In the current struggle by Trans-Gender people to be recognised for who they actually are, as human beings made in the divine Image and Likeness; a churchman as celebrated as the one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, The Rt. Revd. Rowan Williams, urges the Church and society to accept the incontrovertible fact that there are human beings born into this world whose gender/sexual identity may not fit with the more prevalent ‘binary’ model of being exclusively either male or female.
It should not be too surprising that other people – like the author J.K. Rowling (who stunned the literary world with her successful ‘Harry Potter stories) – would protest at the suggestion that a person assigned a particular male or female gender at birth might conceivably have discovered at some time in their life that their experience of gender identity could be radically different from that given to them at their entry into the world. Sadly, such protests are often born of ignorance of the realities of gender and sexuality as they have become much better understood by geneticists and other scientists whose specialty lies in the area of human sexuality, which has become an issue of sometimes bitter contention in the Churches and society.
Quite apart from those with an existing ambiguity about their sex organs that might have been noticed by the midwife or doctor who delivered them into this world at birth, what also must be taken into account is the lives of other trans-gender people (who have now been discovered to be a significant minority of human beings) whose natural affinity might lie with the feelings and inclinations of the opposite gender to that in which they were originally raised – despite family expectations to the contrary. The story of Professor Sophie Chappell, below, is evidence of this:
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
Trans Figured: Experience Trumps Theory
by Sophie Grace Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at The Open University. Her two most recent books are Songs For Winter Rain, a poetry collection, and Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience.
(an extract from her forthcoming book, Trans Figured)
I hope to get a wider audience with this book than a philosophy professor might normally expect for most of her writings. But who knows: you yourself, dear reader, might have read some of my more conventional writings in philosophical ethics. (My much more conventional writings in philosophical ethics.) And if you have, you may know this about me as a philosopher: that I think experience trumps theory almost everywhere. Let me say a little bit about why.
One of my favourite philosophers is Bernard Williams. At the outset of his writing career, Williams took for his own “a phrase of D.H. Lawrence’s in his splendid commentary on the complacent moral utterances of Benjamin Franklin: ‘Find your deepest impulse, and follow that’” (1972: 93). Thirty years later he added, when looking back over his career, “If there’s one theme in all my work it’s about authenticity and self-expression… It’s the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you and others aren’t…. The whole thing has been about spelling out the notion of inner necessity.”
Yes, that; very much that, about me and transgender. “I just want to,” but in capitals. An inner necessity, a need to be authentically and above all openly who I actually am, and to be known as who I am by those around me, and accepted and, yes, loved, even so. That is exactly what it’s all been about.
However, that doesn’t mean that I have a theory of transgender to offer. I tend to steer away from philosophical theories of anything, at least in those parts of philosophy that aren’t best understood as handmaids of science. But even in science, I think the real truth of things often resists systematisation. (And what is being transgender but resisting systematisation?)
I am never quite sure what a theory of anything outside strict science is supposed to do. Ever since Plato’s Meno philosophers have been saying, and rightly so of course, that the point of philosophy is to change right belief into knowledge: into a state where you don’t just think true things, but also understand, deeply, why they are true. Fine. But is it obvious that constructing a philosophical theory always helps with this? Can we really not have a deep understanding, and an explanatory understanding, that (for example) murder is at least typically and maybe always wrong, or that love is usually a good thing, or that flowers are generally beautiful, or that paedophilia is profoundly wrong, until we have a philosophical theory’s kind of explanation of why this is so? Why is some set of words, arranged in propositions with inferential relations between them, the sole kind of explanation that we need to understand the goodness of love or the badness of murder? For most ethical cases, that seems to me an oddly inappropriate picture of understanding and explanation. In ethical matters understanding can be verbal and articulate, but quite often it isn’t at all; oftener still, the propositional bit isn’t the only bit—and not the most important bit, either. And likewise for explanation: explanations don’t have to be verbal, and often are better if they’re not. (Think of explaining how to do something—by doing it.)
Science limns the structure of reality, as Quine says in Word and Object. Sure it does, at least if it’s any good. But so does poetry, if it’s any good. There isn’t just one correct way to grasp the deep structure of things. There are lots, because there are lots of things that we might call “the deep structure of things”. Propositional structures are great for the understanding, but experience matters too, and experience is no less cognitive for being, sometimes, non-discursive and not expressible in propositions. All these general considerations about theorising apply in the particular case of transgender: here too it should be experience first, theory later—if at all. In Nietzsche’s famous words, “the will to system betrays a lack of integrity”.
In any case, and also with particular reference to transgender: trans people don’t owe cis people, or anyone else, an explanation of why they’re who they are. No more than gay people do, for instance, or black people or Jewish people, or any other historically stigmatised minority. Our right to exist as transgender people is not conditional on our being able to prove it, by demonstrating the truth of something called “gender ideology” (our gender ideology, that is, not the rest of society’s). The onus of proof is not on us transgender people at all. It is on those who want to exclude us. By what right do they discriminate against us? By what right do they demonise us, marginalise us, gaslight us, ridicule us, patronise us, in ways that no one would accept for a minute of any other minority?
We shouldn’t be refused admission to society until we’ve won some abstract rhetorical cage-fight, or arrived at a philosophical theory of transgender that is “satisfactory” (to whom?). Our right to be ourselves, without apology and without explanation, is simply not up for discussion, any more than anyone else’s. We don’t get kindly admitted to equal status once we have satisfied our critics. Like everyone else, we have equal status from the start.