Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Gender identity—and aphantasia?

Last week I mentioned a conversation I had with a friend at least 12 years ago in which I’d said that I just didn’t get the whole idea of identity. I was reminded of that conversation last year when I posted a piece (which I’ve since deleted) here on Medium, on the subject of gender. One of those who responded was Siobhan O'leary, a trans woman who has written a lot about the subject. Her main point was that I was using “gender” to refer only to gender roles, whereas I needed to think about gender identity (and gender dysphoria). I had, of course, heard these terms before but for reasons which I hope will become clear they didn’t mean much to me.

I read O’leary’s Trans 101, and concluded that whatever (if anything) I’d previously understood by “gender identity” was quite different from the sense in which she and others writing about trans issues were using the term.

O’leary offers the definition:

“A deep sense of self related to the private and involuntary response to the characteristics by which one is sorted into male or female.”

That doesn’t really tell me anything about what it would be like to experience such a sense, so I began to look for other definitions. The upshot is that I still can’t give an accurate and intelligible description of what gender identity is, but I’m almost certain it’s not something I’ve ever personally felt. That led me to wonder whether a sense of gender identity is something that’s experienced only by people who suffer from gender dysphoria? Is is usual to have a sense of gender identity without gender dysphoria?

One passage in Trans 101 seems to suggest an answer to this question:

[I]f you don’t think about your subjective experience of your own sexed attributes, you probably don’t have gender dysphoria, and your experience is one of comfort such that you can ignore it. We don’t feel shoes that fit, but shoes that don’t — well, I’m sure we’ve all had blisters from such a scenario at one point.

Ah, I thought, so gender identity is something one becomes aware of only if it doesn’t fit properly. But when I think about it that actually doesn’t answer my question. I believe that I do think about my subjective experience of my own sexed attributes. Or at least I’ve been periodically thinking about gender (in the sense of masculinity/femininity) for something like 35 years. And it isn’t the case of my being able to ignore my gender identity: since reading O’leary’s primer, I’ve repeatedly tried to find it and, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing there.

This failure to discover a sense of gender identity happened nearly a year before I realized that as a consequence of aphantasia I have no visual self-image. It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve begun to wonder whether these two “absences” can be connected. While it might seem odd to postulate that something as fundamental as identity (“a deep sense of self”, as O’leary puts it) might be determined by something as superficial as a self-image, the idea isn’t as fanciful as it sounds.

If one has a self-image (to avoid repeating “visual” each time, I’m going to use “self-image” exclusively in the visual sense), it can be expected to include an element of gender presentation. (I mean if you can mentally picture yourself as a person, that person will presumably have an apparent gender or sex.) Therefore, I’m inclined to assume that self-image comes with some sense of gender identity almost as a matter of course. The problem with this is that, having only my own subjective experience to go on, I can’t be sure that the assumption is reasonable. As with so many questions related to aphantasia, I can only guess at what other people see and feel.

Do people go about their daily business with a continuous or persistently intermittent awareness that “I’m a man”, “I’m a woman”, “I’m a non-binary person” or similar? Surely not. But what, then? The more I think about the concept of gender identity, the more unworkable it seems. Yet I know that some people have it. What’s it like?

Tweet asking whether it’s usual for a cis person without aphantasia to have a sense of gender identity
This tweet was deleted when I closed my previous Twitter account

So, I asked Twitter, but I didn’t get any response. That’s not terribly surprising. It would be easy enough to ask a question aimed at people who have aphantasia, or people who have experienced gender dysphoria. But I’m trying to address people who don’t fall into either category (and who may not even be aware that one or other of these categories exists), and that’s not so easy. I remain in the dark on the question of gender identity.