Trans* Authenticities and Created Selves

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?

Continue reading Trans* Authenticities and Created Selves


To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!

The first part of this post can be found here.

Here are a few pointers as to how to use trans* examples in philosophy. They draw from Jacob Hale’s Suggested Rules from the 90’s, which remain relevant despite the dated terminology.

Seven Tips for Proving a Point with a Little Help from Trans*people
(without our heads getting bruised from all the headdesking)

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!

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:

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

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”.

Continue reading Trans* and Queer Bioethics