The suspect has been identified

Daniel Kaufman at the Electric Agora tries to figure out this “feeling like a ___” puzzle. He too starts from Alice Roberts’s Twitter claim yesterday –

If someone who looks like a man and has XY chromosomes tells me he feels female – I cannot tell her she is ‘wrong’. Would you?

What if someone who looks like a man and has XY chromosomes tells me he feels like a manatee, or a potato peeler, or a street lamp, or Lake Louise? Would I tell him he is ‘wrong’? I don’t know, it depends on the nature of the conversation, in what context it takes place, how free I am to escape, and similar contingent facts. But all things being equal, escape being readily available, and he asked my opinion? I probably wouldn’t tell him he’s wrong right off the bat, I’d ask him what he meant. If he meant it literally and never giggled even once, I’d just say he might think he felt like one of those items (or any other) but that doesn’t mean he is one.

Anyway, feeling like is one thing, and identifying as is another.

The use of ‘identify’ in the context of sex and gender is odd.  A judge can order that a plaintiff not be identified, meaning that the person’s identity should be kept a secret. One can identify oneself with a political movement, by which one means that one should be associated with it.  One can identify with the plight of a people, meaning that one has sympathy for – or even empathizes with – them.  A doctor can identify the cause of a cough, meaning that he has found the bacterial or viral or other thing that is responsible for it.  A suspect can be identified by the police, meaning that they have determined who he is.

But what could it mean to “identify as a man/woman”?  From what I can discern from gender self-ID theorists and activists, it could mean one of two things, both of which strike me as untenable.

The first is reflected in the Alice Roberts quote, above: for me to identify as a man/woman is to feel like I am one.

But, he explains, there is no such thing.

…one is male or female, but one doesn’t feel male or female, just as one is a mammal, but one doesn’t “feel like a mammal.”

I can sort of get a grip on the idea of feeling like a mammal if I get to add “as opposed to a bird/reptile/fish.” I’m squishy like a mammal, earthbound like a mammal, unable to breathe under water like a mammal. I even have mammaries! But that’s a very attenuated sense of feeling like a mammal, and it’s certainly not the kind of thing one would bellow at people during Twitter arguments. It’s not political. It’s not what the dogmatists mean when they talk about feeling like/identifying as a woman.

The second pursues the line of gender: to feel like a man/woman is to feel masculine or feminine; manly or womanly.

And guess what that is. No prizes; it’s stereotype city, and no we don’t want to go there.

It would be regressive, then, to take this tack in trying to make sense of “identifying as” a man/woman and even worse to suggest that meeting these sexist expectations makes a person one or the other. For decades, feminists and other forward-thinking people have been fighting against precisely these sorts of expectations and rejecting the idea that such notions of manliness or womanliness should determine what one is or what one should do.

Or even how one should dress. No, putting on a dear little skirt and some red silk shoes won’t make you a woman if you’re not in fact a woman. Clothes are just clothes. You could put them on a horse, or a manatee, or a street lamp (not so much a potato peeler or Lake Louise); they don’t make you into anything (other than someone who is wearing those clothes for the moment).

The notion of “identifying as” a man/woman, then, is either incoherent or retrograde. It is the farthest thing from being liberatory or progressive, and I find it hard to understand why anyone interested in advancing the cause of trans people would want to have anything to do with it, let alone plant their flag in it. As I have argued many times, everything required to make a complete and compelling case for trans civil rights is already contained within the liberal tradition. And beyond the advantage of being grounded in a stronger, more rigorous, more universal set of principles, to pursue such a course would avoid the sexist logic and tropes that have done so much to put trans activism in conflict with its feminist and gay/lesbian counterparts.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people listened.

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