authenticity, autobiography, gender, identity, Natalie Wynn, qualitative individualism, Simone de Beauvoir
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.
I’m so glad you have the support of your wife and circle.
All the best to you.
Congratulations, Amod, and deep respect for your courage. Thank you as always for a great post too. May your happiness continue!!
Ben Kinney said:
Congratulations on coming out, and thank you for sharing! We once had half a conversation about this, but I was too New Englander to ever follow up.
Long time reader; I think first time commenter. Congratulations. This must have taken a lot of courage. May you have many years of happiness.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, everyone! I appreciate your support.
Like the other commenters, I’m impressed by this post in a good way.
One issue that I am curious about is whether you feel (or others feel, if others have given you feedback about it) that your personality changes at all when you switch genders? Your description of gender fluidity in this post focused on changes in visual appearance, and not on changes in personality. (By “personality” I am thinking of the kinds of patterns evaluated in personality assessments such as the NEO PI-R.) The voice in the posted text is the same voice that I am accustomed to reading in this blog, so I don’t detect any change in personality, but I don’t know if that’s because you wrote it in the same gender as usual. I’m just wondering if a change of gender is just a change of appearance for you, or if it is something like what I feel when I speak Spanish and feel like my personality changes too.
Amod Lele said:
That is a great question! And I think the answer is that it does. I change mannerisms, and that itself feels like a change in personality. I tend to smile more, maybe be a little more bubbly… and I have realized that’s probably something my masculine side could use more of too! As I can be something of a curmudgeon, and do not want to become a grumpy old man (or woman).
Thinking out loud about some ideas that occurred to me after I read your response: Although I have little experience in (theatrical) acting, for a long time I have been an avid informal armchair student of acting ever since I understood that the deeper skills and abilities of acting are extremely valuable for fully realizing human potential. Many psychologists have noted the therapeutic value of acting not just for remedying problems but for exploring new potential, such as Jacob Moreno’s development of psychodrama and George Kelly’s fixed role therapy.
I doubt that all gender changes are closely related to acting, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they are closely related in some cases, in a good way. Insofar as gender change is related to acting as therapy or actualization of human potential, and insofar as philosophy is too, I can see how a lot more could be said about the wisdom of gender changes and other radical changes of character. (Though what interests me most are the inner changes, more than the visible changes, though I don’t doubt that the latter can facilitate the former.)
Amod Lele said:
Well, the biggest reason I’ve felt comfortable about doing this is that my friends are part of a community that is extremely supportive of all kinds of gender experimentation. And that community happens to be focused around the hobby of LARPing, which, whatever else it is, is very much a form of acting. We’re all very used to changing the way we present our persona! And yes, that does have implications outside the context of the role-playing itself; I wrote more about that a decade or so ago.
Above I associated “gender changes” and “other radical changes of character” but I later realized, reflecting on my own experience, that it does not require a “radical” change to flip one’s gender. I have not had a haircut since before the COVID-19 pandemic started, so my hair has been growing out past my shoulders. On at least a dozen occasions, people—men and women—have mistaken me for a woman and addressed me with female pronouns. (I am not very “masculine” in other aspects: no facial hair, etc.) On perhaps half of the occasions, the people subsequently realized that I’m not a woman and apologized (but there was no need for apology: call me anything you like; I couldn’t care less). The other half of the people never figured out that I am male. And that’s merely because I have long hair! So, again, it doesn’t take much to “change gender” in the eyes of some people.
Amod Lele said:
Here a lot depends on the person’s physiology. I am deeply envious of an ethnically Chinese friend who is also gender-fluid and has very little facial or body hair. I naturally tend to have an obvious five o’clock shadow, and that takes a lot of work to cover up.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Amod, allow me to add my congratulations and express my admiration for your courage. So much of qualitiative individualistic flourishing seems to involve transcending culturally imposed binaries. Mazel Tov!
jim Wilton said:
Gender euphoria — the phrase made me smile! Congratulations!
David J Meskill said:
I want to join the others in applauding your courage and wishing you all the best.
I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?
What I have in mind is the following. I think “identity” is a fairly recent construct (according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, Erik Erikson was the first to talk about identity in its modern sense, in the 1950s). Traditional societies didn’t leave much room for choice (perhaps, in some cases, religious choice was an exception). One was born with ascribed statuses or grew into them: male, female, father, daughter, peasant, trader, Jew, Muslim, etc.
Modern identity has vastly expanded the choices available and made one’s identity – one’s choices and expressions of them – of central, often existential importance.
I have the impression that you see a lot of value in traditional wisdom. Is there any tension here, or how do you think about the relationship between traditional wisdom and identity? Maybe there are some earlier posts that address your thinking on these questions.
Amod Lele said:
Yeah, there’s a tension for sure. But my starting point is something I briefly mention in the post above: different kinds of traditional wisdom are different in their views, and it helps a lot here that I’m a Buddhist. Most such wisdom traditions sees a normativity in nature, such that we should take our ethical cues from biology in a significant way. Plato and Aristotle root their ethics in physis; Abrahamic traditions see biology-based roles as divinely ordained; Confucians identify nature with heaven. But Buddhism is not like that. Especially, unlike all the traditions listed, traditional Buddhism is suspicious of reproduction; reproduction is part of the cycle you’d like to get out of. So while there are certainly sexist and anti-trans elements in traditional Buddhism, they’re not part of the system; jettisoning them affects very little else. (There is nothing even remotely close to a Buddhist analogue of “male and female he created them.”)
David J Meskill said:
Thanks. That’s a really interesting distinction between Buddhism and the other traditions, one I wasn’t aware of.
Amod Lele said:
I’ve been thinking about your comment some more, as it’s very thought-provoking – will probably expand on all this with another post within a few weeks.
Because this blog lives up to “love of ALL wisdom”, and especially because the general way identity is talked about would benefit from some Buddhist insights, I was disappointed by “Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be taking those questions on in the immediate future.”.
But, as someone who spends too much time on twitter, I understand why.
Amod Lele said:
Yup. I am actually going to follow up with some Buddhist insights next week, but there’s only so much I’m willing to say at present.
Tasha Estey said:
I haven’t commented before, Amod, but I have been a LONG time reader of this blog and an even longer time fan of your writing and your mind :-). Love this so much – especially that you feel gender euphoria being able to express who you are in the world. My education in anthropology taught me to think about gender as a cultural construct – not unlike time as a cultural construct. I believe we are all on a gender identity continuum of sorts – and where we may situate on that continuum is fluid. Thank you for your vulnerability in this post and for all you share and have us think about when reading your blog.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Tasha. I’m glad to see you here and really glad you’ve been enjoying it all.
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