The recent case of the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel’s article “In Defense of Transracialism” (first published by the journal Hypatia and then retracted) points out a case in which two philosophical positions each have an element of truth on their side, and this leads to a political debate. Each side is aware of its truth, but perhaps, on some level aware of the plausibility of the argument for the other side. This combination of being convinced that one is right, and also worried that those who disagree with one have a compelling argument, leads to the desire to use non-rational means to end the debate. In Tuvel’s case these non-rational means included online pressuring of her journal and personal attacks on Tuvel as a cis woman who lacked standing to express her views.
The Tuvel controversy appears as an argument between two areas of a broadly “pro” trans rights position. Tuvel argued that transracialism is a correct philosophical position because it is logically on all fours with transgenderism. If it’s true that someone may be born biologically male and yet be justified in identifying as female, it follows that one may be born biologically white and yet be justified in identifying as black. Tuvel’s critics argue that as a white cis woman she shouldn’t be talking this way and that even expressing the view that transracialism is logically equivalent to transgenderism does harm to the transgender community, yoking as it does a politically dubious cause — the claims of transracial people — to a politically worthwhile cause — the rights of transgender people.
It’s not my intention to weigh in on Tuvel’s argument (although I think the attempt to silence and her journal’s decision to retract the article are both unjust and counterproductive.)
Rather I want to engage with the position that lies in the background, namely the position that gender is shaped by biology, and is not purely cultural. One could call this the traditionalist position. Tuvel does not espouse this position at all, but part of the animus of her opponents comes I believe from their desire to protect themselves against a traditionalist attack. Tuvel finds herself in the position of the liberal who stakes out a position between leftists and rightists. The leftists view her as they would a pane of glass, and see a right-wing position lurking behind her.
Each side — the “gender is purely performance” side and the “gender is shaped by biology” side — have strong arguments.
For the argument that gender is purely performance or purely cultural the following facts provide support:
- Gender performance is learned
- Gender performance varies from culture to culture and historical epoch to historical epoch
- Biological sex is the interaction of several traits: chromosomal and phenotypical
- Biological sex forms a spectrum — there are intrasexuals.
- An individual can have a biological sex but find fulfillment identifying as a different gender
- The construct of gender is politically motivated and gives power to some groups at the expense of others. The desire to root this politics in biology is therefore politically reactionary and serves the cause of those who protect an entrenched, unjust status quo by appeals to its being natural and therefore immune to change.
The argument that gender is to some extent shaped by and rooted in biology is supported by the following:
- Every society and epoch marks the difference between those who are able at some point in their lifespan to get pregnant (females) and those who are able at some point in their lifespan to get others pregnant (males)
- Although there is a spectrum between biological males and biological females the distribution is bimodal — there are more individuals clumping on the male side and female sides of the spectrum than in the middle
- Biological sex makes certain cultural performances easier for those whose gender “matches” their biological sex. For example: biological males can grow facial hair more easily and in more profusion than biological females. Although having a beard is a performance available to both sexes — biological women can wear a beard or take hormone treatments to grow one — it is statistically easier for the average male to grow a beard than for the average female.
I believe, as I said above, that both sides here have an element of truth on their side. The relationship between sex and gender is analogous to the relationship between height and basketball skill.
The following facts are true about this relationship:
- Height is a measurable, biological reality.
- Being tall, all things being equal, makes it easier to be good at basketball. Being short, all things being equal, makes it harder.
- There are tall people who are terrible at basketball and short people who are great at basketball.
- We as a society do not need to play basketball if we don’t want to. If basketball promotes an unjust or just foolish political order we can stop and participate in sports that do not depend so much on height differences. We are also free to change the game of basketball so it focusses on height differences less, or not at all.
- There are powerful emotional, economic and political forces that shape our current society’s commitment to basketball. For example: the NBA makes a lot of money, a lot of people grew up playing basketball and like it.
I believe these statements, mutatis mutandis, are all true of the relationship between biology and gender. Our current gender relationships fetishize the biological differences that actually exist. We can, and should, change them. There are biological males who would be happier as gender females, and vice versa, and we should let them. Nevertheless biological sex is real, and statistically it is easier to perform female for the biologically female and male for the biologically male.
If I’m right the fact that each side has a strong argument explains some of the vociferousness of the debate. Each side has a justifiable fear of losing because of its emotional and ethical and economic commitment to a particular political course of action.