The veil of gender ignorance

One of the common TERF talking points is, “If I grew up today, I would have (wrongly) believed I was trans.” As with many TERF arguments, there’s also an anti-ace analogue: “If I grew up today, I would have sooner believed I was bisexual heteroromantic than just gay.” I’m going to take an analytical approach to understanding and countering these arguments.

The veil of ignorance

We can start by borrowing an idea from political philosophy: the veil of ignorance. We imagine that we have the opportunity to construct a society however we wish. Afterwards, we get to take our place within the society. The catch is, we don’t know which place we will take. So we don’t want the society to unfairly favor one group over another, because we may end up taking the unfavored position.

The veil of ignorance is particularly well-suited to this problem, because it’s pretty close to what we’re actually doing. We choose the cultural and social messages that are conveyed to the next generation. And, in order to make that choice, we imagine ourselves in the shoes of the next generation. “If I grew up today…”

But when we say, “If I grew up today…”, implicitly we’re just imagining ourselves, only younger. To correctly follow the veil of ignorance argument, we ought to imagine ourselves not as ourselves, but as some random young’un who may or may not be like who we are in actuality. So we would have to imagine ourselves as many different things: as cis, as trans, as straight, as gay, as ace, etc. If you grew up today, maybe you would believe you were trans, and maybe you would also be trans.

Of course, many TERFs believe there are no trans people. So if you grew up today, no matter who you grew up as, you would never be trans because nobody is trans. The outcomes of trans kids don’t matter because there aren’t trans kids to have any outcomes, according to TERFs. That might be why TERFs find this argument so compelling and the rest of us are unconvinced.

Public epistemic resources

When trans people exist, the question becomes more complicated. The gender/sexual/romantic possibilities communicated to kids are a public epistemic resource. We cannot just teach trans people about trans possibilities, we also have to teach cis people, because we don’t know which ones are cis or trans. It is possible that if we teach cis people about trans people, some of them may incorrectly believe that they are trans. Likewise, if we teach trans people about cis people, some of them may incorrectly believe they are cis. Put simply, we have competing demands of our public resources.

The really basic and obvious solution is that we should be taught about both cis and trans people. Yes, some people may wrongly believe they are in the wrong category, and yes this could cause harm. And far be it for me to dismiss that harm, having spent a significant part of my life wrongly believing I was straight. But if we only taught people about being cis or only about being trans, it guarantees the almost everyone in the other group will believe they are in the wrong category. Teaching people about all possibilities is not only the most equitable way to distribute harm, but also reduces overall harm.

Okay, but suppose we’re utilitarians of the particularly cutthroat variety. Teaching people about all possibilities may be an equitable way to distribute harm, but does it really reduce harm overall? After all, most people are cis, and very few people are trans. Perhaps only a small fraction of cis people would believe they are trans, but that small fraction is still larger than the entire population of trans people. Clearly we must sacrifice trans people for the greater good. While we’re at it, let’s tell everyone that they’re straight, Christian, and, uh, Chinese. I haven’t actually counted up the utils of cis or trans people but I’m sure that favoring the largest group is always best.

I’m being dismissive because there aren’t many willing to admit that they take the viewpoint of a utilitarian supervillain. But I do think there’s a grain of truth to it. Because of the relative population sizes of cis and trans people (or gay and bisexual heteroromantics or whatever), it seems like you could justify tilting our public resources slightly in favor of the majority. Of course, such tilting already occurs automatically. If we tell the truth, that most people are cis–or just let trans people observe for themselves that most people are cis–that already tilts our epistemic assumptions in favor of cis people. Also in practice trans people face all sorts of social and institutional barriers that discourage them from knowing their truth. Also we don’t actually tell most kids about trans people at all. So maybe it’s actually tilted too far?

There’s a lot of space for disagreement on the precise ethical framework we use to make these decisions. But I don’t think TERFs are disagreeing with us because they’re consciously adopting ruthless utilitarianism. I think it comes down to TERFs having separate facts. They believe there are no trans people. Or they believe trans people are unworthy of caring. They believe trans ideology is sweeping across high schools, transing all the kids. They believe doctors are giving irreversible operations to any kid who just asks for it. They believe puberty blockers are irreversible. They believe they know what it would be like to grow up today. The rest of us, who don’t share those assumptions, have no business nodding along.

Hermeneutical Injustice

Hermeneutical injustice describes a situation where people are denied interpretational tools needed to interpret their own experience. For example, if a woman is never taught about sexual harassment, a trans person is never taught about trans people, or an ace person is never taught about ace people. It’s an idea that comes from the philosophy of law, specifically the book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker. (I know I sound all erudite referring to pentasyllabic concepts from the philosophy of law, but the truth is that hermeneutical injustice is such a painfully on-the-nose description of asexual problems, that it’s basically common knowledge among ace activists.)

When people say, “If I grew up today, I would have (wrongly) believed I was trans,” they are, in essence, alleging a hermeneutical injustice. As the logic goes, it’s hard to be a woman. It’s hard to be a woman and easier to believe that you may not be one. Many girls who hate the expectations of their own gender are not given the tools to understand that they can reject those expectations.

And I don’t think that’s wrong. It is a hermeneutical injustice. Girls should be given better tools to understand how to navigate gender expectations.

TERFs seem to have gone in a different direction though. They believe that the best way to give girls the right tools, is by taking away all other interpretational tools. Once there are no tools left except the ones dedicated to butch cis women, there’s no risk of anyone ever choosing the wrong tool. Unless they’re not cis. And it’s such a fundamentally flawed approach. Depriving people of useful interpretational tools is not a correction to hermeneutical injustice, it is reinforcement.


  1. moonslicer says

    My initial thoughts on all this: this is just more TERF babbling that we don’t need to take seriously. First of all, TERFs don’t actually understand what it is to be trans, and therefore they can’t imagine themselves being trans or thinking they might be trans. I might imagine myself as a great golfer because I played enough golf to know what a golfer is. But TERFs haven’t a clue what it is to be trans. They can’t imagine themselves as something when they have no idea what that something is.

    This is part of their campaign to convince everyone that there are more and more transpeople around these days because kids are being brainwashed as a part of a nefarious transgender agenda. But first we don’t know that there are in fact more transpeople around these days than in previous generations. In the 1920s or 50s, who was counting? And it’s particularly difficult to count people are living underground because they fear to come out into the light of day. Transgender people have been around for millennia. Does it make sense to believe that all of a sudden one generation is producing more of us than past generations did?

    Finally, I would assert that your self-knowledge is derived from within. Are TERFs claiming that you can tell countless young people that they’re trans and that they will believe that? They won’t if they have no inner conviction of that notion. I didn’t know when I was little that I was trans. Nobody told me. As far as everyone else was concerned, I was as “normal”, as cisgender as they come. But nobody knew what was going on inside me. I had no specific awareness of being transgender, but I did have an awareness of something inside me that was “abnormal”, i.e., outside the norm.

    It was many years before I became well acquainted enough with transgender issues to feel some resonance with the notion inside me. I.e., what I learned from outside me resonated with what was occurring inside me. But if you have no inner condition of being “different”, this body of ideas coming from the outside will have nothing to resonate with.

    If some young person wrongly gets the idea that they’re trans, I imagine they’ll disabuse themselves of the notion pretty quickly. E.g., switch over, start living male instead of female. If you’re not truly trans, it’s hard to see how this switchover will resonate with you.

    TERFs are trying to convince us that you can mess up a whole generation by propagating the notion that you can just tell young people they’re trans, and if you go at it hard enough, you’ll “win lots of converts”. It’s because TERFs don’t understand that being trans is not the acceptance of an idea coming from outside you, but rather a permanent feature of your inner life. If that feature isn’t there, telling a young person they’re trans is futile because they’re not. The idea won’t have any real meaning to them, so they’ll let it go.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Succcint and useful, thank you Siggy! Particulary for the hermeneutical injustice description, I’ve not seen it put so clearly in my vague wandering around sites that tell you such things.

  3. anat says

    Yes, we need to tell kids that not everyone is cisgender, and at the same time we need to tell them that gender roles, as currently constructed, are not set in stone. We can expand the available ways of expression of people of all genders. And encourage everyone to find their comfortable place in the multidimensional space of gender/sex/expression/etc (and let them know the exact position might shift a bit here and there). I expect many who are currently living sort-of-OK cisgender lives might find some happier spot in a society with a more expansive and flexible view of gender, without causing a wave of ‘oh-no, all the kids are having surgeries all of a sudden’.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    The whole myth about ‘if I grew up today I’d have been told I was trans’ is based on blatant misinformation about what pro-trans-rights activists/gender clinics actually do. There is this ridiculous myth being spread by transphobic people that we’re telling everyone who likes things conventionally associated with the ‘opposite’ gender that this somehow means they’re trans. No, this is not happening.

    It reminds me of those myths about women only having abortions because other people push them into it (because, hey, women obviously can’t be trusted to make our own choices, right?). Or those ghastly Section 28 laws in the UK back in the ’80s that forbade schoolteachers from telling children it was OK to be gay, because that might lead to children being pushed into being gay (subtext; might keep us from pushing them into being straight).

  5. says

    This is something I think about a lot- like how do we teach kids/teenagers about sexuality/gender/sex-ed so that they can figure out their identity and what they want, but also not get pressured into anything? (For example, how to teach sex-ed that’s useful and practical to teenagers who do have sex, but doesn’t send the message “you SHOULD be having sex in high school”.) The best answer I’ve come up with is that people should see a huge range of fictional characters with all different experiences/identities, and then they just kind of naturally discover “oh I relate to this character.” (Also not just fiction- they would also see real people talking about their experiences.)

    But yeah seems like TERFs are just trying to be mean to trans people, not actually trying to find a good answer to this question.

  6. says

    But first we don’t know that there are in fact more transpeople around these days than in previous generations. In the 1920s or 50s, who was counting?

    Actually, a German academic/scientific institute was doing a good bit of counting (and research and publication), at least up to the early 1930s, when a mob of concerned Nazis burned everything they’d written.

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