Identity and the Phenomenology of Gender
Updated: Feb 17
As a general disclaimer, I’d like to tell you that no matter your opinions on transgenderism, especially as it pertains to the so-called “culture wars”, you’ll more than likely find some claim in this essay you disagree with. This is neither an attack from the right nor a defense from the left. This is simply a critique of transgender ideology as its commonly understood and an appeal for a new and improved framework or mode for conceptualizing the transgender experience.
First off, we may disagree on what “transgenderism” is. In the immediate sense, I think transgenderism is an experience. I have chosen the all-encompassing term “ideology” to refer to the language and concepts often employed to describe the experience. This is not to be misinterpreted as pejorative, or indicative of any type of value-judgment. If you’d like, for every time I use the term “ideology”, you may insert “system” or “collection” of ideas. All of these terms refer to the words we use to capture transgender experiences.
Some will push back at any discussion or criticism of our current models on the basis that such conversation constitutes “gender violence” or “transphobia”. I reject this completely. Unsatisfactory claims demand to be challenged. I ask you to please keep an open mind as I present my case for a new model. That being said, let’s dive into the core assumptions of transgender ideology.
The ideology’s primary critique is that of the inadequacy of the “gender binary”, the classification system of all humans as male or female, for mapping the breadth of human experience. As evidence of this, many ideologues claim that premodern cultures have historically used non-binary systems for classifying gender. This is true. An example worth exploring is the so-called “two-spirit”, an umbrella term employed by many indigenous American Indians to refer to individuals that fulfill a third-gender role. It is important to remember this term (“two-spirit”), as I will argue that this model is a much better mode for understanding gender expression.
There are other similar examples, such as the Sekrata in Madagascar, the dwindling “sworn virgin” male-to-female population in Albania, the Hijras in India and other South Asian countries, the Metis in Nepal, brotherboys and sistergirls in aboriginal Australian populations, and the Bugis in Indonesia, which are further subdivided into the feminine men calabai, masculine women calalai, and intersex bissu. It is likely these are not the only such instances—perhaps the anthropologists will soon discover more.
My point here is not that transgender ideology as we understand it is correct and virtuous, but that it is not a uniquely Western phenomenon. To understand the psychological and spiritual factors that undergird transgenderism, we must realize its most recent iteration—as propagated by the Western genderqueer LGBTQ+ movement—is not the only framing used to describe the transgender experience.
My greatest criticism of transgender ideology is its reliance on the concept of “identity”. This is of course not unique to the queer discourse. Most individuals in progressive circles view social expression through the lens of identity and posit the social individual can be defined as an intersection of various discrete “identities”.
I argue that this definition is wholly inadequate to understanding the Self. The notion that an individual contains more than one identity is ludicrous. I cannot stress this enough: you have one identity. This identity is influenced by an immeasurably large number of factors, which of course includes gender, sexual orientation, and race, but also personality, moral and epistemic values, spiritual inclinations, religion, and even material circumstances. These are but parts of the whole that is you. This isn’t to say that gender might not be a more important aspect of your identity than it is for mine, or vice versa. These aspects all interact in a complex web of psychological relations and the psyche may prioritize certain factors over others in the construction of identity—regardless, it is impossible to reduce the complex system that is identity into only one simple aspect, or to pretend “identities” are extrinsic facts that combine like chemical formulae to form the individual. This is a gross reductionism.
Joshua Adams, an English professor at the University of Louisville, replied to the above claim that when progressives talk of “identity”, they are not making a metaphysical claim. “Identity”, in this sense, refers only to a political, cultural, or social phenomenon. This argument, too, falls flat. Even if the average individual does not mean to make a metaphysical claim, such a claim is implicit in the language.
Within the ideology, one can “identify” as a woman tomorrow even if they “identified” as a man yesterday. They are no longer a man and are now a woman; the change is an operation of the will. Conservative pundits would say the change was “magical”, and though I contest the intended connotation, in some sense such a transformation is “magickal” in the esoteric neo-hermeticist sense. As Alesiter Crowley writes in Book 4 of the Liber ABA, “MAGICK is the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity to Will.” Or again, “every intentional [willed] act is a Magickal act.”
Let’s contrast this magickal transformation with the American Indian “two-spirit”. Those who do not fit into the binary are thought of as containing both masculine and feminine aspects that interact in ways that render the classifications “man” and “woman” as inadequate. Two-spirit individuals can express themselves as masculine or feminine, or some combination. It does not matter how they “identify”—they are who they are. Yes, this is still a metaphysical claim and perhaps a transgender individual would claim they were a woman even if they “identified” as a man at the time. This is, however, an admission of the inadequacy of identity to describe such a relationship.
Harry Clennon, a writer for Spectacles Media, replied that different aspects of identity (such as gender expression) are more or less salient at different points in one’s life and development. The Self is subject to major changes brought on by experience, even if there is some intrinsic nature of the individual that is always constant. It is valid, then, that someone can be a man one day and a woman the next, because their gender expression has changed in the face of new experiences.
Clennon makes a good point, and I agree that identity is not constant. I have outlined what identity is not, but I have not explained what identity is.
Ultimately, I consider identity to be a mode of consciousness. It is the method by which the consciousness discovers itself. As a method, identity is always undergoing change, via psychological development, individuation, et cetera. As Clennon points out, experience certainly does have an effect on identity. It is important to remember, however, that all experience is mediated by the psyche. There is no input that can change one’s identity without thinking it so (though this need not be a conscious effect; certain circumstances may affect one’s identity only unconsciously). The consequence of this is that identity evolves in a dialectical manner. Experience causes contradictions within the psyche’s understanding of its identity, and thus it adjusts its models to include the new understandings. However, since experience is mediated (in other words, since experience is not painted on a blank canvas), the adjustments to identity are built upon the prior state of consciousness. This is the nature of the dialectical motion: the new truths of identity are only true relative to the previous truths. Implicitly within the most recent interpretation of identity are all the previous states.
To put this in terms of transgender ideology, an individual’s realization that the label “man” does not suffice to describe them will lead them to adopt the label “woman”, or perhaps some other label such as “non-binary”. This person’s “womanness” is only true relative to their “manness” (I refrain from using the terms femininity and masculinity in this instance because femininity is relative to masculinity for all objects—the feminine is meaningless without knowledge of its negation, the masculine). This exemplifies the difference between “cisgender woman” and “transgender woman”. For both subjects, “womanness” is true relative to its Other, but for the former it’s true relative to the Other’s constant subjugation and for the latter it is true relative to its Other’s conquest of the Self . Similarly, a “non-binary” person is still sexed, but their androgyny is true relative to its Other—their former “genderedness”.
The important distinction here is that the transgender individual did not (and cannot) replace their identity with a new one—simply, their understanding of their identity adapted as the subject accumulated more experience.
At this point, I’d like to segue into a discussion of Jungian phenomenology. I am aware that Jung is often thought of as a sort of “naughty word” among proponents of transgender ideology because the syzygy is perceived as an all-encompassing refutation of the existence of transgenderism. I’d like to dispel some misinterpretations and draw upon Jung’s arguments in Aion: Phenomenology of the Self to help us better understand the role of the universal masculine and universal feminine.
First, I’ll give a quick crash course in the relevant Jungian psychology. Jung divides the psyche into two main components: the Conscious and the Unconscious. Jung’s Ego, similar to the Freudian conception, is the self-referential subject: when you say “I think”, the subject “I” is referring to the Ego. In Types, Jung writes: “by the Ego, I understand a complex of representations which constitutes the centre of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a very high degree of continuity and identity.” The consciousness is “the function or activity which maintains the relation of psychic contents with the ego” and the unconscious contents are the “relations to the ego insofar as they are not sensed as such by the ego”.
It’s also important to understand the concept of the archetype, which is a reification of St. Augustine’s ideae principales (from Alan Glover’s translation of the Liber de diversis quaestionibus):
“For the principal ideas are certain forms, or stable and unchangeable reasons of
things, themselves not formed, and so continuing eternal and always after the same
manner, which are contained in the divine understanding. And though they
themselves do not perish, yet after their pattern everything is said to be formed that
is able to come into being and to perish, and everything that does come into being
and perish. But it is affirmed that the soul is not able to behold them, save it be the \
The archetype is an experience of fundamental importance—a “psychic organ”, or “self-portrait of the instincts”. Archetypes present themselves in myths, or primordial images, that fulfill psychic roles (though their content is transcendental and cannot be beheld).
The archetype of vital importance in our discussion is that of the so-called soul-image. In men, this is the anima; in women, the animus. Each is the contrasexual complement of the sexed psyche. The unconscious feminine complements the conscious masculine, and the unconscious masculine complements the conscious feminine. It is important to note the anima and animus are not “an invention of the conscious, but a spontaneous product of the [collective] unconscious”, as Jung writes in Aion. In less Jungian terms, the soul-images are not merely subjective imaginations but intersubjective facts of experience.
The differences between men and women are not simply explained by a simple masculine-feminine dichotomy. Rather, it is the masculine Ego in conjunction with the anima, the maternal Eros (the function of relationship, personified as the god of Love), contrasted with the feminine Ego in conjunction with the animus, the paternal Logos (the personification of cognition and discrimination, not to be confused with the Logos, “the Word”, in John 1:1). Both the masculine and feminine egos (man and woman) are surrounded by a “cloud of animosity”.
Much of transgender ideology advocates’ criticisms of the soul-images, I think, come from Jung’s insistence that the contrasexual partner must be dominated. The assumption is that control of the anima or animus entails suppression of femininity for men or masculinity for women. This, it seems, is antithetical to the transgender project—that of “identifying” with the opposite function.
In some ways, it is. Upon closer inspection, however, the situation is much more nuanced. It is true that Jung is critical of men who fall victim to the desires and tendencies of the anima, but it is quite easy to draw opposing conclusions. The recognition of the soul-image, Jung writes, “gives rise, in a man, to a triad, one third of which is transcendent: the masculine subject, the opposing feminine subject, and the transcendent anima. With a woman, the situation is reversed.” Rather than suppression, the emphasis should be on integration. Here is another quote from Aion:
“Hence it is especially important to picture the archetypes of the unconscious not as
a rushing phantasmagoria of fugitive images but as constant, autonomous factors,
which indeed they are.
“Both [anima and animus], as practical experience shows, possess a fatality that can
on occasion produce tragic results. They are quite literally the father and mother of
all the disastrous entanglements of fate and have long been recognized as such by
the whole world. Together they form a divine pair, one of whom, in accordance with
his Logos nature, is characterized by pneuma and nous, rather like Hermes with his
ever-shifting hues, while the other, in accordance with her Eros nature, wears the
features of Aphrodite, Helen (Selene), Persephone, and Hecate. Both of them are
unconscious powers, ‘gods’ in fact, as the ancient world quite rightly conceived them
to be. To call them by name is to give them that central position in the scale of
psychological values which has always been theirs whether consciously
acknowledged or not; for their power grows in proportion to the degree that they
remain unconscious. Those who do not see them are in their hands, just as typhus
epidemic flourishes best when its source is undiscovered.”
From a different perspective, Jung’s divine pair, also called the syzygy, is a reflection of the dual nature of sexed humanity. Gender is dialectical! Within man and woman is the unity of opposites—the unity of masculine and feminine. Jung is, of course, not a biologist but a psychologist. Is it far-fetched to consider the distinction of “man” and “woman” to be a distinction of gender and not of sex? In other words, if the transcendent man contains both the masculine and feminine subject, should not the designations of “man” and “woman” refer to the tendency of the Ego, rather than the biological sex organ?
Jung refrains from using scientific language that he considers to be more abstract than the universal language of archetype and myth. However, it is not difficult to imagine an alternative reading of Jung, whereby “those who do not see [the anima or animus] are in the hands” of gender dysphoria. The Ego is the slave of the soul-image and lacks the agency to realize itself. Transgenderism, as an experience, is a symptom of stunted individuation—the development of the individual as distinct from the collective unconscious (I should note that I personally view Jungian individuation as an opposition to Hegelian self-consciousness, and thus absolutely individuated psyche is neither possible nor desirable; this is a discussion for another time, though).
I contend it is more useful to think of gender not as an “identity” that can be reversed at a whim, but as a function of masculine and feminine energies. The masculine and feminine aspects are not constant, but are inputs and products of the individuation process. The transgender experience is the acceptance and integration of the truth of the syzygy into the consciousness.
These are bold metaphysical assertions that pose the obvious question for the non-philosophical: so what? I’m sure many will fail to see the importance in the language we use to describe gender expression. “The philosophical details are meaningless, lived experience is all that matters.”
I counter this sentiment with the notion of hermeneutical injustice as defined by analytic philosopher Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and Ethics of Knowing. Hermeneutical injustice describes any injustice that occurs as a result of the lacuna between experience and the concepts required to describe that experience. In other words, someone may experience hermeneutical injustice when their conceptual framework is unable to paint an accurate picture of some phenomenon. It is a process by which a subject views an experience as less legitimate because knowledge of the causes, effects, and importance are unknown.
Fricker uses the heartbreaking example of Carmita Wood, an employee at a university who was victim to a series of inappropriate sexual advances by her boss. Wood was repeatedly fondled by her employer and described an incident where her boss forced himself onto her in an elevator. Wood quit her job and vacationed in Florida to escape the harassment and subsequent trauma. Upon returning to New York, she filed for unemployment insurance but was “at a loss” to describe to the claims investigator the reasons for her quitting. Under pressure, she claimed her reasons were “personal”. Her UI application was denied.
Instances of hermeneutical injustice are much more common than instances like that of Ms. Wood. Even if the lacuna never amounts to “real” material harm, the psychological effects are damning. I emphasized the word “accurate” earlier, and this is the pertinent modifier for our discussion.
Western transgender ideology provides a language system—a map, of sorts—to describe transgender experiences. The project is noble, but unfortunately the language is inadequate. It paints a picture, but not an accurate one.
Although Miranda Fricker does not discuss the consequences of a conceptual framework that, instead of accurately describing an experience, ensnares and distorts it, I think such an instance still qualifies as an hermeneutical injustice. As rational epistemic agents, we have a duty to destroy such injustices by collapsing the lacuna between experience and concept. By engaging with a conceptual framework that is inadequate to describe the experience, we are unwittingly widening the lacuna even as we think it is narrowing.
In sum, the tragic sin of transgender ideology lies in its foundation. The ideology rests on the clay feet of intersectional identities. Those who seek to understand the transgender experience would benefit greatly from engaging with Jungian typology and meditating on the archetypal imagery. This is, of course, not the only approach for understanding the transgender phenomenon—after all, the “two-spirit” designation evolved independently—but is nonetheless a more accurate portrait. At the very least, I hope to have shown that the current framework is not the only one available.
Experiences cannot be denied, but their descriptions are always to be interpreted. Perhaps the current framework is an adequate model, but perhaps it is not. The deeper you consider the merits and demerits, however, the sooner you will find yourself staring evermore closely at the transcendent archetype. You may describe it in mythic terms, or scientific or psychological or spiritual or biological—it is no matter. In the end, there is only the masculine and the feminine. To one, the soul beckons, while to the other it repels.
As a farewell, I leave you with a verse from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. God Bless you.
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where I went.