The MintGarden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender

Have you ever planted mint in a well-watered garden? Probably not more than once. The stuff takes over, doesn’t it? Pretty soon you have more mint than you could use in a candy factory, and you’re hacking it back, treating it like a weed. Most people don’t mind a bit of mint,1 but most of us like other flavors, too — dill, basil, thyme, and others — and we’d like those to have places to grow without getting choked out by mint. Also, we’d maybe like to spend our time encouraging other things to grow, and not uprooting the mint.

Sometimes, when a trans person posts something, commenters ask questions which don’t seem to come up when a cis person posts something. The questioners are often well-intentioned. They’re often seeking genuinely to understand. And, when a trans person posts from an explicitly trans perspective, naturally the topic is often gender-related. So, gender comes up in these conversations, and fair enough. What is “a woman”? What is “a man”? When someone is apparently, in every way, one gender, but says they’re a different gender, what does that even mean? Is that real? Are there caveats?

But those questioners have just planted mint in the garden. And there’s a place for mint. Just not where you’d like to grow the thyme and the basil. Not in every garden.

When this happens, when a questioner wants to interrogate an aspect of gender, the trans poster can easily start to feel that it is their gender which is being interrogated, and not just the abstract concept of gender. There are many reasons why. Among them:

1. Gender as an abstract notion requires an act of will, for a trans person. Gender is very specific, for us. It has consequences, and some of them hurt.2 This disparity in life experience between cis and trans is just about the definition of the difference between a cis person and a trans person. One excellent definition of “trans person” is “a person whose gender is not universally considered valid.”3

2. People4 often do question the gender of trans people, and challenge it, and deride it, and try to define it. So this is a repeating, reiterating, recapituling, recurring, life experience for trans people which happens frequently, a lot, over and over, again and again.5 If the questioner were the first, it would not be an issue. But the questioner is the 10,000th, even though this is the particular questioner’s first visit to this garden. That ground has been pounded flat. It’s hard for a green shoot to gain purchase, and the people who live there are pretty tired of the dust kicked up as visitors walk around and ask Important Questions.6

3. Some people, with every good intention, try to spin the question artfully, to ask the question about gender in general (not your specific gender, no!) in an effort not to attack a trans person, to depersonalize the interrogation. They want to spare the trans person the pain, and so they talk about hypotheticals. But there’s no bright line, and pretty soon the trans person is aware that they are at the focus of the questioner’s attention, and the question “What is this?” is really a stand-in for “What are you?” — which is a really dicey question to ask, especially when the questioner knows what the trans person has already said on the topic. So, well-intentioned gender-in-general conversations also become poisoned.

4. Some people, with no good intentions at all,7 ask questions about gender in general as a rhetorical device, so that they can attack a specific person’s gender while retaining a semblance of plausible deniability. This further poisons discussions about gender generally.

5. These definitional questions recur again and again on trans people’s posts about all kinds of topics, but they almost never appear on cis people’s posts, unless the cis person has actually raised the topic themself. This is not a coincidence; it is a reflection of that fact that the gender of cis people is unquestioned. Individual commenters aren’t wholly to blame for this–we’re all stewing in cissexism here–but when they can’t acknowledge the pattern, trans people tend to shut down and lose interest in talking further. This is a rational, self-protective response.


So, trans people get tired of these questions. They can be good questions. Tasty, even. But they have their place, and often it’s not in the comment thread below a different topic, or a more specific topic.

Sometimes you don’t want mint.

But what about the people who want mint? Shouldn’t there be a place to enjoy the mint?

This is that place. Welcome to the mint garden! Rimonim and I have decided to tend this garden, and since “gender” is an enormous topic, it’s a big garden. We can’t take credit for the underlying landscape; there are interesting sight lines and repeated themes and grand vistas and little meditative hollows.

All we’re going to try to do is keep the mint hacked down to where the view is clear.


Rimonim and I wrote what’s above a few months ago, intending to get back to it, and he was busy, and I was busy, and we hadn’t pushed it forward… and then Caitlyn Jenner transitioned and suddenly everyone is critiquing her and talking about what makes a woman and spinning off conversations.

One of those conversations is in the the recent open thread, where Christopher and dragon_snap and Phil are having what strikes me as a very careful and caring conversation on this very topic. I reproduce it here, with some formatting fixes. I’ll comment as I have time.


Christopher wrote:

I hope this isn’t somehow over the line, but I found that Vox FAQ to be, well, confusing.

I still don’t quite understand what gender identity is.

So, I actually have tried similar thought experiments to the one described at the beginning of the article; gender and sex are a minefield of complicated ideas, so I decided to imagine something fairly simple. I switched out the terms “man” and “woman” for height terms.

“Okay, I’m [six feet tall], but imagine my mind was telling me that I was [five feet tall], I might wish that I weren’t [six feet tall]…”

And I had to stop there because I was already engaging in anti-trans language. Look at what happens when I switch it back:

“Okay, I’m [a man], but imagine my mind was telling me I’m [a woman], I might wish that I weren’t [a man]…”

If I were to describe a trans woman as “a man who wishes to be a woman”, that would be considered extremely transphobic in most trans-friendly circles.

The more acceptable description seems to be that a trans man is “[A man] who was assigned [a female gender] at birth. A trans man has always been [a man] for their whole lives.”. It’s very common to hear that a trans man has always been a man, and a trans woman has always been a woman.

But if I try to turn it back around I get “I am [a five foot tall person] who was assigned [the height of six feet] at my last checkup. But I’ve always been [five feet tall]”

That’s harder for me to wrap my head around. I’m clearly using the term “five foot tall person” to refer to something other than a measurement on a ruler, but I’m not sure what that something is.

Especially when we get to this part of the article:

Keisling and Ziegler explained that not all trans people undergo medical treatments to change their physical traits, perhaps because they are comfortable with their bodies,

So a trans man may well be okay with having a (for lack of a better term) “female” body, which means that when he calls himself a man he’s not talking in terms of what his body is, or what it should be. In fact, it seems entirely possible that he may wear “women’s” clothes; I think we can all agree that a man can wear a dress and it doesn’t magically make him stop being a man.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

I’m not saying “Rargh, he’s not really a man” because in order to do that I’d first have to have a definition of what it meant to “really” be a man. And I don’t. I’d really like to know what the definition is.


dragon_snap wrote:

@ Christopher

I’m not trans, but I do have a gender identity, and as a woman, a queer person, and a trans* ally (to the best of my ability), I’ve thought about all this quite a bit.

1) You might find Julia Serano’s description of her experiences with ‘gender sadness’ illuminating. This is taken from a page on her old blog, but I highly recommend her book “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” if you are interested in transgender issues, sexism/feminism, or intersectionality.

i doubt i could adequately describe what “gender sadness” feels like to someone who is not transgendered. i suppose that in some ways it is similar to other kinds of sadness. for instance, you know that feeling you get when someone you love more than anything breaks up with you? and it’s about a month or two after the big break-up and you are trying to get on with your life. but no matter how busy you keep yourself, thoughts about that person just keep popping into your head about 100 times a day, and everytime they do you feel a bit of sadness. well that’s kind of what gender sadness felt like for me during most of my life. while i was always struggling with it, i could still go out and have a few laughs or go about my business and be relatively productive and happy for the most part. but unlike most types of sadness or grief, which tend to get a little less intense with every day that passes, gender sadness just keeps getting more and more intense. and by the year 2000, i had reached the point where the sadness felt more like what one feels on the actual day of the big break-up, when you can’t concentrate at all and you are totally consumed with thoughts of the person you loved. that’s how i felt almost every day: consumed with gender sadness. literally every other thought i had was about gender, about my pain. i could not get around it. it sucked all of the life out of me. i stopped calling friends, stopped writing songs and listening to music, i would go into work and just stare at the computer screen without really doing anything. it hurt as much as any other pain (physical or emotional) that i had ever felt before. and i knew there was only one way to ease that pain: transitioning.

2) It might be helpful to consider that different aspects of a person’s identity are of varying importance to different people. For instance, to some people, their nationality might be an important part of their self-concept, self-image, and their sense of who they are (i.e. their identity). For some others, their nationality may be only a very small portion of of what they consider to be their core self. The same can be said of pretty much any other trait or attribute – religious background, sexuality, profession, ethnicity, (dis)ability, family role, etc. And of course, it likewise applies to gender idenity. For instance, though I have a fairly specific and narrow range of gender expressions within which I am comfortable, I don’t have a strong innate gender identity (though I identify ‘politically’ – for lack of a better term – as a woman, and with womanhood, due to the historical and current myriad issues with sexism, strict gender roles, etc). I sometime describe my gender identity as ‘shy’, because if I ‘put it in the spotlight’ by thinking about it too hard or too long, I end up feeling uncomfortable and upset. It’s pretty neutral or androgynous though I think, and somewhat fluid. (Sometimes I feel like ‘one of the boys’, and sometimes like ‘one of the girls’.) It’s also worth noting though that I feel very much at home in AFAB (assigned female at birth) body, and I identify strongly as cissexual.

3) There are many aspects of a person’s biological sex. Some of the main facets:

– hormones: estrogen and progesterone vs. testosterone
– hormone cycles: approximately monthly vs. daily
– chromosomes: there are two sex chromosomes, X and Y, and many configurations of one or more copies of the X chromosome and zero or more copies of the Y chromosome in humans. Chromosomal testing is very rare, so we don’t really have good data at all about how common the various arrangements are in general, or how they correlate – if at all – with being cisgender, transgender, and/or intersex.
– secondary sexual characteristics, eg: breasts vs. facial hair and deepened voice
– primary sexual characteristics: genitalia
– gametes: egg cells vs. sperm cells

Now if a trans woman, for instance, has the hormones, hormonal cycle, secondary sexual characteristics, and genitals commonly associated with being female, unknown chromosomes, and no male gametes in her body, there is a very strong case to be made for her to be considered ‘biologically female’, and it certainly would be very difficult to assert that she was ‘biologically male’. Moreover, many cisgender people lack one or more of the listed factors (eg, post-menopausal women, men who have received radiation therapy, women who have had a mastectomy, etc.), yet we would not consider them to be less ‘qualified’ to be considered ‘biologically’ female or male, as applicable, nor would we doubt their experience of their subjective gender.

Many trans people have spoken or written about their experiences with HRT (hormone replacement therapy) in similar terms to the following memorable passage (emphasis in the original):

I’ve been on estrogen for nearly eleven weeks, and I still count down the hours (seven) until I can take my next dose. […] It’s hard to describe, but everything just feels more natural now that my mind and body are no longer flooded with testosterone. It’s as though after 23 years, I have finally stopped trying to fill up a diesel car with unleaded gas. My brain was made to run on estrogen.

As well, I think it’s worth noting as well that many trans people experience body dysphoria and social dysphoria as distinct but related phenomena, which they they may experience at different levels of severity. Additionally, there are a great many physical changes that can be effected via HRT, electrolysis, and various non-genital surgeries. And of course there’s really no way to tell what genitalia someone has without looking at them naked from the waist down — which really never comes up an interactions with someone who isn’t an in-person intimate partner, and sometimes not even then!

Sorry my comment was so long; I hope there was some stuff in there that was helpful or interesting.


Phil wrote:

I want to write a comment here that discusses a question that Christopher raised and also some of my own mental stumbling blocks when it comes to trans issues and gender issues. I do not intend to be impolite, but it is possible my comment here may be triggering for people who are struggling with these issues in a more personal way.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

This is a question that I’m honestly trying to find a meaningful answer for.

I understand, as a writer and a progressive and a person who generally doesn’t want to cause people harm, that it is polite to refer to a trans woman as a woman, to use the pronouns that she prefers, and to use the name that she requests. I have no problem with that, and I understand that this use of language might be more than just politeness but might contribute to a space where someone feels safer.

In other words, I don’t want to sound transphobic or to do things that are transphobic. But, on another level, I don’t want to be transphobic. I can say that Janet Mock (for example) is a woman, but it feels like I’m being dishonest unless I also believe that Janet Mock is a woman.

Now, I don’t hold the belief that Janet Mock is a man, or that she is not a woman, or that being trans is a third sex. But if I’m going to hold the belief that she is a woman, then I feel like I need to understand what a woman is such that Janet Mock fits the criteria.

This might sound like a transphobic thing to say, and if it does, I’m sorry, but for me, finding out the answer to that question is the key to not being transphobic.

At the moment, the best I can glean is that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman (and a man is a person who identifies as a man). That’s functional from a rhetorical perspective, but it does render some common narratives illogical. (How can you, as a child, feel like “a person who identifies as a woman” — there must be something more, beyond simple identification, such that a person can reasonably say, “I have always known I was a woman” or “I have always known I was a man.” Or, “I did not change from being a man to being a woman, I changed what I identified as,” etc.)

The Guardian essay says this about Rachel Dolezal:

Dolezal might feel an enormous affinity to blackness – so much that she decided to identify as black – but her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence.

I feel like the Guardian essay engages in the logical fallacy of question-begging: Rachel Dolezal is not black because she is only choosing to identify as black, but trans people are the gender they identify as because they actually are that gender.


Guidelines:

So. At least two trans people (Rimonim and I) will be participating in this thread. Other trans people are welcome, too. However, since this is a thread for people to ask questions which may be shredding, fellow trans people, please participate only if you’re feeling sufficiently callused. Please look after your own resources and do not use up spoons you need for something essential.

Cis people are welcome, too (indeed, essential to the effort, since your questions are explicitly centered). We would appreciate it if you would make an effort not to be cruel, but we do want this to be a thread where people can interrogate matters like those I mentioned at the top. So, please do the best you can, and if you say something awkward, or poorly-phrased, or weirdly-conceived, we trans people will do our best to engage with it anyway.

All people, please remember that each of us only actually has one perspective. No single person has all the answers, and no single person can embody all of whatever it means to be “trans” or “cis” or “male” or “female” or “bi-gender”, or what-have-you.

Lived experience counts for a lot. If someone says that something happened to them and you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. DO NOT declare it to be impossible. Example: in a recent online discussion, Dana Beyer, who is an out trans woman who was assigned male at birth, casually referenced a traumatic incident in her life: her first period. Commenters scoffed and declared that it was patently impossible for a trans woman to have a period, and therefore everything she had said was suspect. Had they bothered to try to understand, they could have asked her. Or they could have googled her name and a few keywords, and discovered the key to understanding her comment: that Beyer is Intersex, and when she hit puberty, the unseen and unguessed-at uterine tissue in her abdomen started doing what uterine tissue does, and sloughed tissue… through the only aperture structurally available to it, her penis.

So, please, ALL people: when someone reports a life experience which you don’t understand, strap on your best humility and try, before you render judgement. Thanks.

I really hope we can have a good discussion. Again, welcome.

Grace

  1. I love mint. []
  2. So we’re clear: not just hurt like “that hurt my feelings” (though heaven knows that’s corrosive enough as an hourly diet) but hurt like “those broken bones are going to cost a lot of money and keep me out of work.” []
  3. Hat tip to http://nodesignation.wordpress.com/definitions/ []
  4. and not always cis people []
  5. It is, so that you cannot mistake my meaning, something which trans people experience a very great deal. []
  6. Sometimes that ground is pounded and salted so hard that even well-watered mint won’t take hold; Jan Morris, upon being asked for an interview, is reported to have replied with one sentence: “When I hear the word ‘gender’ I reach for my pistol.” []
  7. at least, not toward the trans person []

246 Responses to The MintGarden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender

  1. Limits of Language & Desipis:

    The one part of your (LoL’s) comment that goes, in some ways, directly to the issue at hand is your question about Rachel Dolezal and transracial identity. Indeed, there was within academia quite a controversy about that last year, when Rachel Tuval published a paper (linked to in the article I linked to above) arguing, basically, that every argument put forward in support of transgender identity can in fact be used to support the notion of transracial identity. That one sentence summary, however, does justice neither to the paper nor the controversy that erupted around it, and since I have not looked at the paper since last summer, I am not going to say more about it. Nor am I going to get into a discussion of the controversy based only on what is said in the New York Times article I linked to. It’s not that the article doesn’t cover the controversy well; it’s that it is inevitably simplifying (and perhaps even reductive) of some of the positions people took and so using it as the sole basis for discussion would mean we were arguing from/about incomplete premises.

    Also, I am not sure whether Grace would want that discussion to be part of The Mint Garden thread, so until she makes a decision one way or the other, I’m going to ask that no one pursue that discussion here any further–though I do think it might be interesting to take up somewhere else on the blog.

    As to your critique of my analogy: The way you and Desipis have each chosen to quibble about its accuracy demonstrates perfectly, I think, what Grace meant when she said that cis people can maintain an academic distance (one meaning of her phrase “step away”) from the question of what full acceptance of trans identity means to trans people and also what the consequences for trans people are when that acceptance is less than full.

    Desipis asked a question about whether someone’s perceptions of a trans person’s identity should take precedence in how they decide to address/talk about that trans person over the trans person’s actual identity. Since both he and you claim to accept the validity and integrity of trans identity, that–unless I have misunderstood something either you or he have written–trans indentity is, or ought to be seen as, a non-negotiable thing, I asked what I thought of as a pretty straightforward question, the straightforwardness of which I will make more explicit here: If someone is Korean (in the way we talk in every day speech about having a particular, fixed, non-negotiable national/ethnic identity) but I perceive them as Japanese (because I associate some features of their presentation with being Japanese, in the analogous, every-day-speech-way I used Korean above), should I continue to call them Japanese even after they tell me that they are Korean and that Korean is what they would like to be called?

    If, instead of answering this question with a simple yes or nor, you and/or Desipis insist on arguing about all the ways in which the complexities of national/ethnic identity make this not a good analogy, then I can only conclude that you’re really not at all concerned with the personal or institutional consequences to trans people of misgendering and that you’re real concern is making sure that the existence of trans people does not do away with the traditional gender binary.

    Moreover, that there are people to whom that binary is important–and I guess this is directed more specifically at Desipis–is not at all relevant to whether or not its socioeconomic, political, and cultural institutionalization is just. There were people to whom slavery was important, to whom racial segregation was important, to whom prohibitions against miscegenation were important, to whom keeping Jews out of–or at least the numbers of Jews restricted within–certain professions was important, to whom “a woman’s place is in the home” (and all it stood for) was important, to whom the criminalization of homosexuality was important. None of that stopped us from eliminating, or at least trying to eliminate, what I hope you will agree are obvious and egregious social injustices. The willful misgendering of trans people, from the question of what pronouns to use to refer to them to all the ways in which our institutions still do not recognize them as the gender they are, is a similarly egregious social injustice. Why should people’s hurt feelings be permitted to stand in the way of addressing that?

  2. 202
    Grace Annam says:

    Ampersand:

    Grace, would you like me to move the Peterson discussion (including, obviously, my last two comments) to the open thread?

    Yes, please. My schedule is busy for awhile and my participation may not be prompt. The stuff about Peterson qua Peterson is off-topic for this thread. The stuff about whether and how and why people gender other people is on-topic. Thank you.

    Grace

  3. 203
    Grace Annam says:

    desipis:

    I still don’t see how you can get from agreeing with what I said to “biological sex doesn’t exist”.

    Well, I didn’t say that, and I think Jeffery Gandee and I just covered this, upthread, so I’ll let you re-read.

    Is your primary concern regarding language use about virtue signalling rather than about effective communication, or is it just a side issue?

    I work hard to use language with precision, and I’m sure I use it for all the purposes human beings typically use it. Here is an example of an attempt at precision, and an implementation of the tool I offered, upthread: desipis, in the blockquote immediately above, you are behaving like an asshole, in asking a rhetorical either/or question which conceals a personal attack. If you actually want to engage with the substance of the topic at hand, read for content. Also, when you don’t understand something, rather than offering your understanding as though you are arguing, consider asking a question. Questions more likely to lead to good results should make it clear that you have read what people wrote and thought about it, and be on point.

    I don’t reject the validity of trans identity, I reject the assertion that it is the foundation of everything to do with sex and gender.

    I’m starting to suspect that you’re engaging with people who aren’t here. Please engage with them where they are, and in this space, engage with the people who are here, and with what the people who are here have said, themselves.

    Grace

  4. 204
    Ampersand says:

    Several comments that were mainly about J Peterson, moved to this open thread.

  5. 205
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman,

    I think that you misunderstand my point.

    You can see ‘Japanese’ as a racial identity, a cultural identity, defined by shared life experiences, a matter of self-identification, a matter of granted status or a combination of these. If it is defined racially, then a person born from Korean parents is always seen as Korean. If it is defined culturally, then a person has to behave a certain way to be seen as Japanese. If it is a matter of shared life experiences, then a person can gradually become more Japanese as they share more life experiences with Japanese people, although they may never be able to achieve full Japaneseness. If it is about granted status, then the Japanese get to gate keep who is let into the club. However, if only self-identification matters, then anyone is free to adopt the label, without any prerequisites.

    Some of these definitions enable policing of group behavior and thereby reduce diversity and freedom, but increase group cohesion, the ability to work together toward a common goal and such. These are trade offs.

    In general, humans are usually quite eager to create groups and police group behavior, to achieve goals that cannot be achieved by anarchist behavior. This can be just to create an environment where people behave in a desired way, like the heavy metal scene where people listen to similar music and dress & dance similarly. Or like Social Justice Safe Spaces where certain behaviors are mandated and/or banned. Or 4chan/pol where behaviors are mandated and/or banned that are very different to those in Social Justice Safe Spaces.

    Anyway, you seem to regard it as axiomatic that self-identification is the only legitimate way to define group membership, yet obviously as an activist you do need group cohesion, the ability to work together toward a common goal and such.

    I don’t think that SJ as a movement has come to grips with this issue and because of this, I see a lot of inconsistent beliefs, where people claim to favor self-identification, diversity, freedom and such, while doing things like:
    – Talk about the shared experiences of (entire) groups
    – Make different behavioral demands for different groups
    – Ascribe a different culture to different groups
    – Ascribe group-status based on presentation, behavior, etc

    IMO, these demands and judgments are not consistent with rejecting binaries and treating labels as merely reflecting self-identification (or that they ought to). The very act of making demands and judgments specifically for groups makes the label stand for more than that.

    I would argue that rather than seeking to make self-identification the way to define labels, which I doubt is feasible and where I think that even the proponents of that are not willing to accept the consequences, it may be more workable to try to separate cultural norms from unchangeable traits that people are born with. Although when those traits do correlate with behavior, needs, etc; that may still be very hard to do.

  6. Limits of Language:

    I understood your point perfectly, thank you. You, however, seem not to understand its irrelevance in the context of my very specific response to desipis’ very specific statement (or maybe it was a question) and have once again sidestepped my question, which I’m going to post again below. Maybe it will be more clear to you if it’s not surrounded by all the other stuff I was saying in my previous content:

    If someone is Korean (in the way we talk in every day speech about having a particular, fixed, non-negotiable national/ethnic identity) but I perceive them as Japanese (because I associate some features of their presentation with being Japanese, in the analogous, every-day-speech-way I used Korean above), should I continue to call them Japanese even after they tell me that they are Korean and that Korean is what they would like to be called?

    If, instead of answering this question with a simple yes or nor, you and/or Desipis insist on arguing about all the ways in which the complexities of national/ethnic/[and I will now add cultural] identity make this not a good analogy, then I can only conclude that you’re really not at all concerned with the personal or institutional consequences to trans people of misgendering and that you’re real concern is making sure that the existence of trans people does not do away with the traditional gender binary.

    If you’re not willing to answer this question with a simple yes or no, then there’s really not point in continuing this discussion.

  7. 207
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    Your question is not a fair one. I’ll demonstrate by asking a question in return:

    If someone is Japanese (according to a common standard of what makes a person Japanese), should I continue to call them Japanese even after they tell me that they are Korean and that Korean is what they would like to be called?

    In your question, you treat it as axiomatic that someone is Korean if they self-identify as Korean, treating their opinion as being correct. In my question, the label is assumed to have a general definition, that applies or does not apply to a person, regardless of what that person thinks themselves.

    Your question and my question roughly define the two extremes in the debate.

    I don’t believe in extremism and see value in and problems with both approaches & thus cannot answer your question with yes or no, as there are no easy answers. Labels have meaning and use beyond the individual and their application and use therefor cannot just be an individual matter. Yet they concern the individual, so how the label is applied matters to (social) justice and such.

    It’s up to you whether you want to debate this. However, that can only happen if you un-ask your question:

    Mu means “no thing.” […] Mu becomes appropriate when the context of the question becomes too small for the truth of the answer.

  8. 208
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    Harlequin, I somehow missed your comment addressed to me earlier. My bad. You wrote:

    In other words, one way to parse the comment is: “biological sex doesn’t exist as a discrete 2-item categorization scheme with no overlap between the categories”–the way most people think of biological sex.

    I think most catagories exist in a way that is fuzzier than we’d all like to admit, even though categories are still really useful. They are just tools, nothing more. For example, all the attributes that go into interpreting what is and isn’t a banana are useful because they ensure I won’t eat a decorative plastic banana. “Banana shaped thing that is yellow” isn’t enough to define banana if I don’t want to eat plastic.

    That said, the binary-ness of sex is a dominating force in biology. I would argue it’s probably a dominating force in sociology too. Setting aside the overlap of the sexes on any given attribute, if you measure all humans according to enough attributes, the sexes start to separate into two groups. There are two really huge clusters of people, and then a few who fall outside of those clusters. A binary model of sex isn’t the territory, but it’s an incredibly powerful map, in much the same way that Newtonian physics isn’t completely accurate but it’s incredibly useful if you’re shooting artillery shells and don’t have the time/intelligence to calculate the shell’s trajectory with General Relativity.

    For this reason, I’d argue that biological sex is a dichotomy, it’s just an imperfect one- which is what we should expect most dichotomies (maybe all?) to look like. Insisting that all dichotomies be perfect seems limiting to me.

  9. Your question is not a fair one. I’ll demonstrate by asking a question in return

    And so, LimitsofLanguage, you’ve made my point. I have nothing more to say.

  10. 210
    nobody.really says:

    A Japanese-American political scientist and a Ghanaian-British-American philosopher walk into a bar where a brawl over identity is underway. “Stop fighting!” the philosopher cries. “The identities you’re fighting for are lies.” The political scientist steps forward. “They’re not lies,” he says. “They’re just the wrong identities to be fighting for!”

    The scholars succeed in ending the conflict, because the brawlers leave for a less contentious bar.

    “What is identity?”, NYT’s review of Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture.

  11. 211
    Sebastian H says:

    “In other words, one way to parse the comment is: “biological sex doesn’t exist as a discrete 2-item categorization scheme with no overlap between the categories”–the way most people think of biological sex.”

    I dont think this is correct. Biological sex does exist as a discrete 2-item categorization scheme with the areas having to with biological sex having little to no overlap between the categories, precisely the way most people think of biological sex. There are also edge cases which don’t fit that. But the existence of edge cases doesn’t necessarily attack the idea that in the main case there really is a binary that operates. It’s totally ok that edge cases exist, and nobody who finds themselves as an edge case should be attacked for it. But that doesn’t mean that the binary isn’t real, it just means that it is a real thing with edge cases.

  12. 212
    Ampersand says:

    Sebastian – you changed the statement you’re responding to, making your response a strawman. “…with no overlap between the categories” and “…having little to no overlap between the categories” are significantly different statements, especially in the context of this discussion.

  13. 213
    lurker22 says:

    I am enjoying reading this exchange but I do not understand what Newman asked Limits, above:

    If someone is Korean (in the way we talk in every day speech about having a particular, fixed, non-negotiable national/ethnic identity) but I perceive them as Japanese (because I associate some features of their presentation with being Japanese, in the analogous, every-day-speech-way I used Korean above), should I continue to call them Japanese even after they tell me that they are Korean and that Korean is what they would like to be called?

    What does this mean? “because I associate some features of their presentation with being Japanese, in the analogous (fixed, non-negotiable), every-day-speech-way I used Korean above.”? How do they have “fixed, non-negotiable” identities which conflict? I am not sure this question has an answer.

  14. Nobody:

    Hah! Thanks for that, though the irony is actually quite sad.

  15. 215
    Sebastian H says:

    Well as it was, it was a straw man statement. Essentially no one believes that there is literally zero overlap between the sexes. So unless you believe it was important to argue over a straw man statement, my change doesn’t effect the discussion especially in context.

    Harlequin’s original statement was responding to Jeffery’s 171 in which he describes a view (that I think maybe is not his own) that the have ‘essentially’ no overlap, so I wasn’t even the first to characterize the statement as that way.

    Grace’s point (as I understand it) is that even if the edge cases are a small percentage, they represent a large number of people. Which is definitely true.

    In the context of this conversation, yes, drawing attention to the edge cases helps trans people quite a bit, but to show that there are some people who don’t fit the main cases, not that the main cases don’t exist. That may seem like a distinction that isn’t important, but in arguing that the edge cases are edge cases, you would be asking people to see rare things they haven’t seen before. In arguing that edge cases refute the main case you would be trying to attack something that people have regular and familiar contact with.

  16. 216
    Harlequin says:

    Sebastian, did you read my full comment? I will highlight an earlier sentence in that same comment in which I say essentially what your comment @211 says:

    Pointing out that biological sex, too, is a fuzzy and contested boundary rather than a sharp dividing line is an important tool for refuting that idea. You don’t need to claim the distribution isn’t bimodal–you just need to highlight that the transition region is populated.

    You may think that nobody thinks there is zero overlap between the sexes; that conflicts with my experience of the many people I have heard say that such and such a trans person is “really” their birth sex because chromosomes. (And that may be a some-of-the-time thing–those same people may have no trouble categorizing intersex people as their preferred gender–but it’s worth pushing back against when it appears.)

  17. Lurker22:

    I have edited this comment slightly for clarity and small proofing errors.

    Thanks for your question @213.

    I think it is entirely probable that the question I was trying to ask desipis got confused and confusing as I tried to make it more and more specific it in response to desipis’ and LimitsOfLanguage’s hedging. So, let me return to desipis’ original question, which he asked in comment 190:

    [I]f someone perceives a person as female when that person self-identifies as a male, should that someone be dishonest and use the person’s perfered pronouns, or should they be honest and use the pronouns that best first their own perception?

    The question seems pretty straightforward to me, though his use of the phrase “be honest” frames it in a way that we can intuit his answer. If I perceive you as female, he’s asking, should I continue to address you as female (wouldn’t it be dishonest of me to do otherwise?), even though you self-identify as male and tell me that you want me to use male pronouns when addressing or talking about you?

    That desipis implies it would be dishonest of me not to continue to address you as female, suggests that he considers misgendering you far less important than my adherence to a mistaken perception of who you are. So, I responded with what I thought was a pretty obvious and straightforward parallel @192: “So, if I first perceive someone as Japanese, but they are in fact Korean [and I will add here: ask me to refer to them as Korean when I address or talk about them], should I continue to call them Japanese/”

    Both desipis and LimitsOfLanguage then, essentially, refused to answer my question by hedging in all sorts of ways, some of which might in fact be interesting to discuss, both academically and in practical terms (see my reference here to the debate within acadmia about transracial identity), but all of which avoided answering the simple point of my question: If someone tells you that you have misperceived who they are–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to address them according to how they self-identify, should you flatly refuse to do so on the grounds that it would, somehow, be dishonest? (And I will note here that desipis framed his original question in terms of perception, not hard, factual knowledge that I will grant for the sake of argument might, in some of the instances I listed above, be reasonably debated.)

  18. 218
    Harlequin says:

    Jeffrey:

    Okay. I think it will be easiest to use your analogy to explain how I currently see our disagreement here.

    A binary model of sex isn’t the territory, but it’s an incredibly powerful map, in much the same way that Newtonian physics isn’t completely accurate but it’s incredibly useful if you’re shooting artillery shells and don’t have the time/intelligence to calculate the shell’s trajectory with General Relativity.

    Two comments.
    1. Sure. Most of the time, if you are not a physicist, you don’t need GR, just like most of the time, if you are not a particular kind of biologist or a trans/gnc/intersex person or a close associate of one, you probably don’t need to think beyond a simple binary schema for gender. But sometimes, you need the more advanced theory to understand what’s going on. If you were trying to slingshot a spacecraft around the moon to get to the outer solar system, you wouldn’t say, “But why do we need GR? Newtonian mechanics works most of the time!” This is it: the moment when the hard stuff becomes important! You’ve found it!

    Same, often, for discussing trans people.

    2. If you were giving a talk in any detail about that slingshot maneuver to an audience that had never heard of GR, you’d have to tell them that Newtonian mechanics isn’t the full story–that it’s actually wrong, and GR exists. And most people in the US, at least, have never thought about anything beyond a binary model of gender that they attribute to biology. So if you want to talk about the more advanced gender stuff, you have to mention that the model they currently believe is wrong.

    (That model may not actually be what they use in everyday life, by the way! People are often not very good at interrogating their mental processes. But if you ask them, they probably think that it is; and if you challenge them, that’s what they’ll fall back on using to explain their thinking. Just like nobody actually does a mechanics calculation before they throw a ball–they have just learned how to do it through practice–and then they learn the math that mostly explains it.)

  19. 219
    lurker23 says:

    Mr. Newman, thank you for the response.

    Like some other posters here, I would like to avoid upsetting people who are transgender, but I would also like to avoid making too many inroads into a life goal of viewing the world with objectivity and accuracy. Of the two options, I value objectivity more, but I am trying to figure out how to do both. It does not seem to be easy.

    Your question is still confusing to me because it feels like you are comparing objective and subjective things. Your question was:

    If someone tells you that you have misperceived who they are–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to address them according to how they self-identify

    But those two things are not the same? I think the non-confusing question would be one of these:

    If someone tells you that you have misperceived who they are–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to correct your misperception by explaining the facts

    or

    If someone tells you that you have misperceived how they self-identify–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to correct your misperception by explaining how they actually self-identify

    But those do not seem to advance the discussion because they both are pretty obvious, if you made a mistake you can correct the mistake. I think the interesting question, which I think you are trying to get at, is:
    What do you do when someone claims to be in a group but they do not match your own internal requirements for being a part of that group? In otherwords, when their claims conflict with what you think is objectively true?
    This is a big question which happens all the time in everyone’s life. We argue about who is really a Catholic or a Jew or a Muslim or a liberal or a MRA or a feminist or a refugee or a man or a woman. We have always had those arguments and we always will. So I think maybe we can make some attempts at a general answer?

    I am conflict-averse and am unlikely to disagree with your personal assertions about yourself in a face-to-face discussion. In person, politeness and conflict avoidance both take precedence over objective honesty. I would rather do a white lie than fight. This seems to be true for many people I know. But in the greater world I tend towards objectivity as much as I can.

    In person, i would not tell Rachel Dolezal she was not black, nor would I tell Julia Salazar that she isn’t a poor oppressed Columbian Jewish immigrant. If the man in the MAGA hat tells me he is “really a liberal” I would smile and nod. If the man sitting next to me on the subway with a “Mr. John Doe” name badge announced “As of now, I am a woman” I would start to call him Ms. Jane Doe without a second thought, and would sincerely hope he had an easy transition.

    Outside a personal discussion with them, I do not think Rachel Dolezal is black, and I do not think Julia Salazar is a poor oppressed Columbian Jewish immigrant, and I think the man in the MAGA hat is a conservative. And I do not think the man next to me was actually a woman since birth, or since some undetermined age of decision, or that he instantly became a woman at the moment when he said he was.

    Do I need to feel that way? I really do not know what to do. I have no trouble doing my best to adjust to personal preferences for how to act polite when I am talking to someone about themselves. And I have no trouble with people who are trans, or who want to be trans, they should do what they want.

    But that only goes so far, and i don’t know what to do. Even in an in-person discussion I would not want to agree with Rachel Dolezal that non-black people can generally be black, or with Julia Salazar that non-poor people are generally poor, or with the man in the MAGA hat that all Trumpians are generally liberal.

    But it seems only with this trans issue that if I tell a different trans person “I do not think the man next to me was actually a woman since birth, or since some undetermined age of decision, or that he instantly became a woman at the moment when he said he was.” I am actually hurting that different trans person. I do not want to do that, I do not not know what to do. Should I lie to them?

  20. Lurker:

    I am responding quickly and don’t have the time to respond to your whole comment and I may not have a chance to do much more for the rest of this week. You wrote:

    I think the non-confusing question would be one of these:

    If someone tells you that you have misperceived who they are–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to correct your misperception by explaining the facts

    or

    If someone tells you that you have misperceived how they self-identify–whether that’s in terms of gender, national or tribal identity, religion, race, etc.–and then asks you to correct your misperception by explaining how they actually self-identify

    I think you’re right that those may be more specific ways of asking my question, but, my question to desipis was directed not at the academic issue of how we define categories and upon whose authority, but at the interpersonal question. Once someone has corrected your misperception, or explained the facts, should you address them accordingly, or should you continue to address them according to your own understanding?

    If I understand your comment correctly, you would accept the correction, change the way you addressed the person, and move on, keeping your personal opinions to yourself or reserving them for an intellectual discussion separate and apart from the question of whether we should respect how people want us to address them. If I understand the implications of desipis question correctly, specifically through his use of honesty as a touchstone of what someone should do, he was suggesting precisely the opposite, and so I wanted to know if he would apply that same standard to dealing with people in categories other than gender.

  21. 221
    lurker23 says:

    If I understand your comment correctly, you would accept the correction, change the way you addressed the person, and move on, keeping your personal opinions to yourself or reserving them for an intellectual discussion separate and apart from the question of whether we should respect how people want us to address them.

    Yes, that is right. I tend to avoid interpersonal conflict and I would not usually initiate an argument with someone over anything, and I cannot imagine doing it for something as simple as a name. Why would I care what your name is? That is usually true even if I don’t exactly believe what I am saying.

    I would not call that “respect” though, I think of it more like formal politeness, that is why I used examples like the MAGA hat guy, even though I do not like Trump I try to be polite to everyone. That is also why I am so happy this thread is here. I can have an anonymous discussion and ask questions which I would never be able to have in person, because asking in person would be horribly impolite.

    I will wait for you to respond next week, thank you.

  22. 222
    Erin says:

    I agree in principle with lurker23. If you want to be called xie or they or Moxon the Merciful or Jebo from Jupiter, that’s what I would call you.

    I would add to that, though, that I would limit my time with a person like that to the extent possible. Because of that practice on my part – and because I work on my own in a profession (and don’t take on clients I don’t like) and don’t like many people otherwise on a social basis – I don’t really come across people like that in my life.

  23. 223
    Erin says:

    I tend to agree with lurker23. If someone wants to be called xie or they or Moxon the Magnificent or Jambo from Jupiter, that’s what that person is going to be called in the short space of time that I am anywhere near that person.

    I don’t tend to socialize, though, and I work independently in a profession. I can pick and choose my clients, and I don’t choose people I don’t like. So I don’t really interact with anyone who would demand pronouns.

    N.B. I wrote something similar to this, but it never showed up as a post. Strange. Maybe I picked the wrong words the first time.

  24. 224
    Erin says:

    Oh, I get it now, because my post showed up instantly on a different thread.

    I’ve been blocked from this thread from the get-go.

    OK.

    [This and the preceding two comments from Erin fished out of the spam folder by Grace.]

  25. 225
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman,

    Once someone has corrected your misperception, or explained the facts

    You keep asserting that a person’s belief about themselves are objectively correct and requires that others treat this as the truth, by statements like this. This is a really strange thing to assert IMO, which if taken to an extreme makes it impossible to have a functioning society.

    After all, by such logic, a person can steal my things and then demand that I respect their ownership of my things, because they consider the items to be theirs. They can demand to drive a car without a driver’s license, because they believe themselves capable of driving. They can get into a car drunk, because they don’t consider themselves drunk and any cop who dares to prevent them from driving is an oppressor who denies (their) facts and their perception. They can rape me and deny that they did so, claiming that their perception of consent is the truth.

    You presumably don’t actually believe in such extremism, but you were unwilling to respond to my challenge to show that you consider any limit to it and/or clarify where the limits are and especially, to what extent people are required to adopt the subjective perceptions of others, which is the most disturbing part of this. I consider thought policing to be extremely dystopian, where it is not sufficient to merely act according to the rules, but there is a demand to actually believe they are just and no heterodox thought is allowed.

  26. 226
    J Squid says:

    This is a really strange thing to assert IMO, which if taken to an extreme makes it impossible to have a functioning society.

    I dunno. Everybody humored Emperor Norton I and society seems to have functioned normally.

  27. 227
    nobody.really says:

    Everybody humored Emperor Norton I and society seems to have functioned normally.

    SAWYER: He should be placed in a mental institution.

    PIERCE: I don’t agree. People are institutionalized to prevent them from harming themselves or others. Mr. Kringle is incapable of either. His is a delusion for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.

    SHELLHAMMER: That’s what I feel, too.

    PIERCE: Thousands of people have similar delusions, living perfectly normal lives in every other respect. A famous example is that fellow… I can’t think of his name. For years, he’s insisted he’s a Russian prince. There’s been much evidence to prove him wrong, but nothing has shaken his story. Is he in an institution? No. He owns a famous restaurant in Hollywood, and is a highly respected citizen.

    Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

  28. 228
    lurker23 says:

    Limits, that is silly. I may be a lurker but I have read enough of Newman’s posts to be confident you are beating a straw man here.

    Obviously nobody is trying to have a nonfunctioning society. I would not disagree with the Maga Hat Man if he says “I’m really a liberal at heart” but I would disagree with him if he says “I am the actual owner of all of your possessions” or “although I have never driven a car and have no license, I am qualified to take over driving this bus.” So would Newman, I am sure.

    I agree with you that Newman’s question to you was mixing up objectivity and subjectivity, which is why I clarified it. But Newman then clarified it: he is asking whether you are willing to make minor concessions to avoid upsetting people.

    If a person you know as Jack asks to be called Jill, doing so is a minor and polite concession in my view. Agreement does not require that you “believe” that person to be or always to have been Jill, or that you agree to “think of her as Jill”, or that you always refer to that person as “Jill” when talking to others, that you “respect” that person’s request, or that you agree to let that person join your all-women yoga circle, or anything else.

    I am always willing to do that, though it can be hard if the person does not give me the same level of courtesy. It’s so minor that I don’t entirely understand why Newman is even asking, but I also don’t understand why you are not just agreeing, which is probably why Newman is asking!

  29. 229
    Ampersand says:

    (Lurker, I assume you don’t know this, but iirc, Richard has expressed a preference to be called either “Richard” or “RJN” on this forum, rather than “Newman.”)

  30. Lurker23:

    It’s so minor that I don’t entirely understand why Newman is even asking, but I also don’t understand why you are not just agreeing, which is probably why Newman is asking!

    Just jumping in quickly to respond to this. You are right about why I am insisting on my question. I don’t think anyone would object to a discussion of where the boundaries of personal identity lie, how and when they become negotiable, and who has the authority to open, close, mediate or otherwise determine the course of those negotiations, as long as it is possible to establish good will on the part of all involved. One element of that good will, an essential element it seems to me, is a willingness to respect what someone tells you about how they experience/define/understand their own identity and how they would like to be addressed/talked about as a result. (You distinguish between politeness and respect in this regard, but I think that’s a semantic quibble: being polite to another human being is, for me, a way of showing a fundamental level of respect that makes human interaction possible.)

    Neither desipis nor LimitsOfLanguage has been willing to say, unequivocally, that they would show this basic level of respect to a trans person (see my summary of the discussion above @217), which, to me, makes it impossible to assume good will on their part as participants in this discussion. So I don’t see the point in engaging either of them any further in a discussion about identity-boundaries.

    I still owe you a response to your longer comment, but that will take some time for me to get to.

    Also, Amp is correct about the way I would like to be addressed. I think the first time you responded here you referred to me as Mr. Newman, which I took as a sign of respect (and to which, of course, I do not object), but I don’t like being referred to simply by my last name and would prefer either Richard or RJN. Thanks.

  31. 231
    desipis says:

    Grace:

    desipis, in the blockquote immediately above, you are behaving like an asshole, in asking a rhetorical either/or question which conceals a personal attack.

    That question was unfair, and I apologise.

  32. 232
    desipis says:

    RJN:

    The question seems pretty straightforward to me, though [desipis’] use of the phrase “be honest” frames it in a way that we can intuit his answer.

    You need to read my comment in context. Specifically, the use of “honesty” was a corollary to “gutless” in this comment by Mookie about Peterson (which is premised on something I’m not sure is accurate):

    Given that he doesn’t believe trans women are women, though, it’s pretty gutless and inconsistent of him to grudgingly respect a preference for “she” by people he doesn’t recognize as female.

  33. 233
    lurker23 says:

    I will call you Richard from now on, thank you.

    However, I still find this conversation confusing. It seems like you think you are restating what you have already said–but to me, it seems like you keep adding elements or saying different things. Is that your intent? Or do you think you are saying the same thing?

    Before, you asked about names. Now, you’re saying:

    One element of that good will, an essential element it seems to me, is a willingness to respect what someone tells you about how they experience/define/understand their own identity and how they would like to be addressed/talked about as a result.

    Do you think those are the same things you asked before? because to me they are not the same thing at all?

    I will call you “Richard” and you will call me “lurker”, out of politeness. But I can describe this conversation and call you “newman”, or you can call me “some online rando,” or you and I can each think of each other as an illogical asshole (I don’t think that BTW) and we still can be polite here.

    I do not feel compelled to “respect whatever you may tell me about how you experience/define/understand your own identity.” I would listen to you and would consider what you said, but I would not give you control over my eventual conclusion. And it is even more of an intrusion to control what I say to other people, and how you would be addressed/talked about.

    And of course, politeness depends on the politeness you get in return.

    I don’t think this is a semantic argument because it is precisely these sorts of things which seem to be at issue in this thread.

  34. 234
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    lurker23,

    That is exactly my point. I see a lot of equivocation, where merely addressing someone as they want is equivocated to actually believing their view of themselves and thus having to act as if it is true in all respects. Furthermore, there is an equivocation between gender and other identities (like nationality and perhaps many more things). Finally, there is no recognition of how an individualistically determined identity and an collectively determined identity tends to reflect individualistic and collective cultural models, respectively, where any existing culture has a mix of both, suggesting that a mixed cultural model is the only workable one.

    Rejecting collectively determined and policed identities is understandable for hardcore libertarians, but not for those who favor things like welfare, which require a common understanding to whom the identity of ‘welfare recipient’ applies to. Collective rules require collective definitions.

    Of course, one can specifically favor policy and law that is no different for women and men, which is a very respectable position, although not one that Western societies currently adopt. So my point is/was that acceptance of self-determined identities is incompatible with various policies and laws & so that doing the former in all situations (regarding gender or another identities) will require changing those policies and laws. So it cannot (seriously) be looked at in isolation.

    Richard didn’t want to debate this and instead wanted an answer for an supposedly simple question. However, as he couldn’t keep his question actually simple and started smuggling in equivocations and such, I feel that any answer would be interpreted strictly within his worldview, rather than trying to see it from my perspective, and thus not be understood. What is the point of answering a question if the answer is not going to elucidate?

    Ironically, Richard often argues that people should do things because it is respectful, but cannot seem to bring himself to respect those who want to debate differently than him. While I disagree that his approach is useful if one wants to achieve social justice by creating a just culture, policy and law (rather than make an ad hoc decision in one’s own life), I won’t accuse him of bad faith or such. I do believe that he thinks that his approach is useful and mine evades the point. It would be respectful on his part if he would grant me the same good faith.

  35. Lurker:

    (ETA: I’ve had a chance now to reread this comment, which I typed kind of quickly lsat night, and I think parts of it are not as clearly written as I would like. I don’t, however, have the time to go back and edit. Hopefully, if there is further discussion, I’ll be able to clarify as we go.)

    You wrote:

    Before, you asked about names. Now, you’re saying:

    One element of that good will, an essential element it seems to me, is a willingness to respect what someone tells you about how they experience/define/understand their own identity and how they would like to be addressed/talked about as a result.

    Do you think those are the same things you asked before? because to me they are not the same thing at all?

    I will call you “Richard” and you will call me “lurker”, out of politeness. But I can describe this conversation and call you “newman”, or you can call me “some online rando,” or you and I can each think of each other as an illogical asshole (I don’t think that BTW) and we still can be polite here.

    I don’t think I was asking about names before, or, at least, not in the way that Richard Jeffrey Newman is my name. I have asked that people called me Richard, but it is not inaccurate to call me Newman, nor does it violate my sense of self to have someone do so. (I might find it rude and disrespectful for someone to keep calling me Newman after I have asked them not to, but that would not change the fact that calling me Newman is not calling me someone (or something) I am not.)

    On the other hand, if I were a a trans woman whose name is Rachel, but Richard was the name I went by before I transitioned, and I ask you to call me Rachel and use the pronouns she and her to refer to me—and let’s agree that the fact of my asking this of you means that you know I am trans—I am not simply asking you to call me by the name I would rather be called; I am asking you, in calling me by that name, to recognize and, yes, to respect—at least during our interaction(s); even if it is only pro forma—the fact that I exist in the world as a woman. If you were to insist on calling me Richard or use masculine pronouns to my face, in other words, you would not simply be impolite, you would be referring to me as someone I am not, which I hope you will agree goes quite a bit deeper than simple impoliteness.

    Now, you might, in your own understanding of the world, not agree that I am a woman; and you might in conversations about me refer to me as Richard, using he and him. In doing so, however, you would still be talking about me as someone I am not. If that is your sincere I belief, I cannot—nor, frankly, would I want to—compel you to think or do otherwise (with the possible exception of professional situations, about which more in a moment), but if you insist on talking about me, on seeing me, as someone I am not, then that will have consequences. Not only will it impact our relationship, whatever its nature, but if you extend that conflict over the whole of society, when that conflict eventually comes to some resolution, you may very well lose, in the sense that the cultural shift that emerges from the conflict may very well—as is happening in this case—move in my direction and not yours.

    That still doesn’t mean, of course, that you need, of that I should be able to compel you, to agree with me, but it does impact things like professional situations. If a trans man sits in my class, for example—and let’s, for the moment, assume that I know the female name he went by before he transitioned—regardless of what I think about trans identity, regardless of whether or not I think he is “really” a man, I would say that I am obligated to call him by his chosen name and to use male pronouns to refer to him (assuming those are the pronouns he chooses). The same would be, in fact is, true of how I refer to my trans male colleague, whom I knew and was quite close with before he transitioned. To refer to him by the name he used then, when he was living in the world as a woman, to use female pronouns to refer to him would be to create, or contribute to, a hostile work environment. And that’s just wrong. Full stop.

    Now, we could engage in all kinds of intellectual discussion about the social, cultural, and political boundaries that are at stake in what I have just described—in the issue we are discussing—but if that discussion does not rest on a foundation of respect such as I have just described, and I want to emphasize again that by respect I do not mean agreement or conformity, then the discussion will be missing what I think of as a necessary context for it to proceed in good faith, i.e., the fact that trans people’s lives are quite literally at stake in whether or not people who are cis, not only but especially when they are in positions of authority, are willing to use the names and pronouns that trans people have chosen for themselves.

    If someone is unwilling to make that reality an explicit context for a discussion like this, then, for me, that person is not entering the discussion in good faith, because it means they are treating as a purely academic subject something that is, in trans people’s lives, anything but purely academic.

  36. 236
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    Harlequin,

    I totally agree with what you wrote. I think our disagreement (to the degree that we have one) is that I believe that category boundaries are “true” to whatever degree they are useful. I also think most categories would fail to withstand the level of scrutiny you are applying to “biological sex.” In other words, the arguments here prove too much, and I think a big part of that is a failure to recognize why it is we form categories in the first place. I think a good place to start is to consider the degree to which nonhuman animals categorize things- my cat has a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t a door, and this is useful to him, even if his understanding of “doorness” is incomplete. I could introduce him to doors that are perfectly concealed to blend in with the drywall, or doors made to look like bookcases or standing mirrors-but this wouldn’t actually be useful to him because what he wants is the ability to pick out the thing that is a door easily and then push at it or perhaps cry in front of it to be let out. I could also make something that looks just like a door, but has no hinges, his system of categorizing doors would fail this test, but without a complete understanding of doors (an understanding he’s probably incapable of) he’s better off with a system of categorization that fails sometimes than abandoning the category “door” altogether. I think this is where we are at with biological sex. Abandoning “male” and “female” is demanding that people view the world through a radically individualistic lens. This lens may indeed be useful sometimes, but not all the time, and for those times it isn’t, “male” and “female” remain useful.

    So yeah, when talking about trans people we can and probably should discuss the limitations of a male/female dichotomy, but that’s no reason to abandon the dichotomy.

  37. 237
    lurker23 says:

    Richard,

    I thought that this thread was supposed to be a place where people could ask questions and talk about things? i am interested in asking questions and trying to find a way to not offend trans people, but i am not looking at the world as you do. and i probably will not start.

    first you ask questions and then you don’t answer mine when i am trying to understand you. for example i still do not understand what you mean when you say ‘respect’ because you keep giving examples but they are very complicated, your next-last paragraph is all one sentence and it still does not actually give a definition. i keep asking to to clarify and you keep talking about things which are more complex.

    now you are asking me to agree that if Bob becomes Alice, Alice’s life is “quite literally at stake” every time someone uses the wrong pronoun. otherwise you think i am in bad faith?

    i do not think you are a good judge of ‘acting in good faith’ since i am doing what the thread is here for, and also trying to understand how to make things better when i am with trans people.

    but i will go back to lurking, probably better this way. i think you are not reasonable though.

  38. Lurker23:

    I am sorry I have made you feel like you need to withdraw from the conversation. Perhaps that is due to my misreading of our conversation. My comments so far have been, in my mind, in the context of explaining why I responded to desipis the way I did–which is kind of where we started–and I have used language as strong as I have because I do not believe he argues here in good faith. I do not think that of you.

    You say you are, “interested in asking questions and trying to find a way to not offend trans people.” Yet the questions you have asked reveal little of how you think you might offend them or of how you see the world. I realize that you may not be willing to reengage this conversation, and I truly am sorry about that, but if you are, let me ask you some questions:

    1. How do you think you might offend trans people such that you want to ask questions in this thread to find out how not to do that?
    2. How, in the ways that are relevant to this conversation, do you see the world differently than I do?
    3. What, for you, is the difference between being polite to someone and showing them basic respect–or, perhaps, common decency might be another expression to use?
    4. Given that you see respect and politeness as different things, what would “showing respect” to someone’s identity (or world view, if you prefer) mean to you?
    5. Why do you think not offending trans people–as opposed, say, to accepting them outright–is a sufficient goal?

    I’m not sure it’s possible to have a really productive conversation about your question without your revealing at least some of what I have asked.

    One last thing. About this:

    now you are asking me to agree that if Bob becomes Alice, Alice’s life is “quite literally at stake” every time someone uses the wrong pronoun. otherwise you think i am in bad faith?

    First, I think if you go back to my comment, you’ll see that I am talking about someone (and particularly someone in a position of authority willfully misgendering a trans person. That qualification is important. Second, I am not the first person in this thread to make that point. Grace has talked about it more than once, though she may not have made it as starkly as I did.

    In any event, I hope you will consider responding to my questions.

  39. 239
    Grace Annam says:

    lurker23:

    But it seems only with this trans issue that if I tell a different trans person “I do not think the man next to me was actually a woman since birth, or since some undetermined age of decision, or that he instantly became a woman at the moment when he said he was.” I am actually hurting that different trans person. I do not want to do that, I do not not know what to do. Should I lie to them?

    Lurker23, you have a choice to make.

    If you are polite to Trans Person #1, but in the hearing of Trans Person #2 make it clear that you were simply being nonconfrontational and don’t actually believe that Trans Person #1 is who they say they are, the Trans Person #2 has legitimate reason to view you as a risk to be around. Will you offer them courtesy and then say the same thing to Trans Person #3? Will you, because you have reservations, accidentally out trans person #2 by using a wrong pronoun? Will you accidentally flub a pronoun on a day when they’re already at their limit, so that they go home and take it out on the dog, or go home instead of having the footing to go to that job interview, or, or, or? Trans Person #2 has almost certainly experienced all of those things and more, so from their perspective your stance on trans people’s legitimacy is a reasonable thing for them to be concerned about.

    I have an old friend, call him “Bob”, whose mother raised him, but who spent a lot of time with his grandfather, being partly raised by him. Bob loved them both dearly. When Bob was in his twenties, his mother told him that his grandfather had abused her when she was a child, and that his grandfather denied any of it ever happened at all. There were no other witnesses, and there was no evidence other than what each said. Bob had experienced zero abuse from his grandfather. Bob’s mother wanted his support, emotionally. She asked Bob, “Do YOU believe me?”

    Bob tried, “I believe that you believe it.” His mother reacted with disgust. She’d heard that before, from people who would not support her, and she knew that it was not what she needed.

    What was Bob to do? There was no neutral ground. He could make a decision. He could say, truthfully, to his mother, “I believe you”… and then his grandfather would be a child abuser. He could say, truthfully, to his mother, “I don’t believe you”… and then his mother would be a liar who was accusing his grandfather of a heinous crime.

    Bob finally said to his mother, “Look, I love my grandfather, and I love you. My grandfather has always been good to me. I can’t do this for you.” And his mother didn’t talk to him about it again. Ever. For many years. Even after his grandfather died. And Bob and his mother have a difficult and somewhat distant relationship generally, in which neither of them shares a lot with the other.

    Was it the right choice? Heck if I know. But the point is that there was no middle ground. Bob tried to make one, tried to remain neutral, tried to step aside. And then Bob’s mother did what she needed to do, in that circumstance.

    If you are polite to one trans person, and then make it clear through word or deed that it was mere politeness, and you don’t actually believe that they are who they say they are, well, with all due respect, you’re not a good candidate to be a friend to that trans person. Or co-worker, frankly. And trans people, once they know, will know not to rely on you. Some of them might give you some negative feedback.

    On the other hand, if somehow you come to a place where you believe that trans people are who they say they are, then you’ll catch flack from people who aren’t there yet, who react with derision, or express concerns about safety, or what-have-you. And you’ll have to deal with that.

    It’s a no-win situation. And believe me, we trans people know what it’s like, to be in that situation. We’re in it a lot. I wish that society weren’t this way, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and tomorrow I still need to buy milk.

    So, make your decision. And people will do what they need to do.

    Grace

    PS. I agree with you that using someone’s preferred name and pronouns, but expressing reservations elsewhere, is not respect. I would call it courtesy. In court, I call the judge “your honor”. I may or may not respect them or think they actually have any honor, but the form of address is a courtesy which greases the skids. It’s not nothing. It’s also not respect.

    Edited to correct typos.

  40. 240
    Grace Annam says:

    Jeffrey Gandee:

    So yeah, when talking about trans people we can and probably should discuss the limitations of a male/female dichotomy, but that’s no reason to abandon the dichotomy.

    Jeffrey, it seems to me that no one here is advocating to abandon the dichotomy, and that we’ve probably discussed Professor Matte enough. Let’s drop this part of it, for now.

    Grace

  41. 241
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    Grace,

    I think that it is extremely intolerant to demand that others ‘right-think,’ rather than merely act respectfully. You rationalize this by equating these, (incorrectly) claiming that wrong-think automatically leads to dangerous behavior. So then you want only one opinion to exist, supposedly to be safe.

    It is fundamentally totalitarian to demand that others adopt your views. It is fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian to equate dissent with danger, rather than be extremely reticent about calling opinions dangerous and trying to ban them.

    A tolerant society can only exist by recognizing that it is often extremely hard to conclusively determine which views are correct. A democratic society can only exist by recognizing that we can get closer to the truth by letting people freely argue for different views, to convince others based on the strength of their arguments and to count each opinion equally.

    The problem with being intolerant of dissenters is that scientific studies strongly suggest that if you succeed in eliminating these people from your environment/society/the human race, you will just become more sensitive. Even the most controlling dictators didn’t feel safe. If anything, they just became more anxious, paranoid and fearful.

    PS. I think that Bob’s mother was abusive, by demanding something unreasonable from her son. He also has needs and he is her son, not her therapist or her emotional cheerleader. He is a separate person, with the right to make up his own mind, not an extension of his mother. Something similar to your scenario is fairly common in divorces where one or both parents demand that the children adopt their grievances against the other parent, rather than let the children have their own truth/views/opinion & their own relationship with the other parent. The way in which parents can switch from a partner narrative to an enemy narrative and the way in which people can demand loyalty to their narrative speaks to how humans are quite often irrational and narcissistic beings, who often prefer simplified narratives that stroke their ego. This should get push-back, not be turned into an ideology where being irrational and narcissistic is seen as a legitimate need, where people should create an environment that reinforces this.

  42. 242
    Grace Annam says:

    LimitsOfLanguage:

    I think that it is extremely intolerant to demand that others ‘right-think,’ rather than merely act respectfully. … It is fundamentally totalitarian to demand that others adopt your views.

    Good thing I didn’t do that, then. You need to re-read my post. As you do, this time, bear in mind that I know how to write, and consider that if I intended the meaning you think I did, I would have used those words, instead of what I did say.

    …calling opinions dangerous and trying to ban them.

    Please quote where I tried to ban someone from having an opinion.

    PS. I think that Bob’s mother was abusive, by demanding something unreasonable from her son.

    I don’t care what your opinion of Bob’s mother is. I just asked Bob, and he doesn’t care, either. He also said, “I love my Mom. She was in a tough spot. She didn’t abuse me. If this [expletive deleted] wants to talk shit about my Mom, it’s a good thing he’s not doing it front of me.”

    I didn’t bring the story of Bob’s mother up so that you could decide who was right; I brought it up to illustrate that situations exist where there is no middle ground and you have to make choices, and then the other people involved get to make choices.

    I have a friend who, as an adult, needed an abortion, and wanted some support. She reached out to her older brother. She chose not to reach out to her father. Her father had expressed anti-abortion opinions, and she saw that as pretty good evidence that he was unlikely to be her best helper, in that situation. We’ll never actually know. But her brother did help her, so that part of her judgement was on the money.

    I was at an office party, once, where a group of people got a little tipsy and started in with the rape jokes. The women at the party made note of who told the jokes, who laughed at them, who continued to hang around, and who left. Later, they did their best not to be alone with people in the first three groups. The people who laughed or hung around didn’t tell the jokes. They just expressed an opinion about the jokes. And other people formed opinions about them, as a result.

    You’re apparently very concerned that people are going to judge you for expressing an opinion. They are. This should not come as a surprise to you. After all, I expressed an opinion, and you called me “extremely intolerant”, accused me of being Orwellian, accused me of rationalizing, and accused me of “claiming that wrong-think automatically leads to dangerous behavior”.

    You judged me, and harshly. It’s all right. I’m still standing. I am accustomed to having people judge me. Every officer gets used to it. Every trans person gets used to it.

    Here’s another opinion: I think that in post #241 you behaved like a jerk. I think you can do better. Feel free to try.

    Grace

  43. 243
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    Grace,

    The personal is political. If a person feels that women who want to work are a danger to him and tries to exclude such women from his life, then this results in sexist behavior. If that person has power over others, then it results in oppression.

    Personal policies have repercussions for others. Ideologies can cause many people to change their personal policies in ways that have negative repercussions to others.

    You’ve made it clear that you would not be willing to work with people who are ‘merely’ polite but don’t share your views:

    If you are polite to one trans person, and then make it clear through word or deed that it was mere politeness, and you don’t actually believe that they are who they say they are, well, with all due respect, you’re not a good candidate to be a friend to that trans person. Or co-worker, frankly.

    We’ve seen in the past that people with your ideology are (logically) not going to going to walk away when a person with different views applies for a job in their organization or divulges her views when she already works there, but that the goal will be to not get the person hired or to get her fired.

    The logical result is oppression of those whose views are different from those with power. If your opinions are shared by the powerful, you get to express those opinions without challenge, because people with different opinions get excluded, fired or otherwise oppressed when they express them.

    Of course, I’m explaining common social justice ideology to you now, which I actually take seriously. The reason why I reject Social Justice The Movement is because it so often is mere tribalism, where the desire is not to end oppression, but rather for the ingroup to become the oppressors.

    It’s not OK when you do it…

    PS. In the larger picture I don’t see how you become safer by drastically excluding people with different beliefs because those people won’t just disappear if you kick them out of your bubble. They’ll disappear into their own bubble with little dissent to keep them from radicalizing, just like your own bubble will lack the dissent to keep it from radicalizing. As long as you live in the same country and/or the same planet as people with different views, there has to be an amount of mutual understanding, interaction and tolerance.

  44. 244
    lurker23 says:

    Grace,

    Your post was clear, even though it was not the answer i was hoping for, so i thank you for the clarity.

    I honestly find it a bit depressing because although I would sincerely prefer to not make things worse for people, I am not willing to take on special responsibility for people who I don’t really know. i would fight for a general right not to be discriminated against, and i do not care myself if people transition, and i would openly encourage everyone else to adopt my attitude of “don’t care and let people live their life”.

    i am sorry to hear that the trans community finds it hard to allow for a middle ground. i don’t want to be an ‘enemy’ and i know that i’m not one–but i am not interested in signing on to be an ‘ally’ either. i hope that changes: the decision to treat everyone as enemy/ally without neutrals is also a choice which the trans community seems to be making, and the results of forcing people to the poles it does not always work out well.

    still in any case i was hoping to ask some specific questions and you have answered them very kindly, so again, i thank you for that. and i will do my best to stay on the ‘ally’ side of the ally/enemy split.

    Richard:
    You say you are, “interested in asking questions and trying to find a way to not offend trans people.” Yet the questions you have asked reveal little of how you think you might offend them or of how you see the world. I realize that you may not be willing to reengage this conversation, and I truly am sorry about that, but if you are, let me ask you some questions:

    i do not wish to fight with you, but i urge you to reconsider your tactics here. i don’t want to be interrogated by you, and i don’t have any interest in answering all your questions. I doubt most people do: that is not why this thread is here, and the whole combination is very confusing: unlike Grace’s clarity, you never did answer my questions, or specifically define what “respect” means even when I asked. instead you asked me even more questions. also, it feels like it would be sort of inappropriate to even answer all of them anyway: i am interested in getting the perspective of trans experts like Grace, i am not seeking to spout my own manifesto on how things would be or how i see the world.

    grace has answered (thank you again Grace) and i encourage you to be more like grace, if you’re going to answer. i will address this one question before i bow out permanently and allow others space to discuss it:

    Why do you think not offending trans people–as opposed, say, to accepting them outright–is a sufficient goal?

    i think that about all people, trans or not. it is also all that i expect from other people, trans or not. i do not expect others to “accept” a worldview which i find inoffensive or unhurtful, and i do not feel obliged to “accept” a worldview which will avoid offending everyone else.

    in fact i view that as a literal impossibility, since “everyone else” covers multiple views, all of which conflict. this is why i view that sort of thing as a meaningless platitude.

  45. 245
    Celeste says:

    i am sorry to hear that the trans community finds it hard to allow for a middle ground. i don’t want to be an ‘enemy’ and i know that i’m not one–but i am not interested in signing on to be an ‘ally’ either. i hope that changes: the decision to treat everyone as enemy/ally without neutrals is also a choice which the trans community seems to be making, and the results of forcing people to the poles it does not always work out well.

    I think you might be overstating the “trans community” part if all this, and while there are a lot of limitations to the “what if this was about some other minority group” way of analyzing a situation, but I think it might help here.

    If you’re someone who would never dream of referring to black people with a racial slur or engaging in personal discourtesy, but you also sincerely believe that race mixing is wrong and black people are racially/culturally inferior to white people, and you express that … well, what should individual black people think about you?

    If they’re cautious around you and avoid you, is that an intolerance for dissent “in the black community” or is that individual people making choices to keep themselves safe?

    Would it be accurate to describe you as “neutral”?

  46. lurker23:

    Grace obviously did a better job of reading your comments than I did. So, again, I will offer my apologies for being more wrapped up in what was going on in my own head rather than in the conversation you were trying to have. Had I read more carefully, I would have seen that the answers to most, if not all my questions were already implicit in the question you asked and that Grace so eloquently answered. I will also say that, to the degree you made what is at stake for you in your question more clear, I think you made at least some of those answers explicit in your response to her.

    I do find myself wondering if there’s any issue for you on which neutrality is not an option.

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