The tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn and the media frenzy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner bring to public awareness issues about gender identity that philosophers and psychologists have been dealing with for a long time. It leads me to wonder how I know that I am a man.
The tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn and the media frenzy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner bring to public awareness issues about gender identity that philosophers and psychologists have been dealing with for a long time. These stories make gender personal, in the sense that they involve people we know, either directly or as personalities in the media.
It leads me to wonder how I know that I am a man. It’s not something I have any doubt about, or something I would have thought to ask even a year ago. However, being a philosopher, trained to call into question the obvious, I find this to be an appropriate time in our cultural history to address it.
I am not concerned with abstract questions about gender, but rather the existential one: “Why do I believe that I am a man?” Reflecting on my personal history, I find three plausible answers: biology, sexual attraction, and the way I am treated by others.
The trouble is, none of these answers is particularly conclusive
Take biology. I believe I am a man because I have the physical attributes associated with maleness: male genitals, a particular bone structure, a prominent Adam’s apple, all stemming from a certain distribution of chromosomes.
However, I believed in my maleness long before I knew about Adam’s apples, bone structure or chromosomes. Transgender women once had, and many still have, male biologies. Something other than biology led them to the conviction that they are female.
Take the second answer, sexual attraction. I am attracted to women — those people who have female biological structures — and not to men. While sexual attraction arose later than my awareness of my biology, it nevertheless has been a reason for thinking of myself as a man. However, this is obviously not very convincing, because there are women who are attracted to women. And men attracted to men are just as male as I am.
The third, perhaps the most important: I think of myself as a man because I have always been treated like one. I was called a little boy; I lined up with the boys in kindergarten; I was given “boy” toys to play with; I was taught to play “boy” games and do “boy” things like play catch, or help my father fix things (while my sister helped our mother cook).
There are other characteristics that psychologists and philosophers have associated with maleness, as well. Men are allegedly more competitive, more objectifying, and more inclined to be rational than emotional. However, each of these controversial claims, even if true, are irrelevant to my self-perception. I was not aware of them until long after I came to believe that I am a man. And transgender girls and women were also once treated as boys, but at some point they came to understand that they were not.
Descartes’ reflections brought him certainty, but mine have produced only confusion. Perhaps “man” and “woman” don’t designate anything at all, but are simply convenient labels that refer to clusters of biological and behavioral characteristics that are often, though not always, found together. If so, we may find that these characteristics don’t cluster as much as we thought they did. And then the terms will become relics of a less-enlightened age. But if so, what do transgender folks mean when they insist they are women or men?
Alternatively, gender identity might be a basic datum, something we know without having any reason to believe. That is not a very satisfying solution, but what else is there? Transgender women know, or at least strongly believe, that they are women, but I don’t know how they know that. I know, or at least strongly believe, that I am a man, but while I know why I believe it, I don’t find the reasons for my belief very persuasive, nor am I convinced that they are even relevant. So I can’t say that I know that I know it.
Michael Goldman is a retired professor of philosophy at Miami University.