“I identify as an attack helicopter.”
“I identify as a giraffe. But that doesn’t make me a giraffe. Just because you ‘feel’ like X doesn’t make you that X.”
Ever heard these arguments? Of course you have. They are some of the oldest transphobic tropes, trotted out again and again despite being rebutted over and over.
Why do transphobes keep returning to these arguments? Because they want to establish that trans identities are not valid, that trans people are not who we say we are.
But where exactly do these supposed “arguments” go wrong?
The fundamental problem is trying to make an analogy between gender and species-hood or object-hood.
An attack helicopter is an inanimate object. A sentient person who feels like an attack helicopter could not thereby turn themselves into an attack helicopter. By definition helicopters are objects that fly via rotating blades. A person who feels like a helicopter cannot fly via rotating blades namely because they have no such blades growing out of their head. And so they cannot be a helicopter.
What defines a species? This is actually a very complex question in biology. But generally species-hood is defined in terms of interbreeding. Animals A and B both belong to the same species if they can breed and produce viable offspring. There are exceptions to this but roughly that’s how it goes.
Thus, if a person identifies as a tiger that doesn’t make them a tiger because they cannot breed with a tiger. Only tigers can breed with other tigers.
So clearly, merely identifying as X does not thereby make you an X. Metaphysical metamorphosis isn’t that simple.
But what about trans people?
The most common explanation of trans identity is that it has to do with their brains. So a trans woman was assigned male at birth but this assignment was a mistake because ultimately her brain has a schema in it that represents itself as a woman.
But the person who thinks they’re a tiger also has a schema in their brain representing itself as a tiger. What is the difference between the trans-brain and the tiger-brain?
The difference has to do with gender itself. Whereas it is not plausible that being a tiger has to do with how the brain represents itself to itself, belonging to a particular gender (man vs woman) is plausibly explained by how the brain represents itself to itself. That is, belonging to a particular gender or not has to do with how you identify. Thus, being a woman or a man just is about how your brain sees itself which is why trans women are women and trans men are men.
While there are complex questions involved in how gender (identity) relates to physiological sex (having to do with reproductive capacities) we know that things must be more complicated than simply assigned sex at birth = defines your gender. Given that gender involves complex cultural phenomena, it’s not as simple as whether you can get pregnant or not, as much as “gender critical feminists” want to make it so.
Trans persons are in fact a counter-example to such reductionist thinking. Whenever you have a counter-example you have to consider that the universal claim refuted by counter-example is false. In this case, the very existence of trans people refutes the claim that gender (membership in the class of woman vs man) can be reduced to your genitals or your reproductive capacity.
And if it cannot be reduced to such physical traits, the remaining organ to locate gender in is the brain. And this actually makes sense because the brain is what determines our personhood, our identity, our behavior, our personality, our consciousness, and basically everything that makes us “us.” Why wouldn’t it also be the case with gender? So quite simply, the brain is the best candidate for the bodily organ in which to reduce gender. And furthermore, given the existence of trans people, we know that there can be a “mismatch” between the internal identity of the brain and the physical body.
A transmasculine person might genuinely feel they should have a penis because they have a mismatched brain schema. We know the brain has such schemas because in amputee patients they maintain “phantom limbs” which are persistent brain schemas representing the limb when it does not exist. Similarly, trans people have also been shown to have “phantom phenomena,” offering evidence that brain schemas/representations are also involved in trans identity and dysphoria itself.
And thus, we now have a plausible argument against the “attack helicopter” type arguments. Nobody is born with a representation of being an attack helicopter (and I genuinely doubt any older person ever genuinely has such a schema as well — it’s just a transphobic joke). And similarly, it makes no evolutionary sense that humans would be born with identity schemas for being non-human animals. But given the importance of gender in human society, it does make sense that humans would have innate schemas for representing themselves as belonging to a particular sex or not. This is why trans identities are valid and trans-specieshood is not.