An Analysis of “Transsexuality and Contextual Identities” By Georgia Warnke

Harrison Jennings
Mar 30, 2019 · 14 min read
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In the essay “Transsexuality and Contextual Identities,” from the book You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity (edited by Laurie J. Shrage, 2009), Georgia Warnke’s aim is to explore “the relation between one’s body and particularly one’s genitalia and one’s felt identity,” specifically with reference to questions such as “What does it mean to possess or inhabit the wrong body?” and “Why does wrongness manifest itself as an issue of genitalia?”

Warnke begins with a discussion of the relation between “physical sex” and “psychic gender.” She notes that the distinction between sex and gender has been a “common, although not uncontroversial,” move for feminists and others to make since at least Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. On this view, it is somewhat standard to see “sex” as an intrinsic, unchanging, biological category; while “gender” is considered to arise from “culturally and historically based differences in the roles, attitudes and behaviors of men and women.” To put it simplistically, sex is biological while gender is “socially constructed.”

But Warnke goes on to question this view of sex and gender, especially its understanding of sex as a fixed category. One question raised with reference to this is that of “which bodily factors are meant to comprise one’s sex?” Is it even possible to “tie sex to phsyical characteristics or chromosomes”? If so, Warnke claims, it ought to be noted that “neither penises nor XY chromosomes are always sufficient to make one a male.” In support of this, she brings up cases of infants with micropenises who are raised as girls and individuals with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) who appear to be females depiste being genetically XY. I think a better, more modest way to phrase this would have been: it is not always absolutely clear whether penises or XY chromosomes are sufficient to make one a male. Or, perhaps, it is contested whether such is true. We see that this is her larger point as she goes on to describe various legal cases in which sex has been determined via different criteria. She concludes this section by stating: “The upshot of these inconsistencies [in criteria] is to raise questions about the nature of the sexed bodies that transsexuals think they wrongly possess. As it turns out, medical and legal systems are in some disagreement among themselves as to what sex is.”

Warnke then goes on to discuss how gender is equally as complicated and “mysterious” as biological sex seems to be. She examines how concepts of gender often try and fail to satisfactorily abstract gender from other social categories such as race and class. She writes: “The upshot of these examples is, at the very least, a disaggregating of gender. The gender of middle-class women and working-class women, white women and black women may be quite different, and, when we think we are describing gender, we may well be describing something else instead, not only race or class but nationality, age, and a host of different attributes.” She concludes from this that “indeed, women may have no features in common, and when we try to isolate gender from other attributes, we may discover that it is nothing at all.”

This is where the meat of Warnke’s essay begins. Sex and gender clearly present us with complexities and difficulties; how, then, do they relate to “identity”? As I read her, Warnke seems to be asking: given that sex and gender apparently don’t always correlate as we typically expect them to, and given that sex and gender on their own are already challenging to understand and define, when they don’t correlate, which is more fundamental to our identity? From here, Warnke presents her central thesis: identities are “interpretations of who we are, and as such they are intelligible only as parts of particular contexts.” From this, it follows that we must seek to understand sex and gender identities from within their proper contexts. It also follows that “as interpretations, all identities have the same status . . . [so] transsexuality is no different from other changes of identity such as changes in nationality or sports team affiliation. Transsexuality is no more radical because sex and gender are no less context-bound.”

Allow me to sketch out what I see as the basic claims here:

  1. Identities are interpretations of who we are
  2. Identities must be understood from within a particular context
  3. All identities, qua interpretations, have an equivalent ontological status

So, the central thesis seems to be that understanding sex and gender as “identities” so defined, and hence examining them within their proper contexts, helps to alleviate some of the difficulties and complexities previously discussed and also leads us to conclude that transsexuality is no more radical or problematic than other kinds of normal identity shifts.

In defending these claims, Warnke makes use of the imagery of characters in a play. The character Hamlet only exists in, and is only intelligible in light of, the overall play Hamlet. Outside of the context of the play, the character does not really exist. Hence, the play is the framework within which we must understand the identity of the character.

Warnke suggests that this account is similar to how we must seek to understand sex and gender. She writes: “To understand individuals in either sex or gender terms requires that we situate them within a text or context that gives them this meaning. It is not simply given with bodies that they can always be construed as male or female. Rather, to understand someone as a certain sex is to take certain aspects of the body — perhaps chromosomes or appendages or certain hormones — to be indicative of who the person is and to exclude other physical and biological features of bodies, such as knobby knees and muscle types.”

What exactly is the argument being made here? It appears to be something like this: 1) If raw biological data on its own does not give us a classification of sex, this classification must be an interpretation made within a specific contextual framework distinct from the raw biological data; 2) raw biological data on its own does not give us a classification of sex; 3) therefore classification of sex is an interpretation made within a specific contextual framework distinct from the raw biological data. In defense of the second premise, Warnke seems to be pointing out that we can’t just pick out any individual part of the body and conclude from that part what the sex of the body is. For example, we can’t point to knobby knees on their own and conclude that the person who has them is male or female. Perhaps one might respond: “well of course you can’t pick out any bodily feature on its own and determine one’s sex from it; you have to pick out the bodily features that are specifically relevant to sex.” The problem, however, as Warnke sees it, is that at this point you’ve already made an interpretation based in a specific contextual framework. On her view, by choosing to pick out these particular parts as truly indicative of sex, you’ve already made an interpretive decision. So, she writes, “Determining what to include and what to exclude requires a frame of reference, a set of concerns or activities that justifies the inclusions and exclusions. Otherwise, why not include knobby knees?”

Why not classify humans in terms of those with knobby knees and those without knobby knees? Why divide humans into classifications based upon differing genitalia or chromosomes? The answer, says Warnke, is because we choose to classify humans with respect to these features, and this choice is a result of interpreting human beings within a frame of reference, namely the framework of reproductive biology. It might be true that human beings differ with relation to reproductive biology — some have penises while some have vaginas, some have uteruses and some do not, some have ovaries and some have testes, etc. These are instances of the raw biological data or what we might call the pure “facts.” But to pick out the reproductive features of a person, abstracting them from all other biological facts, and to then decide that these are the relevant features by which we are going to divide and classify all humans — this is an interpretive choice.

But, continues Warnke, as an interpretive choice, there doesn’t seem to be anything to separate the significance of this particular interpretive choice from others. As such, why should we view the desire to change one’s reproductive anatomy as any more radical than a desire to dye one’s hair a different color?

Another implication of Warnke’s position is that one only possesses a certain identity when one is acting within the contextual framework relevant for interpreting that identity. So, claims Warnke, one can only be identified as male and female when one is actually engaging in relevant activities, such as giving birth or having “potentially fertile sexual intercourse.” Outside of these contexts, the identities of male and female simply break down, losing their intelligibility. If one were to ask, Am I a male? the answer would be: it depends. Are you currently trying to impregnate someone? If so, then yes. If not, then no. So Warnke writes:

“It does not follow, however, that human beings separate into sexes outside of the framework of reproduction. Just as Hamlet is Hamlet only within Hamlet, males and females are males and females only within the context of reproduction . . . our reproductive capacities are absent from many if not most of the contexts in which we act and cannot provide coherent definitions of who we are within those contexts.”

From here, Warnke moves on to a discussion of gender. The question again is what context allows us to understand what gender identity names. Her previously mentioned point about how it is difficult to abstract gender from other social categories makes it problematic to identify a context specific to just gender. She references the work of Iris Marion Young, who suggests that we can conceive of gender as a series of individual relations to a “practico-inert reality,” just as “bus riders” names a series of individual relations to the practico-inert reality of a bus. What is the practico-inert reality for gender? Young gives the following possibilities: “pronouns, verbal and visual representations, clothes, cosmetics, social spaces such as sex-segregated bathrooms, and spaces associated with the sexual division of labor.”

Warnke sees this list as problematic, however. In particular, she rejects pronouns, verbal and visual representations, sex-segregated bathrooms and the sexual division of labor as sufficient possibilities. That leaves only clothes and cosmetics, or “self-presentation” in general. It seems, then, that one is only a man or a woman when one acts within the context of relating to the practico-inert reality of self-presentation. In other words, one is a woman when one presents oneself as a woman; and one is a man when one presents oneself as a man. Warnke seems to associate self-presentation, at least in the case of women, with features like “wearing dresses and cosmetics, sitting demurely, perhaps, and swinging our hips.” This is somewhat troubling. Who/what determines which features count as self-presenting as a certain gender? It is one thing to say that these are the features by which society generally recognizes or signifies a woman; but it is quite another to say that these are the features which actually make one a woman.

Warnke also seems to leave open room for different legitimate interpretations of one’s indentity. Just as a single novel can legitimately be interpreted in a variety of different ways, via different contextual frameworks, so a person’s identity can also be legitimately interpreted in different ways, in light of different contexts. Does Warnke mean to say by this that while some people understand gender as a relation to a practico-inert reality, other people could understand gender in different terms? The answer to this question is not entirely made clear to me by the essay.

This, then, has been a brief outline of Warnke’s paper and its central claims. We will now turn to an evaluation of these claims. Let’s start with Warnke’s thesis that “identities are contextual: who we are depends on the context of the question.” This is perhaps the most fundamental of the paper’s claims; all the others in some way depend upon this one. So what should we make of it?

Here’s one initial question for Warnke’s account of identity: what is it that connects and unites all of the disparate contextual identities which serve to make up and constitute me, this individual person? According to Warnke, we have different identities depending on varying contexts. While playing chess I am a chess-player, while riding a bus I am a bus-rider, while relating to my spouse I am a husband or wife. While engaging in procreative sexual intercourse I am a male or a female, but in no other context can it make sense for me to say that my identity is constituded by my sex. On Warnke’s account, then, while I’m playing chess, I’m neither a father or a husband or a philosophy student, because none of these identities are relevant to the context of my playing chess. I’m not playing chess qua father or qua student, but qua chess-player; and so my identity in this context, while engaging in this activity, consists simply of my being a chess player.

But the function of “identity” is supposed to explain precisely how I remain the same person throughout various experiences, events, and changes. Am I the same person while playing chess as I am while writing a paper? Obviously, yes. But on Warnke’s contextual identity account, how can we make sense of this? If I have one identity in one context, and a completely different identity in a different context, what is it that connects and unites these different identities? There must be some fundamental identity that is common to all the separate “identities” which I experience. Perhaps we can find this in the identity of “being this particular human being.” This identity underlies and is presupposed by other identities such as playing chess and riding a bus; for it is only human beings which do these activities, and it is only as this particular human being that I am actually engaging in these activities.

But the identity of “being this particular human being” carries with it certain corollaries. What is it that distinguishes human beings, making this human being this human being and that human being that human being? Being a human being involves possessing a number of individuating features which distinguish one from another. Such individuating features include things like having this body or this soul (depending on one’s philosophy of human nature). But bodies qua bodies have certain essential characteristics, and one such essential characteristic is (arguably) biological sex. Human bodies are essentially either male or female bodies.

Here we see the very significant difference between identities such as “being a chess player” on the one hand and “being a male/female” on the other. Being a chess player is not essential to being a human being, while having a biological sex is, insofar as having a biological sex is essential to what a human body is and having a human body is essential to being a human being. This means that my identity as male or female is an identity which is maintained through every context I participate in as myself.

The claim that sex is essential to what a human body is might be fairly controversial; and one might wonder how it would respond to intersex cases where it is not completely clear whether one’s body is either male or female. This is a question I will be looking at in much more depth elsewhere. For now, it will be enough to say this: even if there are specific cases where it is not entirely clear what the sex of one’s body is, all human bodies have some sexed features. So we might make the more modest claim that it is essential to all human bodies that they have some sexual features, whatever they may be. And these sexual features are part of what make up one’s identity as the particular human being that one is. In most individuals, these features line up rather neatly within the categories of male or female. In some individuals it is more difficult to make such categorizations; but there is always some assortment of sexed features present nontheless.

What about Warnke’s argument that classifying someone as male or female presupposes an interpretive decision made necessarily from a certain frame of reference? Recall this quote from earlier: “To understand individuals in either sex or gender terms requires that we situate them within a text or context that gives them this meaning. It is not simply given with bodies that they can always be construed as male or female. Rather, to understand someone as a certain sex is to take certain aspects of the body — perhaps chromosomes or appendages or certain hormones — to be indicative of who the person is and to exclude other physical and biological features of bodies, such as knobby knees and muscle types.” Given this line of thought, perhaps Warnke might respond to my point with something like the following: Sure, perhaps all the different contexts we interact within presuppose the fundamental identity of being this particular human being. And maybe it is essential to being a human being to have a human body; and further, maybe it is essential to the human body to have certain kinds of features. But dividing all (or most) human bodies into the categories of male and female is still an interpretive decision. Why not divide human beings into categories based on hair color or height? Why choose specifically those features which correspond to the frame of reference of reproductive biology?

I think the thing to say here is first, that the frames of reference from which we consider various aspects of a human person pick out true, objective realities. The frame of reference of reproductive biology can only divide human beings into males and females because humans really do differ according to reproductive biology. Conceptual frames of reference exist as a means to understand different aspects of a person; and so they must actually correspond to real aspects of the person. Which brings us to a second point: some frames of reference are treated as more fundamental than others because some aspects of human beings really are more fundamental to who/what we are than others. Human beings are mammals, and one of the basic characteristics of mammals is that they reproduce and do so through sexual activity. The capacity for reproduction, and for specifically sexual reproduction, is much more fundamental to our essence and existence as humans than hair color or height. And it is the capacity for sexual reproduction which — manifests in one of two basic forms — which determines our biological sex.

Warnke writes that “different identities are conceptually central to different people.” And this is certainly true, to an extent. For different people, different aspects of their being play a larger or smaller role in how they perceive themselves and in how they present themselves to interact with others/the world. But we shouldn’t conclude from this that some aspects of our being can’t actually be more or less fundamental than others. Warnke defines identities as “interpretations” of who we are, but interpretations ought to be interpretations of reality, and hence can be more or less objectively correct insofar as they more or less actually correspond with reality. As Warnke herself acknowledges, some interpretations can be illegitimate or false interpretations. Once we understand this, and understand that one’s biological sex is much more fundamental to one’s being than other aspects such as hair color, then it becomes clear that transsexuality really is much more radical than other changes one might undergo, such as dyeing one’s hair or deciding to move to a different country. (The question of changing one’s religion is, I think, more challenging; but I won’t go into that here).

Warnke also writes that “no matter how conceptually central an identity may be to us, there are contexts in which the identity is simply unintelligible. Running for cover in a tornado or brushing my teeth, I am neither a Democrat nor a woman.” You might not be running for cover or brushing your teeth qua Democrat or qua woman, but this doesn’t mean you aren’t actually these things, even while engaging in those actions. It simply means that, to understand these actions in abstract, it doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of those aspects of you. But insofar as it is really this particular human being who is running for cover or brushing their teeth, and insofar as this particular human being is both a woman and a Democrat, then it is both true and intelligible to speak of you as being these things even while engaging in those activities.

So far, we have just treated of Warnke’s account of biological sex. Gender is much more complicated, and I currently feel much less confident in discussing it. So, for now, at least, I will conclude here, and leave the discussion of gender for another time.

All quotes in this article are from Georgia Warnke’s essay “Transsexuality and Contextual Identities” in You’ve Changed : Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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