To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

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:

1) Trans*people are framed as an exotic, marginal group that is not, and need not be, present in the discussion.
2) Trans* narratives are treated as a handy swiss knife for proving a point – any point. Yes, trans* issues often legitimately relate to a topic of discussion. However, common clues that the writer is using, rather than acknowledging, advocating, or studying, trans* matters include failing to do their homework, and the use of trans*issues as “evidence” for unrelated issues.
3) Misinformation. Trans* issues are brought up, but grossly misrepresented. This is either due to ignorance, or to twist them until they’re better suited to proving whatever point needs to be proven.

Any lover of truth must appreciate the value of the transgender minority for philosophical progress. After all, simply by existing, we appear to prove a number of points. Above, trans* people handily proved that healthcare should aim at improving well-being instead of merely treating disease. Trans* people also prove a number of points about gender: that it is a social construct, that it is not biologically determined, that it is a spectrum, that (cis) men and women still aren’t equals. Some eagerly embrace this, offering their personal trans*narratives as evidence that male privilege exists.

As far as the philosophical debate on personal identity is concerned, trans* people prove, interestingly enough, both that we can change to be anything we want to be – and that there are things about us, such as being transgender, that we cannot change. For the former, the process of transitioning is often treated as an analogy for any embodied self-change.

The debate on enhancement technologies, personal identity, and authenticity has included trans* lives as a recurring theme, more often than not without consulting the wide available literature on trans* issues. To take one of the sharper contributions to the discussion, Neil Levy, in a 2011 article, expresses surprise that “sex-change operations have not served to shake the categories of gender” and that those undergoing them have not been “playing with gender” or embraced self-creation, but rather, reinforced a narrative of gender as essence. To be fair, unlike some other contributors to the debate, he does quote a text on gender studies – but his source of choice is Marjorie Garber’s interesting but outdated 1992 text Vested Interests, a volume on the significance of transvestism for mainstream culture. In an endnote responding to an anonymous reviewer, he acknowledges that “these [sex changes and other] techniques may have broken down traditional gender categories more than I thought, on the basis of the available literature”. While Levy’s text is excellent in many other ways, it also reads as a prime example of questionable use of trans* narratives to prove a point. While Levy purports to understand how authenticity and self-creation are (or are not) present in trans* narratives, and to use that insight to make a wider point about authenticity, his talk of “sex change” operations and ignorance about nonbinary identities reveals that his research on trans*identities has not been up to the task. This is not to make this post about a specific philosopher, but just to show that using the trans* minority to prove a point in problematic ways is present even among contemporary philosophers that I, personally, look up to.

I will return to the problem of identity in the third, and final, post in this series. For now, part two of this post has a few pointers as to how to use trans* examples in philosophy.


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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.

4 thoughts on “To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I”

  1. I think you’re right in identifying those problems in my paper. In a way, this is a sign of the rapid change in the visibility and importance of trans* issues: just a few years ago, it didn’t occur to me that I needed to be far more careful and take far more trouble to become better informed.

    1. Thank you for your response! You’re right, there’s been a rapid shift in public awareness regarding trans* issues.

      What I’m thinking of now is, while I may be sensitive to noticing misrepresentations of trans*people due to my personal subject position, I am likely to be equally ignorant of misrepresentations of some other groups. For example, in bioethics, minorities such as the disabled are also often used to make some point or another, but I’m thinking about how to discuss these people in ways that both benefit the discussion and accurately respond to, and include, their points of view.

      As I see it, for practical ethics especially, this is quite a challenge. Philosophy cannot be “politically correct” in the easy sense of not taking seriously ideas that are (rightly) found offensive, or avoiding controversial topics altogether. Additionally, the method of analytic philosophy does not typically include the interrogation of one’s subject position or inclusive methods of research. These two matters make it unpleasantly easy for analytic philosophers, myself included, to slip into a discourse that reinforces the marginalised position of the minorities being discussed. In order to avoid this, we need to pay a lot of attention to our method when discussing underprivileged people, and might even sometimes need to stretch the conventions of writing analytic philosophy beyond the armchair.

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