Stoic advice: gender identity

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

M. writes: “I am sending you a long email describing in considerable detail the complications in my life as they relate to my gender identity and, more broadly, how fact or truth can be determined by Stoics as well as some ethical issues. Hopefully, you will find it raises sufficiently meaningful questions to address at your wonderful website. Born on the cutting edge of the baby boomers as a biological male, I grew up in the Fifties and early Sixties, became a physician and continue to work full time. I have been married 49 years and have two adult daughters and two grandchildren. I am also transgender.”

“But I have not transitioned to living full time as female, and am unlikely to ever do because of my history and circumstances. I am able, however, for a very small portion each week to easily live and present myself to the world and some friends and family as female, the gender with which I am most comfortable. I am also an evolving Stoic and from that perspective I have been pursuing questions relating to gender identity and Stoicism. In my reading of the Stoic philosophy I find considerable attention devoted to the idea of pursuing what is ‘natural.’ The vast majority of people never even think about their gender. It is what it is. But, for some, it isn’t that simple. Our gender doesn’t fit with our biology. There are various ways this conflict can be understood. Today, a commonly held view is that gender identity is not entirely binary and that there are individuals who, from a very young age, show behavior suggesting transgender preferences and or gender dysphoria. The conclusion drawn from this is we were born transgender. Others become aware of their gender dysphoria when they are older. From that observation another view has been formulated that being transgender is a choice we somehow make and that the ‘born this way’ view is simply a rationalization, a justification for a choice that is in conflict with the fundamental binary of gender. From this perspective, being transgender is more akin to being delusional.

If the first view is accepted as an appropriate explanation for being transgender, is it then ‘natural’ from the Stoic perspective? If the alternative is accepted is it then not ‘natural?’ More importantly, how can such contradicting views to be resolved? Science may help over time. That seems to be what has happened with medical and scientific thinking about sexual preference. But, lacking a factual basis for one idea or any other ideas, what is natural with regard to gender? I have spent hours trying to reason out why I am as I am. I remain unable to determine, for myself, anything that can explain it. All I know is what I experience, what I think and how I feel. I believe I was born this way. If I made a choice, I don’t recall when I made it. If I did, I must have been quite young. Having stated my belief, I must say I am well aware of research in moral psychology that indicates the incredible abilities humans have to explain and rationalize ideas generated by emotion and not reason. That said, I cannot say which, if either, is true, ‘natural’ from the Stoic perspective. And not being able to determine that truth raises a larger question. How is truth in the ‘natural’ sense for other complex questions not answered by science or mathematics determined by Stoic Philosophy?

If my first question is about what is natural or, even more broadly, what is truth for Stoics, my second question is about ethics. My wife and I grew up in an era when I was viewed as a transvestite, a sexual deviate, a pervert. For decades, I was ashamed of myself. Fortunately, I have achieved considerable success in moving away from that shame. My wife, liberal and well read as she is, has, for about 48 years firmly and clearly rejected everything relating to my gender dysphoria and identity as female. As far as I know, she has never mentioned it or discussed it with anyone other than me and my daughters and then, only if we bring up questions or issues. Despite the increasing awareness, tolerance and understanding of those of us who are transgender, she can accept others but cannot accept me. Our rare efforts to reconcile our dramatic differences have failed utterly and we now address them with what I see as a, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.

Because my daughters both know and accept me as transgender, as do their husbands, and because my grandchildren are both still very young, if my wife were to agree, I would likely transition to living my life as female. I believe I have shed most of my personal demons and shame over the last five years and could live out my life contentedly. I am certain, as certain as one can be, she will never agree and therefore I will never transition. However, I am not intensely dissatisfied with my present life. I tolerate my gender dysphoria though it does dull or dampens some of my day to day activities. More powerfully, I am forever separated from everyone in my life because no one really knows me as I am. This does result in a growing sense of loneliness and isolation. This is painful but not intolerable. I have always believed that transitioning would be an act of extreme selfishness. Transitioning would cause far more pain and distress for my wife, and then the rest of my family, than not transitioning will cause me. So I ‘cross dress’ a few times weekly for a few hours at a time away from home either alone or with my daughters or friends or casual acquaintances. I can live with this and do live with this. I believe my choice of not transitioning without my wife’s agreement is ethical and correct. I also believe not telling her what I am doing is unethical. I am not being honest even though there is a clearly unstated mutual agreement to not talk about any of this. I have told her she can raise any questions about it with me any time and I will talk with her. She never asks. I think the day must come, for ethical reasons alone, when I present all of this to her. I’m sure, because I’ve known her for 53 years, this will be exceptionally painful and not likely bring us even close to resolution or compromise. I will most likely, retreat in one way or another. Therefore, I have yet to summon the courage to talk once again honestly and in detail about what I am doing now and how I feel about being transgender. My justification has been and remains, ‘Why impose this pain on her now? It can wait.’ From a Stoic ethical perspective, does my decision to keep my transgender life, limited as it is, hidden from her in order to spare her marked pain outweigh or counter balance my lack of honesty with her? I do not believe it does and that I must continue to build the necessary strength to face a difficult and painful discussion.”

There is a lot going on here, which is why I reproduced the entirety of your letter, to give readers a good background on the situation. Let me begin with your first question which, as it turns out, is the easiest to address.

When the Stoics said that we should live “according to nature” they did not mean that what is natural is good. That would be a fallacious argument, known as the appeal to nature. The meaning of the Stoic mantra is that we should live in harmony with the cosmos, which in the specific case of human beings means to apply reason to social living — because the defining characteristics of humanity are its ability to reason and the fact that we are a social species.

Which means that your uncertainty about whether your feelings are innate or not — as much as I think is both interesting and obviously very relevant to you and other transgender people, is not something that a Stoic should be too concerned with. It is what it is. The question is how you are going to think about it, and how you are going to act with respect to others.

Indeed, if I may, even from a more general ethical perspective — outside of the specific framework of Stoicism — I never understood the point of discussions about the innateness or not of sexual and gender preferences. Whatever the causes of one’s feelings, they are there, and the morally salient questions concern attitudes and actions, never feelings.

Given the above, I could skip your question about how Stoics arrive at truth if this isn’t determined by “science or mathematics,” but I’d like to briefly address it anyway. The short answer is that they don’t. That’s one of the things that I most admire about Stoicism: the Stoics don’t pull stuff out of whole cloth, they don’t buy into “alternative ways” of knowing. They rely on science, mathematics, and logic. That’s why their curriculum included the study of “physics” (i.e., metaphysics and natural science) and “logic” (i.e., logic, epistemology, and psychology). Because those inform ethics, the study of how to best live one’s life. If science and logic don’t provide answers then no answers are available at the moment, and the proper Stoic attitude is one of agnosticism.

And now to the tough stuff, your relationship with your wife. From what you describe, it is very, very important too you. 48 years together is a lifetime, well worth a certain degree of compromise and sacrifice. Had your relationship been at a much earlier stage it might have been sensible to explore the possibility that you were simply not with the right person, but this seems to me to be out of the question for the two of you, which in turns guarantees that there aren’t going to be easy answers.

You point out that you have made peace with the fact that you will never transition, because your wife would not be in a position to accept it. This actually agrees with Epictetus’ so-called role ethics (the linked book is well worth reading, I think), as in this passage:

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)

This is often interpreted as an indication that the Stoics were somewhat conservative and upheld social hierarchy, but I don’t think this reading is warranted. (I mean, some Stoics started revolutions, like Cato the Younger.) Rather, what Epictetus is saying here is that we naturally play a number of roles in society, in your case that of a father and a husband, among others. So the question you need to pose yourself is: what would a good husband do? You have already answered it: you are willing to give up on something very important to your own identity as a human being for the sake of your wife.

The real problem is the next one you raise. You feel like you have compromised enough by not transitioning and instead settling for a few hours of freedom here and there. But your wife is not willing to accept even that, which has put you in a position to lie to her. Which in turn is constantly raising the issue within yourself of whether to bring that up.

The only advice I can give you here is to exercise your practical wisdom, the ability to navigate morally complex situations to your best, and the virtue underpinning Epictetus’ discipline of assent. Practical wisdom doesn’t guarantee a perfect outcome, something that in life is rarely achievable. It only allows you to make a decision “all things considered,” to put it as Larry Becker does in his A New Stoicism.

In this case, the things to consider are: i) how much hurt you are going to cause to your wife by talking frankly to her about the situation; ii) how much damage you do to yourself and to the relationship by keep lying to her; iii) how reasonable it is for you to ask your wife to at least meet you that far, considering that you have made your peace with giving up something very important for her sake.

I cannot give you the answer, but only the framework for how best to think of the question (I may add that perhaps you should talk to your daughters about this, and get their counsel). That, according to many, is the weakness of virtue ethics in general. I find it one of its major strengths, because real life is too complicated for us to reduce ethics to a set of rules (deontology) or to the maximization of a single quantity (utilitarianism). I sincerely wish you the best.

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4 thoughts on “Stoic advice: gender identity

  1. I love this article, especially the advice of “It is what it is”. It’s incredibly compassionate, which is an aspect I really appreciate about Stoicism.

    I am a Transgender man who practices stoicism in my daily life. I transitioned 7 years ago at the age of 35. My husband was initially very against my transitioning. Under duress, I even made him a promise that I wouldn’t. Sure enough, soon I had gotten to a point in my life where I felt like I could no longer deny my own nature for the comfort of others, even if it meant the destruction of those relationships. I just wanted to be known and loved for who I knew myself to be. It took my husband and I a while to get to a point of acceptance together, but it did happen. Every single one of my relationships has been better for it. Bringing my trans-ness into my daily life made it so I could be more present, more loving.

    It’s important to realize that when you transition (medically, or otherwise) everyone you have a relationship with transitions with you. Your wife more than most people! Suddenly finding oneself in a same-sex relationship can be disorienting, to say the least. I do hope that you can enjoy your transition together. It’s a pretty amazing time, and having a partner to share it with makes it that much sweeter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it important for this person to express their feelings to their wife. It is the holding / suppression of feelings that is causing the loneliness / pain.

    Eg. I’ve been feeling lonely recently at times both when we are together and apart because I have a strong need to be wholly accepted as I am. I wonder if you would be willing to explore solutions to this current emotional difficulty with which I am faced?

    This could be a start of a very gentle and considerate conversation. If the answer is no, then it’s not lying to withhold personal information, it’s simply a respect that the topic is too much for their wife to hear.

    This sadness may actually stem from the loss of total sharing in the marriage. If this can be resolved either way, yay or nay, then the path towards acceptance and healing can begin. The sadness can be overcome.

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  3. Lucia,

    Yeah, that comment did not fit the standards of this blog, so it’s no longer available. And if the author thinks that’s censorship, I will remind him that it’s my blog, not a public space…

    Liked by 2 people

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