Ain't I a Woman?

My column for the next issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is about "Tangerine"--a new movie about transgender sex workers--and the E! reality series "I am Cait." The very day I turned in the column, I became aware of a major battle over at Freethought Blogs about whether transgender women are women.  I don't think I "get" all the details of the battle, but I take it one side says "simply yes" and the other says something like "politically yes, but ontologically I'm not sure." This is regarded by the Yes-ers as a very bad answer.

I really don't see why it's a very bad answer, though I understand the attraction of "simply yes."  I'm drawn to "simply yes" when I focus on transgender memoirs like She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (she's delightful on "I am Cait" in episodes 2 and 3!) and these compelling videos by Standford psychologist Ben Barres.

The other answer gets you to the same place, practically speaking.  "Politically yes" means something like:  people are entitled to their own gender-spectrum decisions.  It's up to me whether I'm girly or not girly, not girly or androgynous, androgynous or downright butch.  I get to cross over from one spot on the spectrum to another, if I like--even going all the way from female to male--and have my decision socially respected.  When it comes to our gender identity, we have "first person authority," as Talia Mae Bettcher puts it in "Trans Identities and First Person Authority."  By this, she doesn't mean we know a fact about ourselves, introspectively, but that it's up to each person to choose a gender presentation and everyone else's duty to respect that choice.

I would add "ontologically I'm not sure" to "politically yes" because I'm not clear that a person's choices, gender-wise, create the sort of robust facts that could make it simply true that Boylan is a woman and Barres is a man.  If it were simply true, what would the truth of the matter hang on?  One option is to say Boylan has a female brain and Barres a male brain, but to the very limited extent that brains are dimorphic, they're dimorphic with respect to a little bit of reproductive machinery (see this, by Donald Pfaff), and Boylan is presumably the one with the male brain, Barres is presumably the one with the female brain.

Apart from a little bit of reproductive machinery, brains are a mixture, with males only statistically leaning toward certain traits and females to other traits (see this, by Daphna Joel).  Even if Boylan's brain leans female (does it?) I don't believe it really makes sense to say that a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in females is a female brain; or a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in males is a male brain. 

Another option is to say that the truth of the matter hangs on gender identity feelings.  So a male is someone with a sense of being a male; a female is someone with a sense of being a female.  This seems like at least a possibility, but there are legitimate worries. A lot of people don't spend a whole lot of time feeling like members of their gender.  We're encouraged to do so, but some resist, and some just don't.  Or maybe we do, but gender identity recedes very far into the background?  It's quite possible that there are more vivid gender identity feelings in people who find their gender complicated and difficult.

Loose analogy.  I once sat at a table of 12 Jewish women discussing whether we believed in God.  We all went around expressing one degree of skepticism or another, and then came to the last person, who had converted to Judaism.  She believed!  Her transition to Judaism had given her a rather different experience of being Jewish than the others had. In order to ensure her inclusion in the class of Jewish people, you could say having Jewish beliefs is definitive of being Jewish, but then the other 11 of us would be excluded!  I worry that defining gender membership in terms of gender identity feelings could possibly have the same effect.

Perhaps being Jewish is actually a disjunctive property--you have it based on parentage OR based on beliefs.  Could gender be similarly disjunctive--you're female based on gender identity feelings OR simple biology?  That sounds attractive, but what's going here if we take the disjunctive route? Are we really getting at realities as to who belongs to which gender category (or religious category) or have we entered the realm of ethics and politics? Is there really a class of entities that share one property-- female--based either on having a sense of being female or female biology?  Could the femaleness instantiated in these two ways be the very same property?

Certainly the ethics and politics here is far simpler than the ontology or metaphysics. Yes, as far as social practices go, trans women are women (and trans men are men).  We're entitled to be self-determining gender-wise, and to have our self-determinations socially respected.  As to the underlying ontology or metaphysics, that's more puzzling, and sure it isn't a bad thing to be puzzled about what's truly puzzling, instead of having a settled view. 

More links:  on the metaphysics of gender, I've found this anthology useful.  There's some interesting stuff about trans identities, including the Bettcher article, in "You've Changed," edited by Laurie Shrage.  Especially interesting is the article by Christine Overall, "Sex/Gender Transitions and Life-Changing Aspirations." 


Aeolus said...

Two quick thoughts:
(1) Is this rather like the concept of species? According to modern biology, as I understand it, species do not have essences: there is no defining trait or set of traits that is possessed by all and only members of that species. That doesn't mean that species do not exist; rather, they are real populations of closely related individuals -- clusters of individuals similar in various important respects.
(2) Where does the Rachel Dolezal story fit into this question? She claims to be black, identifies with black people and their struggles, and yet the politically correct response appears to be "How dare she claim to be black when she has no black ancestry!"

s. wallerstein said...

A very thoughtful reflection.

I'm one of those whom you mention above who does not spend much time feeling like a member of their gender or of any gender at all. Gender is not an important part of my conscious sense of identity, although I check the box "male" in forms without any problems or doubts and always have.

However, if some people find it important to be recognized as members of a certain gender, why not recognize them? That seems like the decent thing to do.

The difference with Jewish identity is that being Jewish is a very traditional thing and that it comes from the days when people had more essentialist ideas of who one was, when your identity was more or less fixed at birth and when society was a lot simpler, with radically fewer identity options.

We now live in a more liquid society, with many more options for defining who one is. I don't believe that anyone ever thought much about gender identity in the
17th century, while being a Jew or not was already something people reflected on back then: for example, the case of Spinoza. Thus, since the issue of gender identity arises in much more open and liquid society, we should treat it accordingly.