The fairly innocuous piece below was originally part of a larger piece commissioned by the Institute of Art and Ideas, entitled “How Can Philosophy Help Us Understand Transgender Experience”. After it appeared, three fellow contributors complained both to the IAI and on social media that they had not known they would be appearing alongside me, Holly Lawford-Smith, and Julie Bindel. They objected strongly, on various patently spurious and selective grounds. The IAI then took the amazing step of taking the whole piece down, with no explanation to the remaining contributors to date, and no response to our emails. It seems they don’t think we deserve an explanation — despite commissioning each of us in the first place. (Here is some more background on Brian Leiter’s blog, plus a downloadable version of the whole original piece.)
Philosophy can ask: what is a transgender identity? More generally, it can ask what “identity” is, and interrogate the central role that the notion now plays in contemporary politics. On one interpretation, one’s identity is wholly subjective: it’s whatever you believe you are, right now, where your beliefs guarantee success — if you now believe that you are such-and-such, then being such-and-such is your identity, and there’s no way you can be wrong about that. Sometimes we hear that identities include, not just being trans or not, but also having a sexual orientation: being gay, or heterosexual, or bisexual. But if, for instance, “subjectively believing you are heterosexual” is equivalent to “actually being heterosexual”, then this presumably means you are automatically heterosexual as long as you feel that term applies to you. And this looks wrong. Aren’t there independent, non-subjective conditions to be fulfilled, to count as being a heterosexual? You have to be genuinely attracted to the opposite sex, for one. Lots of people believe they’re straight but aren’t. Self-deception is possible. So possession of a heterosexual identity, in an interesting sense, seems to require more than just subjective belief. If that’s right, then we should think harder about making a transgender identity only a matter of what one subjectively feels is true about oneself right now.