Trans* and Queer Bioethics

This is the first of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

I was excited to read Annika Thiem’s piece on Queering Philosophy in The Philosopher’s Eye. Thiem raises questions about the relationship of philosophy and queer theory: what kind of a place does queer theory have within philosophy, and how can it inform and improve philosophy as a whole?

During my BA studies in Comparative Literature, queer theory (and feminist theory in general) was one of the best recognized approaches to the study of literature, which draws heavily from continental philosophy as a whole. By contrast, as I jumped over to another faculty and to the Department of Philosophy, firmly grounded on the analytic school, feminist perspectives were marginal at best. I have since reflected on how the differences in methodology and discourse could be bridged, in order to pursue analytic philosophy in a manner that is mindful of the work done in the context of gender studies. Plenty of this work is relevant to issues in analytic philosophy – and not just in questions pertaining to applied ethics, although this appears to be among the most obvious applications. Relatedly, a recent special issue of the The Hastings Center Report was themed around LGBT* Issues in Bioethics. This is an important field of inquiry given that, firstly, problematic assumptions abound as to to what extent medical sciences are relevant to understanding gender and sexuality; and more urgently, there are widespread deficiencies in trans* health care, just to name two.

Thiem suggests that a starting point for applying a queer theoretical understanding to philosophy needs to be “to reject the rhetorical gesture that renders queerness as something that “is studied only out of personal interest” or something studied “objectively” from a distance”. This rejection of false “objectivity”, of course, is relevant to any topic in applied philosophy: it would be sloppy thinking to treat being a member of any group, whether minority or majority, as disqualifying one from pursuing philosophical inquiry on topics pertinent to that group. This appears evident on some topics: after all, medical ethics ought to be researched by medical doctors and researchers without medical training alike. However, the topics of gender and sexuality are under such polarized discussion that attitudes conflating persons with their arguments (as well as with straw men) abound. A recent article on The Guardian springs to mind, in which Matt Haig, a male feminist writer, upon sharing his intention to write a book about masculinity, received Twitter criticism accusing him of “mansplaining feminism”.

This is one of the reasons why I was touched and thrilled to see that some of the writers in The Hastings Center Report decided to disclose their being LGBT*, and even to reflect on how their personal experience reflects on their topics of research. It’s a move I rarely see within analytic philosophy, and one I would like to see more often. In “Medicine and Making Sense of Queer Lives”, Jamie Lindemann Nelson recounts how “a social regimen of gender […] constricted my sense of how I might express the gender-inflected parts of my life to a point so narrow that a diagnostic category seemed more than adequate to the task”, thus illustrating one of the ways that transgender diagnostics have had an effect on gender expression. Meanwhile, Andrew Solomon acknowledges that as a gay man, he finds an interest of self-preservation embedded in his criticism of “the growing consensus that we cannot change ourselves” in “Identity or Behavior: A Moral and Medical Basis for LGBTQ Rights”.

The politics of coming out within philosophy have been something of a personal struggle to me. On one hand, it’s important to expand awareness that minorities of all kinds exist, even thrive, in academia, and to assert our presence. On the other, I would not wish to be known and remembered as “that one”, “that trans* philosopher”, as I think there are more important things about me than my gender. And then there’s the fear of being discriminated against in such a way that would damage my career, either overtly or by implicit bias. There are no statistics about trans*people in academia (as far as I know – please share if you know of any), but it would be foolish to assume that the widespread discrimination against trans*people would stop at the university gates.

For the same reason, I have hesitated about writing on trans* issues: it’s definitely not my topic of expertise. I have not taken gender studies. I am not an expert on trans* issues. But if I do sometimes comment on trans* matters, will it cause me to be misperceived as someone oriented towards trans* specific matters, by virtue of being a trans man and – gasp – talking about it? Would my views be mistakenly taken to represent those of trans*people as a whole – something that I find deeply irrational, but that often happens even to larger minorities, such as when a woman is invited to join a panel in order to have a “female perspective” present? Would I end up subjecting myself to pressure to “represent”?

However one puts it, gender remains a topic that is both among the most interesting and important issues to research, as well as one with personal importance. For this reason, I will be writing two more posts on trans* issues in philosophy during the next couple of weeks. The next post will discuss the use of trans* examples in philosophy, particularly applied ethics: to what extent do these examples serve their function? Are there ethical considerations to be taken into account in using trans* processes and narratives as examples in philosophical writing?


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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