by Daniel A. Kaufman
If someone who looks like a man and has XY chromosomes tells me he feels female – I cannot tell her she is ‘wrong’. Would you?
–Prof. Alice Roberts, University of Birmingham (1)
The thought behind the idea of gender self-identification is about as confused as any in contemporary public discourse, which explains why the conversation on the topic is so fraught. Those in the vanguard fighting on behalf of the rights of people who fall under the “trans” umbrella are convinced that the concept of gender self-identification is absolutely essential to their success, which means not only that they are incapable of recognizing its (ultimately disqualifying) problems, but that they are inclined to double, triple, and quadruple down when confronted with them, lending a desperate, shrill aura to any discussion of the issue and inducing aggressive protests, histrionic public displays, no-platformings, attacks on peoples’ livelihoods, and even outright violence. (2)
Elsewhere, I addressed the issue of gender self-ID from the perspective of the “self” portion of the concept and suggested that social identities, of which gender is one, are not self-made, but publicly negotiated. (3) Along this vector, the problem with gender identity activism is that it misunderstands what kind of identity a gender identity is, conceiving of it as personal, when it is, in fact, social. My interest here, however, is in a somewhat different problem, having to do with the “identify” portion of gender self-ID. Sexes are not things one can “identify with,” and identifying with genders is tantamount to embracing sexist stereotypes, something that any genuinely feminist – and more generally, liberal – philosophy and politics must oppose.
The use of ‘identify’ in the context of sex and gender is odd. A judge can order that a plaintiff not be identified, meaning that the person’s identity should be kept a secret. One can identify oneself with a political movement, by which one means that one should be associated with it. One can identify with the plight of a people, meaning that one has sympathy for – or even empathizes with – them. A doctor can identify the cause of a cough, meaning that he has found the bacterial or viral or other thing that is responsible for it. A suspect can be identified by the police, meaning that they have determined who he is.
But what could it mean to “identify as a man/woman”? From what I can discern from gender self-ID theorists and activists, it could mean one of two things, both of which strike me as untenable.
The first is reflected in the Alice Roberts quote, above: for me to identify as a man/woman is to feel like I am one. Now, I am a man, but if you asked me what it feels like to be one, I couldn’t answer; while I am a man, there is no sense in which I feel like one. Being a man is a matter of belonging to a certain sex-category, specifically, the male one, but there is nothing that it feels like to be male. Certainly there are things that only males can feel: in my middle age, I know what it feels like to have an enlarged prostate – a distinctive sort of discomfort that only males experience. But to feel something that only males can feel is not the same as feeling male, and certainly, it is not something that makes you male. After all, there are any number of males that don’t feel it, because their prostate glands are not enlarged or because, perhaps, their prostates have been surgically removed as part of a cancer treatment. (4)
So “feeling” male or female is not going to help us make sense of “identifying as a man or woman,” because there is no such thing: one is male or female, but one doesn’t feel male or female, just as one is a mammal, but one doesn’t feel like a mammal.
The second follows the line of gender: to feel like a man/woman is to feel masculine or feminine; manly or womanly. And certainly, there is something that feels like. I might feel manly after an especially tough workout or while moshing at a Slayer concert or upon realizing that women are checking me out (I haven’t felt the latter, since middle-aged decrepitude set in), but such feelings of manliness are little more than the products of sexist expectations. It is because males are expected to be macho and muscular and aggressive and “players” that the experiences associated with these things are deemed “manly” experiences. And because the opposite sorts of expectations are held of females, males who are not into working out or thrash metal or strutting in front of women are deemed unmanly and even effeminate or womanly.
It would be regressive, then, to take this tack in trying to make sense of “identifying as” a man/woman and even worse to suggest that meeting these sexist expectations makes a person one or the other. For decades, feminists and other forward-thinking people have been fighting against precisely these sorts of expectations and rejecting the idea that such notions of manliness or womanliness should determine what one is or what one should do. In a previous essay, I referenced Marlo Thomas’s seminal Free to Be You and Me, which my parents gave me as a young child and the entirety of which is devoted to opposing these sexist conceptions of manhood and womanhood and to making the case that beyond our sexual identities as males and females, which are determined by nature, the rest should be up to the individual person and the course he or she chooses to pursue in life. Particularly effective in this regard is the wonderful opening skit, in which Thomas and Mel Brooks play infants, trying to figure out which one is the boy and which one is the girl.
The notion of “identifying as” a man/woman, then, is either incoherent or retrograde. It is the farthest thing from being liberatory or progressive, and I find it hard to understand why anyone interested in advancing the cause of trans people would want to have anything to do with it, let alone plant their flag in it. As I have argued (by now many times), everything required to make a complete and compelling case for trans civil rights is already contained within the liberal tradition. And beyond the advantage of being grounded in a stronger, more rigorous, more universal set of principles, to pursue such a course would avoid the sexist logic and tropes that have done so much to put trans activism in conflict with its feminist and gay/lesbian counterparts.
(1) Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at University of Birmingham and President of Humanists UK.
(4) Our own E.J. Winner also was quite critical about this notion of “feeling like” a man/woman, although on somewhat different grounds.