This is the second of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.
The second part of this post is here.
I recently gave a short introduction to moral bioenhancement at a multidisciplinary Philosophy of Technology reading group. The conversation soon shifted to definitions of enhancement as a whole. When I was explaining how the welfarist account of enhancement avoids the problems in defining disease involved in distinguishing enhancement from the treatment of disease, I got to witness the following contributions to the discussion:
Sociologist: Like those sex changers! They go through the sex change and then their well-being improves.
Engineer: And if their well-being doesn’t improve, they change again. That has happened in Sweden!
As I facepalm in dismay and say something about moving back to the topic of enhancement, the sociologist rushes to stress that this really is relevant for the discussion at hand: what is the purpose of healthcare – should it treat disease or, more broadly, improve well-being? I agree. It is relevant. But there were things that disturbed me.
First, it was apparent that my co-conversants were not aware there was a transgender person in the room, or that they were talking to him. This was not even a possibility. Transgender people were something “out there in the world”, discussed as a curious phenomenon. While I read the sociologist as trying to expand the argument at hand to defend wide accessibility of medical interventions for trans* individuals (and the engineer as discrediting trans*identities as passing phenomena best suited to be the butts of his jokes), “the sex changers” were clearly something other, foreign, peculiar. To be accepted, sure, by any liberal standards; but also, only relevant to those present insofar as they proved a point.
Second, while their wording of choice was not in itself a huge problem – should merely terminology be off, it can simply be corrected – it was a telltale sign of something else, namely that neither had actually familiarised themselves with the phenomenon they were discussing. Nevertheless, they were purporting to claim it as evidence for their views. A marginalised group was used as a narrative to lend evidence to a debate among the privileged social majority – without the privileged having bothered to even google it.
Third, as the binary, mythic verbalisation of transitioning as “the sex change” (that can even be redone!) as if there was a single medical intervention that somehow magically turned the binary on/off switch of gender to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in a change from maleness to femaleness or vice versa, gave away – they were discussing a phenomenon that did not exist (other than in their tabloid-fueled imaginations).
While this was a single case, in the context of informal discussion, it was not an isolated incident. The three problems I outline above are ones that are often present in public discussion about trans* issues, and they also appear in academic debates:
Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I