Trans Women and Philosophy: Learning from Recent Events


“I am a trans woman and a philosophy grad student, and I have decided to leave the discipline and seek a non-academic job because of transphobia in the academy.”

So begins an open letter titled, “I am leaving academic philosophy because of its transphobia problem“, published last week at Medium and authored under the pseudonym “t philosopher”. (I don’t know who “t philosopher” is, but I know people who do.)

She continues:

I have been a participant in academic philosophy for many years. I have presented at conferences. I have published research in philosophy journals. I have refereed journal articles. I have taught many undergraduate classes. I am a member of your professional community. I am your colleague. I have not chosen to quit philosophy because I have fallen out of love with the work, or I want something else to do with my life. I am leaving academia ONLY because of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) — so called “gender critical feminists” —and those who amplify their voices. I am writing this letter because I want people to know that there are real, concrete, macro-level consequences to allowing hate speech to proliferate in philosophy under the guise of academic discussion. In sharing my pain and anger at being forced out of a career that I once loved, I hope to stir some of you to greater action.

The letter has been widely circulated and discussed on social media, with the people sharing it divided between those who are doing so because they endorse t philosopher’s description of and recommendations for academic philosophy, and those doing so to criticize or mock what she says.

Its publication is one of a series of recent events involving academic philosophy, trans women philosophers, and the discussion of transgender issues that has been causing a significant amount of controversy, particularly online. These include a statement by Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) in response to a talk by philosopher Kathleen Stock (Sussex) at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society, a well-known philosophy-blogger’s obsession with belittling graduate students who use Twitter to discuss trans issues, and more generally the disturbingly unprofessional discourse on this subject online, which makes matters worse for all involved and hinders philosophical discussion of the subjects offline, too.

I’ll get to some of those other matters later in this very long post, but I start with t philosopher, because, regardless of where you end up in the various disputes regarding these contentious issues, it is important to remember that philosophers are people, too. In disagreement, philosophers are susceptible to seeing each other as mere stand-ins for the views we defend (and sometimes the presumed implications of those views). But we are persons—and whatever you think our humanity implies about how people should treat each other, think of each other, care for each other, and so on, it implies that for us, too.

What follows is an attempt to figure out what to think of these recent events and some of the underlying issues, and more specifically what can be done to make things better. I don’t find this task easy. Readers (especially journalists and non-philosophers who are peeking in on the philosophy world right now) should be aware that I don’t claim to be speaking for any other philosophers. If history is any guide—and recent history has parties on “both sides” (ugh for the oversimplification that implies) of this dispute each thinking I’m working for the opposition—plenty of philosophers will disagree with me.

Here goes.

* * * * * * *

Tuesday Smillie, “Together”

I. Understanding t philosopher

Reader, what do you do when you are confronted with the anguish of another person? I hope it is at least this: you try to understand. Sometimes it may be easy to understand, but sometimes, owing to qualities of the person suffering, or the kind of person you are and experiences you’ve had, or the circumstances you’re in, it may not be easy. You may not identify with their suffering, you may be puzzled by its depth, you may be put out by its expression, you may think it involves mistakes—but before responding in ways that don’t take someone’s suffering as seriously as the person undergoing it, you should try to understand it.

I think that’s where we should start.

Do you love philosophy? Do you feel at home in this work? Do you think you wouldn’t be as fulfilled if you had a different kind of career? Many readers of Daily Nous will answer “yes” to these questions. This means that many readers will know where t philosopher is starting from.

Now imagine that when you take part in activities other professional philosophers do, unlike most of those other professional philosophers, you are made to feel quite bad. Yes, some philosophers may feel bad because they don’t think their work meets their own standards, or because of criticism by others, or because of stress to get work done, but this is different. It’s not about your work; rather, you are being made to feel bad—really bad—because of a characteristic of yours such as your race, or gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, etc. In fact, it is so horrible that it is interfering with your mental and emotional well-being. Further, it is so unlike what most of your colleagues experience that most of them don’t understand it, and so fail to take it seriously, or think less of you for complaining about it, which of course makes it even worse. And now, unlike most other philosophers, you have to choose between doing what you love and preserving a minimally decent level of mental and emotional health.

Don’t yet jump to questions about what to do about this situation. Don’t yet jump to questions about causes. As philosophers we are sometimes distracted by the ease with which we propagate questions. Instead, just sit with this anguish for a moment.

Why? Because despite our inflated self-image, philosophers, the starting points in our inquiry matter for how it proceeds, framing subsequent moves and affecting the weight we give various considerations. Even if you ultimately end up disagreeing with t philosopher’s recommendations, how you end up doing so may be helpfully informed by an appreciation of where she is coming from.

Consider, as well, that t philosopher is not alone; several of those sharing her letter online suggested they felt very similar.

One response I’ve seen to t philosopher’s letter is to say that she is overreacting, or that she is not tough enough for philosophy. But most of us are fortunate enough never to have had our toughness tested in this way.* For most of us, our well-being is almost never jeopardized by our work environments. Most of us have not experienced what t philosopher has experienced. This should make us wary of the ease with which some dismiss her suffering. T philosopher is a fellow human being, a colleague, and it would be good of us to understand her, and get inside her perspective, and take her suffering seriously.

So now let’s look at what t philosopher says about the source of her suffering:

The past two years have taken a toll on my mental health because of the amount of hateful discourse regarding gender identity and “biological sex”, starting with the Hypatia/Tuvel affair, and most recently concerning the actions of Kathleen Stock and her co-conspirators, Brian Leiter, and to a lesser degree, Justin Weinberg…

[Yes, that’s my name up there. No, I’m not going to defend myself in this post. That’s not the point of this.]

Not only do I have to sit with the knowledge that people who are supposed to be my colleagues actively deny my gender identity, I might even encounter these people in a public space. I can easily imagine running into Kathleen Stock or some other transphobic philosopher at the APA or an invited talk. It is reasonable to consider the possibility of there being a transphobic talk at the APA or another professional event, in light of Stock’s recent invitation to the Aristotelian Society. How can I be expected to attend professional events where people deny and question such an integral part of my identity and act like that is tolerable or normal?…

I am expected to tolerate constant public discourse about the nature of my gender identity, whether I “count” as a woman, and what rights I am due in virtue of my gender. I am expected to tolerate public discourse regarding the things that demonstrate other people’s respect for me as a human being. I am expected to tolerate questions about fundamental aspects of my being, questions about my legitimacy as a person…

Stock replies here.

Here, t philosopher is reiterating what trans philosophers have told us before. Recall the post by Talia Mae Bettcher (CSU Los Angeles) in which she says:

I’m afraid there’s a tendency among some philosophers to suppose that philosophical investigations into race, gender, disability, trans issues, and so forth are no different methodologically from investigations into the question whether tables really exist. One difference, however, is that while tables aren’t part of the philosophical conversation, trans people, disabled people, people of color, are part of the conversation. Or at least, we think we are. We’re here. In the room. And we’ve suffered from life-long abuse… So please understand that this is a little bit personal.

Some discussions among philosophers about trans issues can reasonably be thought by trans persons to be upsetting, or contributing to a broader culture that has been threatening to trans persons. That’s so even when the discourse avoids the chronic obnoxiousness of online exchanges, in which some of the most visible philosophers challenging the self-understanding and liberties of trans persons have engaged in behavior that can most charitably be described as juvenile (though that is an insult to the kids I know)—including name-calling, referring to trans women as “he”, and mocking colleagues’ looks. And when these persons are invited to give talks or to publish their works—just imagine how it must feel to have your tormentors, suddenly on their best behavior, welcomed by the very professional institutions you are supposed to navigate.

(This is not to say that it has only been gender critical philosophers who’ve behaved badly online. Some of them, too, have been subject to hostile rhetoric from their opponents, which I find objectionable, not to mention counterproductive. Yes, I know some readers disagree with me on this. I understand complaints about tone-policing, but I am not convinced by them in this context.)

Again, the foregoing is put forward for the sake of better understanding where t philosopher is coming from. It’s not itself a prescription for action. But it might inform how we proceed.

II. Some initial responses to t philosopher

One possible response to t philosopher’s suffering is just to tell her: “deal with it.”

But here’s the thing: we’re the it.

Our practices and speech aren’t beyond our control. They’re up to us. Telling t philosopher to just “deal with it” is like being told, “What you’re doing is harming me” and us saying, “That’s just how I am.”
“But you could change what you’re doing.”
“Not gonna do that.”

That doesn’t seem like the best response. It could be the best response. After all, sometimes an action or practice that involves harming people is the best option, because the alternatives are worse. But it’s probably not. We should be suspicious of it on grounds of status quo bias and self-serving bias. And we haven’t even considered the alternatives.

Another response to t philosopher’s suffering is her own recommendations. Let’s look at them.

  1. If you are a journal editor or a referee, do not publish or recommend for publication transphobic articles. Do not entertain submissions that question the legitimacy of trans people. Do not entertain submissions that question what rights trans people are due. Do not entertain submissions about trans people that do not take great care to amplify trans voices and understand the trans experience.
  2. Do not invite conference speakers who are transphobic. Do not accept conference submissions that question the legitimacy of trans people. Make it clear that these are not welcome at your conference in your call for papers.
  3. Do not provide a platform for transphobes in philosophy. Do not give them an opportunity to publicly express their bigotry. I’m thinking in particular of the Daily Nous and other prominent professional blogs. Do not share their work on social media.
  4. Finally, if you do see transphobia in philosophy, speak out. Do not remain silent.

One problem with this set of recommendations is that they each use some variant of the word “transphobia,” and there is currently too much confusion and disagreement among those to whom these recommendations are addressed over what is or isn’t transphobic for the term to be useful in policy.

Despite this, at least two parts of this set seem useful. One is the suggestion in 1 that philosophical publications about trans people should, generally, pay attention to and make use of works by trans philosophers and demonstrate an understanding of the trans experience, to the extent relevant. The other is 4, for even if there is currently disagreement over what is or is not transphobic, identifying and explaining possible instances of transphobia can help generate discussion that could lead to more of a consensus on the concept, making it more useful, and it could lead to less transphobia.

III. A note about terminology

These observations so far leave untouched the crux of the controversy. For t philosopher believes that the gender critical position is transphobic, and when she calls for journals and conference organizers and bloggers to reject transphobic work she means work advocating for the gender critical position.

“Gender critical” is the name a set of thinkers gave to themselves, as a substitute for what others called them: “TERFs”, an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. These thinkers complained that TERF had become a term of abuse, and indeed some people used it that way, as the word has a punchy, vulgar feel to it.

The thing is, nearly all feminists, including those who defend trans-friendly views, are critical of some aspect of gender norms, and so the term “gender critical” for particular views about trans women functions more as camouflage than clarification.** “Trans-exclusionary” is a more accurate term for the set of views under contention here. After all, it is not writings about gender norms in general that’s at issue. What t philosopher and similarly-minded people are focusing on is work that, for example, seeks to either exclude the kind “trans women” from the kind “women,” or exclude trans women from spaces typically reserved for women. It is all about excluding trans women. The term is also more compatible with the alliance between gender critical thinkers and others (e.g., traditional conservatives) who are not critical of gender norms or who would not normally be called feminists.

So, because it more accurately represents the views and makes clear the reason some people oppose them, I’ll be using “trans-exclusionary” rather than “gender critical” from now on. (Please note that this is not an endorsement of the use of the term “TERF”.) I’ll use “trans-inclusive” to refer to those who reject trans-exclusionary views.

IV. We have to talk about trans-exclusionary views

Terminological change can be elucidating but it doesn’t settle matters.

Trans-inclusive philosophers such as t philosopher think that trans-exclusionary views are transphobic and that the institutions of academic philosophy ought not entertain them. Is she right?

To help make progress on this question, I am going to leave “transphobic” out of it (see part II of this post). We can simply ask: ought the institutions of philosophy prohibit the defense of trans-exclusionary views?

My answer to this question is No. Or perhaps more accurately, “No, but…”

Since trans-exclusionary philosophers will agree with this answer, let me first try to explain to trans-inclusive thinkers why they should, too. I will then offer a more general reason for my answer.

IV-a:

The more I have learned about the philosophical and policy arguments regarding transgender issues, and in particular trans women, the closer I have come to a fairly strong trans-inclusive view. Like most philosophers, I’m not the kind of person who, on controversial matters, just takes others’ words for it. I want to hold the view of the matter that I believe is most justified, and to do that I need to understand the issues and to be moved by reasons and arguments, and to do that well, I need to make sure I’m getting a good accounting of the relevant considerations and opposing arguments. How can I do that? By engaging with the best work those with competing views have to offer.

If the institutions of philosophy prohibit the defense of trans-exclusionary views, what then? Do the views disappear? No. Rather, their best defenses go elsewhere, to less reliable, less seriously-vetted venues (think, for example, of Quillette, or blogs), where argumentative errors, rhetorical nudges, strategic omissions, and polemical sleights-of-hand are more likely.

Furthermore, the absence of trans-exclusionary views from academic venues under such conditions does not thereby signal their weakness to philosophers who’ve yet to form considered opinions on the matter. It signals instead a kind of dogmatism that threatens to alienate allies. The very love of philosophy that is central to t philosopher’s identity, and which contributes to the awfulness of what has happened to her, is also what makes so many in our community uneasy with prohibiting the expression of views on matters they think involve a lot of interesting and unresolved philosophical questions.

In short, if your interest is in more philosophers coming to reject trans-exclusionary views, then we have to talk about trans-exclusionary views, and to do that well, we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us through the institutions we’ve found valuable for pursuing the truth. This argument doesn’t depend on prioritizing philosophical questioning above all else, or on the idea that as philosophers we question everything. It is based on a confidence in the justifiability of a more trans-inclusive view, and a belief that Millian considerations regarding the expression of ideas are not unrealistic for the philosophical community.

Additionally, to say that we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us is not to say that everything goes. I began these reflections by asking us all to take seriously the harms suffered by t philosopher and those like her, and in section V I will ask how we can proceed in a way that does that.

IV-b:

One of the many things I learned from Derek Parfit is that we can learn about today by thinking about the distant future. This is relevant in two ways to philosophical disputes over transgender issues.

(i) Towards the end of Reasons and Persons, Parfit notes that the study of ethics in a way relatively unhindered from constraints such as religion is a relatively young enterprise; it’s at “a very early stage.” According to Bettcher, there has been around fifty years of discussions regarding trans issues, and there are some discussions of sex and gender in philosophy earlier than that, of course, but, like non-religious ethics, the philosophy of sex and gender is also at a very early stage. We don’t know what views might emerge, and what we might learn from their development not just about sex and gender but about broader questions in philosophy. (For a taste of how philosophically rich and interesting this area is already, check out “Real Talk on the Metaphysics of Gender” by Robin Dembroff (Yale)).

(ii) When I think about humans in the distant future, say, 1000 years from now, I don’t know what we will be like—presuming we’re still around. Though I can’t predict the specifics, I think we have good reason to believe that by then, given shifts in social attitudes and developments in technology, gender and sex, the various considerations people think relevant to their identity, and human relationships and interactions, will be very different from how they are today.

The relative youthfulness of philosophy about sex and gender and radical uncertainties about the future of sex and gender I believe speak in favor of openness of discussion of these issues in academic philosophy’s institutions. The former suggests that we haven’t been thinking about these matters long enough for anything like a consensus to emerge. The latter is a reminder that reality can surprise us, and that it is a mistake to think that we truly understand human sexuality and society and the norms for it. Intellectual humility is the order of the day.

One might object: “don’t these considerations apply to, say, race? So should philosophy’s institutions be hosting talks and publishing papers defending racism?” No. But philosophy’s institutions should be hosting talks and publishing papers (as they do) on questions such as “what is race?” or “is race real?” or “is racial profiling justified?” or “should we have race-based affirmative action?” etc. That these questions are countenanced in philosophy today doesn’t mean that any answer to them is acceptable; the answers have to be adequately defended. And since explicitly racist views are, to my knowledge, not adequately defensible, we rightly rarely see in contemporary academic philosophy the defense of explicitly racist views. (By the way, later this week or next there will be a post about the current state of philosophy of race.)

Likewise, philosophy’s institutions should be hosting talks and publishing papers on questions such as “what is gender?”, “what is sex,” “what rights are associated with gender membership?” and so on, as it does. Since there is less familiarity with transgender issues among the general philosophical population the talks and publications may not be as well-vetted, and so works which some experts view as transphobic may appear. But the solution to this is to have more philosophers more familiar with, and working on, these issues. It’s no guarantee that trans-exclusionary views will disappear, but it is a more promising route than declaring them verboten in advance. Plus, some of the better, interesting and more fruitful defenses of trans-inclusive views may be prompted by having to confront the opposition.

V. Proceeding with caution

I’ve urged that we take seriously just how difficult existing discourse about transgender issues can be for our trans colleagues (and students, I should add). This involves not just attending to what happens in academia, but also appreciating the broader discriminatory culture they inhabit and the role that abuse-friendly forms of social media play in our professional lives, as t philosopher notes.

I’ve suggested that the institutions of philosophy—journals, conferences, etc.—not ban trans-exclusionary works simply because they are trans-exclusionary. There are plenty of possible grounds for the rejection of some such works, but the kind of automatic blanket rejection t philosopher calls for is, I’ve argued, not a good idea.

How do we combine these ideas? How can we take seriously the humanity and vulnerability of our trans colleagues and students while at the same time allowing for the kind of discourse that harms them?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Provide explicit statements of support for trans persons in venues in which trans-exclusionary work appears. This matches up with a request made by the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) UK and International groups in response to Kathleen Stock’s recent talk at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society. Professor Stock is known for advocating trans-exclusionary views. Since she has been subject to some vicious rhetoric online because of this (not by academic philosophers, as far as I know), the Society posted a note in support of her right to speak. MAP requested that the Society also “issue a statement in support of trans students and staff within philosophy, and commit to creating a more welcoming and affirming professional environment for trans people.” Such a statement in the program, prior to the talk, would have been good. The general idea here is that our institutions should make clear their commitment to the value of all in the community in which they operate, and sometimes in order to do that, explicit statements by officials or institutions are required. (For a model of this, see Corey Brettschneider’s “When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?“)
  2. If you are providing an academic platform for trans-exclusionary works, also provide one for trans philosophers or trans-inclusive philosophers. For example, if a conference is hosting a talk defending a trans-exclusionary view, it would be a good idea to also include a talk by someone criticizing that view, or defending a trans-inclusive view. Likewise for the scheduling of publications.
  3. Take steps to ensure that, when possible, works you write, host, or publish that argue for a trans-exclusionary view engage or otherwise demonstrate familiarity with the relevant scholarly work by trans or trans-inclusive scholars. This is just basic research ethics: know about what you are writing about. One would hope that in peer-reviewed contexts this wouldn’t need saying, but, given the relatively small number of experts on these subjects, I would not be surprised if the demand for referees exceeds their availability. Experts in a subfield can easily spot relevant omissions; non-experts, unfamiliar with the literature, not so much, so, owing to the numbers, I suspect extra vigilance by editors and conference organizers is required here.
  4. Be specific, allow for complexity, and avoid talk of “sides.” There are a number of interesting philosophical questions that arise in discussions of transgender issues, and so there’s the possibility of a variety of positions defined by different answers to different questions. Yet, perhaps owing to the intense political rhetoric on the subject, this possible complexity is often flattened into a declarations of allegiance to one or another side. While that can be helpful in some contexts (I helped myself to it in this post), I would hope that people’s considered opinions and scholarly work on the matter allows for this complexity.
  5. Be attentive to hostile rhetoric in work you are considering hosting or publishing. The issues being discussed are sufficiently fraught without the added hostility of derogatory terms, dog whistles, and the like. Some of these are rather “inside baseball” and may not be recognizable as affronts to those not deeply enmeshed in the issues, so consulting with trans philosophers or others in the know when uncertain about such terms could help. (It would be useful if there was an updated list of terms and explanations for non-experts to refer to. If there is one, let me know please.)
  6. Note the venues. Much of the trans-exclusionary writing by philosophers that has fueled recent controversies has been self-published (e.g., at Medium) by philosopher-activists. Normally, philosophers are quite skeptical of both self-published philosophical work and politically motivated work, but I don’t recall any of those who typically complain about these things complaining about, or even noting, their combination in this work. In any event, while more visible than peer-reviewed academic publications, these works should generally not be taken as representative of scholarly work on trans issues in philosophy. For that you’ll need to turn to philosophy’s scholarly journals.
  7. Avoid using clearly transphobic speech or engaging in clearly transphobic behavior in person and online. I noted in Section II that disagreement over what counts as “transphobic” makes the term less helpful, but there appears to be some consensus about certain things being transphobic, such as referring to trans women as “he” (or using coded language to do this) and mocking the appearance of trans persons. You might think this goes without saying, but, unfortunately, as I noted earlier, members of the philosophical community who defend trans-exclusionary views have done this in online forums. It does not contribute to a context conducive to reasoned discussion of the issues.
  8. When you see something, say something. If someone in the profession is engaging in what you take to be transphobic speech or behavior, and you’re in a position to do so, consider saying something. I’m more a fan of initially trying private correspondence here than immediately leaping to calling out someone publicly: I suspect it’s more conducive to a productive discussion, mutual understanding, and progress, but of course circumstances vary.
  9. When you see someone saying something, say something. We should applaud those who stand up for the more vulnerable members of our profession, especially when they themselves are vulnerable.
  10. Remember that you’re engaging with your colleagues. The kind of advice I give here and here works pretty well for conversations with other members of the profession on Twitter and Facebook. In general, my view is that civility is underrated, and that even when others are uncivil to you, little is to be gained and a fair amount lost by being a cretin back. This doesn’t rule out criticism or humor, but it does mean having some self control, and sometimes just letting things go.
  11. Learn. There are a number of readings suggested in this post and this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry is a good place to start.

I’m sure there are other good ideas out there. Please share them.

VI. Some final notes

Let me add two more items to this lengthy post.

First, let me be the first (of what I take will be many) to declare that I have fallen short on several of the above suggestions. I admit that there are ways I can be better to transgender persons in the philosophy community. I have tried, with this post, to do so in a way that is consistent with my views about how philosophy as a profession best works. I am sure many transgender and trans-inclusive philosophers disagree with things I’ve said here. I am sure that many trans-exclusionary philosophers also disagree with things I’ve said here. And I figure that many philosophers with no settled view of these issues disagree with what I’ve said here, too. I am okay with that. Disagree with me. It’s how we learn. Or surprise me and agree!

But…

Second, comments on this post will be tightly moderated. Please avoid first-order discussion of trans-inclusive and trans-exclusionary arguments or arguments about bathroom or prison policies and the like; I’m not interested in hosting those disputes in the comments on this post. Also, please avoid calling out particular bad actors. Even if your complaint is justified, voicing it in the comments here will ruin the prospects for a decent discussion. Most comments will take a while to appear, and if I am overwhelmed—it can be a very time-consuming and distracting process to moderate comments here—I may close comments temporarily or permanently. I urge you to read the comments policy and this post and this one.
* (note added on 6/7/19): I thought it was alright to use the phrase “most of us” here because DN’s audience is largely academic philosophers, and academic philosophy is, alas, rather demographically imbalanced: over 70% male and over 85% white.

** It was pointed out to me that Christa Peterson (USC) described the name “gender critical” as a kind of camouflage in a post last year.

(UPDATE: Comments are now closed.)

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