Tag Archives: gender

Why Do People Hate Nonpassing Trans women?

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Interview with Marina Spriggs, M.A., LPC-Intern

 

I really enjoyed our discussion! We talk about why I left academic philosophy and a bunch of trans stuff. Be sure to subscribe to her podcast, Always Another Way, on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave a review for her podcast if you enjoyed our discussion.

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Interview with Cassie Brighter

 

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Hyper-vigilance in the Gender Machine

A Day in Gender

gender

Did that customer just “sir” me?

When he said “Thanks man” would he have said that to a cis female or was that just for me?

Did that person just say “dude” to me in a gender neutral way or not?

Is my co-worker going to use the right pronoun for me at the end of this sentence? Is there any hesitation in their usage of “she” pronouns for me or is it natural, automatic?

Did that customer just include me in their reference to “ladies?” *internal leap of joy*

Pronouns are the primary fuel of the gender machine. The gender machine is the whole apparatus of gender, the constant way in which life on Earth is filtered through the lens of whether you are a man, a woman, or something else. The gender machine is omnipresent, though if you aren’t paying attention it can seem like it doesn’t exist at all. The gender machine is brutal and impersonal: you are subject to it regardless of whether you want to be or not. The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, etc.

Before I transitioned, I only had a passing familiarity with the gender machine. I knew it existed, of course, and was obviously a product of it and regulated by it, but I didn’t really know it. I never paid much attention with occasional exceptions: being read as a male with long hair and ear piercings was sometimes interesting. Getting punished by my parents as a young child for wearing women’s clothes certainly made me aware of the gender machine and the rules of what boys are “supposed” to be like. My relationships with women exposed me to the gender machine a little bit. Being a husband made me self-conscious of my role within the gender system.  I had read a bit of gender theory here and there but didn’t really understand the gender machine on a super personal level. I was like the proverbial fish who lives and breathes water but doesn’t has a concept of water because it surrounds them 24/7.

But nothing prepared me for what it’s like to be a wrinkle in the gender machine, a nail that sticks out, an anomaly, a person who was first assigned male, raised male, and regulated as male but who eventually pushed back and bucked the system, who self-consciously rejected their position in the gender machine and chose another path, the path towards womanhood.

But violations of gendered social norms are highly regulated by misgendering, transphobia, and enforcement of gender conformity. If you don’t look and sound “like a woman” then the mahine will refuse to play along and you will get hurt. You will get “sirred”. You will get nasty stares as you walk out of the bathroom. You will be harassed, threatened, or maybe even violently assaulted or killed. The gender machine will attempt to chew you up and spit you out. You will be called “freak” and seen as less than human. You will be called slurs. You will be slandered as a pervert. Your sanity will be called into question. The gender machine has it especially out for nonpassing trans women and non-binary trans femmes due to the way masculinity and femininity is strongly regulated for those who are assigned male at birth. Any hint of a assigned-male person dabbling in femininity is brutally regulated so much so that trans women repress their desires for decades, or even repress them forever.

Does my adam’s apple stick out too much at this angle? I worry about this as I stand at the counter and adjust how I’m standing so the customer won’t see it right away. I maximally “prime” them with my available feminine cues, minimize the cues I want to hide, and slightly adjust the way I’m standing and holding my head to hide my adam’s apple. But I know they’ll eventually see it. They always do. That or my voice will reveal my history of being exposed to testosterone. What will they think of me? Not how will they treat me. Most people are nice. But how will they internally think of me? “Oh, there’s one of those ugly trannies. Freak.” Or worse. My paranoia about this runs deep. It affects my relationships with people I don’t know extremely well. Many TERFs these days are hardcore TERFs but keep their opinions to themselves. That’s almost worse. The fake smile. The deference with the pronouns, but secretly thinking “You’re a man.”

“Hi, what can I get started for you today?”, I speak over the intercom in a strained voice, desperately doing all I can to avoid the inevitable “Sir”. Often I don’t get it. But sometimes I do. I wonder if I would get misgendered more if we lived in a time when the gender machine regulated gendered communication and encouraged “sirs” and “ma’ams” at all times. Nowadays, thank God, people more lax on the honorifics. I personally try to never use them unless absolutely necessary. What’s the point? They do practically no good and often cause much harm to trans and GNC people. My voice is the Ur-factor in how I am perceived within the gender machine. It determines everything. Unfortunately, I know my voice is not perfect and still gets read as male to those unsuspecting strangers who might expect something else out of my mouth based on my appearance or dress.

I wake up super early for work to placate the gender machine with makeup. I know many cis women across the world are pressured by social norms to wear makeup to work in order to be seen as “professioanal”, “hygienic”, or even “competent”, but I am pressured into waking up extra early to shower, shave, and put on makeup in order to maximize my available gender cues, minimize the negative ones, and ultimately reduce my chance of getting misgendered, avoiding dysphoria as much as possible. With my voice and my adam’s apple and my masculine features, makeup is a defense mechanism for me, a way to reinforce the gender cues I give off. But what I’d give to have the option to just wear a bare face but still be so effortlessly feminine that no one in their right mind would question my status in the gender machine.

Whether I eventually get misgendered or not depends on many factors, mainly to what extent these people are self-conscious regulators in the gender machine aka transphobic assholes. But it’s also ignorance. And not paying attention. But still. Regardless, the most common thing that happens is that people don’t gender me at all. I get greeted as female all the time but rarely depart as an acknowledged female. When others around me get pronouns, I often get none. Which isn’t too bad I guess. Could be worse.

My coworkers, or “partners” as we call them at Starbucks, are my literal life blood. Their acceptance of me as a woman and their automatic usage of “she” pronouns are my primary coping mechanism for dysphoria and misgendering at work. The small little genderings that happen through the day literally sustain me. It means so little to them, yet so much to me.

Life as a non-passing trans woman for me means constant vigilance. Professional pronoun detector should be written on my business card. Constant awareness of all things gender defines my worldview. When I am hanging out with cis males, I can’t help but notice their masculinity and define myself as apart from them, down to tiny little mannerisms like the small inflection they put on the end of a word, or how much space they are taking up. When I am around cis females, I can’t help but compare myself to them and get self-conscious about every little feminine detail that comes so naturally to them. Even hanging out with butch lesbians does little to make me feel better because even they are so dripping with womanhood that I can’t help but feel “less”. Such is life as a non-passing, late transitioning trans woman.

The gender machine is fueled by pronouns, and regulated by conformity. It is all around us. Even in today’s post-modern liberal society of increasing LGBTQIA diversity awareness, the gender machine is working harder than ever to regulate gender. It might seem like we are now living in a laissez faire world when it comes to gender, but don’t let surface trends fool you: The growing acceptance of trans and GNC people in society has done absolutely nothing to placate the gender machine. It is still hungry – it still needs to feed. It simply finds a new tactic, a new way of regulatation, new rules, regulations, associations, connotations, expectations, etc.

Gender is still all pervasive, as any trans or observant person will tell you. Some gender theorists like to talk about a future, hypothetical society where the gender machine is no more. But that’s a thought experiment only. A fantasy. A utopia that will never come to be. All we can do is force the gender machine to evolve in small, hopefully progressive directions. But despite the gender machine’s dominance and finality being out of our control, we can as individuals take self-conscious steps towards understanding our place within the gender machine and working to make sure everyone feels safe as they can be within the machine. Respecting pronouns and reducing the usage of honerifics is a huge part of this and definitely something cis allies can do. Good luck.

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The Ultimate Transgender FAQ for Allies

transgender FAQ

What does “transgender” mean?

The term “transgender” has no universally agreed upon definition but most academics define it to mean “anyone who has a gender different from the gender they were assigned at birth”. For example, a trans girl might have been thought to be a “boy” at birth but her gender is actually that of a girl.

There is debate within the trans community about how broad the trans umbrella is. Some want to include gender-nonconforming people, crossdressers, drag queens/kings and basically anyone who does not ascribe to stereotypical gender stereotypes in their expression. Other trans people want to restrict the term “transgender” specifically to those who have dysphoria about their body and seek out medical/surgical treatment. I write more about whether dysphoria is necessary for being trans here.

But despite there not being consensus on how broad the umbrella is, the academic definition of “different gender than gender assigned at birth” works for almost all instances. Notice how this definition does not imply, e.g., a trans man was “born a girl”. It was a false assignment based on a preliminary examination of superficial morphological features. With that said, I have written about whether gender identity is solidified during a “critical window” at ~5 years old like many theorists speculate or whether gender identity can change over a lifespan.

 

What is the difference between sex and gender?

“Sex” usually refers to biological/physiological characteristics of the body (“male” vs “female” vs “intersex”, etc.) whereas gender typically refers to a broader social-cultural phenomena involving expectations about social role, behavior, expression, power dynamics, processes of identification, public spaces (e.g. the “women’s bathroom”), signs, markers, and other normative significations of gendered difference.But “sex” is also ambiguous between multiple different sex concepts.

Harry Benjamin, critical to the history of trans healthcare, famously wrote:

“Here are some of the kinds of sex I have in mind: chromosomal, genetic, anatomical, legal, gonadal, germinal, endocrine (hormonal), psychological and also the social sex, usually based on the sex of rearing.” (1966, The Transsexual Phenomenon)

All these different sex concepts can vary independently in any given individual.

Some gender theorists, however, have argued that the sex/gender distinction breaks down and they are too intermingled to be conceptually disentangled. I have written about the problems with the sex/gender distinction before.

transgender

What is the difference between “transgender” and “transsexual”?

When the term “transgender” was first coined it was defined in contrast to “transsexual”. “Transsexual” was a more limited term, specifically referring only to those trans people who seek out medical assistance via hormones, surgery, etc.

“Transsexualism” was coined in the late 1940s and early 1950s by doctors David O. Cauldwell (a psychiatrist) and Harry Benjamin (endocrinologist). In the 1960s, “most roads let to Benjamin” (How Sex Changed, Joanne Meyerowitz, p. 133). He treated thousands of trans patients and defined the norms through which trans people spoke to their therapists and doctors, essentially creating the script of the modern gatekeeping system.

“Transgender” was originally meant to be more encompassing, including transvestites (aka “crossdressers”), gender benders, and anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary.

Many people feel that “transsexual” is offensive and reductionist, and perhaps it is outdated sociologically, but a good number of trans people strongly identify with the term and so I would caution anyone against making universal statements about whether the term should or shouldn’t be used.

But nowaways, “transgender” is the preferred term of choice for most trans people, often shorted to “trans”.

What does “cisgender” mean?

The term “cisgender” comes from the Latin prefix “cis”, meaning “on this side of”, which is the opposite of “trans”, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.

Basically, if you are cisgender you are not trans i.e. you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. For example, a cis man is a man that was identified as a boy at birth, raised as a boy, and feels totally comfortable with his manhood to the point where he might not have even questioned it nor formed an explicit identity as a man, his identity would be akin to a fish not noticing the water surrounding it: it’s just an omnipresent facet of his reality.

But many cis men do think about their manhood and masculinity and make conscious efforts to solidify that identity through culturally sanctioned rituals. Moreover, many cultures have explicit rites of passage that mark the entrance into the “adult” gender of manhood.

Furthermore, the question can be complicated because the line is fuzzy: “comfort” with your assigned gender comes in degrees and some cis people might be uncomfortable with a lot of aspects of their gender role but maybe still like their body or maybe have questioned their gender a bit but still feel mostly comfortable with their assigned gender. It can get complicated. Needless to say the cis vs. trans distinction is not super sharp because gender stuff is a complex and messy.

How is sexual orientation different from gender identity?

Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to. Gender identity refers to your identification/comfort with a gender such as “man” or “woman”. These two things can vary independently.

For example, a trans woman might identify as a woman but be attracted to other women (lesbian). Or a trans man might identify as a man but be attracted to more than one gender (bisexual/pansexual).

Many people falsely assume that, e.g., trans women are just “really gay” men and thus all “true trans women” are attracted to men. But about a third of trans women are only interested in other women. The rest is split between those attracted to men and those attracted to more than one gender.

Furthermore, many trans people are on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. Asexual typically means having a persistent lack of sexual attraction towards any gender. And this is different from to question of romance e.g. someone might be interested in sex with men but only wants romantic relationships with women. Aromantic would be someone who doesn’t experience any romantic attraction.

And there are many more sub-categories and distinctions to be made here. For resources on asexuality, see:

Fantastic resource on asexuality

transgender pronouns

Names and Pronouns: how do I use them?

Some general guidelines are:

  • Always use the name and pronouns that are explicitly requested. If you know someone uses she/her pronouns, then use them. If you know someone uses, they/them pronouns, use them, even if you know you’ll mess up frequently or if it feels “weird”.
  • When referring to the past, still use currently preferred pronouns. For example, if talking about a trans woman named Samantha, you might say “Before Samanatha transitioned, back in high school, she used to be on the men’s track team.”
  • If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, find a way to gently ask e.g. “Hey, do you mind if I ask, what are your pronouns? Oh, awesome, thank you! I didn’t want to assume.” If you can’t ask, then use gender neutral pronouns when possible.
  • Often we just assume people’s pronouns based on stereotypes i.e. if someone “looks” like a man they must be a man. But challenge yourself on this because it’s not always true. Avoid honorics like “sir” or “ma’am” unless absolutely necessary.
  • If you mess up on someone’s pronouns, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself without fanfare and move on. Don’t pause and comment or say “sorry”. Just correctly yourself and proceed with what you were going to say.

What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity refers to how you identify (“man”, “woman”, or something else) and gender expression refers to how you express your gender through clothes, hairstyle, accessories, mannerisms, makeup, etc.

Although the terms “femme” and “masc” have their origins in the lesbian community, some people now use them to describe positions within the space of the feminine/masculine spectrum of gender expression:

futch scale

What is “genderqueer” and “nonbinary”?

Nonbinary means anyone who identifies outside the traditional man/woman binary. For example, someone might:

  • Identify as neither man nor woman
  • Identify as both a man and a woman
  • Identify outside the spectrum entirely
  • Identify as different genders at different times (genderfluid)
  • Identify as lacking all gendered identification characteristics (“agender”)
  • Identify their gender through the perspective of their race identity (“My gender is black”)
  • Identify as having a queer/nonnormative gender that escapes normal categories (“genderqueer”)

 

All these definitions are framed in terms of identity-language, but many trans people prefer to talk about just their genders e.g. a trans woman doesn’t “identify” as a woman she is a woman. So, with nonbinary, instead of “identify as neither man nor woman” we could say “their gender is neither that of a man or a woman”.

But personally, I think that if trans people have a gender identity than on the same grounds so do cis people-the difference is that cis people identify with the gender that was given to them at birth. But both cis people and trans people have the same basic cognitive architecture involved in processing information related to sex and gender; they just arrive at much different conclusions.

And here, “identify” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a conscious process (although I think some aspects of identity are formed at the conscious level) – it can refer to unconscious processing about both our sexed bodies and the norms/rules/systems of gender that forms the basis upon which we come to understand ourselves in gendered terms.

Many nonbinary people think of themselves as being a “sub-category” of trans, but some don’t: they see their nonbinary identity as not being reducible to typical categories of transness.

For more information on nonbinary identities, see:

Further resources about nonbinary people

What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is the feeling of deep discomfort with aspects of your assigned gender. Often this focuses on body parts: for example, a trans woman might hate her penis and wish for a vagina, a trans man might hate his breasts and wish for a flat chest. This can apply to almost any body part that is sexually dimorphic: height, size, muscularity, facial hair, hair, handsize, adam’s apple, voice, feet size, ribcage, shoulders, vascularity, facial shape, browbridge, jawline, etc., etc.

But gender dysphoria can also apply to social phenomena: feeling discomfort with how you are perceived by society, your social role, which pronouns people use for you, how you are included in different gendered spaces, and the normative enforcement of gendered expression, etc.

For example, someone can feel dysphoria for not being able to express themselves and then later come to feel dysphoria about their body. Or someone’s dysphoria might focus exclusively on their body and not on gender expression. Or someone could be focused more on the dysphoria surrounding restrictions in gender expression and very little if any bodily dysphoria (though there is debate about this).

Is being transgender a mental disorder?

This is a complicated question. We can distinguish between gender dysphoria as a debilitating (but treatable) condition vs the mere fact of identifying as a different gender than your assigned gender (being trans). Arguably, being trans in and of itself is not pathological but if your dysphoria is bad enough it can lead to anxiety, depression, dysfunction, suicidal thoughts, etc., etc. For more on this, see this post I wrote on the so-called “truscum” debate.

surgery

Do all transgender people want surgery?

Simply put: no. Many do. But not all. Some only want some of the surgeries but not others. Some are happy with just hormones. Some actually don’t want any hormones or surgery. Some cannot have surgery or take HRT because of medical conditions but of course they’re still trans. Some cannot afford it. Some would get it if they could press a magic button but don’t want to go through the ordeal of major, risky surgery.

What is the difference between “transgender” and “intersex?”

This is a complicated question. Typically intersex refers to a condition where one has sexual characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. For example, an otherwise female-appearing person who has a vagina but also male gonad inside of her.

It’s complicated because some trans people have argued that being trans is a kind of neurological intersex condition where there is a mismatch between the sex of their brain and their body. But other theorists argue that the concept of brain sex is sketchy.

Traditionally, intersex was distinguished from being trans in terms of it being a condition of the soma (body) whereas being trans was a psychiatric (mental) condition. But this assumes a mind/body dualism that is problematic.

Drag queen

How is being gender non-conforming different from being transgender?

Gender non-conforming (GNC) means that you have a gender expression that differs from the norms of society e.g. a man who wears makeup, or a woman who shaves her head. Drag queens are good examples of GNC men (although some drag queens do identify as trans or nonbinary).

Arguably, there must be a distinction between being trans and being GNC because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of a GNC cis woman. So therefore, GNC people cannot be part of the trans umbrella otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have a category of a butch cis woman.

What does medical transition involve?

Medical transition can involve a lot of things.

For trans-masculine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Testosterone therapy
  • Top surgery to remove breasts
  • Bottom surgery can often be broken into two broad categories:
    • Metoidioplasty: creates a penis from the enlarged clitoral growth of T-therapy
    • Phalloplasty: creates a penis from skin tissue.

For trans-feminine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Blocking testosterone
  • Estrogen therapy
  • Bottom surgery can involve:
    • Orchiectomy: removal of testes
    • Vaginoplasty: inverting the penis to create a vagina
  • Facial feminization surgery
  • Vocal feminization surgery
  • Vocal therapy
  • Breast augmentation

What are the causes of being trans?

This is still a fairly new field of empirical research. Being trans cannot as of yet be diagnosed like some medical pathologies such as cancer or the flu using empirical tools of measurements. There is some preliminary evidence of correlating biological factors but causation is incredibly hard to conclusively establish in humans for complex traits like being trans. So, in a nutshell, no one really knows the true cause(s) of being trans. Furthermore, trans people are a highly varied population and there might be multiple, overlapping, causes that interact strongly with the environmental context making the extrapolation of causality to single biological factors very complicated.

For a summary of some of the research on the biology of trans identities, see:

Harvard team summarizes evidence on biological foundations of gender

For a literature review of the biological foundations of trans identity, see:

Saraswat, A., Weinand, J., & Safer, J. (2015). Evidence supporting the biologic nature of gender identity. Endocrine Practice, 21(2), 199-204.

Is being transgender a modern fad?

No. Trans people have always been a part of human history.

Sex/gender expression was much more varied in some ancient cultures and traditions.

Arguably the notion of a gender binary where there are only two genders/sexes and two corresponding gender roles  is a historical construct. Other societies have historically recognized a polymorphous number of gender/gender roles not limited to two dimorphic biological categories (male vs. female).

A white man, describing the Crow Nation of North America, observed:

“Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!” (quoted in Trans Warriors, Leslie Feinberg, p. 22)

Writing in 1724, French missionary Joseph Francois Lafitau observed of Two-Spirit people that they were revered:

“They believe they are honored…they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order” (Trans Warrior, p. 23)

Hijra in India are India’s social category for trans feminine individuals who have long played an important social function in their society, presiding over many different important social events and making their living this way. Young hijra are brought into the fold by elders in the community and taught how to perform the social rituals.

American journalists reported on “sex changes” as early as the 1930s.

In the 1800s the concept of “inversion” was used to lump together all kinds of gender and sex variance.  If you were male but “inverted” to show the traits of a female then you were considered mentally deviant. The problem with “inversion” theories from a modern perspective is they conflated sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

In summary, it’s clear that gender diverse people have always existed.

Do transgender people face discrimination?

Yes. Trans people face discrimination in many areas of life including:

  • bullying at schools
  • discrimination at work (not being hired, being fired after transition, harassment)
  • housing discrimination, denied access to shelter, resources
  • discrimination stemming from not having proper governmental ID matching sex & gender
  • discrimination in healthcare getting access to medical care, both for transition purposes and just general healthcare
  • targeted by law enforcement (especially for being black and trans and femme)
  • harassment on the street, from strangers, friends, or family
  • stares, laughter, ridicule, hatred and trolling on the internet, death threats
  • violence
  • murder

For more information, see:

Wikipedia page on Transgender Equality

LGBT girl

As an ally, how can I be supportive of transgender people?

Work on your own transphobia. Do you have a hard time seeing non-passing trans women as women? Ask yourself why. Critically interrogate your own assumptions about gender inherited from a cis-sexist society.

Respect pronouns. Always.

Call out transphobia. Raises trans voices. Support us. Invite us into spaces.

Listen to us e.g. if the community is telling you Ru Paul is transphobic, then please believe Ru Paul is transphobic.

Be affirming. But treat us like normal people. You don’t have to be excessively effusive in your allyship to be a good ally – often we don’t want the pity and fanfare – we don’t think of ourselves as inspiring, brave people. We are human like everyone else, with the same basic needs just trying to find meaning in an absurd world.

More tips for being a good ally to trans people.

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Ru Paul’s Drag Race Controversy: Two Trans Women Share Their Feelings

My gf Jacqueline and I share our feelings about the recent Ru Paul controversy and how it relates to the broader phenomenon of trans people, drag, and LGBTQ+ history.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans life

Support me on Patreon!

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https://www.patreon.com/transphilosopher

Hey everybody! I am really excited to announce that I am working on a book:

 

 

On Being an Angry Tranny

It’s going to be a collection of the best essays from this website, heavily revised, along with whole new essays keeping in the same blog-style format. Topics include gender, queer studies, intersectional feminism, trans phenomenology, gender critical feminism, the psychology of gender, and much more!

In order to afford the publishing and marketing costs, please consider supporting me on Patreon with $5/month. Not only will this help me get my book to a wider audience, it will support me in writing more content for this site! If you appreciate what I do here on Transphilosopher, becoming a Patron is the best way to support me as a writer.

Thank you so much to all my readers for supporting trans philosophy!

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A Plea for Agnosticism in an Age of Ardor

 

donald-trump_2015-09-24

Can we please, as a society, develop our agnosticism muscles a little more?

This country is deeply divided on so many important issues, we’re angry and alienated from both each other and ourselves, we live in a post-truth society where fake news is so insidious it’s not always clear what’s true and what’s not, we live inside artificially constructed Facebook bubbles, we don’t as individuals have the resources to fact-check everything we read, we know mostly everything we know through endless chains of testimony like a bad game of telephone, we can’t tell what’s click-bait and what’s another day in politics, the algorithms of social media determine what we believe more than our own quest for the truth – we live an age where truthiness reigns supreme as the epistemic value of choice.

But who can really blame us? We are after all just naked apes, fragile and error-prone apes at that, who often claim certainty about things we have no right to claim certainty to, who make sweeping philosophical claims with nothing to back them up, who take our experiences and generalize them to everyone and everything else – I mean our consciousness is a barely functioning ever-ready-to-topple piece of gooey machinery scrapped together out of spare parts, a fragile little piece of work that often goes wrong in so many ways.

But it is our home. We ought to respect our home and acknowledge it as a product of evolution, genetics, epigenetics, development, socialization, learning, etc, etc., and thus susceptible to *not getting things exactly right* when it comes to knowing the actual real truth of how the universe works or whether some complex philosophical claim is true.

Given what we know about ourselves as being what Nietzsche called “human, all too human” why the hell would we ever claim to know so many things with such strong convictions when we could alternatively just relax a little? As a society I just can’t recommend people thinking we know things with strong certainty. I mean, yeah, maybe it’s certain that 2+2=4 but it’s a lot more fuzzy on issues such as e.g. does God exist? Is happiness is valuable? What is consciousness? What is a soul anyway? Is nihilism false? Is democracy the best system of government? What is the nature of gender?

For any highly contentious subject that offers no clear methodology for settling the matter in a public, falsifiable manner we are left with a situation where eventually in any dialectic we just want to slam our fists down on the table and call it an argument.

The problem here is that strong moral convictions have led to a lot of good in our universe. But at the same time strong moral convictions have also led to a lot of bad in our universe. It’s near impossible to calculate the net effect but I think on the whole relaxing the strength of our convictions a little would still allow for community-benefiting moral truths like “treat others as an end in themselves” to continue to spread while warding off the moral convictions of, e.g., transphobes.

Thorough-going agnosticism is not an easy system to adopt fully for it bleeds into our personal lives rather quickly. For example, I have argued for a position I call gender agnosticism. Gender agnosticism is about refusing to make a stand on whether the gender/sex distinction is true or not. Is gender (“womanhood”) different from sex (“female”)? I can see the arguments on both sides. But there seems to be no way to come to a definitive conclusion that is amenable to public consensus. It’s not like we can build a measuring device and go out into the world to determine if gender is different from sex. If you try to operationalize the concept you are left with the question: why that particular operationalization? And if we used another how would we determine which one is better getting at the truth? We’d need a third source. But how do we determine the truth of that one as well? It goes round and round in a circle.

But if I truly believe gender agnosticism, I cannot even be certain of whether my body is male or female. The lack of positive belief renders my self-awareness devoid of content and I am left with less self-knowledge. But what remains is surely the truth. For what I am left with is the notion that whether I am male or female in an ultimate metaphysical sense is not as important as other things like: people using my preferred pronouns, being treated with dignity and respect, having secure employment, healthcare, housing, etc. Of course, whether other people believe I am male or female could impact the lives of trans people in virtue of stigma and the political ramifications of legislation that targets trans bodies.

Does the negative political impact of gender agnosticism render it false? One might think so assuming a pragmatic epistemology. But in my view whether gender agnosticism leads to social harm depends on the context of the community in which it’s believed. In some communities it’s easy for me to imagine the spread of something like gender agnosticism leading to more freedom and happiness. But in other contexts it could of course be used to harm as well.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for apathy where we just stop caring about how things are defined or what’s true or not true. I care deeply about the truth. I just think it’s pretty difficult to arrive at the Ultimate Truth for topics that have some degree of philosophical assumption built in, which is just about every topic imaginable.

We should not stop having dialogue about these tough topics. We should not stop having strong moral convictions. But what drives me crazy is the arrogance of people assuming that they are in possession of the Whole Truth, and not what they actually possess: a distorted fragment. The truth might be out there, but it’s quite another thing to assume we have arrived at it in its entirety. The whole of human history shows us being wrong about just about everything – do we really think that early 21st century humans have finally figured everything out? Chances are we are also really really wrong about a great number of things many of which would probably be quite embarrassing if we had to stand in judgment of our future descendants and explain our way of doing things.

So above all I advocate for humility in the face of the daunting likelihood that many of the truths we cherish are deeply false. Epistemic humility is a trait that is undervalued in the modern social environment with the virality of media often being tied to the confidence of its proclamations rather than the veracity of its content.

And yes, I am aware that my conclusion renders the whole of this post less likely to be true. So fair warning: my own arguments for agnosticism could be wrong – don’t assume they’re true just because they seem convincing to you now. And if they were never convincing to you in the first place, bravo, you might be right!

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Why I Was Not Born In the Wrong Body

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Identity is central to trans people.

Or is it?

When we say “I was born in the wrong body” what is this “I” being referred to? And is this identity something that exists separately from the flux of ions that is our neuronal activity? Separate from the atomic flows which constitute our bodies?

But whatever it is, surely it was not the fully-developed-self-reflective-autobiographical consciousness that was born in the wrong body. Because that consciousness was not born but rather grown. Grown in the social matrix of our environment, our learning history, our socialization, etc.

And what exactly is this conscious identity we speak of when we talk about being trapped in the wrong body? Does it really exist or is it an illusion? But of course illusions themselves really exist. But they exist as illusions. But who is getting tricked? Perhaps the “who” being tricked is the trick itself! The trick is continuously created by the process of getting tricked. Until something goes wrong…

There is a real possibility we will never be able to think about this stuff sensibly, in the same way it’s almost impossible to visually imagine 12 dimensions in hyperspace. We are in the end left with metaphors. But that’s not so bad. In fact it’s quite great because metaphor is the fundamental building block of cognition anyway. So that actually puts us in a great position to think about consciousness. Consciousness is an illusion. That’s the metaphor. Or at least one metaphor. Another is puppets. Another is Dennett’s “web of narratives” metaphor i.e. his “multiple drafts” theory. Another powerful metaphor is software running on hardware.

Anyway, what we might mean by “trapped in the wrong body” is that the body I desire to have is different from the body that I grew up in (but what does it mean to grow up “in” a body?) And it’s different in a way that is fundamentally gendered. My ideal body would have never suffered so much testosterone exposure. It would have never presented itself to doctors in a way that made them declare “It’s a boy!”

Ideally my body would have taken a much different journey. But insofar as my current consciousness would be radically different if my history of embodiment was radically different, is it not a wish for death to wish for a different body? If I did not have my trans history I would literally be a different person. If I truly wished to be that different person, I am wishing for the end of my current self. And thus could my “ideal” body really by ideal if I would need to die to realize it?

I am probably one of the luckier trans folks who actually does not wish to be a different person. Although there are of course things about myself I would change in a heartbeat, I am content with the person I am. Not content in the sense that I have no room to grow and be a better person. I am not perfect by any means. But content in the sense of not wishing to be a radically different person.

If I was “born a girl” – would I have become a philosopher? Given how sexist the field of philosophy is (not to mention the society itself), it’s unlikely. Yet my primary identity is that of “philosopher”. Before “woman”, I am a philosopher. Before “trans”, I am a philosopher. Being a philosopher is more predictive of my behavior and thought than any other trait. It’s fundamental to who I am and how I operate. This is the self I am content with. It is likely that if I rewound the tape of my life and started fresh with a new embodiment that I would not be who I am today.

And the person I am today is largely is a happy and well-adjusted person. I have had my share of difficulties. But I consider myself to be a lucky person. If I was Christian I would say, I am “blessed”. Yes, indeed. I am quite blessed to be alive. I am 30 years old and I am looking forward to the next 70 years of health, happiness, love, and knowledge. I look forward to growing into myself as a woman, as a trans woman, as a philosopher.

Although I am no longer an academic philosopher, I am still very much concerned with making contributions to philosophical conversation. This blog is a testament to that. And it goes beyond merely continuing my academic training. My academic training did not teach my to be a blogger. That was a passion I developed even before grad school. And it was always carried on independently of my academic research. And I always believed the blogging I did was just as important or even more important than the academic papers I wrote, especially since those papers ended up being read by almost no one whereas my blog saw a wide audience. So here’s to being a philosopher!

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Filed under Gender studies, philosophy of mind, Trans studies

Butterfly or Acorn? Becoming the Woman I Never Was

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When a caterpillar wraps itself in its cocoon it completely dissolves into a goo. The butterfly emerges out of the goo. Is the butterfly the same entity as the caterpillar that existed pre-goo? Or is the butterfly a whole new entity? It’s easy to think of the butterfly as a new creation that sprung forth from the goo. In other words, the caterpillar didn’t turn into a butterfly, the caterpillar died and the butterfly was born anew.

In contrast, when an acorn turns into a tree it does not die. It merely grows from the inherent potential within itself. We say the acorn developed into the tree just like a child develops into an adult.

As a trans woman, I relate much more to the butterfly than I do the acorn.

Before I go on, I must insist that I am only speaking for myself. The experiences of trans people are incredibly diverse and many trans people might relate more to the acorn. The question isn’t about who’s more valid: acorns or butterflies. I believe both are valid. The right question is rather: what is your story?

The acorns of the trans world are the people who were sure of their identity from a very young age. Many of these same trans people ascribe to the “born this way” narrative where they focus strongly on genetic and biological explanations of their trans identity that places the emphasis on it being innate, a fundamental part of who they are since birth.

In contrast, I am much more of a butterfly. The way I view my journey is that I was for all intents and purposes a man prior to transition. I performed the social role well and this performance did not conflict with my identity. I was, however, a gender nonconforming male who had a feminine side I had been exploring from a young age. I played with this juxtaposition for many years until my marriage ended in my late twenties and an opportunity for further gender exploration opened up.

The more I explored my femininity the more I realized desires were emerging that told me I could no longer live a dual life. I needed to make a binary transition into womanhood. This was largely the result of living in a society that makes it very difficult for a male-identified person to make a complete social/physical/presentational transition while still holding onto their male identity.

Like it or not we live in a binarist culture where manhood and womanhood are associated with certain stereotypes. I began to realize that I wanted nothing to do with manhood and the toxic masculinity endemic to our patriarchal culture.

Hormone therapy activated emotional circuits that allowed me to feel empathy in a way that I previously was unable to.

Social transition provided an opportunity to learn about systemic oppression and taught me solidarity with folks of all stripes. My eyes were opened up to how fucked up this world is and how oppression really functions in this society.

My loss of male privilege gave me new a new epistemic and moral perspective from which to analyze the world. Direct exposure to rampant transphobia gave me insight into the power structures that are actively working to maintain white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, patriarchy, etc.

Transition made me aware of what it’s like to fear walking down the street by yourself. It taught me to fear men. In so many ways transition has changed my entire political/social worldview. I went from being one of the most privileged people on this planet to someone who can now understand what solidarity really means.

But transition also was the catalyst for my metaphormophis. Transition turned my male identity into a goo out of which emerged a woman exploring her identity.

I relate to the butterfly instead of the acorn because I don’t like to focus on the innate factors that predisposed me to explore femininity in the first place. I prefer instead to focus on the interpersonal-social-environmental-learning-cultural-reflective-introspective factors that led to the breakdown of my male identity and provided the matrix through which my trans identity developed.

I worry that the “born this way” narrative is dangerous fodder for conservatives and TERFs hellbent on trans genocide. If we find a biological cause of trans identity, would some parents screen and terminate their babies if they thought they’d turn out trans? After all, many people see it as a medical condition or disorder of some kind. Whether its a psychiatric disorder or endocrinological disorder doesn’t matter – if it’s a disorder why wouldn’t people try to eradicate it from our species?

This is one of the reasons why I prefer to focused on the non-biological factors at play in the formation of my trans identity. Obviously there was some biological factors at play because it’s always a mixture both nature and nurture. But in so many trans narratives we see a reluctance to talk about the non-biological factors. There is a fear that if we admit such factors people will either think we’re phonies or that we can just go to therapy to cure ourselves of the desire to transition.

I reject both claims. Just because there are non-biological factors at play does not entail that conversion therapy will work. The presence of non-biological factors does not mean that we can just consciously choose to be trans. The question of “is it a choice” is over simplified because we have to distinguish between unconscious and conscious cognitive processes. The unconscious feeds off many non-biological factors same as the conscious system. The existence of choice does not mean that it’s willy-nilly and can just be consciously overridden.

Furthermore, nobody is born with a “doctor gene”. But obviously if you choose to be a doctor that doesn’t make you a phony doctor. Similarly, there is probably not a single “trans gene”. But choosing to become a woman doesn’t make you a phony woman. It’s the performance of doctorhood that makes you a doctor and for me it’s the performance of womanhood that counts. Moreover, “performing womanhood” is not the same as performining femininity. You can violate every stereotype known and still perform womanhood authentically.

And once you perform a role long enough it becomes automatized, habitualized, unconscious, and thus “natural”. It becomes part of the unconscious schemas that structure your total personality.

While in many ways I am still quite similar to the man I once was, in many more ways I am a new person. Going on the classic Lockean model of personal identity, there are enough significant psychological discontinuities with who I once was to warrant thinking I am a whole new person.

I have become the woman I never was.

I was decidedly not a woman born into the body of a man but rather a man who turned into a woman. I was not a woman peering out from behind the eyes of a male. I was a gender nonconforming male who had a complex set of new desires emerge from a period of gender exploration in my twenties. This desires included a desire for a feminine name, she/her pronouns, hormone therapy, laser treatment, and a complete change in appearance.

My sexual desires also changed. I went from being bi-curious to pansexual.

All my feelings about my body changed. I did not have significant body dysphoria before transition. Transition precipitated most of my gender dysphoria. It was not gender dysphoria that caused transition but transition that caused the dysphoria.

Again, I want to emphasize this might not be true of all trans people. We all have our own stories, our own life history, and what’s true for me is might not be true for anyone else. The “born this way” narrative absolutely resonates with some people and it’s not my place to take that away from people’s stories. But for me, the “born this way” narrative is stifling and ignores how my journey actually unfolded.

But I think we do a disservice to ourselves by focusing too many on acorns while ignoring butterflies. Both are beautiful. Both are valid.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, My life, Trans studies