A lot of people talk about “gender identity”, but I think it makes more sense to talk about “gender feelings”. I can’t really define it in an intensional fashion, so I will have to define it extensionally and hope that this manages to transfer over the thing I mean.
I do not mean feelings along the lines of “menstruation really sucks” or “I feel upset that people keep harassing me on street corners.” Those aren’t really about gender. They are about other perfectly reasonable preferences (not having strangers shout crude things at you, not bleeding from your genitals) that happen to be unfulfilled because of what gender you are.
Gender feelings can be about behavior, whether it’s behaving in a way expected of your gender or behaving in a way not expected of your gender. To be clear here, I don’t mean to say that every person who likes doing something gendered is having gender feelings about it. If I said that, given the number of things gendered in our society, everyone would be forever going about having gender feelings constantly. If you like being submissive to your husband because you hate making decisions, not gender feelings. If you like being submissive to your husband because it connects you to your essential femininity, gender feelings. If you like wearing a dress because when you spin it does the thing, not gender feelings. If you like wearing a dress because of an incomprehensible longing deep in your soul to wear dresses, gender feelings. If you like riding motorcycles because going fast is fun, not gender feelings. If you like riding motorcycles because it makes you feel like a badass dude, gender feelings.
Gender feelings can be about biological sex: many trans people whose bodies feel ‘wrong’ are in this category, as are many cis people who consider their manhood or womanhood to be deeply connected to their physical embodiment and their sexual characteristics. Gender feelings are often linked to clothes, perhaps because clothes are the primary way we signal genders to each other. Gender feelings are commonly linked to one’s sexuality: sex advice aimed at non-feminist cis straight men and women often advises one to “make him feel like a man” or “make her feel like a woman.” A lot of kinks are connected to people’s genders: for instance, a lot of male doms feel their dominance is connected to masculinity, and a lot of male subs eroticize femininity.
Gender feelings aren’t necessarily connected to a particular gender identification. Alison Bechdel is on the record as saying she would have been trans if she were born today. I don’t know the lady, but her memoir Fun Home depicts someone without any gender feelings about whether she’s considered a man or a woman, coupled with strong gender feelings about being masculine. Naturally, a person with the same gender feelings might identify as a butch woman in some circumstances and a trans man in others.
Many people don’t have gender feelings at all. They are simply assigned a gender and then they go along with it because they have no particular reason to make a fuss about the subject. I typically term them cis by default. While cis by default people are obviously men and women in a sociological sense, they’re not men or women in the psychological sense I’m talking about here, since they have no related feelings.
(If you’re objecting to not being considered a man or a woman because you’re cis by default, congratulations, you just found your gender feelings.)
It is sometimes argued that most people are nonbinary. I am uncertain about whether this statement is true. On one hand, I have certainly been to parties where less than a quarter of attendees were willing to consider themselves “definitely cis”, which suggests that a trans-positive environment leads to a significantly higher rate of trans people. On the other hand, my friends are outliers on a whole bunch of dimensions, and if most people wanted to be nonbinary you think they’d have made a nonbinary gender role by now. This argument is often proffered as an anti-nonbinary-acceptance argument, which I think is quite silly; if the average person can get as much benefit from identifying as nonbinary as I can, creating a nonbinary gender role is probably the single best intervention you could do for people in the developed world.
I don’t know what causes gender feelings; I don’t know that anyone does. Probably, like most complex behaviors, it is a combination of genetics, prenatal environment, post-birth biological influences, interactions with family and friends, societal influence, and a whole bunch of other factors I don’t know enough about to write about. I would be extraordinarily surprised if there turned out to be a single cause of gender feelings; I expect a wide variety of different influences can make people trans, cis, cis-by-default, or floating weirdly between the categories.
Many people, particularly trans-exclusionary radical feminists, argue that gender feelings are solely a product of sexism. However, many early trans-exclusionary radical feminists had obvious gender feelings: for instance, Mary Daly described hers in her characteristic fashion as ‘gynergy‘, and Janice Raymond wrote an eloquent book about how women’s gender feelings are expressed through intense friendships with other women. Even today, many trans-exclusionary radical feminists seem to experience gender feelings about their physical bodies, connecting their womanhood to the physical realities of menstruation, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
A lot of people have what Julia Serano in her book Excluded calls gender entitlement. Essentially, gender entitlement is when you assume that the feelings you have about your own personal gender must apply to everyone else, and you will spindle, fold, bend, and mutilate other people’s experiences to get them to fit.
For example: it is totally valid for your womanhood to be related to the immense complexity of your reproductive system and the miracle that you can create a life inside yourself. It is extremely rude for you to decide because of this that other people who can create lives inside themselves have to be women, or that it’s wrong for other women to be horrified by the idea of carrying around a bloodsucking parasite for nine months. It is totally valid for your womanhood to be expressed by wearing a dress, but it is extremely rude for you to decide because of this that the drag queen down the street has to be a woman too, or that other women are betraying their femininity by wearing pants. It is totally valid to want to feel feminine during sex, but don’t go around being a dick to people who don’t share your kink for gender.
Why is gender entitlement harmful? Because other people’s feelings about their genders are actually different from yours. Don’t fall victim to the typical mind fallacy; human brains are quite diverse. With a complex social system like gender, you are not going to find anything that describes everyone’s experiences 100%.
Because of their gender feelings, some people identify as a particular gender. A lot of people don’t make a distinction between gender feelings and gender identification, but I think that those are actually two different things.
Think of gayness as an analogy. Some people experience attraction to people of the same gender but not to people of other genders (analogously, some people experience gender feelings). Because of this, they may identify as gay (analogously, some people identify as men, women, or nonbinary). It’s possible for a person to be mistaken about whether they’re gay; there is a fact of the matter about whether they’re attracted to men or women. You can guess that certain people might be mistaken about their sexuality. Your friend who insists he’s gay might be all over women whenever he gets drunk. Your friend who insists she’s straight might have some closeted lesbian opinions about the repulsiveness of kissing men and how the feeling she gets in her stomach when girls hug her must mean she’s sick. But, ultimately, the only person who has access to whether someone is really gay is that person; from the outside, the only difference between “bisexual” and “lesbian who struggled with compulsory heterosexuality” is which group the person says they’re in. For that reason, we respect people’s opinions about what their sexual orientation is (even if we privately think they’re being ridiculous). Similarly, we respect other people’s gender self-identifications, even if we privately think that this person is such an egg.