The trans dilemma

As a preliminary, it is true that there are some things which are social constructs. ‘Being the queen of England,’ for example, essentially consists of getting enough people to treat you as if you are the queen of England. Of course, this is not enough to really be the queen of England. In the United States, we have had people who resemble presidents go around pretending to be the president, and while they are pretending, they are treated as the president – but they are not the president (of course, they do not take the pretension to the level of trying to give executive orders or sign laws; generally, they are working as decoys).

Gender, of course, has an objective biological meaning. However, some argue that it is entirely a social construct (and we should say that while the type of gamete you produce and the chromosomes which a person has are objective, the social consequences of this are, in part, social constructs). Whether race has a biological meaning or not, is a question which I am not going to try to answer. Generally, it seems biologists claim that there is no biological meaning to the concept of ‘race,’ and this is probably true for broad ‘race’ categories like ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘hispanic,’ and so on. The argument seems to be that within these categories, there is so much variation, that it dwarfs the variation between the categories. Which is probably correct if we are trying to broadly define ‘white’ as ‘European/slavic,’ vs. ‘black’ as ‘any African plus maybe Australian aboriginal peoples, but maybe not.’ Those are indeed huge arbitrary categories with little biological significance. On the other hand, we know that we can use DNA to identify a person’s ‘tribal’ ancestry, e.g. determining that a person has a Scandinavian ancestor, or a Polish ancestor, or a Maori ancestor, and so on. So there are clearly ‘tribal’ genetic differences which can serve as identifying markers. And these differences can have real consequences for things like whether two people are compatible to act as marrow donors. So while broad racial categories do not seem to be biologically significant, narrow tribal categories do seem to be biologically significant on some level.

So: gender definitely has a biological significance; race may or may not have a biological significance, depending upon how ‘race’ is defined.

However, I don’t want to try to say whether ‘race’ has any biological significance here, or to think about the biological significance of gender. Instead, I want to consider the consequences of the notion that race and gender are both social constructs only.

So, suppose that race and gender are social constructs only. How, then, do we determine which race and which gender a given individual has? There are two ways in which a person’s social identity can be determined.

  1. A person’s social identity is determined by how others treat them.
  2. A person gets to choose their social identity.

In fact many social identities must be determined by how others treat a person, such as the example of ‘being the queen of England.’

So, what is ‘transgender?’ In line with this social construct theory, there are three basic ways a person could be considered transgender.

  1. They are defined to be transgender if they claim to be transgender.
  2. They are defined to be transgender if they make themselves appear and act in such a manner that the rest of society treats them as the other gender.
  3. Some combination of these two.

Now if the social construct theorist goes with option 1, then a person can also be trans-racial, since they can simply claim to identify as the other race. Unless, of course, the SC theorist makes an arbitrary distinction between these two – but it is arbitrary, since a person’s treatment by society as male vs. female is only going to be affected by their external appearance and behavior, not their internal feelings, and the same applies to their treatment by society regarding race.

On the other hand, considering option 2, well, a person can dress and act in such a manner that society treats them as the opposite gender (although most SC theorists would probably say this could just make them a transvestite, rather than transgender, and say that a transgender person is someone who identifies as transgender and appears/acts in such a manner that they are treated as the opposite gender). However, a person can also alter their appearance and behavior to resemble a different race, and thus be treated as that race (whether through makeup or through plastic surgery; consider, e.g., Michael Jackson and his bleached skin, although as far as I know he did not claim to be transwhite).

Therefore, whether the SC theorist goes with option 1, 2, or 3, regarding transgender persons, they must also acknowledge the possibility of people being transracial. Thus, contrapositively, if they deny the possibility of transracial persons, they must deny the possibility of transgender persons. Nor can they claim that the difference comes from biological reality, since gender is definitely biologically real (and in humans, immutable, although in some other species it is changeable), while race may or may not have biological significance.


2 thoughts on “The trans dilemma

    1. I agree, I will sometimes say ‘gender’ meaning ‘biological sex.’ A big reason for this is because when I see the word ‘sex,’ I tend to associate it with the act of sexual intercourse, rather than with a physiological property. Also, as far as I know, it is only recently that ‘gender’ has been identified with ‘social gender;’ in the past it was common to refer to the gender of an animal when speaking about its biological sex. Hopefully, my use of the terms is not too confusing and it is clear from context what I mean.


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