Transgender Identity Formation

Transgender identity formation from the internal ecosystem perspective.

How does some one who is transgendered come to congruence with whom and what they are? This paper will integrate various theoretical frameworks illustrating the formation of sense of self and the stages of growth.

Internal Ecosystem

What is an internal ecosystem and why is it important to the understanding of diversity? When we look at diversity we tend to want to neatly compartmentalize a person’s culture, ethnicity, or gender. We look at the external ecosystem, those factors that affect the individual, family, church, peers, friends, acquaintances. Here we are looking at the individual the internal bits and pieces that are who they truly are. 


















We tend to look at things through our culture. Theories give us a framework and a way of looking at something in a hopefully more objective manner or in a way that we had not thought of. The shortcoming is that a theory can be restricting in focusing our attention too narrowly. The reasons for using multiple theories is the way they interlock in explaining the various aspects of, in this, case an individual and widening our view. I will use a photographic analogy, when you have two lenses on a camera one the view finder and the other the taking lens, they do not see precisely the same image and there is parallax. The farther the two lenses are apart, the greater the parallax. The same principle was used in rangefinders; lenses far apart focused on one subject will tell you the distance. Theories give us that parallax, a different view from different angles.   

Theoretically we tend think of, and look for, “stages”. In reality, unless there is a crisis that precipitates an abrupt change, most stages are a longitudinal process, taking time and going through sub stages and processes.

While theories of development differ concerning the existence of stages in a person's life, many theorists, especially Levinson (1978, 1986), feel that we go through a series of transitions in our lives.  These transitions bring some level of closure to an existing phase of life and serve as path into a new phase. Periods of transitions are marked by crucial decision-making in regards to lifestyle, career, family, and other aspects of life (Levinson 1978).

Sex and Gender dominate almost every aspect of culture and history.

Sex, the biological classification "male" or "female"

Gender, the psychological identification "man" or "woman"

To put it succinctly, sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears and sometimes there is a discontinuity between the two.


Studying sex and gender is it not easy. It is so common place, ubiquitous, that it is often not commented on and what artifacts survive archaeologically, stone, bone, pottery, are not likely to give us many clues as to the mentifacts, (thought processes). How do we know how gender was viewed by other cultures)

Myth are often insightful if you are looking at them with other eyes. Tiresias, a Theban soothsayer, was walking on Mt. Cyllene when he came upon two snakes coupling. He killed the female, and for this act was changed into a woman. Later, after coming to look favorably on his new form and testifying that woman’s pleasure during intercourse was ten to man’s one, he was changed back into a man.    

 Direct observations ass an example Herodotus and the Scythians (The History of Herodotus 440 BCE). Indirect, written evidence often oblique, often seemingly unrelated. As an example a Roman jurisprudence case regarding the marriage between a eunuch and a slave. The decision was that if the eunuch was intact a dower was owed, ( the most common modern definition of eunuch is castrated male, so if he was not castrated then we can get into some interesting speculation).  We can also look at cultures that have had minimal or glancing contact with Christian missionaries i.e. the Kathoey of Thailand or the Mahu of Hawaii where some of the traditions and culture survive for those that are gender and sexually variant.

Historians and archeologists are not thinking in terms other than of a binary gender and the presumption of two genders only, exerts a huge force.  What William Blake called  “Mind forged manacles”. These limit investigation and more importantly thinking.


We are just beginning to understand the various aspects of the biological components of who and what we are, and how they interact.  

In an invited paper published in the December 2001 issue of Neuroendocrinology Letters, Dr. Gunter Dorner and his colleagues outlined two probable causes of transsexualism that fall into tow general categories: 1) genetic enzyme mutations and 2) epigenetic effects which can include stressful prenatal situations and fetal exposure to endocrine disruptors i.e. the breakdown products of DDT (DDE which is estrogenic in nature).

Gender and sexual brain organization is dependent on estrogen and androgen hormone levels occurring during specific and critical developmental periods. “Sex centers” responsible for gonadotropin secretion are organized by estrogens, “mating cen­ters” controlling sexual orientation are organized by androgens and estrogens. “Gender role centers”, responsible for gender role behavior are orga­nized by androgens (Dörner et al., 1987).  The organization periods for sex-specific gonad­otropin secretion, sexual orientation, and gender role behavior are overlapping, but not identical. Therefore almost infinite variations of gender and sexual orientation are possible

SEX AND GENDER: SAME OR DIFFERENT? From Dr. Milton Diamond given in a presentation October 2002 and sent to me as an e-mail.

“ The relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors to the development of gender identity are debated. We studied twins that are concordant and discordant for gender identity status in order to provide clarification of this issue. Combining data from the present survey with that of past research, 13 of 27 monozygotic male twin pairs (48%) and 2 of 14 DZ male twins (14%) were found to be concordant for trans identity and 2 of 10 female MZ twins were found concordant (20%) while none of 3 DZ female twins (0%) were concordant. These findings support the thesis that there is a significant genetic contribution to the development of gender identity disorder with more influence in males than females”.


In analyzing his own personality Carl Jung came to the conclusion that no one was exclusively male or female and all are a mixture. He called the internalized unconscious feminine image, anima. He fealt that this contributes to a man’s relationship with women giving some balance.

Similarly, women have an internal masculine image, which Jung termed the animus. To be complete, men and women need to recognize the male and female components of their personality (Jung 1917:207-209)

    Charles Cooley was an American social psychologist who believed that people develop their sense of self through what he called the looking-glass self. In essence, it means that the view of self is based on what those who are important to you (parents, peers, husband, wife, boss) and some that are not so important, reflect. It fits in with the basic idea of advertising and politics that if you tell someone something enough times and first they will start to believe it whether it is true or not.(fragment)  The problem with this is that the individual does not necessarily form his or her own sense of self. The self is based on the views of other others and on the individual’s being, becomes largely what others have constructed.

Carl Rodgers said we all must have positive regard (my word love) to be a complete person. We also need positive self-regard to be able to love ourselves. We initially achieve this through the positive regard of others. Our self-image is the result of that reflection as we see our selves in that looking-glass and we are either pleased or not with it. This according to whether the image does or does not look as we want it to this based on what we perceive another’s view of us is. There are three aspects to this: how we think we appear to others, how we think they perceive us and our feelings of either shame or pride as a result. As we grow up we encounter conditions of worth that are reinforced by parents, peers, and the media. We are given rewards when we accomplish, love when we behave, punishment when we transgress. Rogers (1961) calls this “conditional positive regard,” i.e. getting positive regard/love “on condition.”  Since we need positive regard/love, the affect is huge and is not based on our value, but on society and culture. These forces are very subtle and pervasive.

Conditional positive self-regard/love is the result of this conditioning.  We like ourselves only if we have met the conditions and standards expected of us by others, rather than if we are realizing our own potential. Since the “standards” are created without regard to the needs of the individual, it is impossible to meet them and therefore have a positive sense of self.

The gap between the real self and the ideal self, the “I am” and the “I should be” is incongruity and the greater the gap, the more incongruity, the more incongruity, the more suffering.  Incongruity is essentially what Rogers means by neurosis:  Being out of synch with your own self. 

Many transgendered have found that what they are is not acceptable. This is learned very early and a gesture or action brings disapproval and punishment. A pseudo self/persona is often constructed in an effort to get along with the world, this to gain some positive regard. There is however a cost.

The relationship between the I am and the should be and the presence of the constructed pseudoself is incongruity. The greater the gap between the I am and the should be and the stronger the construct the greater the incongruity and the greater the misery.

More Knowledgeable Other

Isolation is a universal within the transgender community. The discovery that you are not, “the only one” and that there are many like you is powerful.

Coming out is a lifelong process with stages that are highly variable. One view is of three basic stages. Stage one being ignorant of others and isolated, stage two is the finding that you are not alone and starting to come out publicly. This can be through the use of the internet or in association with others. Stage three is coming out publicly.

What is covered in the next section is stage two where the individual realizes they are not alone. This often happens with the help of what Vigotsky calls a “more knowledgeable other (MKO)” or as Levinson puts it “mentor”.   

The transgendered individual having discovered they are not alone and struggling to figure out where they fit into the world often turns to a mentor for support and guidance. These mentors not only provide needed support, they also provide a host of other services, such as social integration and exposure to information crucial to identity development (Chao & Gardner, 1992).  The outcomes of mentorship are thought to be beneficial to both the mentor and the mentee.

Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985). He believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning." Unlike Piaget’s notion that development must precede learning, Vygotsky argued that, social learning tends to precede development. In the case of a transgendered individual you have to have an identity to have an idea who and what you are prior to development as a congruent person.

There are two parts to Vigotsky’s theory;  the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The MKO is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone, or a source of information, that has a better understanding or a greater ability level than the learner with respect to a particular concept, task, or process.

Vigotsky’s second important principle is the zone of proximal development. Taken together, the MKO and the ZPD form the basis of the scaffolding component of the cognitive apprenticeship model of instruction. Vygotsky (1978) defines the ZPD as the distance between the "actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86). A person’s Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD, is defined as the individual’s range of ability with and without assistance from an MKO. On one end of the range is the individual’s ability level without assistance. On the other end of the range is the individual’s ability level with assistance. Vygotsky believed that when an individual is at the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance (scaffolding) will give the individual enough of a "boost" to achieve the task.

In looking at Vigotsky’s theory of learning and development we need to be aware that not only are skills being learned but values and knowledge as well, in joint communications and activities. “Who we become depends on the company we keep and what we do together”. (Wells, 1994)  

 Transgender Stages

  1. Children during the first stage realize that they are incongruent with the expectations of their culture concerning their gender or sexual identity. We must all have Love/positive regard to be a complete person; we also need Love/positive regard to be able to love our selves. As we grow up we encounter conditions of worth that are reinforced by parents, peers, and the media. We are given rewards when we meet those expectations and punishments when we transgress, thus establishing conditions of worth. Rogers (1961) calls this “conditional positive regard”.


  1. In stage two the conditional positive self regard/Love  We like ourselves only if we have met the conditions and standards expected of us by others, rather than if we are realizing our own potential. Since the “standards” are created without regard to the needs of the individual, it is impossible to meet them and therefore have a positive sense of self. inability to change the environment and  alter the conditions of worth, leads to the construction of a pseudoself to fit in.


  1. In stage three individuals tend to appear to conform to the Societal Norms. And some do not progress beyond this point, there is however a cost. The relationship between the I am and the should be and the presence of the Constructed is incongruity. This between the real self and the ideal self and the discontinuity that is the pseudoself. The greater the gap between the I am and the should be and the stronger the construct the greater the incongruity and the greater the misery. “That self which he losing hope wills to be is a self which he is not (for to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of losing hope)” (Kierkegaard, 1863).


  1. Those individuals who move to stage four begin a radical shift from dependence on others view of them to a relocation of the authority to within them selves, they chose to start being who they are. For this to truly occur the individual must move away from acceptance of cultural norms. 


  1. In the fifth stage the individual is still forming their own sense of self but start to move from self preoccupation and dependence on the view of others and they tend to start considering serving others.


  1. Those who progress to the sixth stage are rare, they are more focused on loving others and self-preoccupation becomes a thing of the past. They can fully express who they are with out fear. They make every effort to help others not only directly but in fostering in them a similar commitment and comfort with how they are.



Your true sexuality or gender may either be lived and celebrated!

Or repressed and hidden. 

The next paper will explore in depth the stages of coming out and the challenges that each phase brings.


Blake William Songs of Experience 3-11-05

Chao, G.T., & Gardner, P.D. (1992).  Formal and informal mentorships: A comparison of mentoring functions and contrasts with nonmentored counterparts.  Personnel Psychology, 45, 616-619.

 Cooley, Charles Horton, Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner's, 1902, pp. 179-185.

 Fagenson, E.A.  (1992).  Mentoring-who needs it?  A comparison of proteges, and nonproteges' needs for power, achievement, affiliation, and autonomy.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 41, 48-60. 

Günter Dôrner,’ Franziska Götz,’ Wolfgang Rohde,’ Andreas Plagemann,’ Rolf Lindner,’ Hartmut Peters2 & Zhara Ghanaati2 (2001) Genetic and Epigenetic Effects on Sexual Brain Organization Mediated by Sex Hormones  Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172—780X 

Rogers, C.R. (1959).   (1961).  On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stinger Lorene A. (1971). The Sense of Self.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press 

Jung C.J. 1917 Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. 1986 Aspects of the Feminine Princeton University Press.  

Kierkegaard, S. (1863). The Sickness Unto Death. Down loaded from

 Levinson, D.J. (1978).  The Seasons of a Man's Life.  New York: Knopf. 

Levinson, D.J. (1986).  A conception of adult development.  American Psychologist, 41, 3-13. 

The History of Herodotus By Herodotus Written 440 B.C.E Translated by George Rawlinson  

Wells, G. (Ed.) (1994) Changing Schools from Within: Creating Communities of Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech (N. Minick, Trans.). In R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 1. Problems of general psychology (pp. 39-285). New York: Plenum. (Original work published 1934)

Last modified: 12/24/13