Updated: Nov 17, 2019
In recent years, issues concerning those who identify as transgender have entered the political mainstream – among them whether or not people who are (by convention) understood as biologically male but who self-identify as women should be free to use lavatories reserved for women and whether or not police forces should (as some do) record the gender of perpetrators of crimes according to the self-identification of the perpetrator. It is not my intention to take a particular political position with regards to these issues or others of a similar kind; rather, I want to set out, as clearly as possible, certain philosophical worries that relate to those who self-identify as a gender that is not consistent with their biological gender-classification at birth.
Firstly, to get clear about some terminology: the term transgender (as defined by the Intersex Society of North America) is used in relation to someone who self-identifies as a gender that is not consistent with the standard biological gender classification they are assigned at birth. People who are transgender claim to have their own internal experience of gender identity, which is distinct from what they frequently (but not always) consider to be the socially constructed standard gender identities of male and female. In some cases, transgender people elect to self-identify as a gender that is neither male (non-man) nor female (non-woman).
Can one self-identify in whatever ways one wants and demand, on pain of offence, that such identity be acknowledged both legally and morally?
If someone self-identifies as a horse, then it would be understood that they are the victim of a form of mental illness (without controversy). But horses are not people, so the issue of identity is not the same; we cannot understand what it means to be a horse in the same kinds of ways we can understand what it means to be a man or woman. The concepts of man and woman are bound up with our humanity; the concept of horse is not. Accordingly, instructive parallels cannot be drawn between someone who self-identifies as a horse and someone who self-identifies as a gender that is not consistent with their biological classification, even though horses (like human beings) are also classified biologically as male or female. This raises the question: is there something that it is to be a woman or man, which exists independently of our biological classification? This is a question I feel unqualified to answer, so I shall not try; instead, I want to make some remarks about the logic of self-identification.
Saying that one self-identifies as a man or woman presupposes that there must be something that it is to be a man or woman; something that exists independently of how anyone chooses to identify (be that consistent or inconsistent with biological classification). Yet it is precisely such regular definitions that are challenged by those who self-identify. – If being a man or woman is how one chooses to identify, then this cannot be so. It cannot be so because it makes gender concepts of man and woman answerable to an internal experience of gender identity; this renders unintelligible a public understanding of gender identity because if gender is defined by internal experience then it is impossible for anyone else to understand the definition (I cannot know whether the qualitative dimensions of your experience are the same as mine).
More to the point, even the person who has defined their gender on grounds of their internal experience cannot know if they are being consistent from one day to the next. – For how do they know whether their internal experience of identity today is the same as it was yesterday? There is no (logical) possibility of an independent check because it is their own private sensation that they use to define their gender identity. Whatever they remember will be right and that just means that they cannot be wrong.
That being the case, it is possible for those who self-identify in such ways to take offence in relation to anything that (or anyone who) does not agree with the way in which they self-identify; given that how they self-identify is defined by an internal experience to which no one else (even in principle) has access, there is no sense in which it is possible to definitely establish what they will find offensive from one day to the next. Provided they believe their internal experience by which they define their gender to be the same from one day to the next, they will believe that how they are behaving in relation to it is consistent. This at least raises the prospect of radically inconsistent behaviour on the part of the self-identifying subject, which they fail to recognise in themselves; and this, of course, may have profound implications in terms of how others respond to them.