Good Scholarship On Gender

I was recommended a YouTube video, “Transphobia: An Analysis,” and it easily lives up to its name. I noticed an overlap, though, between that video and my own attempts at a similar topic: we both relied heavily on the writing of trans people in forming our arguments. Both Philosophy Tube and I cite a specific article by Talia Mae Bettcher:

Consequently, when a trans woman says “I’m a woman” and her body is precisely the kind of body taken to invalidate a claim to womanhood (in mainstream culture), the claim is true in some trans subcultures because the meaning of the word “woman” is different; its very meaning is under contestation … I understand this in terms of Marı́a Lugones’s concept of “multiple worlds of sense” […]

Once we adopt a Lugonian framework for understanding trans oppression and resistance, we can see a serious problem inherent in both the wrong-body and transgender approaches: they take the dominant meanings of gender terms for granted, thereby foreclosing the possibility of multiply resistant meanings (…). In a beyond-the-binary model, to say that trans people are marginal with respect to the binary is to locate them in terms of the categories “man” and “woman” as dominantly understood. If trans bodies can have different resistant meanings, the decision to say of those bodies that they are “mixed” or “in between” is precisely to assume a dominant interpretation. So the problem is not the rigidity of the binary categories but rather the starting assumption that there is only one interpretation in the first place (the dominant one). Similarly, in the wrong-body model, to become a woman or a man requires genital reconstruction surgery as the correction of wrongness. But this is to accept a dominant understanding of what a man or a woman is.

Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Trapped in the wrong theory: Rethinking trans oppression and resistance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39.2 (2014): 389-390.

While there’s a lot of bad reasoning out there too, the best analysis of gender I’ve seen has come from trans people. It also makes the best analysis I’ve seen from TERFs look like “WRONG” crayon’d on a wall. Take Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, for instance; she’s often held up as one of the best TERF scholars, yet I often find her writing drivel like this:

If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then everyone is “non-binary”.

This basic logical point should be obvious, and yet is denied by most of the proponents of the spectrum model of gender – indeed, it is often met with angry objections from those who label themselves non-binary. But it’s hard to see how this point can be refuted. If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then every individual alive is non-binary, by definition. There are not just two points. There is a range of points, and we all of us fall somewhere along the spectrum. And then the label “non-binary” becomes redundant, as it fails to pick out a special category of people.

Or, perhaps, “binary” is an anachronistic label for a large collection of people who cluster around certain behaviors and appearance. We can keep using the term until we think of a better one, so long as we acknowledge that, in the context of gender, the sharp boundaries implied by the name do not exist. The premise that gender occupies a spectrum is compatible with this definition of “binary,” and it permits “non-binary” to remain a useful category.

A graphical representation of the prior paragraph.

If you read forward, you’ll find much of her essay consists of hammering the “binary cannot have multiple meanings” nail over and over and over again, until she gets to her true point.

The logical conclusion of all this is: if gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then there are no trans people. Or, alternatively, everyone is trans.

Well yes, if you deny that “binary” can have multiple meanings, and believe everyone agrees the wrong-body model is correct, that conclusion holds. Marı́a Lugones published her work in 2004, so even the latter premise was false a decade before Reilly-Cooper scrawled that article on a wall.

If you are interested in getting to the bottom of what gender is, then you owe it to yourself to check out the work of trans scholars, starting with Talia Mae Bettcher.

As I was pondering [Kathleen] Stock’s arguments, I couldn’t help reflect on the grading I had just completed for the course “Trans Feminist Philosophy.” I wondered whether her essay would have received a passing grade in it.

In this course, we paid particular attention to (non-trans) feminist engagements with trans people, issues, and theory. We used my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues” as a guide. It served as the starting point for my lectures and our inquiries. I’ll note that this entry is almost like a little book, coming in at 23,000 words. It also has an extensive and, in my humble opinion, highly useful bibliography that includes literature from the late 1800s until around 2014.

In our discussion of feminist/trans interactions, we began with the expulsion of Beth Elliott (a trans woman, lesbian feminist) from the Daughters of Bilitis San Francisco chapter in late 1972 and then considered the infamous West Coast Lesbian Conference (1973) during which Elliott survived a vote that would have expelled her from the conference. We examined all of the feminist perspectives that were at play at the time—including the pro-trans ones. We then went on to examine Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), easily the most important work in “gender critical feminism” (although it wasn’t called that at the time). We looked at the emergence of trans studies through the work of Sandy Stone (1991), Kate Bornstein (1994), and Leslie Feinberg (1992). We examined the development of Queer Theory—especially the work of Judith Butler (1990, 1993) and its relation to trans studies and politics. We looked at trans phenomenology (Rubin 1998) and we looked at the FTM/Butch border wars of the nineties (Halberstam 1998, Hale 1998). We looked at more recent feminist perspectives on trans issues (e.g. Cressida Heyes 2003, Gayle Salamon 2010) by non-trans women, and we discussed the development of trans feminism through the work of Emi Koyama (2003, 2006) and Julia Serano (2007). Unfortunately, we ran out of time. We were going to look at some of the more recent debates with regard to gender critical feminism (e.g. Lori Watson 2016, Sara Ahmed 2016, myself). But we had to stop.

Enjoy the dig.