What happens when, in the search for who you are, something shocking happens, like being the wrong sex?
Life is a quest to satisfy the conditions of our being. We need sustenance, love, esteem, knowledge. We need to express ourselves, and we need to negotiate a role in life or persona that is acceptable both to society and to our inner selves, and through that persona make and pursue our dreams. Each person has a unique nature, and, taking a Darwinian view, each nature conceived and brought to fruition exists to test itself against the world on a hero's quest, and find some measure of success. And then to make way for the next generation- a new jumble of the genetic kaleidoscope, composed piece-meal of the successes of the past.
We can take most of our identity for granted- buy it off the rack, as it were. From earliest childhood we are molded to various standards of civilized behavior, each found by our forebears to be consistent with their natures, and thus surely consistent with ours as well. The standard roles available are wide-ranging enough- child, adult, man, woman, worker, scholar, reprobate, adventurer, mother, pillar of society, etc. Somewhere in there we are supposed to embody our dream which expresses who we are, and find a way to enjoy life.
In the story books, the quest to find out who one is often leads to unexpected but usually pleasant discoveries. Cinderella finds that she is destined for nobility, by way of her shoe size. Harry Potter finds that he is a wizard, after suffering through an intolerably bourgeois childhood. Adolescence is all about finding something wonderful and strange within- an unexpected power, prone to misuse and misunderstanding. The journey to finding out how one can fit into society and be happy at the same time is a matter of finding, in part, who one is and how that being fits into the many known categories of human variation, whether accountant, model, coach, organizer, nurse, sportsman, etc.
But suppose there's a problem- suppose that who we seem to be is violently at odds with who we are? The most determined roles in society are gender roles, encoded in our natures via an entire chromosome, and thus necessarily accomodated in all the aspects of society that reflect how most people have in the past expressed their gendered natures- separate fashions for men and women, legal structures for marriage, roles from military participation to prison incarceration. Crossing this boundary is almost inconceivable, but that is the fate of the person who is transgender.
Several stories have appeared in the last year describing the transgender experience, extremely affecting in a Kafka-esque conviction of being born in the wrong body. While homosexuality is relatively common, and by some biological theories is a side-effect of selection for high levels of cross-gender orientation in the other sex (but see here as well), transgender conditions are less common- a biological error not just in the orientation of sexual desire, but in the deeper property of gender identity as a whole.
Transgender conditions raise a host of philosophical problems. How can gender be a property of the brain? Scientists used to think of the brain as a blank slate, to the point that whichever gender a child was raised as would stick for life, with no further problems. One story recounts the horrifying case of a boy whose circumcision was botched, who was raised as a girl, proceeded to total revolt against his gender assignment, and ended up committing suicide. Clearly gender is not a blank slate, but is as much encoded in the brain as in the genitals. Some girls (and boys) want to wear tiaras and dresses, some can't stand them. Clearly there is some kind of sex-dependent mental programming that is tightly tied to the physical programming, but which in rare occasions is uncoupled or switched. In this case the physical programming is useless, even repugnant, showing as clearly as possible that the brain is the dominant organ of sexuality.
Why is a disconnect between one's feelings and one's received role so repugnant? Why not accept how one is treated, and use that to one's advantage? Why all the discomfort with being the wrong gender? Not being afflicted, I can not be certain, but if society has over the millennia tailored suitable gender roles, then one's day is going to be filled with countless irritations and discomforts if one is transgender. Whether it is wanting to wear dresses, or to nurture a doll, or to not play with trucks, or to be attracted to men, one's desires are going to be thwarted time and time again. They are part and parcel of who one is, both inside and outside.
Are there some desires that are beyond the pale? So disruptive to society that it has a right to force individuals to put a lid on their own desires? Certainly, but not in this area. Temperamental conservatives tend to differ, but if no criminal harm is being done, the individual need to express and embody one's particular blend of gender proclivities should be sovereign. Society's gender roles can withstand the assault of deviance, since those roles are in the first place nothing but the negotiated average of gendered desires in the past. Indeed, the opening of many different approaches to gender expression is a breath of fresh air to the common tendency of societies to get sclerotic in their adherence to tradition. Not to mention that people who are at home with themselves make much better parents than those who are acting a lie.
Could transgender tell us something about spirituality? There is an intriguing, and I think informative, parallel between the inner experiences involved in "knowing" that god exists, and "knowing" that one is the wrong sex. Both are intuitions that are not spelled out, but are "deep" feelings about the nature of reality- one's personal reality that is extremely difficult to express to others, but at the same time must be expressed, because it is not just a dry observation, but an earthshaking revelation of identity and meaning. The conversion experience, as related by William James and Francis Collins, among many others, is notoriously personal and impervious to reason.