One of the hotly debated topics among people categorized under the encompassing term transgender and some academics is whether gender identity exists on a continuum. I am not convinced that gender identity does exist as a continuum, but I’m open, as in most matters, to the power of persuasion and am willing to reconsider that position.
My belief is that if a gender continuum existed, then some of the identities would be fractional representations of others and I posit that this is not possible. My position is that the various gender identities are discrete and have no relation to each other than that they are alternate gender identities. There are some gender identities that are synonyms for others. Some of them do not fit neatly into a binary, the prevailing organization of gender identities in western culture. If you ask the individuals who identify as being gender variant, one will find that the binary of gender identification is valid for most people. If one asks a person with a variant gender identity what their gender is, the vast majority of these individuals will say that are male or that they are female. If I am asked this question, I answer that I am a woman. The concept of the gender binary does not give me pause or create a sense of conflict with the prevailing dominant culture for me.
I did a review of the literature on pubmed.gov, a database of world wide medical journals sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It leads me to wonder if this is a theory only found in scholarly disciplines such as sociology. I could not find any articles in NIH database supporting a theory of a gender continuum. Similarly, a search of the Social Welfare Institute yielded one article solely devoted to people with gender identities other than their assigned birth gender and any other references were termed in the context of “LGBT”. The paucity of scholarly research is more than a little alarming to me. The only books or articles mentioning the concept of a continuum or spectrum were those with a feminist philosophical perspective. I used the University of Ohio library database to research the gender continuum theory. (I could have used my Alma Mater’s library at the University of Alabama, but in the interest of objectivity….) When I read feminist theory applied to academic subjects I keep in mind that “third wave” feminist theory is a sociopolitical theory that in many instances incorporates the ideals of Marxist political theory. Marxist theory lends itself well to the blurring of identities. This is quite a contrast from other theories in my own profession. Other schools of thought in the field of mental health, such as Behaviorism for example, are notably apolitical. The notion of a gender continuum is far from a universally accepted concept in academia, yet proponents of the concept of gender identity continuum would represent their model as being universally accepted. There is no scientific basis for feminist ideology being any more valid than capitalism or socialism. It is simply a strategy for organizing a society, just as socialism and capitalism are strategies for organizing societies.
It is such a sensitive issue that one would think I had also declared that the world is flat and the earth is the center of the universe. It’s almost heretical to hold the view that gender does not exist on a continuum. To suggest it does not will certainly invite or at least open myself to quite a bit of invective, as it has in the past when I have voiced an opposing view on such matters. Arguments for the existence of the gender continuum mix biological realities with social constructs and arrive at conclusions that do not stand up to the rigors of scientific inquiry.
Consider the Hierarchy of Sciences. At the top is Physics, followed by Chemistry, Biology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics and Political Science. The further down the rank we go, the less precise the science becomes and there is less certainty in the results of each discipline’s research. The areas of my expertise lie in the application of the disciplines of Psychology, Sociology and to a lesser extent Political Science and Economics.
To the end that I might be persuaded of the existence of the concept of gender being a continuum, the best approach is to engage in dialectic. I had avoided the philosophy courses in the department of religion and philosophy (to my detriment) as an undergraduate, but I did take a course in the philosophy of behavioral sciences my senior year and in graduate school when I selected a course on the philosophy and ethics of social work in the doctoral program I attended.
First, we need a common language in order to discuss this topic. Words mean things. They have specific and generally fixed definitions over the course of time. Among the criticisms I raise about feminist theory is their assertion of the relativity of the meanings of words. They insist that language can be bent to serve the present need to meet an ends. Thus we have the “reclamation” of words that are considered to be pejoratives.
What is dialectic? Dialectic is a term used to describe how people who have different views try to persuade each other to their side. It is through dialogue that hopefully the truth will emerge. In classical philosophy, dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is controversy, that is, the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments respectively advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). It is the practice of arriving at a conclusion by the exchange of logical arguments, usually in the form of questions and answers.
A continuum is defined as a continuous extent, series, or whole. It is a set of elements such that between them there is a third element. It is any compact set containing two elements, though critics of the gender binary do not recognize this fact. A continuum has an order. Here lies the problem for me. What is the order of the various identities under the umbrella term transgender? What is the relation of each element to another and their distance from each other? One Quarter? Three Eighths? Is a gender queer half of a transsexual? This is a meaningless concept.
In discussing whether a gender continuum does indeed exist, my position is the null hypothesis. A null hypothesis is defined as a statistical term meaning that the proposed hypothesis cannot be proven. In this case, the null hypothesis that is held forth is that a gender continuum does not exist.
The alternative hypothesis I propose is that set theory explains the existence of various gender identities in a meaningful way. It does not make the presumption that all gender identities are either related or interrelated. Set theory is the branch of mathematics that studies sets, which are collections of objects that may or may not have properties in common. For instance: At the extremes of our political system you have extreme liberals and extreme conservatives. The only thing they have in common is belonging to the set “political orientation”.
The word “transgender” was first used by John F. Oliven M.D. in his second edition of Sexual Hygiene and Pathology. His rationale was that sexuality was only tangential to the person who identifies as transsexual. Virginia Prince also began to use this word in the December 1969 issue of the magazine Transvestia. By the mid 1970’s transgender became an umbrella term. At the same time, the term “transgenderist” (TG) became popular in the vernacular to specifically describe people who were living in a cross gender role who did not intend to have genital reassignment surgery. In 1979 Christine Jorgensen rejected the term transsexual, as she stated that her issue was gender identity not her sexuality. She referred to herself as a “trans-gender”.
The term “transsexual” originated in the medical and psychiatric communities. Virginia Prince drew a sharp distinction between transgenderists and transsexuals. She did not consider these two entities to be related.
So with these parameters for our discussion, I would like to begin by asking, what are the poles in the continuum of the umbrella term “transgender” and who are considered to be the elements of this continuum? Or are we really speaking of a broader gender continuum where the poles of the continuum are women who identify as female and body sex is female and males who identify as males and body sex is male (if this continuum does indeed exist)?
The elements of this continuum include as I have been informed by various people (and please forgive me if I leave some identities out) in no particular order: transvestite; transsexual; cross dresser; transgender; drag king/ queen; sissy; gender queer; intersex; eunuch; third gender; fourth gender; fifth gender; agender; genderless; two spirit; androgyne; trigender; transgenderist; and no doubt other identities that I have overlooked. I have purposely left out culturally specific gender identities as they are not universal. For my purposes, including them in this discussion is more confusing than it is helpful. If I can be persuaded that the continuum in gender identities exists, then we can discuss where they belong on a continuum or if some of them don’t belong at all. Do adult babies who identify as cross gender enter into the category of transgender as members of the proposed continuum?
How are these identities arranged in a continuum that has validity and reliability? Validity is the quality of being valid and rigorous; the quality of having legal force or effectiveness; the property of being strong and healthy in constitution. It means that there is no change in definition and that it describes accurately properties of a concept or theory. Reliability means whether or not you get the same result under the same circumstances each time the phenomenon is observed. In order to be useful, a continuum of transgender identities must be accurate in describing the placement of the elements and has universal agreement. Another way of describing the meaning of the continuum is that it must define each element’s relation to the rest of the elements on the defined continuum.
If one is to construct this continuum, one cannot use social constructs in my opinion, as they shift rapidly. As a result, they will not meet the criteria of reliability and its validity will be fleeting as society evolves (or devolves).
Since for the moment until someone responds to these ideas, I will also put forth the idea that one cannot argue the existence of a gender continuum using sociopolitical arguments of gender identities in establishing the continuum. That serves to narrow down the basis of these identities existing on a continuum.
I would also like to challenge the notion that this continuum is based on brain sex. Though there have been studies that establish differences in brain sex between men and women, and there have been some studies that have found cross gender structures and neuron density patterns in transsexual men and women, there are not enough studies with large enough samples to say with validity and reliability that the brains of transsexuals are more like the gender to which they identify. We can, at this point say that there is a great deal of evidence (an association) that supports that finding and we are closer to understanding the biological underpinnings of gender identity now more than ever. In the area of anatomy and physiology, I can clearly see that we will be able to identify a continuum, as one appears to indeed be emerging, but to date this continuum appears to only include biological males who identify as male, male to female transsexuals, female to male transsexuals, and biological women who identify as women. There is no evidence to support these other identities existing on a biological continuum to my knowledge. The studies I refer to are all quantitative studies. In other words, these studies are based on statistical analysis. To the extent they are proof of a hypothesis they are limited to confidence levels of probability. In other words, we need to know whether we are speaking of a study that is wrong once in a hundred times, once in a thousand times or however the author of the study sets the burden of proof so that the results of the study are accurate and able to successfully predict that a random individual instance will bear out to be the same as the results of the study.
The notion of a transgender spectrum or continuum can only be positively established with the use of qualitative research methods. Qualitative methods of research are not as powerful as quantitative research methods, particularly in proving the reliability of the hypothesis. But they are very important and useful in identifying phenomenon for evaluation using quantitative research techniques. Methods included in qualitative research include participant observation, ethnographies, case studies, surveys, historical reviews, and document surveys. They lead to a rich descriptive understanding of the phenomenon being studied. My opinion is that if a continuum of “transgender” does indeed exist, these are the research techniques that might offer proof of the existence of such a model. They will offer the hypothesis of whether a continuum of transgender identity exists and pave the path to begin quantitative research strategies to prove or disprove the existence of such a continuum. Until that day, I must remain convinced of the null hypothesis, that there is no proof of a transgender continuum and that identities under the rubric of transgender are grouped as a matter of convenience for sociopolitical purposes.
I would propose that perhaps a better way of envisioning all of these identities and recognizing their independence and/ or interdependence with each other would be better served using the Venn diagram. Borrowing from another mathematical representation, Set Theory, a Venn diagram recognizes that there is a universal set of these gender identities. Yet elements of the set may or may not share properties with each other member of the universal set, while others do share some but not all properties of a member of the set. They do not describe a continuum. An example of this would be the overlap of identities such as gender queer, agender, eunuch, and other similar identities. Other identities such as transsexual and transvestic fetishists share nothing in common but can be recognized members of a set under the umbrella term “transgender”.