There have been a few essays and commentaries of late about the difficulties in dialogues within feminism surrounding trans issues. All I’m about to say should be prefaced by acknowledging my lack of expertise or even good acquaintance in trans issues. I am not up to speed on the philosophical literature, nor am I up to speed on how all the conversational dynamics play out in less formal dialogues (e.g., I don’t use Twitter, but gather that this is a veritable hellscape of human misery where these conversations are concerned). My only reason for posting concerns the meta-level talk about talking happening as an offshoot of the core debates.The talk about talking is about how impossible it is to talk, feminist to feminist or philosopher to philosopher about trans issues. For example, here is an essay by Kathleen Stock, in which she acknowledges her own irresolution on the core issues, but notes,
Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on, around the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests. And yet nearly all academic philosophers — including, surprisingly, feminist philosophers — are ignoring it.
She ascribes some of this silence or ignoring to the influence of social media, saying:
people are now frightened to discuss the issue on social media, for fear of it going out of control, or for fear of being perceived to have the ‘wrong’ view. I know this, because I have recently started to explore related issues on my own Facebook page, and have been contacted behind the scenes by other philosophers who are sympathetic but reluctant to discuss this in public.
A similar worry is expressed by a commentator, a philosopher who is trans, at Daily Nous, here, who writes in part:
I don’t know what the answer is, as someone who refuses to publicly disclose private information to the discipline for the privilege (?) of engaging in combative online debate about this topic. I do generally keep quiet about it and refuse to make it an area in which I publish on, even if I wanted to, since the environment is vitriolic, and charges of “thought police” and “transphobia” fly all too quickly on both sides, rather than a patient attempt at inquiry and understanding before responding.
Again, allowing for my own ignorance about the issues, it is nonetheless surely worrisome that people across the spectrum are either walking out of the conversations, or expressing thoughts only privately while ascribing the privacy to worries about the nature of the dialogue, or left thinking that many philosophers with relevant expertise are abdicating participation in a public debate because the professional-social costs are too high.
There are of course many domains in philosophy in which people express this kind of fear – a reluctance to speak for worry of heated, denunciatory disapprobation. Yet seeing it transpire within feminist philosophy is perhaps especially painful. Because some of us do (again, naively) want feminist spaces to have exemplary conversational norms. Because if lots of feminists step out of issues of public controversy, those controversies won’t profit from what they might add. Because conversations that require a high toleration for hostility will inevitably exclude perspectives it might be important to entertain. Because…
In many respects, this blog is a case in miniature of the problem here. What little I do understand of the relevant controversies and debates I have gleaned elsewhere. The conversations are not happening here. There are multiple possible explanations of that – perhaps my co-bloggers are of the view that there really is nothing to discuss. But I worry that it might better be explained by the fact that none of us want to bite the nasty bullet of navigating the comments that might ensue. Or the ways we might summon negative attention to ourselves individually by saying anything at all. I.e., we bloggers are just like lots of other folk in this, reluctant to engage at all.
I understand that even posting this may reap the whirlwind, not least because I am not apprised of all the dynamics informing it. But to be clear, I am not asking anyone to bring me up to speed – at least in part because I expect this would but generate a host of hostile “it’s not my job to school you” responses (which, fair play, no one does owe me that!). I am just posting this because, as a relative bystander, I think it worth noting that lots of bystanders may simply shrink from engaging and I’d like to hear ideas for how that can be addressed, if it can. Or, if it really doesn’t matter if lots of people bow out, why doesn’t it matter?
Edit: I am closing comments on this post for the time being. -Stacey Goguen
52 thoughts on “Talking about Talking”
Apologies for not having the comments on for the post. I’m not sure how I had them off in the first place, but they’re on now.
I think Audrey, on a different post, has done a great job of explaining why many of us a very hesitant to have these discussions. She writes:
“what I do have a serious problem, with, are people who are happy to speculate about gender identity, and whether trans women are really women, as though it were an abstract philosophical puzzle to be solved, and not something that is about actual living people. When taking one side of an argument involves the invalidation of a lot of people’s identity and lived experience I think it’s right that we be extremely hesitant to take it. That’s not to say it’s entirely off limits to talk about gender identity or to disagree with trans folks or other feminist philosophers. Not all trans folks or feminist philosophers agree with each other on these issues anyway. But cis people and trans people have a different stake in the matter. And a view that says trans folks are just wrong, deluded, deceptive (etc) when they make sincere claims about themselves is to discount and marginalize them as participants in the discussion. Whereas believing them may have consequences that some people believe will be ultimately detrimental to cis women, it still doesn’t marginalize cis women or say that cis women are systematically mistaken about themselves in really fundamental ways.”
Thanks, Jenny. I guess I was hoping that feminist philosophers might be motivated to seek ways to have conversation that avoid the vices you describe. Maybe that’s not possible?
Let me remark that I’ve long been involve in trans issues, but not at all as absract concerns. Unfortunately in Texas, where I am over half a year, anti-trans feelings affect the political agenda and finally actions that are played out in schools, among other public spaces. There’s actually a lot of visible suffering caused by the semingly entrenched far right views. The episode in the piece I originally referred in my – about the worry that a little trans person might look at her daughter – are very vexing. We’re comparing real suffering with possible embarrasment.
Thank you for broaching this. Thank you too for putting quotation marks on your ‘TERF’ heading. Here are some anonymous comments from academics, mostly philosophers, to the essays I’ve written, in case anyone is interested. https://medium.com/@kathleenstock/anonymised-responses-from-other-academics-to-my-articles-on-sex-gender-and-philosophy-f1cc0db04554
About the talking . . .
Is it possible to neologize (sp?) the vices away? So maybe we have the categories women(1) and women(2). Women(1) are, let’s say, all who identify as women, and women(2) are those people who have the relevant social/causal histories (whatever that is).
Many people will be both women(1) and women(2). Some W1s will not initially W2s, but may become so over time. Some W2s may stop being W1s (trans men). There may be good reasons to have spaces reserved solely for W2s, and solely for W1s, and spaces for people that are both. Etc.
The question, “Is so and so a woman?” full stop, should perhaps be treated as uninteresting, if not nonsensical. And, who falls into which category seems rather more straightforward.
Anyway, just thinking out loud. Mods, feel free to delete as appropriate.
Since I’ve ventured out into the discussion on Daily Nous (thanks for linking to my comment), if I may, I’d like to add to the discussion of Audrey’s comments. I think that two things can be brought together:
1. Philosophical speculation as if questions about gender don’t impact people is surely to be avoided.
2. It is possible to have a view on which a person has a mistaken view about their own beliefs, motivations, identities, and so on, without that view “marginaliz[ing] them as participants in the discussion.” (I think this is distinguishable from the arguments that trans people are deceptive when they don’t disclose, which I’m setting aside for the moment–though I have very strong views about this, having had some pretty unpleasant experiences from self-identified feminists and even other trans-identified people themselves.)
I do not think that I, as a trans person, am deluded (I think that on a certain conception of what it is to be a man, I am a man). At the same time, I also think that human beings are very bad at self-awareness in a number of ways. And philosophers hold many different views about the extent to which people are deluded in some deep way (perhaps about the reality of medium-sized objects, or about their having persisting selves, etc.). Thus I think it’s important to hold in tension two things: some respect for people’s own sense of self as a starting point for inquiry and an explanatory constraint, but we need not preclude a priori the possibility that some explanation of transgender experience involves having erroneous beliefs, feelings, etc. (on some conception of “error”). Frankly, though, I would say that such explanations might turn out to cut in more than one direction, given that all of us have complex gendered, socialized, embodied experiences of ourselves.
How do we hold these together? I think that requires taking people’s testimony seriously, without necessarily taking it as infallible. Talia Bettcher has made some arguments in this direction. And I think it also means keeping in mind, as Audrey points out, the stakes for having an error theory in this context. Flippantly calling a trans woman “deluded” can have life-or-death consequences. I see little evidence, though I am open to being corrected, that cis women are under the same threat from trans women.
As someone who has published academic work on this topic,* I’m following this thread with interest. For my own part, I try to follow an approach that keeps in mind the kind of considerations Audrey and Jenny raise concerning the different stakes people have in these issues and not treat other people’s lived realities as a fun puzzle, and I find that doing so leaves plenty of room for debate that’s both politically important and philosophically interesting. So, there *are* conversations about gender identity and trans rights that I’m just not interested in being part of, and those include ones that treat it as a live possibility that trans people are just fundamentally and blanketly wrong/deluded/deceptive. I’m also not interested in participating in debates that question whether trans people’s preferences for names and pronouns should be honoured. But granting that the gender identities of trans people are valid and should be honoured in social interactions still leaves open the question of how society ought to be re-organised in light of the existence of gender identity as a phenomenon, and the experiences of trans people, which were not well or widely understood until relatively recently. Those are conversations I *am* interested in having – and indeed that I think we *need* to have in order to make solid progress towards justice for everyone, including and especially trans people. Because we all live in a gendered world, we all have a stake in how we deal collectively with gender, and although these stakes are different for differently situated people, they all need taking into account. For example, I don’t find it plausible to think that the concept of ‘gender identity’ exhausts the phenomena that we’ve been talking about under the label ‘gender’; we also need concepts that describe the material reality of a system that coercively imposes hierarchical social status on people in dependence on the way their bodies are perceived relative to possibilities of biological reproduction. So it does not strike me as axiomatic that gender terms ought to be reserved for gender identity in all contexts, and that measures aimed at combating gender-based oppression (all-women shortlists, for example) should be implemented on the basis of gender identity. These claims need to be supported by arguments that take into account all forms of gender-based oppression. In fact, I am confident such arguments *can* successfully be made: in my opinion, we *should* reserve gender terms of gender identity and exclusively use gender identity in measures like all-women shortlists (roughly, I think that in the current context there are significant harms to trans people that will result from doing anything else, and that any drawbacks that there might be to adopting this approach can be mitigated fairly easily). But I don’t think that wanting to know what these arguments are, or taking a different stance to mine on them, puts anyone beyond the pale.
If there’s a suggestion in the above, beyond what Audrey and Jenny already said, it’s this: it might be helpful to distinguish between debates about whether trans people’s identities are valid, and debates about how we should collectively respond to gender identity along with other aspects of gender. I think the former are to be avoided, but not the latter (though like any debate with major ethical and political implications, they need to be approached with great care).
* This work advances a line of argument similar to the one ajkreider sketches above. It can be found here (open access): https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/683535
Frankly, opening with a quote that refers to “the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests” strikes me as a really bad start to this conversation. I have no idea what this ‘apparent conflict’ could possibly be, except one born of hate, like the ‘apparent conflict’ between valuing black lives and valuing ‘all’ lives, or valuing immigrants rights and valuing ‘America’, etc. I mean literally, I just can’t even imagine a non-hateful thing that this might be referencing.
Rebecca, I guess I’m unclear whether you’ve read the article linked (though I doubt you’ll approve if you do), but apart from that, I wonder if you could draw out how ascribing hate here can contribute to improving the dynamics of the dialogue – i.e., the OP is about trying to improve a degraded dialogue, so are you saying that this isn’t possible and we should just assume hate is motivating Stock and repudiate her? In the alternative, since you’re phrasing is ambiguous, if you are suggesting that I am motivated by hate because it is my OP “opening with” the quote, perhaps you intend that I be repudiated as hateful? Or maybe both Stock and me? It’s of no use for me to protest that I’m not hateful so I won’t, but I really do want to know what higher good there is in calling me (or Stock) this.
The “conflict,” by the way, refers to the public discussion surrounding the UK Gender Recognition Act and how those conversations are presently publicly framed.
I don’t think you’re hateful. But I do think that the sentence, “Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on, around the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests,” grammatically implies that there is in fact an apparent conflict between these. This seems to me a non-starter for a non-hateful discussion. It would have been very different if Stock had said, “Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on, between what some people see as a conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests, and those who see no such conflict”, for instance. Stock’s set-up builds in that there IS an apparent conflict that we should be discussing and I think this basically guarantees that the discussion will go very badly. By accepting that there is some apparent conflict we accept that the conversation is about how to resolve or dissolve a competition between two groups at odds with one another. Not only do I think this is deeply false, but it also deeply others trans-women as on the other side of some important fence from other women and treats ‘them’ as some kind of a threat to ‘us.’
Also important: Since surely vanishingly few trans women think that there is such an ‘apparent conflict,’ that ‘impassioned discussion’ she is talking about is necessarily one that only includes cis women and others talking ABOUT trans women, and surely that’s not the discussion we want to prioritize or get involved in.
But isn’t this conversation between you and me an example of why we need greater charity in navigating all of this? I.e., you posted something that was ambiguous in its wording and could imply that you were repudiating both me and Stock as hateful people, and people aligned with “white lives matter” moves and white nationalism(!). You’re now dialing that back and explaining more fully (and charitably) what you meant. This is exactly why I think it troubling to then toggle to reading one sentence of what Stock wrote with an eye toward how she could have better put it as proof she is not hateful. You could have better put your objection above to avoid the appearance of accusing me of white nationalist sympathies… The dialogue as a whole is dying to go off the rails, begging to go off the rails, so that’s why charity and a resolve to try to talk carefully is all the more needed.
It sure seems like there are apparent conflicts to me. (1) A conflict over the very definition of what it is to be a woman. The gender identity definition is advantageous to trans women, making it clear they are women. But to some cis women it just seems all wrong. They are not aware of having a female gender identity. They see the reproductive aspects of their bodies as central to what it is to be a woman. The shift in the concept bothers them, possibly because they think concepts matter, politically. Whether rightly or wrongly, they think how “woman” is being redefined will have some impact on the direction of feminism. This has nothing to do with hate. (2) The conflict over eligibility to participate in women’s sports. The new IAAF testosterone rule (to take one example) is bad for trans athletes, but advantageous for some cis athletes. Again, it doesn’t take hate to see this as a conflict. If there’s one obviously correct resolution, then you could say the conflict is spurious and superficial, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that there is. (3) The conflict over rules governing shared spaces. Some of these are fueled by hate but I wouldn’t say they all are. I’m not prepared to say every cis girl who’s uncomfortable changing next to a trans girl is motivated by hate. Maybe these are only apparent conflicts, in the sense that they all have just resolutions, but still…at the moment they are apparent conflicts. I agree with Stock that philosophers ought to be openly and inclusively talking about these things.
It seems to me that the apparent conflict between ‘apparent’ and ‘seems to some’ is splitting exactly the wrong kind of hair, but appearances can be deceiving.
Perhaps my earlier comment was a bit flippant, but I thought it was funny.
After thinking some more it seems to me that part of the problem here is that this is hard to discuss without begging the question against the other side – if there can be a conflict between the interests of trans-women and cis-women then trans-women aren’t the same as cis-women. If trans and cis women are not different groups then there can’t be a conflict between their interests. So even claiming that there is an (apparent!) conflict could be seen to be claiming that there is a difference between trans- and cis-women – and if cis-women are ‘real’ women then trans-women aren’t.
I don’t think this is right though. ‘Real’ women (at bottom I don’t think there are deep facts about gender, hence the scare quotes) exist in many different modalities, and conflicts between them don’t need to be exclusionary from the category. The interests of black and white women, rich and poor women, etc., might come apart in certain respects. ‘Women’ don’t need to be monolithic anymore than the subgroups of cis- and trans- women need to be monolithic.
Hello again. Thank you for discussing this. I’ve now written this, which addresses, among other things, some of the points brought up here, though not all of them https://medium.com/@kathleenstock/arguing-about-feminism-and-transgenderism-an-opinionated-guide-for-the-perplexed-eabd8208469f
I also want to second how important framing is to this discussion, as per Rebecca’s comment above.
I’m not sure that it’s generally helpful to frame issues as conflicts (whether actual, or simply perceived) between the interests of trans women and the interests of cis women. Not even in many of the cases linked in the article above. For instance, one of the driving cases (that is a matter of safety rather than discomfort) has to do with predatory men claiming to be trans women in order to gain access to women’s spaces. But surely it’s in the interests of *both* trans women and cis women to be protected from people who want to abuse gender-segregated spaces.
As an alternative way of discussing some of the issues that I think are being indicated here, I really like Katharine’s way of framing things. I really can’t see how anyone benefits from an open discussion of whether trans folks’ identities are valid, however respectful it tries to be – mostly because I don’t see how they do anything other than marginalize trans folks. Maybe I’m not sufficiently disposed towards metaphysical discussion, but that kind of talk really does seem to be the kind of abstract discussion impacting people’s lives that I really worry about. (Note to my metaphysician friends – this is not a claim about metaphysics in general)
On the other hand, I agree that there are important discussions to be had about how we organize ourselves in a society in which gender has the complexities that it does. So what about alternative framings which presuppose something like Talia Bettcher’s view that people have first person authority over their gender, but acknowledge the real complexity over our social identities even beyond gender. I take the point that some cis women might worry about trans women speaking to women’s experience generally, if they are people who have transitioned later in life. But this is just one instance of a far more general phenomenon by which there really is no such thing as a universal experience of being a woman. Many BIPOC women worry about being represented by white women. Many disabled women worry about being represented by non-disabled women. And so on. And many trans women worry about being represented by cis women.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at, maybe a bit long-windedly, is that I think it’s both possible and desirable to take cis women’s concerns about safety/representation seriously without accepting a framing of the issue that scapegoats and marginalizes trans women. I don’t think I see a way of progressing these discussions otherwise.
Jean said: “It sure seems like there are apparent conflicts to me. (1) A conflict over the very definition of what it is to be a woman. The gender identity definition is advantageous to trans women, making it clear they are women. But to some cis women it just seems all wrong…. The shift in the concept bothers them, possibly because they think concepts matter, politically. Whether rightly or wrongly, they think how ‘woman’ is being redefined will have some impact on the direction of feminism.”
This doesn’t sound to me like an “apparent conflict between [cis women]’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests.” Isn’t the conflict here between trans women’s rights and interests, and what some subset of cis women see as their rights and interests? But we haven’t shown that that subset of cis women is very large. The only statistical evidence I have here is US polling indicating that substantial majorities of non-Republicans believe that people’s genders can differ from their sex assigned at birth–though this doesn’t demonstrate that the views of non-Republicans on the whole are representative of the views of feminists.
Audrey, excellent post. Maybe the short version of what I’m saying is that we can talk about complexities without beginning with the idea that there is an apparent conflict here.
(Matt Weiner, Vermont)
I think at this point asking people who want to do critical scholarship on this subject to “read the literature” seems to often get dismissed as a near- ad hominem, or as a tactic for uncritical dismissal without any engagement (and thus intellectually shallow).
However, the literature people are referencing in critical discussions is relevant for what specifically these discussions are responding to. For example, critiques of the “identity” approach to trans rights often infer that as a consequence trans people are existentially incoherent because these identity frameworks are not perfectly coherent, without paying attention to more in-depth and nuanced trans scholarship (such as found in the Transgender Studies Readers 1 and 2 from 2006 and 2013, the journal Transgender Studies Quarterly, and Trap Door from late 2017, for example) that do not necessarily rely on this framework (and often directly critique it). This thus risks using a critique of more mainstream and simplistic frameworks of trans identity deployed in liberal politics, often by non-trans people, to critique trans lives in general without considering relevant scholarly (and extra-scholarly) counterarguments and different frameworks that have existed for decades.
The question of whether or not trans women are women has been around since at least the work of Krafft-Ebing in the 1800s (who decidedly said no), continuing through Mary Daly and Janice Raymond, Marilyn Frye, Elizabeth Grosz, Bernice Hausman (who also say no), Catherine MacKinnon (who says yes, or at least relevantly so for feminist activism) and more, to the extent that there is a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy essay discussing the subject from 2009 by Talia Bettcher (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-trans/), with very recent articles about this tension published in the 2017 Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy written by both trans and non-trans women. It has been a long conversation, and likely will not stop soon!
Hence, I worry sometimes that the “silence” of having this conversation is a specific silence about conducting this conversation with engagement and consequences in relation to how they play out for trans people, considered as people who have now carved out a (tenuous) space in public life, and may even be your academic colleagues. One thing that was exciting about the Trans* Experience in Philosophy conference, for example, was that we saw it as a moment to mark that trans studies and trans philosophy should not be conducted without including us and our voices. I worry that the difficulty of having a conversation about whether or not trans women are women (it stands out to me, by the way, that this yet again focuses on trans women rather than trans men) amounts to a suggestion that the conversation should not include our scholarly and personal voices, and continue to cast us as people who scholarship should be about rather than with.
In a way, I wish that I could remain silent about this as well, and I have in the past, but I have no choice in having my existence debated, with unavoidable consequences for me, both before I was born and likely after I am dead.
Somehow my comment got deleted so I am attempting to repost:
Both of Stock’s pieces linked here include a collection of misguided and ignorant concerns about what cis women might have to lose by being inclusive of trans women. (Even to use the term “women-who-are-not-transwomen” (WNT) instead of the accepted term “cisgender” reflects either ignorance or unwillingness to enter into a discussion in a way that is sensitive to how trans people conceptualize the issues.) For example, in her new “guide for the perplexed” she gives a list of the apparent things that cis women lose by including trans women. I could go through each of these and explain how they’re misguided, but I’ll just discuss the first one: “WNT are losing access to some formerly female-body-only spaces, where they get naked or sleep (in shop changing rooms, swimming pool cubicles; sleeper coaches; women’s prisons; and bathrooms).”
This way of framing the concern assumes that cis women previously had good access to these spaces and that they lose something important by being trans inclusive, but that’s not an accurate way of putting it. Only some cis women previously had good access to these spaces. For example, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women often feel very uncomfortable in single-gender spaces, and so often avoid them. As a queer cis woman, I feel *more* comfortable in spaces that are either not single gender or that are as gender inclusive as possible. This is because an assumption of such spaces is that they are asexual, and this assumes that there are only straight women in these spaces. This makes me an outsider in these spaces. Still, I have relative privilege in these spaces because I pass as straight. Those who don’t, or are more male presenting, often feel even more uncomfortable in these spaces than I do. Stock needs to seriously challenge how she is thinking about the “sides” of these debates. This isn’t an issue involving cis vs trans women. Instead, this is an issue about whose discomfort should guide policy: those with relative sex-and-gender-related social privilege or lack thereof. Should we countenance discomfort that reifies gender essentialist and heterosexist assumptions at the expense of the comfort of LGBTQ people? We should not.
More importantly, however, the feeling of discomfort that some cis women have at more gender inclusivity in women’s spaces pales in comparison to the regular harassment, abuse, and threats to their physical safety that LGBTQ people regularly face in these spaces. The discomfort that LGBTQ people have is rooted in lived experience and robust statistics. The rate at which LGBTQ people are targeted in these spaces is much higher than the instances of abuse by cis-gender men posing as trans women, and there is a complete absence of any evidence that trans people themselves threaten the safety of cis women in these spaces. To treat both kinds of discomfort as though they are morally on a par is homophobic and transphobic.
It is perfectly reasonable for people not to want to engage in a debate when it is set in terms that are ignorant and oppressive in this way. I assume Stock does not mean to be homophobic or transphobic, but we all internalize oppressive ways of thinking and need to actively fight against it. If she really wants to have these discussions, she must do the work to figure out how her views involve internalized oppressive attitudes, and listen hard when LGBTQ people, especially trans women, see the discussion as hateful or prejudiced. It can be all those things without any conscious intentions or awareness.
One thing that bears mentioning is what has gotten displaced in the conversation: the legislation Stock is talking about in the first place! I don’t know details but as far as I can tell the Gender Recognition Act looks utterly innocuous and Stock hasn’t given us credible evidence it would have any of the pernicious effects she thinks it would — for instance, in support of her assertion that it would enable people to “commit crimes such as voyeurism, flashing, public masturbation, and sexual assault” she links to one thing and it’s some bizarre anonymous document that’s just a list of news references, rather than research or policy. Her “response to my critics” piece doesn’t do much more.
For my money Stock DOES give us a hint of what she’s actually upset about when she says, “In selecting who may stand on their behalf as a Member of Parliament in a particular constituency, the UK Labour Party — one of the two main UK Parties — now allows TW on all-woman shortlists, a move originally designed to increase the political representation of WNT. The Labour party also now has, as one of its women officers, Lily Madigan, a 19 year old TW.”
So here’s a hypothesis from an outsider: Stock’s hobby horse is at least partially just a proxy war on behalf of an anti-Corbyn faction of Labour (see also: https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/953543/Jeremy-Corbyn-labour-party-women-transgender-shortlist) that she’s blown up into some referendum on feminist philosophy. She’s not actually trying to have a conversation about some deep philosophical question. She’s trying to score points in a local political conflict. Or at least it is not reasonable to treat her as doing such.
This is just my $0.02. UK feminists may have more thoughts here since they are more familiar with the political culture, I invite them to offer reflections.
Rachel, I guess I’m not clear why you would take one point of the several as the crux of it all or as a governing motivation under all the rest? Several above have articulated objections to the position Stock is laying out, but there seems something different in kind to suspect her of being disingenuous, or using all her claims as a Trojan horse in a political conflict.
I would love to have a civil, mutually respectful conversation about how to achieve feminist solidarity between cis women and trans women. I am not optimistic about this particular conversation, for several reasons.
First, Stock’s essay was recently signal-boosted by a cis male blogger who is hostile to feminism in the philosophy profession, and who has been linking to essays by cis people (mostly cis men) that debate whether trans women are women. While it is logically possible for something to be both liked by this blogger and helpful to the feminist cause, I am categorically distrustful of anything he endorses.
Second and more importantly, Stock’s framing is based on a transmisogynistic myth. (This is not a claim about what is in Stock’s heart. Rather, it is a claim about what is in her essay.) As others have pointed out, there’s no concrete evidence that making it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognized will harm cis women. As of last year, it became legal in the state of California, where I live, for people to change the sex marker on their birth certificate just by petitioning. There has been no rash of violence against cis women as a result; the only thing that happened was that some trans people’s lives were made a little bit easier.
These concerns about cis women’s safety seem less about preventing physical assault, and more about preventing symbolic assaults on a mythic ideal of womanhood. The sanctity of public bathrooms often gets trotted out as an excuse for denying rights to vulnerable groups, as discussed in this article: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/2016-bathroom-bills-politics-north-carolina-lgbt-transgender-history-restrooms-era-civil-rights-213902
I believe that in order to have a good collective conversation about this stuff, we should rethink our starting point.
Sorry — I don’t doubt there is also an ideological disagreement at play here. An article can have multiple goals. I was just trying to point out what occasioned the piece in the first place, which is this particular legislation and this particular fight within the UK Labour Party.
This is echoing and piggy-backing off of some of the other stuff said by others here.
One thing that I think this post demonstrates is that when we’re not well versed on a topic such as this one, we likely don’t know what the comment pitfalls are, or what their impact is on the people being talked about. And I think a space like Feminist Philosophers should set ourselves a high bar for knowing these things.
In the several discussions on this issue that I’ve witnessed, one pitfall I’ve seen is that cis people often frame these conversation in a way that doesn’t do justice to what is at stake for many trans people. Prof. Manners opens the original post by focusing on how some people feel like it’s “impossible” to talk about this issue and/or how they have “fear of being perceived to have the ‘wrong’ view.” But that right there should be a red flag, if not on its own then in part because a similar move in discussions about race is a huge red flag, yes? It’s a common occurrence for white people to talk about how they’re afraid of being *perceived* as racist. And that phenomenon is systematic enough that the overarching effect is sometimes that someone calling someone out for saying something racist is perceived and framed as more hostile/uncharitable than someone saying something racist. And I’m assuming most of here already know why that’s a problem.
So I think Prof. Manner’s original post similarly gets off on the wrong foot when it focuses on the fear felt by a cis person of possibly saying the wrong thing or worries about people not being patient enough before using the word “transphobia.” The broader context—that trans and non-binary people are vastly more vulnerable to discrimination and violence—has to be part of our calculations if we are going to say a single word about how cis people are impacted by discussions of trans issues. Otherwise we’re falling into the same problem that Atwood identified with “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Cis people are afraid of making a faux pas or being perceived as bigots. Trans people are afraid of being killed. We need to make sure we don’t get tunnel vision and focus on the feelings of cis people or worries about our conversations being civil and comfortable enough in cases where the overall conversation/landscape is not sufficiently discussing and addressing the ways in which a vulnerable group is being discriminated against at work and in their homes and is disproportionately subjected to violence and hate.*
I know most of us here already know this in principle. But again, it’s really hard to know whether I am doing something problematic like that if I’m not well-versed on a topic–if I don’t know the common ways that transmisogyny tends to manifest in these discussions. Each form of oppression is its own horrible morass that we need to learn how to navigate—even if we already know the ins and outs of several other seemingly similar landscapes. And I know most of us know this meta-point in principle because of all the awesome work that’s been done on standpoint and epistemology of ignorance. But what this means on the ground is that us cis people need to be on high alert if we find ourselves saying, “but surely…” in a discussion on trans issues we’re not well-versed in. We shouldn’t feel sure! We need to be highly suspicious of feelings of surety here. It is really important that we are appropriately suspicious of our ability to fruitfully engage with a conversation like this when we aren’t familiar with the territory and/or have some relevant privilege (and thus almost certainly have a boatload of active ignorance).
“The broader context—that trans and non-binary people are vastly more vulnerable to discrimination and violence—has to be part of our calculations if we are going to say a single word about how cis people are impacted by discussions of trans issues. Otherwise we’re falling into the same problem that Atwood identified with “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Cis people are afraid of making a faux pas or being perceived as bigots. Trans people are afraid of being killed.”
I agree with Stock’s call for more open and rigorous discussion. I note in response to Lisa Miracchi’s charge that Stock’s position is homophobic (even if not intentionally so) that Stock’s concerns include worries about the impact of certain strands of current thinking about gender identity on young lesbians, and I note also that she is not writing from a heterosexual position. Insofar as being of a social group gives one any sort or degree of authority to comment on the lived experiences of that group, then Stock has some. There’s also a difference between the claim that a piece of legislation would make it easier for people to engage in voyeurism, sexual assault, etc. and the claim that these are consequences that would almost certainly follow. I take it that for any piece of legislation, it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t have negative unintended consequences. Legal loopholes can, in principle, be exploited. Of course, part of thinking about the implications of a piece of legislation, may involve weighing
up the likelihood that it will result in those consequences. But the two issues can nevertheless be kept apart. And the former is important to consider. I also agree with Stock’s point that some transwomen’s issues are also non-trans-women’s issues, and it’s not great that non-trans-women’s voices have been ignored, and continue to be ignored in the discussion surrounding the new policy. There is something very wrong about the dialectic as it plays out at present. Yes, transpeople are subjected to greater degrees of prejudice and violence, but this doesn’t mean that non-trans-women’s concerns should be just immediately shut down in the way they tend to be at present. (And I’m not talking about us all having to listen to the likes of Germaine Greer. Really, I’m not.) Non-trans-women are still subjected to various forms of gender-based oppression, and some of the worries raised about the new legislation are to do with this. And it’s not satisfactory for people to simply refuse to discuss them at all on the grounds that doing so is transphobic (I’m not attributing this view to anyone here, btw – I’m instead remarking on a dynamic that one often see online in discussions about this). Finally, I note that Stock explicitly states she has not fully made up her mind about the position she lays out, although she is also not a neutral party with respect to the issues. It’s a call to consider the points she raises.
I am also using Stock’s temporary terminology rather than the more common ‘cisgendered’ because there are many nontranspeople who identify as women, but who occupy a position in gender space where they don’t feel that the various aspects of the mess we call ‘gender’ line up in the way that ‘cisgender’ seems to imply.
R. A. and Stacey, I guess if I could, I’d go back and re-write the post or, more likely, not write it at all. What most prompted it was Academic Trans Guy’s comment at Daily Nous (which no one has given any uptake) because it seemed to agree with Stock about the need for better dialogue – i.e., the concerns I raise are not about cis people being closed out of a dialogue but about dialogue inhospitable to many, significantly including trans participants.
Stacey, I see that you’re gently trying to nudge me as not understanding what “most of us” understand. I’ll not defend myself on that score, I guess, but my worries about civility (which are distinct from wanting conversations to be “comfortable”!) are not indifferent to issues of safety – they’re about such issues. If feminists can’t talk to feminists about these issues, what hope is there for persuasion in the wider world? And the latter is much needed precisely to reduce the dangers to trans people. My concerns about civility are not about keeping things nice and pleasant and avoiding hurt feelings, they’re about the need to engage and get your hands dirty in talking respectfully with views you don’t like because not engaging or engaging dismissively has high costs, not least of which might be leaving the world just as dangerous as it is for trans people. We can’t limit ourselves only to conversations that don’t “get off on the wrong foot” or we’ll abdicate engagement with the world that poses the actual threats here. But my views about civility and about who we should be talking to may be out of step with “most of us.”
R.A., I did not know about the other play this had received, only about Daily Nous.
“These concerns about cis women’s safety seem less about preventing physical assault, and more about preventing symbolic assaults on a mythic ideal of womanhood.” I think this is partly right. But I question the implication (don’t know if it was intended) that worries about symbolic assaults on a mythic ideal of womanhood, are therefore not legitimate *at all*. The debate (this may not be the right word) between transwomen and non-trans-women concerns how the social identity woman should be constructed. So another way to put the point about symbolic assaults on a mythic ideal of womanhood, is that people are being asked to adopt a different construction of the social identity ‘woman’, one which seems to leave out the importance assigned to biology by the current, dominant construction, and which they have long-lived as some deep part of who they are. Take the unhappiness, in various quarters, about the alleged recommended change in the context of antenatal care, from talking about ‘mothers’ to talking about ‘birthing persons’. On the face of it, one could really be puzzled about why anyone gives a stuff about this. But I take it the issue here is that biological motherhood (by which I mean motherhood that includes the whole business of pregnancy and giving birth, not just the parental role) is so intimately bound up with the current construction of womanhood that it’s embedded deeply in the identities of many non-trans-women – whether they embrace it, or whether it’s not a possibility for them due to infertility, or whether they hate the idea of being a mother and want nothing to do with it, etc… It seems like something around which many woman-ly lives are oriented, whether that orientation is one of rejection or embrace. So to say, effectively, that biological motherhood is no longer an important aspect of what it is to be a woman, strikes at the heart of those people’s self-identities.
Now, of course, I know what someone might say in response to this – there’s something deeply problematic about prioritising non-trans-women’s attachment to their social identities in the face of violence and prejudice faced by transwomen.
But, (i) I don’t think I am prioritising them – I haven’t said anything about which construction of the social identity ‘woman’ we, as a culture, should accept. I’m just trying to excavate some of the tricky issues that are wrapped up in this, and show that there’s something important at stake here that needs addressing. (ii) Transwomen’s identities are not important *in virtue* of the fact that they face oppression. If it was simply prejudice and violence that made their identities important, then an adequate response would be to fight those things in-and-of themselves. But I take it this isn’t adequate. So, legislation that recognises trans women as women isn’t important just because it will help stop prejudice and violence against those people. What’s of primary importance is the *recognition* of people as women, which goes to show that the social identity is intrinsically important, as it were, irrespective of the context of oppression. And this seems like a general point about humans – our social identities matter to us. So it’s too quick to just tell nontranswomen that they should accept a reconstruction of their social identity and just get on with things. There’s more here that needs addressing.
And finally, I take the point that policing public toilets has a problematic history. But the fact that it was bullshit in one case, doesn’t automatically mean that it is bullshit in all other cases. I think it’s reasonable, in the context of high levels of sexual assault against women and girls, to air the worry that a man might pretend to be a woman to gain access to such a place for nefarious purposes (I am *not* here suggesting that nontranswomen are in danger from transwomen. I mean a man.) And it seems a perfectly reasonable response to say this hasn’t happened in other places where similar legislation has been enacted. I would have thought this is exactly the sort of conversation Stock has suggested we have.
“There’s also a difference between the claim that a piece of legislation would make it easier for people to engage in voyeurism, sexual assault, etc. and the claim that these are consequences that would almost certainly follow.”
Stock seems to be making the stronger claim here. Here’s more context from the quote Rachel McKinney cited, with emphasis added:
“Citing the history of male violence against WNT, some have pointed out what seems perfectly reasonable — that this change in the law will allow some duplicitous or badly motivated males to “change gender” fairly easily — nay, otherwise imperceptibly — in order to do harm to WNT in women-only spaces, and possibly children too, since children are often with their mothers. It will also — perhaps even more significantly — allow men to say falsely that they have changed gender, if challenged, whilst undermining WNT confidence in making any such challenge on grounds of appearance. It is anticipated that unscrupulous men will use this legislation in order to access women-only spaces — changing rooms, hostel dormitories for the homeless, women’s prisons, women’s swimming pools and gyms, and so on — to commit crimes such as voyeurism, flashing, public masturbation, and sexual assault. Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening elsewhere in the world.” The last sentence contains the link to the bizarre anonymous news document that Rachel mentions.
None of this is qualified as something that might happen; it is stated to be what is “anticipated,” what “will” happen and “is perfectly reasonable” to believe will happen.
It is important for feminists to be able to talk to feminists about this issue (and it’s not particularly important for me to be able to jump into this discussion). But as R.A. says I don’t think trans people and trans-sympathetic are obliged to want to participate in a discussion that starts from this particularly strongly stated viewpoint of a transmisogynistic myth.
Fair enough, Stock does seem to be making the stronger claim. But regardless, I think the point about there being two in principle somewhat different discussions to be had still stands. And I also fail to see how, even if Stock is committed to the stronger claim, this counts as a statement of a transmisogynistic myth. She’s not talking about transwomen assaulting people, she’s talking about unscrupulous *men* doing so.
Points of clarification for komarine about the “birthing person” thing:
First, the “birthing person” change isn’t primarily an accommodation for trans women. It’s primarily an accommodation for birthing persons who don’t consider themselves women (that is, certain trans men and nonbinary folks).
Second, I’m pretty sure nobody has a problem with calling an individual cis woman a “mother” under these circumstances. The point is not that “birthing person” is supposed to replace “mother” across-the-board. This is about what language to use in settings like, e.g., birthing-related classes for expecting parents, where one is talking generically about the people giving birth, who may identify in a number of genders. (Note, by the way, that here “the mother” is a less-than-ideal word to use to pick out birthing parents even if we ignore the needs of trans folks: The pregnant cis women at such an event may have spouses or other co-parents who are also cis women, who may also think of themselves as prospective mothers. If such people are present at an event, they should probably not be following the instructions for “the mother”, but should be doing whatever the stereotypically male supporting partner is supposed to do.)
A few points about some of the alleged ways promoting the interests of transwomen are claimed to harm ciswomen’s. First, the bathroom issue. At this point in the conversation, it seems that we agree that there is zero evidence that inclusive bathrooms increase the risk of assault on ciswomen. Komarine, though, it seems would like us to keep the ‘possibility’ in mind in deliberating about the matter. Why? In general, our practical deliberations don’t take into account all physical possibilities. If I go outside, it’s physically possible that a wandering bit of skylab may fall on my head and kill me. But such possibilities are far too low-probability to warrant figuring in my reasoning about whether to take advantage of a beautiful day. For a physical possibility to enter my calculation, its value or disvalue needs to be significant *and* it’s possibility needs to be of a sufficiently high degree, even if still low. (If you don’t like my skylab example, pick your own. The point is it makes no sense to deliberate about possible outcomes, once we recongize their likelihood is *extremely* low.) So, think of how Komarine’s sort of dialectical move, which insists that we consider a hypothetical possibility, gets utilized. If we play along, we are in effect assigning it a probability that it would need to have in order to warrant our consideration. This, even though we seem to agree at this point that there is *no evidence* which assigns the possibility a probability of any significance–certainly not of any greater significance of the current likelihood of restroom assaults. To continue to play along at that point is simply play along with fear-mongering.
A personal aside at this point: I’m a cis-gendered woman who has been assaulted twice and I have the doctor-certified ptsd to prove it. A *lot* of situations scare me that would not scare those who have not had that experience. But sharing a bathroom with transwomen is not among them. If men who prey on women thought that dressing up like a woman and hiding in a public women’s bathroom was a clever way to find victims, they would do that whether bathrooms are inclusive or not. If we really care about protecting women from assault, we could start by making parking lots safer or believing women who report assaults. But failing to provide a safe bathroom for transwomen does not make me or any other ciswoman safer from predatory men. Those who claim otherwise: Please stop doing so out of alleged concern for women like me. Not in my name.
Second point: The alleged connection between being a woman and reproduction. I can see that perhaps for many women who are mothers, being a mother is important to their sense of who they are *as a woman*. But that is a remark about those individual women. Many cisgendered women do not have children, either by choice or by necessity. Being a mother is not something all cisgendered women have in common and so does not mark them off as their own, special class. If you are a mother who thinks that this marks you out as a woman in some special sense, that’s fine. But your mother-specialness does not mark the divide you claim it does.
Another personal aside: As a cis-woman with no children I find this sort of claim very alienating and, frankly, a bit regressive. The idea that being a mother makes women special has been used in the service of a good deal of misogyny and oppression. (Every woman here who has been dismissed by some version of ‘that’s your hormones talking’ raise you hand.) Surely we can celebrate the important role of mothers without resurrencting that old trope.
komarine: The upshot of Stock’s distinction between “unscrupulous men” and true transwomen is that, because some men may pretend to be transwomen, we should be highly skeptical of accommodations for the rights of true transwomen just to be safe. This seems pretty transmisogynistic. (Compare the argument that, because some people seeking political asylum might be terrorists posing as asylum seekers, a country should not grant access to any asylum seekers. This would be prejudicial to asylum seekers even though it purports to draw a distinction between true asylum seekers and the perpetrators.)
Also the document Stock links talks about some assaults committed by trans women and not men who were pretending to be trans women, in the section that states “None of the examples listed below used a nondiscrimination ordinance to gain access to their victims.” So it does sound as though Stock considers crimes committed by trans women to be relevant to her point, or at least failed to make clear part of the document that she was linking to support her point was irrelevant to her point. Of course citing crimes committed by members of a group that were not facilitated by a nondiscrimination ordinance as reasons not to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance is highly prejudicial to that group and the very definition of collective punishment.–That document is in any case unquestionably transphobic, consistently misgendering trans people when it discusses them, and including this jawdropping line about a trans woman who was acquitted of a sexual assault: “Still, the fact that he had consensual sex with a woman, while claiming to identify as female, is troubling.”
In any case the transmisogynistic myth R.A. cites is that making it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognized will lead to an increase in violence against trans women. As R.A. says, there’s no evidence for this, and Stock doesn’t claim to provide any (in the “Guide to the Perplexed” post she links above, she responds to the claim that she’s using “anecdotes and scare stories” by saying “I would like to be able to link to academic data representing a more general picture, but there isn’t any that I can find.”) The evidence available, though not academic, indicates that this myth is indeed a myth. And the myth doesn’t rely on any distinction between trans women and men pretending to be trans women.
I agree with what you say about the two discussions–that seems like what Audrey said above about how “it’s both possible and desirable to take cis women’s concerns about safety/representation seriously without accepting a framing of the issue that scapegoats and marginalizes trans women.” I just don’t think Stock’s piece is a good starting point for this discussion, or that the discussion is well served by failing to acknowledge the transmisogynistic themes in what she’s written.
I Rohl: thanks for the point of clarification about the birthing person thing – I was trying to diagnose the source of people’s upset about it, rather than anything else, and use it as an example of what I take to be the underlying structure of at least some discussions. But it’s of course important that many online understandings of what it involves are false.
JLDowell – a couple of comments on the bathroom thing: the point I was making about thinking through theoretical possibilities was in connection with the specific case of the new gender identity legislation. Whilst I agree with you that in everyday circumstances of practical deliberation, there’s no need to consider every possible scenario, I think it’s different in the case of law. I take it that as a general rule of thumb, we want legislation that doesn’t leave open some problematic situation, because that’s badly written legislation. For example, poorly written immigration rules have recently resulted in a large number of British citizens being deported, deprived of their jobs, made homeless, and denied healthcare, because new laws about status checks were brought in without proper consideration of this consequence. (Actually, I’m not sure this is a good example, as the problematic consequence was pointed out at the time, and it seems more like a case where the powers that be just didn’t care, but hopefully you get my drift.)
I should also point out that I’m NOT arguing that the new gender legislation IS problematic. I’m defending the legitimacy of its being questioned. Which at least some people have denied.
In connection with the thoughts about biological motherhood, I was NOT suggesting that what makes women special is that they can be mothers, or anything along those lines. Nor was I suggesting that every non-trans-woman wants to be a mother. I was quite explicit about that. This was supposed to be an example to illustrate one reason that the debate seems so entrenched. To put the point I was getting at in more general form: biological facts are things that are lived, and which go towards the constitution of many people’s social identities, particularly in the case of social identities like gender, because of the way the dominant notions of gender have been constructed. People can take up those biological facts in different ways, but the thought is that they’re still a source of orientation for a good many folks whether people embrace or reject them. One way to see the ‘debate’ (if one calls it a debate) is over how social identity should be constructed. And two of the things that need to be recognised are (i) the importance of their social identity to people; and (ii) the importance of biology to some people’s experience of their own gender. And those are things that aren’t properly acknowledged, and/or are too summarily dismissed in at least some sorts of discussions about non-trans-women’s experiences of identity.
I will also add that these remarks are not setting out any sort of proposal about what the ideal construction(s) of gender are that we, as a culture should adopt. Again, I’m NOT defending the Gender Critical view (or whatever one should call it). I’m defending discussion of it, and setting out why I think that certain considerations should be legitimate fodder for discussion, contrary to the way they have been – in some spheres at least – ruled out.
Two comments on the underlying issue with talking:
First, “and yet nearly all academic philosophers… are ignoring it.” Huh? I mean, what? That’s just absurd. They might not frame it as a serious conflict of rights – cf Kukla’s comment – but almost all are ignoring it? If the question is the broader issue of the nature of gender here, that’s absurd. There is a burgeoning literature. And even if ‘it’ means the alleged conflict so described, there has been an enormous amount written on it. (Tuval anyone?)
Second and more substantively: “people are frightened to discuss the issue on social media.” I want to ask why this is such a bad thing.
First, I agree that some people are, sometimes. I’ve hesitated to engage in debates on social media on these issues several times. (Same for some issues in the black community, the native community, the disability community.) And some of that has come from a worry that people would jump down my throat.
But, well, I sort of want to ask “so TF what?” In all these cases we have a historically abused and oppressed community, one that is involved in life-or-death activist struggles, and making some progress in being recognized publicly. If you compare the sorts of conversations that are likely to happen in that context to those that would happen in a purely just society, they might look bad. And sometimes, that badness might – again from the perspective of a fully just society – look unfair to people like me. But, well, there’s trauma, and there’s a perfectly reasonable desire to demand a voice among people historically excluded, and raw feelings, and some distrust based on lots of instances of betrayal. So that altogether is likely to make things awkward – especially on something like social media.
Here’s my personal strategy – at least the one I try to follow; not claiming to do so perfectly – when faced with being “frightened to discuss”: I either just wait and follow what folks in the relevant community are saying, read in the background and listen, OR I ask someone I know personally. That is, I approach them privately and ask if this is an appropriate question or comment, coming from me, etc., while also making clear that they are welcome to ignore the question after which I’ll default to the first disjunct.
I look forward to the day – further along the great Kingian arc of the moral universe – when this sort of thing isn’t necessary. But I do so far more because it will mean that injustice has been eliminated than because it will remove my trivial discomfort.
Professor Manners, I figured you didn’t know. These conversations always give me the unsettling feeling that there are a lot of cis men who deliberately create and amplify objectifying and divisive framing, then sit back to let the women fight among themselves. (This is compatible with the observation that women are responsible for their own thoughts and words; ask me about free will and moral responsibility sometime.) I’m a uncertain of how to turn a critical lens onto the men involved without enabling them to thrive on the resulting attention.
komarine, you’re asking some natural 101-level questions and several people are patiently answering them. For people who encounter these 101-level questions all the time, and patiently explain the answers all the time, such conversations can be exhausting. (Just as gay men might find it tiresome to repeatedly explain that gay people can be teachers without molesting children, so trans women might find it tiresome to repeatedly explain that trans women can use bathrooms without molesting cis women.) As Amy Marvin points out, it’s false that no one has ever considered the questions that “Gender Critical” feminists are asking.
On the symbolism of womanhood, I think that trying to define womanhood by demanding that it be homogenous, or focusing on who is to be excluded, is just a non-starter. This is not at all original of me; black feminists have been onto it for ages. I find this essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon to be a clear statement and defense of the view.
Click to access 1983-home-girls-coalition-politics-bernice-johnson-reagon.pdf
Also relevant is this speech by Audre Lorde.
Click to access rba09-sb4converted_8.pdf
@Prof. Manners – I didn’t mean to exclude you with the “most of us” language; I meant that as establishing common ground and to signal that I wasn’t presuming to teach you those principles.
To respond to Academic Trans Guy’s comment from Daily Nous (I’m quoting a different passage): “How to navigate sensitivity with speaking openly and truthfully is a difficult problem, and surely the answer isn’t either to walk on eggshells and qualify every statement beyond reason, but neither is it to speak as if trans people aren’t vulnerable to a lot of real harms (by which I do mean harm in the physical sense, which if you read the news in most countries you will see.)”
He lays out this problem really well there, but I may disagree with the “don’t walk on eggshells” bit. If he means, “it’s often awkward and stilted when people over-qualify everything they say with indications of their inferior epistemic position, and that doesn’t help conversation,” I agree, and the solution there is that people in inferior epistemic positions (i.e. relevantly privileged ones) need to PRACTICE more and EDUCATE ourselves more so that we are less awkward, stilted, and amateur-ish when talking about these issues.
But in another way, I think that (for example) I as a cis white straight person SHOULD have a baseline level of discomfort and worry when discussing issues about race, sexuality, and the metaphysics of gender. That doesn’t make conversation impossible for me. It makes it HARD for me, and it means there are pitfalls I need to constantly worry about because if I mess up, other people get hurt. So if “walking on eggshells” means “never feeling fully comfortable or entitled to a discussion” and being afraid that I will unintentionally say something transphobic, then I think we absolutely should walk on eggshells–because that means we’re staying aware that what we say and how we say it has serious potential consequences for the well-being of other people.
This is why I think the original post starts with the wrong framing. It’s not “impossible to talk, feminist to feminist or philosopher to philosopher about trans issues.” It’s hard and dangerous to talk about it, and it *should be* for cis philosophers. And yet we have a moral duty to the profession to better educate ourselves about this issue and to keep talking about it, so we need to keep trying, even knowing that we’ll probably mess up and say something harmful or frustratingly ignorant (aka ‘the wrong thing’) that will add to all the crap that trans people have to deal with. I think Linda Alcoff’s piece, “The Problem of Speaking for Others” gets at some of these issues in a nuanced way: there are problems with speaking and with not speaking. There’s no easy, perfect path. That doesn’t make things impossible.
So in that way, I think I agree with Prof. Manners that we can’t limit ourselves to only conversations that go perfectly. But, we can change which conversation we’re having, so once someone points out “I think this conversation is framed in a harmful way” we can change the framing. And we cis people HAVE to be able to hear an accusation of “transphobia” and not run away/disengage. I mean, we’re human, so if someone is like, “Okay I hear that; I need to step away to manage my emotions” that seems reasonable to me. But we need to be willing to come back to the conversation and try again and (this is key) not lash out at or gaslight the people calling us out. But I think all too often cis people are unwilling to have a conversation if they feel in danger of being called out for saying something transphobic or ignorant. And too often I think this is held up as why it’s ‘impossible” to talk about these issues–that cis people are afraid of getting yelled at. Trans people have lots of legitimate reasons to be yelling, though.
Regarding addressing ‘the wider world,’ yes there are some strategic considerations there. For example, at which point to do you try to talk with your relative that’s super transphobic and try to find some common ground and maybe grant them a problematic premise or two to try to do damage control or try to build up rapport with them so that later down the line you have a better shot at changing their mind. I myself don’t think that Feminist Philosophers (especially as a public forum) should be the space to do that sort of project, at least in some ways, but that may be part of some lingering questions “about civility and about who we should be talking to” that I don’t think the blog has reached consensus on. So I won’t presume to speak for ‘most of us’ on that point.
NB: I am without quick or reliable internet access so comment moderation may be slow. Other FP bloggers, if you are on wordpress and see something from this post awaiting approval, please feel free to make the call. Sorry to all for the delays already.
Speaking of “framing”: we should re-frame these discussions to be non-west-centric. Doing so would shed light on the fact that part of what is at stake in these discussions about gender identity is not just questions about who gets to change next to whom in dressing rooms, and who gets addressed as what in birthing classes, but rather who gets conscripted into modern-day slavery (that is, sexual slavery/legal “rape-ability”/forced birth and child care work) around the world through the mechanisms of child marriage, some forms or arranged marriage, and sometimes just basic marriage. Children, teens, and adults are conscripted into these roles based on their presumed biological reproductive ability, not based on how they identify (themselves). Arguing that the *most* oppressed class is the class who should set the terms of these discussion does not automatically result in the terms being trans-centric if we take a non-west-centric view. From the perspective of modern-day sexual slavery (as described crudely and too-briefly above), ciswomen/cisgirls and transmen/transboys may be the most oppressed. The criticisms of self-identification as constituting identity, which may very well have been taken into account by trans scholars in the works Amy Marvin references above, have not been taken into account by policy makers or the general public, including various activists. Thus to say that invoking the idea that identity is tied to biology is in the service of the preciousness of motherhood or the sanctity of “private” or “safe” spaces is really to read those criticisms west-centrically. We shouldn’t preserve a biology-related definition of gender identity so as to preserve the preciousness of western motherhood or so as not to be made to feel “uncomfortable” in changing rooms. We should preserve it so that we retain the ability to name a fundamental axis of oppression under which, globally, a great amount of harm occurs, plausibly the greatest amount.
I just want to sincerely say thank you to my cis colleagues in this thread who are patiently explaining to other cis folks (yet again) that yes, nothing that Stock says is new, and yes, it’s still harmful to trans people to engage in debates about them without them, and that, yes, if you are beginning a conversation by saying that you have no relevant expertise about a complicated social issue that involves people’s identities and lived experience, you should be listening rather than talking. These discussions are extremely alienating and othering for me both as a professional and on a personal level (just look at how in this very discussion, an interlocutor employs a term that separates me from all other types of women). It is heartening to see a bevy of cisgender colleagues pushing back. Thanks.
I’m sorry that it seems ‘I’m asking 101 questions that people are patiently answering’. My experience, on the contrary, is that I’ve advanced a few ideas based on thinking about social identity drawn from the phenomenological literature, and that people haven’t actually engaged with the substance of what I’ve said. It’s instead being misread and some views I have not expressed are being attributed to me. This is unsurprising given the contentiousness of the issue. And the difficulties of internet discussion in general, and no doubt the fact that i could have expressed myself more clearly, but it’s pretty clear that this isn’t something that it is further fruitful to discuss online for me so I will bow out of this discussion.
One small thought Matt – the immigration case you offer looks disanalogous. What I took myself to be discussing was the new uk gender legislation which seemingly enshrines in law the claim that gender identity is solely to do with self-identification. And the seeming prohibition in certain left-leaning online circles against even asking whether this might be a problematic conception of gender to have enshrined in law. This is completely compatible with thinking that there needs to be a better set of legislative criteria than the ones we had previously, which were clearly bad for trans people in many different ways, and also compatible with thinking it’s right and just that transwomen have the right to access women’s spaces. To make the cases analogous, one would have to claim that the legal criteria to be an asylum seeker is just that one identify as such. And again, I’m not arguing against the current gender legislation, I’m arguing that its OK to question it.
Two quick questions
1) A lot of people here are talking about the violence suffered by trans people. An interesting feature of Dr Stock’s analysis is that she suggests that the stats are not at all clear (and that sex work acts as a confounding variable). Does anyone have a sense of what the stats really say? (Not personal anecdotes about friends – I’m sure there are horrible experiences, but I don’t know what they tell us about systematic oppression).
2) Anyone who has followed any debates about this kind of issue on twitter has surely come across horrible things being written about gender critical women who challenge claims about gender identity. If not, look at terfisaslur.com A rather worrying number of these comments include threats by self-identified women to literally silence women by making them perform fellatio. Of course, any movement has some idiots attached, but many of these idiots are very vocal. Can I assume that we all agree this is bad, or is the thought that it’s ok to want to use a penis to silence uppity women if you are a member of an oppressed minority?
Komarine, sorry if I wasn’t clear about what I meant by the immigration example. It wasn’t meant to be a knock-down argument that gender is purely a matter of self-identification. It’s only meant to counter the argument that Stock can’t be perpetuating a transmisogynistic myth because her claim is that the GRA would lead to assaults by men, rather than by transwomen.
The idea of the immigration case is that one can indeed put forth a position that’s prejudicial to group X by spreading a myth that granting rights to group X will lead to bad acts by members of group Y pretending to be group X. In the immigration case X=asylum seekers and Y=terrorists; in Stock’s case trans women and Y=unscrupulous men.
This is aside from the fact that the document Stock links does scaremonger about trans women, not just (and perhaps not at all) men pretending to be trans women.
1. I saw that the subject of decolonizing transgender was mentioned so I wanted to point people to two issues of TSQ that might be helpful for this subject.
Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary (published 2014): https://www.dukeupress.edu/decolonizing-the-transgender-imaginary
Translating Transgender (published 2016): https://www.dukeupress.edu/translating-transgender
Usually when teaching my Transgender Philosophy and Transgender Studies courses I like to assign the “Decolonizing Transgender” roundtable from the Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary issue as in introduction to decolonizing transgender, and then later move into a discussion about “Trans Necropolitics: A Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death and the Trans of Color Afterlife” by Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn to reflect on global homonationalism and the role of trans normativity in this context, and also prison abolition literature (the documentary MAJOR! about Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is useful to show students as an introduction to this and how it contrasts with mainstream politics, and also includes Angela Davis).
When I taught a trans literature course I also started with Janet Mock’s book Redefining Realness and she introduces this subject in a very accessible way when discussing growing up in Hawaii!
2. I also think I want to balance the conversation about feeling “silenced” and being afraid to speak. I think for me this subject is also scary and uncomfortable! It is decidedly not fun and causes me quite a bit of stress, as well as a distraction from writing that I should be doing! I also personally worry that spaces like Feminist Philosophers conducting this conversation is a way of uncritically having my existence put on trial for a larger audience, or at least a preliminary hearing to inquire about whether my existence should be put on trial before feminist philosophy, and I don’t think I’m free from potential social media harassment or job search repercussions by posting here too. I’m worried that people will use these arguments to challenge my existence in the profession (directly or indirectly) or use feminist philosophy to make arguments for the cause of restricting my participation in public space and access to medicine without having to consider any existing scholarship or really even having to interact with any trans people on a personal basis at all (let alone me).
Trans people in philosophy (and in academia more generally) are largely junior and contingent faculty, PhD students, and undergraduates in a professional environment that is often ambiguous or hostile or unsupportive (directly or indirectly). I don’t think most of us will get a tenure-track job, let alone a tenure-track research job. I don’t really see this framed as a vulnerability issue here as often as I see potential consequences and bad feelings for non-trans professors who have jobs framed as a vulnerability and silencing issue (I’m focusing specifically on people in the profession, not the vulnerability of trans or non-trans people more generally, as has been mentioned in earlier comments). So when someone wants to have this conversation and also does not want to conduct a scholarly literature review on the subject, or really have to read books or essays or poems or novels and so forth by trans people at all (let alone by trans people from different perspectives and backgrounds), it strikes me as a potential way of speaking past trans people (which is easy to do) by framing us as some abstract homogenized category or as a set of abstract policy issues without a face rather than a good faith engagement.
I think the lack of trans people in philosophy is also a potential ‘free speech/inquiry’ issue, even if it isn’t usually considered to be and trans people are frequently framed as a danger to free speech and inquiry. When conducting academic philosophy, essays by trans people published specifically in philosophy venues are easy to ignore because there are not many of them and not that many of us, and since philosophy can be so insular it is conveniently easy to dismiss the entirety of trans studies scholarship and trans theory scholarship as relevant, which is the closest thing we have to a thriving trans philosophy (although I hope this changes soon with continued trans philosophy conferences, such as the one to be held in early October 2018).
I think all I want is the capacity to be considered as a potential colleague when beginning these discussions, and for scholarly work on trans philosophy, trans theory, and trans studies to be considered important for literature reviews when writing on this subject rather than having to constantly start from square one or deal with getting framed as an abstract imagined trans person or (as is traditional in the field of philosophy) a puppet for arguments and publications.
3. I should also mention that Jacob Hale, who is a trans man philosopher, wrote a guide in 1997 about writing on trans people, developed in conversation with a non-trans woman. It is old, but sadly still very relevant, and I imagine I will end up sharing it every year for the rest of my life: https://sandystone.com/hale.rules.html
Matt W wrote: “This doesn’t sound to me like an “apparent conflict between [cis women]’s rights and interests, and transwomen’s rights and interests.” Isn’t the conflict here between trans women’s rights and interests, and what some subset of cis women see as their rights and interests? But we haven’t shown that that subset of cis women is very large.”
The reason it may seem to you that it is only a small subset, Matt, is because women who are concerned have made the prudent decision to stay quiet in public. The picture you have is actually manufactured consent. I have once or twice asked certain questions in public, and gotten many private messages expressing concern and gratitude. Just like Stock did.
Moreover, women are socialised to be self effacing and to put their own interests last, or to not even recognise their own interests in the first place. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many women don’t understand their own interest in, say, keeping biological sex as a protected characteristic.
And finally, it strikes me that your comment is very similar to the sorts of comments made by conservatives when they correctly point out that most women are not feminists. If you don’t think the claims of feminists are any the lesser because a majority of women don’t subscribe to them, exactly the same logic should apply here.
Someone asked for statistics about discrimination and violence against transgender people. In the US, a 2015 survey was conducted with nearly 28,000 respondents and detailed questions; you can view the report here:
From the executive summary:
“The findings reveal disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination and startling disparities between transgender people in the survey and the U.S. population when it comes to the most basic elements of life, such as finding a job, having a place to live, accessing medical care, and enjoying the support of family and community. Survey respondents also experienced harassment and violence at alarmingly high rates. Several themes emerge from the thousands of data points presented in the full survey report.”
While I’m not aware of data this comprehensive for other countries, there are still people gathering data. In the UK, for instance, there is a very recent survey of 871 respondents conducted by the advocacy group Stonewall.
Click to access lgbt-in-britain-trans.pdf
From the executive summary:
“What we have found is deeply worrying. Hate crime and discrimination against trans people, on our streets, in our hospitals, in workplaces and at universities, is widespread.
Two in five trans people had to deal with a hate crime or incident in the past 12 months. Many trans people are forced to hide who they are, change how they dress or drop out of university because of fear of discrimination. In our workplaces, half of trans and non-binary people have hidden or disguised that they are LGBT for this reason, and one in eight have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer.
Trans people often lack support from their families too, with more than a quarter subjected to domestic violence, and one in four having experienced homelessness at some point. The research reveals that many of those who need medical intervention are unable to access this, often due to waiting times that exceed NHS patients’ legal entitlements. Those who do access treatment regularly receive inadequate care.”
Another reply to Matt, who said “The upshot of Stock’s distinction between “unscrupulous men” and true transwomen is that, because some men may pretend to be transwomen, we should be highly skeptical of accommodations for the rights of true transwomen just to be safe. This seems pretty transmisogynistic. (Compare the argument that, because some people seeking political asylum might be terrorists posing as asylum seekers, a country should not grant access to any asylum seekers. This would be prejudicial to asylum seekers even though it purports to draw a distinction between true asylum seekers and the perpetrators.)”
That is a bad analogy. Asylum seekers are not a particular threat to their destination countries, whereas men are a particular threat to women. It’s why we have sex segregated spaces for women in the first place. It is irrational and bigoted to fear asylum seekers. It is not irrational and bigoted to fear men.
The conversation in the comments didn’t take long to devolve to just the sort of thing that the original post was hoping to avoid. Scolding one’s colleagues, in a more or less professional forum, that they’re “asking 101-level questions” is not seemly.
Pointing out to one’s colleagues that they are ignorantly (literally: without the relevant knowledge) asking a common question that has already been answered numerous times and that is not helpful for the discussion is not unseemly. It’s called “knowing what you are talking about” regarding an issue that has serious concrete effects for people.
The reason it may seem to you that it is only a small subset, Matt, is because women who are concerned have made the prudent decision to stay quiet in public…. I have once or twice asked certain questions in public, and gotten many private messages expressing concern and gratitude.
This doesn’t seem like evidence that it’s more than a small subset (proportionately). The group of people who send you private messages is self-selecting.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that many women don’t understand their own interest in, say, keeping biological sex as a protected characteristic.
This sounds awfully condescending to the many women who disagree with you on this issue.
If you don’t think the claims of feminists are any the lesser because a majority of women don’t subscribe to them, exactly the same logic should apply here.
Yes, that’s true. But the claim I was responding to is that there is an apparent conflict between trans women and cis women because to “some cis women [the trans-inclusive definition of gender identity] just seems all wrong.” That locates the conflict with those cis women to whom it seems wrong, which again is likely a minority of cis women. If you want to argue that there’s an apparent conflict with the interests of all cis women because the definition is wrong, that takes more argument.
That is a bad analogy. Asylum seekers are not a particular threat to their destination countries, whereas men are a particular threat to women. It’s why we have sex segregated spaces for women in the first place. It is irrational and bigoted to fear asylum seekers. It is not irrational and bigoted to fear men.
But men and asylum seekers don’t occupy corresponding parts in the analogy. The analogy (as far as it goes, see my most recent reply to komarine) is asylum seekers:terrorists::trans women:men. I’m not arguing, and no one’s arguing, that men should have access to sex-segregated spaces for women, the argument in this case is that trans women should have access. R.A. among others has provided evidence that trans women are not a particular threat to other women, and it does seem irrational and bigoted to fear trans women.
Last, a point about manufactured consensus, which goes back to the original post perhaps. In general there doesn’t seem to be any lack of arguments claiming that trans women are not women. I see them all the time, often getting signal-boosted by the most prominent philosophy blogs (not just the one that I believe R.A. is alluding to, but another one that generally seems to be less malign). The fear, as Prof. Manners said, is of being perceived to have the ‘wrong’ view.
But… if someone posts an essay spreading the myth that recognizing the gender of trans women will lead to unscrupulous men attacking women in women’s spaces
if they support this by uncritically linking to a document that consistently misgenders and deadnames trans people, that collectively blames all trans women for crimes committed by some trans women, and that says of a trans woman “Still, the fact that he had consensual sex with a woman, while claiming to identify as female, is troubling” (there is no indication whatsoever that the other woman involved was in any way unaware that the trans woman in question was trans, if that’s relevant)
if they give as grounds that trans women “coming to dominate political landscapes in the UK formerly [sic] reserved for women” that one trans woman has been elected to a position of Woman’s Officer of a Constituency Labour Party–out of hundreds of such positions, if I’m not mistaken
and I could go on
…well, then they may well face criticism, and may find trans people and pro-trans people not wanting to engage sympathetically with them. Just as if they had posted something critical of a bill granting rights to some other group, and had supported it with myths and scaremongering of that group, and an objection to even the smallest degree of political representation for that group.
This particular iteration of the argument failed to respect the humanity of trans women (the only trans people discussed) in basic ways. If consensus has been manufactured among feminist philosophers that trans women’s humanity ought to be respected, that seems like a good thing.
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