Friday, May 25, 2012

A Few Notes on the Semantics of Transgenderism

Not so long ago Natalie Reed put up a bunch of links that included the "transgender umbrella", a diagram illustrating the relationship between various transgender sub-groups. My initial reaction was that there was something not-quite-right, at least from a theoretical standpoint, about placing all those disparate groups under the umbrella term (pardon the pun) "transgender" as some of them seemed to be constructed using mutually-incompatible theories of gender/gender identity1. It looked more like a marriage of convenience, but it was impossible to pursue that idea further without good definitions of each of the terms. Conveniently, Natalie published a transgender manual of style shortly thereafter, which provided definitions of a lot of the terms depicted in the umbrella and provided me with the opportunity to do a little more thinking on the subject. I should note at this point that what follows is far afield from what I normally write about and, as such, its entirely possible (indeed, likely even) that I'm missing some nuances, so please feel free to mentally insert "tentatively" wherever it seems necessary.

Natalie's statements to the contrary notwithstanding, wading through the definitions she provided in her style guide can be confusing. It's not clear what definitions are fundamental or where one should start in wrapping eir head around the transgender ecosystem. So, I made myself a picture showing the dependencies between key concepts2:

I love myself some pictures; they make the important bits jump out and scream at you.

Everything ultimately depends on the term "gender" which, interestingly enough, isn't defined in the style guide. It doesn't appear to be the case that "gender" should be read as synonymous with either "gender identity" or "gender expression"; the definition of "transgender" treats all three terms as conceptually distinct. In normal circumstances I wouldn't care about this omission; "gender" is a common term. But since this is specifically a discussion of gender issues its important to define the term and there are some other items in the style guide (which I'll get to in time) which make me think that the definition of "gender" at use is non-standard3.

A search through her archives via google shows that she's provided definitions of "gender" on a number of occasions:

All of which is consistent with "gender" representing poles (and perhaps intermediate positions) in the traditional male/female gender binary. But then consider the definition of "gender identity":

The inner conceptual sense of self as “man”, “woman” or other, as divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex. It is a subtle and abstract, but extremely powerful, sense of who you are, in terms of gender, independent of how you dress, behave, what your interests are, who you’re attracted to, etc.

This definition is what actually prompted me to venture down this particular rabbit hole. "gender identity" is explicitly dependent on the separate concept "gender", which makes sense if we assume that "gender" corresponds to the typical understanding of man/women (plus the less-traditional "other"). But... these understandings of "man", "woman", and "other" must be meaningful when "divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex".

And that requirement, boys and girls, is leading to a great deal of pondering on my part. What distinguishes "man" from "woman" when outward expression, physiological sex, and sexual orientation are eliminated from the mix? What would cue me, as an individual that wants to label my gender, to choose one vs. the other (or even "other")? From a purely linguistic standpoint the words "man" and "woman" must have some referent(s) (i.e. must "point" to something), but all the referents which I can think of which would non-trivially separate the two concepts fall into one of the three forbidden categories. This may be a failure of imagination on my part, or it may point to a problem with the definition; I've no assurance one way or the other at this point. My final thought is that the answer to this particular issue is tied up with the concepts of "female", "male", "man", "woman", and "other", none of which are defined in the style guide either.

Moving up the ladder of abstraction one level from gender identity brings us to the words "transsexual" and "transgender". One thing which immediately popped out at me is that, while both terms rely on a lot of the same core concepts, neither is defined in terms of the other. Which, on first glance at least, suggests that either the definitions or the umbrella diagram need changing. Anyhow, here's Natalie's definition of "transgender":

An umbrella term referring to any identity that deviates from the assumed cultural norms of gender, gender identity or gender expression.

What I find interesting about the above is that it's a negative definition; it defines transgender individuals by what they are not (they are not in conformance with cultural norms) rather than through any set of positive attributes. Two thoughts occur:

  • "Deviation" can be viewed as a boolean or as a spectrum; you can meaningfully ask both whether something deviates (a yes/no condition) and by how much (a continuous measurement). This would seem to suggest that transgender identity can be viewed in a similar light.
  • Cultural norms change with place and time, which suggests that transgender identity can as well.4

I don't know that the first point is particularly important, but the second point seems to have a lot of implications. To give a trivial example: I'm a man who has, at various points in my life, worn long hair and nail polish. In some parts of the country where I've lived (the Midwest) that would be a severe transgression of cultural norms regarding gender expression, whereas in other parts (liberal bastions on the West Coast) people don't give it a second thought. Questions: Am I a transgendered individual

  1. Period, end of sentence?
  2. While living in the Midwest?
  3. While living in the Midwest if I cut my hair an apply some nail polish remover?
  4. While living on the West Coast?


  1. I've never self-identified as a transgendered individual, and think it would do violence to the concept if I were to do so. But in order to answer the question per Natalie's definition I'd need to know how to identify the cultural norm against which I should measure myself.
  2. Wearing long hair and nail polish would be enough for people to treat me markedly differently, a sign that I was in notable non-conformance with expected gender expression. Yes, per Natalie's definition.
  3. There's no deviation in terms of gender expression, therefor no.
  4. Probably not. Long hair is certainly within the expected range of gender expression for men. Nail polish is a little more unusual and so might be considered non-conformant in a business setting, but probably wouldn't mean much in a casual setting (or if I worked at a start-up).

I don't know that the above results are meaningful on their own, but it would be interesting to compare them with the lived experience of individuals who self-identify as transgendered. Does moving from a conservative to a liberal environment (or back again) alter their self-perception/self-identification in a material fashion?

Defining "transgender" in terms of deviation seems to have some interesting knock-on effects, but it also looks like it is in at least partial conflict with things that Natalie has written elsewhere. Specifically, in The “Gender Atheist” vs. The Transgender Atheist she writes

The nature of Cathy’s attack was to go after my identification as atheist. According to Cathy, who rather pretentiously self-identifies as a “gender atheist”, it was ideologically impossible for me to be atheist at the same time as believing in the validity of a gender identity that’s independent of outward biology or socialization. She linked this rather silly, misinformed and ignorant article (which leads with the laughable claim that “we have no more evidence for gender identity than we do for God”…actually, we have PLENTY of evidence for gender identity, and it’s growing all the time), and made some weird pithy remarks like “sex is science, gender is fashion” that I suppose ring profound within her mind (a place I don’t wish to conceive). Apparently, to Brennan, ignorant, misinformed and ludicrously biased as she is, there is no POSSIBLE explanation for the existence of a non-genitally-or-socially-determined gender identity other than metaphysical claims.

It looks to me like Natalie is arguing that, in some cases at least, transgenderism has an organic root which is totally independent of cultural norms. This is an important consideration, because it could lead to a definition for "transgender" with positive attributes. And that, in turn, would fix a lot of the funny knock-on effects that I pointed out above.

Turning now to the definition of "transsexual":

Someone whose gender identity is in conflict with their assigned, physiological sex and pursues transition, on an intended permanent basis, in order to feel a greater sense of harmony and congruence with their body, presentation and social/interpersonal role. May be at any point in the process of transition.

Note that there's no explicit correlation between the criteria for transsexuality and the criteria for transgenderism; the former is contingent on a conflict between physiological sex and gender identity while the latter involves a deviation from cultural norms with respect to gender identity. Does conflict between gender identity and physiological sex necessarily imply a deviation from cultural norms with respect to gender identity? That would depend on the norm, the content of which is not immediately obvious. If it is something simple like "men should feel like men, women should feel like women", then the mental state of conflict between physiological sex and gender identity would be a deviation therefrom. However, if the norm is more complex it would not necessarily be the case that conflict, by itself, would be insufficient to constitute deviation from the norm.

Incidentally, is there a specific term for someone who experiences this sort of conflict and declines to transition? Or are they simply "transgendered"?

So is there a point to all of this, or is it merely an exercise in definitional nit-picking? One thought which has occurred to me in the past, and that has been reinforced both by reading Natalie's posts and the exercise above, is that trans* identity is very slippery. Quoth Natalie:

As a general rule, go with pronouns consistent with someone’s presented gender. Remember that presented gender has fuck all to do with passing. If they are presenting as female, regardless of whether or not you think they look like a “real” woman, you use “she” and “her”. If they are presenting as male, you use “he”, “him” and “his”.

The trans community (and their non-trans supporters) have, in a laudable effort to be as inclusive as possible, defined membership in that community very broadly. It seems that very often the only criteria for membership is self-identification; a person is trans if they say they are. As a result, some fraction of the instances of non-acceptance of transgendered individuals is attributable not to transphobia5, but rather to disagreements revolving around the meanings of labels.

Consider, for example, the "cotton ceiling" or, more generally, non-acceptance of trans women in groups that have traditionally been composed of physiologic women. For the record, here's the definition of "trans woman":

The preferred noun for a male-to-female transsexual person, regardless of the point at which she is in her transition, or what decisions she made about the precise nature of her transition.

What does the label "trans woman" tell us about any particular individual? Not an awful lot. We know that they experience some sort of a conflict between their (male) physiological sex and gender identity and that they have taken on (or intend to take on) some of the physical/behavioral/social traits traditionally associated with being a "woman". If I'm physiologic woman, and I'm a member of one of these aforementioned groups, this label tells me much less (possibly nothing substantive at all) about a person's values, experiences, beliefs, concerns, etc. in comparison to a cisgendered woman. I need more information in order for me to decide whether such a person is appropriate for inclusion into a particular group based on congruence between that person's goals/concerns/etc. and the group's goals/concerns/etc. This, in turn, leads to a desire to impose gradations on "womanhood"6 and dickering about who counts as a "real" woman. None of which is driven by an irrational, emotional response to transgenderism but rather by a (legitimate, IMHO) desire to vet intimate associations.

1 Which I'm not actually going to get around to analyzing in this post. Instead I'll just note my observation briefly: Many of the categories of transgender individuals are constructed on top of a male/female gender binary. However, some of the categories listed on the umbrella diagram, such as "genderqueer" or anyone with a gender identity of "other", seem to be fundamentally incompatible with a male/female binary. The general group "transgender" may be theoretically incoherent because it contains mutually-incompatible groups, hence my comment about the umbrella representing a "marriage of convenience".
2 A couple of assumptions vis-a-vis terminology which went into constructing the diagram: "sex" = "physiological sex" and "presentation" = "gender presentation". 3 Not wrong, but different than any of the definitions you might find at
4 I was originally going to title this post "The perfect world will have no transgender individuals" but decided that it would be a bit too inflammatory. The root observation remains: As society becomes more liberal the scope of behavior that is "within the norm" widens. In a perfectly accepting world we'd be happy for people to be people and there wouldn't be much in the way of norms for people to transgress, ergo no more transgender individuals.
5 As a side note I think that Natalie's definition of "transphobia" needs refinement. "Ridicule" is a broad term that can include rational criticism, presumably not a "phobic" reaction. For example, I may ridicule a religious institution without being driven by fear and/or bigotry.
6 Which, though the trans community seems to be loath to consider it, may actually be appropriate. Gender is a spectrum and, per the discussion above, transgender identity may be as well, in which case talking about degrees of "womanhood" falls naturally out of the definitions which Natalie has provided.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Atheism and Social Justice: A Response to Greta Christina

Greta Christina posted an interesting piece yesterday over at Freethought Blogs in support of the proposition that atheism demands social justice. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm highly skeptical of such claims (see here for a general statement of my views) but am generally willing to be persuaded by a good argument. What attracts me to Greta's post is the clarity/transparency with which she's stated her premises and conclusions; you're more likely to get fruitful dialogue under such circumstances.

So, first off, why link atheism and social justice at all? How does a lack of belief in god(s) compel us to treat our fellows in a certain way? Greta acknowledges that the link is indirect:

A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing, and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural: it’s a positive, multi-faceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.

But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods, as much as any other conclusion. And when you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice[.]

I'll get to an analysis of her arguments in a moment, but first I'd like to stop and consider her invocation of "implications". Fundamentally, Greta is arguing that we should take the consequences of our beliefs into consideration, a sentiment I heartily endorse with the caution that we have to avoid over-generalizing when we do so. Some beliefs have moral implications while others do not. For example, I can believe that all sentient beings are free and equal, in which case there are certain moral/ethical positions I must endorse in order to be consistent with that belief. I can also believe that the sky is blue, but this belief seems to me to be an acknowledgement of empirical fact which is compatible with basically any moral philosophy.

So here's an item for consideration: Is non-belief in the existence of god(s) more like "all sentient beings are free and equal" or "the sky is blue"? As an atheist it seems to me that its closer to the latter. Logically its an assertion that a particular class of entities does not exist; its fundamentally an empirical question with a true/false answer even if we can't answer it with metaphysical certainty. That atheists come to that conclusion by probabilistically evaluating lots of different bits of evidence rather than just looking up at the sky doesn't change anything; within the context of atheistic epistemology the non-existence of god(s) is an empirical fact. This fact does have moral implications, but they're very weak: atheism is consistent with any moral system which does not require the existence of god(s). Greta says as much in the quote above, but I wanted to get that statement out on the table explicitly before continuing.

So, Greta's assertion that "atheism demands social justice" isn't to be taken literally, but rather as linguistic shorthand for a more complex idea. If I had to hazard a guess I'd say that the long form version is something along the lines that "The community of individuals who agree that god(s) do not exist have an underlying set of shared values which should cause them to work for social justice". I think that's an iffier proposition; the atheist community is highly fragmented, so its entirely possible that, apart from non-belief, there's no significant set of shared values amongst all individuals who self-identify as "atheist". That said, let's look at Greta's evaluation of why atheists should work for social justice.

Her pragmatic ("Machiavellian", in her words) reason that atheists should work for social justice is that

[I]f we want to create a world with more atheists — and thus a world that’s safer and better for atheists — it would be very much to our advantage to create a world that’s safer and better for everybody. A world with greater social justice is far more likely to be a more atheist world.

Fair enough, she's advancing an argument that "more social justice → more atheism". If that's true its certainly worth taking into consideration, though as a general rule I think that people should be careful about consequentialist reasoning (ends and means and Machiavelli and all that). But then she goes on to say

Now, I’m going to be very clear about this: We don’t all have to agree about how exactly social justice should be reached, or what our priorities and goals should be in reaching it, or even what the concept means.

After a closer reading I'm going to retract my earlier comment about clarity/transparency; she's basically waving her hands and saying "social justice" without even taking a cursory stab about specifying what she means by that phrase. Greta's not dumb; she knows that she's dodging the hard part. That makes me mad enough that I'm going to swear at her directly for a little bit:

What the fuck? How the hell can you say "x does y" if you can't even be bothered to define x? That's lazy, intellectually dishonest, and it blows a fucking hole in your Machiavellian argument:

  • How do we know that social justice promotes atheism if the concept of "social justice" remains undefined?
  • How can atheists work towards "social justice" if we can't even agree on the basics of what that process entails?
  • How can we reason about the costs/benefits of social justice if we don't know what it is?

Ok, I feel a little better now, but so much for the pragmatic support for her position. Let's move on to her "high-minded reasons"; maybe they're built on firmer foundations. Greta says

And if this mortal life is all we have — and there are millions of people whose only lives are hopeless lives of misery and despair, for no reason other than the bad luck of how and where and when they were born — then that is a fucking tragedy. It is injustice on a gruesomely epic scale. And we have a powerful moral obligation to fix it. If we have any morality at all — and the evidence strongly suggests that we do, that human beings have some common moral principles wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution as a social species — then seeing terrible harm done to others through no fault of their own should make us cringe, and should demand our immediate and passionate attention.

Fuck... not this again. Points in rebuttal:

  • We've evolved compassion and empathy, but we've also evolved disgust and in-group bias. There's no principled way to distinguish among these emotions without invoking some external (and as yet unidentified) criteria. If it's OK to be motivated by compassion then it's OK to be motivated by disgust, and I needn't remind Greta the problems that the latter causes.
  • The Is-ought problem.

So, in summation:

Greta: I’m saying that we need to do something.
Me: Doing something blindly is worse than doing nothing at all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gay Demons Will Get Your Dog

(Via HuffPo [via Jesus' General]) WTF?

When asked by Pakman, "What about in the 4,000 other species that have homosexuality? As far as I know they don't have TV, they don't have advertising… how is it that humans are gay sometimes because of marketing but for 4,000 other species, is it something else?"

Klingenschmitt responded, "It is possible for demons or the devil to inhabit or invade animals in just the same way they invade humans and that causes a sin of lust."

I mean... really? Can you get more absurd? Someone has to put that quote on a shirt...

See Commons, Tragedies of the

Update: In David's defense it looks like conservatives are so allergic to anything that even remotely smacks of environmentalism that they won't support catch shares. <sigh>

Quoth David Atkins:

The Washington Post has another in a long line of distressing reports about the unsustainability of the modern economy, this time about the end of fish:


This is more than just a wake-up call for greater awareness of sustainable food practice. It's not even just a reminder of the current global ecological crisis. It's also a reminder of the grand ideological precipice on which conservatism itself rests.

Economic conservatism rests on the principle that government intervention is largely unnecessary because markets in their grand wisdom correct themselves over time without the need for interference.

The keyword here is "largely". The problems of overfishing and climate change are good examples of the tragedy of the commons, classic cases of market failure that would be acknowleged by conservative types. Moreover, there are market-based solutions for both problems: tradeable fishing quotas in the case of the former and either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax for the latter.

I'm not interested in defending conservatives, but lets at least gets the facts right, yes?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Random Observation on Medical Privacy in the Workplace

Yesterday a colleague of mine suddenly got yanked from all of their projects and my boss said that we were forbidden from contacting em. Which looked pretty bad; that's the sort of thing that happens right before someone files a lawsuit. So, nosy person that I am, I went and contacted my aforementioned colleague via unofficial channels. Ey's fine, no crime has been committed, ey're just taking medical leave at their MD's suggestion.

I can't really fault the company for not saying anything given how much emphasis there is on maintaining employees' privacy w.r.t. medical matters. However, their inability to speak is doing indirect damage to my colleague's (and/or the company's) reputation since most people will (appropriately, IMHO) assume that the sudden radio silence is due to some sort of major kerfuffle and not something as mundane as medical leave.

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