“When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy (guest post by Talia Mae Bettcher)

“Once we ask the question of what a woman is, things immediately become more complicated philosophically… I am actually quite willing to have a discussion with gender critical feminists about these issues. I would love a genuine conversation to determine whether bridge-building is possible. After all, non-trans and trans women alike face oppression. Sometimes the oppressions are the same, and sometimes they are different. But this is just the “nature of the beast”…

The following is a guest post* by Talia Mae Bettcher, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles.

[Lili Elbe – “Le Point Sur Loire”]

“When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy*
by Talia Mae Bettcher

A few days ago, when I was frantically grading, I received the following request from Daily Nous:

As you may be aware, a series of posts by Kathleen Stock (Sussex) on issues regarding transgender women has been getting a fair amount of attention from the philosophical community. These posts have raised philosophical questions about transgender women from a “gender critical” perspective and have also commented on the perceived difficulty of raising such questions (that is, some people feel they are too riskily “politically incorrect” to discuss). The latest of these is here.

The reception of Stock’s posts appears to be largely of three kinds: (a) triumphalism about Stock breaking through a Stalinesque, anti-philosophical, PC ban on raising “common sense” questions about transgender persons; (b) surprised disappointment or anger that Stock’s lines of argument and questioning seem to ignore relevant but unnamed/unexplained literature that either refutes her points or conclusively answers her questions; (c) appreciative curiosity, mainly from non-specialists who are interested in learning more about the subject but who are genuinely worried about making harmful missteps.

I think that what’s missing is informed, substantive, and sincere engagement with Stock, and what I’d like to be able to do is put some of that in front of the philosophical community. An argument about these issues could be a useful learning experience. Would you be willing to write something that fits that bill?

My first response was “Ugh.” I needed to get my grades in. And then I wanted to get back to working on my book. More importantly, I had deep political and philosophical reservations about responding in the way that Daily Nous had requested (i.e., a sincere engagement with Stock). If these concerns aren’t evident to you now, I hope they will be by the end of this essay.

I finally decided to write something for two reasons. First, I am an educator and I do think that this is a good opportunity to educate. You see, I’m “old school trans”—and that means I’m willing to go to really painful places, even though I don’t really need to: I suspect I lack the self-respect that the young trans and genderqueer scholars possess. (I’m both envious and proud of them!) Second, and most importantly, I think this is an excellent opportunity to raise uncomfortable questions about the profession of philosophy. I guess that’s what really sold me on the idea of writing this post. So there are two parts. The first constitutes my engagement with Stock. In the second part I dive into the actual issues that are of deep concern to me.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

Part One: An Engagement with Stock

As I was pondering Stock’s arguments, I couldn’t help reflect on the grading I had just completed for the course “Trans Feminist Philosophy.” I wondered whether her essay would have received a passing grade in it.

In this course, we paid particular attention to (non-trans) feminist engagements with trans people, issues, and theory. We used my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues” as a guide. It served as the starting point for my lectures and our inquiries. I’ll note that this entry is almost like a little book, coming in at 23,000 words. It also has an extensive and, in my humble opinion, highly useful bibliography that includes literature from the late 1800s until around 2014.

In our discussion of feminist/trans interactions, we began with the expulsion of Beth Elliott (a trans woman, lesbian feminist) from the Daughters of Bilitis San Francisco chapter in late 1972 and then considered the infamous West Coast Lesbian Conference (1973) during which Elliott survived a vote that would have expelled her from the conference. We examined all of the feminist perspectives that were at play at the time—including the pro-trans ones. We then went on to examine Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire (1979), easily the most important work in “gender critical feminism” (although it wasn’t called that at the time). We looked at the emergence of trans studies through the work of Sandy Stone (1991), Kate Bornstein (1994), and Leslie Feinberg (1992). We examined the development of Queer Theory—especially the work of Judith Butler (1990, 1993) and its relation to trans studies and politics. We looked at trans phenomenology (Rubin 1998) and we looked at the FTM/Butch border wars of the nineties (Halberstam 1998, Hale 1998). We looked at more recent feminist perspectives on trans issues (e.g. Cressida Heyes 2003, Gayle Salamon 2010) by non-trans women, and we discussed the development of trans feminism through the work of Emi Koyama (2003, 2006) and Julia Serano (2007). Unfortunately, we ran out of time. We were going to look at some of the more recent debates with regard to gender critical feminism (e.g. Lori Watson 2016, Sara Ahmed 2016, myself). But we had to stop.

In considering Stock’s essay in relation to this course, I have to say that it wouldn’t have received a very good grade. Unfortunately, her work fails to display any sensitivity to the existence of a robust literature on these issues, it makes highly dubious assumptions that undermine much of the discussion, and, finally, it simply does not seem to be thought through very well.

Let’s see why.

Stock invites trans women to prove that we’re women. She sees this as a “metaphysical” issue distinct from the moral issue of whether trans people should be treated in accordance with our identities. Unfortunately, I’m unclear what I’m supposed to be proving. It’s hard to hit the target when there are multiple targets to choose from!

I’ll be more explicit. Once we ask the question of what a woman is, things immediately become more complicated philosophically. Are we supposed to be proving we’re women according to the ordinary meaning of the term ‘woman’? Or are we defining ‘woman’ amelioratively? That is, rather than giving an analysis of the concept attached to the ordinary meaning of ‘woman,’ are we trying to get clear on what concept we should use—for the purposes of promoting a feminist project? A third way of approaching the question is to recognize that dominant meanings of political terms are contested “on the ground” through practices that give them different, resistant meanings. For example, given that the ordinary meaning of ‘woman’ includes sexist content, feminists have tried to redeploy the term in resistant, empowering ways. (This is similar to the idea that the originally pejorative ‘queer’ has been taken up with a new, resistant significance.) Indeed, one of Janice Raymond’s most interesting arguments is precisely that trans women can’t take up the term ‘woman’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘lesbian’ in any way that would be resistant to sexism (1979, 116). I actually spent a lot of time on this argument in my class much to the annoyance of my students, who felt that the argument should be taken less seriously. Beyond these three options, I’m not entirely sure what Stock might be inviting us to prove.

If Stock’s interested in any of these three options, I’d like to suggest that she read some of the literature. For example, with respect to analyzing the ordinary meaning of ‘woman’, there are different positions to consider. One is that ‘woman’ is a cluster (family-resemblance) concept (for discussion see Hale 1996, Heyes 2000, McKitrick 2007, for critique see Kapusta 2016, Bettcher 2012, 2017, etc.). Another is “semantic contextualism”—the view that the extension of ‘woman’ changes according to context in a rule-governed way (see Saul 2012, Diaz-Leon 2016, see Bettcher 2017ab, for critique). If Stock’s interested in the ameliorative approach, then she had better read Sally Haslanger (2012). She should also read Jennifer Saul (2012), and Katharine Jenkins (2016). If she’s interested in the third option, I would propose that she read some of my work (Bettcher 2016, 2017ab). And I would strongly recommend that she read Lori Watson’s excellent “The Woman-Question” (2016).

Now, to be fair, Stock, merely means to offer us “an attempt to work through some of these arguments, and get them out of the way.” “With this done,” she boasts, “the field will be clear to have a proper adult discussion that, wherever it ends up, will with a bit of luck fully acknowledge and attempt to accommodate both sets of interests at stake in redefining the concept of woman.” What Stock fails to appreciate, apparently, is that this adult discussion has actually been going on now for almost fifty years! With respect to philosophy specifically, it has been going on for at least twenty. Stock’s certainly welcome to the conversation. But she does have some catching up to do. And she surely needs to check her breathtaking hubris before she makes a contribution.

I don’t mean to be mean (I’m Canadian). I do, however, wish to hold Stock accountable for her philosophically questionable strategies of engagement. And I wish to do this starkly, possibly harshly. Let me be clear, then, that I am actually quite willing to have a discussion with gender critical feminists about these issues. I would love a genuine conversation to determine whether bridge-building is possible. After all, non-trans and trans women alike face oppression. Sometimes the oppressions are the same, and sometimes they are different. But this is just the “nature of the beast” when it comes to coalition building. Sexisms are complex, interblended with other oppressions such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia. That said, I can’t have an in-depth discussion with somebody who shows no signs of familiarity with the literature, no familiarity with the complex, nuanced issues at stake.

That said, perhaps she’s isn’t really interested in engaging with us philosophers in the first place. It may be that she’s only taking issue with the mainstream trans discourse that seems to her dogmatic, political, and unquestioned, and the trans activists who promote it. If so, it seems a little unfair to expect all trans people to do the theoretical work. Philosophical work seems better allocated to those of us who get into that stuff. More importantly, she can’t bring “philosophical” and specifically, “metaphysical” concerns against mainstream trans discourse, as if she were bringing new philosophical enlightenment to issues that had never been thought about before. She can’t trot out her philosophical views entirely abstracted from, and apparently oblivious to, the deep theoretical work that has been going on now for half a century—as if she’s the sole philosopher to shed light on these questions, finally clearing away the dogmatism that has no philosophical depth to it. This strategy of hers lacks philosophical integrity.

Stock then proceeds to pit the interests of trans and non-trans women against each other, claiming that there is much to be lost by non-trans women in the legal recognition of trans women as women. Here, I’d simply like to point to three presuppositions that undermine her analysis from the get go.

First, Stock gives the impression that the only reason for letting trans women use female designated restrooms and so forth, is to help alleviate our gender “dysphoria.” Our needs then appear frivolous in light of the many bad consequences she enumerates for non-trans women. However, one of the reasons I prefer to use the women’s restroom is that if I used the men’s restroom, the men would either laugh at me, yell at me, or go to the mall cop (or, my Dean). Not only would I be at risk of sexual harassment (the same harassment any woman would), I’d be at risk for trans bashing. Crucially, the dangers faced by trans and genderqueer people (and even non-trans women who pass as men) in using the restroom are bizarrely ignored. Try being a (non-trans) woman who passes as a man! What restroom to use? Try being gender “unreadable.” Good luck! Consider being a trans woman placed in a men’s prison. That sounds like fun! Surely you see what I’m getting at here.

Second, many of the things that non-trans women are supposed to lose through the legal recognition of trans women as women, are also things that trans women themselves sacrifice. For example, if we exclusively used gender-neutral restrooms, no woman would be able to go pee without some worry about a guy being around. No woman. Why would this be any less disconcerting to me than it would a non-trans woman? Worried about men trying to pass themselves off as women to hurt us? Well, guess what? I’m worried about that too. Even the concern that on-line dating sites for lesbians don’t or won’t provide information about whether a potential date has a penis or a vagina, can be of equal concern (or lack thereof) to both trans and non-trans women alike. (As an aside, I think the forced advertisement of our genital status is abuse—but that’s for another time).

The final assumption, apparently, is that trans men do not exist. Consider: She wants a private space for “female-bodied people” where this refers “to a body that has XX chromosomes, and for which the norm is to be born with female genitalia (vagina, labia, clitoris), and a female reproductive system (ovaries, uterus, vagina).” She complains, “WNT are losing access to some formerly female-body-only spaces, where they get naked or sleep.” Stock’s okay with a big, hairy trans guy using “female body-only spaces”? Even if he’s had phalloplasty and a hysterectomy? Just so long as he’s got xx chromosomes? The problem, of course, is that the very existence of trans men has been erased from the discussion altogether. Once they are brought into existence, however, the absurdity of some of Stock’s claims become apparent. Obviously, we don’t see each other’s chromosomes (any more than we see each other’s “brain sex”—as she herself notes). So the concern around private spaces has a lot more to do with our intimate appearances than it does anything else. In any event, her erasure of trans men infects much of her discussion—particularly around her “female body experience.” I’d like to see the whole thing re-written in such a way that recognizes the existence of trans men.

Of course, even once we’ve rejected her false assumptions, we could still proceed with her proposed adversarial approach. For example, now that we understand that many of the harms that non-trans women face are also faced by trans women, we could argue that since trans women are going to be vulnerable regardless of whether we broaden the legal definition, we might as well just kick them to the curb.

Alternatively, we could recognize that what trans women are subject to is a “double-bind.” We could also remember that, as Marilyn Frye argued, the double-bind is a hallmark of oppression. By recognizing our common interests as feminists, we women could then work together to find the best solution for all. And we would do this, of course, by taking seriously the interests of trans men, genderqueer and other non-binary people. I honestly don’t understand an approach that starts off in such an adversarial way, pitting the alleged interests of non-trans women against everybody else. It just doesn’t seem very feminist to me.

I could go on. For, example, I could address Stock’s allegation that trans women often exhibit male energy while in a lesbian space. This allegation is old as dirt. And it’s been discussed by a slew of trans writers. Now at this point, I suppose you’ll want the references. Another strategy, however, would be for you to actually explore the literature on your own. Typically philosophers aren’t so disempowered about learning something new! We go ahead and search! For example, how hard is it to go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Pat Califia (1997), Julia Serano (2007), Talia Bettcher (2009/2014), Lori Watson (2016). Just a few examples!

To segue into the next section, I’ll conclude this one with some reflections on the burden of proof. Why is it, exactly, that trans people have the burden of establishing who we say we are? It seems to me that we’re already in highly controversial philosophical territory. Certainly in my everyday life, it’s generally taken for granted that I’m a woman. I would go so far as to say that it constitutes a bit of “common sense” knowledge. Now, I’m guessing that in the worlds Stock inhabits, this isn’t the case. But I’m not clear why I can’t proceed from the common-sense assumptions that operate within my “everyday.” Why should I have to proceed from hers? Why should I have to proceed from yours?

This is an important methodological issue. We philosophers (especially analytic ones) rely quite a lot on folk intuitions and on what we take to be common-sense. But once we get into a politically charged discussion, we must recognize that these folk intuitions vary across subcultures. Now what? Well, to settle on mainstream intuitions and common-sense is to make a political decision to further marginalize what Kristie Dotson called “diverse practitioners” in the field. I await the argument that this is a good way to go.

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

Part Two: The Moral of the Story

How did it come to pass that Stock’s blog-posts should be so widely discussed in philosophy? In order for her work to be taken seriously, it would have to be the case that most people involved in the discussion were not familiar with the extant literature. I suspect that lurking behind this lack of familiarity was the suspicion that there wasn’t even a literature in the first place (people didn’t know that they didn’t know). Otherwise, wouldn’t folks ask about it? What could be at the basis of the assumption that there was no literature (or, perhaps, that the literature was of poor quality)? Why didn’t people look? Or why assume that the literature just doesn’t matter? I don’t know. But there’s clearly a disturbing intellectual laziness at work here.

And I suspect there’s a deeper assumption that says that trans issues (and perhaps gender issues more generally) are philosophically “light weight.” I suspect the same is true with respect to race and disability. The stuff is easy to think about, once we bother to turn our minds to it! Ah, there’s the rub. Once we turn our minds to it! But trans philosophers (and other trans thinkers) turn our minds to it a lot more often. We have to. Our existence depends upon it. Some of us have thought about this stuff a lot. And it’s more than a little heartbreaking to find an entire literature, a rich domain of philosophy, all of one’s own hard work, completely erased—due to nothing but arrogance, dismissiveness, and laziness. Ironically, by paying attention to substandard work—by making it matter—folks only perpetuate the idea that these issues have never been discussed before. Folks can then turn around and accuse trans people of being PC, of not wanting to engage in discussion, and so forth. Our own refusal to engage is then taken as a lack of arguments (“aha, the emperor has no clothes!”), when it may simply be sheer exhaustion coupled with the unwillingness to risk further erasure by participating in the discussion of a substandard paper and by further enabling philosophers who suddenly want all the answers spoon-fed to them.

I conclude my reflections by pointing to the painful performative contradiction in Stock’s posts. On the one hand, she claims to respect the right of trans women to self-identify, to be treated as women, in most spaces (save restrooms and other private environments, etc.). On the other hand, she invites trans women to prove that we’re women. Of course, inviting a woman to prove that she’s a woman isn’t a great way to treat her as one. Oddly, she fails to notice that her posts and any engagement with it constitute a social space in which trans women are precisely not treated like women. Or perhaps she’s forgotten that we’re still in the room. The fact is, the so-called metaphysical question Stock raises can’t be abstracted from very real social contexts in which we philosophize.

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. I’ve helped a friend die of AIDS, fending off the nurses who misgendered her, watching in horror as the priest invalidated her entire life at her funeral by reducing her to a man. I’ve been personally assaulted in public to prove that I was a man. I’ve had a friend trans-bashed. And as this beating was gang-related, she then lost her home. I’ve had a friend stripped by police-officers, forced to parade back and forth while they ridiculed and harassed her. So please understand that this is a little bit personal.

When we battered tables show up and start philosophizing, only to find these same erasures and invalidations perpetuated within a philosophical context, we can become more than a little upset. To repeat, as philosophers, we simply cannot assume that the methodology must be the same across the board. To invite me to a philosophical forum in which I prove my womanhood is to do something far different from inviting me to share my views on mathematical Platonism. Do you understand the risks? It’s one thing to spout views about the composition problem with both arrogance and ignorance. It happens. It’s annoying. But it’s quite another thing to do this when we’re talking about people—people who are in the room, people trying (and succeeding) to philosophize themselves.

For the longest time, I was one of the few trans scholars working in the profession. But times are changing. There’s a young crop of trans and genderqueer scholars doing the work. But they’re also in precarious situations. Some are still in grad school, some are looking for work, some are trying to get tenure. Nothing is helped by perpetuating such a hostile environment for them. Surely this is an issue we need to take seriously. Philosophers need to start taking responsibility for themselves, for their beliefs, for their intellectual laziness, for their lack of care, and for their simple unwillingness to pursue the truth. The search for truth surely requires a modicum of intellectual humility. It’s time to recognize the literature, recognize the possibility of different starting points, recognize the high stakes for those of us who dare to speak back.

I conclude by acknowledging that nothing I say here is at all original. What I share are simply thoughts that have already been shared by many trans theorists and philosophers. It’s just that I was given the opportunity to speak on a blog that could reach more philosophers than usual: somebody handed me a microphone (thanks, Justin!). With that in mind I want to sign-off with something old and something new. The old is C. Jacob Hale’s “Suggested Rules for Non-Transsexuals Writing about Transsexuals, Transsexuality, Transsexualism, or Trans” (1997). It’s from the nineties, but it’s still horribly relevant. The new is from Amy Marvin’s comment on a recent post at Feminist Philosophers. I’ll leave the closing remarks to her:

Asking people who want to do critical scholarship on this subject to “read the literature” seems to often get dismissed as a near-ad hominem, or as a tactic for uncritical dismissal without any engagement (and thus intellectually shallow)… I worry that the difficulty of having a conversation about whether or not trans women are women (it stands out to me, by the way, that this yet again focuses on trans women rather than trans men) amounts to a suggestion that the conversation should not include our scholarly and personal voices, and continue to cast us as people who scholarship should be about rather than with. In a way, I wish that I could remain silent about this as well… but I have no choice in having my existence debated, with unavoidable consequences for me, both before I was born and likely after I am dead.


*Thanks to Mark Balaguer, Ann Garry, Amy Marvin, and Perry Zurn for their helpful comments.

References (not included in my Stanford Encyclopedia entry “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues”)

Bettcher, Talia. “Trans Feminism: Recent Philosophical Developments,” Philosophy Compass (2017):1-11.
—–. “Through the Looking Glass: Transgender Theory Meets Feminist Philosophy” in Routledge Handbook of Feminist Philosophy (eds. Ann Garry, Serene Khader, Allison Stone) Routledge, 2017: 393-404.
—–. “Intersexuality, Transsexuality, Transgender,” in Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory (eds. Lisa Jane Disch and Mary Hawkesworth) Oxford University Press, 2016: 407-427.
Diaz-Leon, Esa. “‘Woman’ as a Politically Significant Term: A Solution to the Puzzle,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 31:2 (2016): 245-256.
Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Jenkins, Katharine. “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman,” Ethics 126: 2 (2016): 394-421.
Kapusta, Stephanie. “Misgendering and Its Moral Contestability,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 31:3 (2016): 502-519.
Saul, Jennifer. ‘Politically Significant Terms and the Philosophy of Language: Methodological Issues.’ Out from the Shadows: Analytical Feminist Contributions to Traditional Philosophy. Eds. S. L. Crasnow and A. M. Superson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Stryker, Susan and Talia M. Bettcher. ‘Editors’ Introduction.’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 3.1-2 (2016): 5–14.
Watson, Lori. “The Woman Question,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 3:1-2 (2016): 248-255.

Daily Nous Comments Policy

Comments are closed.