Some time ago Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s foremost atheist, tweeted that he does not consider transgender women to be actual women, and that he only calls them “she” out of courtesy. Commenting on this tweet in his podcast The Briefing, Albert Mohler, one of the most prolific Southern Baptists and president of the largest Southern Baptist seminary in America, stated that this shows how Richard Dawkins is a “consistent materialist.”
In my discussions on social media, I have come across a few atheists who argue that my transgender identity (as a trans woman) indicates my belief in something metaphysical, a gender identity that transcends the body. Thus they proceed to argue that by being transgender, I am not a consistent materialist. Some Christians have also challenged me on this very point. In this article, I’d like to offer a materialistic and scientific defense of transgender identity.
Sex is not Gender
Sex is assigned at birth. It refers to one’s biological status as either male or female. And it is associated with certain physical attributes: chromosomes (XX or XY), hormone prevalence (testosterone or estrogen), and anatomy.
Gender refers to “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women” (APA). Aspects of biological sex are usually similar across different cultures. But, aspects of gender may differ. For example, in ancient Greece, women were the ones who worked out in the fields, while in many cultures it is the men who do this work.
There is no known way to change chromosomes. However, hormone therapy (“GAHT”, gender-affirming hormone treatment) is often used to change hormone prevalence, and very successfully so. In addition, surgeries such as a vaginoplasty can be used to change aspects of someone’s anatomy. Anti-trans people generally argue that the chromosomal difference takes precedence over the other aspects of sex. However, it is not at all clear why this would be so.
In American society, it is considered inappropriate for a man to wear a blouse, skinny jeans, a dress, or a skirt. Wearing makeup is often considered more of a feminine thing as well, and though men do sometimes wear makeup, certain types of makeup are feminine-only (e.g., mascara). So if a person is born with the biological sex “male”, meaning that they have XY chromosomes, a default hormone prevalence of testosterone, and (in most cases) full male anatomy, this person might still choose to wear female clothing and makeup out of self-identification with the female gender and all the attributes that are associated with it. This person might go further and use hormone therapy and even surgery to further associate themselves with the female gender.
Though in American society it is fairly normal for a woman to wear “men’s” clothing (men’s sizes are often listed as “unisex” on some clothing websites), some outfits are generally male-only, such as a tuxedo and tie. Depending on the situation, someone assigned with the biological sex “female”, meaning that they have XX chromosomes, a default hormone prevalence of estrogen, and (in most cases) full female anatomy, might choose to wear this masculine clothing out of self-identification with the male gender and the attributes associated with it. Once again this could include GAHT and surgery.
An individual might also partake of some activities and attributes associated with men and some associated with women and might view oneself as being neither male nor female. This person would be termed “non-binary”, meaning that they do not fit within the gender norms of male or female.
What I’m trying to say is that gender identity is a very fluid thing, and someone can certainly set their own gender identity. Sex is more rigid, but even in the case of sex, some things about it can be biologically altered to be more in keeping with one’s gender identity.
Biology and Neurology
Studies indicate a biological basis behind transgender identity. A 2015 analysis of the scientific data found that “there is increasing evidence of a biological basis for gender identity” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150213112317.htm). A groundbreaking 2018 study discovered that “brain activity and structure in transgender adolescents more closely resembles the typical activation patterns of their desired gender” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180524112351.htm).
An intriguing study (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10843193/) recently found that the number of neurons in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of transgender women was similar to that of cisgender women, while being very different from that of cisgender men. It also found that the neuron number of transgender men was similar to that of cisgender men, while being very different from that of cisgender women.
Hormone treatment quite literally changes one’s brain and biology, to such an extent that a transgender woman on hormone therapy could be said to be “biologically female”, and a transgender man on hormone therapy could be said to be “biologically male.” Estrogen+ (estrogen along with anti-androgens) has been found to decrease brain volumes of trans women towards female proportions, while testosterone treatment in trans men increased total brain and hypothalamus volumes towards male proportions (https://eje.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/eje/155/suppl_1/1550107.xml).
Another study found that transgender women have a much larger volume of regional gray matter in the right putamen, compared to cisgender men (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19341803/), which supports the idea that brain anatomy and gender identity are linked.
To conclude, most of the “materialistic” objections to transgender identity in fact fall in the realm of biological sex and not gender identity. Thus, arguments such as “chromosomes cannot be changed” do not have any effect upon gender identity. Furthermore, some aspects of sex can be changed. In addition, there is good evidence supporting the idea that there is a biological basis behind trans identity.