On gender (some of these musings have in the meanwhile evolved into this paper about gender identity and in this blog post about the wrong of misgendering.)

Next week I’ll be part of a conference on gender in Barcelona. Issues around gender have raised A LOT of controversy recently, within and outside of academic circles. They are dividing some of my colleagues – that is, professional philosophers – to an extent that seems unmatched since, perhaps, the fights generated by Peter Singer’s views in Germany. Many more colleagues may be affected by this divide, but shy to give public expression to their thoughts.

One particularly attractive feature of the conference is that it brings together people who appear to be on both sides of this divide. I think this is great; it would be very good to get to the bottom of these disagreements (and hopefully find out that some of them can be solved.) There aren’t many such events. Miriam Ronzoni organised one relatively recently, in Manchester.

When I let my mind wander, it seems to constantly return to these thoughts:

What does it mean to be “cis”? More generally, what does it mean to have a gender identity? (This is the question I actually want to address next week.) Does everybody have a gender identity? Is it (seen as) legitimate for me to talk about this question merely because I am assumed to have a gender identity? Or is it illegitimate, because my gender identity(?) is not the most unprivileged?

Some people say that one’s level of privilege bears on that person’s epistemic credentials, or maybe on the legitimacy of them voicing opinions. For instance they say that privilege makes it, at least pro tanto, illegitimate for people to speak about the dis-privileged. The same people believe in intersectionality – that there are many ways in which people are situated along the advantage/disadvantage continuum – with respect to their sex, gender, skin colour, level or ability and so on. Moreover, according to intersectionalism different types of dis-privilege dynamically shape each other. If so, when they claim that certain people shouldn’t speak/be heard on grounds of having privilege X, how can they possibly know that the same person doesn’t suffer from dis-privileges Y and Z which may interact with each other in ways that totally undermine privilege X?

For the purpose of being seen as a legitimate part of the discussion about gender identity, trans issues and the general feminist agenda, does it matter what a person thinks, or does it only matter what a person is prepared to say?

Does it matter, normatively, whether the behavioural difference between people of different sexes is to be explained by inborn factors or by the social environment in which we grow up?

Does the number of sexes that we acknowledge (two, or five, or n) make a difference for the normative issues discussed in the trans debate? Is this more than a verbal dispute?

Same question about number of “gender identities” instead of “sexes”.

(Why) does it matter how we define “woman”? Is *this* more than a verbal dispute? Does anybody doubt that gender norms oppress everybody, although (a) in different ways and (b) to different extents?

2 thoughts on “Musings

  1. Do you really want answers to any of those questions? Because asking a trans person or two could help you out. The whole premise reads more than a bit disingenuous, though I will give the benefit of the doubt that it isn’t. Yet we trans people really do think about all of these things a lot. And you have trans philosophers, too.


  2. I’d have to say that sorting out our prescriptive ideas of gender norms vs our descriptive ones is an import sociological exercise. We know studies observing female or “women” experiences and proposing meaningful dialogue and solution isn’t a problematized discursive space.

    It’s definitely an issue in prescriptive discourse and rebellions there from. We can just create spaces where we have eliminated prescriptions.


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