have always been entangled with our bodily emotions, but now we are more aware of those entanglements. Compared to past generations, we seem to have more input or agency regarding how to interpret our own bodily states. It isn’t just emotions communicating with the brain in a one-way subconscious routine anymore. For some people, their emotional entanglements are not consistent with their own sense of self-identity as a gendered person. I doubt if gender dysphoria is some sort of fanciful idea that is arbitrarily imposed upon one’s innermost feelings. On the contrary, it seems more like a deeply felt emotional connection to one’s own body.
What it means to be transgender is a complicated issue. My point is to suggest that the interplay between mind and body has become more available to self-conscious exploration, and the desire to change one’s gender identity to match one’s feelings and emotions is part of that. By following the course of your own feelings, you can actually become more consciously attuned to what your body is trying to tell you. Being true to that inner voice is the most important thing.
- Herman, J.L., Flores, A.R., O’Neill, K.K. (2022). How Many Adults and Youth Identify as Transgender in the United States? The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.
- Hacking, Ian (1995). Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, Princeton University Press.
- Kramer, Peter (1993). Listening to Prozac: A Psychiatrist Explores Antidepressant Drugs and the Remaking of the Self, Viking Press.