Trans Philosophy Matters

By Kate ManneDecember 4, 2023

Trans Philosophy Matters
The aim of this curated series of essays is to address the question: why is philosophy important at times like these? For many, philosophy is a field of inquiry that remains so esoteric, narrow, and specialized that it has little or no relevance to the everyday world of “ordinary” people. Indeed, philosophers are often characterized as introverted, absent-minded thinkers who are obsessed with analytical minutiae, isolated in their academically cloistered spaces (offices and personal studies) in a monologue with dead white guys, and prone to encouraging dispassionate argumentation and one-upmanship. For the thinkers writing for this series, however, philosophy is a social enterprise that strives for clarity of thought and encourages the formation of multiple cultural spaces of philosophical practice that are welcoming to a diverse range of scholars and laypeople, rather than simply those who look alike and share the same hegemonic meta-philosophical assumptions about the field.


WHY IS PHILOSOPHY important in times like these? I must admit, my first reaction to this question was: Is it? Might philosophy—or, rather, philosophers—contribute to the culture in ways that are actually pernicious and actively harmful?

Ours is a time of accelerating attacks on trans people as well as, increasingly, queer ones. Gender-affirming care for minors has been banned in many states, and some are even trying to restrict such care for adult trans and nonbinary people too. As Montana representative Zooey Zephyr—the first trans woman elected to the Montana legislature—put it, such states will have blood on their hands very soon, if they don’t already. Gender-affirming care is lifesaving care, given the very real risk of suicide for trans children and adults who are denied it. (Zephyr was silenced and barred from doing her job for her advocacy.)

Books are being banned; drag is being censored; trans kids are being forcibly excluded from sports, despite ample evidence that their participation is both fair and valuable. Florida’s notorious 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” law prevents young children from being taught about who they may become in an age-appropriate, non-shaming, positive manner. Trans people who simply want to pee in a bathroom outside their home are being subject to policing and, in many cases, violence. Trans people are disproportionately subject to violence much more broadly. The murders of trans women—particularly trans women of color—represents a veritable epidemic. And, of course, the fact that trans people are disproportionately poor, unemployed, exploited, and unhoused is intimately related to the ongoing campaign against them.

Against the backdrop of this campaign, some philosophers’ efforts to question the veracity of trans experience, and to employ high-handed and abstract ideas to invalidate their very existence, is a particularly poor showing. As philosophers, we’ve long fancied ourselves above politics. In doing so, we show ourselves to be naive, perpetuating the worst political ideas our climate affords us with. For philosophy, like all humanistic intellectual enterprises, is inherently political: we either wield our politics, and our values, deliberately and thoughtfully, or unwittingly and harmfully.

Other philosophers, including Christa Peterson and Robin Dembroff, have meticulously analyzed and exposed the problems with anti-trans philosophy. I find their arguments compelling. But the anti-trans philosophy they effectively dismantle will not be my focus in this piece. Speaking personally, I become the most hopeless and helpless when I speak in generalities and lose track of the enormous diversity in our discipline. And while some philosophers are doing harm on this front (and others), other philosophers are doing work that is generative, creative, and—what’s more—crucial to understanding the current crisis.

I particularly have in mind here work by trans philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher. Bettcher has contributed a dynamic body of scholarship that sheds light on the nature of anti-trans bigotry as well as trans experience. In one important paper, Bettcher considers the case of Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old trans girl brutally murdered by four young cis men, for the noncrime of simply being who she was and being desired by at least some of them. The men—Jason Cazares, Michael Magidson, Jaron Nabors, and José Merél—publicly and violently “outed” Araujo at a party. The subsequent revelation that Araujo was “really a man” (that is, she had a penis), together with the fact that two of the four men had previously had sexual contact with Araujo, appears to have precipitated their vicious attack on her. Araujo was beaten to death, her body unceremoniously buried in the Sierra wilderness, a four-hour drive away. The men stopped at McDonald’s upon their return from burying her battered body.

And despite the heinous nature of their crimes, it was the four men who attracted sympathy from some sources. “If you find out the beautiful woman you’re with is really a man, it would make any man go crazy,” said one of their mothers. “[Araujo] was not honest with them and had he [sic] been, none of this would have happened,” wrote a student journalist, Zach Calef. The young men had been provoked into the murder in a way that was “so deep, it’s almost primal,” according to one of their attorneys: namely, “sexual fraud, deception, betrayal.”

Bettcher brilliantly analyzes these events in terms of a “natural attitude” regarding the metaphysics of sex—crudely, men must be born with and have penises, and women must be born with and continue to lack them—which also imposes a false moral obligation on trans people not to violate this “natural” order. Trans people are viewed, according to the logic of transphobia, as “really a so and so, disguised as a such and such.” Trans women come in for particular scrutiny, given the prevalent social interest in preserving for privileged cis men a class of people—women—with whom they may have heteronormatively sanctioned sex and (biological) children. Trans women’s existence is thus an existential threat to the patriarchy. And detecting them becomes a priority, along with policing and even eradication.

Meanwhile, as Bettcher argues, trans men are often rendered invisible—erased from the discourse and subject to forms of violence that are both subtle and distinctive. This shows up partly in the obsession, sadly evident in some philosophical quarters, with defining what a woman is. Trans men often barely figure in the transphobic imagination; trans nonbinary people are regarded as a nonstarter rather than as a threat to the theory that falsely accuses trans people of perpetuating gender stereotypes.

For their own parts, trans girls and women are subject to a potent double bind: to be either an “evil deceiver” merely pretending to be a woman, or a “make-believer,” a deficient and laughable simulacrum of femininity. For, as Bettcher writes,

[t]he trans woman’s body is taken as intimately male. As such her vagina is seen as illegitimate, in part because it’s not the completion of the moral structure of her body. In this case, the trans woman has not only “misrepresented” the structure of her body, she has “misrepresented” the genitalia to which she’s entitled and which is the moral completion of that structure.

The alternative—to listen to what people say and, when they sincerely identify as a certain gender, believe them—is anathema to this picture. As is a healthy sense that other people’s genitals are precisely none of our business.

Bettcher’s analysis of transphobia in general and transmisogyny in particular jibes beautifully with my own analysis of misogyny. In my view, misogyny involves girls and women facing hatred and hostility that serves to police and enforce patriarchal norms and expectations. Such norms and expectations often falsely deem girls and women to be obligated to give feminine-coded goods and services to privileged men, including the sex, affection, respect, care, and emotional and reproductive labor to which these men are (again, falsely) deemed entitled. Connecting my views and Bettcher’s reveals transmisogyny to be a case in point, wherein trans girls and women are deemed in violation of their “obligation” to deliver unto cis straight men a world where their sexual attraction never lights upon a person with a penis or someone who cannot “give” them children. The flip side of the same coin is that cis girls and women are deemed not entitled to show a lack of interest in such a man for any reason but their being previously obligated to another. Nor are we allowed to deny such men “their” children—yet another false obligation increasingly enforced within the political hellscape that is post-Roe America.

These ideas show cis and trans women to be naturally in alliance—to in fact need one another, as we face, and thus might resist, these oppressive and ugly realities together. But of course misogyny has long specialized in disrupting women’s solidarity.

Bettcher wrote in a moving blog post, “‘When Tables Speak’: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy,” about the frustration of watching philosophers intervene ignorantly in the debate about trans experience, as if trans philosophers were not in the room, as if they were theorizing about the existence of mere tables. As Bettcher puts it,

It’s one thing to spout views about the composition problem with both arrogance and ignorance. It happens. It’s annoying. But it’s quite another thing to do this when we’re talking about people—people who are in the room, people trying (and succeeding) to philosophize themselves.

I worry that if we go on as we have before, we will end up with a discipline and even a world in which there will be fewer and fewer trans thinkers to learn from—because they are excluded from the discourse, because they will cease to be able to speak out, and because they will literally be silenced. We, and they, deserve so much better. I write in the hopes that, at times like these, we may recognize the urgency of their contributions—of thinkers including not only Bettcher but also Robin Dembroff, Stephanie Kapusta, Shon Faye, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, Perry Zurn, Emi Koyama, Susan Stryker, C. Jacob Hale, Quill R Kukla, Amy Marvin, Jade Schiff, Sophie Grace Chappell, Rach Cosker-Rowland, Rowan Bell, Krys Malcolm Belc, Adriene Takaoka, Veronica Ivy, Julia Serano, Katelyn Burns, Natalie Wynn, Willow Starr, Paisley Currah, Florence Ashley, Angela Black, E. M. Hernandez, Blake Hereth, Ray Briggs, B. R. George, Eli Clare, Tamsin Kimoto, and so many others. Space is limited, as am I. So, go read them.


Featured image: Frances Hodgkins, Untitled (Textile design no. I), ca. 1925, England. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0006-5). Accessed November 30, 2023. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Kate Manne is an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, where she has been teaching since 2013. Before that, she was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Manne did her graduate work in philosophy at MIT, and works in moral, social, and feminist philosophy. She is the author of three books: Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2017), Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (2020), and Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, which is forthcoming in January 2024. You can subscribe to her newsletter, More to Hate, for musings on misogyny, fatphobia, their intersection, and more.


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