There’s an interesting conversation happening on Twitter regarding trans identities and semantics and as a writer, I like talking about words, so let’s unpack some thoughts I have about this whole thread of discussion.
I want to start by noting that words have different utility in different contexts, and the degree of precision and definition with regard to the shared understanding of a word matters differently in different contexts, and to different people.
What I mean by this is that the degree to which the definition of a word is important to you changes on the basis of how the received understanding of that word will affect your life and outcomes that you have preferences about.
The definition of “what is a woman” matters a lot to me if I’m specifically looking for individuals who don’t have male genitalia for some purpose where this is very important to me personally due to my preferences (intercourse being one example).
And then there’s the argument about wanting language to be precise and have clear categorizations of things so that shared understanding can occur. I got into a fight with my brother about this once because he feels that words should mean something specific for shared context.
And while I agree with that in principle, I have several quibbles with it when applied to discussions about semantics around trans identities, and the first is that even if you have very clear definitions for words, you can’t ever expect everyone to share those definitions.
Either because of simple ignorance (someone may not know what the word you chose means) or because of culture (the word means something different across cultural contexts) or because of a different perspective about the world.
It’s impossible to talk seriously about “words” without talking about communication because that’s what words are for, and as soon as we move from words to communication we’re no longer dealing with something you can point to in a static reference (like a dictionary).
Communication is about building shared understanding of a concept you’re trying to convey to another party and this may require you to use words in ways that differ from their literal meanings because of how they will be received by the other party. It’s a dance.
Not only because they may not understand your word as you mean it but also because the emotional character of words chosen may resonate in a way with the other party that interferes with the proper reception of your idea (which again is the intent of communication).
To deny that this is so is intellectually dishonest or (at best) willfully stubborn because you’re insisting that everyone uses definitions on your terms only rather than trying to build shared understanding. You will not be invited back to dinner if you’re going to do this.
When most people object to the categorization of trans women as “women”, they have many reasons for doing so, but in practice those reasons almost always tend to be rooted in policy positions about what rights/privileges should be permitted for trans women vs cis women.
This is up to and including battles over what level of _status_ and dignity one feels should be afforded to trans women.
While there are exceptions I’ve found that most people objecting don’t have a similar preference for purity of language elsewhere.
So clearly the definitions we apply to the word “woman” matter a LOT to people and with good reason! We have very specific rules and customs in society that are exclusive to gender definitions. It’s not surprising that people are very sensitive about blurring those lines.
And furthermore these definitions are very important! Our norms and customs with respect to “women” often serve to provide spaces and customs that separate them intentionally from men for a variety of reasons that we generally (but not universally) agree are good.
And of course the place this becomes ESPECIALLY salient for people is in dating, since generally people are surprised and dismayed if what they find with clothes off is different than what they feel was advertised to them.
So in this context, it’s impossible to disentangle the strict dictionary definition of the word “woman” from the social rules and obligations we apply to “women” and 99% of the time serves as a proxy for an argument about the roles of trans women in some aspect of society.
But the problem of course is that when used as a proxy like this it obscures individual attitudes about WHICH social aspect of participation one might be objecting to trans women taking part in, which makes it very difficult to have an honest and nuanced discussion.
Because it then comes down to a binary argument where the stakes are very high. Either trans women “are women” and should be afforded all the same rights and privileges as cis women or we aren’t. Without nuance, there’s no middle ground.
But this is unfortunate because it’s obvious that there ARE differences between cis and trans women and we SHOULD have a discussion about what that means and what’s acceptable. Pretending this is not true is not helpful.
Even worse is that it makes either side arguing with blanket terms look idiotic and dishonest to the other. Even if I were to agree that trans women “are not women”, by the same standard we are very clearly not men.
And you can argue all you like about biological distinctions and that’s fine, but again, that’s not really what anyone cares about—they care about the social handling. And in a social context, you would be hard pressed to categorize trans women as men by almost any measure.
Unless you’re cherry picking specific vectors that are largely arbitrary and anyone can do this to serve whatever ideological position they’d like to take WRT trans categorization.
So as I explained earlier, because the point of communication is shared understanding of concepts, we now find ourselves in the impossible situation that there is NOT a broadly acceptable way to apply (or not apply) the term “woman” to trans women that works universally.
Because everyone comes at the discussion with different needs, opinions, and preferences about women as a category that vary wildly with respect to whether trans women can fairly be categorized as such.
But the problem is that many people just don’t want to engage with the debate or acknowledge the problem. You’re not going to get a fair, nuanced policy discussion about the point by point ways we might make space for trans people with someone who just wants us not to exist.
For one thing, most people don’t care that much because like all humans, they don’t worry about things that don’t affect them much personally. It’s only when it touches their lives directly that they form an opinion on it and only in that arena.
And for another, it’s kind of exhausting and super hard to solve. I’ve burned so many hours thinking and talking about the issue of trans people in sports with lots of different people and I still don’t have great answers there. And that’s just one vector, as an example.
So because you can’t have a clear and point by point discussion of how to treat a class of people battling for broad acceptance in the cultural mainstream against other people trying to not have us there, and people don’t wanna talk about it at all unless it annoys them...
It leaves us in this weird stupid proxy battle over whether trans women are “really” women because for many people answering “no” to that question satisfies them and they have no interest in discussing all the other ways that makes life very difficult for trans people.
So even though many trans women probably agree _factually_ and privately that there are obvious differences between trans and cis people, admitting that in public causes significant issues with social handling of trans people that creates horrible distress.
And you kind of HAVE to take the “trans women are women” position if you want to enlist allies and fight for things like dignity and medical access and the ability to function in a largely binary society.
Even though you know this is an intentional misuse of the definition as many people mean it, because there’s no other way to get them to pause and appreciate the nuance required to acknowledge the peculiar nuances of the situation. You’re forced into the proxy battle.
That said, I have a problem with this as a tactic for exactly the flip side of the issue I just described, which is that when you forget (or never understood) this as a proxy position, you make the same mistake as your opposition and forget to look at nuance.
Which is that some of the objections to permitting trans women into certain aspects of female spheres may HAVE MERIT and we should talk about that because it’s important.
And to do that properly we have to examine why those gender differentiations exist in the first place and to what degree trans women as a broad category fit or don’t fit the criteria there, without denying them dignity and access to other appropriate spheres in the process.
And also acknowledging that people are different and needs are different and that a 16-yo who began her transition last week will be very different from a 40-yo who transitioned 20 years ago, which is also part of the problem of discussions around this without clarity.
All this to say I find it very grating when people use the “trans women are women” argument as a blanket wedge to demand access to spaces without respect to how the people in those spaces may feel about it. This serves no one and looks tactless and rude...
And unfortunately this is very common and even more unfortunately is an exceptionally male pattern way of interacting which often the person making the demand is wholly unaware of. 😓
Because if I’m going to generalize here, women tend to be much more consensus and permission driven than men in our culture and ESPECIALLY in social settings and to demand access to female spaces you have not been invited into is not something most cis women get away with.
So it’s ironic to think we could claim a female social role and than expect people to be cool with immediately turning around and violating a really common norm of female interaction by using that identity to take rather than ask for acceptance.
And now I’m really veering off into something that could basically be a whole book on its own so I won’t spend too much more time unpacking it... but all this to say that I think the proxy battle is a necessary one for trans people.
And yet the necessity of it doesn’t mean that it’s okay to abuse it as a means to avoid the more nuanced discussions of boundaries that we really ought to have respect for. Chesterton’s Fence is there for a reason.