Transgender rights and feminism in the US are both considered part of the cultural left's causes, but it occurred to me that one might perceive an inherent tension between the two:

  • The basis of feminism seems, to me, that all differences between men and women other than anatomical differences are purely social constructs. Women don't have inherently different intellects and emotional dispositions than men, and whatever differences they do have are acquired characteristics inculcated by a patriarchal society. Moreover a lot of traditionally feminine behavior, such as dressing a certain way, an acceptance of objectification, etc...are linked to the oppression of women.
  • Trans folk on the other hand are stereotyped as "feeling like a trapped [man/woman] in a [woman/man]'s body", "knowing since early childhood that they were really women", etc...as if gender and sex are separate notions. It's almost as if they're embracing a form of mind-body dualism, with there being a specific gendered mind that then has to be correctly synced up with a gendered body.

How can one reconcile feminist ideals with transgender notions of what really makes a person male or female? And does being trans indeed imply a form of mind-body dualism if claims of belonging to one gender but being trapped in the wrong body are valid?

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    I'm busy at the moment but your question is founded in a complete misunderstanding and pernicious misrepresentation of what it means to be transgender. Transfolk do not often speak that way, it's a stereotype. Most transfolk do not have the experience from childhood that you describe - they realize later on. There is more to being a woman than anatomy, at least neurologically (just one example). And many/most transfolk don't embrace gender roles; that's a complete misconception.
    – commando
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 17:43
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    @commando a) I know I'm ignorant, that's why I ask. b) "Transfolk do not often speak that way," -- my information is anecdotal, collected from news articles and social media posts, but every single one of them spoke of being trapped in a body of the wrong gender, and many spoke of knowing since childhood. If you can point me to better sources, I'd bet grateful. c) The question isn't "how can you be trans if you don't embrace gender roles?", it's "how can you be trans if there is no such a thing as gender role?" Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 18:06
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    @commando also saying that there inherent neurological differences is one step away from saying that women don't have the right neural structure to be soldiers or mathematicians or what not. Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 18:13
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    here are a few sources
    – commando
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 18:37
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    Even accepting the contested claims I do not see how verbal reports projected back to early childhood contradict social construction of gender (be it true or false). At most they would show that society occasionally "inculcates" psychological inclinations at odds with biological gender already in early childhood. And this is taking them at face value, which is itself highly dubious because complex notions acquired later in life ("feeling like a woman") are imputed to the tender age where they can hardly be expected to be operational.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 20:12

3 Answers 3


It seems to me that this question is based upon two false assumptions.

1.) Feminism today seeks not to erase the differences between men and women, but to change the perception of everything feminine as being inherently lesser than everything masculine. It is from this aim to normalize and appreciate "femininity" that the lines between strictly gendered values may appear to blur, such as the realization that crying does not indicate weakness leading to an acceptance of men crying instead of being forced by social obligation to hide their feelings. Modern feminism acknowledges that there may be differences between men and women, but that those differences do not interfere with our abilities to be useful, functional, and rational. In the past, the main struggle was to prove that women were even capable of becoming "soldiers and mathematicians and whatnot," as you mentioned, and as a result were forced to present themselves in a more masculine way; in order to be taken seriously, a woman in a predominantly male field had to present herself as "one of the guys" to be accepted. Now, the women in those positions are seeking the freedom to reclaim their femininity (however they define it) because things like wearing makeup and watching soap operas don't affect a person's ability to think logically and work diligently. The idea here is to paint the traditional view of femininity in a more positive light in order to share it with men (as wearing makeup and watching soap operas have no power to reflect on the validity of a man's gender and do not inherently weaken a person) and break the requirement of women to completely conform to this traditional feminine role.

2.) The "popular transgender narrative," as it is referred to within the queer and trans community, was created to simplify the trans experience into something easily digested by cisgender people. The idea that somebody can be "a woman trapped in a man's body" is outlandish and ridiculous, but I am guilty of providing a similar simplification as explanation of my decision to transition to those that I already know will never understand my feelings. The actual trans experience consists of a combination of social and physical dysphoria that may arise at any time in one's life, and is usually not understood until much later in life. We are forced to claim that we knew from birth in order to dodge invalidating accusations that something "turned" us transgender, even if we didn't begin questioning our gender until our teens, thirties, or late sixties. Social dysphoria can be defined most simply as the discomfort experienced from being forced into the roles associated with the gender that one is assigned at birth (which feminism seeks to dismantle), whether one is given the opportunity to explore the feeling of living within the role of another gender or not. Physical dysphoria, similarly simplified, is the discomfort or disgust felt in regards to one's body in terms of not only secondary sex characteristics, but often things such as height, body type, and facial features. Whether this discomfort is a result of subconscious associations with social values regarding the binary gendered body (as those who support the complete abolition of gender will claim) remains to be seen, and the concrete, physical discomfort will not be soothed by this kind of realization anyways. The adaptation of traditional gender roles after transition is often another attempt to dodge invalidation, and many transfolk do experience a more mixed identification with certain aspects of their assigned gender and of their true gender.

As a transman and a feminist, I believe that modern feminism only stands to improve the social acceptance of genderqueer and transgender people due to the overlap of issues that feminism seeks to resolve and struggles that genderqueer and transfolk face.

  • This is really well said, and I appreciate your being so forthcoming. Honestly, I don't understand why anyone gives a rip about gender roles, or any kind of roles at all. I don't know why people care what other people think, feel, want or whatever. Just avoid people you don't get along with. It can't mathematically be everyone, so damn everyone else. And this word 'assigned' is really incorrect. There was no assignment going on. No one was is charge, is in charge or ever will be. You are tall, fat, orange or whatever and that is just as random as anything else in the universe. So what?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 1:46
  • "We are forced to claim that we knew from birth" - I haven't heard people say that, because we don't know anything at birth, but I have heard people say that they were trans from birth, or at least as long as they can remember, with various anecdotes to support that (although it may have taken varying amounts of time to figure that, and to find the words to express it, especially when/where the idea of being trans was/is still relatively unknown in society). That may not be the case for everyone, but it's certainly the case for plenty of trans people.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 21:07

This may be less of an answer than a defense of the question -- I like @AlexanderSKing and I consider him more brave than misinformed. My own reaction is exactly @Oliver's, and I don't intend to compete with him.

The question leaves out a very important complicating factor. There really are three players in the game here. Framings of gay identity, transgender understandings and different kinds of feminism all compete to shape our assumptions about gender in definite and permanent ways. In the process, they all step on one another's toes to one degree or another. Pretending they all happily get along lies somewhere between posturing and wishful thinking. Here is one cycle of conflicts that have yet to be reconciled.

It is primarily the stability of the understanding upon which the broader society has accepted gay culture that relies strongly on gender roles being largely socially constructed, with inborn nature not matching the social construction. Feminism only gains from this perspective when women want a chance to play men's roles, not when they want to be valued for themselves and truly integrated into an equal society that acknowledges the full range of natural behaviors.

Feminism focussed on the latter: increasing the real social value of women as they already contribute to society, without becoming any more like men, also exists. And it contains branches that adopt basic gender differences traceable to physical differences as a positive fact we have not yet adequately valued. (E.g. Dianic Witches and the likes of Christina Hoff-Summers) We have never truly cultivated natural female (or male) nature because we have overlayed it with a bias toward the demands of social roles. To my mind they are right, but this returns certain gay men to the position of being inadequately male at a basic level.

The casualties of this conflict turn to history and identify a historical trend of maintaining a 'psychologically hermaphroditic' sex or 'third gender' of effeminate males, often as a marked variety of priest, and often placing them in the roles of confessor, arbitrator or ambassador. (E.g. , "The Zuni Two-Spirit" a' la Ambassador We'Wha, the Hermaphrodyte imagery in Alchemy, half of all Marian Orders of Franciscan Priests.)

Transgender advocates can just look at that and accuse those men of being self-hating transgendered individuals who cannot own their identity because they have been afforded a place due to male privilege.

Other gay men obviously don't want to see a contingent of people who would rather identify with them rather than apart from them further degraded by what they see as aggressive political correctness. So they more strongly cling to the notion that all of this is about other people trying to impose an identity on them. They often go too far with this, to the degree that they deny the validity or extent of claims about intersexual/intergender identity.

And around and around we go...

Dynamics like this are real and matter to those trapped in them. So having outsiders point them out is not a horrible thing that needs to be beaten away with a stick.

  • Sorry, but the "three players are? "Queers" (meaning gays?), "feminists", and "transfolk"? And what does"Other gay men obviously don't want to see a contingent of people who would rather identify with them rather than apart from them further degraded by what they see as aggressive political correctness. So they lean into the notion that all of this is about other people trying to impose an identity on them, to the degree that they infringe on valid claims as to the extent of intersexual identity" mean?
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 0:25
  • @gonzo. I have added some detail, broken up some overcomplicated sentences, and removed some colloquialisms. I hope it makes more sense now.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 1:50
  • Pointing out tension brought about by misunderstanding differs from making a strong claim that two positions are necessarily contradictory, and doing so offensively. The original (unedited) question was not nearly so innocently probing or merely suggestive as your reading implies (and it remains problematic). I can't reply to your other comments within this comment, and somehow I doubt that whatever I say will be to your satisfaction. But what was being asked did not have the value you suggest. Engaging in that level of discourse implies a pre-existing understanding which was not demonstrated.
    – commando
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 4:01
  • @commando I still feel you are imputing malice where stupidity suffices. I am not in any way implying the author has the breadth of perspective on this issue that people who have to navigate the issue first hand. But this kind of problem is all a deeper network of exactly the same contradictions those never challenged by any of this face when they encounter these issues. If we still can't make sense to one another, we should take better perspective on the rest of the people to whom we make no sense.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 4:29
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    Sorry, we overlapped there. But ultimately, your generation has a theoretical basis and a breadth of support that mine lacked, so this kind of conversation will hopefully be less vicious, and more fact-based. But perspective must be maintained. A lot of 'facts' about these subjects are terrilby finely filtered by political correctness, and ultimately not as convincing as they need to be.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 4:45

If the defining concept of trans theory, “Gender dysphoria”, is defined as “the condition of feeling one's emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one's biological sex,” and if the referenced “feeling” denotes a discrepancy between one’s behavioral predispositions and the behavioral dispositions deemed appropriate by one'ssociety/culture to one’s biological gender (the supposedly socially constructed gender role of one’s biological gender), then there would seem to be some contradiction between transgenderism and feminism as you have defined it (the traditional definition).

If, however, with Commando, that “feeling” of dysphoria instead denotes somehow “experiencing” the neurological difference between a cis and a trans brain (see Commando’s comment and citation to a Scientific American article: “There are neurological accounts of gender (e.g. 1,) which do not commit to gender roles.”), then there need be no contradiction. However, the cited article would seem to open a can of worms. For what the article seems to imply is that there are four materially different brains (or brain types): cis male, cis female, trans male and trans female. If so, then it makes sense to reconsider whether “gender roles” are in fact social constructs or something else. (Moreover, such a scenario also addresses you “mind-body” problem by rendering it moot -- it is body (read brain) all the way down.)

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    Your answer adheres to the anachronistic gender binary. There are plenty of gender non-binary transfolk. The dichotomy between "male" and "female" as opposed is false. Nor is the conclusion as you say it is: gender theory needn't commit itself to neurological essentialism as you describe, but merely the essentialism that there is a trans* variation in neurology. As for the first paragraph: this is just not how gender theory works. I could try and cite individual pieces but I think it's more productive to cite the field as such.
    – commando
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:46
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    I'd also like to point out that your language of antecedent "if" clauses presupposes there's a question of the matter. We've had comments on the original question presuming this is the case, but they're comparable to a Renaissance cardinal's supposition that Copernican astronomy is subject to debate. I implore those involved in this question to educate themselves thoroughly on the matter at hand. It will become clear, as Oliver's answer indicates, that there is no case to be made for a problem. All existing arguments rely on misinterpretation or misrepresentation.
    – commando
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:49
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    @commando I think you are being overly defensive here and attempting to shut down competing discourse. The subjective accounts of people are not necessarily philosophical facts, and we do not have to give them any more weight than we would give sightings of ghosts. You need to keep within your context and own your alignment with a given philosophical position if you are going to judge others on the same standard. Besides, "If the sky is blue" is not an offensive position. Asking questions is not taking positions.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 22:57
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    @commando If I am being naive, I would still need more than your word on that. What you are doing is much like atheists telling the religious they are crazy. Facts are only facts if they have context on which to rely. People who feel alien in their bodies and choose to take that as a natural variation within their gender still deserve a voice.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 23:03
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    There is a point at which transgender activists start telling off effeminate men who fight to enlarge the space afforded to men to be non-conforming socially as not having the 'guts' to claim an intersexual identity. Everyone has their agenda, and we need to not take our own agenda as fact until we really have the facts.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 23:10

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