I Quit! And She Slammed the Door

I’ve passed some kind of threshold over the last few days: I no longer want to engage in public debate on trans issues with gender critical academics. This post, I hope, will summarize my sense of that “debate” at present, and I hope enable me to move on to other kinds of public writing (including writing about my own transition, which it is a delight to publish, and writing about particular objects - books and movies, etc.). It feels hard to acknowledge that I’m done, because it feels like an acknowledgement of defeat, but over the weekend I happened to see a couple of screencaps of some new Medium post contributing to the genre of gender critical whatever-it-is. It was peppered with this very odd new argot they all use, a (might one even say) newspeak, that has grown up to try to mitigate trans women’s claims on the world: “sex-based rights,” “adult human female,” the compulsive nominalization of “male” and “female.” When the gender critical philosophers are rebutted (as they have amply been), they claim that their voices are being stifled, and retaliate not against the colleagues supposedly doing the stifling, but against — their students. Hence at the core of the latest batch of controversies is a group of academics asserting a right to deploy whatever names and pronouns they see fit to describe everyone in their classrooms. I’ll just add the following: Kathleen Stock has recently taken to arguing that “enforcing pronouns is requiring speech.” That isn’t true, I would have thought self-evidently. You have the options of (1) using the correct pronoun, or (2) not using a pronoun. It isn’t hard to choose the latter. The thing teachers shouldn’t have the option of doing, is (3) replacing the student’s correct pronoun with one of your choice - that’s controlling for a particular kind of abuse, not requiring anyone to say anything specific.

You see how addictive this is? “Gender critical” philosophy is almost wholly without substance - and yet, unlike most academic fads, it is backed by famous scholars such as Peter Singer signing open letters to trade papers in its defense. It’s a heady brew of vapid and powerful, and one senses that one has a moral duty to contest it, because it is hurting people in the real world. The Inside Higher Education letter of course paid lip service to the idea that trans people have a right “to live free of harassment and abuse, and we welcome them enthusiastically as fellow participants in the profession of philosophy.” How kind! More broadly, the letter displayed the usual lack of familiarity with any of the basic ideas that trans people generally use to describe ourselves, and the nature of trans identity claims. The letter doesn’t ascribe any intellectual position to trans people, because, I suspect, nobody who signed it has ever read any philosophy by trans people. The letter characterizes the gender critical position in the following terms: “skepticism about the concept of gender identity or opposition to replacing biological sex with gender identity in institutional policy making.” The idea that “gender identity” is an adequate name for that-which-gender-critical-philosophy-opposes might make sense if one’s reading in “gender studies” began and ended with the introduction to Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble (1990). For anyone who read that book’s sequel, Bodies That Matter (1993), or anything written in the field since then, it sounds like picking a fight with Ernst Haeckel, and then when nobody cares claiming that one’s trenchant critiques of Haeckel are being silenced.

I am not alone, I think, in being likewise skeptical of the set of ideas that the GCs call “gender ideology” - a large majority of trans writers reject it compellingly and even sometimes aggressively. Especially compelling in this respect is the work of Eva Hayward, who describes transness on the basis of an account of biological matter. Julia Serano, it is true, talks of “subconscious sex,” which perhaps sounds like gender - but Serano claims (again, mostly on the basis of empirical research) that that kind of sex is rooted in the cellular condition of the body, not in the mind. A fairly mainstream position within trans feminist studies has been an acceptance and celebration of the monstrously transsexual body: this we find in Sandy Stone and Susan Stryker’s field-founding documents, and echoing in much contemporary work as well. I take Andrea Long Chu’s work to belong in this vein: her response to the medicalization of transness is to articulate, powerfully, the persistence of dysphoria and other negative affects she associates with transition.

To be honest, I suppose my ideas are closer to the stereotype of “gender ideology” than anyone else’s I can think of in the field. I don’t think any account of sex makes sense that doesn’t foreground the question of phenomenological experience. I think of my transness as an essential psychic phenomenon that has entailed a new relation to my body, but, on the other hand, I think sex in general is a psychic phenomenon, which is always established through negotiation with the body, rather than derived from the body as though it were a prior fact. In other words, in my view, nobody looks down, examines the space between their legs, and then deduces the correct bathroom on that basis. We look down, and have feelings and ideas about ourselves, and on the basis of those feelings and ideas we might choose a bathroom, or choose to try to change our bodies, or both, or neither. This is not merely a description of how trans people set about transition; it is an observation about how sex works in general, which is never without processes of thinking and feeling. I adapt these ideas from readings of, primarily, George Eliot and Sigmund Freud. I therefore resist the Lacanian position in psychoanalytic theory (including that advocated by Butler) as well as the attempts to find inert definitions of sex as an essential property of biological matter (“chromosomes”) extricable from context and feeling. Nobody is obligated to share these ideas, obviously. Luckily I don’t think anyone does! Nonetheless, despite the objections of Betsy DeVos and Kathleen Stock, my employer has a collective interest in ensuring my colleagues do not refer to me as “he.” On one of these topics, I welcome debate; on the other, I don’t.

I first started writing publicly about trans issues last year, in response to an anti-trans manifesto published on a colleague’s website. In “Grad School as Conversion Therapy,” I argued that a certain strain of queer liberalism was so averse to trans identity claims that it had left itself open to being exploited by fascists. The author of the manifesto responded in an essay co-authored with his partner, a ferocious defense of his position which (to my mind) amply illustrated my point. Some trans writers found my essay too institutionally minded in its political goals: I argued, for example, that the institutional protection of Title IX was a good thing for trans people, and a protection that trans people should use. Others felt that that kind of legalistic advocacy surrendered the hope of more radically transforming or abolishing the university, a settler colonial institution. My response to this kind of question has always been inspired by Sara Ahmed and Antonio Gramsci: the imperatives of our time require both the radical transformation of our institutions, and their abolition. These goals aren’t compatible, of course, but they can be worked for in different domains at the same time. And, I think Title IX is eminently worth defending and upholding.

Since I wrote the first piece, I’ve been subject to occasional swarms in which I am harassed, mostly when I have written something critical about the gender critical philosophers. Who knew that the fash loved analytic philosophy so much! Food for thought. I first learned about this, anyway, when a Google Alert I have set up for my name pointed me to a discussion about me on the Gender Critical subreddit last December. In that discussion, a group of people were celebrating the “wig-snatching” and “spanking” I had received; those performing the spanking were characterized as “witty” and “mature.” I was misgendered and called deluded, obviously, and some of the respondents (a handful of whom identified themselves as academics) started speculating with vivid disgust about my sex life with D. Later, I experienced a Twitter swarm of dozens of people (some of whom were academics) attacking my appearance, insulting me, and attempting to humiliate me, after I had published something critical of Stock. My piece, incidentally, offered answers to the questions she and her co-authors had asked, and asked some questions of my own – which I haven’t seen people try to answer. (If they have, please don’t tell me – take the matter to someone else.) The experience of being rushed on Twitter made me very jumpy, and since then I realize I have brought it up a lot, both in writing and in person, because I’m frightened that it will escalate further. Sometimes I think I’m being stupid about this: I’m new to being online, and not as tough as some people who have grown up around these kinds of swarms. But, on the other hand, I like my softness and I don’t want to get used to them. Last month I got alerted to this, from an anonymous commentator:

Whoa, that Lavery piece is something. The wordplay is hilarious. Calling fallacious arguments “phallacious”, calling bad analogies “manalogies” … Does the author realize she’s an absolute amateur at wordplay? She is. It’s strictly playground level. Even I could fly circles around her (not in English, in my own language). Anyone with enough money can hire a consultant that will out-wordplay her until she begs for mercy.

This morning I received a long email at my work address suggesting I was participating in a Satanic ritual. I don’t think it was connected, but I’m not sure. I’m going to take down the Google Alert.

So, it’s funny - and, uh, not funny - to read that some philosophers evidently think that the gender critical group is being silenced. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did ever such a group of philosophers, writing about a topic in which they are relative newcomers, receive such outsize attention and defense from the academic establishment? Was ever a group of philosophers before backed by a troll army? The current goal of this movement is to remove protections for students, rather than promote a philosophical position. Their claim, in the face of all reasoning, that the pushback they receive from their colleagues is the unusual aspect of all this: it is a Trumpist trick. The unusual, even in some respects unprecedented, dimension of this topic is the conflict that the philosophers are attempting to leverage against their own students. The IHE letter had the matter exactly reversed.

In any case. Last week I found myself on Twitter less, and then I found myself more shocked by what I saw when I was. I mean shocked not in the pearl-clutching, heavens-to-betsy sense, but shocked to the core: shaky, afraid, quiet. And so I’ve decided to try henceforth to write about transness in the way I’d initially intended for this newsletter: historically, obliquely, merrily, and in poetry. I like to argue, but I like to read even more and I’d like to do more of that. (I do think I might try to write something for a philosophy journal on category theory and the problem of natural types, but not for a year or so.) I’m very proud of the activist work I’ve done on this topic. And I’m also ready to find other ways to write. It was my fortune, and my misfortune, to begin a transition at a historical moment in which a fascist government was fomenting malice towards and violence against our community; a well-supported academic movement emerged to rationalize that malice; and a broader academic establishment, generally speaking, responded to that movement with tacit support. In spite of everything, the truth of my transition has been this: the medicine worked much better than I anticipated; the social transition is, in general, something people understand intuitively; and being trans, as my beautiful friend Carta Monir says, is a gift. 

The greatest honor and gift is being able to read and teach literature to students, and to develop new and creative ways of thinking about the world with them. I’m going to keep writing, and it will be a little more lyrical, and a little more autobiographical, and a little less pugnacious. There, I’m begging for mercy.