The Trans Divide

The disagreement over scholarly debate about gender identity rages on.

July 19, 2019
 
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Scholars are coming to the defense of a graduate student instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is under scrutiny for her critical perspective on trans women. At the same time, other trans scholars and allies say they’re increasingly targeted for their own views and identities.

These events, among others, suggest that the so-called TERF wars -- in reference to the derogatory term “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” -- aren’t slowing down.

Philosophers recently reacted to an anonymous open letter to them on Medium, titled, “I Am Leaving Academic Philosophy Because of Its Transphobia Problem.” The writer identified herself as graduate student and a trans woman who was been adversely impacted by “TERFs,” or “so-called ‘gender-critical feminists’” and “those who amplify their voices. I am writing this letter because I want people to know that there are real, concrete, macro-level consequences to allowing hate speech to proliferate in philosophy under the guise of academic discussion. In sharing my pain and anger at being forced out of a career that I once loved, I hope to stir some of you to greater action.”

Through philosophy discussions on social and other media, “the knowledge that there is once again trans discourse in philosophy has itself become stressful. In the past year, I have been driven off social media because of feelings of stress, vulnerability, anger and pain that surface whenever there is new trans-related philosophical news," she said. And the cost of not engaging on social media is lost career opportunities.

Moreover, “I do not feel safe or comfortable in professional settings any longer,” the student wrote. Whereas hurtful comments or questions about being trans aren’t tolerated in other work environments, the same is not true in academe. “How can I be expected to attend professional events where people deny and question such an integral part of my identity and act like that is tolerable or normal?” My gender “is not up for debate. I am a woman. Any trans discourse that does not proceed from this initial assumption -- that trans people are the gender that they say they are -- is oppressive, regressive and harmful.”

The student identified Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex and a well known gender-critical feminist, in particular, as someone toxic, and asked why she’d been asked to speak on sexual orientation at the then upcoming Aristotelian Society meeting in Britain. In so doing the student cited some of Stock's statements on Twitter, including, "Transwomen are male. Most have penises. Many fancy females. These too are facts. There are documented cases of transwomen harming females. If we legally allow transwomen into female-only spaces, SOME females will be hurt by SOME transwomen. It's utterly predictable."

Stock responded to the letter in her own Medium post, saying that the writer appeared to be blaming her for her own actions. “Adults make their own decisions, and clearly, a job in philosophy doesn’t suit everyone,” Stock wrote. “Readers might also bear in mind that at least one of my supposedly terrible views, that subjective ‘gender identity’ doesn’t determine womanhood or manhood, is very clearly entailed by the work of some well-known contemporary feminist philosophers on gender, whether or not they would recant it now.”

Stock’s June talk at the society still proved controversial, with Minorities and Philosophy UK and Minorities and Philosophy International saying in a joint statement that the “right to promote hateful ideas is not covered under the right to free speech. Thus, we resist the charge that this is simply an attempt to silence and stifle philosophical debate.”

Not “every item of personal and ideological obsession is worthy of philosophical debate,” the joint statement continues. Skepticism about the rights of marginalized groups and individuals, “where issues of life and death are at stake, are not up for debate. The existence and validity of transgender and nonbinary people, and the right of trans and nonbinary people to identify their own genders and sexualities, fall within the range of such indisputable topics.”

Elsewhere online, there have been discussions about whether it’s acceptable for professors to publicly criticize graduate students about their trans advocacy statements and tactics.

At Santa Barbara, students have reported and are encouraging other students to report an outspoken gender-critical Ph.D. candidate in feminist studies for gender discrimination. A campus protest was organized against her, as were student petitions. One such petition signed by some fellow graduate students doesn't mention Laura Tanner by name but asks the faculty in her department for "transparency" in how the matter is being addressed. It also demands that "specific steps be taken to ensure that those espousing openly racist, anti-sex work and transphobic beliefs do not continue to teach or TA" for the department.

"While we appreciate being referred to Title IX, EthicsPoint, and other institutional entities and resources," the petition reads, "we also recognize that these institutional entities often further marginalize vulnerable students and we ask that the feminist studies department respond publicly to the concerns being raised by undergraduate students, graduate students and alumni in a timely manner."

Stock has come to the graduate student’s defense, publicly calling the campaign against her a “witch hunt.”

The complaints against the Tanner relate, at least in part, to her statements on social media. Tanner’s Twitter profile says “Woman: noun; adult human female. My views are my own, I will not be silenced.” Many of her posts relate to concerns about transing minors; she retweeted a post critical of young trans men getting “top surgery,” or their breast tissue removed, for example.

Tanner, who declined an interview request, on her webpage describes her research interests as “resisting the discursive erasure of women and girls, particularly in health and gender discourse; attempts to disassociate the female body from womanhood; the mistaken idea that biological sex is socially constructed or possible to change, the loss of women and girls' civil rights through changes to laws that remove sex protections and define gender as a feeling; and the abusive and dangerously experimental practices of medically ‘transing’ children and young adults.”


Shelly Leachman, university spokesperson, declined to comment on the case, citing privacy policies and laws governing employees and students.

Santa Barbara “has a process for reporting bias incidents on campus, and procedures for addressing these issues when they arise,” Leachman said. It “also has strong policies related to protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. Campus community members are encouraged to report violations of these policies and of misconduct in all of these areas.”

Looking Backward, and Ahead

These battles aren’t exclusive to academe, and have been waged for some time in the U.S. and abroad -- particularly in the United Kingdom, where proposed updates to the Gender Recognition Act centering on gender self-identification have proven divisive.

But the issue flared in U.S. academe in 2017, when Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy published an article comparing being transgender to being transracial. The journal’s editors and associate editors disagreed about how to handle the intense criticism the piece prompted, and about whether it should have ever been published. The journal’s Board of Directors eventually stepped in to limit the associate editors’ authority and announce a restructuring of Hypatia’s editorial process.

There have been trans discourse-related controversies in fields beyond philosophy and gender studies. In one instance last summer, both Brown University and PLOS ONE distanced themselves from a descriptive study based on a survey of parents of teens and young adults who’d experienced “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” In response to criticism about the study’s premise and methodology, the study’s author, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor of the practice of behavioral and social sciences at Brown, said at the time, “like all descriptive studies, there are limitations, which are acknowledged. And although descriptive studies may be one of the less robust study designs, they play an important role in the scientific literature primarily because they are a first description of a new condition or population and they make it possible to conduct additional, more rigorous research.”  An updated version of the study, which included a separate formal comment from social psychologist Angelo Brandelli Costa was published in March.

Is what it means to be trans a legitimate line of inquiry? If so, where is the line between scholarship and discrimination? Paisley Currah, professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and founding co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, said that in general, “If one doesn’t think trans women are women, fine, don’t invite them to your private, women-only spaces. But it’s an entirely different matter to decide gender for someone else and to try to exclude them from gender-segregated public spaces.”

Still, Currah said he disagreed with using offices responsible for following Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination, to settle scholarly trans issues.

“No matter how much I agree with the content of the objections to ‘research’ that dehumanizes trans people, I would think long and hard about giving university administrations power to adjudicate speech and the legitimacy of research questions,” he said via email. “Using Title IX in this way may seem like a solution, but in the long term that strategy expands university administrations' policing power over all of us.”

Susan Stryker, professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Arizona and Currah’s founding co-editor at the journal, offered an analogy between how the trans discourse debate and the debate over immigration.

If womanhood is a “a restricted country,” Stryker said, citing the writer Joan Nestle, “Who says what those restrictions shall be? Who is womanhood for? How does one become its citizen?”

It’s “legitimate to ask all such questions,” Stryker continued. “There should be no bounds on academic inquiry.” Yet “what I see in the TERF wars is not disinterested academic inquiry,” she added. “It's more akin to white supremacists wanting to propagandize other whites about foreigners, where the position of foreigners in the conversation has been deemed illegitimate in advance.”

And when trans people “speak out, asserting their presence, and grasp for any lever to address the asymmetries of power that characterize their circumstances,” such as Title IX, she said, “they are all too often seen as being disruptive, provocateurs, aggressors, troublemakers, entitled, uppity, demanding, ungrateful” and more. 

How did the issue become so divisive? Stock said Thursday that in gender studies, queer theory and mainstream feminist philosophy, “the position that trans women are literally women is now an article of faith, disagreement with which is seen as a sign of moral degeneracy, rather than a matter over which reasonable people with different theories can disagree.”

This wouldn’t be so bad, she continued, “except that the article of faith is now being accepted as intellectually defensible by policy makers, who are rewriting laws and policies internationally to grant trans women, with or without legal sex changes or any medical alteration” access to women-only public spaces, resources and activities.

“Many people, both in and outside the academy, and on both left and right of the political spectrum, rightly have questions about how all this affects the original occupants of the category ‘women’ (i.e. females, especially those who can’t ‘identify out’ of poverty or vulnerability), but they are being vilified for raising such questions,” she added via email. Stock noted that since she started speaking out, she’s faced defamation from colleagues, threats and complaints.

Going forward, the anonymous student who is leaving philosophy suggested that journal editors and referees reject “transphobic” articles or those that otherwise question the legitimacy and rights of trans people. Transphobic conference speakers and submissions also should be rejected.

“Do not provide a platform for transphobes in philosophy,” she wrote in her letter. “Do not give them an opportunity to publicly express their bigotry.” Don't share their work on social media. “Finally, if you do see transphobia in philosophy, speak out. Do not remain silent.”

Responding on his blog, Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, said that banning “trans-exclusionary works simply because they are trans-exclusionary” is “not a good idea.” At the same time, he said, “I’ve urged that we take seriously just how difficult existing discourse about transgender issues can be for our trans colleagues (and students, I should add).”

This involves “not just attending to what happens in academia, but also appreciating the broader discriminatory culture they inhabit and the role that abuse-friendly forms of social media play in our professional lives," Weinberg wrote. Specific examples include providing “explicit statements of support for trans persons in venues in which trans-exclusionary work appears” and balancing scholarship space for trans-exclusionary and trans authors.

Avoid hostility and talk of “sides," he said. And ensure that, “when possible, works you write, host or publish that argue for a trans-exclusionary view engage or otherwise demonstrate familiarity with the relevant scholarly work by trans or trans-inclusive scholars.”

Of the latter point, Weinberg wrote, “This is just basic research ethics: know about what you are writing about.”

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