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Is gender identity theory itself creating more gender dysphoria?, with Carey Callahan

A talk with Carey Callahan about gender dysphoria, gender identity theory, and transgender topics. Carey is a family therapist who writes about gender dysphoria topics, with an emphasis on healthcare. There is a transcript of our talk below. Topics discussed include:

  • Why it’s so hard to have discussions about transgender topics and why the emotions and animosity can be so high.
  • Disconnects and miscommunications that occur in these discussions that increase perceptions of malice or bigotry even when those aren’t present.
  • How the polarized and high-emotion dynamics on transgender issues are similar to other highly polarized and emotional dynamics on other hot button issues.
  • Criticisms of gender identity theory, including the idea that gender identity theory itself, by how it attempts to categorize non-gender/sex-related human traits as either feminine or masculine, may be increasing people’s likelihood of having gender dysphoria.

See the bottom of this post for other topics and resources, including a transcript. Podcast links:

Other topics discussed include:

  • Is it caring and supportive to avoid discussing whether transitioning is always the best answer for someone or is possible that’s just an avoidance of care and “the easy way out”?
  • How some people conflate the criticizing of gender identity theory wit disrespecting trans people, when those two things are not related (e.g., you can be trans and criticize gender identity theory).
  • The possibility of psychological and environmental factors in gender dysphoria and why it can be perceived as disrespectful to even discuss that, even though those are obviously factors for some people.
  • The role families with more conservative/traditional gender expectations may play in affecting how a child views their traits (e.g., viewing gender as something fairly binary when it’s not).
  • Carey’s recounting of her own story and what factors were present in her being gender dysphoric and deciding to transition.
  • Why it’s reasonable to object to gender identity theory on intellectual grounds, and why that doesn’t make you a bigot.

Related resources:

TRANSCRIPT

Zach: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior. You can learn more about this podcast at readingpokertells.video. You can follow me on Twitter @apokerplayer. 

In this episode recorded July 13, 2021, I talked to Carey Callahan, that’s Carey C-A-R-E-Y. Carey is a family therapist who writes about gender dysphoria. You can find her writing on medium.com. Carey herself has suffered from gender dysphoria. She had previously identified as a man and had started the transition process including taking testosterone before deciding to D-transition. She was featured in an article in The Atlantic about people who have D-transitioned. If you want a quick summary of her story, there’s a very interesting 10-minute video The Atlantic did about her. You can find it by searching for Carey Callahan Atlantic video or go to my podcast blog at Reading Poker Tells video and I’ll have that and other related resources. 

Carey and I will talk about some gender identity and transgender topics. We won’t talk about all of them of course. Our focus will mostly be around the philosophy of gender identity theory and how the theory itself may impact how people think about themselves. We’ll also talk about how much it makes sense to attempt to educate people about concerns and risks when they’re thinking about transitioning, especially younger people. Along the way, we’ll question and criticize some of the common ideas that many trans activists and liberal people have around these topics. To some people, pushing back on some of these commonly held beliefs is tantamount to being a bigot, or at the very least, to not being respectful or helpful. But hopefully, you’ll see as the interview progresses that the things we are talking about are not actually that controversial, and that talking about these things may actually be much more respectful and caring than avoiding these topics and acting as if there’s nothing to talk about. 

To give you just one example of what I mean. There are many parents of young gender dysphoric children who wants to talk about these topics, who want to know what the right thing is to do, and want to have these tough conversations to help decide, how do I best help my child. But these parents have a hard time finding people they can have such discussions with, including in the medical community, because the standard approach seems to be mostly to avoid these serious conversations. The common approach seems to be to uncritically accept people’s ideas about themselves and what’s best for them, and to fast track people to getting hormones and surgery. So at the very least, even if you disagree with some of the things Carey or I say, hopefully you’ll see that we believe talking about these things is caring and it’s helpful. 

One criticism some people might have about this talk is why did you interview a D-transition person about these issues and not say a happily transition person? Doesn’t that mean you’re in some way disrespectful and anti-trans? I’ve seen that criticism elsewhere about some other articles and interviews. I did actually consider interviewing a transgender person, but I had a few concerns there. The main one being that they would perceive my attempt to have some tough conversations in this area as bullying, that they would perhaps try to portray me as anti-trans before the interview even started. I’m sure I could have found someone who would have made for a great talk who’d be willing to talk about these things, but those were my anxieties and I knew it might take me a while to find the right person if I took that approach. 

Other reasons I asked Carey were that one, she’s actually experienced a lot of these topics herself. And two, when I read her writing, I could see she cared about the topic that she was respectful of gender dysphoric and trans people and supported their autonomy to make their own decisions. While she did D-transition, she knows there are many happily transgender people who have transitioned and her work does not take away from that. If you’re interested in these topics, I highly recommend reading her pieces on Medium. Her work seems so obviously helpful and well-meaning. It’s a bit mind boggling to me that people would read her work and think that she’s anti-trans or perceive her as being malicious. She’s simply lives some of these things and wants to use her experience to help other people who may be going through similar things and who may have similar experiences. 

I also say that my desire to do this talk isn’t only related to the transgender issue. I think the often angry and hysterical us versus them dynamics around this topic are representative of a lot of conversations about hot button topics these days. Those topics where we’ve sorted ourselves into us and them, where many of us take the stance that anyone who doesn’t completely align with “our side” is the enemy, is to be feared. Trying to have nuanced reasonable discussions about some of these topics seems increasingly impossible, even dangerous. 

Many of us are afraid to talk about the topics to criticize “our side” and this means that more extreme and unreasonable voices tend to have more and more influence. So a big part of me wanting to tackle such a tough topic isn’t even about the topic itself, it’s about the meta topic of how we talk about tough topics, about our angry us versus them dynamics. My decision to have this talk is to maybe help foster the idea that we can have discussions and push back on ideas on our own side, and maybe that’s the best thing we could be doing.

I’ve spent a good amount of time researching political polarization and writing about it and interviewing experts on the subject for this podcast. And also, have spent some time researching and writing about how social media plays into these dynamics. So if the topic of political polarization interests you and how that’s related to this topic, stick around after the interview and I’ll talk more about that and what we can maybe do about it. Before I play the interview, maybe an important caveat. Obviously, I’m far from an expert about these topics just as I’m not that knowledgeable about all the topics I interview people about for this podcast. If I say something wrong or awkwardly, that’s because I’m pretty much an amateur in these areas. I’m just a person trying to learn about people in the world. Okay, here’s the interview with Carey Callahan. 

Zach: Hi Carey, thanks for coming on. 

Carey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me. 

Zach: I think an interesting place to start this would be talking about my own anxiety about even talking about this subject. Because despite having nothing but the best of intentions on my side and despite my belief that I’m going to be saying nothing actually controversial or offensive, there’s still this anxiety in me, and I thought maybe it’d be interesting to analyze my own fears a bit and see if they capture why these things are hard to talk about so I’ll try that right now. 

So one, I’m afraid of people perceiving what I’m saying as unhelpful or hurtful to them, and it hurts to have people perceive that even if you believe that that is not true, that that’s not what you’re doing. Then second, I’m aware that some people might attack me for things I say, call me a bigot or an anti-trans person for talking about these issues and even if I believe that I’m trying to have a helpful discussion and I’m not being a bigot or hateful or anything, it’s not a pleasant feeling to be attacked and that can have real life repercussions. I’m curious, do you think that’s a pretty good summary of the fears involved in trying to talk about these issues? And why most people just avoid talking about these topics even if the feel they are things to talk about?

Carey: Yeah, absolutely. I think that my own emotional journey, talking about these issues, I’ve had to really accept how scary I am to people and how scary what I’m trying to discuss is. You have to respect it. You have to get to a place where you say like, ”Okay, so there’s reasons for that fear.” And that doesn’t mean that you get less scary, and it doesn’t mean that you get more understood or less judged. But I think it has helped me accept being misunderstood and helped me accept no matter what effort I make to make the information and the messages as safe as they can be, the attacks and the misunderstanding is just inevitable. So it helps. I feel like that headspace helps me keep doing it.

Zach: Right. With these dynamics of being attacked online for whatever the topic, it seems like the two branches you could go down are either getting angry in response, and that’s a pretty common thing to see these days and I think that explains a lot of people’s really unreasonable behavior online. And then the other branch path would be empathy and understanding for why are these people angry at me and accepting that even if you don’t agree with them, respecting that anger and not letting it make you angry. It sounds like you’re taking the much more mature approach of empathy and-

Carey: I’ve taken both.

Zach: Yeah, well, yeah. Maybe on a one-on-one case because I think it’s okay to get angry in a one-on-one situation versus like I’m going to hate this entire group of people, which seems to be the case in so many of these hot button conversations. People get attacked online and then they’re like, “Oh, eff these people. Now I’m against them completely or something.” But yeah, there are still reasons to have debate and get angry and I don’t want to imply that that is a bad thing to. 

Carey: Yeah. What’s been really good for me actually is that I’ve gotten multiple messages from people who have told me like, “I used to watch your YouTube videos five or six years ago.” And I totally was like, “I’m totally different from this woman. She’s really messed up from trauma or whatever and this has nothing to do with me.” Then they reach out to me now and they’re like, “Oh, actually, you were saying good stuff.” So I’ve had encounters from people who misunderstood what I was putting out there and then came to understand it, so that helps a lot. Everyone really is on a journey. 

Zach: Yeah, that was one thing I was really curious about is because the perception online and the internet is such a distorted view of things. A few angry people can make it seem like there is a lot of angry people. I was curious to ask you. You must get a lot of appreciation almost behind the scenes maybe in a lot of cases?

Carey: Yes.

Zach: I’m curious if… Would you say you get just as much or more appreciation as you get anger? Is that a fair question?

Carey: Definitely through email, I get more appreciation. The people who get angry at me aren’t angry enough to write me personal emails whereas the people who are appreciative are appreciative enough to write the email so that’s awesome. I feel like mostly the hate comes not even in people tweeting at me, but in how people will talk about me or organizations I’ve been a part of in articles. So it’s not like they’re coming directly at me being like, “You’re transphobic.” It’s more like they’re discussing me as a transphobic. Which is still just to say very frustrating. I feel powerless when it happens. That would be when I feel angry when like…

Zack: Right, the distortions. Yeah. And the Internet has become– it’s such a hall of mirrors where somebody says something somewhere, it’s like a game of telephone, it’s taken out of context so quickly and I think that’s the dynamic we’re dealing with. To take a small analogy, my wife got in an altercation with a restaurant person online the other day and he basically was lying about her, he said completely untrue things and it really bugged her. 

Carey: Oh man, that’s awful. 

Zach: And I’m just reminding her like, “The internet is just a bunch of distortions.” There’s people purposefully lying, there’s people misinterpreting things, there’s people basically playing game of telephone where they’re just repeating what they saw elsewhere in wrong ways. And so, I think it’s… I’m sure you’ve thought about these things a lot because those are the things that make you realize that a lot of the hate that you get is distorted. It comes from people without the full story and you’re just angry at that moment and want to lash out.

Carey: Yeah, scared and angry. Still, I wish that fact checking was more of a thing, but still.

Zach: For sure. That seems like a cat who’s out of the bag or Pandora’s box. But something you said that really struck me in The Atlantic feature of your story, the complexity of the truth is inconvenient to both sides. I think that really spoke to me, not just on this issue, but on so many issues where we’ve become so polarized and it’s really hard to have a nuanced debate about things because everyone wants to force things to one side or the other. So I really like that quote.

Carey: Yeah, I still absolutely believe that. Especially in the American context, the American healthcare system is so complex. And even if you’re talking about differences between states, differences between insurance companies, the specifics of a person’s situation matters a lot. So when talking about D-transition or talking about the low quality of trans health care that people have encountered get simplified into being anti-transition, that really bugs me. 

Actually, it’s funny this year in my personal life, that simplification has popped its head up where people have assumed that I’m against a certain person transitioning and that’s never where I’m coming from. I want every person who experiences gender dysphoria to get the highest quality of health care they can get and I think it’s really worth it to talk about what’s going on when that doesn’t happen. Because I as someone who experiences gender dysphoria, I think that we’re very valuable, right? So to have that become that I’m somehow against someone’s autonomous choice to make themselves feel better and have a fulfilling life, it just feels really weirdly off to me. 

Zach: That’s what’s frustrating to me about your story. It just seems from reading your writing your heart is in such an obviously good place to me. Obviously, people can D-transition and make mistakes and those people exist and to act like that is not a thing. Somebody has to talk about that. To attack like people shouldn’t talk about that it’s just wild to me, for instance. 

Carey: Yeah, it’s wild. Sometimes people will say, “Well, it’s way more common for people to D-transition for a short amount of time and then go back to transition.” That does happen quite a bit because medical transitions are really tough and also just building a life around that is really tough like jobs and apartments, discrimination is very real. But I’ve never understood that argument because if someone’s doing a temporary D-transition, that is a person who needs lots of support just like the person who is D-transitioning in a much more permanent way. Both populations need care that is like pretty open-minded to what challenges they might be facing and what kind of support they need. 

Zach: Yeah. It’s clear that even if the amount of people that can be argued about, even if it’s a very small amount of people who D-transition, there’s still a population that exists and theoretically with totally a very large population. So to act as if that’s not a population to be served or on the other side, to act as if there aren’t things to think about before transitioning, which is the other thing you write about, potential concerns. One great example that comes to mind is you talking about not smoking a lot of weed when you’re thinking about transition because marijuana is a dissociative drug. These kinds of things are just fantastic advice. They come from a very well-meaning place and that people could think that that was not coming from a good place is just mind boggling to me.

Carey: Right, it’s coming from a well-meaning and experienced place. I think I do understand why medical transition is such a hard project to pull off. I do understand why people feel like keeping it really positive and keeping it supportive is important. It’s such a tricky project that you want to slow people down and make sure they’re thinking about all the details. Now, I found that for myself, my head was in a very fantasy prone place and you don’t want to be making these plans from that stance. You want to be dealing in specifics and you want to be making very specific detailed plans for how things are going to go.

Zach: Yeah. I think I’m going to attempt to summarize what I see is the problem in that area of where a lot of the anger comes about and I think it’s because many liberals seem to think that the way we show support for trans people is by not questioning anything, that the kind loving answer is to essentially say, don’t question any of this, don’t set up any obstacles at all to the people who want to transition, don’t consider any debate that there might be other issues that might be at play, don’t be concerned about young children who want to transition, give them whatever they need at any age, don’t ask any questions. When I attended to talk about this with one liberal acquaintance, one of her responses was basically, “This is serious business. People are dying. You should be more respectful.”

And I think that’s a common attitude for a lot of people that an attempt to talk about this stuff is itself the problem, that it’s doing harm to gender dysphoric and trans people. But I think many people stances and probably your stance would be we’re actually doing a big disservice to people, especially to younger people, by not having serious talks about these subjects of not offering some cautions and some learnings and some debates along the way. Am I getting the crux of that problem right?

Carey: Absolutely. And this is actually something where I get a little bit angry. Because I’ve had very similar conversations with people and I had one in particular with someone whose relative was transitioning, and this was an area that I knew well so I knew the doctors in the geographic area. I asked this lady like, “What surgeon are they going to?” And she was like, “Well, that’s none of my business.” Right? And that’s very easy. That’s a very easy stance to take. If your stance is I’m a good person because I refuse to engage with my loved ones about the specifics of their health care, wow, that really lets you off the hook. That’s really easy way to be a good person. But some doctors are scumbags, some doctors are not good at their jobs and your relative deserves a doctor who knows what they’re doing. A question like that, that’s not about someone’s identity, that’s not about whether someone has the right to identify as a gender that will make their life work for them. That’s about the care that they’re receiving. These surgeries and these hormonal treatments are not easy stuff. So when I get attacked in situations like that, that’s a hard one for me not to be angry about because I do feel like that hands off approach can become selfish. You want to be a good person so bad you’re not willing to steer your relative towards thinking about the quality of their doctors? 

1Zack Elwood: Yeah, it seems like a least resistance path that is masquerading as love, as empathy and I think it’s like these… I see that in other areas too where it’s like we won’t question things and that is our form of showing respect. Another analogy for this that was thinking about young children having kids like teenagers having kids and many young people say, “I want to be a mother. I want to rush out and have kids.” Is it loving to say, “There’s nothing to think about. Go ahead. That is your choice. If that is how you want to form your life, there’s nothing to think about.” Is that supportive? Is that loving? Is it helpful to avoid tough conversations?

Carey: Exactly. I can absolutely see why it’s tempting to be really hands-off and really unilaterally supportive, especially when someone’s doing something that is risky like having kids or like changing their body. But you have to ask yourself like, “Yeah, am I being selfish here? Am I being really self-centered and this unilateral support that this person will eat up and love, but maybe will not serve them?”

Zach: Yeah, maybe a good segue here because as you know I want to talk about some of the gender identity theory stuff and maybe a good segue to is theoretically, by not questioning anything at all, including the theories and the ideas that are in the environment, there’s chances that more people affected by the environment will believe they have gender dysphoria when they don’t actually because the ideas are just so pervasive. And that’s obviously a controversial topic that I want to touch on more later, but maybe a good way to start this is, what is the gender identity theory or theories as they’re commonly thought of?

Carey: I always think of this particular anecdote in my life, which is I worked at a community mental health agency for a while and this community mental health agency had a parenting manual for everybody because a lot of what they did was parenting education. It was very popular one. It’s called Nurturing Parenting. In this parenting book, just like a little soft cover thing of worksheets and illustrations about things like how to swaddle your child, how to feed your kid healthy stuff, how to set a schedule for your kid, they said that girls and boys have different brains, and one of the proofs of this are trans people, right? What that means is that at least in Northern Ohio for low-income families, they are being given information from trusted sources saying that the female brain and the male brain are distinctly different and that is why girls are more relational focused and boys are more focused on trucks and guns. 

And so, I don’t want to simplify gender theory too much, but that’s what it comes down to the idea that these stereotypes that we have about female and male people are rooted in reality about our brain structure. Research does not tend to bear this out. But the existence of trans people for some reason gets folded into this overarching theory. That all these things that we could pin on socialization and social pressures or even on just the physical differences between our bodies and who’s stronger, that is wiped away and it just gets pinned on these mysterious structures in our brains.

Zach: A small but maybe important update here. A trans person who listened to this episode pointed out to me that many people don’t believe gender identity has anything to do with the brain, that it’s more about one’s own feelings, that one’s traits don’t match up with society’s expectations. That it’s more about one’s own view of oneself. This person told me that therefore our talk was way off the mark, that that’s not how they or many people view gender identity at all. And they’re right, there are different conceptions of what gender identity represents and many people do think it’s a much more subjective thing that one decides for oneself. Clearly, some trans people do seem to be more on the intrinsic brain related side of things and believing that they are in some intrinsic way miscast and that their brains were born into the wrong body. So there are clearly different conceptions of gender identity theory. But I don’t think that in any way detracts from the ideas that Carey and I discussed here. 

For either conception of gender identity, it still gets down to an idea that some traits are or should be more associated with masculine or feminine. Both conceptions are entirely subjective because even if you believe it’s something brain related, we have no proof for that generally or for individuals specifically. Both of these conceptions of gender identity are about deciding something like these traits of mine don’t fit most people’s conception of what the traits of someone with my biological sex should be. So I just wanted to mention this in case there was an objection for anyone listening. I actually had edited out some stuff where Carey talked about how people’s conception of gender identity was a bit more complex than what she had said, but she was trying to boil down the essence of it and how it’s perceived by many people. 

I’m probably saying what people listening know, but the idea is that if you’re say a man, you might identify as a female gender because you feel in feminine ways you act in feminine ways and you might associate more with the feminine side of the spectrum is the basic idea of the gist of it. Is that accurate to say for people who have gender dysphoria?

Carey: Yeah, that if you were in the world, in a male body, but you were very empathetic, very gentle, very interested in nurturing, maybe more interested in relationships and stories than you are in destroying or building things. Or if you’re interested in being pretty, flamboyant, getting desired visually, all of these things, since we associate them with female stereotypes might make a male person think that they have a different brain than other male people.

Zach: To state probably the obvious for most people, but in this theory, this is not at all related to who you prefer sexually for your sexual attraction in other words. It’s just about the gender identity that you associate with interiorly. I just wanted to make sure that that’s clear. 

In other words, gender identity theory is a theory of psychology, it’s an idea of how our minds, our brains might operate and you could liken it to other theories of psychology. It is just an idea of how things work. I want to say that because this is where I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding too where a lot of the anger comes from that me attempting to talk about or debate about the gender identity theory is disrespectful to gender dysphoric or trans people, when to me, I see no connection between a debate, an intellectual debate about that theory and issues of respect for trans people. In other words, disagreeing with this intellectual theory of the mind is in no way related to being for or against trans rights. You could be a trans person and disagree with a theory. To make an analogy, you don’t need to believe in a specific psychological theory to be gay. And presumably, you also wouldn’t need to believe in a specific psychological theory to have a strong urge to transition to another sex. 

Assuming you agree with me, maybe you can talk about is my take right that people equate the debate or criticism of the gender identity theory with criticism or disrespect of gender dysphoric or trans people? Is that an accurate read of the situation?

Carey: I do think it’s accurate, and I think it’s the reality of what beliefs are in the trans population about gender is so much more complex. There are so many trans people, especially intellectuals frankly, who do challenge the brain sex theory. I call it brain sex. But it’s like the overarching narrative that organizations like GLAD or HRC push is this brain sex theory and I think what’s going on is that there’s this belief that it needs to be super, super simple for the straight normie population to accept it when in actuality, trans intellectuals don’t accept it because it is so simplistic and also it breaks down so quickly. I think it’s interesting. I think it’s a theory that is driven by a sense of political experience. I think most thinking thoughtful people in the trans community actually don’t buy into it.

Zach: Interesting. I did not know that.

Carey: That’s my take. That really is my viewpoint so I could be wrong about that. And also, it’s a little strange to say that someone’s rights to change their body or live as a certain gender needs to be predicated on them having some difference in their brain. That’s actually respectful. 

Zach: Totally, because that’s what bugs me about some of the gay rights talk is acting as if they’re born that way so it’s okay. It’s like, “No, that’s not why it’s okay. It’s okay because they’re adults who can do what they want.” It doesn’t matter how it came about. It’s exactly whether there’s environmental factors or whatever it is, it doesn’t matter to me and it shouldn’t matter to other people because we don’t really know it at the day. So to act as if it requires a physical explanation or a specific explanation like that is disrespectful to me.

Carey: Yeah, I would agree. I understand why the born-that-way narrative got so popular and I don’t think it’s necessary if we really, truly respect people’s rights to build the life they want.

Zach: So maybe you could talk a little bit about the criticisms of the gender identity theory, and to be completely transparent as I’ve told you, the logic behind it strikes me as is very circular, very self-referential in terms of how it on one hand, wants to transcend traditional gender stereotypes and roles, but very much relies on those gender stereotypes and roles. So I’m curious if maybe you could give a rundown or I could keep going about the criticisms, but maybe you have a better concise way to put it.

Carey: Well, I’ll just go through my criticisms of it. I think the criticisms of it are so numerous that it would be hard to even get them all because it’s so easy to pick this apart, right? One, all the processes that get left out of the picture if we pin gender stereotypes on brain sex, so that means that we’re never going to talk about socialization, we’re never going to talk about just material reality in terms of strength and aggression, we’re never going to talk about whose bodies are implicated when reproduction happens and how that changes things. Like what does it mean when half the people are going to at some point be eight months pregnant as I am, and how that changes what you can do and who you’re dependent on. So there’s a lot that gets left out of the picture. 

Switching levels of discourse, I think it’s really interesting how the brain as an organ is elevated to this very definitional spot, so we talk about the importance of gender in the brain. It’s funny because there’s no other organ where it’s that important, right? We can talk about differences that might exist in men and women’s livers, they’re not considered definitional of what it means to be a man or woman. I guess the uterus and the penis and stuff like that is definitional, but I think it’s really interesting how our ideas about the brain and the split between the brain and the body play into this discussion. 

I have to say that seeing that nurturing parenting book and seeing that low-income families, we’re being told, like, “Hey, your girls are going to be more interested in caring for their siblings than your boys because of their brains,” really upset me. Because one of the unfair parts about female socialization is that girls often are parentified in their families and get turned into little mothers’ way too young in ways that are not good for them or their siblings. So having that be normalized is like, “Well, that’s stemming from your girl’s brain.” It’s like, “No, it’s not stemming from her brain. It’s stemming from your work schedule.” It’s stemming from you being overwhelmed and looking for a babysitter. So that’s my main criticism is that I think there are so many circumstances where like clearly justifying different treatment for boys and girls through pinning it on the brain, it’s not healthy for boys and girls.

Zach: I think to me it just seems like, maybe I’m talking about the simplistic version of the theory that you said, but it seems like the reasoning behind it is so circular in the sense that we’re saying we cannot transcend and be more than these restrictive stereotypes of male or female, but then it’s also saying that those stereotypes exist inside of you that they are real things like me and many other people I’ve talked to about this cannot relate to the idea that we have a gender identity and it seems weird to me that and I’m sure as you say many people have written about various criticisms, but it just seems weird to me that why are we accepting this theory that to my mind has no real intellectual backing to it other than that it’s popular when so many people can’t even relate to it, people who are open to the idea can’t relate to it. 

I think if I looked inside of myself for something like that, I just wouldn’t find it. Because at the end of the day, I just feel like I’m responding to the environment, I have various biological things that are probably mysterious that are happening I don’t know about. I feel like if I wanted to behave femininely, I would do that. That’s the thing. I don’t believe that there is a thing necessarily called feminine other than that is associated with certain things that are associated with females. I think we should be trained to transcend those things and not put these boxes inside of us. I’m sure I’m not explaining this as eloquently as I could, but these are some of the problems I would say.

Carey: No, you are preaching to the choir. I really hate actually the words feminine and masculine just because the meaning is so fluid for each.

Zach: Right. It’s like as soon as I say it, I find fault with it. 

Carey: Yeah, definitely. And so often when people use the word feminine, they mean passive and okay, but then how does that connect to being female exactly? I think all these words are really mythic and big. But you come back to reality and someone has to wipe baby’s butts and hold people’s butts and that’s work that has to get done. Doesn’t that matter that like how that work has gotten a scientist mostly been based on someone’s role in reproduction? I think it does matter. I think that all that millennia of how we divide up labor matters a lot. 

Zach: I think there’s so many things underneath the surface that I wouldn’t even pretend to understand. When I look at the factors in my life that dictate my behavior, I’m very much at a loss to understand what they are really. I believe lots of things are fluid about me, including my behavior, my sexuality, lots of things are fairly fluid. I think the thing that bugs me about these ideas is that it’s trying to make concrete, a thing that to me just seems so amorphous and shouldn’t be put into categories. Probably, I’ll make an analogy here. To me, it’s like if some people came out with a theory of internal racial identity that went something like, “Hey, race doesn’t matter at all. We’re all more complex in these restrictive racial stereotypes. We transcend these stereotypes.” But then they follow that up with, “But if you think you have good rhythm, your internal racial identity is Black.” To me, it doesn’t make sense. It’s enforcing these society enforced stereotypes that to me I think we should be trying to move away from them. I feel like I’m rambling now, but I’m-

Carey: Yeah. And I think what’s tempting is this idea that we need to ignore how the ideas don’t fit together to be compassionate. That’s not real compassion. If compassion isn’t balanced with respect, then it’s feels not right to me. I think having been trans identified myself, you know when people are being compassionate to you and they don’t respect you, and that experience is not fun. And certainly, it is not that people who are trans are not good at thinking. They’re very good thinking. So I’m not sure that these super simplistic ideas that don’t actually fit together are respectful to anyone.

Zach: I’m curious when you were going through your gender dysphoria, experience in the trans experience, did the gender identity theory play a role in your perception of that or motivation to change yourself?

Carey: Yes. And just to say I still experience gender dysphoria, not all the time. It comes and goes, depending on what’s going on in my life. So when I was growing up, I’m a pretty opinionated person. I can be a pretty sometimes angry person. I can be a pretty risk-taking person and an impulsive person. I have ADHD. And so, there were a lot of things about how my brain worked that did not make sense to me when I looked at the other girls. And I’ve realized now that I’m older that I was actually getting pretty overt messages from the adults in my life that something was not right with me. That idea that there was something distinct about my brain that made me trans and different was very tempting to me. 

I didn’t transition as a kid, I transitioned as a full adult. I was 30. I was adult. I went to a therapist. I was already ensconced in a trans scene, I was dating a trans person already. When I went to the therapist, I knew what I wanted to do already. But what therapists will tell a lot of gender dysphoric people, especially female people, is just try testosterone and if it feels good, that’ll be confirmation that it’s what your brain needs. The problem with that is testosterone almost always feels great. It in general makes people feel more energetic in general as an antidepressant. So I got on testosterone and I felt amazing. I loved it. And so, it’s funny because for me, that experience shifted me into a much more hardcore brain sex believer. I went on testosterone and it felt so good and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I actually really do have a male brain. This is why this feels so good. I was missing something I really needed.” But in actuality, I was just having a ball on testosterone. I really like to be aggressive and horny, and I love to- 

Zach: You took a drug. 

Carey: Yeah. My D-transition happened in a pretty messy way. It was not that I decided I wasn’t trans and then stopped testosterone. I had to stop testosterone and then about a year and a half later, I started thinking hard about whether this belief that I had a different brain was actually good for me. Because it wasn’t good for me. My life really took a nosedive. And just for me, the more I cultivate the perspective that I have actually a lot in common with a lot of different people that I’m not particularly distinct or special, that grounds me and that’s good for me. I can go way overboard with this idea that I am different and need different treatment and different special things to make my life work. In general, I need very common normal things to be happy and grounded. So yeah, so I think that these ideas are really complicated I guess and I think when you’re really building an adult life like one where you have to pay rent and have a career and feel good about yourself and date people and have long term relationships, that still is hard for everybody. So we should be open-minded about how different factors play into that.

Zach: I was curious it might be a too personal question. But when you said you were getting signals from your family at an early age, was your family fairly conservative?

Carey: No, no, actually. My family is very progressive, almost Marxist frankly. I come from Rust Belt pro-union like community organizing people, but you can be that liberal and be pretty darn sexist.

Zach: Right. I was wondering if I had this question about if people from not necessarily politically conservative, but maybe more traditional family and environment might be more likely to assign their feelings to gender dysphoria because they’re used to being put in these more constrictive stereotypes, whereas like the way I grew up where I basically could have acted any way I want and I don’t think my parents would have made me feel uncomfortable, at least in terms of so-called feminine or masculine behavior. But yeah, so I was curious of that might play it play a role.

Carey: Yeah, my family has really long-standing patterns of moms beating up on their daughters and a lot of martyrdom being really respected. We’re Catholic so there’s this Catholic martyrdom lady thing that they expect out of everybody so everyone becomes a nurse. And looking back, if you could do that or you could be like your brother, then why wouldn’t you want to be like your brother?

Zach: Yeah, I see some of that where it’s like, “Well, if I’m faced with these alternatives, if you’re only giving me these binary options,” and actually my wife, if we were talking about this, she was a big tomboy when she was young and she had some real gender dysphoric experiences and really question because she thought female was this and she was not that so therefore it was like a binary thing. Whereas I think maybe in some environments, you wouldn’t be thinking in terms of I have to fit into these binaries.

Carey: Totally. Family environment can make a huge, huge difference on how you think about yourself, no doubt.

Zach: Can a theory itself like gender identity theory, do you think the theory itself can play a role in making more people believe that they are gender dysphoric?

Carey: Well, not to harp on this, but certainly if your mom and dad are getting told that there are boy brains and girl brains, then that to me would make your mom or your dad more likely to give you messages about what kind of brain you have, and that’s from my experience with my mom and dad. But I think that parents and other adults in a kid’s life, we’re constantly giving feedback to our kids about their accessibility and how they fit in and you want kids to all grow up in an environment where what they’re being told is like let you be your unique self and figure out how you fit into this world and what a joy to see you get to do that. But that’s not the reality of this world and parenting normally. So I think parental anxiety about kids behavior and kids likes and dislikes can create a lot of negative messages for kids about their difference. Does that make sense?

Zach: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I think another important point here that I think is another key factor in some of the angry interactions around this issue is that as we’ve been doing, we’ve been talking about the role of one’s environment in these things. And for a lot of people talking about that or talking about psychological issues, not necessarily problems but just psychological aspects, talking about the environment or psychological aspects to these things is framed in terms of like, “Oh, you’re saying trans people are crazy. You’re saying we’re not in our right minds that we’re influenced by others or whatever.” 

But that’s not at all the case when I’m talking about it because I think in my mind, everybody is influenced by the environment. We’re all influenced by the things around us, and to talk about those things is not at all offensive. We were talking about gay people, to me, it doesn’t really matter to me whether there’s a biological component, or environmental component, or a mix of them or whatever for why people are gay. That really doesn’t matter to me because I think we’re all to some extent affected by our environment just as I’m affected by my environment for everything I do pretty much and how I’ve been formed. I think there’s a there’s a big disconnect there too where people take those kinds of debates and try to interpret them in the worst possible way when that I think that’s not the case when we’re talking about it.

Carey: Yeah, and I think that that is not the case for other conditions that are listed in the DSM. When I was going to grad school to be a therapist, we were taught to conceptualize clients in this biopsychosocial sphere. So you want to be thinking about what’s happening in the patient’s body on a biology level, on a interpersonal psychology level, and on a social level. People are coming to you for a reason. They want to make changes in their life. And then, after you’ve conceptualized them in these different intersecting spheres, then you can work with all of those spheres how you move them forward to what they want, right? So if they’re depressed, stuff is happening in their bodies, stuff is happening in their families and happened in their past with the families of origin and then they’re dealing with social stresses too like unemployment or breakup, all the stuff that bums people out. 

So for other conditions in the DSM, it’s accepted that it’s always complicated what created that condition. Even something like ADHD, what causes ADHD is actually pretty complex and we don’t really have a handle on it. People will tell you that it’s brain chemistry, people will tell you it’s maternal stress, some people have suggested there’s a connection with lead poisoning. And that’s accepted that that’s okay that we don’t currently totally understand what will create ADHD in a person. And just because we don’t totally understand it doesn’t mean that each person dealing with that condition can’t find a path forward for dealing with it. That might include medication, it might really not include medication, and it might include just lifestyle change or just self-acceptance. So gender dysphoria is interesting because making the discussion complicated in terms of the biopsychosocial concepts is considered offensive. But it’s not offensive for a depressed person or person with ADHD or a person with bipolar. So that’s strange.

Zach: Yeah. And there’s so much questions about so many things we experience we don’t even… There’s a great book called My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel where he, who I also interviewed for this podcast, where he talks about the… You could look at it. There’s just so little we know even about anxiety. There’s biological components, there’s environmental components, they overlap. It’s really hard to… It’s like to pretend that these are not very overlapping and nuance things is missing the complexity in these things. And something you said that I wanted to follow up on, talking about when we have problems, when we have anxieties, when we have struggles, there can be multiple paths forward. I think that’s also a route of a disconnect there because implying that you for example, theoretically, there was a path where you were completely happy with transitioning in some worlds, some parallel dimension. 

And so talking about that or talking about that you had multiple paths available to you and that there were multiple factors available here, I think people think by saying that there might be other paths that’s disrespectful to trans people, but I think what we’re really trying to do is acknowledge that there are multiple paths and a lot of times people can be completely happy with multiple paths. It’s more like you want to think about all the factors that could be present and think about what you’re going through more

Carey: Totally. And I think because I am someone who’s had the experience, I think about the parallel universe’s thing like a lot. My parallel universe trans man self is someone that I think about. Any number of factors in my life could have been different and that could have been the life path I took and I don’t think that that would have been necessarily a tragic life path. There are some times where I think even it would have been in a lot of ways really similar. I’m really happy to be pregnant and to be married and stuff. I think that even if I had continued down that path, those would have been things that I would have sought out. I think now since I like look in the mirror and I look so pregnant and stuff, I think about what I would look like as a trans guy pregnant and frankly, I’d probably look pretty similar. Maybe I’d have a beard and obviously, I would have gotten a mastectomy. But yeah, life is so rarely either/or. That’s usually not how life is. 

Zach: Do you feel like your life experiences have taught you to be more uncertain about what your needs and wants really are?

Carey: Yeah, I think I understand about myself. One, I learned that I could be fantasy prone, and that’s really important to understand about my brain. And then I definitely learned about myself that a lot of what keeps me happy are very regular basic things like getting enough sleep, like getting enough exercise, like having stable relationships, having enough money, that kind of thing. Which is the case for most people, people are much like babies. We need schedules, we need security, we need safety. But that can be hard to remember when you’re fantasizing about your ideal life. So I definitely learned about myself that I can get ideas about what I need to be happy that totally forget about the basics, and that was important for me to learn. 

I think I also learned a lot about advice and just how useless advice can be. Advice is so much more about the person giving the advice than it is ever about the person being given the advice. It’s so much more about the ego of the person telling you what to do than it is usually about the person being told what to do. I definitely learned through the process that the people giving you advice they just are in no way invested in your life the way you are and the repercussions for them don’t exist. So whatever advice you get, you just really have to be super skeptical because you are the only one who will live through the consequences of taking that advice or not taking that advice. So it was a very valuable experience.

Zach: For myself, when I tried to look inside of myself and try to figure out aspects of myself or what will make me happy that is a very difficult thing to do because a lot of times especially when we’re younger, we think oh this will make me happy, this will make me happy. But when it’s actually achieved, you realize that it wasn’t. So I think with age can come more uncertainty, which I think a big part of wisdom is uncertainty and not trusting ourselves really.

Carey: Yeah. And I think most young people have to go through that. The experience of screwing your life up and then regretting it is actually, as long as it doesn’t kill you, really, really valuable. I went into tricky thing because so much what I do is give advice and I also know how useless it is and how much that can be about who I want to be. But I try and remember that journey of screwing it up, is sometimes the very most valuable thing a person can be doing at that point in their life.

Zach: Your advice is around uncertainty really. That’s what you’re advocating is thinking more about it and not being certain. So in that sense, I don’t see how you can go wrong with advocating thinking more about things.

Carey: Yeah, I do think that more information is way better than less information. And then also, you can change your mind then. Definitely when it comes to being totally fully informed about medical interventions and what you can expect to come down the road as far as medical interventions, more information is better than less always. It might be you get all the information on a medical intervention and you learn all the risks and you’re like, “This is still the right decision.” And good for you, then.

Zach: Maybe they get a little too existential and broad here at the end, but I sometimes think it’s possible that some of these issues for some people are related to the fact that in the modern world, we have so much more free time and more time to examine questions about ourselves and our place in the world that we are more likely to come face to face with this abyss inside of us. I don’t mean a bit in a bad way, but more that we have this interior, this inner world that’s very mysterious and undefined to us and we have the capacity to basically create our own worlds and our own truths. That knowledge can be very scary and anxiety producing and I think this kind of existential anxiety might be why some people reach for labels, whether that’s traditional roles that they’re playing, the traditional roles stereotypes, or as I see it for some people, these internal also equally stereotype gender identity labels. And I also see this maybe with some of the clinging too labels that some people seem to have about I’m autistic around the autistic spectrum or I have this thing, whereas I think maybe we need to not label ourselves so much and I think sometimes the labeling can be restrictive even if it’s comforting to belong in a category or a box, maybe getting too broad there but I wanted to add maybe on that note.

Carey: Absolutely. It’s such a profound need to be understood and it’s also such an unreachable need because we can’t really ask other people to understand us because we’re always changing and fluid and we always contain all these potentials, but we want so badly to just make sense to the people around us. It’s very profound.

Zach: Well, thanks a lot for talking to me. I appreciate the chance to have the conversation. 

Carey: Yeah, thank you. 

Zach: That was an interview with Carey Callahan. That’s C-A-R-E-Y. And you can find her writing on Medium. She’s doing a series right now called Talking About Talking to Doctors, where she’s talking to people about their healthcare experiences in this area. You can also find her on Twitter at CareyCallsBS. 

Part of my reason for wanting to do tough talks like this on controversial topics is that I think showing how there can be disagreement and discussion on one’s own side helps create empathy for people who believe different things from us on the opposite side of the political aisle. In our increasingly polarized country, people tend to reside so much in homogenous bubbles of thought that we forget or don’t notice that there can be many forms of reasonable dissent on many topics. For example, if a conservative were to say, “I don’t want my child taught about gender identity theory,” many liberals would say, “Oh, that person’s a hateful bigot.” But hopefully, you can see how someone can think that and not be a bigot. If you’ve listened to this podcast, you’d understand why I myself would not want my child or children in general to be taught gender identity theory. This isn’t because I don’t respect trans people. This is an intellectual disagreement. I think that theory is wrong, that there’s no validity to it, that there’s been no real testing of the idea, that it’s no more scientific or real than an idea like Freud’s Oedipal complex. And I think that theory itself by being so incoherent and circular in logic, creates confusion and makes people more likely to consider themselves gender dysphoric. 

And to be clear, I would want children to be taught that many people have stereotypes about sex and gender, but those are mostly illusory stereotypes. We should all feel free to behave however we want as long as we’re not hurting anyone, wear whatever we want, transcend stereotypes however we want, love whoever we want and not feel a need for any labels because those labels are just our human attempts to categorize things we don’t understand. I’d want to teach children to not judge others for how they appear or how they act in these areas because no matter how you think it comes about, there’s obviously a lot of variety in how people present and how they behave. 

In other words, I prefer a theory that didn’t attempt to categorize what I see as elusive and mysterious internal states, then instead said something like, these stereotypes about gender related behavior don’t actually matter. It might seem like they matter sometimes because we live in a society with stereotypes, but those are just people’s ideas. You shouldn’t pay much attention to these labels and categories and just do what makes you happy.

Some people listening might be thinking, that’s all well and good for you a cisgender male to say who hasn’t struggled with this stuff. But actually, I do relate to a lot of this. I’ve never related to stereotypical male things. In school, the behavior of my male classmates often made me nervous, the rambunctious and aggressive ones. I used to get sad and disturbed watching the boys stomp on crickets in the high school gym locker room. Even today, aggressive people in conflict make me quite nervous. Even though I think playing sports can be fun, I’ve never liked watching sports, never understood what the appeal was. As a kid in elementary school, when many other boys were roughhousing on the playground, me and a couple other friends had an ongoing game where we pretended to be bunny rabbits. In elementary school, I had a physical, albeit non-sexual crush on a male friend. In middle school, I was mostly friends with females. I can easily imagine if I were growing up in today’s environment that I might be tempted to think of myself as gender dysphoric. In the same way that my wife who struggled with some gender dysphoria issues in her childhood, also says that she thinks it’s entirely possible that she would have been attracted by these ideas. 

I suppose some people who believe in the gender identity theory would say that I identify internally as a male because I presented in some stereotypical masculine ways. I suppose people would say that. But the thing is I don’t relate to any of these ideas about gender traits having a place inside of me. Well, I think that some of my behavior is likely biology caused and some of it is society caused. I don’t have any handle on which is which, it’s all a black box. I don’t feel that there’s some internal gender aspect of myself. 

Put it another way, if societal expectations were that I as a male should wear a dress and wear some makeup and maybe be more passive and how I relate to others, these traits that many people associate with females, I’d probably be doing that, not because I relate to it in any internal way, but just because it’s the path of least resistance. I simply don’t think most of this stuff in any way has much of a bearing on who I am. In short, I think we’re talking about complex and impossible to quantify things here and I don’t think our stereotypes of what constitutes “feminine” or “masculine” mean much at all. There are attempts to place a wide range of diverse behavior into various boxes and I think this is largely for our own comfort.

If you’ve listened to this podcast much or read some of my writings on social media, you know I think a lot about political polarization and the psychology behind that and I see the polarized and angry discussion around trans topics as very much analogous to how we talk about so many other hot button topics these days, from race, to police violence, to immigration to many other things. The thing I think many people don’t understand is that these very us versus them polarized dynamics we’re dealing with are very common dynamics in large groups. They’re common dynamics that many other countries have gone through and are going through. They’re common dynamics that have destroyed many other countries before ours. We tend to think that America is unique, that we’re fighting about very important issues, that our population is clearly divided about the issues themselves. And of course, the issues can be important, I’m not denying that. But what is much more important in these dynamics is what researchers call affective polarization or emotional polarization. That is it’s less about the issues and more about the animosity between the two groups. That ever increasing animosity creates more and more pressure for each group to take a unified stance against the other group and not criticize their own group. As each side becomes increasingly intolerant of internal debate, they grow more extreme in their ideas. 

This isn’t about which side started it. Obviously, we all have our own beliefs about which side is worse. But it’s about recognizing how the dynamics work. If you look at other currently polarized countries and those throughout history, the dynamics are the same. The issues are different, but what is the same, what is most important is their underlying psychological tendency to sort ourselves into two extreme and opposing groups and ramp up those us versus them dynamics. It’s a very human weakness, probably our main flaw. And there’s a good chance that will be the cause of our extinction at some point in the not-too-distant future, especially as our technology, including our weapons get more powerful. You can see those dynamics playing out for so many hot button topics these days. Each side becomes increasingly resistant to internal debate.

To bring it back to transgender topics. I know there are many well-meaning liberal people who want to talk more about these issues, but simply are afraid to or don’t have the time to do it well because it takes so much effort to do it well and not say things wrong and make it clear what your intent is. I think for many of these hot button issues, many people believe that while the other side seems so cohesive and monolithic, and the stakes seem so high right now, maybe it is best for us to stick together to not question our side. It’s uncomfortable to question things, but maybe it’s also best if I don’t question things. But from what I’ve learned in researching polarization, that is the wrong intuition. That is the path of least resistance that leads us to more and more polarization. Instead, a better approach is to continue to attempt to find nuance, to continue to attempt to have debates, to criticize your side when you think they’re doing something wrong. 

I could go on for quite a while about the benefits I see of doing that, but a couple quick points. One benefit, questioning your own side helps make your side more reasonable. A big part of how groups grow more extreme is that dissent is increasingly taboo. So by questioning our side, we’re helping make it more reasonable, more nuanced, more capable of having conversation. It also results in your side just being more persuasive to people outside the group. The more people outside your group perceive you as avoiding topics and not having reasonable debate, the less persuasive your group is. Another benefit, questioning your own side helps bring down anger from the other side. A big part of how these dynamics play out is that each side is responding to the worst of the other side. For example, Trump supporters take something hateful and unreasonable a liberal says and use that to act as if that’s a common stance amongst liberals and that riles up their group. So the more nuanced we attempt to be, the less that dynamic is a factor. Obviously, there always be people that will attempt to paint the worst people in your group as the norm, but it just helps bring down that dynamic.

One of my podcasts episodes was an interview of Jaime Settle whose researched political polarization and did studies of how use of Facebook seem to amplify polarization. In her opinion, one of the most helpful things we can do is to show how we don’t fit into the usual stereotypes of “our group”. To break the polarization cycle, one thing we can do is to show how we don’t fit the template of the stereotype of our group and maybe this will inspire others to do the same. But that takes a lot of bravery because we’re understandably afraid of being cast out from our own tribe. We’re afraid of being tribeless. But maybe if more of us did that, we show how others can do that, show how this isn’t weakness, that it doesn’t prevent us from being able to fight against things we think are bad, that it in fact may be the most helpful thing we can do. 

And to be clear, I’m not saying you have to question your side in public on social media as I actually think social media is a horrible place to have discussions. I’m talking about private conversations in our homes and with friends and family because that’s a big part of how we form our ideas and where polarization grows. And on the topic of social media, you may enjoy a piece I researched and wrote about the role that social media may be playing in amplifying our divides and extreme thinking. My piece is about the inherent effects of internet communication. For example, the fact that writing things down has been shown to make us more stubborn about our ideas. And now with social media, we’re all writing our ideas down more than ever before, things like that. I’m very proud of that work. If you want to check it out, search for Zach Elwood social media polarization and you’ll probably find it. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at readingpokertells.video. Use the contact form there to send me any ideas and criticisms, especially if you think I’m way off based on something and want to point me to a good resource to help me learn something. You can follow me on Twitter @apokerplayer. I don’t make any money on this podcast and I spend a good amount of time and money on it. If you’d like to show some support, I started a Patreon at patreon.com/zackelwood, that’s Z-A-C-H-E-L-W-O-O-D. There are no real extra benefits to sending me money, just if you like the podcast and want to encourage me to work on it. I also have a PayPal. My email for that is [email protected], and I appreciate any reviews or ratings you leave on iTunes or other platforms. Thanks for listening. Music by Small Skies.

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