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Open for Debate

III: Be kind

16 November 2020

I think there’s something rude and unkind, or can be depending on the pragmatics, in the assertion that you often hear, that “Trans women are men really.” It’s rude and unkind in the way that it’s rude and unkind to say “An adoptive parent isn’t a parent really”—or even more obviously in the second person: “You, adoptive ‘parent’, are not really a parent.” (I blogged about this for the APA recently.)

In one way, the genetic sense, the truth of the statement about adoptive parents is of course undeniable. But in another way, the social and legal sense, the statement is false: and not just by-your-leave false or metaphorically false, but literally false. So when someone insists on stating the genetic truth that “Adoptive parents aren’t parents really” in a wide variety of social contexts, the question of why they are insisting on it is going to arise pretty fast. And an urge to hurt and exclude is quite likely to be the answer to that question. I think exactly parallel considerations apply with “Trans women are men really.”

But this is probably also the place for me to push back against a view that seems quite common among trans women which I think is clearly mistaken, and which I think is another view that’s only popular because it’s popular. I call this the mistake-at-the-hospital view of transgender. Some trans women seem to think that they’ve been oppressed because when they were born the doctors in the hospital assigned them to the male gender, and that that was a clear mistake (how could it then have been a clear mistake?), which was clearly the cause of all their later woes. To be honest, I think that’s just wacky. I don’t wish to dismiss anyone’s experience, but I struggle to see how this could be anyone’s actual experience, as opposed to a report of their experience that they give because they think it’s the report that they’re expected to give because they’ve heard other trans women give it. (In a nice distinction of Bernard Williams’, I can see how it could be what they think they think; but not how it could be what they think.)

Even if I speak only for myself in saying this, I’m sure that when I was born there was no mistake at the hospital: they correctly identified mine as a newborn male’s body. And since that was the only question that concerned them—they weren’t trying to see into the strange phantasmagorical landscape that I am pleased to call my mind—they didn’t miss anything. It later on turns out (not very much later actually, but later) that I have a profound sense that my body’s shape is not the one I want or feel at home in or comfortable with: I want a female body, which is not the body I was born with. That’s what it is, I think, to be a trans woman: it’s body dysmorphia of a profound kind. But as I say, they didn’t miss this at the hospital because they weren’t looking for it. To put it roughly, they were looking for sex, not for gender; and they got the sex bit entirely right.

Another thing trans women and others sometimes say: “I identify as transgender”, or “I identify as a woman”. I am puzzled by this form of words. It seems that a lot of people invest a lot of rhetorical and emotional energy in statements of identity like this one, but I have to confess that I don’t always see how they are supposed to work. In normal discourse I say things like “I identify as a Lancastrian” or “I identify as a European” meaning that I have that identity, I am in that category, anyway, no matter what I think of it as a category—and what I’m saying by talking about identifying as it, is that this identity that I have anyway is one that matters to me. So when I say “I identify as transgender” or “I identify as a woman”, perhaps I’m doing something similar: just picking out one of the categorisations that already fit me, and saying that that’s one that matters. Fine so far; but now people seem to want to use such remarks as announcements, as political moves: as if making such an identification-statement was self-fulfilling—as if you become (officially, publicly, politically?) transgender by saying this; and as if such a statement were the key thing that makes you transgender.

It’s this last bit that puzzles me most. For as far as I can see, “I identify as a woman” is not a performative, like “I declare this supermarket open”. Unlike the supermarket declaration, saying “I identify as a woman” (even in the right context etc.) doesn’t make it true that you are a woman. You may get the public status of being recognised as a woman just by saying this, but you don’t get to be a woman just by saying it. On the contrary: unless you are already (in some sense) a woman, you can’t say this at all. It does seem to me that there are some confusions in the recent debate in this sort of vicinity.

One last thing that people can mean by “Trans women are men really”: they can mean that trans women are disguised men, men pretending to be women. The charge of sexual predatoriness is not far away here (see below). Also close to hand is a reaction to trans women that frequently leads to violence against them. Some men find it threatening that trans women are people who present as female but have, or often have, male anatomy. Why so? Possibly because those men are insecure in their own masculinity: either they’re afraid that if they don’t react violently to trans women, they’ll find that they want to dress up as girls themselves; or they’re worried by the fact that they are sexually attracted to trans women (after all, “only a poof would feel that”). Or they take exception to what they see as an attempt to deceive them—the thinking is that trans women want their sexual attentions, and are trying to con them into bestowing them. I don’t need to say anything to bring out what Neolithic responses these all are. Still, it is worth taking a little time to try and understand these reactions, given that they regularly result in trans women’s deaths.

There is of course far more to say about these issues than I can say here, but I hope this is at any rate a start. Feminists and trans activists have not always understood or appreciated each other’s positions as well as they might, and for that I think there is fault on both sides. It would be nice to think that we can move the debate forward together, if we are prepared to try, and to be kind to each other.