The liberation of women from traditional subservient gender roles has been the crowning achievement of the 20th century. That process of liberation is not complete, and will likely not be for some time. As it proceeds, it can take on unexpected consequences and connotations.
In particular, it turns out that the complete eradication of gender is something relatively few people ever wanted, even in those societies where feminism has gone furthest. Early feminists like Beauvoir understandably attacked the ways in which social understandings of womanhood kept women in a subservient position. For Beauvoir, gender roles interfered with women’s expression of their authentic selves.
Yet as women’s social position has improved over the decades since Beauvoir (and I don’t think there’s much debate that it has improved), gender has not withered away, or even begun to. Rather, it turns out that – on the same grounds of authentic self-expression that animate Beauvoir – many of us now welcome more signifiers of gender than we have to. That is: the past decade has seen an explosion in transgender expression, in which one comes to believe that one’s authentic self is essentially a particular gender – just not the one that had been assigned according to sex organs. And one then often goes through great lengths in order to have the various signifiers of that gender – and sometimes even the associated organs themselves. Feminists and psychologists had long noted a distinction between sex as a biological category and gender as a social construct overlying that category. It turns out that for many, the result of that distinction was not to eradicate gender, but to embrace a gender identity that does not correspond to one’s biological sex.
I say all of this as a preface to a more personal announcement: I consider myself gender-fluid, and have done so for nearly three years now.
“Gender-fluid” is a very recent term, describing people whose gender identity is sometimes male and sometimes female. In my case, this means that on some occasions I will present as female: I wear feminine clothing, breast forms, a long wig, and makeup (especially to cover my all-too-pronounced 5 o’clock shadow). In those situations I go by female pronouns, and by a feminine name: Sandhya (“evening” in Sanskrit), which was the name my parents had planned to call me when they thought I was going to be a girl. (In that sense, Sandhya has been my name for longer than Amod has.) Most of the time I present as male, as I would have five years ago, just because it’s easier.
Previous generations would have referred to all this simply as “cross-dressing”, but there is something more to it in an era that proclaims one’s ability to determine one’s own gender identity, and be addressed by the pronouns of one’s choice. (For the record, I prefer to go by she/her when presenting as female, and he/him when presenting as male. In a virtual space like this, I suppose I’m not really presenting in either way, so either one is fine; I don’t get too worked up about it one way or another.)
Why do this? For one, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with a male role. Back as an undergrad I remember bristling strongly, when told my behaviour was “typically male”, and newagey companions telling me I was very in touch with my feminine side. It feels very reassuring and appropriate to be treated as someone who is not merely a man, and it’s delightful that my community of friends is enthusiastic about this. (That includes my wife, who has been wonderfully supportive throughout all of it, and I would not have had the confidence to do it without her support.)
At least as much, for me there is a strong aesthetic appeal to being feminine. It feels good, and it feels good because it feels beautiful: it is a delight to look, and feel, like a beautiful woman. Part of the appeal is that in Western cultures there are few avenues for men to attempt to make themselves attractive, beautiful, and that is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do. Nor do men have many options to be colourful; my wedding outfit was unusual even in India, let alone here. And for me, the aesthetic appeal of being a man in lipstick and heels is a lot less than the appeal of being, and being considered, a beautiful woman.
It seems to me that in an ideal world, gender would be an aesthetic phenomenon, and only an aesthetic phenomenon – and, yes, one that could be self-determined, having to do with identity rather than biology. Gender can’t fully escape biology – the breast forms and the concealer are there to signify female biological features and cover up male ones – but the biology is not what is determinative. I would like to see a world where gender is simply a matter of how we choose to appear and present ourselves.
People have sometimes asked whether I have gender dysphoria, and I say no: I have gender euphoria. I made it through over forty years fine without being able to do any of this, but it feels great that I now can.
None of this would make sense if I were a complementarian who saw biological sex as having a natural teleology – but I’m not. (I don’t think there’s anything especially Buddhist about deviating from gender norms – the classical tradition is not particularly friendly to it – but Buddhism is at least not complementarian: Buddhist texts do not enshrine gender roles as naturally ordained the way the Hebrew Bible does.) Our sex organs, primary and secondary, are not “for” reproduction; they are for serving our felt and reasoned cares and aims. For some people, those cares and aims include having children, but not for all of us. Those cares and aims also include the aesthetics we love – and in my case, that includes the aesthetic of femininity.
Likewise, I disagree with Kassandra Blair’s comment on the IPB that “It is metaphysically and scientifically impossible for a man to become a woman or vice versa.” That is to beg the question. What the trans movement rightfully did was to question how we define “man” and “woman” in the first place. Feminists like Beauvoir rightly showed us that our everyday use of these categories owes more to social expectations than to biology. Nothing scientific says that women are those who wear saris or pink and high heels, or are referred to with different pronouns from men, or stay in the home rather than go out to work. Biological sex is a real phenomenon, most obviously in the phenomenon of childbirth, but most of what we associate with “man” and “woman” is not sex but gender, which – I agree with Beauvoir and her followers – is a social construct. I think that to view gender roles and gender identity as necessarily wedded to biological sex is bad metaphysics.
Even biological sex is not quite as straightforward as we make it out to be, since there havealways been intersex people, who do not biologically fit either category. Perhaps most strikingly, technology has advanced to the point where biological sex itself can be significantly altered to come close to perceived gender. Could there be a more visible demonstration of the ways in which social gender is more important than biological sex?
There are a lot of further philosophical issues I would love to explore here about the meaning and significance of transgender and gender fluidity, and their newfound acceptance in modern Western societies. There is much that is fascinating to discuss, and much that is of significance to wider philosophical issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be taking those questions on in the immediate future. For there is at the moment an unfortunate tendency in the transgender movement to silence disagreement and independent thought with intimidation and personal attacks. The case of Natalie Wynn shows just how bad this tendency can get: she was harassed, and disavowed by former friends and allies, for guilt by association – not even with an anti-trans activist, but with the wrong kind of trans activist (specifically a “transmedicalist”, one who thinks that people like me shouldn’t count as trans).
I do not consider that sort of environment one in which reasonable thought and discussion can happen, and I don’t personally feel it’s worth my risking the kind of censure that currently tends to greet deviations from the party line. (Sadly, even academic philosophy is not immune to this sort of censoriousness.) I don’t want myself – or those associated with me – to lose friends, or worse, over my posts on this blog. I retain hope that the conversational climate around transgender issues will clear up enough in the years to come that they can be discussed honestly and thoughtfully, for there are a vast array of fascinating and exciting questions to discuss, ones that do not have easy answers.
All of that said, I am grateful for what the transgender movement of the past decade has made possible. Five years ago (let alone ten), I didn’t even imagine being gender-fluid as an option. Now, in the urban educated North American circles in which I spend my life, it is. I’m very happy for that, and I’m happy to now let the world know. I do consider this progress.