Talking about Gender

Wow. There's been a lot of talk about gender at philosophy blogs lately.  I think it would take me all day to recapitulate.  But it started with this essay by Kathleen Stock, here, and ended with the long comment thread at Feminist Philosophers, here.  Here are a bunch of things I find odd and puzzling.

It's odd that so many feminists in the FP thread seem to go along with the idea that theorizing about gender is primarily the job of trans folk.  After all, there's already a voluminous philosophical literature about what sex/gender is, much of it written under the assumption that gender concepts matter to all women (and men). In fact, in much of this literature, authors explicitly announce that they don't want to just describe gender, but carve out an "ameliorative" concept of gender--a concept that is constructive for feminist purposes.  Surely the concept that's ameliorative for trans women isn't necessarily the same as the concept that's ameliorative for other women.  If "nothing about us without us" (such a great motto--it's taken from disability activism) then all women—no, all people—have to be free to participate in the debate about what gender is.

Here's another thing I find mighty puzzling.  In the Feminist Philosophers thread and elsewhere, the message I get is that you've got to be an asshole not to think that trans women are women, and trans men are men.  (I've seen this said verbatim, though maybe not in that thread.) I wonder what is actually meant by this.  I do think you have to be an asshole not to verbally categorize people as they please and not to use the gender pronouns people prefer. Well, either uninformed or an asshole.  But what does the non-asshole think about people's genders?  I am really not sure.  In fact, I'm not even sure what trans philosophers want us to think.  (Maybe they don't all want us to think the same thing?)

Take, for example, the highly regarded views of Talia Mae Bettcher.  Her view in the article "Trans Identities and First Person Authority" is that people have a sort of ethical authority about their gender. If someone makes a gender avowal ("I am a woman") then others ought to defer.  She has a bunch of nice analogies.  If your date says "I want to go home now" it's inappropriate to assess whether it's true that she wants to go home. Her avowal is sufficient to make you have to take her home. So we are to defer to people's avowals about gender, period.  But the deferral is ethical--it's something less than "you believe it so I believe it."

I actually find her article fairly murky, so I'm not bringing it up to say I'm entirely on board or to explain it thoroughly, but just to say that there seem to be much more nuanced views out there besides "trans women are women and if you don't think so you're an asshole."

One last confession of bewilderment.  I'm surprised that Kathleen Stock thinks that the Gender Recognition Act in the UK has so many disadvantages for cis women. It seems to me that in the US, this view is almost never expressed by anyone but transphobic, homophobic, conservative nutjobs.  They make up spurious worries that reasonable people should ignore.  But (it seems) there are people on my side of the political spectrum (like Stock) who think there are legitimate worries. Hmm.  I am skeptical but willing to read.

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

I'm glad to see that you spoke out on this issue.

I've read the different articles on gender that Letelier has linked to recently, but I'm too out of this debate to have a firm personal opinion.

As you say, it's just good manners and basic common sense to refer to people as they prefer to be referred to and to use the gender pronouns which they prefer. But that's a long way from requiring people to think in a certain way about who those people "really" are if (and this is a real question) if we (people in general) are "really" someone or rather something. I think that maybe questions about biological sex (which is fairly easy to ascertain) get mixed up with questions about identity (who we are) and I've never quite understood who I am or who anyone is.