To follow the analysis that will be presented below, it is necessary to first briefly and broadly summarize two philosophical positions. The reader is asked to bear with me through these summaries. There are two opposed worldviews that one might take as a guide to understanding the nature of reality.
The first worldview is that of Western culture. Historically, this was a theological conception that saw the world as consisting of God and God’s creations, which included humanity (a dualistic view). This conception began to be challenged by naturalists, seeking to understand God’s creation, whose findings conflicted with the understanding adopted by religious authorities. The view adopted by religious leaders was not that of God; i.e., was not based in scripture, but largely borrowed from earlier Greek philosophers. However, this clash grew more intense until the “great compromise” offered by Rene Descartes. His compromise proposed that matters of the material world should be left to the naturalists (subsequently scientists) and that matters of the spiritual world should be left to theologians (also a dualistic view). The divide between science and religion grew until science largely dismissed religious views as irrelevant. This led to the evolution of a perspective that excluded anything non-material from reality.
Scientific materialism posits a point of initiation for matter that is called “the big bang.” When a renowned physicist, who supports this model, was asked where the big bang came from, he replied that its origin was spontaneous creation from nothing. In short, it was a random event with no known cause, though once set in motion, the result is a deterministic unfolding whose final outcome was built into the point of initiation. This view assumes that everything in the universe is composed of material elements and assembled from the bottom up. Thus, everything can be understood by breaking it down into the pieces that it was assembled from and studying the relationship of the pieces to one another. This is what is called reductionism. This view assumes that everything, including life and the universe itself, arose through a random event and has no purpose and therefore no fundamental meaning. Contemporary Western culture has been strongly influenced by the materialist perspective while retaining a dualistic view of how things are structured.
Scientific materialism is the current paradigm of science with the core assumption that matter is all that exists; i.e., monistic materialism. There are opponents to this view who root their opposition in the inability of a materialist paradigm to account for consciousness. Thus, the old dualist division persists to this day, though spirit has been largely replaced by consciousness. Some scientific materialist have attempted to resolve this problem by asserting that consciousness is an illusion. This solution has not been accepted very widely because it is at odds with personal experience. More importantly, there is considerable evidence that consciousness is a reality that must be dealt with, not the least of which is the role consciousness appears to play in the outcome of some quantum physics experiments. At root, these experiments clearly suggest that consciousness is required for matter to come into existence. In short, the collapse of a “wave of possibilities” into an outcome in the material world appears to require consciousness. In other words, consciousness is primary.
From the perspective of materialism, consciousness is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of matter. It assumes that consciousness is individually generated by aggregates of matter that have achieved a sufficient level of complexity. Implicit in this view is the idea that complex order is the source of consciousness. How consciousness could arise from the combination of elements of matter is unknown. Faced with the inability to posit any explanation, short of magic, for how consciousness might arise from complex arrangements of matter, some “materialists” have hypothesized that every particle of matter contains a degree of consciousness. Thus, it is suggested that complex arrangements of elements of matter that already contain some degree of consciousness produce conscious awareness. This hypothesis fails to explain where any degree of consciousness, no matter how insignificant, came from in the first place. It also has no explanation for how the combination of elements of consciousness containing matter results in conscious awareness. This idea is somewhat analogous to suggesting that if one takes small units of biological matter, such as bacteria, and aggregate enough of them together, a living animal will emerge from the complexity.
There are many scientists, though still in a minority, who consider the current scientific paradigm, rooted in the belief that matter is primary, to be a “dead man walking.” This view is predicated upon an ever accumulating body of evidence that falsifies the paradigm’s assumptions. A noted physicist recently published a paper in a major physics journal in which he unequivocally stated that the evidence supports the view that reality is essentially mental. This doesn’t obviate the accomplishments of science under the current paradigm. It does, however, suggest that the new emerging view makes clear that the current paradigm has limits on what can be known and understood and that those limits are being reached.
The second worldview we’ll discuss is monistic idealism1 (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation), which is the view that everything exists within Consciousness2. This is one of the challenges to the current paradigm of scientific materialism. The core assumption of this view is that Consciousness is all that exists and that it is both infinite, eternal, inherently intelligent and creative. This view does not posit a point of origination for Consciousness. In short, it is assumed that it has always existed. This view assumes that the universe is at root an indivisible whole in which every particle of matter is entangled with every other particle. In this view, matter is a contraction or concentration of Consciousness. The apparent separate constituents of the universe are at root an “illusion.” This view posits that the “illusion” is created by the appearance of complementary pairs reflected within Consciousness. These pairs create contrast effects, which make possible experience. This view suggests that Consciousness created the possibility for experience for the purpose of self-examination, self-awareness and enrichment. This view implies that the universe did not arise by chance, has a purpose and a fundamental meaning.
The view of idealism is that matter is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of Consciousness. It assumes that Consciousness is a ground state from which everything arises. Thus, everything that exists arises within Consciousness. The closest analogy to this process is probably a dream. Dreams arise in your consciousness and during the experience appear to be quite real. Thus, in a manner of speaking, monistic idealism would say that you are a “dream” character in Consciousness or in Universal Mind. For those familiar with virtual reality games, one might say that you are an “avatar” in a virtual reality3 created by Universal Mind or Consciousness (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation). Material “reality” could be thought of as being generated from a basic division of thought within Universal Mind into a complementary pair such as physical versus biological. From contrasting pairs, experience evolved ever more complex forms, which produced their own sets of complementary pairs. The biological or living forms became “receivers” for Consciousness, which was experienced as an individuated consciousness that is functionally independent from Consciousness. The more complex the life form the more “bandwidth” the “receiver” could accept. In the end, however, there is only one Consciousness (a nondual perspective). Traditionally, this view has been largely that of some Eastern traditions such as yoga. Many readers will immediately think of the Western version of Hatha Yoga with its emphasis on the body. What is referred to here are the traditions within yoga that emphasize a nondual philosophical view similar to monistic idealism and teach practices for the refinement of consciousness; i.e., mental yoga.
Now, let’s examine the implications for the above for one complementary pair that we all have some experience with — sex (male and female). Recall that complementary pairs make experience possible by the contrasts that they impose. To clarify, consider another pair associated with temperature: hot and cold. Without the contrast produced by the pair, temperature could not be experienced. It is also clear that the pair represents a range and does not represent dichotomous categories. In short, there are degrees of temperature along the continuum between the polar anchors for the complementary pair. The greater the points of difference along the continuum the richer the possibilities for experience. Without the experience of the full range of the continuum between the polar anchors for a complementary pair, one can not truly understand the unity from which the pair was derived. For those familiar with the Chinese yin and yang symbols, recall that those symbols for opposites are an abstract representation for complementary pairs. Each symbol contains a component of its opposite and both are contained within a circle representing the whole or unity of which each member of the pair is a partial reflection.
The continuum between the anchor points of male and female includes all sexual variation possible. For purposes of this discussion, the experiences placed under the umbrella term “transgender” (TG) will be considered. The view offered here is that gender is a socially constructed expression of sex and sexuality. While there is some limited variation in sex, there is more variation in the experienced sense of sexuality. The former is anatomical and the latter is probably due to atypical hormonal effects on a developing organism. Gender in this discussion is considered to be a social expression of sex and sexuality, which are convergent in the majority of people but divergent in a minority. Thus, gender is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, though it may come close to that in many people’s experience. By way of analogy, consider the biological experience of hunger. The body generates this experience, which is variable in its intensity. However, the body does not dictate, except in the most general way, what should be eaten to satisfy hunger. How hunger is satisfied is socially constructed. Society determines what should be considered “food.” It also creates customs around how food is prepared, when it is eaten, how it is eaten, with whom it might be eaten, and so on. Likewise, societies have socially created ways in which sex and the experience of sexuality should be expressed — gender. Generally speaking, there is usually a very tight correlation between the appearance of anatomical sex, experienced sexuality and gender.
What are the implications of the above discussion for TG?
Lets look at the implications of taking the position of materialism. For our purposes, a TG individual is someone who experiences some degree of male sexuality while living through a female body or experiences some degree of female sexuality while living through a male body.
Consider a TG individual who is a materialist. Such an individual has to consider his/her experience to be the result of a random and meaningless biological variation — a victim of circumstance. There are some who would argue that their experience is a deliberate choice, not the result of a random biological variation. The choice is often justified on political and or social grounds, which probably serves to give the experience contextual meaning. I don’t doubt that there may be such individuals. I think that most TG individuals, however, feel that their experience was imposed, not chosen, and usually leaves them feeling like a victim, not an agent for social change. In fact, one could posit that taking the position that one’s experience results from a sociopolitical decision is a coping mechanism. A way of negating the feeling of being a victim and constructing some meaning from the experience. Second, scientific materialism is reductionist and therefore depends upon studying relationships between clearly defined elements, which are strictly controlled to minimize variation. The continuum of variation for sex is therefore, from a scientific perspective, a messy affair making well controlled studies of sex and sexuality only possible by focusing on the anchor points and excluding everything in between as confounding variation. It is no wonder that persons on the excluded portion of the continuum have been prone to being minimized, pathologized and criminalized. Fortunately, modern day society is not as tenacious about pathologizing and criminalizing personal expression as it has been in the past. This is not to suggest that it isn’t still a problem of significance.
Now, let’s look at the implications of taking the position of idealism.
Consider a TG individual who is an idealist and especially one who understands idealism through nondual philosophy4 rooted in some Eastern tradition or in one of the increasing number of Western expressions of nondualism. S/he does not view everything as due to blind chance. Such a person is considered to be an individuated manifestation of Consciousness. Such a consciousness is a vehicle through which Consciousness gains experience of its own potential and the unfolding of that potential. If one is a manifestation of Source Consciousness or of Universal Mind, then your experience is not random and one is certainly not a victim of circumstance. Usually, one’s personal condition is viewed as having its origins in a choice made by the meta-self 5 prior to individuated consciousness being expressed in material form. In short, there was an agreement to the current manifestation as a vehicle for the experience possible for that form. This is probably only one of many previous and different expressions and possibly of many more to come. Why this particular choice was made, in any specific case, lies within one’s consciousness but outside of awareness. There are ways of accessing such material but that is beyond the scope of this essay. From this perspective one does not have to take pathologizing and criminalizing by society of one’s being as a judgment of one’s personal worth. This is not to minimize the social injustice that such judgment produces or its impacts. However, if one views oneself as a unique expression of Consciousness and takes one’s sense of personal worth from that understanding, then one has a more positive basis for one’s sense of self and a degree of insulation from the injustices implicit in society.
Finally, let us turn to an analysis of some possible outcomes for a TG individual. There may be outcomes not covered here, but one should be able to work them out from this illustration. Some of the following options will probably only be open to someone who subscribes to a nondual worldview or will certainly be facilitated by such a worldview. As the progression unfolds, a nondual worldview increases in importance.
First, consider an individual on the continuum in unresolved conflict. This conflict comes down to a perceived dualistic choice between the two anchor points (male/female or masculine/feminine). The conflict between the dichotomous anchor points for the continuum is driven in large part by the social narrative about the continuum. The person in conflict is strongly drawn toward the anchor point in conflict with anatomy, which is nonconforming to the social narrative. Such an individual is strongly imbued with the social narrative. The stronger the social pressures the greater the conflict. The social pressure can come from external sources policing the social narrative but will also involve one’s enculturation and internalization of the social narrative. It is probably from this type of conflict that what is often referred to as gender dysphoria arises. Clearly, minimizing susceptibility to external policing efforts will help. Equally if not more important is deconstructing the internalized policing established through enculturation. Psychotherapy, drawing on narrative psychology, can be helpful with the latter.
Second, consider an individual on the continuum who is only moderately drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. Such a person often will resolve to end the conflict by choosing one anchor point and suppressing the other in this dualistic dance. If the person is male bodied and the choice is to suppress the intrusive sense of femaleness, the conflict is repressed and one’s focus becomes on living through the anatomical sex. There is still potential for negative psychological effects from employing repression, but the immediate conflict has been resolved. The same analysis would hold if the person was female bodied and chose to suppress an intrusive sense of maleness.
Third, consider an individual on the continuum similar to the person in the previous analysis, except the person is strongly drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. In this case, the decision may be to suppress and modify the anatomical sex and give full expression to the intrusive sense of sexuality. This is what is often referred to a transsexualism. This is a choice that may reduce the conflict one feels between anatomical sex and an intrusive sense of sexuality, but it is fraught with many new potential conflicts. It may also entail a lifetime of pursuing adjustments trying to achieve the perfect approximation to one’s idealized self-image.
Fourth, consider an individual who is a bit more psychologically sophisticated and makes the choice not to suppress but to simply witness and thereby neutralize a choice. In the case of a female bodied person, she lives through her anatomical sex and becomes simply an unresponsive observer (witness) to the arising and subsiding of her intrusive sense of male sexuality. The converse analysis would apply to a male bodied person with an intrusive sense of female sexuality. This approach has the potential to minimize the conflict without the potential problems associated with repression. However, witnessing is a learned skill that makes this a choice only for someone aware of the skill and willing to devote the time and effort to establish it.
Fifth, consider a person who is living through a nondual narrative about his or her life. Such an individual would reject the dualistic choice posed by the anchor points of the continuum. The decision in this individual might be to unify the apparent dualistic choice presented by the continuum. The individual neither vacillates between the apparent choices, employs repression, embarks on bodily modification or sets out to utilize neutralization. In this individual the choice is to integrate the conflicting demands and give expression to a blend of both, which may be made explicit to varying degrees. This might be thought of as a non-binary life-style. Such an individual would also be largely free of or at least largely indifferent to the dualistic demands of social presentation in forms dictated by society.
Finally, there is one additional option available from the nondual perspective but one probably chosen by very few. This is to shift identification from the body/mind to fully identifying with pure awareness. Through identification with pure awareness, there is a merger of the self with the meta-self, to as great an extent as is possible, and still live in the world, transcending duality. In such a state the dualistic world of complementary pairs is transformed into a holistic understanding and perspective. A view from which the pairs creating the potential for experience are seen as mere mirror reflections within the whole. Pure awareness is characterized by neither maleness nor femaleness but rather the whole from which they are reflected into the material world.
1. For an excellent video presentation by a leading proponent of monistic idealism click here.
2. Consciousness with a capital “C” is used to indicate a reference to the unified and infinite field of Consciousness or Source of all that is. The use of consciousness with a lower case “C” is used to indicate an individuated contraction of consciousness within Consciousness.
4. Below are links to some sources of teachings on nondualism:
5. Meta-self refers to that which is beyond or behind the self. This is somewhat analogous to some people’s use of the terms soul and oversoul.
One of my personal peeves is the regular substitution of the word “Gender” for “Sex” on forms and in conversation. While the choice “Sex: Male or Female” when strictly referring to biological or external morphological characteristics is not always accurate, the choice “Gender: Male or Female,” in my opinion, marginalizes, if not pathologizes everyone outside the normative range (statistically speaking). Below I will outline the understanding of these terms that leads me to see absurdity in the way that they are frequently used.
To keep this post relatively simple, I ask that you read an earlier post that while not exhaustive elaborates in some detail various terms that will be used below, especially as it pertains to bodily sex and gender identity. The discussion below leaves out the confounds of internal morphology, which includes internal sex organs, and genetic sex or what pair of chromosomes one carries in one’s cells. These two confounds are most clearly illustrated in cases of CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). In this condition, an individual would be classified as female by the external morphological criterion above. This individual would most likely self-identify as female and would be almost universally seen by others as female. However, this individual will not have internal female organs and will have an XY genotype. A third confound is the growing evidence for the possibility of “sexed” brain functions, which can occur independently of the sexing of external morphology during gestation. This sexing of the brain is probably responsible for one’s subjective “sense” of sex or sexual identity. The sexing of the brain may also be related to sexual orientation independently of one’s bodily sex and sexual identity. Given the imposed limitation, there are three discernible possibilities: male, female and intersex.
Gender is a more complex term and has far more social, cultural and behavioral components to it than apparent bodily sex. Gender identity probably has an underlying biological component affecting one’s sense of sexuality. Gender is often used as if it had a one-to-one correspondence with apparent bodily sex, which is clearly not the case. The most common gender terms are masculine and feminine but these are not all-or-nothing categories and include a spectrum of possibilities.
While sex can be treated as categorical without grossly distorting reality, especially if three categories are used, gender is clearly dimensional. Gender can significantly vary along a somewhat normal (or bell shaped) distribution curve describing a dimension. Clearly, there are numerous potential positions all along this continuum that aren’t being given labels. If conventional classification of someone by gender is the goal one might do better to use a numeric scale where 1 is hyper masculine, 4 is neutral and 7 is hyper feminine.
There is one further complication to gender that must be introduced to make this discussion somewhat complete. The concept of transgender is important to this discussion as well. Presentation of transgenderism can be either overt, covert or both and along both behavioral (doing) and cognitive dimensions (imagining). Overt behavioral presentations can be either public or private. Some variations of transgenderism would not be observable and would only be known through self-identification.
The use of sex and gender as interchangeable terms implies that reality conforms to the following structure:
1. Sex: Male & Female &
2. Gender: Masculine Feminine
A more accurate, if incomplete, structure would include three categories for sex and three anchor positions on a dimension for transgender. For each combination of sex with gender, the latter will have multiple possible permutations. Please refer to the post linked in the beginning for some of the possible permutations.
What is being illustrated by the above discussion is that sex and gender and especially gender identity is a complex topic and one that is grossly over simplified in the ordinary use of language. Add to this an individual’s sense of sexuality and sexual orientation and the complexity grows exponentially.
In ordinary verbal or written reference to people by sex, I would favor using labels that conform to how they identify and present. Asking about bodily sex might be relevant under limited circumstances, e.g., for medical purposes. I would be opposed to asking about gender because the meaning of the term is far too complex to be easily queried and would seldom be relevant for most public purposes, including conversational use of the term. I would definitely favor disassociating the terms male and female from the concept of gender because it confuses two different concepts: bodily sex (biological) and gender identity (socio-cultural).
The equating of gender with sex in common language usage is in fact an example of how the modal majority “democratically” attempts to define a public, social reality and marginalize and at worst imply pathology in anyone not fitting the majority stereotype. As Milton Diamond founder of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society has said, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.” Language is the primary tool for creating socio-cultural reality and how it is used has important implications that should not be taken lightly.
[Note: I use transgender in a broad sense and do not limit the term to persons who transition physically into the binary alternative to their assignment at birth (bodily sex). Personally, I make a distinction between sex identity (biological basis), gender identity (usually associated with a biological basis but is largely socio-cultural) and sexual orientation (biological basis). I consider each to be a separate factor in every individual, in whole or part. I also consider these factors to be variable and interactive producing a wide range of outcomes. While some outcomes are atypical relative to the norm, I consider all to be natural outcomes.]