When Trans Culture Clashes With Mainstream Views
The trans tipping point happened too quickly, and now we need to clean up the mess.
Welcome back to Trans Realist, a project where I have a conversation with my fellow trans people, about what could be done to make our lives better in the real world.
Today, I want to explore further what I call the ‘trans philosophy problem’: the persistent focus on the philosophical questions of gender in the trans discourse, which is creating hurdles for the advancement of trans acceptance and trans rights. As I previously argued, it is counterproductive to base the case for supporting trans people on agreement to philosophical questions like ‘what is gender’, ‘what is a woman’, ‘what is a man’, and so on. These philosophical questions are inherently divisive, and can serve to derail the argument for trans acceptance rooted in practical reality, which is why opponents of trans rights like them so much. I mean, even trans people ourselves can’t actually agree on the philosophy of gender a lot of the time. I believe the argument for the acceptance of trans people should instead be based on practical reality: some people are born this way for whatever reason, gender dysphoria is a real condition that people are suffering from, and society should aim to accommodate and integrate people so that they have an equal opportunity in life, so that they can contribute to society.
Thinking about it, I think the ‘trans philosophy problem’ could actually be rooted in the history of the rapid collapse of the ‘wall’ between the trans community and mainstream society. Not that long ago, actually less than a decade ago, the ‘trans’ world and the ‘mainstream’ world were firmly separated, even on the internet. You had to go to trans websites to talk about trans stuff. Back then, the trans discussion was basically something only trans people took part in. We developed one or more ‘trans’ ways of seeing certain things, which helped us make sense of our lives, and in many cases, deal with our dysphoria. This included ways to understand the relationship between our brains, bodies and social roles, as well as ways to justify our view that we are the gender we identify as. The outside world didn’t talk about these things, so we had to do it all on our own. Sometimes, there were divisions between two or more factions of the trans community, and there might even be heated intra-community arguments. But overall, this culture provided what us trans people needed, and it really made our lives better. Even today, I still think it’s important for us trans people to have a trans culture to serve our particular needs.
And then, the ‘trans tipping point’ happened. Everything after that happened in a blur, and things changed so fast. It was only in mid-2014 that I remarked to a friend that I was seeing trans people in mainstream news every three months in the past year, which felt really weird for me, having grown up in a world that was absolutely silent on trans issues. By mid-2018, trans related discussions were everywhere, and some non-trans people, including both pro- and anti-trans people, were talking about trans issues like every week. The wall between trans culture and mainstream culture was knocked down almost overnight. Views of gender that came from trans culture came face to face with views from the mainstream, and also views from other minority factions, like gender critical feminists. These views naturally clashed with each other, given their inherent incompatibility. Trans people, who have long relied on trans culture to help us make our way through life, were deeply unsettled by this clash of views, which, in the minds of some of us, amounted to an ‘invalidation’ of our identities. The unspoken problem here is that this clash and ‘invalidation’ probably also triggered a deep dysphoria within many of us. Many of us were confused, and didn’t know how to respond. Feeling a deep sense of hurt, some trans people lashed out at the other sides, which only made the whole problem worse. I think this was how the whole ‘trans philosophy problem’ came to be.
I think that, on a public level, we need to recognize that we all have our own right to free speech and freedom of conscience. It’s part of the social contract of Western liberal democracies, and I believe we should all uphold it. During the heated debates, we might forget this, and as a community, we have to acknowledge that it doesn’t make us look good. If we are reasonable citizens of a liberal democracy, there is no excuse to ‘deplatform’ views we don’t like, or cancel people we don’t agree with, no matter what. The only acceptable path to winning an argument is via reasonable debate and persuasion. Moreover, to win broad based support in the community, we must be able to appeal to people via common reason and decency, using shared values like freedom, compassion, needs based accommodation, mutual respect, equal opportunity, and so on. Given that ideas from the trans culture are often not generally accepted in the mainstream, arguing from those grounds distracts from our goal of broad based acceptance, and is counterproductive.
I also acknowledge the pain trans people, particularly those with severe dysphoria, have to go through in dealing with a public that often thinks differently. My advice for those who find it all too painful is to take care of themselves first, and disengage from the public trans discourse if that is what is best for your mental health. I also believe that there still needs to be a trans culture that is sort of separate from the mainstream trans discourse. This is where we will talk about our ideas of gender, and reaffirm our gender identities, not necessarily limited by what are commonly accepted views. The goal here would be not to find common ground with non-trans people, but specifically to make sense of our own lives and take care of our own needs. We need to acknowledge that there is a need for this kind of space to allow us to deal with the reality of our lives and our gender dysphoria. This, I believe, should be clearly separated from the way we deal with the mainstream trans discourse, because the goals of intra-community affirmation vs finding common ground with non-trans people actually require different mindsets and values. Getting this clear could help us chart a more productive path forward.