An analogy that doesn’t

I saw a reference somewhere yesterday (I wish I could remember where) to an analogy between trans identity and adoptive parents. I kept thinking about it off and on all day, finding it less convincing the more I thought about it. So I searched for it and found a piece by a philosopher, one Sophie Grace Chappell. Is Chappell trans?, I wondered as I read. I had to look hard to find out, but I did look hard, because…that name? Sophie Grace? Remember the also self-named cartoonist Sophie Labelle? Self-flatter much?

Anyway I did find out: yes, Chappell is trans.

Sophie Grace Chappell is professor of philosophy at the Open University, Milton Keynes, England. Under her previous name Timothy Chappell she is the author of Ethics and Experience (Acumen 2011) and Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics (OUP 2014). Her most recent book is the edited collection Intuition, Theory, and Anti-Theory in Ethics (OUP 2015).

OUP: a name to conjure with.

So, this analogy:

Maybe we should think of it like this: Trans women/men are to women/men as adoptive parents are to parents. There are disanalogies of course, and the morality of adoption is a large issue in itself which I can’t do full justice to here. Still, the analogies are, I think, important and instructive. [1]

An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense. (At any rate usually–there are families with a mix of biological and adopted children. But here I’ll focus on the commoner and simpler case.) So society has found a way for her to live the role of a parent, and to be recognised socially and legally as a parent, which kind of gets round the biological obstacle.

Chappell then goes through a long list of the things people don’t think about adoptive parents but do think about trans people, but what I kept thinking about yesterday was whether the analogy is a real analogy in the first place. I get the basic idea: adoptive parents are not literal, physical parents, but they function as parents, they live as parents, they are accepted as parents, and so on. I get that but it’s not all there is to it. Adoptive parents are parents if and because they do something. You have to adopt a child or children to be an adoptive parent. You don’t have to do anything to be a trans woman. A closer analogy would be “identifying as” an adoptive parent without actually adopting any children.

The adoptive bit is not just a label, it’s an action – and quite a big action, with large consequences that last for years; an action that entails many actions every day for 18 years/the rest of your life. Being trans can include some actions taken on the body, but we are assured it doesn’t have to.

I asked myself at one point yesterday what actions I would take if I decided I was a trans man. The answer was: none. Nothing would change. Not one damn thing. I mean, sure, I could get busy telling everyone I know, but that doesn’t count as an action entailed by being a man instead of a woman. There would be no chores or duties or visible behaviors I would have to adopt to conform to my decision.

And then there’s the fact that being an adoptive parent is about the children at least as much as it’s about the parent. There are parents who adopt and children who are adopted; adoption means both parties; it can’t possibly be a solipsistic activity. Being trans is very much the opposite of that – it’s about “an authentic self”; it’s about “my identity”; it’s about “my woman’s soul”; it’s about an Inner Feeling. It’s about one person and one person only. In that way the two could hardly be more contrary to each other.

This makes all Chappell’s points about the things people don’t think about adoptive parents but do think about trans people pretty much irrelevant, as far as I can see. Of course people don’t question the category of adoptive parents the same way some of us question the category of trans people (at least as currently dogmatized): they are radically different.

Until people start “identifying as” adoptive parents while remaining childless I don’t think that will change.

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