The Gender Wage Gap Myth Revisited

I wanted to take a break from my usual trans/queer discourse and take the time to talk about economics a bit. No worries, though, as this is covering perhaps one of the controversial topics in popular economic discourse today: the gender wage gap. Why is it so controversial? Feminists would argue that most people don’t want to believe that people are generally sexist, much less that the norms and institutions they have come to identify with are inherently problematic. They want to believe that things like sexism and racism are a thing of the past. We and our institutions are nothing like they were yesteryear. We can’t be those things because we know better. I’m really a good person, aren’t I?

To be honest, the impulse to protect one’s ego and the idea that the world isn’t really that bad is a very common and natural one. We all have it. Cognitive dissonance isn’t fun for anyone and it’s a primary driver behind all kinds of denialisms including, but not limited to, climate change denialism, evolutionary theory denialism, holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism, and many others. One of the most recent forms of denial that has been occupying my mind recently is the gender wage gap denialism that I observed in response to an article published by NBC News, which reported that “women earned roughly half the income of men in the United States over a 15-year period, taking into account time off for family or child care”. The alarming part of the report is that the pay gap appears to be even larger than previously thought by experts studying the issue. The authors of the report attribute the trend partially to the fact that women are “twice as likely as men to take at least one year off work” among other reasons.

The reactions to this article were disappointingly predictable. Plenty of people made appeals to personal experience, other anecdotes, and bald assertions that the gender pay gap is a myth. When I presented arguments and evidence to the contrary, most opponents chose to ignore my evidence or to assert that they favor personal experience over scientific data and statistics because, well, scientists are flawed. My response was that while it is true that researchers are flawed, it doesn’t mean the general body of literature indicating a gender pay gap is wrong. Further, we also have no reason to believe that our own beliefs about our personal experiences apart from the scientific data are any more reliable. In fact, we have plenty of reasons to believe that they are not (for more reasons, click here). This is why science, reason and other useful tools humans have devised in order to understand the world are so important. Yes, they are flawed, but they can help us avoid some of the many pitfalls of human cognition (though they cannot prevent them entirely).

So this begs the question, is there really a gender wage gap? And if so, what factors are contributing to the problem, what can we do about it, and (most interestingly), what should we do about it?

Evidence of a gap

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) published a very accessible breakdown of the data regarding the gender wage gap (for more data, you can look here). In this breakdown, they explain the following regarding the causes of the gap, which include “gender segregation across occupations” and “women’s unpaid work”:

“This is not an exhaustive list, and some causes for the wage gap remain unexplained by existing research. For example, gender discrimination may be responsible for some portion of the unexplained wage gap. However, these are some of the major factors that have been barriers to women’s earning potential and pay equality. And there is more to the story: women of color continue to face significant racial wage gaps on top of the gender wage gap.”

In short, much of the gap can be explained by things other than outright discrimination. The primary causes appear to be the fact that women are more likely to have lower-paying jobs and are still very underrepresented in many job roles, especially among business executives and software engineers.

Women are also taking most of the domestic responsibilities at home, even when they work full time. This phenomenon of working mothers having the primary responsibility of running the home is often called the second shift.

More sophisticated gender pay gap denialists will admit that the data generally do suggest a gap. However, they argue that once voluntary choices (i.e., where one goes to school, what one studies while in school, what kind of occupation one chooses, what kinds of training one gets, etc.) between men and women are controlled for, the gap all but vanishes. In other words, women are, on average, paid less because they choose lower paying jobs, are less assertive in the work place, and take more time off (e.g., maternity leave, focusing on raising kids or maintaining the home).

However, there are flaws in these conclusions. Dr. Steve Horwitz, economist and free market proponent, cautions against concluding that the gender pay gap is a myth based on the above mentioned findings. He warns,

“…what the economic studies indicate is that labor market discriminationexplains, at best, only a fraction of the gender wage gap. It would also be a myth to say that sexismexplains only that fraction. Even if employers largely don’t discriminate based on gender by paying equally qualified men and women differently, employer-driven discrimination is not the only form of sexism that might matter for explaining pay differentials by gender.

All the economic studies say is that differences in skills, experiences, and preferences between men and women explain the clear majority of the gap. What such studies do not address is the degree to which the differences in men’s and women’s skills and knowledge (their human capital‘) is due to sexism before they come to the labor market. Nor do such studies ask whether differences in preferences or job experience by gender are also due to sexism or other aspects of socialization.

Other research support Horwitz’s challenge to “human capital” explanations. For instance, if women enter the work force taking lower paying positions (such as, for example, teachers, social workers, nurses, etc.) as opposed to higher paying ones (software engineers, scientists, doctors, executives, etc.) who’s to say those choices were not heavily influenced by the way they were raised as girls? It is well known that girls and boys are influenced, even conditioned, to prefer different things (dolls as opposed to trucks) and aspire to different careers (teacher as opposed to engineer). The problem with the human capital model is that it appears to fall short in accounting for factors like socialization and cultural norms by making some rather flawed assumptions regarding rational choice, individual preferences and autonomy. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post (a summary of some of the issues can be found here and here). However, I will take some time to say a little more about autonomy.

Autonomy and individual choice

In Western discourse, autonomy is typically conceived as the ability to govern one’s self and to make choices independent of outside forces. In her work, The Sources of Normativity, Kristine M. Korsgaard articulates an idea of autonomy that is inspired by the philosopher Immanuel Kant:

“…[t]he human mind is self-conscious in the sense that it is essentially reflective. I’m not talking about being thoughtful…but about the structure of our minds that makes thoughtfulness possible. A lower animal’s attention is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will. It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them…But we human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, and we are conscious of them. That is why we can think about them.

“…[O]ur capacity to turn our attention onto our own mental activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them and call them into question. I perceive, and I find myself with a powerful impulse to believe. But I back up and bring that impulse into view and then I have a certain distance…and now I have a problem. Shall I believe? Is this perception really a reason to believe? I desire and I find myself with a powerful impulse to act. But I back up and bring that impulse into view…Shall I act? Is this desire really a reason to act?…

“…So if I decide that my desire is a reason to act, I must decide that on reflection I endorse that desire. And here we find the problem. For how do I decide that?…

“Kant described this same problem in terms of freedom. It is because of the reflective structure of the mind that we must act, as he puts it, under the idea of freedom. He says, ‘We can not conceive of a reason which consciously responds to a bidding from outside with respect to its judgments.’ If the bidding from outside is desire, then his point is that the reflective mind must endorse the desire before it can act on it–it must say to itself that the desire is a reason. We must, as he puts it, make it our maxim to act on the desire. And this is something we must do of our own free will.”

A proponent of the human capital model might argue that though women are socialized from a young age to have certain preferences and to make certain career impacting choices, they are still free to pursue whatever interests or goals are available to them just as men are. In other words, a woman still has the ability to reflect on her beliefs and impulses, to choose to endorse them and to act accordingly. However, this idea of autonomy is fundamentally flawed.

If it is true that no force outside of our will can determine which beliefs and impulses we endorse, then endorsements of the will are random. If the endorsements of the will are random, then they are not free. So there are only three options: either our choices are determined by outside forces, they are chance events, or they are some combination of the two. Free will fits nowhere among these three options.

A more coherent conception of free will comes from compatibilism: the belief that free will and determinism are compatible because free will does not mean that an agent can act freely of outside causes, but that she can act independent of the wills of other agents. This compatibilist perspective can be more attractive when we consider specific problems with personal autonomy:

“…[A]ny agent who faces the task of ‘making up her mind’ has the authority to determine how she will act. On most occasions, what an agent does is the direct effect of her exercise of this authority. Yet there is also ample evidence that the capacity for self-government is vulnerable to any number of assaults; an agent’s authority over her actions is no guarantee that she had the power to determine how she exercises this authority. Agents can be deprived of their autonomy by brainwashing, depression, anxiety, fatigue; they can succumb to compulsions and addictions. To what, exactly, are we calling attention when we say that, under these conditions, an agent does not govern herself, even if she acts as she does because she thinks she has sufficient reason to do so, even if she has (thoroughly) considered the pros and cons of her options, and had endorsed her behavior on this basis, and even if she would have acted differently if there had been stronger reason to do so? Most agents who are capable of asking this question are confident that they are authors of most of their actions, and are thus accountable for most of what they do. Nonetheless, as this brief survey indicates, the self-relations they thereby attribute to themselves is extremely difficult to pin down.”

When considering the role of socialization in human decision making, it is important to keep in mind the sociohistoric context of our choices. We exist in a world where our range of choices are constrained both physically and socially. Furthermore, our ability to perceive and reflect on our choices is constituted by existing norms and social institutions, both of which rely heavily on language: the communication of meanings that is the “foundation” of our institutions, our traditions, our culture. In other words, the reflective mind and its functions are not distinct from the social world “outside” of it. Therefore, to say that one acts independently of the social world is to utter a contradiction.

Thus the idea that we can act freely of our institutions and culture is a really odd one. However, this does not mean that autonomy does not exist. Rather, it is language and the wider social world that facilitates it. Stated differently, a person’s ability to resist “socialization” is itself a product of said socialization. Consider the meaning of the word “constrain”.

In common language, to constrain is to limit something and a constraint is a force that is applied in order to constrain said thing. A little girl may be constrained by the choices made available to her, or even imposed on her. However, constraints also serve a facilitating function. For example, in motor behavior theory, physical laws not only limit what human bodies can do, but they also produce the movement patterns that people generate. Therefore, the very constraints that compel the little girl to comply also facilitate her ability to say no. As Daniel Dennett might say, though her choices are determined, they are not inevitable. She still has the capacity to anticipate and avoid outcomes she does not want.


As has been demonstrated, the gender wage gap myth is no myth at all as it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts and what it means for individuals to make autonomous choices. Women are constrained by all sorts of factors outside their control, including gender norms, expectations, and other social factors, including gender discrimination. A woman is free in her social world insofar as she can anticipate and resist the actions of others. Therefore, if we wish to truly facilitate autonomous choices for women, we need to critically examine our norms and institutions and see if they impose any undue constraints on the basis of gender, race, or any other social dimension.

Sexism is a real phenomenon that we cannot continue to ignore. Though things have been getting better, there is still some way to go. When it comes to the gender pay gap, the first step is to acknowledge it.

If you are interested in learning more about the gender pay gap, you can review the following links:


Transgender and the Church

In “Do Trans People Exist?”, I addressed the question “Are trans people who they say they are?” I did so by arguing that traditional notions of gender (i.e., that it is an immutable, biological characteristic determined by genitalia and/or chromosomes) aren’t the only ones. In fact, we have good conceptual and practical reasons to adopt more trans-inclusive ideas of gender. What is perhaps the most important reason is moral: trans people matter. If we care about doing the right thing, we ought to be more inclusive and considerate of their interests.

This case was more developed in the following post “Why Trans People Matter” by articulating what it means to treat others as you would want to be treated. A person’s worth comes from the fact that they are autonomous, self-aware beings who are able to recognize moral reasons. In other words, they can know right from wrong and act accordingly. In order to respect the autonomy and worth of trans people, we cannot deny that excluding them is not respecting their autonomy.

However, despite all the rational, practical and moral reasons for adopting more trans-inclusive definitions of gender, there are reasons why some folks might still be hesitant. One major source of this hesitation is faith.

How does someone who recognizes that they have good reasons to be trans-inclusive reconcile religious beliefs and principles that appear to be in tension with transgender?

Meaning and values

Before addressing this problem, it should be noted that I am a former Christian (LDS), and I have been secular for about seven years at the time of publishing. Even though I have many years of experience, I do still technically have an outsider’s perspective, so I will primarily be relying on the voices of (mostly Christian) people of faith who have struggled with this issue. The focus will be mostly on Christianity because (1) that’s the dominant religion in the United States and (2) that’s the religion with which I have the most knowledge and experience.

To frame how I would like to approach this, I rely on the words of William James in his work “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings“. James comes across the interesting observation that life is saturated with values and meanings. As individuals, we only have direct contact with what we value and what has meaning for us. We don’t have the same kind of access when it comes to the values of others and what gives meaning to them:

“Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

“We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.”

Being “blind” to the perspectives of others, it can be difficult to understand what makes them tick, especially when those others are perceived as significantly different from us. For example, as a trans woman, it’s easier for me to understand that transgender is not a mental illness and is rather a part of normal variation found in the human species. However, a cisgender person who has had no prior knowledge or experience with transgender people might come to believe that trans people are mentally ill, because for her, she can’t really know why someone would transition or present themselves as a member of “the opposite sex”.

What needs to be remembered is that people have values of their own and certain things may have meanings particular to them. We cannot position ourselves as ultimate arbiters of what should be important and meaningful to other people. In other words, we should be generally open-minded, tolerant and accepting of others, respecting the fact that our own perspective is but one of many.

Faith and values

When considering the dilemma many faithful Christians find themselves in regarding the acceptance of LGBTQ, I wanted to bear in mind my own “blindness”, so I sought out resources from Christians. What I found mostly comes from Social Work & Christianity (fall 2017 edition) published quarterly by the Journal of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work. I highlight their statement of purpose:

“Social Work & Christianity (SWC) is a refereed journal published quarterly…by the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW) to support and encourage the growth of social workers in the ethical integration of Christian faith and professional practice. SWC welcomes articles, shorter contributions, book reviews, and letters which deal with issues related to the integration of faith and professional social work practice and other professional concerns which have relevance to Christianity.”

The source I cite in particular deals with how social workers can adhere to both evidence-based standards of ethical, “competent practice” and Christianity. The opening article presents the “principle/practice pyramid in ethical decision making” as a means of guiding one’s decision making.

The foundation, or base, of the pyramid is one’s fundamental worldview and faith-based assumptions. This is the level at which we find our most fundamental beliefs and assumptions regarding the nature of reality and our place in it. This is where we deal with questions such as “Does life have meaning?”, “What does it mean to be good?”, “What can we know if we can know anything at all?” The author poses this as the level at which most Christians agree.

The next level is constituted by core values and principles that are derived from the foundation. The author states, “as a Christian I understand these to be the ‘exceptionless absolutes’ of love and justice growing out of the nature of God” which are consistent with NASW’s code of ethics which include “service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.”

From our core values, we derive moral or ethical rules that prescribe what we should do. As examples of these, the author points to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. He also carefully points out that this is the level where absolutism cannot hold: “these rules can guide us, but they can never provide us with absolute prescriptions…because in case situations often more than one rule or value will apply.”

The final layer is where many Christian social workers find themselves. How does one apply their worldview, core values and moral/ethical rules in cases involving moral dilemmas? A lot of folks at this point will likely respond by saying that there really is no moral dilemma, at least when it comes to LGBTQ. Morality is absolute and the apparent tension between moral values is only illusory. However, I think this view can be misguided. A lot of situations aren’t easily decided based on universal moral principles. Rather, the particular features and context of a situation often force us to realize that many of our principles have exceptions, and those exceptions have exceptions and so on. This idea is more fully fleshed out by moral particularists.

The author explains the following:

“It is at the case level that we have to resolve ethical and practical dilemmas in which any actual action we can take is going to advance some of our values (and the rules that go with them) at the expense of some of our other values (and the rules that go with them). Our ability to know relevant facts and to predict the consequences of various actions is severely limited, yet some choice must be made and some action taken…

“Hence–Sherwood’s Maxim: You can’t maximize all values simultaneously. Every available action has a cost. And Sherwood’s Corollary: You have to make the best judgment you can at the time about which of the available options best approximates love and justice–and act on it. This judgment is informed by your knowledge and skill, but depends most of all on the character you have developed.

“For Christians, this means having developed the mind of Christ by being a disciple of Christ and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

What ethical, competent practice requires

In other parts of SWC, multiple authors make the point that a useful attribute of ethical, competent practitioners is cultural competence. In short, cultural competence is interacting with people from different backgrounds in a respectful way “that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth and dignity of all people”. One must be self-aware–especially of the things that inform the way they see the world, including prejudices and biases–in order to do this successfully.

When it comes to LGBTQ, what does it mean to recognize, affirm, and value their worth and dignity? This is where there is some disagreement among Christian social workers. Many would argue precisely what LGBTQ folks say it means: we are to be recognized for who we say we are, our personal relationships are a fundamental part of who we are (as they are for everyone), and that that we are as legitimate and good as cisgender/straight individuals.

For trans people specifically, it means acknowledging and using their names (not necessarily the ones given at birth and not necessarily their “legal names”) and their pronouns (for trans women it’s typically “she”, for trans men it’s typically “he”, and for non-binary people it’s often “they”). It also means interacting with them in a way that is respectful of their identities. For example, don’t treat trans women like they are men.

As has been covered previously, transphobia (oppression of transgender people) is responsible for exceptionally high rates of suicidal behavior and that suicidal behavior can be prevented through acceptance. The linked article proposes a number of interventions in an effort to “help in achieving increased societal acceptance of the transgender community and decreased gender-based prejudice“.

Since it’s clear that ethical, competent practice requires recognition, affirmation, and acceptance, how can one who’s religious beliefs seem to be in conflict with these facts reconcile the two apparently opposing positions? One especially significant entry in the SWC is from a practicing clinician who did her best to integrate her Christian faith with what she considered best practices at the time. The problem was she failed to recognize how her biases and prejudices, in conjunction with systemically biased and archaic research that she sought specifically because they seemed to be in harmony with her beliefs, led her to do so serious harm to the LGBTQ individuals she worked with. She describes her transition in the following manner:

“My edges gradually became hardened…I was guilty of what may be the greatest sin of all–the sin of certainty. This was indeed a bitter pill, at least at first blush. But in time, recording my positions of ‘certainty’ began to address the inherent dangers of being so staunchly certain of my own judgments, however righteous they may have seemed to me. Relaxing my hold on rigid certainties was daunting, distressing, and confusing. There is a beguiling comfort in certainty!

“Yet there was also relief, increased peace, and deepened compassion in the transition. What is the sin of dichotomous ‘certainty’ if not the essence of the Pharisee? In my desire to honor the Word of God, I was in fact facing the Pharisee in the mirror.

When discussing her transition, she focuses very little on reasoned argument or scriptural support and she does so for a very good reason:

“Dr. Gushee (2014) has observed that careful historical, contextual reexaminations of prohibitive Scriptures, even conclusive scientific research, will not create heart change. The ‘culture of contempt’, he cautions, ‘will not be reversed without personal love relationships’.

“May God grant us the grace of deeply transformative love relationships in our midst. May we be granted the grace to not break relationships over our dissimilarities, but instead remain in conversation with each other…”

It should be noted that it isn’t the case that there are no reasoned arguments or scriptural support that she could use to backup her point of view (scriptural support, Church doctrine and revealed truth will be addressed later in this post). What she argues is that is not what gets someone to develop compassion and understanding. What does that is interpersonal relationships. In this case, acceptance of trans people comes from interacting with and relating to them by appeal to common experience and an attitude of openness to the fact that our individual perspectives are all unique.

As William James would argue, we need to be mindful that the things that have meaning and value are specific to our own individual perspectives. Therefore, we are not in a position to pass absolute judgement about the “other persons’ conditions and ideals”.

On the Word of God

Given the above points, one might understandably still be hesitant to go against what they understand to be the Word of God (scripture, Church doctrine, or revelation). Take for instance the following statements from The Family: A Proclamation to the World published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

ALL HUMAN BEINGS—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

This statement seems to be pretty straight forward in that it seems to deny that transgender people can be the gender that they claim rather than the one that was assigned to them at birth based on biological traits. At least that’s how it’s typically interpreted by most folks of the LDS faith. Notice, for instance, that nowhere does it say that gender must necessarily be determined by one’s biology. That is just what it is typically taken to mean. In fact, it says that gender is an “essential characteristic of individual…identity and purpose”. One could argue that biological features do not determine identity, so it could still be the case that the existence of (at least binary) trans people is not in tension with LDS doctrine as it is articulated in these statements.

A Latter-day Saint may reply that such an important interpretation goes against the intended meaning of the passage and may cite other statements from scripture and church authorities who claim to have direct access to revealed truth from the Divine. It may appear that Church doctrine as it is outlined here may actually preclude any recognition of trans people’s identities. However, there is a problem with this conclusion.

According to communication theory, ‘meaning’ can signify two different things: a speaker’s intention and the signification of the words (either spoken or written) they use. It is possible for a statement to have meaning without any intention behind it. For example, suppose a computer is programmed to generate random combinations of words. Most times the word combinations will produce complete gibberish, but suppose one day it generated the random word combination: “See Spot Run”.

Does this word combination contain meaning? Of course it does. When we read the statement, we might think of a dog running around in a backyard. Even though there is no intention behind the statement, it still means, or signifies, something–hence the difference between intention and signification. The difference also holds when the statement does come from someone who had an intention behind it.

Now suppose we have two people communicating with each other. According to a certain model of communication (let’s call it model A), when one person speaks to another who speaks the same language, they are transmitting their intentions using words (whether spoken or written) from one’s mind to the other. In our example, it is the Church’s statement regarding gender, i.e., Church officials communicating what they say are God’s intentions.

The problem with model A arises when we consider how we determine whether our understanding of what is supposed to be God’s intended meaning is correct. Proponents of model A might argue that we can know that a statement expresses an intention insofar as it corresponds to said intention. When it comes to language, the smallest units of meaning are phonemes for speech and graphemes for writing. These units have meaning that can be read based on how they contrast with a background (phonemes contrasting with other background sounds, or lack of sounds, and graphemes contrasting with a visual background, e.g., black ink on white paper). Model A breaks down because it posits that the objective features of words can represent intentions, which are subjective in nature, through a kind of correspondence. However, this is not possible. If we were to say that “gender is essential” corresponds with God’s intention, we would be engaging in a significant amount of unverifiable conjecture since any attempt to measure the statement’s correspondence to God’s intentions is in fact only measuring one statement up against another. In other words, doing so is like comparing apples and oranges. We can only compare apples to other apples.

So if model A does not work, how is communication possible? After all, it seems like we successfully communicate all the time. If we can’t point to intention as a source of meaning, then how does communication work? As an alternative to model A, let’s consider model B. According to model B, when we read the statement “gender is essential”, we are undertaking an act of interpretation. If we can’t compare our interpretation to the speaker’s intended meaning, how are we to understand this statement? Rather than trying to establish a kind of correspondence with the speaker’s intention, what one can do is make predictions about the most appropriate interpretation within the context of the situation. We do that through the associations that the statement has with other words. For example, a scripture can’t be interpreted completely in isolation. It must be understood in the wider context of the Bible, which must also be understood within the sociohistoric context of the Church and ultimately culture in general.

A criticism of model B that one might have is that meaning collapses into relativism under this model. If the meaning of an utterance can mean something different than what the speaker intends, than who’s to say what anything means at all? The problem with this criticism is that it ignores that even though the meaning of an utterance is established by reference to it’s associations with other utterances within the sociohistoric context of the overall discourse, we are all born into and are bound by the same discourse. In fact, if model A were correct, then every utterance would use meanings that were particular to each person, and to them alone, making communication impossible.

A gender revolution

A very good illustration of how model B can be applied to explain scriptural interpretation is the historical account of Galileo Galilei. According to folk understanding, Galileo was one of the great heroes of modern science who fought the Church, which eventually put him under house arrest for the crime of heresy because his ideas contradicted Scripture. The Church is often cast as dogmatic and anti-science. What is not commonly known is that both the best theories and observational evidence of the time backed up the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.

Since Galileo’s observations were made using telescopes, it wasn’t at all clear that his observations were reliable since telescopes had not yet been established as reliable tools themselves. Another challenge to Galileo’s claims was the fact that the physics of the day (Aristotelian physics) provided an empirically adequate theoretical framework for most observations. A common objection was that if the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around, then that would mean the that the Earth was moving. However, when an object is released to free fall, it’s landing is directly beneath its release point. If the Earth were really moving, then we should expect that the landing point would not be directly beneath the release point. It would actually be some distance away.

To explain the observation, Galileo developed the idea of relative motion, which would later be further developed and refined by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity. It wasn’t until after telescopes were found to be reliable, Galileo’s relative motion was demonstrated to be able to explain observation, and finally the displacement of Aristotelian physics with Newtonian physics, that the church accommodated changes in scientific discourse by adjusting its interpretation of Scripture.

I would argue that we are now going through another kind of revolution. Our understanding of gender is going through extraordinary changes in philosophical, scientific, and theological discourse. How we interpret what Scripture says, or does not say, about gender is evolving in light of this revolution.


In short, I have argued that though a person of faith can find herself in challenging moral dilemmas with respect to LGBTQ more broadly, and transgender more specifically, there is a way to reconcile this tension. This can come about by focusing on the fundamentals of love and justice. Many Christians, both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, have successfully done as much.

I have a few more thoughts with respect to interpreting the Word of God. Even though it isn’t possible to transmit one’s intention in word form, one might say that the Holy Spirit can bridge this gap as it is not a literal voice in our heads telling us what God wants of us, but is instead more of a feeling, or presence that can impress itself onto our consciousness. In that way, it can be said to be pre-linguistic, or before language. I have no problem with that idea. However, it should be noted that once we try to articulate said impressions into an intelligible form, it is no longer pre-linguistic. It enters the realm of language and is therefore interpreted.

This has an important implication: one’s personal relationship with God is primary. Even when one thinks that they are interpreting the Word of God in-line with what they believe is the correct interpretation given to them by Church leaders, they are still relying on their own personal interpretation. It’s interpretation all the way down.

Why Trans People Matter

In my most recent post “Do Trans People Exist?”, I argued for using more trans-inclusive gender concepts. I briefly summarized some of the literature on the topic–both from the philosophical as well as the scientific literature–in an attempt to argue that for all practical purposes, we had good reasons to do so since said concepts can not only account for the observed gender variation in nature, they can also account for the lived experiences of gender-variant individuals (and, no, arguing that trans people are mentally ill does not work as an alternative). Near the end, I switched gears a little bit and made an appeal to the moral sense of my audience:

“In short, gender is a lot like species, genes and units of selection: there is no one definition that can decide every single case, and which definition we use is going to depend on context. If we are interested in being as humane and ethical as possible, then we have very strong reasons to adopt trans inclusive ideas regarding sex and gender.”

In the remainder of this post, I would like to dig a bit deeper into the moral considerations at play. This will include an analysis of common moral beliefs shared among most, if not all, people and how if we wish to be true to those moral beliefs, we must accept trans people for who they claim to be. We must acknowledge that trans people matter. So why should anyone care about trans people?

The golden rule

The golden rule is a maxim that is typically considered to originate from Christianity, but has also been found in even earlier iterations in Asian culture. The maxim is typically formulated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This common sense principle hasn’t always been taken seriously in moral philosophy, but some philosophers have come to its defense and have even found it to be useful in their thought. One such philosopher is Christine M. Korsgaard, professor of philosophy at Harvard University. One of her most well known works is The Sources of Normativity. In it, she argues the following main points:

  • Moral demands and obligations must come from an authoritative source. That authoritative sources is one’s own self. The self has a “double nature” as a result of the fact that our minds are reflective by nature (we can reflect on our desires and determine whether or not we have good reasons to act on them, i.e., we can recognize right and wrong).
  • Reasons are inherently normative (i.e., they are “right”) and what our nature allows us to do is to look at those reasons more “objectively”, meaning that the thinking self can take a kind of outside perspective relative to the acting self in order to determine their normativity.
  • “Reflection has the power to compel obedience and to punish us for disobedience.” Call this a moral conscience that governs us by laws that are good and thus “…the necessity of acting in the light of reflection makes us authorities over ourselves. And insofar as we have authority over ourselves, we can make laws for ourselves, and those laws will be normative…Autonomy is the source of obligation.”
  • There can be no good in the world without placing a value on ourselves. Each individual person is autonomous, a value unto their self. Humans are moral animals.
  • Moral realism, the notion that moral facts exist, is true in the sense that there exist moral entities that place moral obligations on us. Those moral entities “are people, and the other animals”.

When we consider this rough outline of Korsgaard’s argument (a full defense of which is beyond the scope of this post) we can see how the Golden Rule can do some real moral work. If other people matter, then we need to take their interests and desires into account. We must never use them as means to our own ends, but as ends in themselves. If humans are moral animals, it is because they identify themselves with some principle that governs their choices. For example, if I consider myself to be a good doctor, I must act on principles that are consistent with my conception of myself as a good doctor. I must “do no harm”. I must commit myself to treating my patients. I must respect my patients’ autonomy and consider their own ends. To force a patient to undertake a risky intervention that she does not want would be contrary, and therefore harmful, to my sense of my own identity as a trained and qualified healthcare provider.

When it comes to considering other people and the moral obligations they can place on us, Korsgaard writes the following:

“Suppose that we are strangers and that you are tormenting me, and suppose that I call on you to stop. I say, ‘How would you like it if someone did that to you?’ Now you cannot proceed as you did before. Oh, you can proceed all right, but not just as you did before. For I have obligated you to stop.”

When this happens, you can’t help but think about how you would feel if you were in the other person’s shoes. You would obviously not like it and would wish for your torturer to stop. In fact, you would even think they were obligated to stop. By believing that other’s should respect your autonomy and refrain from harming you, you “make yourself an end for others; you make yourself a law to them”. Therefore, if you can make yourself a law to others by virtue of your humanity, I can also make myself a law to you:

“By making you think these thoughts, I force you to acknowledge the value of my humanity, and I obligate you to act in a way that respects it.”

In short, it is our common humanity that imposes obligations on us towards each other: I must respect your autonomy and you must respect mine in turn. Since trans people are people, they share in that common humanity. They have every right to be who they are and they also have every right to expect cis (not trans) people to respect them for who they are just as cis people have the right to expect the same in return precisely because that is what cis people expect for themselves.

What about pain?

Let’s suppose that you are not convinced that autonomy is the source of moral obligation. Perhaps you think that the avoidance of pain (and perhaps the promotion of pleasure or wellbeing) is the ultimate source of moral obligation. You might argue that even if transgender folks are autonomous, it is not the case that accepting them would minimize the overall pain in the world.

In my last post, I also argued that the rate of attempted suicides among transgender people is significantly high due to transphobia: the oppression of transgender people. A major factor of transphobia is the rejection of transgender individual’s claims to their own gender in addition to a more general dehumanization that denies and violates their autonomy. Therefore, even if you believe minimizing overall pain in the world is the source of normativity, you are still bound to accept trans people for who they are.

Final thoughts

Accepting trans people will come at little cost to cis people, if at any measurable cost at all. Whether you endorse the golden rule or are primarily concerned with human wellbeing, you have nothing but good reasons to accept trans people.

And so even if you are still not sure about the metaphysical or empirical claims put forward, you at least have a moral sense by virtue of being a person. When you pay attention to that moral sense, you will not be able to avoid certain conclusions. Trans people are people. They are autonomous. They feel pain just like you do. They are who they say they are just as you are. They matter just like you do.

Do Trans People Exist? (Spoiler Alert: They Do)

On October 21st, 2018, The New York Times published an article reporting that “[t]he Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth…”, which effectively rolls back many of the Obama administration’s changes to how the federal government treats transgender people.

More specifically, the proposed rollbacks have to do with how to interpret Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Under the Obama administration, the term “sex” was expanded to encompass gender identity, which meant that transgender women, for example, were considered legally female, and that discriminating against them on the basis of their trans status constituted a kind of sex-based discrimination under civil rights law. By defining sex as an immutable, biological trait determined by genitalia, the Trump administration is effectively denying the legitimacy of transgender people, and whether or not they want to acknowledge it, they are also doing a severe amount of harm to transgender people by denying their rights and further excluding them from public participation. Recognition is important, and if trans people aren’t recognized for who they are, they can suffer serious consequences.

The core problem

Fundamental to this debate is the question: are trans people who they say they are? Which can lead to other questions such as: Are trans women really women? Are trans men really men? Can people really be non-binary? What is gender anyway?

In his video titled “Transphobia: An Analysis”, Oliver Thorn provides a brief summary of some of the work of Talia Mae Bettcher (a transgender philosopher). According to Bettcher, the questions just posed are ultimately metaphysical. For those who have never heard the term, metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality. So when we think about whether or not trans women are women, ultimately what we are doing is (at least in part) metaphysics.

Thorn also makes it a point in his video to show how the metaphysical question is often swapped out for an epistemological question (epistemology deals with questions about knowledge): “how do you know if you’re really a woman?” Skeptics like to engage in a never-ending series of questions that ultimately stall more important issues about trans rights. We can’t really have a productive conversation about how to go about respecting the rights of trans people if we can’t even acknowledge the legitimacy of their claims.

Citing David Hume, Thorn also correctly points out that though a degree of skepticism is a good thing, it can be taken to an extreme. For example, not only can we forever ask trans people “how do you know?”, we can ask cis (not trans) people the same question, but we don’t because heteronormativity has it that cisgender is the default. It’s also worth noting that skepticism can be taken to question just about anything we claim to know, not just the existence of trans people. As an example, see Cartesian Skepticism.

What is gender anyway?

To put it bluntly: no one really knows for sure. A lot of people have all kinds of ideas about that, and if you want a summary of different perspectives, you can start with Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues. A full discussion of the literature is beyond the scope of this post, but what I can do is point out a couple of examples, including some perspectives I’m more sympathetic to.

I am most partial to Judith Butler’s gender performativity as explained in her works Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. I have previously summarized some of Butler’s key points, but I will go ahead and provide some:

    Gender is a cultural construction.
    Though a lot of people like to think of sex as being distinct from gender, the sex-gender distinction is not a valid distinction; in fact, sex is actually gender given the “appearance of substance”–a false claim to being a “natural” category.
    Not only is gender constructed, but so is the self.
    Finally, any appeal to the body as the site of sex/gender has to contend with the constructedness of the body.
    Ultimately, gender is constituted by our norms and we enact, or embody, those norms through performance (thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, dispositions, habits, etc.)

Of course, all of these main points are highly controversial and cannot be defended adequately here (it would take entire volumes of work, a lot of which have already been done). So I’ll have to defer to Butler on this one.

However, one point of Butler’s argument is worth briefly addressing here: the so-called constructedness of the body and the apparent absence of an account of trans people’s lived experience. Butler does argue that our only real access to our bodies is mediated by what is called the bodily ego (referring to the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan). In other words, we do not have a direct perception of our bodies. Rather, what we do have is a perception of our bodies shaped by cultural context.

In her work Assuming a Body, theorist Gayle Salamon digs deeper into this idea of the bodily ego, or body image, by emphasizing people’s bodily experience. Through her phenomenology, she argues that this body image is constituted by relations between what we consider our physical bodies and the world around it:

If the physical body can be thought as a discrete and bounded entity, capable of being distinctly set apart from the ground that is its world, this identification is less a matter of disconnection or differentiation and more a product of relation. A body becomes so by virtue of its interaction with what surrounds it, not because it is composed of a stuff that is radically foreign to its surroundings.”

In short, the distinction between subject and object is blurred. Our bodies, as they are presented to us, are neither subject nor object, i.e., they occupy the space in between. Therefore, no one has an “objective” grasp on their own bodies.

So what does it mean for someone to be transgender? According to Salamon, we have our own perspective of our bodies “from the inside” while others have a perspective on our bodies from the outside. We can get a kind of outside perspective of our own bodies when we look in the mirror. When we do so, we often get a sense that the person in the mirror vaguely differs from the person we feel ourselves to be on the inside. We may even feel a little distressed when what we see isn’t exactly what we expect, or what we wish to see.

Transgender people experience something similar. However, the mismatch between inside and outside is more pronounced when it comes to perceptions specific to gender. To put it more plainly, their body image–their felt sense of their gender–differs from that which is consistent with the one they were assigned at birth, the way that they are said to be perceived from the outside.

As for my other sources, a full defense of this argument cannot be provided here. For that, I will have to defer you to Salamon. However, it does bring up interesting questions about what we can know about ourselves, the world, and what we can do to improve our understanding of each. We are hearkened back to Hume’s critique of skepticism, i.e., we can doubt our experiences all we want, but ultimately we can’t help but have some beliefs about them.

Before moving on to address scientific questions, I do want to address an alternative perspective offered by Bettcher (some of who’s work you can read here). As the more philosophically inclined know, there is no such thing as a complete or perfect theory. With respect to theories of gender, there are always going to be occasions where the context at least puts some strain on some of the strongest, most consistent and empirically adequate theories. According to Bettcher, we need to be flexible in light of these considerations and apply the theory that fits best with a given situation. This more pragmatic view is admittedly appealing to me personally as a ruthless philosophical pragmatist.

Even though Salamon’s phenomenology rings most true to my experience, I’m also aware of the limitations of human understanding. Therefore, I can’t help but be sympathetic. I will explain this idea further when I summarize scientific considerations. Speaking of which…

But what about biology?

Any discussion of transgender inevitably brings up biology. Isn’t it true that humans are either male or female? Isn’t gender determined by sexual characteristics like genitals, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, or especially chromosomes?

Sexual dimorphism is the biological idea that we can categorize people and other sexually reproducing animals as either male or female. However, even the most adamant proponents of the gender binary have to acknowledge the existence of species that can change sex or that can have characteristics of both sexes. Even among humans, intersex people do exist. So at the very least, sexual dimorphism isn’t as hard and sharp as most people think it is.

Current scientific understanding has it that rather than sex and gender being binary (just male or female), they are a continuum, or spectrum. For more on that, I offer the following as introductions to this discussion:

For more comprehensive, yet accessible takes:

Aside from the scientific questions, there’s an even more interesting set of philosophical questions. Many of them have to do with the relationship between facts and theories. For our purposes, facts are observations we make about the world, and theories are the conceptual frameworks we use to understand those facts. We can also use these theories to form hypotheses, make predictions, design experiments, and interpret the results of our experiments. They can also serve to explain what we observe. A lot of people like to see them as fairly distinct from facts, but upon further analysis, things aren’t exactly that clear-cut. For example, many of our observations are theory laden, i.e., informed by, and interpreted in light of, our prior beliefs and theories. Also, whatever theories we happen to be testing often inform what kinds of questions to ask, how to design our experiments, what data are relevant (and, conversely, what data are irrelevant), and how we should interpret results.

To further complicate the fact-theory relationship, norms regarding what we should value scientifically (i.e., predictive power or explanatory power) inform the entire process, especially when we understand that science is as much a social enterprise as it is an empirical one. For more on these issues, you can read Theory and Reality by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

At this point I want to focus a little bit more closely on the concept of a fact. In his paper “Human Natures”, John Lachs argues there are kinds of facts that are neither solely objective, nor are they totally (culturally) conventional. They involve an element of human choice and he calls them “choice-inclusive facts”:

“How, for example, should we view the claim that the body I run upon is a gulf? Objective facts set our parameters. We are dealing with a certain volume of salt water located in a specific geographical area. Shall we call it a sea? This is clearly what its size suggests. It is, in fact, larger than most seas and much larger than many. It’s geographical peculiarity, however, is that land bounds it on three sides making it appropriate for us to call it an inlet or a bay. But, though Hudson Bay and the Bay of Bengal are large, bays on the whole tend to be relatively small bodies of water. This makes it acceptable to classify it as a gulf…”

So is Lachs talking about a sea, a gulf or a bay? The answer to that question is going to have to be decided by a judgment call. Ultimately, this question cannot be answered by pure, objective considerations of the properties of seas, gulfs and bays. We have to decide which is a better fit for our purposes. We must make a choice.

Gender/sex, I would like to argue, is a concept that involves choice-inclusive facts (i.e., genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, chromosomes, etc.). It’s a category scheme and whatever scheme we choose ultimately depends on what we need it to do.

Scott Alexander explains this at length using the scenario of talking to King Solomon about whether whales are mammals or fish. King Solomon can decide for himself whether or not a whale is a mammal, but why should he? He had no use for a phylogenetic classification system. He didn’t need to understand that whales are genetically more closely related to rats than to tuna.

However, in our day and age, phylogenetic schemes are very useful for passing a biology class, or for studying zoology, but neither of those things are a concern for King Solomon.

The Problem of Gender

There is a problem in the philosophy of biology called the species problem. In short, there a several competing definitions of species in the scientific community. For example, one definition states that members of different species cannot sexually reproduce with each other. The obvious problem with this is that it does not apply to asexually reproducing species at all. A less obvious example is interbreeding between early hominid species like Neanderthals and Denisovans.

No matter which species concept you use, there are going to be problems that it cannot account for, so what a lot biologists do is use the species concept that is most appropriate for their purposes. You can read more about the species problem here. Other, similar, problems arise when trying to define genes, or determine units of selection.

In short, gender is a lot like species, genes, and units of selection: there is no one definition that can decide every single case, and which definition we use is going to depend on context. If we are interested in being as humane and ethical as possible, then we have very strong reasons to adopt trans inclusive ideas regarding sex and gender.

What is at Stake

It should be pretty apparent that using ‘immutable biological traits’ is not inclusive to trans people. In fact, it promotes transphobia: oppression that affects transgender people. Transphobia is why the attempted suicide rate is so high among trans folks and we know that this is due to transphobia. Further marginalizing transgender people is only going to make this worse and I challenge anyone to give a good reason for why we should continue to marginalize trans people in light of these facts.

Are we going to do the right thing? I can only hope so. I want to hope so. However, I must admit that my faith in the humanity of our nation is waning.

A Few Words on Transphobia in the Kava and Kratom Community

CW: transphobia, homophobia and misogyny

It’s been a while since I last posted an entry. That’s partly due to working so much, moving, spending more time on myself, and spending time with my girlfriend. In short, life happened and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any of it.

I have been meaning to get back into writing because I feel like I’m in a healthier headspace that allows me use my writing constructively rather than as a means of escape from having to engage with the world. One major motivating factor is being compelled to speak out against misogyny, transphobia and homophobia in the kava and kratom community.

Yesterday I found out that one of kava bars local to South Florida posted some very transphobic and misogynistic content explaining why they felt justified in discriminating against transgender women during a ladies’ night:

“Tonight at 1:00 there will be a genetic female slam. If you are a chick per your DNA, well m’lady, it’s slam time.”

“#slams tonight for chicks only. Chicks means born with a vagina. You must have ovaries. Women get $1 #shells for 1 minute tonight at 1am at #kavasutra #kavabar all locations #nodudes #nodudeswithtits #women #realwoman #ovariesmakeawoman”

When challenged on this, they responded by arguing that the point of ladies’ night is to attract women to the bar so that the male patrons can have sex with them and that trans women don’t further that goal (as if you can’t have sex with a trans woman–even if she has had a vaginoplasty; spoiler alert: you can). Yet they still allow cisgender lesbian patrons to participate. They later claimed their social media pages were hacked, but within those same posts referred to trans women as “tr*nnies”.

This was very disheartening as it reminded me that I’m still not seen for who I am, that I can’t be confident I will be safe in any given kava bar, and that I’m still a second class citizen in the eyes of cisnormative society.

There were also plenty of cisgender women who felt wildly uncomfortable with the fact that they were only seen and valued for their ability to sexually gratify men. Being reduced to one’s body parts is something almost all women, cis and trans, have to deal with and if we can avoid it, we will. Good job, guys.

Thankfully the backlash was overwhelmingly supportive of women like me–although I did have a woman comment to me something along the lines “only closeted f*ggots would ever want to be with a trans”. Tell that to my cisgender girlfriend.

If anyone would like to know, there are really amazing and trans friendly kava bars. One that I happen to frequent is called Nakava Bar. This Boca Raton establishment is boasted to be the original kava bar in North America. The folks at Nakava have become family to me and I know I will always have a home away from home. If you happen to be in town, please stop by for a visit. I promise you’ll have a good time.

“Genital Preferences” and Other Bullshit Lies They Told You

I have been staying out of this debate for a while mostly because I just wasn’t really interested in entertaining even more nonsensical bullshit surrounding me and my trans sisters. It seems like everyone feels like they should get to have an opinion on who we date, who would like to do date us, and why they date us. Very rarely does cisnormative discourse engage the transgender perspective in good faith on the matter, so I thought it was nothing more than a waste of my time. Now that I am single again, I definitely feel more like expressing my opinion on the topic because dating is hard enough for anyone, but it’s a nightmare if everyone perceives you with both fascination and horror at the same time. In their horror, our would-be partners often site “genital preferences” as a really lame excuse for excluding us from consideration and why said exclusion is not transphobic.

You may notice that I have angry and sarcastic tone. That is because I am angry, and I am angry because this debate is still happening. But most of all, I am angry because it’s going to keep happening because we don’t matter to cisnormative society. Since I know I am going to be misconstrued by every defensive transphobe who comes across this site, I should explicitly state what I am not saying. I’ll even number and italicize to make it easier for everyone:

  1. I am not saying everyone should be attracted to transgender women.
    • Instead, I am saying people shouldn’t reject us for bullshit reasons.
  2. I am not saying that people can just choose their sexual orientation.
    • Instead, I am saying is that “genital preferences” are not a sufficient condition for being a sexual orientation.
  3. I am not saying that people never have good reasons to have an averse reaction to a certain kind of genital (for example, sexual assault survivor’s being triggered by the sight of a penis have very good reasons for feeling the way they do).
    • Instead, I am saying that equivocating trauma with disgust is really transphobic since most who cite genital preferences do not experience that kind of trauma and this minimizes actual sexual trauma.

I will support my thesis using the following argument:

  1. Most who appeal to “genital preferences” in order to exclude transgender women from consideration often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman.
  2. The appeal to genital preferences objectifies transgender women as it reduces them to their body parts and strips them of their humanity.
  3. Conclusion: If someone makes an appeal to “genital preferences”, they are most likely doing so from a position of ignorance that disrespects the humanity of transgender people.

Before I defend the argument, I need to be clear by what I mean when I use the term “genital preferences”. I use this term in the way that it is typically used in popular discourse. Here are a few examples:

“Saying that genital preferences are transphobic is homophobic.”

“Genital preferences are a kind of sexual preference that doesn’t need to be justified.”

“The suggestion that genital preferences are transphobic is coercive.”

“You arguing that we should question, or even reconsider, our genital preferences sounds an awful lot like conversion therapy.”

There is a common thread that ties all of these uses together: sexual orientation. In other words, genital preferences are practically synonymous with sexual orientation and one’s sex, one’s gender, is reducible to their genitals. Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the underlying assumptions—whether conscious or unconscious—are that transgender women aren’t really women, gender is reducible to sex, and one’s sexual attraction to another is primarily constituted by a preference for one’s genitalia. The rest of my argument will be centered around deconstructing the use of this term.

Many who exclude transgender women from consideration by appeal to genital preference often do so without any actual knowledge of the genital morphology of any particular transgender woman. Though some may be acting on reliable sources of information (such as the transgender woman herself), the way the rule is applied is almost always in broad brushstrokes, i.e., since transgender women are born with penises, all of them are treated as if they have penises regardless of whether or not they actually do.

This perception of transgender women and the attitudes that tend to accompany it reduce them to their body parts. As a result, our humanity is stripped away and the only thing that cisnormativity can see is a body that provokes both fascination and horror. What’s worse, if a conventionally attractive transgender woman were to not disclose her status, this would likely not happen to her (at least not in the same way).

This leads to the next point: people form attractions to others primarily on the basis of things other than genitalia. When a woman is seen, she is desired for her beauty, and hopefully other things such as her wit, her talents, her values, etc. Genitalia are among the last things to be considered, yet we want to give them so much weight when considering the desirability of transgender women. In other words, cisnormativity applies a double standard.

However, the get-out-of jail free card that reduces sexuality to mere genital preferences still comes up when these points are made. As mentioned earlier, genitals don’t typically play a role in the initial stages of attraction. When sitting at a bar, I can find another woman attractive without having any idea whether or not she has a penis or a vagina. The thought never crosses my mind, and it doesn’t cross most people’s minds until it is particularly relevant.

The only time it does, unfortunately, is when I know or suspect she is transgender. For me, genitals are not an issue, but due to social conditioning, my mind can’t help but bring that to my attention before her genital configuration is even relevant. Even though I have a transgender body, I still implicitly objectify other transgender women. If I struggle with this, imagine how it is for cisgender people.

The examples of the objectification of transgender individuals are innumerable. In their paper “Beyond Inclusion: Thinking Toward a Transfeminist Methodology”, Austin H. Johnson evaluates the treatment of transgender in sociology. As part of their research, they did a content analysis of the literature published in the journal Gender & Society, and in the book series Advances in Gender Research.

They found the following when they focused on objectification:

“The objectification of transgender people within the articles and chapters analyzed here was widespread…the articles and chapters analyzed here frequently objectified transgender people in a variety of ways…One form of transgender objectification in social research is the reduction of transgender people to their hormone or genital status (emphasis added)…”

Thus, it is clear that even fore experts who are supposed to be impartial can’t help but be partial in their views of transgender people. What’s worse, Johnson found practically opposite results when the research considered cisgender subjects.

What about reducing sexual orientation to “genital preferences” specifically? This idea relies on a few key assumptions, which are

  • One’s genitalia defines one’s sex
  • Sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex (or sexes)
  • Sex and gender are distinct categories
  • One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable

Let’s begin with the first assumption: one’s genitalia defines one’s sex. This, of course, relies on a controversial conception of sex. In her article “Sex Redefined”, Claire Ainsworth summarizes the historical development of, and current issues within, the study of sexual biology. One important point is that biologists tend to not define sex on any single parameter. Sex has become a bit of a cluster concept where genitals, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomal makeup, hormone concentrations, gender identity, etc. and no one parameter rules the roost. Since these parameters exist in nature along a spectrum, it is incredibly difficult to justify a view where one’s genitals is what defines one’s sex. Therefore, it is both possible and natural for a female to have a penis or for a male to have a vagina.

Since the first assumption is easily challenged, it’s easy to see how the second assumption is also easily challenged. Notice that we don’t have to deny that sexual orientation is attraction to members of a particular sex. Rather, since sex is not defineable by one’s genitalia, the content of the second assumption can radically differ (again, a female can have a penis and a male can have a vagina).

The third assumption is a little more challenging to topple, but it is doable. Take the following argument:

  1. If it is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only, sex is reducible to gender.
  2. It is the case that sex is defined by gendered terms only.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, sex is reducible to gender.

Premise 1 basically asserts that if there isn’t anything more to sex than gender, then there is nothing that sex has that isn’t already possessed by gender and is thus reducible to it. In order for it to be reasonable to consider them distinct categories, we would have to show that sex has an essential property that isn’t already had by gender. Ainsworth’s article can be said to be arguing that this essential property has eluded biologists, otherwise research wouldn’t be on its current trajectory toward viewing sex as multifaceted and continuous rather than singular and binary.

In her work “Gender Trouble”, Judith Butler makes the argument that sex, gender, and desire are the result of cultural constructions of identity. Rather than thinking of sex as prior to gender, she argues that gender is prior to sex. In order for heteronormativity to legitimize itself, and delegitimize non-normative identities, it grounds itself in the “natural”, and as a result, it is given what Butler calls an appearance of substance:

“Gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender—where gender is a psychic and/or cultural designation of the self—and desire—where desire is heterosexual and therefore differentiates itself through an oppositional relation to that other gender it desires. The internal coherence or unity of either gender, man or woman, thereby requires both a stable and oppositional heterosexuality. That institutional heterosexuality both requires and produces the univocity of each of the gendered terms that constitute the limit of gendered possibilities within an oppositional, binary gender system. This conception of gender presupposes not only a causal relation among sex, gender, and desire, but suggests as well that desire reflects or expresses gender and that gender reflects or expresses desire. The metaphysical unity of the three is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender—that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality. Whether as a naturalistic paradigm which establishes a causal continuity among sex, gender, and desire, or as an authentic-expressive paradigm in which some true self is said to be revealed simultaneously or successively in sex, gender, and desire, here ‘the old dream of symmetry,’ as Irigaray has called it, is presupposed, reified, and rationalized.”

In an attempt to establish heteronormativity as “natural”, we created natural categories such as male and female and the scientific community has run with it. Of course, biologists have arrived at a lot of fruitful results with such a model. That much is not disputed. However, what is still controversial is whether or not it is the most useful model. For example, conceiving of sex in terms of gender doesn’t cause us to lose out on much of anything, especially if gendered terms perfectly capture what research has already arrived at or will continue to arrive at. In fact, moving in that direction has yielded better research since the stumbling blocks of a binary view have already begun to be removed.

What of the last assumption: One has no control over their sexual orientation as it is innate and immutable? Casting doubt on the other assumptions does not necessarily imply that one’s orientation can be chosen. I consider myself a gender anti-essentialist (or anti-naturalist). However, I also recognize that I don’t have any choice regarding how I feel about myself in my body, nor the kind of gendered persons I am attracted to. Even though cultural norms have shaped who I am, the fact that they have shaped me, and will continue to shape me, is entirely outside of my control. Also, most of the mental activity of my mind that generates my thoughts, feelings and perceptions is largely outside of my conscious control as well.

So what are we left with here? On the one hand, we don’t have much control over our desires and on the other, sex is a bullshit idea. Recall earlier that for biologists, sex is a cluster concept. I want to interrogate this notion even further by examining what exactly that means.

Let’s begin by revisiting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on Language Games. According to Wittgenstein, a word cannot be defined by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions as there are always borderline cases, or exceptions to the rule. Rather, what we can do is examine a paradigm case and judge other cases on the basis of their resemblance to the paradigm case. What defines a word is it’s “family resemblance” to other words in a cluster of concepts and meanings, and what ultimately determines a words meaning is how it is used in context.

In Cognitive Neuroscience,the mental lexicon is also illustrative of this point:

“…[The mental lexicon] is a store of information about words that includes semantic information (the words’ meanings), syntactic information (how words are combined to form sentences) and the details of those word forms (their spelling and sound patterns).”

The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. Our focus will be on the fourth: the semantic relationships between words. “…[W]ords related in meaning must somehow be organized together in the brain, such that activation of the representation of one word also activates words that are related in meaning.”

Take the word “dog”. Our concept of “dog” can be considered a cluster of other concepts like “fur”, “legs”, “barking”, “wet nose”, “sweet”, “cute”, etc. organized into a coherent mental unit called a cognitive schema. When the word “dog” is used, not only does it activate the schema dog in the nervous system, but it also activates other schemas that share concepts in common. For example, “dog” can also activate “cat” because they both have fur, four legs, etc.

The mental architecture that results is a complex web of words, concepts and meanings that reference one another. Therefore, the meaning of a word is determined in reference to other words, concepts in meaning contained in the web.

To see this in action consider the case of artificial intelligence and machine language learning:

“In the past few years, the ability of programs such as Google Translate to interpret language has improved dramatically. These gains have been thanks to new machine learning techniques and the availability of vast amounts of online text data, on which the algorithms can be trained.

“However, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.

“Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: ‘A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.’

“The [program’s] approach [to learning language], which is already used in web search and machine translation, works by building up a mathematical representation of language, in which the meaning of a word is distilled into a series of numbers (known as a word vector) based on which other words most frequently appear alongside it. Perhaps surprisingly, this purely statistical approach appears to capture the rich cultural and social context of what a word means in the way that a dictionary definition would be incapable of.”

Stated differently, implicit bias, the unconscious prejudices and thought processes that underly decision making, can emerge from patterns of language use based on how certain uses of language relate to each other in context.

Researchers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the structure of our cluster concepts are organized around our experiences of living in a body and that higher levels of abstraction contain within them more basic and concrete (typically physical and cultural) concepts. These results are consistent with Piagetian and neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development. In particular, Robbie Case has argued that our knowledge of the world is constructed from our interactions with it and the basic architecture that characterizes their form are what he called central conceptual structures:

“These structures are defined as networks of semantic nodes and relations that represent children’s core knowledge in a domain and that can be applied to the full range of tasks that the domain entails. Major transformations are hypothesized to take place in these structures as children enter each new stage of their development. Once formed, the new structures are hypothesized to exert a powerful influence on all subsequent knowledge acquisition. The process by which they exert this effect is believed to be a dynamic one, in which general conceptual insights and more specific task understandings become reciprocally coupled, each exerting a bootstrapping effect on the other.”

In the earliest stages of development, the central conceptual structures are sensorimotor-based and as the child ages, these conceptual structures enable the development of more abstract concepts as children encounter new situations that call for such abstract thinking and problem solving.

There are two important takeaways for our consideration of sex as a cluster concept:

  1. Our concept of sex is constituted by a whole host of more basic related concepts, many of which are non-scientific, that are physical and cultural at their most basic.
  2. The organization of our conceptual structures and language use leads to implicit understandings of lived experiences that are mixed in with our experiences of desire conceived as sexual orientation.

Therefore, even though sexual orientation is generally non-voluntary and immutable, it does not mean specific components within these cluster concepts associated with sexual orientation cannot be critically examined and subject to change, “genital preferences” being one of them, as one’s sex is reducible to gender, but not reducible to one’s anatomy.

If genital preferences can’t explain why transgender women are perceived as “undesirable” by so many, what could be the actual basis for people’s aversions to their bodies? An examination of “trans panic” is particularly useful here. Trans panic occurs when a (almost always male) person murders a transgender woman out of a kind of panic, rage, or other experience that provokes extremely violent behavior. When asked about this phenomenon, gender/queer theorist Judith Butler explained that murder is a kind of assertion of one’s power and dominance. In a way, the killer is reassuring himself of his own power. Since transgender women are perceived as having rejected masculinity, the men who murder them often act from a place of feeling that their power that comes from their sense of their masculinity is being threatened as the existence of a transgender woman suggests to them that masculinity may not be inherent to their existence as men.

The murders these men commit are often extremely brutal and the insight that Butler provides is especially illuminating:

“Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough. At a certain point, she is already dead, but he is not finished killing her. Why? It is because he wants to obliterate any trace of his own relation to that living person, obliterating a part of himself and living person at the same time. But also establishing his absolute power, and his own masculinity as the site of that power. Perhaps he is rebuilding his gender as he continues to try to take apart and efface that trans woman who never deserved to die. He is seeking as well to establish a world in which no one like her exists.”

If men murder transgender women from a place of feeling threatened, where exactly does this feeling come from? Butler hints that the man’s perceived relation to the transgender woman plays an explanatory role, so I will explore that further starting with an analysis of abjection.

Abjection can be defined as “the state of being cast off”. According to psychoanalysis and critical theory, it is how people primarily define themselves by creating boundaries between themselves and “the other”. It is the act of defining one’s self by what one is not.

One of the most influential writers on this phenomonenon is Julia Kristeva. In her work Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as a kind of horror one feels when confronted with the reality of living in a body, or a breakdown in the distinction between subject and object, of self and other.

In other words, the abject is that which is “not me”. When we mature, we reject things we once experienced as parts of ourselves cast them off from our sense of self. For Kristeva, abjection is the disturbance of identity, systems, and order. What does this mean for these men who kill transgender women?

Toxic masculinity is an unhealthy performance of masculinity that is a result of the abjection of primarily one thing: the feminine. Of course, any kind of masculinity is going to contrast itself against femininity, but toxic masculinity takes it quite a bit further. Homosexuality is perceived as a kind of manifestation of femininity within men. As our general cultural understandings of gender still have it, heterosexuality is strongly associated with masculinity and femininity (especially masculinity). In other words, “real men” are attracted to women, not other men. Men are also supposed to be masculine and a toxic conception of masculinity leaves no room for any hinted associations with the feminine.

Attraction to transgender women can be seen as a threat to either one or both aspects of the masculine cluster concept. Since transgender women were born with penises, and many people still perceive them as male, these men experience a kind of horror when they feel an attraction to transgender women. They fear that such an attraction suggests that they are homosexual, or that they might have other associations with femininity that they are too uncomfortable to confront. Even if they might not perceive themselves as possibly being homosexual, they typically worry that others, especially their friends and family, might. This provokes an experience of horror that some of these men act on in extremely brutal ways.

Of course, most people who reject transgender women don’t do so maliciously. They may experience some degree of horror, but they often keep it to themselves.  However, some feel compelled to make a more public point to others about how they do not perceive transgender women as desirable as a kind of self assurance of their own self concept. When they do this, they reinforce traditional associations within the cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire that at best promote systemic oppression and at worst provoke some people to react violently to transgender women.

In summary, an appeal to “genital preferences” is not an adequate defense for someone’s communicating to others how undesirable transgender women are since sex is wholly explained in gendered terms and genitals are but one aspect in the overall cluster concepts of sex, gender and desire. To be clear, no one is ever obligated to date a transgender woman, but we can still call them out when they decide to tell us and the rest of the world how unfuckable we are. To assert otherwise is to objectify transgender women which promotes transphobia. And that, my friends, is why “genital preferences” as popularly conceived are transphobic.

Living in a Body

According to current cultural convention, our genders are determined by our bodies. This is a view that has recently come under heavy scrutiny, especially by the scientific community, and for good reasons. Many of my friends would agree that gender has no basis in the body, but is rather a psychosocial phenomenon. However, I depart from my friends and would like to convince you that that the body is fundamental to gender.

First, it is helpful to understand what we mean when we talk about the body. Most would consider it material. However, I would argue that the body is not merely material, and that the experience of living in a body is just as important as its materiality. According to psychoanalysis, the ego (self) is primarily based in a model of the body, a body image. This body image is our perceptual access to, and experience of, our flesh.

How does gender fit into this picture? According to transgender theorist, Gayle Salamon, phenomenology provides us with a useful way of making sense of our bodies:

“Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy concerned with the way in which things in the world give themselves to consciousness and with the structures through which we experience that givenness…It is that endeavor to see the familiar with new eyes — that phenomenological principle of holding in abeyance what we know about any object, situation, or person in order to see it freshly and more precisely — that offers itself as an incitement to reinterrogate that which we think we know about gender and thus to radically open up the traditional categories through which it is understood.”

A consequence of the phenomenological perspective is that there is no view from nowhere–no truly objective view–of the body, and that each individual person is the primary authority on their embodied existence. When it comes to gender, Salamon writes, “…phenomenology offers an expansive conception of the body in which it is more than merely its materiality, emphasizing the importance of how one feels in and senses with and inhabits one’s body…In this phenomenological view gender and sex can be understood as delivered to the subject through a felt sense rather than determined by the external contours of the body, thus circumventing a view of sex or gender that understands either to be a matter of bodily morphology as given.”

A common objection to this claim is that phenomenology essentially collapses into idealism, which precludes any material basis for the body. This objection, however, is based on a few distinctions, some of which we will cover here. First is the realism and idealism distinction. Realism consists of the following claims:

  1. There is a mind-independent world. In other words, it’s existence is not dependent on any subject’s perception of it.
  2. We can have knowledge of this world through the mind’s representation of it. 

According to idealism:

  1. Something mental is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality. In other words, reality is dependent on a subject.
  2. Our knowledge of this reality is not representational, since there is nothing external that our knowledge represents or corresponds to. Therefore, it is subjective.

Based on these definitions, it’s hard to argue how phenomenology doesn’t entail idealism. The phenomenologist can either bite the bullet and concede that knowledge of the world is purely subjective, or she can respond to this criticism by contesting a more fundamental distinction: the object-subject distinction.

So let’s get to bottom of this distinction:

  1. Subject: a person, or self; the subject of experience.
  2. Object: a thing external to the subject, which can be perceived by the subject and is thus its object. 

Let’s assume realism for a moment in order to see how it works out in practice. Though we can perceive the world through mental representation, it is necessarily the case that each perspective is exactly that, a perspective that can represent only on aspect of the world, and not the whole of it.

The phenomenologist embraces the ambiguity that necessarily follows. This ambiguity is best illustrated by sexuality:

“There is something enabling in this philosophy of ambiguity; it is precisely the ambiguity attending sexuality that can become the means for understanding bodies, lives, and especially relationality outside the domains of male or female.”

Based on our body image (which is largely conditioned by our norms and values), the boundary that separates us as subjects from objects, or the world, is our skin. However, we know from some research that we can incorporate external objects into this image. Thus, objects can become part of the subject. How is this possible? The proposed explanation is known as transposition, from the root word transpose, which has multiple uses including the following:

  1. An act, process, or instance of transposing or being transposed, which is changing the relative place or normal order.
  2. A mathematical interchange of two letters or symbols.

Therefore, transposition is the process of changing from the position of being the object of perception to centering perception itself by becoming part of the subject. This can happen both in the long run, and in real time within what is known in neuroscience as peripersonal space(though peripersonal space is not the only site of ambiguity):

“The binding of visual information available outside the body with tactile information arising, by definition, on the body, allows the representation of the space lying in between, which is often the theater of our interactions with objects. The representation of this intermediate space has become known as ‘peripersonal space’.”

Salamon describes transposition in relation to the sexual schema (which includes both the body and peripersonal space):

“…[P]roprioception emphasizes the relation between one part of my body and another part, the assemblage that constitutes my felt sense of my body as a whole…Transposition describes a slightly different phenomenon, a sense of self that is not additive or cumulative, but a function that emphasizes a shifting from one mode of being or bodily inhabitation to another, involving something like a substitution…In the desiring look, the eye that comes to rest on an object finds there a still point, an anchor that grounds vision itself and transforms it so that what is, factually speaking, a blurring upheaval in the visual field is sensed as an unremarkable shift to focus through this process of transposition…When I reach for [a desired person], I do not feel my arm but an intensification of both the proximity and the absence of the one for whom I am reaching. My sensation can in some sense feel itself to be located in that other…My body is the vehicle that puts me into compelling and sometimes heady proximity to the objects of my desire in this way, and, in the case of sexual desire, my body comes alive through being intentionally directed toward another.”

In short, embodiment is neither found in the subject or the object, but occupies the ambiguous space in between. How is this so?

Recall the Buddhist idea of interdependence, which is the idea that a thing’s existence depends on a set of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are constituted by the relations a thing has to everything else. Take Hume’s Bundle theory as an example, which posits that objects are merely a collection, or bundle, of properties that have no underlying essence or identity. To better imagine this, suppose you had an ice cream cone. According to bundle theory, you cannot imagine or perceive an ice cream cone without its properties. After all, what is an ice cream cone without its shape, its color, its texture, its flavor, etc.? If you were to strip all those properties away, you would have nothing left. Thus, the existence of the ice cream cone is constituted by its relations, or its causes and conditions. Thus, our perceptions are relational as opposed to being grounded in either subject or object, including our perceptions of the body.

“If the physical body can be thought as a discrete and bounded entity, capable of being distinctly set apart from the ground that is its world, this identification is less a matter of disconnection or differentiation and more a product of relation. A body becomes so by virtue of its interaction with what surrounds it, not because it is composed of a stuff that is radically foreign to its surroundings.”

Therefore, realism must contend with this apparent contradiction between subject, object and their relationship to each other. Does idealism fair any better? First, let us consider an argument for idealism:

  1.  All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.
  2. The only epistemic basis for claims about the external world are our perceptual experiences.
  3. Therefore, The only reality we can meaningfully speak of is that of perceptual experience.

We will critique the first premise: All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.

It seems that we have to accept (1) and (2), which necessarily means we must endorse the conclusion. However, we can avoid the conclusion by denying (1). What basis do we have for doing that?

Contained in this premise are assumptions regarding the contents of experience. Idealism, like realism, implicitly assumes the object-subject distinction as well as the real-ideal distinction. It does not consider a third alternative, the ambiguous space between subject and object. Since we have already found both theoretical and empirical reasons for this third alternative, we can safely deny (1).

Where do we go from here? How do we make sense of a reality that is neither real nor ideal? What does this mean for our notions of meaning and truth? As explained earlier, even if we assumed realism, we have to deal with perception’s inability to capture the whole of reality. We are left with the ominous threat of nihilism and the anxiety it accompanies. Salamon provides us some reassurance:

“This is an account of…’truth’ that refuses to give primacy to either the perceiver who registers perceptions of the world or the world as a material fact over and against our perceptions of it…This failure of perception to account for the totality of a thing is, of course, true of any object in the world toward which perception might be intended. Every object is shot through with an infinite number of possible appearances which no single act of perception can encompass and no series of perceptions can exhaust. Even a perception in which we have all faith, which seems to deliver a truth about the object, cannot encompass the reality of that object because ‘reality’ does not belong definitely to any particular perception…Yet perception is not impoverished by its inability to deliver the ‘whole’ of any object; perception always gives us something less than this whole but also something more through the multitude of connections it makes between the perceiver and the thing perceived…perception is not a passive activity whose aim is to capture a quantifiable measurement of the world through recording and measuring the qualia of any particular object within it. Perception produces our relations with other objects and subjects, and these relations are, finally, the location of the object’s meaning. The perceptual truth of the object becomes the creation of its meaning, a meaning that is produced rather than found.”

Therefore, when there is an apparent tension between my anatomy and my felt sense of my body, my felt sense is the only meaningful determinant of my gender. It wouldn’t matter if scientific consensus contradicted me, and it doesn’t matter now what anyone thinks the materiality of my body suggests.

At this point, it is worth reiterating a few points about binary distinctions. The sorites paradox presents a challenge not just to the pursuit of non-vague language, it also threatens foundationalist views of logic and, by extension, knowledge. Philosophers have done various things to address these challenges including denying that logic applies to the paradox. However, they have not come without their own challenges.

For example, in order to argue that logic doesn’t apply, some have argued that there is no actual problem once we are able to eliminate vagueness in our language, thus saving classical logic, which relies on the binary truth values: True and False (hence classical logic being referred to as bivalent). Unfortunately, the endeavor to eliminate vagueness hasn’t produced satisfactory results and has largely been abandoned.  As it turns out, vagueness is inherent in our thought as well as in our language.

Other philosophers have appealed to multi-valent (or many-valued) logics. For example, instead of a binary system only using the values True and False, we can use a three-valued system using True, Indeterminate and False. However, a trivalent logic leads to the same problems.

What about a “fuzzy logic” that has infinite values where instead of a binary of truth values we have a spectrum of values? That doesn’t work either because it’s not exactly clear why we need to accept degrees of truth outside of solving these particular problems and whatever degree of truth we assign is going to involve an element of choice (or subjective judgment). By this point we should be perfectly aware that we cannot objectively determine whether or not a statement is 1/2 true, 1/3 true, 1/4 true, etc. Even if we accept that degrees of truth solves this set of problems, it leads to its own set of problems.

These problems of vagueness in semantics and logic resemble the problem of ambiguity in embodiment, though there are significant differences between vagueness and ambiguity. For example, ambiguity implies that there is more than one feasible interpretation. On the other hand, vagueness arises in the presence of borderline cases.

Thus, not only is it the case that our lived experience emerges from ambiguity, there is no clear border, or boundary, delimiting the two poles we call object and subject, suggesting that the whole of reality is beyond our perceptual grasp. We must, therefore, become comfortable with our own little piece of it, and that is what my transition–my my efforts to be present in my body–has always been about.