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As part of our ongoing events series with The Philosopher, Robin Dembroff, a philosopher at Yale University, sat down with political theorist Paisley Currah to discuss Currah’s new book, Sex Is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, they address the state’s role in defining sex and gender, efforts to reform discriminatory anti-trans legislation, the limits of neoliberal identity politics, the conservative weaponization of gender, and more. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Learn more about our Fall 2022 philosophy event series.
Anthony Morgan: This event—Why Does the State Care About Your Gender—brings together leading gender theorists Paisley Currah and Robin Dembroff to consider the work that sex classifications do in structuring politics and policy, asking what the regulation of transgender identity tells us about society’s approach to sex and gender writ large. To give a brief introduction to our speakers: Paisley Currah is a professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His newest book, Sex Is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity, was published this year by New York University Press and will be the major topic of the discussion to follow. Robin Dembroff, who has kindly agreed to be Paisley’s interlocutor for the event today, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Yale. Robin’s first book, Real Men on Top: How Patriarchy Weaponizes Gender, will be published next year by Oxford University Press.
Robin Dembroff: I was really struck by the way that you wove not just story in general, but your own first-person narrative, into the book. As a piece of personal intellectual history, how did you come into writing this book? How does it relate to things that you wrote about earlier in your career? And how does your personal experience as a transgender person inform either your choosing to write on this topic or the content of the book itself?
Paisley Currah: In terms of my own intellectual journey, I had been doing a lot of work on trans advocacy. I was an academic, but I was also doing a lot of advocacy work. It was before there was a professionalized trans movement, so it was just people who had day jobs doing a lot of advocacy. I was very much within this kind of nice, traditional rights-based framework. “Let’s pass a non-discrimination law.” “Let’s get these policies in place.” “Let’s get sex reclassification policies in place.” That work, as it continued, really informed my thinking. My academic sense of self, coming from having a PhD, or going to Cornell at the height of the post-structuralist revolution, shifted. In doing advocacy, I realized there’s a certain technical bureaucratic rationality that I didn’t really understand until I was meeting with policy makers who were talking about sex reclassification. You can read Foucault’s lectures all you want, but until you’re actually talking with officials in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene do you really understand what was going on. However, at a certain point in my work I took a step back from the advocacy. First of all because there were people with paid jobs, and I did not need to burn a hole in my credit card bill anymore, flying around and doing things like that. And second of all, I just thought, I have a PhD. I have an academic job. I could just sit back and actually be a scholar for a few years. Let’s just see how that goes. And I was really interested in this question of sex classification. Why is it so easy for me to change my driver’s license, but it would be so difficult for me to classify as M for the purposes of marriage? Or, why is it so hard to change my birth certificate in Canada? This is in the early 2000s. I was really interested in this problem of contradictions. How is it possible that one person could be two different things? And I was stuck on that for quite a while, because I was trying to solve the contradiction. I was trying to think of some global governing rationality that would explain the contradiction. Then, pretty soon, I realized that was the wrong approach.
RD: I love that you’re trying to solve the contradictions. It’s a very philosophical move of you. And I like that you brought up the reclassification point, because I wanted to ask something about that. The book uncovers the logics of state sex classification by emphasizing reclassification policies, and focus on these edge cases as a way to draw out those logics. Why focus on reclassification as a way to reveal the broader function of classification?
PC: I came into it through an identity politics logic of asking, what’s happening to transgender people? Why is the state sometimes transphobic and sometimes not transphobic? It turned out that sex classification, baked into the architecture of governance, is used to distinguish between men and women and make sure that men, for the most part, get more stuff than women. Transgender people become an accidental byproduct of the use of this distinction to treat men and women differently. It might have been better to use the word gender, because my emails and stuff get blocked because I have the word sex too much in my title. But I decided to use the word sex. For the purposes of the book, as a methodological move, I’m just defining sex as the effect of government decisions. So sex is what the state says it is. I don’t think that’s true necessarily, but from my methodological way to think through these problems, that’s what I understood sex to be. And then of course, gender is so much else. Gender probably powers these decisions. It powers our narratives, our identities, our social arrangements. But I just use the word sex. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m talking about biological sex. I’m talking about the effects of state decisions. I realized that there was so much important work in feminist studies about gender as a distributive mechanism, and there was so much trans stuff focused very specifically on sex reclassification policies. It became clear to me that they could be read together. If trans people change their sex classification, what does that do to the larger edifice of making distinctions between men and women?
RD: Right, right. Would you say that when we focus on reclassification, we put into contrast what affects trans people with what’s affecting the broader population more generally? What do we miss if we focus only on classification?
PC: We usually think that it’s so easy for the government to distinguish between cisgender women and cisgender men. I think the question of sex classification reveals how sex works differently in different state projects. For example, why do different agencies have different rules? It’s a very messy thing. Sometimes they have different rules because they were informed differently by medical communities. Sometimes a town or a city will have different rules because some policy maker’s sister was a trans woman. It could be very messy. But in some sense, I did see some patterns. For example, state agencies that focus on tracking populations over space like giving people driver’s licenses that have an M or an F on it. DMVs were, in the United States always the earliest to make it possible for people to change their sex classification, and also the earliest to drop onerous barriers like surgery. So I would think, from a trans rights perspective, “That’s great. They’re not transphobic.” And then I compared those decisions to appellate decisions on trans people and marriages. People who had changed all their identity documents in the earlier part of the century, before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, were found to have the sex assigned to them at birth for the purposes of marriage. And this is in cases of divorce and custody disputes and so on. I realized that it depends on what sex was doing in these particular regimes that changed the definition. That logic should take us back into thinking about how gender itself, even when we’re talking about purportedly cisgender people, operates differently in different government agencies and institutions.
RD: I really love that you pull that out in the book too. I think sometimes we can have this homogeneous view of “the state,” and you really pull out that there are so many different regulatory agencies that often have different interests or different purposes for sex classification. A transgender person can have one sex marked on their birth certificate and another one on their driver’s license, and have to move between these different regulatory agencies in different ways.
PC: I got stuck on that for a while, because I was, again, trying to solve this contradiction. There was just M and F, and now X, and I was still stuck in the idea that it should be based on gender identity or something. And then it took me a while to go, there are many different definitions of sex, and there are many different state actors, and they’re both plural forces, and they’re producing different effects. But it took me a while to figure that out.
RD: I think I’ll touch on the last thing you said about having an X on the birth certificate, or adding additional classifications to the taxonomies. Recently there’s been a large push, particularly from people on the left, to just expand the taxonomies of sex classification, to add agender, add non-binary, add X, etc. I take it from your book, and I’m very sympathetic with this line, that you think that that kind of political aim doesn’t go far enough, or maybe it just goes in the wrong direction altogether. So I’m wondering if you can say more about what you think about these kinds of aims. Do you think that there’s any legitimate role for state sex classification?
PC: That’s a really good question. One of the things I did, because I was trained as a political theorist, was just step back from and temporarily bracket any larger questions about justice and normative claims, and just try to figure out what was happening. But I definitely understand these aims. As someone who has changed every possible identity document I can, I think it’s vitally important for trans people to be able to get whatever M, F, or X, or whatever marker we want in an identity document. I definitely think that’s important. But what I want us to be able to do, too, from a larger perspective, is understand what is happening when we’re pursuing solely a politics of recognition. That politics of recognition also goes along with passing non-discrimination laws, and getting good trans inclusive policies. I’m for all of that and for all non-discrimination laws and all trans inclusive policies. But it doesn’t really get at the larger structures that affect trans people’s lives in terms of their health, their own longevity, the livability of trans lives. The three policy changes that would help the most transgender people the most are not trans-specific. They are the United States having a national publicly funded health care plan, and different than the one in England so that it’s funded enough to make sure people get the services they need. Also, prison abolition and doing as much as we can to end income inequality. Passing a non-discrimination law isn’t enough. There are all these stats that float around, for example a study that came out recently talking about the vulnerability to early death that trans people face, especially trans women of color. And it’s not like that vulnerability to early death is only happening in the red states in the United States. It’s a blue state problem as well. My goal is to get people to obviously continue to pass these good trans-inclusive policies, but also to step back and see how sex is still implicated in structural oppression.
RD: I love that, especially the structural point. One of the things you say in your book is that you don’t want to focus on changes in these laws through a lens of intentional transphobia. You’re instead focused on the structural regulation of populations. You don’t you don’t use this language in the book, at least as I saw, but I thought of it as almost like a structural transphobia in the same way that we talk about structural racism. And I’m curious, would you agree with that characterization?
PC: That’s an interesting way to think about it, thank you so much for reading the book so well. What I want to do is move away from understanding a policy as transphobic or not. For example, in New York City, we think we have this great birth certificate policy. Anybody who was born here in the city can change their birth certificate to M, F, or X. There’s not too much paperwork. There’s no medical affidavits. It’s really great. And so that seems like it’s not transphobic. And in some sense, of course, it’s not transphobic. On the other hand, babies that are born in New York City still get an M or an F. Everybody else is part of this set classification system. It becomes really clear that the mayor and the city council of New York were reaching out to the transgender community as a political constituency to give them what they wanted. But it doesn’t necessarily end all sex classification, or even, for example, the DMV policies. It’s in the state interest for us to be recognized. It doesn’t help the police officer pulling me over if I hand over a driver’s license that says F on it. So the policy is not transphobic, but it’s almost accidentally not transphobic. Later in the discussion we can get to the new wave of actually existing intense transphobia. That is a different thing. So I wanted people to understand more what sex was doing as a technology of government, instead of just thinking of it as bureaucrats being mean or good to transgender people.
RD: Right. In your book you talk about the fact that M or F is secured to infants even in New York where there are these very liberal policies. One of the claims you make that I found really striking is, “securing M or F to someone is a constitutively violent process.” I think that language of inherent violence will be surprising to many people. So I wanted to give you an opportunity to say more about why do you see this bureaucratic process as a constitutively violent one.
PC: I take that from one of the founders, or maybe the founder, of transgender studies, Susan Stryker and her really important piece “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” from the early 1990s. She talks about this moment of securing gender to infants as a moment of constitutive violence, which is why the trans community says “assigned sex at birth.” We tend not to say “birth sex” except sometimes as short form. We want to talk about how the person that gets produced by that label is going to access to different kinds of opportunities and resources. That is central to trans studies and central to my work. I see that as this kind of constitutive violence Derrida , and see the state as a complicated plurality. All over the place, not always based in constitutions, but rather accretions of practices and norms and unwritten rules. Putting those two things together, it’s this moment of labeling of constitutive violence and understanding that it’s happening differently in all these different power centers. Moving away from the idea of the state is this kind of unitary, hierarchical, rational thing, and seeing it instead as all these different assemblages of norms and rules, operating sometimes at different purposes.
RD: Do you see that multiplicity as creating an ability to move between different jurisdictions in a way it gives more space for movement? Does it give more space for people to find ways to be able to be reclassified? Or does it create even more of a problem for trans people, because now they have this split classification across jurisdictions, and it actually makes things harder? Maybe the answer is both. Do you have a view about the effect of this kaleidoscopic landscape on trans people or people who are generally non-conforming?
PC: That’s a really good question. One could say, there’s a contradiction in how I’m classified, and that’s not my fault. I always go back to this Stuart Hall quote, where he’s talking about Thatcher’s England and says, it’s the academic’s idea that if they just point out the contradictions, the whole edifice will just come crumbling down. But in fact, for example, if you’re arrested by a sheriff and you’re put in what you think is the wrong prison, and you point to your birth certificate, they don’t care. It’s not just the existence of a contradiction or a difference, but it’s also always about the old-fashioned, non-Foucauldian state power of locking you up. Sometimes I don’t focus so much on the potential for resistance. On the other hand I’ve gotten a couple of comments like that, and it is interesting to think about in terms of people being able to remake themselves.
RD: I want to circle back now, you said something to the effect of that you’re not talking about biological sex. You’re not talking about the debates that exist about whether there is, and if so, what it is, some sort of biological basis for sex classification. I wanted to invite you to say more about that. Someone could look at your book and say that it’s talking about a completely different thing than all the scholarship that’s talking about biological sex classification, because what you’re talking about, and you’re very explicit about this, is something that is created by institutional pronouncement. So you say that sex classifications are produced through the varied decisions that result in the classification. The state speaks it into existence, so to speak. I’m wondering, do you think that this is a completely different conversation than ones about biological sex? Or do you think there’s some sort of interrelation or even interdependence between these two conversations?
PC: I think discourses around biological sex are super important, but I think one of the things we can see from the work by people like Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, is that, as we know, there’s no biological sex answer when it comes to thinking about gender identity. And one could produce any number of different decisions about which particular criteria of the body we might decide to make stand for sex. So I think that discourse around biological sex matters, but it’s such a messy concept itself that it’s not going to really provide the answer that a politics would. I mean, of course, people want to go to nature. My friends who are legal advocates, they want to go to science and nature, and I totally agree with that as a strategy in the courts. I think it’s great. But I think in terms of a larger political, a larger political frame, it can’t really provide an answer.
RD: My next question was going to be something about the ideology of biological sex that you see functioning in these state contexts. Do you find lawmakers to be aware of this constitutive pronouncement effect of sex classification? Or do they take themselves to be tracking some sort of binary biological reality? And then my next question is, if it’s the case that sex classification isn’t really tracking some biological reality, because there is no binary reality to be had or there is no one-to-one correlation with biological features and how people either are seen by others or prefer to be seen by others, why is it that appealing to nature or science is a good strategy in the courts?
PC: Well, I’ll speak to the last question first. I think it’s a good strategy in the courts, because we’ve seen with some of these anti-trans legislation cases in Republican states, friends of mine who litigate those cases are getting Trump appointed judges and they’re still winning. It seems like they’re really going against the odds. Then they get all the 22 major medical associations weighing in, and they put a kid in front of a judge, focusing on moving the discussion to the harm a policy is going to cause a young person. They move it away from abstract definitions of who is right, which is a really good move, because the right wing wants us to be debating gender ideology. First of all, they’re not doing it in good faith. Second of all, that’s not a debate we’re going to win in terms of thinking about public opinion. So if we can talk about the effects of policies on actual people and say, who knows what your definition of sex and gender is, but here’s this kid. They have strongly felt themselves to be a girl since they were three, and you want to make this kid change their name to John and wear pants and use the boy’s bathroom? What’s that going to do to this kid? So I do agree with recourse to those arguments, it could be very effective. Could rephrase the first part of your question?
RD: The first part was about whether you’ve found that lawmakers really buy into the myth of a binary structure to human biological constitution? Or whether they’re, like you said, in bad faith, aware that they’re appealing to something that doesn’t exist, and doing it as a political maneuver?
PC: I hadn’t really thought of it like that. But I think what’s happening now is sort of in bad faith, right? In Utah they passed a bill saying trans girls can’t play on girls teams, etc. The governor of Utah, who is a Republican, vetoed the bill, and the legislature overrode the bill. So it passed. But basically there are 75,000 students in Utah who play high school sports. There was one trans girl playing high school sports, and there had been no complaints about her. They’re passing this bill just for political purposes. We see the same thing in Texas, where 250 people died when the electrical grid failed. The legislative priority of the State of Texas, of the governor of Texas, was to make sure trans kids can’t play sports. So I do think there’s some kind of bad faith going on now, for sure. But looking at legislative stuff about sex classification from years ago, I think they’re just not interrogating the assumptions. I have this long quote in the book, I just could not stop quoting it, from a legislative hearing in Tennessee where these people were saying, you can’t just change your sex. And the advocates were saying, well, you can change your name. You can add adoptive parents. You can really actually change a lot. They’re like, but you can’t change your sex. It’s a historical record. So I think they weren’t going to be swayed for political reasons. I think it was kind of, I hate to say good faith in that context, but I think they were doing something different that’s happening now, which is really kind of a bad faith weaponizing of trans issues to that will result in harming people. And they know better. They know better.
RD: Right. I really liked that exchange in the book between those different policy makers. One of the things that struck me was the slide you say exists between a descriptive historical claim and a prescriptive claim. Even while they’re claiming that it’s a purely descriptive marker, they also expect it to have all sorts of prescriptive implications for how someone can live and move through the world, which you draw out by talking about what sex does. Right? Like what is it? What’s the function?
PC: I know. It’s fun talking to you, because you say all these smart things about the book I wish I had thought of myself. But that’s what happens when you talk to a philosopher. But thank you.
RD: That’s very generous of you. Going back to the current legal political moment, one of the claims that you make in the book, which I also found really striking, is that part of the reason why trans people have been able to access reclassification more and more is because sex has been doing less at the state level. It’s become less important as a state marker, and that’s opened up space for reclassification. It becomes less important in some ways to a lot of these bodies. But it also seems like in the current political moment, the far right is trying to reassert the importance of sex classification. I’m wondering if you can talk about that, how you see what sex does as a dynamic and an adaptive thing within the state and how that’s appearing in our current moment.
PC: That’s a really good question. I want to bring up something that goes largely unrecognized in the way the trans rights movement, at least the United States, narrates itself. It’s narrated as an identity politics movement. Here’s a group. We’re discriminated against. We are fighting back. We are making advocacy. We’re winning. There’s not as much calling back to the liberal feminism that caused these barriers to be erased. This is partly because trans stuff is sort of hip, and women and gender studies is sort of slightly unhip, especially second wave feminism, or the liberal feminism variety. The state’s ability to distinguish between men and women was largely eroded over the course of the 20th century. There’s just a few areas now, Selective Service, maybe a couple of others. And so as those barriers go down, and the biggest one being the ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, the policy makers get much more chilled out about letting people change their sex reclassification. We saw that in New York around birth certificates, because they were worried that a cisgender lesbian would marry another cisgender lesbian if one of them could say, I’m a trans man, and I can get married. And they were worried that it would be a way around the marriage ban. So I think there’s an unacknowledged debt to old-fashioned liberal feminism. But now there’s this weird moment where the Republicans are trying to re-prosecute the gender wars. I used to say that it’s not like they’re going to come out and say women have to wear skirts to work, or women shouldn’t go to work, but actually I might stop saying that, because maybe they are saying that. But they’re using trans in a way to kind of re-prosecute, what is it to be a woman? What is to be a man? Who’s a proper woman? Who’s a proper man? And so they could focus on the trans, but it also obviously has this larger discursive effect on masculinity and femininity and who belongs and who doesn’t. So I think that that’s a way to get to get back into the gender wars. At least that’s probably what I would have said a year ago. Now I think they’re just going directly at women too, with Dobbs, and the stuff in these in these states where they’re saying kids have to wear clothes that are associated with a gender assigned at birth. That’s not just affecting trans kids. In Utah there was a girl who won something, and the parents of the other competitors said oh maybe she’s trans. Let’s investigate her. Like the kid was not trans. But this kid had every school record going back to kindergarten examined. Right? What 13-year-old kid would play a sport if they thought that a committee of state experts were going to examine their school records to see everything about their body and their gender? So it has a huge effect on cisgender people as well.
RD: I want to ask one more question. I think a really important piece of your book draws together the transgender rights movement and the feminist movement more broadly. In philosophy, I think that this is particularly important, because a lot of the anti-trans activists who call themselves gender critical feminists come out of philosophy. They’re using a lot of philosophical ideas, coming out of Janice Raymond and so on, to try to prop up this opposition, as if the rights of trans people and the rights of women are at odds with each other. One of the things I took from your book is that when we pay attention to the way that sex classification works and how it functions, we see that there’s common ground between these two movements. Actually, there’s a lot of space for solidarity between them. I want to invite you to say more about how you think your book opens up or illuminates these overlapping spaces.
PC: I think that’s an area that hasn’t been acknowledged as much, the effect of the women’s movement on the ability of trans people to negotiate and move through the world and change policies. And for contingent historical reasons, in the United States, it was lesbian, gay, bisexual, and then transgender. Transgender just became part of the queer movement, which I understand sociologically, and even politically, but it was always about gender. When we started to write this legislation 20 years ago, it was talking about gender identity and expression and gender norms and case law that stereotypes women as having to wear certain kinds of clothes. These issues were clearly related. It just became kind of palatable to narrate trans as part of LGBT and queer, which I which I totally get. But I think we’ve really lost something. We’ve lost something with that. I guess I live in a kind of feminist trans bubble, but it just makes me speechless to see how trans can be seen as opposed to gender equality in some contexts.
AM: Thank you both so much for that really well-structured and fluid, very interesting conversation. There are some questions that have already popped in. In a review of Sex Is as Sex Does, one attendee saw a reference to the intriguing phrase ”gender chaos.” What is this? And isn’t chaos likely to create the kinds of reactionary responses that we are currently seeing? People don’t seem to like chaos much.
PC: I know. I know people don’t like chaos much. I have a 13-year-old, and they had to do a report on gender stuff for their school, and they had to interview an expert. And I didn’t make the short list of experts. And that that’s because they’re on Tik Tok, and I don’t know, there’s so much I don’t know about gender. There’s so many terms I don’t know. There are so many names. There’s so many identities. There’s so many flags. I just learned today that there’s a ring for some groups. So you might see yourself in this this flowering of gender diversity and gender pluralism. And I think it’s possibly right that many people don’t like that chaos. From my perspective, I talk about gender chaos in terms of gender pluralism, and I make the analogy with disestablishment. In the United States, religion is disestablished, supposedly, maybe not. But gender could be disestablished, and we could get the state out of regulating gender. And I do agree with that. But from a critical perspective, the one nervousness I have about gender pluralism and discourses of gender pluralism is that the asymmetrical power relations between men and women drops out of the picture. Certainly in terms of formal legal equality, there’s no asymmetrical power relations. But in terms of who gets paid what, and violence and things like that, there are certainly still a lot of asymmetry. And so from my perspective, I get nervous around only celebrating gender pluralism without finding a way to keep analysis of misogyny right in there.
AM: Thank you. Robin, was there anything you wanted to pick up on in that question?
RD: I think a lot of the gender chaos that Paisley reveals in his book is not chaos that trans people have created or that feminists have created. It’s chaos that‘s been revealed to already exist within the state structures. The chaos that already is there gets covered over with this ideology of biological essentialism. So it’s not like it’s being created. It’s just being illuminated. And same with all the different varieties of gender expression and so on. Now they’re getting names, and they’re on Tik Tok. But they weren’t not there before. They’re just being highlighted.
AM: Thank you. That’s great. So the next questions picks up on something Paisley said earlier in the talk. It asks you to say more about how the policy suggestions you mentioned, e.g., prison abolition and reduced income inequality, would be especially useful to trans people as opposed to policies that appear more trans-specific?
PC: Sure. In progressive jurisdictions that have non-discrimination laws and good identity document policies, we still see people who are overincarcerated, who are not living as long as their cisgender peers and their white peers. We still see all these kinds of problems. In one chapter of the book, which is not exactly about sex classification, it’s about prison policy and the concept of transgender, we see transgender rights advocates saying, oh, if we just pass these non-discrimination laws, then trans people won’t have to do survival sex and other things that are criminalized and won’t end up in jail. That argument is OK. It maybe works rhetorically. But it presupposes that jail is good, that it’s fine to put people in jail for sex work or using drugs or things like that. And it doesn’t acknowledge the role of prisons and the carceral complex in the role of the economy. It’s more of a minor neoliberal rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sort of approach, instead of understanding that people are incarcerated because it’s an economic policy in the United States. It’s not because of transphobia, per se. So I just think I’m, again, for all these little laws or politics of recognition, but I just think they’re not going to solve the problems we have. Sadly we have a lot bigger problems to face.
AM: Right. The next question asks about the differences between the state’s role in control versus care in terms of sex re-classification.
PC: That’s interesting. In terms of care, I’m thinking about the Department of Homeless Services in New York City, for example, which was much quicker to change its policy to house people based on gender identity, versus the State Department of Corrections, which changes its policy all the time, but is much more likely to house people according to the status of their genitals. Policies are changing slowly, but the whole point of prisons is to produce pain, is to distribute pain. Ensuring that people feel safe and comfortable in a carceral complex is not the role of prisons. The so-called care segments of the public sector are supposed to be a bit more about those kinds of things. But it really depends on resources, too. In New York City, for example, drug treatment centers that involve beds and placements were terrible for transgender people, because the centers felt like they couldn’t provide care for the cisgender clients if transgender people were provided with beds. It makes me think of something Foucault says, he was talking about governmentality, that it’s too boring to study, it’s kind of for his grad students to do. Whether transgender people are cared for or not often depends on like these little kind of minute factors, like the architecture, the funding, the beds.
AM: One attendee asks, should sex classification be abolished or reformed? If you agree with the latter, reform to do what, exactly?
PC: I think I can answer that together with another question I see, of whether there is a way to ensure analysis of structural inequalities while at the same time abolishing administrative sex distinction. I think sex classification now in the United States doesn’t really, except for Selective Service, serve any purposes. It’s on our birth certificates, for example, for cultural reasons. So Mayor de Blasio in New York City was not going to take sex off birth certificates, because it would just cause too much of a furor amongst most of the population. Even as we’re talking about disestablishing sex or making it easier for people to change their sex classification, we’re also at the height of gender reveal parties. So culturally, it still matters. And so insofar as the government or state agencies deliver what people are culturally expecting, it’s going to be a long battle. I think administrative sex classification is getting abolished in progressive jurisdictions and not getting abolished in red jurisdictions because of culture wars around gender. But I think the battle of our structural inequalities can take place as we’re trying to reform these policies. We can do both, and we can try to get the state out of the business of defining sex.
AM: Thank you. I’ll read the next question. “I was intrigued by the suggestion that it might make more sense strategically from a trans rights perspective to focus on the harm caused by particular policies rather than theoretical arguments about the nature of gender. I’m wondering whether Paisley thinks there is any positive role to be played by more philosophically oriented work on gender, or should these sorts of questions be bracketed entirely? One thought I had is that the case of non-binary gender identities, for example, necessarily leads to more conceptual conflicts, which it might not be possible to bracket.”
PC: I certainly think that philosophical inquiry is important. I’m going to punt that over to Robin, because I think people in philosophy, I’m just vaguely aware, they have a lot of opinions. So over to Robin.
RD: I think the philosophical work goes hand in hand with the kind of work that Paisley is doing. Those of us who are theorizing around gender are addressing a lot of widely accepted predominant myths. Gender as natural, gender as binary and discrete and dimorphic and so on. We’re drawing from work not only by people in feminist biology or feminist science, like Ann Fausto-Sterling and Cordelia Fine, but also from people like Paisley, who are uncovering where all that myth falls apart at the social level, at the legal level, at the institutional level. That’s important for doing that theoretical work. So when we ask “what is gender,?” and there’s this dominant view of common sense that there’s men and women and that’s it. Then we can go to this important historical and empirical work done by people like Paisley and show that at every possible level of analysis process that kind of view falls apart. And from there you have open space to rebuild a view that can take into account all of that empirical and historical data.
AM: Thanks, Robin. That was great. Paisley, you want to pick up on what Robin said?
PC: I definitely agree. I think we need to come up with all sorts of different ways of explaining gender. For me, I was interested in looking at the effects of gender norms and arrangements on these decisions about sex. But we can’t give up making those larger arguments, for sure. The point about harm is just that when arguing against someone who watches Fox News and is a judge appointed by Trump, it’s much better to focus on specific harm to a body or person, than get into debates about gender. But we do hope to change the minds of lots of other kinds of people.
RD: I hope that one of the things that people within philosophy will pay attention to, is the place where those two conversations come together. So in showing how the uncovered ideology of gender is thoroughly intertwined with material harms, instead of just talking about the ideas and leaving the empirical observations and the systemic harms that are part of this ideological system to the side.
AM: Thank you. This will probably end up being the last question. It picks up on the title of today’s event, which is, Why Does the State Care About Your Gender, and asks, does the state care? And why does the state not care enough about the health of, for example, trans and non-binary folks?
PC: That’s an interesting way to think about the play on words in terms of care. Because in the U.S context, we say the state’s supposed to protect the safety, health, and well-being of the population. But with the HIV rates among some trans communities, and the inability of state agencies to even ask questions about those rates of disease and sickness for a long time, shows the state doesn’t care about certain populations. Not to say that that’s always true across the board. Dean Spade, who’s done a lot of work on transgender rights, has a book on mutual aid, and brings those things together in terms of the community doing stuff to care for each other. We see this in GoFundMe fundraisers for rent and surgery and mutual aid sort of things. Sometimes the left, the old-fashioned left, poopoos mutual aid, but I do think communities coming together to provide for each other is not necessarily letting the state off the hook. It provides a template for how we can care for each other and advocate for change.
AM: Thank you. Robin, I was wondering which bits of Paisley’s book you may take away and incorporate into the manuscript for Real Man on Top, which you’re working on? I mean, where would Paisley’s book as a political theorist cross over with your work as a philosopher?
RD: There are many places where I could incorporate things from this book into my book. But one that really struck me is the argument for the overlap between what’s in transgender people’s interests and what’s in women’s interests at this level of sex classification. And I think the arguments that Paisley makes at the level of the state can also be expanded more broadly to just social sex classification as well.
AM: OK, fantastic. Paisley, any final words?
PC: Yes. My publisher kind of hates when I say this, but the book is really a critique of left neoliberalism. Right? You should all buy it, so I get my 84 cents a copy. But it doesn’t really get to the current political moment. So that’s my new project. The current political moment is a different moment. We’re moving from bureaucrats who are not transphobic, and not not transphobic, to the weaponization of gender where, for example, the state legislature of Oklahoma passes a bill that says it will never issue a non-binary birth certificate. It’s a different moment we’re in, and I think that we need to not only pay attention to capitalism and neoliberalism, but also develop some new skills for the way gender is weaponized directly against transgender people now.
Paisley Currah is a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Political Science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His book Sex is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity is published by New York University Press.
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