Gender Identity and Rationality

Not sure if I would be bet­ter off post­ing this on the main page in­stead, but since it’s al­most en­tirely about my per­sonal ex­pe­riences, here it goes.

Two years ago, I un­der­went a rad­i­cal change in my wor­ld­view. A se­ries of events caused me to com­pletely re-eval­u­ate my be­liefs in ev­ery­thing re­lated to gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, tol­er­ance, and di­ver­sity—which in turn caused a cas­cade that made me re­think my stance on many other top­ics.

Coin­ci­den­tally, the same events caused me to also re­think the way I thought of my­self. This was, as it turned out, not very good. It still makes it difficult for me to un­tan­gle var­i­ous con­se­quences, cor­re­lated but po­ten­tially not di­rectly bound by a cause-effect re­la­tion.

To be more blunt: be­ing biolog­i­cally male, I con­fessed to some­one on­line about things that things that “men weren’t sup­posed to do”: my dis­satis­fac­tion with my body, my wish to have a fe­male body, per­sis­tent fan­tasies of a sex change, de­sires to shave my body, grow long hair and wear women’s clothes, and so on and so forth. She listened, and then asked, “Maybe you’re trans­sex­ual?”

Back then, it would never even oc­cur to me to think of that—and my first gut re­sponse, which I’m not proud of, was deny­ing as­so­ci­a­tion with “those freaks”. As I un­der­stand now, I was rely­ing on a cached thought, and it limited the scope of my rea­son­ing. She used sim­ple in­tu­itive rea­son­ing to ar­rive at the hy­poth­e­sis based on what I re­vealed to her; I didn’t know the hy­poth­e­sis was even there, as I knew noth­ing about gen­der iden­tity.

In the events that un­folded, I in­te­grated my­self into some LGBT com­mu­ni­ties and learned about all kinds of peo­ple, in­clud­ing those who didn’t fit into no­tions of the gen­der bi­nary at all. I’ve learned to view gen­der as a mul­ti­di­men­sional space with two big clusters, rather than as a boolean flag. It felt in­cred­ibly heart­warm­ing to be able to men­tally call my­self by a fe­male name, to go by it on the In­ter­net, to talk to like-minded peo­ple who had similar ex­pe­riences and feel­ings, and to be referred by the pro­noun “she”—which at first bugged me, be­cause I some­how felt I had “no moral right” or had to “earn that priv­ilege”, but quickly I got at ease with it, and soon it just felt or­di­nary, and like the only ac­cept­able thing to do, the only way of pre­sen­ta­tion that felt right.

(I’m com­press­ing and sim­plify­ing here for the sake of read­abil­ity—I’m skip­ping over the brief pe­riod af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion when I thought of my­self as gen­der­less, not yet ready to ac­cept a fully fe­male gen­der iden­tity, and car­ried out thought ex­per­i­ments with imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions be­tween my “male” and “fe­male selves”, be­fore de­cid­ing that there was no male self to be­gin with af­ter all.)

Nowa­days, gen­der-wise, I ad­dress peo­ple the way they wish to be ad­dress. I also have some pretty strong opinions on the le­gal con­cept of gen­der, which I won’t voice here. And I’ve learned a lot, and was able to drive my in­tro­spec­tion deeper than I ever man­aged be­fore… But that’s not re­ally rele­vant.

And yet… And yet.

As glee­fully as I em­braced a fe­male role, feel­ing on the way to fulfilling my dream, I couldn’t get out the nag­ging feel­ing of be­ing some­how “fake”. I kept think­ing that I don’t always “think like a real woman would”, and I’ve had days of odd ap­a­thy when I didn’t care about any­thing, in­clud­ing my gen­der pre­sen­ta­tion. Some cases hap­pened even be­fore my gen­der “awak­en­ing”, and at those days, I felt empty and gen­der­less, a drained shell of a per­son.

How, in all hon­esty, can I know if I’m “re­ally a woman on the in­side”? What does that even mean? I can speak in terms of de­sired be­hav­ior, in terms of the way I’m seen so­cially, from the out­side. But how can I com­pare my sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience to those of differ­ent men and women, with­out get­ting into their heads? All I have is em­pathic in­fer­ence, which works by build­ing crude, ap­prox­i­mate mod­els of other peo­ple in­side my head, and is so full of ill-defined bi­ases that I have a sus­pi­cion I shouldn’t rely on it at all and don’t say things like “well, a man’s sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience is way off for me, but a woman’s sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience only weakly fits”.

And yet… trans­peo­ple re­port “feel­ing like” their claimed gen­der. I pre­fer to work with more un­am­bigu­ous sub­jec­tive feel­ings—like feel­ing I have a wrong body—but I have caught my­self think­ing at differ­ent times, “This day I felt like a woman, and that day I didn’t feel like a woman, but more like… noth­ing at all. And that other day my mind was oc­cu­pied with com­pletely differ­ent mat­ters, like writ­ing a Less Wrong post.” It helps sometmes to vi­su­al­ize my brain as a sys­tem of con­nected log­i­cal com­po­nents, with an “in­tro­spec­tion cen­ter” as a sep­a­rate com­po­nent, but that doesn’t bring me close to solv­ing the mys­tery.

I want to be seen as a woman, and noth­ing else. I take steps to en­sure that it hap­pens. If I could start from a clean slate, mag­i­cally get an un­am­bigu­ously fe­male body, and live some­where where no­body would know about my past male life, per­haps that would be the end of it—there would be no need for me to worry about it any­more. But as things stand, my in­tro­spec­tion cen­ter keeps gen­er­at­ing those nag­ging thoughts: “What if I’m merely a pre­tender, a man who merely thinks he’s a woman, but isn’t?” One friend of mine pos­tu­lated that “want­ing to be a gen­der is the same as be­ing it”; but is it re­ally that sim­ple?

The sheer num­ber of con­verg­ing tes­ti­monies be­tween my­self and trans­peo­ple I’ve met and talked to would seem to rule that out. “If I’m fake, then they’re fake too, and surely that sounds ex­tremely un­likely.” But while dis­cov­er­ing similar­i­ties makes me gener­i­cally happy, ev­ery de­vi­a­tion from the mean—for ex­am­ple, I con­sciously dis­cov­ered my gen­der iden­tity at 21, a rel­a­tively late age—stings painfully and brings up the un­cer­tainty again. Could this be a case of failing to prop­erly as­sign Bayesian weights, of giv­ing ev­i­dence less sig­nifi­cance than coun­terev­i­dence? But ev­ery time I dis­cov­ered a piece of coun­terev­i­dence, my mind in­ter­preted it as a breach of my men­tal defenses and tried to route around it, in other words, ra­tio­nal­ize it away.

Maybe I could just tell my­self, “Shut up and live the way you want to.”

And yet...

I caught my­self in think­ing that I re­ally, deeply didn’t want to go back, to the point that I didn’t want to ac­cept the con­clu­sion “I’m re­ally a man and an im­pos­tor”, even that time when it looked like ev­i­dence weighted that way. (It’s no longer the case now that I’ve learned more facts, but the point still stands.) It was an un­think­able thought, and still is. Even now, I fail to ap­ply the Li­tany of Tarski. “If I’m re­ally a man, then I de­sire to bel—” Wait, doesn’t com­pute. If that were true, it would cause my whole sys­tem of val­ues to col­lapse, and it feels like stat­ing an in­co­her­ent state­ment, like “If sex­ism is morally and sci­en­tifi­cally jus­tified, then...” It feels like it would cause my en­tire sys­tem of val­ues to col­lapse, and I can’t bring my­self to think that—but isn’t that the dan­ger of “already know­ing the an­swer”, ra­tio­nal­iz­ing, etc.?

It also bugs me, I guess, that de­spite rely­ing on ra­tio­nal rea­son­ing in so many as­pects of my daily life, with this one case, about an as­pect of my­self, I’m rely­ing on some sub­jec­tive, vague “gut feel­ing”. Granted, I try to ap­proach it in a ra­tio­nal way: some­one used my rev­e­la­tions to lo­cate a hy­poth­e­sis, I found it likely based on the ev­i­dence and ac­cepted it, then started up­dat­ing… or did I? Would I re­ally be able to change my be­lief even in prin­ci­ple? And even then, the root cause, the very root cause, comes from feel­ings of un­easi­ness with my as­signed gen­der role that I can­not ra­tio­nally ex­plain—they’re just there, in the same way that my con­scious­ness is “just there”.


When I heard about p-zom­bies, I im­me­di­ately drew par­allels. I asked my­self if “fake trans­peo­ple” were even a co­her­ent con­cept. Would it be pos­si­ble to imag­ine two peo­ple who be­have iden­ti­cally (and true to them­selves, not act­ing), ex­cept one has “real” sub­jec­tive feel­ings of gen­der and the other doesn’t? After ap­ply­ing an ap­pro­pri­ately tweaked anti-zom­bie ar­gu­ment, it seems to me that the an­swer is no, but it’s also prossi­ble that the ques­tion is too ill-defined for any an­swer to make sense.

The way it stands now, the so-called gen­der iden­tity di­s­or­der isn’t re­ally some­thing that is truly di­ag­nosed, be­cause it’s based on self-re­port­ing; you can­not look into some­one’s head and say “you’re definitely trans­sex­ual” with­out their con­scious un­der­stand­ing of them­selves and their con­sent. So it seems to me out­side the do­main of psy­chi­a­try in the first place. I’ve heard some trans­peo­ple voice hope that there could be a de­vice that could scan the part of the brain re­spon­si­ble for gen­der iden­tity and say “yes, this one is definitely trans” and “no, this one definitely isn’t”. But to me, the prospect of such a de­vice hor­rifies me even in prin­ci­ple. What if the de­vice con­flicts their self-re­port­ing? (I sus­pect I’m anx­ious about the pos­si­bil­ity of it fil­ter­ing me, speci­fi­cally.) What should we con­sider more re­li­able—the ma­chine or self-re­port­ing? On one hand, we know how filled hu­man brains are with cog­ni­tive bi­ases, but on the other hand, it seems to me like a tru­ism that “you are the fi­nal au­thor­ity in your own self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

Maybe it’s a ques­tion of defi­ni­tions, like the ques­tion about a tree mak­ing a sound, and the fi­nal an­swer de­pends on how ex­actly we define “gen­der iden­tity”. Or maybe—this thought oc­curred to me right now—my de­ci­sion agent has a gen­der iden­tity while my in­tro­spec­tion cen­ter (which op­er­ates en­tirely on ab­stract knowl­edge rather than so­cial con­ven­tions) doesn’t, and that’s the cause of the con­fu­sion that I get from look­ing at things in both a gen­dered and gen­der­less way, in the same way as if I would be able to switch at will be­tween a timed view from in­side the timeline and a time­less view of the en­tire 4D space­time at once. In any case, so far, for those two years since the re­al­iza­tion I’ve stuck with the iden­tity and role that I at least be­lieve is the only one I won’t re­gret as­sum­ing.