This is the last of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.
What makes us such special snowflakes? Is there an authentic essence within us, something inherent, to be discovered and expressed? Or are our personal identities self-created? This utmost mystery can be solved by appeal to trans*people!
I jest, of course, but the joke isn’t far from a wealth of discourse. Underlying it is the valid insight that people often perceive their gender identity to be one of the cornerstones of who they are. From this, some deduce that the question of whether trans*people, before and after transitioning, are the same person, can shed light on questions of identity. Since we change in so many ways, what aspects of us persist to such degree as to serve as grounds for the continuity of self?
Central to this sort of inquiry into identity is an effort to deduce whether gender is one of the things that allow us at 5 years old to be identified with us at 35: since we change in so many ways throughout life, what aspects of us determine identity – i.e., persist to such degree as to serve as grounds for the continuity of self? This is where discerning between numerical identity and narrative identity, as described by David DeGrazia in Enhancement Technologies and Human Identity (2005), is helpful. Put briefly, numerical identity is the concern of whether an object is still the same object after certain changes: is the oak the same entity as the acorn it grew from? However, most of the time when we talk about our identity, we talk about narrative identity: in other words, our self-conception. Core values, relationship, autobiography, that sort of thing.
In figuring out whether gender is one of those, we apparently need to solve whether transgender people actually change genders or whether they are “born that way”. If the latter, then the existence of transgender people does not exclude gender from the set of central numeric identity-determining traits.
Now, this is by no means a trivial course of inquiry. Especially since a growing consensus defines gender to be at least partly socially constructed, should gender nevertheless remain at the core of personal identity in the sense that it would determine numerical identity, this could mean that our numerical identities are, to an important degree, socially determined. That would be an interesting finding. However, what we’re normally getting at by placing gender at the core of personal identity is the notion that there are some core traits to narrative identity, changing which would result in inauthenticity. A number of controversies spring to mind, such as the infamous Dolezal debate and the transability phenomenon, boiling down to the same question: are there traits that we are not permitted to endeavour to change without sacrificing our authenticity?
There was a time when transgender people were regarded as inauthentic impostors, while it is now widely accepted that we are not. But what are these trans* authenticities? How does one come to have an authentic gender identity? The debate of whether we were ‘born this way’ and possibly even ‘trapped in the wrong body’ until we uncover our authentic selves or whether, instead, we actually change genders is widely used as a point of reference for debates about any self-transformation, whether as self-change or self-discovery.
From the ‘born this way’ school, Dolezal equated race with gender, arguing that if one’s gender expression can be changed to better reflect their self-conception, so can their race-associated physical features. Alexandre Baril has researched how some transabled individuals also draw comparisons between their experiences and the wrong-body narratives of some trans*people. The lifelong duration of an experience of identity is seen as granting legitimacy to claims about authenticity, but does it really?
The transgender analogy is equally popular among the ‘self-creation’ school, and especially transhumanists embrace it. For Martine Rothblatt, transgenderism is a stepping stone on a path of collective enlightenment towards transhumanism. Valkyrie Ice McGill sees being trans* as one form of a quest for morphological freedom, a quest for being enabled to freely alter one’s body, which she sees as a fully personal matter: “it’s not going to matter to anyone else but you if you are a cyborg, a mind upload, a virtual existence, a catgirl, a humanoid dinosaur, a male, a female, black, white, or pink with purple polkadots”.
A number of HLBT* people adopt the ‘born this way’ as their shield against discrimination: their equal standing in society is justified by appeal to that since they cannot change themselves to conform to heterocissexist norms, they must be accommodated for. Some activists acknowledge that it’s not that clear whether their gender identity or sexual preference actually is an unchangeable core trait, nevertheless opting to enforcing the ‘born this way’ narrative as a political strategy. However, as Andrew Vierra and Brian D. Earp point out, changing gender identities and sexual preferences might become feasible in the future even if it isn’t possible at present. They call for a justification of equality that does not hinge on unchangeability.
For DeGrazia, trans*people are evidence against gender as an immutable core trait: his example is a transwoman who, having transitioned in her thirties, “remembers being male” and therefore has changed genders. This position would be challenged both by conservative essentialists, who would flash the “not really a woman” card, and by some trans*people, who’d say this person was “not really a man”. Helpfully, there is a growing awareness among the trans* community that transgendered individuals may hold various conception of their gender histories, and that while some experience having been ‘born this way’, others experience gender as more fluid while no less authentic. This being the case, can the diverse experiences of trans*people really help us understand the authenticity/self-creation debate?
Perhaps what can be said is that maintaining a consistent gender identity throughout life is definitely not necessary for the continuity of narrative identity. While it does not necessarily follow that any trait is thus alterable, I’m inclined to think most are. One reason why many people react differently to attempts to change traits such as able-bodiedness or race is not because these traits would be more integral to the ‘true self’ than gender. Rather, the reaction arises from different normative evaluations of these self-identifications and desires. Unlike Valkyrie Ice McGill, they do not view all embodied self-changes as equally not a “matter to anyone else”. Self-change is seen as an area of social significance and, when controversial, as a challenge to the prevalent normative framework. Similarly to how trans* people’s narratives are used to demonstrate a number of statements about the nature of gender and about inequality among cisgendered men and women, other sorts of self-changes can be construed of as arguments about other facets of humanity, personhood, and citizenship.
Is self-change a social contribution, a way of proving a point with one’s life? Or is it merely a matter of personal preference, need, or desire? I’d suggest the coin has both sides, and that ignoring either would be a mistake; which way we should address self-change, then, depends on what kinds of questions we are trying to answer – and with whose life story we’re attempting to do it.