Sex and Gender Identity: Part 2, Gender Identity and Gender Dysphoria

Last time we discussed the complexity of what defines male and female in terms of physical sex. This time, I am going to attempt to give a little information around the much more nuanced issue of gender identity.

Gender identity is, in short, how one perceives oneself to be. This doesn’t directly map to the societal concept of a gender role–though it is in some ways related–but more broadly represents how the person models themselves internally. Where sex is mostly about one’s exterior state, gender operates on a less easily measured level.

It is important to note that this is not a binary, either-or situation. This is more a two dimensional system, since people may end up perceiving themselves as:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Both male and female (sometimes called bigendered or androgyne, depending on the model)
  • Neither male nor female (sometimes called nongendered)

With various degrees in-between. So someone may perceive themselves to be male, but only weakly. Or they may perceive themselves as being both strongly male and strongly female. This is extremely difficult to successfully model, and even more difficult to measure, but is an important part of personal identity.

For our purposes here we are going to focus on male and female and gender dysphoria, as opposed to the concepts of strongly or weakly gendered or the spectrum of possible gender identities. The reason for this is not because those issues aren’t important, but because for the purpose of this discussion we can address the dyadic case without getting into the deeper ramifications.

Biology of Gender Identity

For many, this implies that somehow gender identity isn’t real or that it isn’t biological in the way that sex clearly is. Under this model, gender–especially gender as it is variant from absolute male-or-female sex–is something imprinted by society or something that people choose to be. However, it appears that there is a fairly significant biological basis for gender identity.

One of the first signs of this is that Male-to-Female transsexuals have brain structures that more closely resemble that of women than that of men, and that there is a genetic correlation with male-to-female transsexualism:

One can see that the research is still very young, but there is also a clear pattern emerging that there are significant biological components to gender identity.

There is still a significant debate on the question of nature versus nurture and such studies cannot currently cleanly model groups that view themselves as variant from strictly male or female, but in the US the current standard of care for Gender Identity Disorder is, if the situation calls for it, to help the individual transition so that they can live entirely as their identified gender. There are some significant and deep flaws with the way we handle this, but the underlying message is clear: it is easier to change someone’s outside to more closely correlate with their internal state than it is to change someone’s ingrained self perception at this level.

Gender Dysphoria’s Manifestations

There are a few key manifestations of gender identity. The exact ones vary depending on who you ask, but a good starting point is to look at what is variant for various classifications of Gender Identity Disorder.

In the draft of the DSM-V, Gender Dysphoria in adults is defined by the following:

A. A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, of at least 6 months duration, as manifested by 2* or more of the following indicators: [2, 3, 4]**

  1. a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (or, in young adolescents, the anticipated secondary sex characteristics) [13, 16]
  2. a strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics because of a marked incongruence with one’s experienced/expressed gender (or, in young adolescents, a desire to prevent the development of the anticipated secondary sex characteristics) [17]
  3. a strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender
  4. a strong desire to be of the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender)
  5. a strong desire to be treated as the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender)
  6. a strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender)

B. The condition is associated with clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, or with a significantly increased risk of suffering, such as distress or disability

The first thing to note is that if it is not impairing your life, it is not a disorder as defined above, and the coping strategies may look quite different. More on this–and the meaning of the word disorder–at a later point.

The next component to note is that these are pretty much all reflective of the internal state of the individual. The individual simply does not see themselves as their birth-assigned gender, and frequently has negative reactions to being classified as their birth-assigned gender. In adults, it impacts significantly more than whether they prefer to do things that are stereotypically male or female and goes to the heart of how an individual sees themselves, and that being at odds with their birth-assigned gender.


Gender dysphoria isn’t a choice, it isn’t an attempt by men to steal or otherwise infiltrate into women’s mysteries. They are people who happen to see themselves in a way that does not fit with their outer presentation and assignment, and who undergo a great deal of difficulty in trying to reconcile these. Pre-transition suicide rates among those with gender dysphoria are often reported to be 20% or higher, and violent crime victimhood is also proportionately higher.

This doesn’t mean anyone should or shouldn’t run a ritual for ciswomen only. Or that I am telling people they need to include intersex or transgendered individuals. My point is closer to that, as Raven Kaldera said about intersex: whenever a line is drawn, it passes through someone’s flesh. You can choose to include or exclude those people who will be cut by the lines, especially given that these are communities that see significant cross-over, but I do ask that people be aware of the consequences of where these lines fall.

I’ll write more on the matter of language in a future installment.

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February Link Roundup

For a summary of some of the discussion around PantheaCon, take a look at this link roundup.

Some other essays and articles from around the web:

Also worth taking a look at the list of Earth and Nature Holidays for March 2012 over at No Unsacred Place. There are some great causes and resources taking place this month.

The situation in Syria has also been escalating. Several groups have been trying to get in without much success.

Closer to home, tornadoes ripped across the midwest. Both Direct Relief International and the Red Cross are responding.

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Sex and Gender Identity: Part 1, Sex

After reading a few different perspectives on what happened at PantheaCon both this year and last year, along with a few of the perspectives in the book Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism, I figured it would help to provide a bit of background on why this is both a complicated and important issue to understand, regardless of exactly where you fall on the various questions involved. You can, if you are interested, also browse this reference which discusses terminology and also politeness.

As another note, while I have my personal biases, I am not seeking to argue for right or wrong except possibly around the topic of polite usage of terminology. It’s more trying to lay out some discussion around factors that might inform people’s beliefs in this matter.

Moving right along, let’s talk about the matter of sexual identification.

What is Sex

We like to, in our societies, maintain a bit of a fiction that there are two sexes. This is deeply ingrained in our society, with the classical first pronouncement on the birth of a child being “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” based largely on the apparent genitals. There are a lot of people out there who think that this matches up perfectly with chromosomes: The presence of an Y chromosome means a male, the absence means a female.

The problem is that biology didn’t get the memo, and not everyone falls into one of two neat little boxes as we like to conceive of them. Anne Fausto-Sterling writes:

But if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature. For biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes–and perhaps even more.

“Intersex” isn’t a single state of being, but rather a wide-ranging spectrum. There are numerous different intersex conditions, including many that aren’t obvious until much later in life, or even at all if they are assigned a sex at birth and surgically corrected at that point in time (which is an increasingly controversial practice due to later gender identification potentially not matching). They may never even be told that there was a correction.

Examples abound: CAIS women have a 46,XY karyotype (male), but are born phenotypically female and they develop female secondary sex characteristics when they hit puberty. With the exception of when certain conditions develop, it is generally not discovered that they aren’t 46,XX until they hit puberty and fail to show a menstrual cycle.

Except that diagnosis isn’t that simple either, as there are a variety of uterine malformations that can also lead to a lack of a menstrual cycle, some of which do not involve a Y chromosome.

Then we get the various phenomena where people may not only not match our expectations, but may do so in a dramatic fashion. Levi Suydam (who Fausto-Sterling writes about) was visibly identifiable as male (and diagnosed so by doctors due to a penis and one testicle being present), however, it turns out that Suydam also menstruated, though not as heavily as most women.

The question at the time was important because they were determining whether Suydam’s vote should be counted, since Suydam lived in the 19th century in the US in an era and area where only men could vote.

There are also conditions where a clitoris is enlarged to the point of allowing penetrative intercourse with women as well as with men.

Some of these various conditions involve infertility. Others still allow for the person to have children.

These conditions aren’t common, but they also aren’t especially rare. The Intersex Society of North America says that the total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female is one out of every 100 birth, with 2 in every 1,000 receiving surgery to normalize genital appearance.


My point here is not that any one particular definition of man or woman is “right” or “wrong” or that any particular religion needs to view intersex in any particular way. More that biology doesn’t like boxes: As we try to put things in nice neat little containers such as “male,” “female,” and “intersex,” biology likes to throw at us all sorts of little quirks and variations that challenge our understanding of what goes in each box. Certainly, others may not share the same perspective on how these boxes are split up or what goes in which box.

So when we are thinking in terms of men and women’s mysteries or talk about celebrating the beauty and grace of the feminine [/male] form in all of her infinite variety and define these things strictly in terms of apparent sex, it is worth reflecting on where exactly we draw the line between men and women in terms of sexual identification, and that how we classify people and how they classify themselves–even if we know everything, which we usually don’t–may not be the same.

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My Bigotry Is Not Better than Your Bigotry

This is part 2 of my stroll through the field of landmines, emphasizing ideas about community, inclusion and exclusion.

As I mentioned in my last post, Z. Budapest has been a strong  feminist and Dianic voice in the pagan community since longer than I have been alive. She has never made any bones about her position on gender, sexuality or patriarchy. So the fact that she would conduct a ritual  for what she termed “genetic” women was not a surprise.

Does she have a right to hold such a ritual? You betcha.

One of the core American values that we all grow up with is that the values and rights of the individual are more important than the family or the region or the nation-state. That’s why Catholic women in America use birth control, why Occupy Wall Street and Denver  and  Atlanta and San Francisco and all the other Occupy movements started in the first place and why Americans own more guns than there are gas stations. We are all invested in and protective of our right to do what we damn well please.

Z. Budapest wanted to have a ritual just for “genetic” women. So she did. Other people decided to protest. So they did.

Michfest excludes transwomen every year. Every year, some of those transwomen protest.

Private groups do private rituals all the time that exclude others. Most pagan groups have invitation only events. The local ritual I mentioned before is an invitation only event.

When the rubber hits the road, women have the right to have women-only rituals, men have the right to have men-only rituals. Because if you have a private group, you can play with whoever you want.

Both Z Budapest’s ritual and the Michigan Womyn’s Music festival are public, as in the public knows about them and are welcome as long as they meet the biological requirement. That makes them different that private events and rituals.

Do you have the right to be exclusionary in public? Until someone sues you, you betcha.

I’m actually surprised that someone in our litigious culture hasn’t tried to sue Michfest,  Z. Budapest or Pantheacon over this (at least, not that I’ve heard of). Not that I’m advocating that, but I know enough about gender discrimination to know it usually doesn’t stop until someone gets sued. Sometimes it doesn’t stop even after someone gets sued.

Is it right (not do you have the right but are you in the right?) to have public rituals that are exclusionary?

As I said before, we are a relatively small community in the religious communities of America and yet we are vicious to everyone else who doesn’t drink our particular brand of Kool-Aid. It seems we save a special kind of vindictiveness for other pagans that aren’t quite “our” kind of pagan. Pagans will sit on interfaith councils with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, but will trash talk the “fluffy bunny” or “neo-Nazi”  or “cultural appropriationist” or “not a REAL woman” in our own community.

We can include or exclude anyone we want. But should we?

I’m going to show my bigotry here.

I’m a firm believer in American values. I believe that the pagan movement in America wouldn’t be so rich,varied and interesting if it wasn’t grown in the soil of American values. And one of those fundamental American values for me is something Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Or, in the words of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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PantheaCon Gender Issues

As a followup to Biology Does Not and Must Not Equal Destiny I figured I would provide a few links about what was going on.

  • Thorn Coyle has written a series of posts: Holding Beloved Community (along with Part 2 and Part 3: An Open Letter to the Women Attending Z’s Ritual at Pantheacon 2012), and The Beauty of Diversity: Notes on PantheaCon 2012.
  • PantheaCon 2012: Transgender Inclusion/Exclusion
  • Lupa of Therioshamanism wrote about her feelings and observations and then provided a followup. There’s some interesting discussion attached to both.
  • Letter to the Editor: CisWomen only ritual at PantheaCon provides another take, the comments are (as usual) worth reading through.
  • The Wild Hunt Blog has their own coverage and link roundups at PantheaCon: Unity, Diversity, Controversy and The PantheaCon Gender Conversation Continues
  • Also worth noting the discussion from the last time along with Transgender Issues in Pagan Religions by Star Foster, who wrote about this last year as well, has also been writing more about it this year.

    As a personal take, I believe that we as a community have two separate conversations that need to come out of this, and those conversations need to be kept separate. Conflating them is simply a cause for more hurt without actually fixing many of the underlying issues.

    The first is the matter of inclusion and exclusion from circles and rituals on the basis of things outside of our control. There are multiple important questions here about the degree of acceptable exclusion in any group. Whether it is appropriate to hold ciswoman-only rituals, transman-only rituals, gay/straight-only rituals, or even whether it is truly appropriate to even split women and men.

    The other–which Lupa and Thorn Coyle point out with more eloquence than I will manage–is the matter of language, education, and respect. If you say that a public ritual is open to “all women,” then don’t turn around and exclude non-cisgendered women. One can use moderated–or at least sensitive–language while still not accepting or believing something, and one can show sensitivity and understanding for the issues at hand even while not agreeing with the other parties.

    I am by many considered an outsider in this conversation. I am not female-bodied nor identified (my gender identity is tricky to pin down, really), nor was I there this year. But I have seen this now two years in a row, seen the statements and the hurt online, and feel that this is a conversation that we need to be having as a community, across community boundaries. I also believe that, as we move forward, we need to have both of these conversations. Separately.

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Biology Does Not and Must Not Equal Destiny

I’ve been working on this post in my head for awhile. Because the subject is a field of landmines.

PantheaCon has had what are called “ciswomen” or “women born of women” rituals, led by Z. Budapest, who has been a strong feminist and Dianic voice in the pagan community for longer than I have been alive. This ritual, by its construction and language, excludes transwomen.

Z. Budapest’s position is that women need their own culture, their own resourcing, their own traditions. Sharing those traditions with transwomen would cheapen the Dianic tradition, and that “Women are born, not made by men on operating  tables” (see Transgender Issues in Pagan Religions).
Pantheacon also has rituals, events and panels for transwomen and transmen.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is another women born women event.The policy on women born women exists because they believe women who were born female and grew up as girls have a fundamentally different experience than have males. They also believe it is important for these women to have a place to gather without the presence of men .

This is a private event, held on private property.

In a discussion about a local Beltane ritual being planned, the subject of the separation of men and women during the ritual came up. The organizers, after some deliberation, have decided to separate based on how the person identifies himself/herself rather than checking their bits at the door. Because, no one wants to be the penis police.

Leaving the perception of bigotry aside (and there is frightening amounts of conflict over this subject in a community that is already on the fringe of society, which I’ll talk about in a later post), I’m only going to deal with the biology part.

A core tenet of the feminism that I grew up with is, “Biology is does not and must not  equal destiny.” The idea that women should not be held down by traditionally feminine gender roles relating directly to their sexual organs was a key step in moving away from those socially constructed gender roles and moving into traditionally masculine spheres of influence like the boardroom, the court room and the chambers of Congress.

The women I grew up with as role models were mothers and wives, traditionally feminine roles. They also worked in traditionally masculine professions. They never believed that just because they were women, there were certain things they couldn’t do.  They believed that anyone could do anything if they worked hard enough, regardless if they had a penis or not.

The logical vice versa of that, for me, is if you identify as a woman, if you live as a woman with all of the pain and inequality that entails, you are a woman. Because your biology is not your destiny.

Yet I see Z. Budapest and Michfest saying, “Wait, your biology is your destiny. Your life is different because you are a woman born woman.”

I don’t see a difference between Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann saying my biology is my destiny or Z. Budapest saying it. They share the same fundamental misunderstanding. Gender identity is created by individuals and society, not by biology.

Despite all indications to the contrary in the media, on a personal, anecdotal level, the young women and men I see coming up in the world are changing how they see gender identity and biology. Some strive for androgyny, some strive for balance, some identify strongly with one gender or the other. But these are conscious choices and none of their destinies are rooted in their biology.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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Happy Valentine’s Day or Why Love “Spells” Are A Bad Idea

Every once in a while, someone comes to me and says, “I’m in love with ____, but they don’t love me. What can I do?”

I sympathize. I think everyone does. We’ve all been in that situation when we are deeply and madly in love with someone and he or she doesn’t love us. But there is nothing you can do to make someone love you.

I’ve had people ask, “Can’t you just do a love “spell” for me?”  I always say no and escort the person out. Because, putting aside all the deep ethical issues of that level of stupid, love spells  are coercive and the feelings  they evoke aren’t real.

One of my first “fixer” jobs was a woman came to me and said, “I really liked this guy, he’s got a good job and he’s kind of nice, so I did a love spell on him. Now he won’t leave me alone. He follows me everywhere; he monitors my calls; he bothers my friends with his questions. He beat up a guy that just said hi to me.  What do I do?” I talked to the guy she had done the spell on. He was totally convinced that she was his soul mate, his one and only.

But once she removed the spell (I showed her how, but she was the one that had to do the work), he couldn’t believe he had thought those things about her. She had several flaws that he couldn’t live with. Why would he be in love with her?  Despite the fact he was exhibiting obsessive, abusive, stalker behavior, she was disappointed after taking the spell off. She thought he might have loved her a little.

You can not make anything, not man or woman, ancestor, spirit or god, love you. You can persuade them to desire you or like you. But love is a much more complex give and take. And it has to be mutual and given, not persuaded or coerced.

For those of you out there that are in love with someone that doesn’t love you; I’m sorry. That’s a position that is painful in all kinds of ways. The best advice I can give you is to love yourself enough to find someone that does love you.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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Three Deep Breaths

One of the challenges in starting to meditate is finding application in our daily life. Daily meditation is something that can take days, weeks, months, or even years to reliably show up in our lives. What’s more, many people have trouble when they start meditating finding a meditation style that works for them.

There is, however, something that comes from meditation that just about anyone can use. It is to take a moment when you are feeling emotionally worn, when you are feeling anxious, when you are feeling distracted and working to avoid whatever your current emotional state involves. To take that moment and stay with it for the space of three long breaths.

It is suggested in numerous self-help books and in Ezra Bayda’s Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion. It is based around the idea that even wandering slowly down a path is better than not being on it. That every step forward counts, no matter how slow it may seem.

So when you are angry, take three deep breaths and just sit with the emotion for that time. You may choose to go back to being angry after the period of three breaths, but take that three breaths to really experience that emotion.

When you are anxious or depressed, the same thing applies. Take three deep breaths. Afterwards go back to whatever it is you were doing (or not), but take those three breaths to actually experience what that emotion is like, how you perceive it in your body, and the nuance around it.

When you are engaged in some variety of (non-destructive) coping mechanism to avoid a certain feeling, take three breaths to simply experience the emotion that you are avoiding. Then you can go back to your avoidance mechanism.

The goal here is not to shut down your mind or even to clear it. It is not to enter what many people perceive as a meditative state. It is not to self-judge your state or try to force an unwanted emotion away. It is to just sit with whatever emotion you are currently feeling for the span of three deep breaths. Not as a substitute for daily meditation practice, but as a direct application that can help aid mental discipline and can make those set daily meditation practices that much more fruitful and that much easier.

Further Reading:

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January Link Roundup

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We Don’t Know Why

Every so often in various Pagan and magical communities I’ll see someone attempt to explain or rationalize their experiences with identity or magic in scientific terms. They’ll talk grandly about M-Theory or many-worlds interpretations of quantum as if they hold explanatory value for magical practitioners or talk about anecdotes not in terms of personal meaning but in terms of scientific weight. One person even said that their experiences journeying constituted not only evidence for M-theory, but specific interpretations of it.

The challenge is, most of the people who talk M-theory can’t discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the theory (say, as opposed to loop quantum gravity) and cannot do the mathematics which is fundamental to those discussions. Other times they make claims which are not actually feasible under the theory that they are attempting to connect.

Sometimes people will attempt to connect their experiences to the physical in other ways. Declaring that experiences should only be considered “real” or “meaningful” for others if they can be understood in a very materialistic and physical framework by the speaker, e.g., claiming that it is perfectly acceptable to talk with animal spirits while journeying, but not with trolls.

In short, they are trying to connect things to what they perceive to be physical reality and give it weight by tying it into scientific theories that they have heard about or think that they understand.

The problem here is that, fundamentally, we don’t have a why or even a what with most of magic. To take a trivial example, let’s say that I am engaged in a game with someone where I form an energy ball of a particular color (writing down that color) and hand it to someone, they then reveal the color, which matches what is on my piece of paper. I have modeled this as me passing an object (a ball of energy) over to them, but let’s look at the possibilities here:

  • I created a ball of an actual substance (comprised of possibly one of several different types of things), projected from myself, that we will call energy and that I formed a particular way and passed to my partner.
  • There exists a higher realm which I formed and shaped, gave particular properties, and which they received on that same realm.
  • I projected the impression of a ball of a particular color into their mind.
  • I put a concept of what I was doing into a shared consciousness or an Akashic Record of some sort, which they then subconsciously access.
  • They saw me writing, and inferred what I was writing (possibly subconsciously) by seeing how my pen moved and inferred that it was a ball from the shape of my hand when I passed it to them.
  • Our minds have played a trick on us because we wished it to happen, and they guessed via subtle cues (e.g., they know me) what color it was by accident.

There are probably other possibilities that I am missing, but you get the general idea. Some of these can be discerned between with a proper research protocol, but for most of them such discernment would be difficult if not impossible to realistically do.

It is ultimately an expression of the map-territory relationship: we have a map, or a model of a reality, but it is dangerous to think that this model is reality itself. You can believe something, believe something fervently, find personal meaning in it, but that doesn’t mean that it is objectively true or that anyone else in the world should accept your model as valid for them. It doesn’t mean that your beliefs or experiences give credence to a specific model over another, when both models have equal explanatory power.

This doesn’t mean that having a personal theory or belief can’t be valuable, or that you can’t derive meaning from a particular point of view. Personal mythology is extremely valuable and can be very important as a matter of identity. They can improve functioning and improve who and what you are as a person. They can help give you the will to take the next step.

Just don’t confuse the map with the territory.

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