You even get a flag to make sure you feel special. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

August 24, 2021   5 mins

Transsexuals like me never asked to be at the centre of one of the most toxic debates in society; we just wanted to transition and get on with our lives. But what was once a niche medical condition has become a civil rights issue so big that it now challenges our understanding of what it means to be a man or woman.

Transgender ideologues tell us that everybody has a gender identity — an innate and immutable feeling of maleness and femaleness — that determines whether we are women or men, or perhaps something else. If that conflicts with the sex “assigned” to you at birth, then come join us under the transgender umbrella. We will even give you a flag to make sure you feel special.

But what if gender identity is bunkum? To the true faithful who dutifully chant “transwomen are women”, even asking the question is tantamount to blasphemy.

The term “gender identity” was coined by Robert Stoller in 1964. He described it as “a congenital, perhaps inherited biological force”. But evidence is lacking. As Alex Byrne, Professor of Philosophy at MIT, has observed: “If there is some kind of ‘gender identity’ that is universal in humans, and which causes dysphoria when mismatched with sex, it remains elusive.”

Rather like the “luminiferous ether” of the 19th century, a hypothetical substance used to explain the transmission of light, gender identity was invented rather than discovered. But when Einstein showed that ether was unnecessary to explain its existence, that idea was abandoned. Presumably, then, if transsexualism can be explained without a mysterious biological force, gender identity can join it in the history books.

Since the whole debate rests on the distinction between men and women, it makes sense to consider the differences between them. In humans, adult males tend to be taller, while females tend to have wider hips. But the crucial difference — which defines male and female in any species — is the production, or potential for production, of one of two gametes: ova in females and sperm in males.

Having fathered three children in the usual way, there can be no doubt which gametes I produced. I am male, and hence I am a man.

So why am I also transsexual? What could have caused psychological distress so severe that I felt I had no choice but to transition? At the time — nine years ago — the urge to change not only my social presentation but also my body was irresistible. But can this be explained by differences in psychology, rather than a mysterious force?

Male and female psychologies are not the same. The most obvious difference is sexual orientation. According to the Office of National Statistics, 93.4% of men are attracted to women, while 93.9% of women are attracted to men. But to attract partners, men and women also signal sexually in grooming, dress and presentation, and they tend to do it differently. No doubt some of this will be socially conditioned, but that cannot explain our observations of other species. Peacocks not only possess distinctive plumage, they show it off.

In her book, Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us, Carole Hooven — currently the Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard — builds a persuasive case that testosterone in utero affects the psychology as well as the physiology of the developing embryo. She tells me, however, that unlike other species, “what particular [sexual] signals we use are heavily dependent on culture”.

Like sexual orientation, sexual signalling applies differently to the two sexes. But it is also overt and pervasive, extending far beyond clothes and makeup. Even the words man and woman evoke their sexual signals. When we hear “a real man”, we don’t picture an authentic producer of small gametes; we think of a man with sexually attractive, testosterone-driven male qualities: strong and tough, and probably not wearing a dress.

And so sexual signalling is more than mere gender expression. While gender is a poorly defined term and rooted in culture, sex is the reason our species is here. Sexual attraction involves two vectors: sexual orientation is the sex we are attracted to, and sexual signalling is how we make ourselves attractive. Neither can be disconnected from sex and the biological impetus to reproduce.

Just as people with an atypical sexual orientation can be labelled as gay, those driven to atypical sexual signalling can be labelled as trans. So isn’t sexual signalling just gender identity by another name? Yes and no.

Yes, it is an innate quality that is hard-wired into us: it is not something that we can choose, and it can lead to transsexualism if we are driven to signal in the way typical of the other sex rather than our own. But no, sexual signalling does not supplant biological sex. When transgender activists chant “transwomen are women”, they are in effect demanding that gender identity replaces biological sex when we demarcate men and women. The deleterious impact of that approach on female people — “birthing bodies”, according to one female health charity — is profound.

Sexual signalling is also an observable reality, and it is a starting point to understand why some people are trans. There may be multiple different reasons, but I will focus on the group I know most about: heterosexual males who transitioned in midlife.

Not only can our maleness not be wished away — we are members of the sex that produces sperm, after all — I would claim that the reason why this group wants to wear dresses and makeup, grow out our hair and develop breasts is linked inextricably to our maleness. To quote another transsexual, Anne A Lawrence, we are “men trapped in men’s bodies”. That was the title of Lawrence’s book that contained a series of narratives written by autogynephilic male-to female transsexuals.

Autogynephilia was a term introduced in 1989 by the American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard. Blanchard told me that autogynephilia denotes “a natal male’s tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman.” He added, “in the Western Hemisphere and English-speaking Commonwealth countries, the overwhelming majority of adult natal males presenting with gender dysphoria are of the autogynephilic type.”

It’s not difficult to conceive why autogynephilia can lead to severe psychological distress in heterosexual men attracted to their own bodies. Because their sexual and romantic interest is directed inwards — a target location error according to Blanchard  — they respond by sexually signalling to themselves. But while their interest is in females (they are heterosexual), their bodies are male. Clothing may help to create an illusion of femaleness but, for some, medical transition may seem to be the only way to square the circle.

This scientific approach to just one form of male-to-female transsexualism is a world away from a metaphysical claim that “transwomen are women”. But the concept of gender identity has been comforting and politically useful for autogynephilic transsexuals in a society that stigmatises unusual male sexuality. Unsurprisingly, Blanchard’s theory provokes a very strong reaction in some.

It should not, however, be ignored: gender identity has caused significant collateral damage to children and adolescents, women’s rights, biomedical science and Western political life. Moreover,  it is as unnecessary as the ether. Transsexuals — and other gender non-conforming people — do not need to invent an innate gender identity to understand ourselves.

We just have a need to communicate ourselves — sexually signal — as other human beings do, just in a way more typical of the opposite sex. There may be a host of reasons why that happens, of which autogynephilia is just one, but gender identity explains nothing. Worse, it hinders exploration into the conditions that make us the people we are.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.