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Is philosophy really ignoring important questions about transgender identity, specifically what it means to be a woman?

June 6, 2018
 

As last year’s Hypatia debate revealed, writing philosophy about being transgender is tricky. There are outstanding debates about which questions actually matter and who is best situated to philosophize about transgender identity, along with pitfalls to avoid -- arguably facile comparisons among them. (As you may recall, Hypatia’s editors and associate editorial board split over an essay comparing being transgender to being transracial).

In a new, talked-about series of essays, Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, in Britain, brings another set of tricky question to the fore: If there are inherent differences in interests between cisgender women and trans women, why aren’t academics debating them?

“Something is afoot in academic philosophy,” Stock wrote in one essay she published on Medium. “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.”

Stock’s occasion for writing is proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act, which would make it easier for trans people to gain recognition for their identities through self-declaration. While many British feminists support the changes without hesitation, others -- especially radical feminists -- believe being born with a vagina is meaningfully different from being born without one. There are concerns about whether trans women might come to dominate women’s issues in politics, for example.

The debate has, in some instances, led to clashes between protesters in Britain. And yet, as Stock says, academics aren’t really talking about it.

Where Is the Gender-Critical Perspective?

Stock suggests that part of the problem may be fear of being labeled transphobic for asserting that there are important differences between cisgender women and trans women -- what is called the “gender-critical” position. (The “metaphysical” position, she says, is that there is no meaningful difference between cisgender women and trans women.) Yet another part of the problem is that academics may not want to add fuel to anti-trans bigotry.

Arguing for civil, academic debate on these different perspectives, Stock says that “seeing the validity of these points should not depend on accepting the [gender-critical] position. It is perfectly possible to think the [gender-critical] position fundamentally flawed without acting like there is a bad smell in the room when anyone raises it, and that its proponent must be a moral degenerate.”

Gender-critical feminists outside the academy “are doing strong and interesting work on their own, and arguably don’t need our help in any case,” she added, “but it would be nice if the political climate allowed like-minded philosophers to contribute freely where they could.”

Stock soon posted anonymized responses to her essays, with most agreeing that there’s an “eery” silence around the gender-critical position in a field that’s produced so much work on the silencing of marginalized groups. Some responses called such silencing a new strain of misogyny.

Other philosophers have responded publicly. Amy Olberding, President’s Associates Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, wrote on the Feminist Philosophers blog that “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,” she said, as “some of us do (again, naïvely) 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.”

Jenny Saul, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield in Britain and a moderator of Feminist Philosophers, borrowed a comment Audrey Yap had posted about another article on "trans-exclusionary radical feminists," or TERFs, as cisgender women who don’t count trans women among their ranks are sometimes called. Saul said Yap, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria in Canada, did a “great job of explaining why many of us [are] very hesitant to have these discussions.”

'Identity and Lived Experience'

Here’s what Yap said: “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.”

Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and moderator of the Daily Nous philosophy blog, asked Talia Mae Bettcher, chair of philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles, to write a guest post on the issue. The response to Stock thus far seemed to be that she was cutting through a “Stalinesque, anti-philosophical, PC ban on raising ‘common sense’ questions about transgender persons,” he wrote to Bettcher, or general disagreement or appreciative curiosity from nonspecialists. What’s missing was “informed, substantive, and sincere engagement with Stock.”

After somewhat reluctantly agreeing to offer that kind of engagement, Bettcher wrote on Daily Nous that Stock seemed unaware of decades' worth of literature on trans issues and the gender-critical perspective in particular. Beyond that, she said, “Stock invites trans women to prove that we’re women. She sees this as a ‘metaphysical’ issue distinct from the moral issue of whether trans people should be treated in accordance with our identities.”

Unfortunately, Bettcher said, “I’m unclear what I’m supposed to be proving. It’s hard to hit the target when there are multiple targets to choose from!” Why? “Once we ask the question of what a woman is, things immediately become more complicated philosophically.”

Bettcher surmised that Stock isn’t, in fact, interested in “engaging with us philosophers in the first place.” Instead, she said, Stock may only be taking issue “with the mainstream trans discourse that seems to her dogmatic, political, and unquestioned, and the trans activists who promote it.”

Bettcher also accused Stock of pitting the interests of trans and cisgender women “against each other, claiming that there is much to be lost by non-trans women in the legal recognition of trans women as women.” A better, more feminist approach would be to recognize “our common interests as feminists,” she said, in part by taking seriously the interests of trans men (who Stock also says are too often left out of such discussions).

As for why Stock’s posts caught so much attention, Bettcher guessed that intellectual laziness was at work, along with a painful -- and false -- assumption that “trans issues (and perhaps gender issues more generally) are philosophically ‘light weight’ [sic].”

Stock responded to Bettcher in an another essay, saying she couldn’t muster a thank-you to her colleague, as is custom. She defended her original argument, saying that she was highlighting the current lack of gender-critical perspectives in philosophy on transgender identity, not the historical one. (Though the fact that the gender-critical perspective is well represented in earlier feminist philosophy makes the current void more disappointing, she said.)

Questioning what Bettcher’s “political point” was, Stock said, “I can’t help thinking it is to get me to shut up and go away. This is not an unfamiliar response by now.”

Better Questions

As they did in the earlier Hypatia debate, some will inevitably view clashing feminist viewpoints on being transgender in a cynical light. Others say that the moment highlights the need for more scholarship on transgender identity, in terms of quality and quantity.

Rachel Williams, an independent scholar of philosophy and a trans woman, said there are so many worthwhile questions beyond “What does it mean to be trans?” While it’s not a bad question, she said, it’s “telling when cis scholars jump right on that” because it's “exotic” or “interesting,” trying to “psycho-analyze our identities and define who we are when we are quite capable of defining the boundaries of our own existence.”

“If your first entry into trans scholarship is ‘Are trans women women?’ then you are probably doing it wrong,” Williams said. “Do more scholarship, ask deeper questions and, above all, listen to trans people when they tell you the dangers of pursuing that question -- especially when your first entrance into trans studies comes through the so-called gender-critical perspective.” That perspective, while philosophically significant, “has a long and distorted ideological history which is often dangerous, bigoted and filled with hatred for trans women disguised as feminism,” she added.

Bettcher said via email that she sees trans philosophy as similar to queer theory or feminist philosophy, in that there are “certain presuppositions that are built into the starting points.” For example, she said, “it would be odd if the question whether homosexuality was immoral were a ‘hot topic’ in queer theory. It would be bizarre to see the question whether women ought or ought not be subjected to the rule of men as the central area of discussion in feminist philosophy.” 

Similarly, she said, “the question whether trans people are who we say we are should not be central in trans philosophy. This is not say that it shouldn’t be discussed. But it will be certainly be discussed in very distinctive ways.” 

Bettcher said her own philosophical topics of interest include the nature of transphobic violence against trans people, what transphobic violence against trans people shows about how gender works in general, and how transgender identity illuminates “personhood itself.”

Over all, Williams said, echoing Yap, “Trans lives are not just some academic puzzle. We live real lives, with real experiences and real problems.”

Stock wrote in her response to Bettcher that some of what she presented carries “the conceptual resources to argue powerfully and positively for a female-oriented conception of ‘woman’ that excludes male-bodied people in some social and institutional contexts.”

Stock also assumes that “in the current climate, there would be serious obstacles to the publication of any such view, no matter how tightly argued or empirically informed.” And if “I’m wrong about that,” she wrote, “well, all to the good! Let my lapse be instructive, and let the radical feminists get writing for journals and academic websites again, and not just for blogs and counterculture magazines.”

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