Call Me Napoleon: Thoughts on the transgender movement

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Here’s your trigger warning. This is dealing with a controversial topic and I expect everyone reading it to approach the issue with an open mind, respect, and tolerance.

Growing up, I was very well rounded in high culture; namely, cartoons. When the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner issue turned the nation’s attention towards the transgender movement, one of my good friends reminded me of a certain cartoon episode wherein Bugs Bunny encounters a man who claims to be Napoleon. As it turns out, the man is an imposter, and we end the video with Bugs claiming that he is Napoleon instead as he marches off into the sunset in a 19th Century hat while playing his fife.

The video raises an important issue. The would-be-Napoleon looked like Napoleon, acted like Napoleon, thought like Napoleon, and clearly felt like Napoleon. Yet, the man from the cartoon was not Napoleon. Merely feeling like someone, looking like someone, or thinking like someone does not make you that person. It may make you similar to that person, but you are still you and they are still them. We could figuratively talk about being someone like a parent might say to their child, “I see your father in you.” But that child is still not their father. Why? Because the various people in question have unique biological compositions ranging from genetics to hormones and everything in-between, and they have had entirely different experiences which in turn offered the opportunity for the choices that define who they are. So we might say someone is Napoleon, but we do not literally mean that because at some level there are bound to be differences.

So the real question is simply, “How does this pertain to transgender people.” Transgender being defined as someone who was born with a gender (which is psychological and has to do with how one fits the societal norms placed on their sex) that does not fit their sex (which is biological). Let’s start by acknowledging that we are dealing with people feeling like a “type” of person rather than a particular person (such as Napoleon). So disqualifying someone from being a man or woman is much more complicated than disqualifying them from being Napoleon. However, there is a similarity in that there are certain criteria which need to be met to be both Napoleon or to be something more general like a man or woman. We’ve already established that to actually be Napoleon, one would literally need to share every thought, action, choice, feeling, and experience with Napoleon.

So what exactly does it mean to be a man/woman?

Don’t confuse what I am asking, I’m not just talking about being male or female. While man/woman and male/female are often thought of synonymously, we cannot simply assume that they are the same thing because that is where the debate lies. Those in support of the legitimacy of the trans movement would say that merely feeling like the opposite sex is all that it takes to make them a man if they are a female, or make them a woman if they are male. In other words, the way one feels determines what they are. One might claim that a boy raised as a boy can still be a girl because societal conditioning does not take away from one’s “womanhood” since girls in Afghanistan were raised as boys but still considered women. One might say that it is not genetics that makes a man or a woman since we find women with XY chromosomes and men with XX Chromosomes. And they might argue that hormones don’t make one a man or a woman because they felt like their hormones were ruining who they were in puberty, so their identity lied deeper than their hormones. (These arguments were given by a transgender person, you can find the source here). One might simply say that they have a man’s brain in a woman’s body or vice versa.

The phrase “man’s brain in a woman’s body” or woman’s brain in a man’s body” is foundational to making sense of this issue because it points to a common ground where we can agree what makes a person a man or a woman (which is something that, in theory, transcends a person’s phenotype). If indeed a person had the brain (literally the physical brain) of a man and the anatomy of a woman, then I could agree that they would be right in considering themselves a man (and the same would go for a person who has the brain of a woman but the body of a man). That is because, to me, the brain, which houses all thought, senses, and feelings, and choice-making-faculties, is the most fundamental determinant of who we are.

The idea that the brain is fundamental in determining whether a person is a man or a woman is evidenced by findings that some children who are born with ambiguous genitalia and underwent surgeries to become females eventually faced complications because they still had the brains of males. This is exceedingly rare, but it has led to further research which suggests that, rather than hormones, chromosomes form a person’s brain in a certain way that makes them immutably a male or a female. For example, one child was born with ambiguous genitalia and underwent surgery to become a girl, but he grew up with the brain of a boy because his genetics had made him that way. His body could have gone either way, for all his family and doctors knew. But the ambiguity only existed because they didn’t know he had a male brain.

So to make it simple, a man has the brain of a man and a woman has the brain of a woman and this was decided by genetics as the person developed (which is far more complicated than X and Y chromosomes).

This is where things get far more complicated. If we can analyze someone who is a male and see that they have a “female’s brain” then the issue would be resolved. However, some sources would tell you that a man’s brain is not different from a woman’s brain in some respects, others would tell you that there are many fundamental differences between the brains of men and women (for example, men tend to use one hemisphere at a time for certain tasks whereas women use both). The consensus seems to be that while male and female brains do have their similarities, there are still sufficient differences to make a distinction.

So given these differences that let us tell male and female brains apart, do transgender people really just have brains with the wrong bodies? Or do their bodies fit their brains and they feel like something they are not? I am going to tentatively side with the latter. Based on research which is cited and discussed here, I am fairly confident in saying that we have sufficient evidence that transgender men do not have female brains. However, this comes with a caveat in that the research is incomplete because there are other aspects of the brain which must be researched. There is other research analyzing different aspects of the brain which shows that female to male transgender people have white matter resembling male brains. But, as the article which cites the research acknowledges, there is no evidence that the white matter caused the women to feel more like men, and even though there were some similarities they were clearly not male brains. However, based on both sides, one fact remains clear, transgender males are not women and transgender females are not men. In order to be a man, one must have the brain of a man. The same goes for women. I have yet to find any research stating that any transgender people actually have the brain of their desired sex.

This leaves us in an awkward spot. A transgender person may not have the brain of their desired sex, but most research is showing that there are often differences between their brains and the brains of the rest of their biological sex. So by the same standard which invalidates a transgender female as a man, we cannot quite call them a male either since their brains are different from males as well, at least not in a strict sense of the term.

In light of this difficulty, I side with the former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins who claims that a person feeling like the opposite sex should undergo therapy to feel comfortable with their own biological sex (as is determined by their sex organs). This is because that person has certain fundamental aspects which were determined during their biological development and cannot be changed by surgery; whereas, the differences between a transgender male and a cisgender male can be resolved. Therapy is more likely to help a transgender male live a normal life as a man, or a transgender female live a normal life as a woman,

Regardless of what the solution is for people who feel at odds with their sex, it is clear that they are not the opposite sex based on fundamental differences in their brains which are determined by genetics during development. Bugs Bunny will never be Napoleon, no matter how much he feels like him, and a male will never be a woman no matter how much they feel like one.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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