Gender identity disorder is a culture bound syndrome–not something you’re born with.
Culture bound syndromes include a wide array of medical issues. Some are very familiar to Americans and Europeans, like anorexia and bulimia, which arise because of the complex interplay between our culture’s views on beauty, food, and (often) femininity. Others, though, are experienced more frequently (or exclusively) in other parts of the world, which can give them the air of otherness. For example, the phenomenon of koro–in which, depending on one’s culture, one believes one’s penis to have been stolen or to have started shrinking into nothingness–is experienced today primarily in West African nations and parts of Southeastern Asia and the subcontinent, although it has been experienced as an epidemic in European/American cultures in centuries past.
Similarly, Dhat syndrome is experienced by people who believe very strongly that they are losing energy and sexual function, and are experiencing extreme symptoms of depression and anxiety, because they are losing semen in their urine. It happens because of religious views about semen and ejaculation in some cultures in India and Nepal.
The idea that trans identity is neurologically innate, set by laws of biology in utero, is one that can only come from a perspective that is blind to historical and anthropological realities. In some cultures, people who are outside the gender binary believe quite fully that they have chosen their gender path. In some, it’s a choice made after the mid-point of one’s life, while in others, puberty is when the issue is decided. What’s more important is that in different cultures and times, the idea of gender identity and what it means to violate the gender binary and have a non-conforming identity is different.
If the transgender identity phenomenon was, as many people have said (ad nauseam with arguments that sound way too much like people saying that men and women have different brains that explain their culturally-assigned differences), genetic/epigenetic and determined at/before birth, this would imply that the phenonemon of painful, debilitating dysphoria would manifest in this way throughout history and in many cultures. It doesn’t. While there are gender non-conforming people throughout history, the near-obsessive, anxiety and depression provoking, dysphoric feeling that one’s primary or secondary sex characteristics are “wrong” for one’s brain is a phenomenon that isn’t reflected in all history or cultures worldwide. It’s culturally specific.
What that means is that some elements of our culture are leading to the ways in which gender non-conformity manifests here, including the phenomena of transgenderism, gender identity disorder, and dysphoria.
This blog looks to explore some of those cultural elements from what I hope will be a somewhat different perspective. Before we start looking at the specifics, though, I’d like to lay out some basics of what I believe and don’t believe, so that we’re all on the same page and I don’t get hate mail based on the fact that one time you interacted with a radical feminist who was mean to you.
What I DO Believe:
The reluctance to acknowledge GID as a culture bound syndrome comes from a history of discrimination against gender-nonconforming people and the greater willingness of Americans and Europeans to accept gender non-conformity if they view it according to their biological/neuroscience model, in which gender identity is innate and unchanging. In some way, this makes it “not the person’s fault,” which is a sad and upsetting way to see gender non-conformity viewed.
Dysphoria and GID are experienced as real, sometimes painful phenomena.
Gender non-conformity occurs in many cultures and is the result of the fact that the sex-based gender binary makes no goddamn sense. GID and dysphoria–the specific ways in which gender non-conformity are experienced in our culture–are what I’m referring to when I say that transgenderism is a culture bound syndrome.
Gender non-conformity and non-compliance is different from culture to culture, both historically and in contemporary societies.
A phenomenal amount of energy is devoted to telling people that their gender identity is brain-based and innate, and that there are “male and female brains.” This notion is incredibly destructive and has little place in feminist thought.
That “third,” fourth, and so on gender identities in other cultures are also culturally mediated, and that in some of these cultures third gender identities work to reinforce rather than subvert sex-based binaries (we’ll get into this later, I promise).
That the concept of transgenderism as currently manifested in the United States can lead to complex issues of identity, appropriation, and acceptance.
What I DON’T Believe:
That being transgender is a “born this way” phenomenon bound by genetics that is experienced in the same way in all cultures.
That referring to GID as a culture bound syndrome is transphobic. It is not anorexia-phobic to refer to anorexia as a culture bound syndrome–it doesn’t erase their experiences or trivialize them. Your culture is an important part of you, and it’s not surprising or abnormal that your culture would manifest in important parts of your gender identity and self-concept.
That being transgender, inclusive or exclusive of SRS and hormone treatments, makes you somehow a bad person.
That transgender and non-gender conforming people should be subject to employment discrimination, street harassment, et cetera.
That people with gender dysphoria or a strong aversion to their culture’s typical gender identity are “faking it” in some way.
That it’s off-limits to discuss the ways in which our culture mediates and creates the phenomenon of gender identity and transgenderism.