A pragmatic view on gender and transgenderism

Created 29 Mar 2015 • Last modified 16 Jun 2017

Are male-to-female transgender people really female? Are nonbinary gender identities real? I argue that actually, these questions don't make sense. Our real concern when it comes to controversial gender identities should be concrete questions like "What information should be recorded on a birth certificate?" and "How should bathrooms be segregated (if at all)?". Considering practical matters like these on their own terms makes it clearer that whether or not somebody is "really" a woman is of no significance.

There's a lot of debate over whether transgender people are "really" the gender they say they are, especially when they have no intersex traits. Some people say that MtF transgender people are just men who want to be women, or men who think they're women, or men who fit feminine stereotypes, or the like. Others, especially people who are themselves transgender, say that MtF people are women who merely seem to be men in some superficial way or in terms of some standard (implicit or explicit) they regard as illegitimate. Disagreement of similar kinds appears in the case of nonbinary gender identities such as "bigender", "trigender", "genderfluid", "genderqueer", "agender", "neutrois", or "demigender".

But in a sense, these are all arguments about semantics. People get very tied up about who, exactly, gets to be called a "woman", but the question of who we call a "woman" is much less important than questions such as:

  1. What information should be recorded on a birth certificate?
  2. What information should be sought for the national census?
  3. How should bathrooms be segregated (if at all)?
  4. How should sports competitions be segregated (if at all)?
  5. Who should be eligible for conscription?
  6. In scientific research, what characteristics should be recorded and examined as moderators of the effects of interest? How should a physician with an MtF or genderfluid or neutrois patient apply these findings?
  7. How should anti-discrimination or affirmative-action policies be applied?

What people seem to miss is that you don't have to commit to either "MtF people are men" or "MtF people are women" (nor commit to either "Neutrois people are neutrois" or "Neutrois people are male or female") and then answer all such questions accordingly. For example, one could consistently believe that for (7), appearance should determine applicability of anti-discrimination laws because discrimination is based on perceived gender, whereas for (5), muscular structure should determine draft eligibility because the purpose of drafting only men is to maximize fighting-power return on investment per conscript. (I don't mean to endorse either of the "because…" clauses in the previous sentence. I'm just giving examples of logically consistent opinions.)

The thing is that people are too relativist and essentialist about gender. By "relativist", I mean the idea that personal experience, as opposed to the publicly observable material world, is the ultimate standard of truth. See here for a detailed discussion of relativism and how it applies to gender. By "essentialist", I mean the idea that categories such as rain, elections, happiness, and gender have a discrete essence independent of how the category members affect the world. Just as there is no transcendent "property of being rain" that makes rain rain—and so we have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether to treat as rain or not rain a particular amount of water that has fallen from the sky in a particular area over a particular time—there is no transcendent property of being female. When we deny relativism and essentialism, we can see that nobody is "really" male, "really" female, or "really" a trigender pyrofox. Rather, femaleness etc. are concepts we use to describe and make estimates about features of empirical reality such as anatomy, physiology, and clothing preferences. To worry more about whether somebody is "really" female than the decisions we make about them using the concept of femaleness is to confuse an empty husk for the substance of things.