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?