Modern discussions of gender typically orbit the different experiences of people who self-identify as male or female. And, of course, biological sex is tangled up in that discussion. The whole thing leads to a lot of confusion, tortured sentence structure, and anger on the part of those who want to get back to a simpler time — when such things weren’t discussed, and more people lived lives of quiet desperation. Enter Stanford University Professor Rachael Briggs, and Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor B. R. George, who want to clear the whole thing up as only philosophically minded academics can. Their “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” has a gaudy name, but a simple idea: If you understand class, you understand gender.
Briggs and George untangle gender and sexual biology from one another, by assuming that agency makes “membership in gender categories such as woman and man fully voluntary and consensual.” By suggesting that everyone makes a gender choice, they can move past genitalia and have the real conversation about culture, and the different ways people are treated based on how they present themselves.
Inverse spoke to the duo about their work, Twin Earth, and how to have a less confounding conversation about gender.
What drew you into this sort of research?
RB: We actually met by arguing about identity politics on the internet! This isn’t something I recommend as a general policy, but it worked out really well in our case.
BRG: As a linguist and philosopher, I’m always asking “What does that mean?” about pretty much everything, which has led to a number of … let’s go with “spirited” … discussions over the years. In this context, that question is uncomfortably popular among trolls and haters, but it’s also one that I’ve found genuinely vexing — especially as a trans person, but more generally as a semanticist and as someone who cares about social justice.
What’s your ‘elevator pitch’ for the paper?
BRG: A butch no-op, no-hormone trans woman is still a woman. So is a really stereotypically feminine cis woman. So does being a woman even mean anything? Well, why shouldn’t it?
It still means something to say a Pokémon GO player is on Team Mystic, even if that isn’t determined by their anatomy or their behaviors or anything like that. Social categories can mean things just because of their history and their connections with other categories. Why not think of genders sort of like that?
What inspired you to look at gender’s historical continuity with classes for this research?
RB: First, let me clarify what our view is. In the paper, “class” is our word for a type of social category. The members of a class might be expected to have features in common, or adhere to certain rules. Examples of classes include citizens of Ghana, members of the Rotary Club, Zoroastrians, white people, and teenagers. Genders are classes in this sense. Like other classes, they can survive a change to the rules; “historical continuity” is what is preserved when the rules change or disappear.
In the paper, you use the “Twin Earth” experiment. Why was this helpful?
RB: Thought experiments like Twin Earth go hand in hand with philosophical definitions. Philosophers like to develop sharper versions of ordinary concepts like knowledge, truth, free will, causation, race, and gender. Thought experiments are good for stress-testing these definitions: if you can come up with an example where the definition gets things intuitively wrong, this helps you understand its weak points.
Twin Earth thought experiments were originally developed by Hilary Putnam to test theories that link a word’s meaning to an associated description. For instance, you might think that “water” means “the wet stuff that fills rivers and lakes.” You can test that definition this way: Imagine a planet very much like Earth, called Twin Earth, where the rivers and lakes are filled with some wet stuff, XYZ, whose chemical composition is not H2O. (I know that’s not chemically realistic, but it’s the structure of the example that matters.) If “water” meant “the wet stuff that fills rivers and lakes,” then XYZ would be water, but it’s not. XYZ is stuff that isn’t water, but mimics it. Furthermore, any description that people ordinarily associate with the word “water” could be satisfied by something else, so the meaning of “water” can’t be exhausted by an ordinary description.
In a parallel fashion, our Twin Earth example is designed to test certain definitions of “woman.” Just as the meaning of “water” can’t be exhausted by an ordinary description, we argue the meaning of “woman” can’t be exhausted by a description that appeals solely to a person’s biological traits, their personality, or how the people around them typically treat them.
What could the work from this paper mean in practical terms?
RB: Critics on the left and on the right often claim that in order to be trans, you have to believe some ridiculous theory of what gender is: Either you have to think it’s based on stereotypes, or you have to think it’s based on some kind of quasi-biological essence. Even when these critics are well-meaning, their arguments are unsound (which is a problem if you want to believe the truth) and encourage cis people to be unfairly dismissive of trans people (which is a problem if you want a humane and just world). So by pushing against unsound reasoning, I hope to make a very small contribution to truth and justice. I also believe that trans-inclusive feminism is ultimately better, not just for trans people, but for cis people who want to understand themselves.
BRG: On some level, I think I just want to know we worked through this ourselves, because that makes it easier to snarkily dismiss the haters with conviction, or to begin to engage with them in a way that suggests that the space of conceivable alternatives for what gender is about is larger than they’d previously considered.
What’s your ultimate goal here?
BRG: The ultimate goal is to find new conceptual tools to help trans and otherwise gender-variant people make sense of our own lives, make our lives intelligible to others, and push back against attempts to fit us into tired, reductive stories, whether they come from shoddy human interest journalism, bad screenplays, certain fringes of feminist activism, relatively “normal” trans folks trying to play respectability politics, disappointingly, unimaginative sexology research, or elsewhere.
RB: I’ve learned a lot from the ideas of various online communities, and I’m hoping that the philosophical community can get better learning from them, and find ways to give something back.
It seems like your work is particularly interesting because it can be disorienting for people looking for easy distinctions.
RB: You can’t necessarily extrapolate from facts about other people’s genders to facts about your own. Two people can have similar bodies and similar personalities, and yet belong to different genders. Whether somebody is a cis woman or a trans man depends not just on the facts, but on their individual interpretation of those facts. This is politically important, because it means that nobody’s gender should be treated as a threat to anybody else’s: Neither the existence of trans men, nor the existence of femme women makes a butch lesbian any less of a woman.
BRG: To anybody wondering about their own gender: you don’t need to have any theory of gender whatsoever to know who or what you are, or how you want to live, or what you want to do with your body. But if you’re like me, and having some different theoretical framings helps you to talk things over with yourself, we hope that work like ours, and the broader conversation that it’s participating in, give you a better menu of theories to choose from. And don’t let anybody tell you your gender can’t be real because you can’t explain to their satisfaction what it means — it just turns out that explaining what anything means is really, really hard.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.