Category Archives: Philosophy of Language

Godless Bitches – Transgender Episode

This is a reponse to episode 1.13 of the Godless Bitches podcast, whom I absolutely love listening to because it’s all about issues that I don’t normally think about and I love being challenged with new things that I haven’t heard before. Really can’t say enough great things about them.

So first off I want to admit that I know very little about transgender issues (“transgender” or “transgendered”?) but I’m trying to learn, so if you disagree with anything I’m about to say, please let me know because I’m here to learn.

This is primarily a response to a part in the podcast where Beth asks how useful the labels of “female” and “male” or “man” and “woman” are, given the diversity that can exist among the spectrum (around the 29 minute mark). Jen identified them as useful rules of thumb and that we shouldn’t consider them as terms that are necessarily prescriptive of behaviors or even physical characteristics. Natalie agreed, but then went a bit into the point that I thought of when I heard Beth’s question: that “male” and “female” can be useful terms for people to apply to themselves. That’s basically what I want to talk about.

“Man” and “woman” may not have rigid definitions, but I hardly think this disqualifies a word from being useful. I want to draw an analogy. Consider the word “dog”. What does that mean? Look at this picture:

What do those two animals have in common? Very little: they’re different colours, sizes, shapes… But we’re still able to recognize them both as falling under the label “dog” even though we might not have a strict definition of what that term actually means. Yes, I’m sure there’s some strict biological definition of what constitutes a dog, but my point is that even people who lack this education in biology can identify both as dogs. Similarly we can often look at people and recognize them as male or female, even without strict definitions of what these things mean.

Tangent: Does being male mean having a penis? I don’t believe so. Does having a penis make you male? I don’t believe that either. And yet, I consider myself male because I do have a penis. So the attributes we associate with a particular gender are neither necessary nor necessarily sufficient to belong to that gender, but can they be sufficient in certain cases such as my own? For the logic nerds (or possibly just for my own masturbatory needs): \diamond(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) holds, but \Box(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) does not. Thus, \text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male} may hold sometimes, but not always. Does that make sense to anyone else?

Now of course these terms aren’t exclusive and one of the things I’ve learned from reading about transgenderism (is that the right word? spell check says no…) is that gender identity can fall on a spectrum. As I see it, there are two possibilities: multiple people can fall into the same spot on the spectrum, or they can’t. If they can’t then that means that no two people have the same gender identity. This, to me, is absurd and means we can’t actually use labels for gender identities at all, which seems pretty inconvenient to me. Thus, I currently accept the other option, that many people can occupy the same spot on the spectrum. Thus, we can have many people with the gender identity of “male”, many with “female” and many in-betweens. I believe this is where the problem seems to crop up with labels: what words do you use to identify these people? Part of the issue is one of linguistic usefulness. How many people have to have a particular gender identity before we need to come up with a word for it. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that “male” and “female” would be the largest categories. But what then? Do you name a spot on the spectrum that only holds one person? How big does a group need to be before we give it a name? I don’t have the answers, but I hope it at least makes sense as to why I think we need to keep the labels we already have.

This brings me to a point I would like to make on how I feel about gender roles. I’m going to take what I think might be an unpopular stance: Gender roles in society are important. Adhering to them, however, is not. So that we all have our definitions straight (or in case I don’t) when I say “gender roles” I mean any behaviour that is typically associated with either men or women but not both (for example, wearing a suit is more masculine and wearing a dress is more feminine). I think what’s useful about these is that when you want to identify as a particular gender (whether it’s your birth sex or not) these give you patterns you can fall into that will allow other people to more easily identify you as your gender expression (again, am I using that term correctly?). It’s convenient. If I want to be identified as a man, I can grow a beard. If I want to be identified as a woman, I can wear makeup. These gender roles can be extremely useful, for so many reasons! How much of Monty Python’s humour was based on men wearing dresses? What would drag queens wear if there were no such thing as gender-specific clothing?

Where the problem comes in is the expectation that everyone ought to adhere to their gender roles. They may be important, but not important enough to be forced upon people. Girls can like sports, and boys can like dolls and why should it matter to anyone else? It’s not the roles themselves, but rather forcing them upon people unwillingly that becomes harmful. I have a saying I like to use which is that “Girls can be boys too” (or vice-versa, depending on context), which is to say that girls can do things that other people might associate with boys (or the other way around) but that it really shouldn’t matter at all if they do.

There was one other point I wanted to raise, and it’s in reference to a quote I remember from the podcast that I can’t find the time code for, so if I’m misremembering it, I apologize. But someone (I want to say Beth) mentioned not understanding why people have difficulty grasping that biological sex is different from gender identity. I just want to put forward my hypothesis for why I think this is. For thousands of years, people have been treating gender as a binary, biological thing: having a penis makes you a man and having a vagina makes you a woman. Hell, this is even how I learned it as a kid. I think it can be difficult to get past thousands of years worth of linguistic programming to accept that your junk doesn’t determine your gender. Even I still have some problems with this. When I hear the term “transgender male” I think “person who was born with a penis” and I have to stop and thing “wait, no… that’s a person who was born female and now identifies as male”. It’s a problem that I’m slowly getting better at avoiding, but the point is it hasn’t yet become a natural thought process for me. So I’d just like to put out there that maybe some people who have trouble grasping this concept should be cut a little bit of slack. Unless they’re being dicks. Then feel free to verbally lambaste them all across the interwebs.

That’s all I really have to say on the issue. Once again, please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong (or even where I’m right) because this is just how I see it at the moment, and all of it is open to revision as I learn more and more.