Biological Determinism and the Trans Debates: Gender, Sex, Race, and Ability

People increasingly attempt to use biological determinism (or essentialism) to lock people into identities, identities that are actually assigned and determined by cultural mores.

While people who are transgender or transexual (often abbreviated as just trans) are increasingly accepted by academia and by society–although we absolutely have a long, long way to go–such cannot be said for other people who identify as trans in some way or another.


Most readers here have probably heard of Rachel Dolezal. She is the individual, described by many, as the White woman pretending to be Black, put simply. Dolezal has said she is transracial. Almost everyone has reacted with extremely negative reactions, saying that she was appropriating Black culture and identity and was pretending to be someone she wasn’t for positions and recognition.

I too, at least initially, found her actions to be surprising and unfavorable and unacceptable.

Recently, however, I have read some powerful articles that have changed my mind some. While I still do not know exactly what I think–and I am reminded of what I tell my students about looking for various perspectives, recognizing those, and then taking time to form an opinion–I am persuaded by Dr. Angela Jones’s comments regarding biological essentialism. In brief, if we do not allow Rachel Dolezal (and others – there are others) to be transracial, we are going squarely against decades of evidence that explains how “race” is a social, not a biological, reality. People are not “white” or “black” — they are racialized (subjectively) as White or Black and in many other ways. So, Dolezal is not white or black – but she is racialized by society and does have the power to adopt and reject various identities. The question is does this extend to race? And don’t forget that Homer Plessy “looked white” but was deemed Black by the “one-drop rule.”

Read this for a variety of pro and con comments by scholars and journalists. Rosa Clemente provides one important comment that is critical of Rachel Dolezal: 

As people of color, no matter how hard we try, we cannot achieve whiteness, but the fact that a White woman can achieve Blackness and lie and take space and take resources and on top of it be belligerent when confronted is the epitome of White privilege.

(See here and here for other interesting perspectives on being transracial.) 


Additionally, there are people who assert that they are transabled. As with other identities or statements about oneself, at some level, we have to believe what people say and take what they say as being true, at least for purposes of identity and understanding. Being disabled, I personally can’t understand why someone would opt to be disabled, but some people do. Some people say they feel as if their leg or arm doesn’t belong with the rest of their body. As written about here, people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder sometimes make themselves disabled by choice. 

Other articles about this can be found here, here, herehere, and here.


The common development of the human organism and the human self in a socially determined environment is related to the peculiarly human relationship between organism and self. This relationship is an eccentric one. On the one hand, man is a body, in the same way this may be said of every other animal organism. On the other hand, man has a body. That is, man experiences himself as an entity that is not identical with his body, but that, on the contrary, has that body at its disposal.

-Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality 

Modern Western society tends to medicalize any difference and to say that such differences are an illness that needs to be in the DSM and needs to be correct. At this point, we should have far more questions than answers when it comes to people who assert transracial or transabled identities. When asking and answering such questions it is vital that we not allow biology to be the driving force because we know, even for people who are transgender, that society’s incredibly strong–and largely invisible–rules shape at least in part who we are and aren’t. Culture. Culture. Recognizing culture is extremely important. Biology does not determine social identities that are dependent on a time and place. And, as a society, it is important to not demonize people simply because they are different and we don’t understand their choices. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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5 replies

  1. Thoughtful and well written. TY

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a famous man with the initials P.L. says, “My honor and privilege.” LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. People who attempt to use biological determinism as the end all and be all of our actions and identities should first learn a bit more about epigenetics and the nature vs nurture debate. One should also come to appreciate that genes aren’t always predictive of future behaviors, sometimes they influence, sometimes they need to be influenced by the “right” environment. From a more insidious perspective, one should learn about the faults of social Darwinism, eugenics/race and scientific racism.

    With that said:

    At face value this conversation reflects the limits of labels (though they are useful as organizing concepts) and how/if these labels reflect our multidimensional selves (a la, what is a self).

    Given that race is a biological myth, I am not totally sure how comparing people who are Trans to people who attempt to be transracial are the same. There is evidence that there’s a biological basis for gender identity

    Furthermore, the story of David Reimer gives insight into biology and gender as well

    There may be similarities in the areas of identity, but we must not conflate the two. To do so may be a disservice to Trans people while at the same time adding more confusion to conversations on race and what should be a movement toward a post racial society given its biological myth and historical racism.

    For the record, that doesn’t mean not acknowledging ethnicity. Ethnic groups would be more accurate given its connection to culture, demographics and groups of people. Furthermore, this would be more consistent with the push for pluralism, acceptance and appreciation of other cultures without having to forego ones own culture. Think along the line of tri-racial isolates (and no, the irony of that term is not lost on me).

    “Rachel Dolezal (and others – there are others) to be transracial, we are going squarely against decades of evidence that explains how “race” is a social, not a biological, reality. People are not “white” or “black” — they are racialized (subjectively) as White or Black and in many other ways. So, Dolezal is not white or black – but she is racialized by society and does have the power to adopt and reject various identities. The question is does this extend to race?”

    Biology determines sex. Gender is a social construct. Race is a social construct. So if those two are social constructs then there is truth to the statement that Rachael should be able to reject a racial identity. That is her individual choice. Yet we all share society and American has been unable to divorce itself from race and its identity contingencies. Herein lies part of the issue; we are speaking of an individual choice colliding with societal ideas, all in the shadow of racism. Part of my personal issue with the idea of transracial is that it trades one form of race, with another form of race, under the guise of identity and personal choice. This doesn’t take into account the historical aspect of race and racism in America. As aforementioned, it also avoids the push for a post racist/racial society.

    If transracial meant an attempt to transcend race (not colorblindness), based upon principles of its biological myth, social construction, connection to racism, then I could understand and support it. But if this idea of transracial is purely an individual choice of wanting to identify as another race, well it seems reasonable that questions of one’s motives, intentions and background will become relevant to what influences such a positon. I mean for Rachael, her choice could be from an appreciation and love of and for African-American culture. I am confident it is influenced by her personal experience with African-American culture vs Euro-American culture. But it could also stem from internalized racism, identification with oppression represented within black culture and or white guilt. A confluence of these could influence her identity issue.

    Also, I don’t totally agree with the eviscerating reactions people have toward her. Her situation does help to highlight the question in modern American, what does race mean?

    Though if I had one question to ask Rachel it would be: Rooted in the idea of self-acceptance, could she identify as a white women while at the same time acknowledging her appreciation and affinity for black culture?

    I wanted to touch on some of the other subjects you wrote about but this reply has gotten longer than I anticipated.



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