A Failure to Engage?

I thought the conflagration about Rebecca Tuvel's transgenderism-transracialism article was dying down--with academic norms prevailing.  The editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz, expressed firm, unwavering support for Tuvel.  The associate editors who apologized for the article were very clearly shown to be not in a position to represent the journal.  Tuvel's colleagues expressed support for her.  Colleagues and friends rallied to her side in respected publications.  The right and the good were prevailing, I thought.

But no, the not right and the not good are back in town, in the form of this article by one of those who wrote the original letter calling on Hypatia to retract Tuvel's article. Shannon Winnubst wants to "reclaim a narrative spinning increasingly out of control." The right narrative, on her account, is one about how Tuvel's essay got published, despite its "arrogant disregard" for the relevant fields of philosophy.  Hypatia failed Tuvel, she says, by letting "subpar scholarship" be published in a "flagship journal."  It also failed the field of feminist philosophy. The community of scholars tried to help the benighted scholar at conferences, but to no avail.  Her article got published, despite not engaging in the right way with "critical race theory and trans studies."  And then, people began to be harmed, according to the associate editors at Hypatia, who apologized for "the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused."

So: the alleged crime is not engaging with the right literature.  If she'd just read and talked about the right stuff, nobody would have been harmed.  And what's the right literature? Some very helpful people have been happy to tutor Tuvel and the rest of us.  Here's a bibliography put together by Meena Krishnamurthy, with the purpose of "moving future work in the right direction."  So, guilty as charged?

Tuvel starts with a nod to a trans activist and academic, Susan Stryker.  It appears that she's signaling respect for the trans community, a reluctance to make comparisons that might cause offense.  She quotes her as inviting exploration of the analogy between being transgender and being transracial.  Then she moves forward, engaging with a number of articles from Krishnamurthy's list--specifically, she discusses books and articles by Sally Haslanger, Talia Mae Bettcher, Charles Mills, Christine Overall, Cressida Heyes, as well as others not on the Krishnamurthy list: C. Jacob Hale, Elizabeth Barnes, Laurie Shrage, etc. I'm not inclined to label everyone on this list, in terms of race or gender identity, but she didn't limit her group of interlocutors to folks just like herself.

So--the literature she did engage with, and the literature she didn't, but was supposed to engage with.  Is it really all so very harmless/inoffensive from the standpoint of trans activism? Surprise, surprise, the answer is no. I cannot fathom why Tuvel's article would be considered more harmful/offensive than many of the articles in the Krishnamurthy-approved volume, You've Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity, edited by Laurie Shrage.  The authors of these articles resist the idea that a person's gender identity is a fact about what they are, on the inside. Many think that notion is antithetical to feminism. Thus, they cast about for analogies that bypass "inner facts."

Christine Overall, for example, compares gender aspirations to other aspirations:  A trans woman or man has an aspiration on a par with "becoming an immigrant; joining a twelve-step program in order to give up an alcohol- or drug-addicted past; leaving or joining a religious order; surviving a serious accident, illness, or near-death experience..." etc. etc. ("Sex/Gender Transitions and Life-Changing Aspirations," p. 19)  By my lights, this is a very interesting idea, but its hardly inoffensive and harmless.  If it's a problem for trans people in the real world to be compared to Rachel Dolezal, is it less of a problem to be compared to immigrants or recovering alcoholics?

Another article that avoids inner facts about gender identities is by Georgia Warnke, who is wary of making a huge deal out of specific identities.  On her deflationary, minimalist account, "transsexuality is no different from other changes of identity such as changes in nationality or sports team affiliation. Transsexuality is no more radical because sex and gender are no less context-bound" ("Transsexuality and Contextual Identities," p. 33) Again, I think: exciting, interesting.  But this could easily cause offense or even harm. It does not serve the purposes of trans activists to be told that a trans girl can use the boy's restroom as easily as an "away" spectator can sit on the "home" bleachers.

Another of these Krishnamurthy-approved articles, one that Tuvel does engage with, is by Talia Mae Bettcher ("Trans Identities and First Person Authority").  She keeps her analysis on a very high level, saying that gender identity is an ethical matter--we have "first person authority" when we declare ourselves men or women--it's not an epistemological or metaphysical matter.  It kind of sounds like she means there's no fact of the matter about whether someone's a boy or girl, a man or woman.  Again: this is exciting philosophy, but not particularly helpful to activists. It doesn't seem any more benign than the transgender-transrace analogy.

Before I move to another book on the Krishnamurthy list, a note about language: a lot of the supposedly troubling language used in Tuvel's article is exactly the same as the language in many of the articles in the Shrage volume--including articles by trans authors.  The "mtf" and "ftm" talk, the "sex change" talk, the "transsexuality" talk, the labeling of genitals as male or female, etc. etc.  It's all there.  Those in the know, presumably including the Hypatia petition signatories, surely should have realized this wasn't a sign that Tuvel didn't read the literature. It was a sign that she did, and that some of the best articles in the field are already a little out of date, relative to current trans speech norms.

Moving along to another Krishnamurthy-recommended article--"The Metaphysics of Gender," by Asta Sveinsdottir...  Asta says gender is "conferred," like ball and strike in baseball, or like hip and cool.  They're not entirely "out there" in the natural world, but not completely subjective either.  Again, interesting stuff, but it doesn't take too much effort to imagine real world contexts in which this sort of constructionism doesn't shore up trans activism, and it's certainly alien to the lived experience of trans people who think they simply have a certain sort of brain in a non-matching sort of body.  So I am baffled by the way Asta is seen as an approved insider (in fact, an author of the associate editors' apology) whereas Rebecca Tuvel is a pariah.

I haven't read anything close to all the literature in the Krishnamurthy reading list, and have read less about race than about gender, but what I have read just doesn't bear out the accusations being made against Tuvel.  She made and defended a provocative analogy, one that isn't pragmatically or strategically ideal, from the point of view of trans activism.  But that puts her inside the league of feminist gender scholars, not outside of it.

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

The only thing that I take away from this controversy, which I confess not to understand at all, is an overwhelming sense of sympathy and solidarity for Rachel Dolezal, who, as far as I can see, innocently wanted to be considered black. What psychic hell must Rachel Dolezal be going through?