EDIT 6/23/20: While I stand by most of the substance of this essay, I wrote it without a good understanding of the context of the relevant debates or trans welfare in general; it does not represent my current concerns about trans issues, in philosophy or otherwise ~LM
This recent essay by Kathleen Stock (a “philosophical” discussion of how trans women can all go shut up please, see I said “please” aren’t I being polite and why oh why are you persecuting me? TiM!!) is a bunch of morally outrageous and intellectually inane drivel. On its own, this fact would not merit much comment: lots of TERF’s (trans exclusionary radical feminists) write lots of stupid things, lots of wicked things, and lots in the unhappy intersection of the two. Telling me I’m an awful disgrace and should be content masquerading as a man in a dress is sort of, like, what makes TERF’s TERF’s. Stock’s is not a particularly interesting example of this genre, and on its own it probably wouldn’t have attracted my attention.*
What brought it to salience is that Brian Leiter, philosophy’s resident pompous serial bully, decided it needed to be brought to the attention of the philosophical community. (Yes, Leiter, I just called you a bully by name, go sue me for defamation per se or whatever.) And Leiter has been shocked—shocked and appalled!—by the outpouring of rage his signal-boost has induced. People are saying very nasty things about Ms. Stock, even purportedly liberal people. So much, as they say, for the tolerant left!
It’s not hard for me to get into a headspace where Leiter’s disdain for the mean internet transgenderismists makes sense. And, what’s more important, it’s not hard for me to see how other members of our profession might reasonably feel the same. Stock’s essay can look, to the uninitiated, like a very levelheaded, reserved, and dispassionate piece. To all appearances, its conclusions are cautious, its language careful, and its framing precise and academic.
The trans response, on the other hand, can be… less so. I haven’t witnessed it myself, but I am totally sure some trans women have in response to the Stock article talked about how precisely they would like to violently kill and dismember Stock. This is just something that happens in conversations about TERF’s. (And by the way, trans women: for the love of the Lord God almighty, cut that shit out! Not because it’ll give the TERF’s less justification to treat us like scum—you can’t get less than zero—but because that’s not an okay way to treat our fellow human beings.) And, even barring such shocking fantasies, a lot of the response has been pretty unmeasured, as you might expect.
(Of course, not all of the response has been very emotionally charged, probably not even most of it. But people have a way of latching onto the angriest opposition they can find, which isn’t lacking here. Nor should it be: trans people have every right to be upset with Stock, and to voice their frustration. This essay is meant to provide outsiders some insight as to why that is.)
Given this, I can imagine that a lot of philosophers, including Leiter himself, would be inclined to start seeing Stock and her allies as the voice of reason here, and her trans adversaries a tad emotional, untempered, and simply unphilosophical for their tastes. This is written with such philosophers in mind, to explain to you why the impassioned responses Stock has earned are understandable ones, even reasonable ones.
The main point to understand is that, for all its pretence, the Stock essay is not a philosophical discussion of trans issues. The intention there is not to open up an honest conversation about the nature of gender. The point is to get people on board with an insidious array of anti-trans political commitments, hinted at but just shy of being stated outright. The irate responses from the trans community are a part of this tactic: as long as you adopt a superficially calm and detached tone, your critics (who will see exactly what you’re up to) will come off as frothing and deranged by contrast.
The first reason it’s not a serious philosophical essay is that it makes no attempt to engage with any of the actual philosophical literature on the subject, of which there is plenty. She resorts to the tactic of just imagining what her opponents might say, without ever citing any academic (or even non-academic: I’ve seen more nuanced discussions of the topic on Tumblr!) treatment of the relevant questions. This is not the way intellectually serious people converse on sensitive topics in public fora.
She does not, incidentally, imagine these conversations correctly. The feigned counterarguments are, as we would expect of a propagandist, not representative of her adversaries’ actual arguments, but of her own rhetorical needs. She cites, for example, the following “argument” for the claim that trans women are women:
“TW are women because they have body dysphoria and feel like they are in the wrong body”
(She amusingly in trying to cite a source on body dysphoria links to the NHS information page on body dysmorphia (BDD), which, a quick Google search would have sufficed to explain, is not the same thing as body dysphoria. As someone who suffers from both, I can attest that, while they both suck, they are very much distinct in their symptoms and remedies. I point this out because it is indicative of the level of seriousness with which Stock approaches this conversation more generally.)
This version of the transgenderismist’s “argument” that trans women are women stacks the deck clearly in her favour. It portrays gender dysphoria as a delusion: it feels as though this body is somehow not my own, as though it belongs to someone of the wrong kind. The implicit “argument” is then that those suffering from dysphoria are correct in these deluded beliefs, and isn’t that just silly as an argument, oh sensible reader?
This is not, at least in my own experience, what body dysphoria feels like. There are doubtless many trans women with different experiences, but for me learning I didn’t have to feel “trapped in the wrong body” to be Actually Trans was probably the most important intellectual component of deciding transition was a good idea. To the extent I feel like I was born into the “wrong” body, this is a conviction I had to fight for, not one forced upon me by my dysphoria.
She has also conveniently chosen precisely that aspect of gender dysphoria, namely body dysphoria, easiest to divorce from questions about whether trans (wo)men are, in fact (wo)men. If the only thing motivating you to transition is that you feel uncomfortable in a body with coarse chest hair and a typically male facial structure, it might not seem like there’s an urgent need to treat you as a woman. Men can have boobs and wear dresses, too!
But this just does not capture how most trans women feel about womanhood. There is for most trans women also a strong component of social dysphoria, of wanting not to be treated and thought of as a man and/or be treated and thought of as a woman. Not only is saying “You can’t be a woman, but you can be a man in a dress!” not dysphoria relieving, for many trans women it induces powerful social dysphoria. The thought of looking like some dude in a skirt can be enough to reduce me to tears. (If there are any crossdressing guys out there reading this, that’s not a reflection on you. You, too, can be pretty.)
The total lack of attention to the voices and needs of trans women also has less substantive, more “stylistic” consequences, which are not for that reason any less significant. (They would be were this a philosophy essay, but I have been pointing out how it is not that but a work of propaganda, to which subtle rhetorical quirks are essential.)
Consider, for example, her taxonomy of (purported) women. She divides the category into “transwomen” (or “TW”) on the one hand, and “women-who-aren’t-transwomen” (or “WNT”)on the other. This is a rather awkward label: surely there are punchier names? Well, yes, as it happens, there are: “trans women” (note the space!) and “cis women” (derived from “cis”, the antonym of “trans”, as in “cisalpine”). So why not avail herself of them?
Because, in short, they are the trans community’s terms, and Stock thinks we should have no say in how we’re discussed. (“Trans Women Have No Right to Decide How We Talk about Them” could replace any number of more opaque and deceptive TERF essay titles.) The convolution of the phrase “women-who-aren’t-transwomen” is a feature, not a bug: phrases like “cis woman” suggest (even if they don’t require!) that cis women are a kind of woman, not just women simpliciter. “Cis” is, indeed, in the eyes of many TERF’s, a slur. (Claiming trans words to be slurs is a favourite pastime of TERF’s.) The same goes for refusing to say “trans woman” with a space.
I don’t think that these word choices are all that intrinsically important. I know plenty of trans people who use words like “transwomen”, and even some who don’t like “cis”. That’s fine by me. What bothers me is how deliberate a “Fuck you” to the trans community these expressions are in context. Stock is using a time-honoured, and only subtle to the outsider, way of telling trans people, “Shut up, you don’t get any authority about how we are going to discuss you. We’re the objective outsiders, you the demented ingroupers with no external perspective.” The idea that an internal perspective here might be important, that listening to what trans people have to say about transness might be important to understanding us, is anathema to the TERF mindset.
My biggest problem, though, is not how Stock systematically isolates me from a conversation purportedly about me. No, my problem is that she treats me as less than human and is totally indifferent to the suffering of me and those I love. That’s a bold claim, so let me back myself up.
After she has argued against the “metaphysical” thesis that trans women are
p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ women, she turns to the question of what social consequences this might have. Like many TERF’s, she expresses sympathy for the plight of us poor hideous shemale freaks, she does not want “to suggest that transpeople [again with the lack of space, always the lack of space!] don’t suffer, or that their suffering is not important. They do and it is.”
But, she reminds us, we need to consider not only the suffering of the degenerate crossdressing perverts, but the women, and the lesbians, too! And, on its own and stated at that level of generality, it’s hard to disagree. Trans people’s needs and misery matter, but they shouldn’t automatically outweigh those of cis people. I personally would love every Hollywood female protagonist to be henceforth canonically trans, but I mean, I guess cis women need representation, too. (Maybe we can strike a compromise and have all cis Hollywood leads played by crossdressing trans people?)
But Stock seems to slide rather perplexingly from “the needs of trans people do not always trump those of cis people” to “the needs of cis people (especially cis women) do always trump those of trans people”. Let’s look at some of the “conflicts of interest” Stock notes between trans women and real womyn-born-womyn.
Case the First: Lesbians. TERF’s have few greater bugbears than the insidious designs of trans women to force cis women into sleeping with them. She writes, “As this video and this article and this article suggests, young WNT lesbians are increasingly being socially pressured by TW ‘lesbians’ to consider having sex with them, since the latter are allegedly women too.”
Ooh, that sounds bad! It certainly isn’t good if trans women are coercing real vagina-ed lesbians into prurient entanglements! What horrors could lie in those articles? Oh, you know, advice on how to have sex with a trans woman (with atrocious gaslighting like, “The key is to get in touch with yourself to figure out what you want. And remember, it’s okay to think you like something and change your mind.”), and advice on how to date trans women (with such coercive tactics as “There are trans women who like being touched in certain places or in certain ways, but not in others” and “If you aren’t comfortable [hooking up with a trans woman] or you just aren’t into it, say no.”).
(The video is by a TERF ranting about how awful the trans community is, and thus might not be a super reliable source.)
What am I to make of the claim that these articles are ways of “pressuring” the cis lesbian community? The obvious conclusion seems to be that it’s coercive to talk about the ways in which some trans women tend to enjoy dating and sex with other women. Telling people how I’m comfortable—and how I’m not comfortable—with them dating me or sleeping with me, discussing these as so much as possibilities, is a violation of cis lesbians’ sexual autonomy.
She also objects to us choosing the “lesbian” option on dating sites. Alas, “self-deformed male autogynephile” isn’t an option, Stock!
Well, I can certainly imagine that my being in the same restroom might cause some cis women discomfort! Possibly. Some of them. Sometimes. So I guess I should just stay out of women’s washrooms in public. Or, well, all washrooms in public, since men’s generally make me dysphoric and ashamed and gender-neutral ones are hard to come by. It’s okay, I can just go at home.
Oh, and I can already predict her response. It’s the usual TERF line: we need more gender-neutral bathrooms! Which is great as an idea! But I, um, kind of need to pee before then, too.
Case the Third: Sports. Stock deplores that “TW are competing — right now — in formerly WNT-only sports. This is at both elite and at club level.” Perhaps this really is wronging internationally competitive female wrestlers—I wouldn’t know. But notice the implication: because it can inconvenience cis women, trans women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports even at a local level. And (because, again, dysphoria!) since the alternative of male sports is kind of generally off the table, this means trans women shouldn’t be allowed in sports period. Sorry.
(Stock insists she thinks I and women like me “should be treated as women in most ordinary social contexts.” A funny use of the phrase “ordinary social contexts” that excludes recreation, the bathroom, or anything remotely related to dating.)
Case the Fourth: Suicide. First off, trans people attempt (and thus presumably succeed in, though for obvious reasons that’s harder to quantify) suicide a lot. As in, forty percent of trans people surveyed report having attempted. (An example would be yours truly.) Given this, you might think prioritising suicide prevention for trans people, whose suicide is often (not always! nobody said always!) related to trans-specific issues, would make sense, just like giving special attention in this area to American Indians and middle-aged white dudes in Montana.
But this could potentially harm a cis woman somehow, somewhere! Investing more heavily here might… I don’t even really know. Risk one cis female suicide in order to prevent several trans suicides? I would have thought that was how allocating life-saving resources worked. All I know is that Stock objects that it’s not okay to say trans people kill themselves at outrageous rates because of vague reasons involving some nonclinical study. What the point here is, beyond that trans suicides aren’t very important, eludes me.
The general trend should by now be obvious. Sure, trans people’s suffering matters… as long as there is literally no other competing concern. The moment there is any concern cis women might have, however small, that comes into competition with any trans people might have, however big, the cis women win out. We have valid interests, Stock allows, but they get zero weight. The moment they promise the mildest inconvenience to Real Women, they mean nothing.
Stock makes a, to my mind utterly horrific, claim as though it were sheer common sense:
There are many types of severe and distressing unease, but we do not automatically act to change the world to fit the object of those feelings, in other case. Such change is not a given; there have to be good socially useful reasons for it.
This is both false and obscene. If you don’t “automatically act to change the world to fit the object of” ordinary “types of severe and distressing unease,” then you are a moral monster. The fact that a practice causes severe distress is perhaps often a merely defeasible reason to end that practice, but it always is a reason, at least a prima facie one. You do not have to supply “socially useful reasons for it” beyond that the practice hurts people—that is as much a socially useful reason as one can imagine.
That is the cause of our anger at the likes of Stock. To treat someone as human, as a person, is to recognise their welfare as providing some reason to act towards it, reason that might outweigh or even silence other reasons. To Stock and friends, the suffering of trans women (and trans people more generally) is an afterthought, to be taken into account only after we’ve made sure it conflicts with the interests of no cis women, no real women, no (I can only conclude) real people.
Stock is not engaged in doing philosophy, or at least if she is she is doing so badly. She is engaged instead in an attempt to erase trans people from the realm of those whose needs and pains and longings matter, from the world of people, from the Kingdom of Ends. And that she is certainly doing badly—wickedly, sinfully, cruelly—because that is the only way one can do it.
*By the way, if you think TERF is a slur because it’s a demeaning phrase only used by the opposition, then I’m confident these should be, too: TiM, TiF, autogynephile, and man in a dress.