Some rough thoughts on transness, pronouns, and other things

[Content note: transgender issues and several controversies relating to them, written by somewhat of an outsider to these discussions.  Very open to modifying my views here.]

It would appear that 2018 hasn’t gotten off to a great start for this blog.  Last year I managed to get down in writing a lot of thoughts on topics I’d been carrying in my head for quite a while.  I still have a few more big, general ideas I want to put into words, but it seems that during the last few months I’ve been very easily distracted by whatever specific controversy passes within my radar (as well as with work and other things), and I can never find the necessary focus to get around to writing what I had in mind.  I have had a draft of an essay on the particular hotly-disputed issue of transgender rights and pronoun preferences sitting around since I think sometime in January, and I’ve decided finally to polish it off a little and turn it into this blog post.  After all, there’s no need to get bogged down in only posting such dry ramblings on abstract and theoretical or highly general ideas.  And although I’ve always worried for some reason that directly confronting hot-button issues at length would somehow undermine the main themes of this blog, I’m going to try to stay above the level of sticky specific details and end by relating today’s topic to some more general principles of activism.

What I have in mind with this essay is to lay out a rough picture of gender transgender issues the way I see them currently.  Among all of my posts under this handle I’ve mostly stayed away from the topic mainly because

(1) I’m not trans myself and don’t have much interaction with that community outside of the internet, their issues have little direct significance to my life, so I don’t feel as entitled to voice opinions (contrast to women’s issues which do directly interact with my life although I’m a man); and

(2) I’m not well educated on transgender issues, in fact a lot of what I’ve learned comes from this general audience (which includes many trans people), and parading my ignorance is unlikely to be helpful to anyone.

But jotting down these few thoughts at least won’t hurt, I don’t think.  I find a lot of this gender stuff confusing and my views are constantly evolving; anyone who wants to jump in and point out any misconceptions below is welcome to do so (but is certainly under no obligation).  I doubt anything I have to say here is deeply controversial or offensive to those who are likely to read this, but if you’re someone who doesn’t feel like reading my musing in a rather detached tone about something integral to their livelihood, the rest of this post may not be for you.

First of all, pondering transgender issues reminds me of some people out there (generally older and more conservative) who say things like “I don’t understand the concept of homosexuality”.  To me this seems silly: what’s there to understand?  What’s so difficult about the concept of feeling attracted to a set of people belonging to a different gender than what most people of your gender are attracted to?  For each individual there’s a subset of the population they feel sexual attraction to and these subsets probably don’t coincide for any two individuals (even if they could be broadly categorized as having the same sexual orientation), so wouldn’t you expect some people’s subset to lie outside of the opposite genders entirely (or to intersect with all genders, or to be empty, etc.)?  I can get that to someone unfamiliar with different sexual orientations, the idea of feeling attraction for one’s own gender seems weird, but I don’t get why any thoughtful person would have trouble understanding what that means.

But I have to admit that a lot of the time I myself feel that way when it comes to issues of gender identity.  I just have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion of feeling a certain gender completely internally and independently of social norms or my physical anatomy.  This might be because I’m “cis by default” or because I’m genuinely cis but a lot of cis people are just unable to understand the concept of trans on an intuitive level.  Maybe these phenomena are easier to understand the younger one is exposed to them, and perhaps one day I’ll be derided by a younger generation for having trouble with the very concept of one’s gender identity not matching the physical body they were born with.  But for now most of the time I just treat it as a black box where something happens internally and I have to take the stated effects somewhat on faith and decide what my attitude to them should be.  This leads me to lean towards a meta-level standard of accepting by default what people say about themselves and respecting their wishes that stem from it.

What about the object level?  What does transgender mean, anyway?

There seem to be two basic senses in which the term is used.  One meaning (as I understand it, though it’s rarely explicitly stated this way) is to refer to someone who prefers to present or express themselves in a way that doesn’t conform to what is expected of their gender, or perhaps not even in the manner expected of the opposite gender either.  The other meaning, whose usage is far more common in my experience, is to refer to someone whose innate sense of gender identity doesn’t match their anatomy or outward appearance at birth.  While the latter definition seems to be the one given most of the time, I do get the feeling that there’s a lot of unintentional conflation between the two definitions and that this is doing nothing to clarify the discourse.

Superimposing these two definitions can be dangerous (at least from a feminist / gender egalitarian / anti-enforcement-of-gender-norms point of view), because what we wind up with is a transgender person having a strong natural inclination towards following the norms of a gender other than the one they were assigned based on their anatomy and “therefore” actually being in some innate sense that other gender.  It puts far too much importance and legitimacy on society’s gender norms and gendered standards for self-presentation than most of us are comfortable with.  Meanwhile, adopting the first definition I mentioned while abandoning the second one puts a lot of the concrete issues that we generally recognize as relating to the trans community (e.g. transitioning, pronoun use, etc.) into a rather shaky context.  So it seems best to adopt my second definition (in some way, trans people have an innate sense of gender identity which contradicts their outward appearance at birth) if we don’t want to render a lot of the surrounding discussion and belief systems semi-incoherent.  And like I said, it’s more or less the explanation of the term which I’ve heard most.

And yet these confusions persist.  Quite a few people seem to understand transness in the sense of desired presentation or expression, and there are a fair number of trans activists who (as I understand them) are preaching that “gender is purely a social construct”.  Maybe the confusion stems from not really understanding the concept of “innate sense of gender identity”, and that such a thing exists somewhat independently from basic biology and presentation, which I’ve admitted above that I struggle with.  And maybe the fact that some of those people spout this misunderstanding is part of the reason why there are quite a few feminists and gender egalitarians whose outlook is rather hostile to the notion of transness.

So what does it mean to say that one is pro-trans?

It’s clear that there’s a way in which we can view “transgenderism” or “being pro-trans” as a sort of belief system.  There are at least two possible “strengths” or levels of belief that I can think of as well as one type of disbelief which I’ll describe now.

Self-identifying trans people claim to have a strong internal sense of gender identity that contradicts the gender they externally appear as (or appeared as originally).  One might say that this feeling is a subjective emotion that exists in one’s mind, and then critics can latch on to the word “subjective” to argue that it can’t be real.  Even if I allow that words like “subjective” or “all in your head” is appropriate here (it’s tricky to pin down exactly what those phrases really mean), I completely reject the dismissive attitude that this makes it any less real, just as I reject the attitude that a mental illness which by definition exists “in your head” is any less real than physical illness.  We can chalk this up to my metaphysical materialism or to something else, but either way I’m certainly opposed to that kind of anti-trans mindset.

Now if we don’t dismiss a trans person’s internal sense of gender identity as imaginary, then I think this all becomes a matter of specifying exactly how much it affects one’s Actual Gender.  One pro-trans attitude would be to affirm that internally-felt gender should be considered a significant aspect of Actual Gender but that many elements make up one’s Actual Gender and not all of them are determined by the way one feels psychologically.  We could even talk about different pieces of data all falling under Actual Gender such as “physical gender”, “psychological gender”, “biological gender” (not entirely sure what the latter should refer to — yes, I’ve heard it claimed that it’s transphobic not to acknowledge that internally-felt gender identity isn’t linked to something biological), and so on.

Then there’s another position which we might call “full-strength pro-trans” saying that Actual Gender is determined entirely by one’s internally felt gender identity, so that the gender one feels oneself to be is the gender one Actually Is, which means that one’s anatomy, Y chromosome or lack thereof, etc. essentially counts for nothing.  This seems to be the platform “officially” adopted among most trans activists and the view I hear stated as objective fact most of the time by younger social liberals.

I would say that at this moment I lean towards aligning myself with the first, more moderate pro-trans view I described while rejecting the full-strength pro-trans view.  That is, it’s a matter of fixing definitions of words, and definitions should be chosen to allow for as many precise distinctions to be conveyed as efficiently as possible.  There are a lot of contexts, particularly in biology and medicine, in which it’s useful to be able to classify humans according to whether or not they have a Y chromosome.  (Compare to the issue of otherkin, on which I’m even more ignorant but as I understand it some people claim to experience an internally felt sense of being a non-human animal: while I might acknowledge that this internal feeling is “real” on some level, I see a rather overwhelming array of contexts where it makes much more sense to use the traditional definition of species.)

As I said, the full-strength pro-trans position appears to be the foremost one within the transgender community.  The first and most obvious cause of this could be that for many trans people, widespread recognition of their felt sense of gender identity has a direct effect in easing gender dysphoria.  Moreover, the fact that the full-strength position is (almost tautologically) more extreme probably partially accounts for my hearing it a lot more: more extreme positions tend to be given louder voices and lead to a skewed perception of how many actually endorse them.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I suspect that a lot of activists insist on the full-strength position because changing the way we use language is often the most powerful way to change the attitudes we hold.  (I’ll examine this a little more closely further down.)

And yet, I don’t think it’s necessary, not by a long shot, to adopt the full-strength pro-trans position in order to hold supportive views on particular trans issues, as I hope will be evidenced below.

Many transgender people have a strong preference to be referred to pronouns that reflect their internally felt gender, and I don’t have any problem complying with this.  Not because their internally felt gender is objectively and absolutely their Actual Gender in every possible significant sense, but because it just seems to me like The Right Thing To Do.  If somebody experiences serious gender dysphoria on hearing the use of pronouns (or other words) applied to them which are incompatible with their gender identity, then this indicates that their gender identity is at least a significant enough aspect of their Actual Gender that it should matter to those who talk about/to them.  It’s not a referendum on how to compute the full breadth of Actual Gender; it’s a simple computation of utility: hearing the wrong pronoun (or gendered word) causes significant distress for someone, while using the right pronoun requires very little pain or trouble on the part of whomever interacts with them.

For me, using requested pronouns costs me virtually nothing for a trans person I know on the internet (I have only a dim perception of most people’s gender online anyway, and I often use they/them by default even if I don’t know that someone is trans), and it’s hardly any more trouble when interacting with someone IRL.  If it were someone I’d known closely for many years as belonging to another gender (e.g. a close family member), this might become considerably more difficult for me.  But if said person impressed on me how much it meant to them I like to think I’d still comply with their wishes because a greater amount of happiness is at stake for them than for me, and that would make it still The Right Thing To Do.

I’ve heard the objection that everyone has a fundamental right to use the words they choose and if someone else is bothered by them then that’s their own lookout; they don’t have to hang around the offending speaker.  I tend towards roughly the inverse position: everyone has the right to choose certain aspects of how others interact with them (including linguistic acknowledgement of identity), and if someone else is bothered by those terms then they don’t have to hang around the person demanding those conditions. I say that this applies on some sort of meta level, taking precedence over the reasonableness (perceived or otherwise) of the conditions.  In a Slate Star Codex comment thread many months ago (which I’m not going to bother trying to hunt down) I was espousing this view, and somebody suggested to me that taking it to its logical conclusion would lead to social absurdity.  I remember their specific example was that I would have the right to insist on being addressed as Superior Lord Liskantope and everyone else would have to obey, and surely that’s rather ridiculous.  My response was that (1) that title has a nice ring to it; and (2) in fact, in theory I do have the right to insist on being called Superior Lord Liskantope (don’t worry, this is not something I have any wish to do in practice!); but (3) at the same time, other people have the right to avoid interacting with me if they (quite understandably) think my self-conferred title is too obnoxious.  (I’m reminded of one of Elaine’s boyfriends on the sitcom Seinfeld who insists on being called Maestro; Elaine chooses to put up with this eccentricity while Jerry refuses to accept it, suggesting sarcastically that he be called Jerry The Great.)

Obviously it’s not possible to choose who to interact with in every context, such as in the workplace, and I admit that choosing and defending the best possible policy is a lot dicier in those situations even though in my gut I still favor respecting everyone’s pronoun preferences.

There are of course tons of other issues that I could expound upon in a similar vein.  At the risk of breaking with my resolution to stay away from the hairier specific controversies in this arena, I’ll just briefly discuss as one example the question of gender reassignment surgery/hormones.  Again, it seems to me like a simple utility problem to determine that trans people should be supported in choosing this kind of medical treatment as long as there’s a reasonable chance it will bring them happiness and relief from gender dysphoria.  And the mere fact that someone would be willing to go through the pain and difficulty that comes with something like gender reassignment surgery is typically evidence of a very real sense of gender identity in my book.

There are several wrinkles to this issue that bring potential caveats. For one thing, there’s the question of who pays for these very expensive treatments.  In principle I’d like anyone who wishes to transition but can’t afford it to be covered by health insurance and/or the government.  But I do sort of wonder how I feel about how this logic might be extended, for instance, to people having the right to get cosmetic surgery paid for provided that they suffer from sufficient body dysmorphia (which I imagine to be harder to diagnose reliably than gender dysphoria).

And then there’s the very thorny issue of at what age people should be given the choice to transition.  On the one hand, children and teenagers are less likely to understand the stakes in making such a big choice and are probably much more likely to have gender identities that will fluctuate in coming years.  Also, I’m worried that especially nowadays a lot of teenagers on the internet are immersed in discourse garbled enough that they might confuse the two definitions of “transgender” that I outlined above and conclude that being gender-nonconforming means that transitioning will bring them happiness.  On the other hand, I don’t know much medicine, but I would imagine that certain things like hormone therapy are far more effective the younger one begins.

So it’s a bit of a dilemma.  But I bring up various aspects of it to show that it’s a dilemma that can be confronted reasonably — and I hope fairly towards transgender people — without necessarily agreeing on a full answer to the question of what the fundamental nature of gender is.

Anyway, I guess if I have a point in all of this, it’s that there are various degrees to which one can “metaphysically” recognize transness, but that such philosophical questions are much more a matter of language and signalling than determiners of one’s stances on actual policies surrounding trans issues.  Activists therefore tend to gravitate towards the highest degree, where internally-felt gender identity is what gender Actually Is, oftentimes more for the purpose of rhetorical weaponry than out of necessity in advocating concrete rights for the community they’re trying to protect.

I suspect the insistence by many on the full-strength pro-trans position is an instance of the phenomenon whereby definitions of words are stretched as far as possible in order to facilitate recognition of the legitimacy of a certain subset of things falling under that definition.  I would compare it to (although it’s not quite the same thing as) the tactic of stretching the definition of a negative-connotation term X to include a much wider array of actions or events than is traditionally acknowledged, in order to direct more attention and condemnation towards the adjacent things being shoved into the definition.  (We all know some instances of this coming from within various parts of the political spectrum; I’m not going to clutter up the conclusion of this essay by listing them.)

Or to put it another way, language itself — more specifically, fixing certain meanings to words — can be very effective as a rhetorical weapon in disagreements.  Many thinkers, from George Orwell down to Eliezer Yudkowsky, have explored this in more written works than I can name, so there is no need for me to expand on it now.  In this case, convincing someone to adopt “whatever one feels one’s gender to be” as the one and only determiner of gender practically forces them to hold quite pro-trans beliefs about particular options relevant to trans people, e.g. pronoun use, social/medical transitioning, bathroom laws, etc.  From that standpoint, insisting on the full-strength position makes a lot of sense.  (Again, I don’t want to imply that this is anywhere near the only reason that people insist on it; I’m only hypothesizing that it’s one of the major reasons, at least on a subconscious level.)

On the other hand, I can’t help but notice that what we might call “the full-strength position” on any social issue tends to be a little harder to swallow than a more moderate position for those who aren’t already on board, and that people in general tend to be rather resistant to having semantic changes in their language imposed on them.  In the particular case of trans rights, it looks from what I’ve seen that the number one most common motive for expressing reservations about that cause is an apprehension towards having our concept of Gender Itself redefined; that certainly seems to have been the easiest way to make fun of trans activism so far.  (It so happens that just today I was watching the new Ricky Gervais standup special on Netflix, in which Gervais defends himself by implying he has never made a joke directly at the expense of trans people, then goes right into an obviously satirical bit about himself identifying as, and therefore actually being, a chimpanzee.)  It therefore might make sense for activists to lean in the direction of putting less emphasis on the main abstract linguistic question regarding transness, especially where this might draw focus away from controversies over more concrete actions.

That said, while I feel fairly confident in my views on the role word semantics play in shaping general large-scale debates and so on, I realize I have a lot to learn about the specific issues in the transgender rights movement.  I am therefore happy to return to tacitly supporting activists in their effort to bring about a more tolerant culture that better respects and acknowledges the feelings and desires of transgender humans and of humans in general.

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