I’m not the official spokesperson for the trans community, because not all trans people think alike. You should be suspicious of anyone, trans or not, who claims to be giving you the trans point of view.
Remember that trans people are most likely to have our voices amplified when we enjoy advantages like whiteness and wealth, and when our opinions are palatable to a cis audience. (Look at how frequently Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono are held up as canonical examples of trans people despite being extremely unrepresentative.)
I’ll do my best to give broadly applicable advice, but all advice is defeasible. If the trans people in your life disagree with me, listen to them.
If there’s an epistemic policy that’s even worse than treating a single trans person as the spokesperson for an entire group, it’s treating cis people as experts about trans issues—or being a cis person who considers themself an expert just because they’ve devoted some perfunctory attention to trans issues. It is good and valuable for cis people to think about trans people, our lives, and our contributions to knowledge and culture, but it’s crucial that you approach this topic with the requisite epistemic humility.
It is common for public conversations about trans people to rest on false empirical presuppositions and to be shaped by anti-trans propaganda. (At this point, some audience members may start to protest about academic freedom. But while academic freedom forbids some methods of silencing anti-trans viewpoints, it doesn’t mean that these viewpoints have scholarly merit.) As a result, in order to make a genuinely original contribution to trans topics, you’ll need both knowledge and effort; otherwise, you run the risk of repeating ill-informed transphobic tropes that have neither pragmatic nor epistemic value.
Off-the-cuff thoughts from a cis person—even a clever cis person—are unlikely to meet the standard required for fruitful participation. Trans people are often forced by practical concerns to think through some of the facts and philosophical distinctions relevant to being trans; therefore, cis people start out at a significant disadvantage. If you want to understand trans issues, you need to listen to trans people before engaging. (I’ll provide a few reading suggestions at the end of this post.)
This 2016 editorial by Casey Plett provides an interesting illustration of how media narratives can encourage an over-emphasis on cis voices, to the exclusion of trans voices, and to the epistemic detriment of everyone. When the Gender Identity Clinic at Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health closed down, erstwhile director Kenneth Zucker’s methods were portrayed in numerous op-eds as “controversial”, with “science” on one side and “trans activism” on the other. But the controversy was almost entirely due to disagreement among cis people. Plett asks, “What happens when you try to leave the cis people out?” and shows that focusing on trans commentators reveals a near-complete consensus that Zucker’s methods were harmful.
Naming and Challenging Transphobia
What if you’ve internalized the message about epistemic humility, and you’ve started to recognize the transphobia that’s widespread in philosophy academia, but you want to do more?
A good first step is to practice naming errors and injustices when you see them. You can break this down into three smaller steps: explicitly stating the assumption or describing action that you want to critique, stating that you disagree with it, and giving a reason for disagreement. (In social settings where someone has just said something that calls for a quick response, the third step is optional.) Here are some examples of how the three steps might look in action.
- When you describe the group of people affected by the abortion bill as “women”, you’re conflating womanhood with the ability to get pregnant (stating the assumption), so I point out that some trans men can also get pregnant (stating disagreement and giving a reason).
- The article starts from the premise that trans women are sexual predators (stating the assumption), but that premise is unjustified (stating disagreement and giving a reason), and it’s harmful to presumptively treat a minority group as threatening (giving an additional reason).
- You keep directing the conversation toward our colleague’s sexuality (describing the action), and I find that inappropriate (stating disagreement). Would you talk that way about a cis woman? (giving a reason).
If you find it difficult to speak up this way in real-time conversations, you’re not alone; I do too. But it gets easier with practice. And you can practice in written conversations, where there is less time pressure. For instance, if you find yourself citing a source that bundles a transphobic assumption in with an unrelated point, you can add a quick footnote that names the transphobic assumption and distinguishes it from the useful point that interests you. (You can also choose to cite another source that makes the same point without the transphobic assumption, if one is available.)
Once you’ve named and acknowledged a problem, it’s easier to think of solutions. Epistemic humility needn’t mean epistemic helplessness. Like other domains of philosophical inquiry, from logic to metaphysics to history to philosophy of science, applied ethics is hard, and you’re not going to manage it without making some mistakes. But it’s worth acknowledging the difficulty of the problem, and then practicing your skills until you get better.
Sharing your pronouns is increasingly common in academia. Aside from names, pronouns are the most salient linguistic marks of gender in English, so they serve as a kind of metonymy for how someone wishes to be gendered.
Cis colleagues sometimes want to know whether they should share pronouns: Is it something you’re supposed to do to demonstrate sensitivity? Does it risk appropriating trans experience?
I encourage you to share your pronouns. A cis person sharing their pronouns is a gesture that helps to normalize pronoun-sharing, encourages people to check, instead of guessing based on someone’s appearance, and it sends the message that cis people, rather than being the unmarked default, have genders that they too make active decisions about.
Some trans colleagues have expressed concerns about being singled-out by pronoun-sharing rituals, and this is a legitimate concern to keep in mind. But there are plenty of ways to share pronouns while being careful not to put anyone on the spot. You can volunteer your own pronouns on your conference name-tag, in your email signature, on the title page of your talk, or in conversation, thereby creating the space for others to share theirs, if they wish.
If a trans person has published work under an old name, how should you cite them? You might have the impulse to use the name they published under, but there is good reason not to do this. The common word for using a trans person’s old name, deadnaming, reflects how many trans people feel about the practice: it digs up a part of the person’s past that is better left undisturbed.
There is no established institutional policy for handling the name changes that come with transition, but good options include asking the author how they would like to be cited, checking publicly available information like their webpage and their ORCiD for information about how they would be cited, and using their current name or their initials if you’re unable to find information about their preferences.
At the beginning of this post, I promised a list of reading recommendations. Here are a few places you can begin if you’d like to learn more.
Suggested Rules for Non-Transsexuals Writing About Transsexuals, Transsexuality, Transsexualism, or Trans, by Jacob Hale: a helpful set of ground rules
Trans Philosophy Bibliography at the Trans Philosophy Project: a growing bibliography of philosophical readings on trans topics
Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ): an interdisciplinary journal that “offers a high-profile venue for innovative research and scholarship that contest the objectification, pathologization, and exoticization of transgender lives”
US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality: a 2016 survey analyzing data from nearly 28,000 trans people living in the US
Feminist Perspectives on Transgender Issues, by Talia Mae Bettcher: a Stanford Encyclopedia article surveying history and current debates
“When Tables Speak”: on the Existence of Trans Philosophy, by Talia Mae Bettcher: a blog post encouraging greater epistemic humility among our cis colleagues, with more reading recommendations at the end
The Transfeminist Manifesto, by Emi Koyama: a 2001 document laying out the principles of transfeminism, a feminist movement by and for trans women, but also inclusive of others who “are sympathetic toward the needs of trans women and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential to their own liberation”
A Trans 101 Blog: an anonymously-authored blog offering short answers to ignorant or hostile questions, with links
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd Edition, by Julia Serano: a collection of essays discussing sexism against trans women
* Ray Briggs is Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. Their interests include formal epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of gender.
[Description of photo below: a headshot of Ray who is looking directly at the camera, is wearing a shirt with buttons and rectangular wire glasses, has long unruly curls on their head, and is smiling widely. Vertical blinds cover a window in the background of the shot.]
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