Apr 2, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

I have trouble separating transgenderism from, call it, "tomboyishness". Describing transgenderism as a sense like sight, taste and touch helps but alluding to barbies and hot wheels undoes a lot of that work, making transgenderism a label for people with astereotypical preferences. I really don't like that sentence. Even as a sense, I don't think I understand transgenderism. I feel like a blind person trying to learn about color. But, the article helped nonetheless. I've moved from completely confused to just confused.

If you need a block quote for Facebook that won't get you banned, I'd use this:

"But our inability to name the thing makes it impossible for us to see the thing, which in turn makes it impossible for us to study the thing, to know the thing, to interact with the thing. In a society where "water" is erased from the language, recognized only through facets of itself rather than as a unified whole... well, let's just say that society is going to have a lot of trouble building bridges, or hydroelectric dams, or wells, or raising crops, or putting out fires."

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Apr 2, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

"...Jenkins and trans-inclusive feminist theory seem to find this embarrassing, and bury it beneath several layers of theory, oppression, and subjectivity... but, in the final analysis, the definition of WomanB is incoherent without eventual reference to "the female role in biological reproduction."..."

Is the reason for burying it because it points out the fact that they can never fully be what they want? That there will always be a doubt in other people's minds (maybe even their own) about what they are until the unobtainable thing is destroyed?

"...Since gender-id is far more subjective than biosex, the only way to learn someone's "correct" pronouns in this system is to ask that person. (That person will have presumably selected appropriate pronouns after a process of self-reflection.)..."

There is a problem here about who can properly day they have daily-reflected. And given self-reflection is a never ending process there is never a certainty about proper usage.

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Apr 3, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

Had an interesting conversation with my wife about this article. She raised concerns around the issue of pronouns, among other things, when instructing our kids. We are traditional protestant Christians. We adhere, as much as we sinners are able, to live according to the Word. We, subsequently, want to be both loving and align ourselves to Truth. We can often manage this, but with for kids of varying ages it is increasingly hard to raise them to be Godly, but also loving. The semantics of love in this case are not what might be called worldly love but Godly love (i.e agape). This extreme dichotomy puts us in quite the pickle. And kids rarely allow for nuanced, tactful conversations while in the moment. Even if the topic had been broached ahead of time.

I would be interested in anyone's thoughts on this.

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Apr 5, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

An entire behemoth of an article without a single footnote? And yet it still managed to be one of your strongest ones yet! I haven’t spent much/any time thinking about this topic as I’m one of those progressives you mention who is following along with today’s cultural norm out of a desire not to offend. If I learn of someone’s preferred pronouns I try to remember to use them, and have my own (he/him) pronouns listed in my email signature at work in an effort to promote inclusivity. Not having done much/any reading on the topic I really appreciated the painstaking efforts you went through to describe WomanA and WomanB in the way that you did. Maybe this definition is always out there during thinkpieces, but it was minimally new to me.

After 6+ years of revisions you seem to have accomplished the commendable result of neither immediately putting your foot in your mouth by stepping in to a loudly polarizing position nor watering down the piece so much that it doesn’t provide value.

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Apr 5, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

Thanks for the carefully considered article. I would like to gently point out that the second half seems to be largely based on the "eskimo words for snow" line of linguistic thought, which has been thoroughly debunked. The idea that words lead to thoughts is very popular, but the reality is that thoughts lead to words. We can all worry that newspeak will control our minds (and lots of people do, right and left), but it might as well try to stop the wind from blowing with a paper fan.

That is to say, you can use preferred pronouns without any realistic linguistic worry that you're contributing to the erasure of the concept of womanA.

(Not that erasure of womanA is the goal of proponents of womanB. WomanB proponents just want to use more inclusive language - and the concern that use of inclusive language will erase traditional concepts seems to be largely rooted in discredited linguistic theory.)

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I do think your point about how both womanA and womanB definitions are relevant is useful, and so, when regarding a situation as to whether include a trans person, I guess the question is what is relevant in that situation - their gender identity (WomanB) or their biological sex (WomanA). That's an important point to note.

With regards to the pronoun question, this may be merely that being in a generally young lefty social group, I am in a situation where I am to see pronouns merely as a statement of gender identity - I feel like this is what is relevant in this situation (when I am saying "she is my friend", that she may have a uterus is not what is relevant in that situation). But that may just be which side of the fence I fall one as such. An ideal solution would be to just get rid of gendered pronouns altogether (as you've acknowledge, second person is not gendered, nor is 3rd person plural (unlike in, say, French)). But given the nature of language evolution, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

I'm not so sure I agree with your point that the WomanB definition ultimately relies upon WomanA for it to have any meaning. One might say that it's definition is circular, but then one could simply argue that it is a basic concept - it's meaning cannot be reduced down to something else. Or maybe its meaning can be reduced down to something else, just that we don't know what it is yet (maybe there are certain differences in the brain - this is something more scientific research will likely be needed to illuminate). It is possible that gender identity is meant to have an innate link to biological sex (which is why people specifically experience dysphoria), or it is possible that the gender dysphoria arises out of a socialised notion that gender identity and biological sex fundamentally link up, and that the gender dysphoria arises out of this - I dunno. Once again, more scientific research may be needed.

I think its important to recognise that gender identity is not merely the social component to sex - if it was, transgender people wouldn't exist. Rather, one might see gender identity as the psychological component and gender roles as the social component.

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Apr 9, 2022·edited Apr 9, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

James, thanks for writing (and finally publishing!) this. I think it's really good and helpful, in the ways that it rigorously lays out your analysis... and I am (very!) glad to find such an abundance of points of extremely strong resonance and emphatic agreement with my own thinking on this. (And not only on the central thesis, but on sandwich discourse!)

I admit I am rather intensely curious about the nature of your "completely fatal error" that upended everything for you in 2015... but I decided I want to comment, more substantively, to dig into some lesser points of disagreement. (I say "lesser" points, because there are only really two points, and because they are both stacked with JUST enough caveats that I can't say I have any real deep/philosophical disagreement with your conclusions. I mean truly, the entire first half of this, I consider flawless, and you're SO CLOSE to my thinking on the following two points, that I wonder if it's really just a question of differing perceptions, about which people of good will can disagree.)

A. I'll start with the "last" one in your piece, because it's the "easiest", and because there's the least to "unpack" and wade through. Regarding pronouns, it seems to me that you asserted – but did not sufficiently argue for – the idea that "by using [affirming pronouns], you affirm a slate of claims about sex and gender". I gather that you just view this as obvious... a simple (however unfortunate) state of things that seems difficult or impossible to deny. But I do disagree, and accordingly find myself in that category of "friends who agree sex is real but who simply don't agree that using affirming pronouns implicitly denies the reality of sex, so they use affirming pronouns [in good conscience]." And I think the reason for my disagreement is twofold:

A1. While open to being proven wrong, I am EXTREMELY confident that if you surveyed transgender people, and asked them what the usage of affirming pronouns meant TO THEM, you would find very-few-if-any who actually believed that the usage of their pronouns signified ANY sort of broader slate of claims about sex and gender, whatsoever. I really do think they would say something like: it signifies that you respect me, full stop. (FWIW, I think they would also say very much the same thing about your stance with regard to avoiding-offending-pronouns entirely, which is a praiseworthy baseline that I wish we had a real cultural consensus on.)

A2. Beyond this, I think your position is – while not in a problematic way, still in a material way – ultimately doing nothing to COMBAT that horrific polarization on this issue that you (rightly) denounce. My competing argument (or at least, a big piece of it) would be that: the deliberate usage of affirming pronouns – ESPECIALLY by those who DO agree with your three "planks" – is one of the best and most powerful ways we have to start chipping away at that polarization. It's sort of a "lead by example" situation IMHO: where the best path forward is to normalize using preferred pronouns WHILE defending the enduring validity of "WomanA". The more visibility we can get of people vocally adhering to that both/and (ideally, in my unrealistic dream world, especially from the Catholic hierarchy), the more progress we can make in guiding society toward a less polarized settlement, rather than just waiting for it to someday arrive.

(Tangent: It seems to me that there is an immediate parallel/analogue to reflect on, regarding the usage of the word "gay" in Catholic circles. Growing up, my perception was – and I would have agreed with those who argued – that using the word "gay" signified some sort of link to ongoing sexual activity. The turning point that broke me out of that was simply SEEING the existence of Catholics who identified as "gay", but were equally committed to sexual chastity. Pretty quickly after that, I realized that "gay" functioned perfectly-well-if-not-most-coherently as a signifier of "orientation", in a way that was logically compatible with chastity. At that point, all of the voices writing that "Catholics shouldn't call themselves 'gay', because that CoNfUsEs people" started to sound idiotic – because they were needlessly maintaining, if not actively reinforcing, an unnecessary polarization around this word; rather than leaning into the tension, and attempting to promote/defend the value of a counter-cultural witness to defending both/and.)

2. The second (and FAR more complex; also less certain in my mind, although still fairly certain) point of disagreement has to do with your confidence that there is a true and significant hostility to biosex... an influential minority that the concept of WomanA "ought to be be marginalized, ignored, erased from the language, even denied outright". I mean, okay, I don't really doubt that SOME handful of people might desire this. But almost none of your linked/cited examples were really able to convince me that this is what's happening, in a pervasive sense that anyone should actually be concerned about.

For instance, I find myself unpersuaded that a term like "birthing parent" is REALLY emerging out of ANY desire to erase biological sex. Rather, I think – or at least, it seems far more charitable and plausible to me to presume that – terms like this are being driven above all by a simple desire to avoid using disputed terminology: as a means of defusing tensions, and being respectful to various competing camps. Like, if we're dealing with a frustrating flashpoint issue, IMHO it's perfectly understandable for teachers/lawmakers to want to AVOID the flashpoint terminology entirely. If the word "woman" is inevitably going to kick off a firestorm of unpacking and distinguishing two possible usages (do you mean "WomanA", or "WomanB"), and justifying each usage in each instance, and we don't even have a confident BASELINE of unanimity on the 3 planks... then, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ awkward phrases like "individual with a cervix" and "pregnant person" and "birthing parent" seem like AT LEAST SANE middle paths forward, however blunt and clinical. Meanwhile you seemed to be interpreting this as... something more sinister, more fundamentally driven by a desire to ERASE the concept of WomanA. I'm just not sure I really see that happening... and I'm deeply opposed to presuming (or easily "buying into") that lens of interpretation, in the absence of a REALLY rigorous set of evidence that THAT is why people are doing it... when it seems like there are just so many less-sinister motives that would make complete sense.

Similarly with the example of individuals like JK Rowling (which again, I realize, is a whole suitcase with an Undetectable Extension Charm on it that needs unpacking)... my own reading is that her "cancellation" is – most fundamentally – NOT REALLY about her claims regarding biological sex, so much as it is FAR MORE fundamentally tied to her refusal to soften her claims with the necessary concessions/distinctions (e.g. affirming and defending the validity of WomanB), and even more critically, about her decision to support and associate with (or at least definitely not distance herself from) "trans-exclusionary" voices who are using her rhetoric to support unjust exclusionary policies. It's not "mere disagreement" about definitions of words that has been getting her in trouble, but the actual policies/stances that she is consciously associating herself with and (either deliberately or irresponsibly) giving her support to. I think this is too much to unpack here, so, I will just link to two resources that should be able to help lay this reading out more coherently and in-depth than I can: (1) this Twitter thread by Andrew James Carter https://twitter.com/carter_andrewj/status/1270787941275762689 and (2) this video by ContraPoints https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gDKbT_l2us (although odds might be good that you have already seen this, it's very fun and honestly I want to make time to re-watch it myself).

Anyway, thank you again for writing this – and in advance, for any additional comments!

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I owe several replies on this thread, and apologize for my delinquency. (First I was busy with some audio drama things, and then I fell ill.) I will reply!

Meantime, a reader who asked to remain anonymous asked me to share her comment here, as a discussion-stimulator:

"I just gotta LOL at all the dudes commenting on your article like 'idk, is 'birthing parent' really a big deal?' like hi I can't claim to be a woman because there are 'men' who are giving birth and I can't claim to be a woman because there are 'women' who don't have uteruses or cervixes but you're right, dudes on whom this has absolutely no bearing, it's harmless. NBD. No erasure at all! I certainly do not feel like I am being erased! OH. WAIT."

This feeling of erasure has definitely been common, if not pervasive, among the women (womanA) to whom I've spoken offline about these questions.

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Jul 12, 2022Liked by James J. Heaney

you know, I think a deeper question than "what is woman?" actually divides the two sides: "What is 'Human'?"

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Jan 3Liked by James J. Heaney

I'm very late to the party, but I wanted to comment that I appreciate how careful you were with your definitions and trying to stick to non-offensive parts of the debate.

There is a little weirdness in the middle where you justify the necessity of WomanB because conflating WomanA with Woman B led to discriminatory policies against women. I'm not sure that follows. In fact, the way you describe it, it sounds like discriminatory policies against WomenB are totally fine, it's just tragic that there are some smart WomenA there who were lumped in with the WomenB. Instead, maybe the problem was never conflating a woman's gender role with a woman's sex, but rather the limiting gender role for women in the first place was the problem.

It would be like saying that chattel slavery of African Americans was a problem of conflating the role slave with the biological category African American. Instead the real problem was having a role of slave in the first place.

It was just a weird aside that doesn't detract from your point too much. Setting my cards on the table, I am of the belief that gender roles are a real phenomena, but it's not clear at all if it is possible for a male to have an authentic female gender role or vice versa.

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You've put a lot of thought into the semantics, and I admire how you're grappling with what compassion and truth mean in this context. As an anthropologist with some training in linguistics, I struggle to restrain response to the semantic argument, because the most important response here is that a semantic framing misses the mark. The focus in the comments on your pronoun use--on behavior--is your signal that the substance is not semantics. Your essay at one point hits on the substance squarely:

People exist who experience physical suffering in relation to their primary and secondary sex characteristics, and who also usually experience psychological suffering attempting to meet the roles and presentations culturally assigned to people with those characteristics.

How do we treat those people? That is our issue.

Across human history, many cultures have treated these people with respect. Sometimes this has involved a transition across binary gender categories, and other times it involves third, fourth, or additional categories, and I'm not aware that either approach correlates with more humane treatment. Other cultures, including the traditions to which you and I belong, have targeted such people for violence. Amidst this cultural backdrop, early twentieth-century doctors treated transness as a deviance or disorder. Empirical evidence has since established that this approach only causes harm, and that transitioning, and treating people as the gender that they experience, alleviates suffering and saves lives.

So how do we treat these people, now? If we assume that the answer is, "with love and kindness, as our ethics tell us to treat all humans," what does this mean? Do we need to consider rectifications of previous wrongs? Are there any balances of kindness and harm to these people versus others?

These are the real questions. Although semantic issues can rise with these questions, mistaking semantics for substance takes us toward outcomes that are more violent, or at minimum, less kind. If the questions of rights were settled, and trans people could traverse the United States as safely as you can, then your tweet would have been greeted with a shrug.

The troubles with semantic framing become clear with your discussion of stakes, where the targeting for violence, both historical and current, drops from the picture. We have an attack on civilization itself versus an attack on identities. But the attack that trans people are constantly aware of is the attack on our bodies. We are more likely to be raped, assaulted, or murdered than cis people--by a wide margin.

The lifetime rates of sexual assault against women generally in the USA are appalling, and against trans women they are about twice as high (about 1/6 of cis women and 1/3 of trans women in lower estimates, and 1/4 of cis women and 1/2 of trans women on higher estimates). A study publicized in March 2021 found that trans people were about quadruple as likely as cis people to be targeted for violent crime in general. The data come from 2017 and 2018, after a decade of trans people having become massively more accepted and eeking out spaces of relative safety. If data existed for times that all but the youngest trans people vividly remember, or if trans people weren't clustering in the cities where we're relatively safe, I would not be surprised if that quadruple were quadrupled again.

Trans discourse did not originate after the 70s, as you suggest. In broad terms, dysphoric people and gender diversity appear always to have existed, with different solutions across cultures and histories. Modern trans discourse has its origins in the Weimar Republic, with empirical research on trans people leading to conclusions that Americans would reach again decades later. This progress was brought to a screeching halt when the Nazis burned the books and threw our forebears into gas chambers. Our numbers murdered were a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of others killed, but we are left to wonder where trans rights might be had science continued from the 1930s without our being targeted by the Third Reich.

So when you raise the specter of a totalitarian government punishing thought crimes of the cis majority, on behalf of a tiny minority who were actual targets of the Holocaust, it feels... off. Trans people have few positions of authority, high poverty, and high vulnerability, and we are all constantly aware, from every example historic and present, that the more authoritarian the regime, the more we die.

There is a history of rhetoric for justifying violence against us. When contemporary "Gender Criticals" use that rhetoric, it is not particularly material whether each individual doing so privately dreams of gas chambers. That language has been refined to sound reasonable to smart people on the outskirts of the issue--people like you.

What you call "attacks on identity" don't simply hurt someone's feelings or damage their worth--although they do that too. They are, in historical context, both threat and incitement to violence. If you use that language, people in the targeted group have no way of knowing whether you mean direct personal harm, whether you would actively support mass violence through the state, or whether your threat merely extends to tacit support for politicians who would make us more vulnerable than we already are. But do any of those options sound like someone you would feel comfortable with?

When people haven't wanted much to discuss the topic with you personally, it isn't simply sensitive feelings. Instead, people who may have already experienced targeted violence and almost certainly have experienced targeted harassment have every reason to perceive you as potentially dangerous. When Twitter decides not to platform tweets like yours, it is because people know how clever arguments to target minorities for violence start, and distinguishing intent to harm from lack of awareness isn't worth their time to moderate.

In your essay, the threat of violence toward trans people is by their own hands, and your choices of examples of activism showcases trans activists as threatening. The realities of trans people being primarily the targets for violence are erased. The erasure of violence in discussion is conducive to conclusions that enable its perpetuation.

I considered commenting on an unborn rights post, "Is a fetus a person?" The substance, I would claim, is the semantics. “PersonA clearly did not include phenomena that we could not see before the advent of the microscope, and in many cultures, even born infants were not people before families' decisions to keep them. PersonB, meanwhile, originated with anti-abortion rhetoric in the wake of Roe v Wade.” But the world has enough bad-faith arguments. Can you argue for the rights of the unborn without getting into semantics of whether they are people? If no, you don't have an argument. If yes, you might notice that the semantic debate does nothing but allow different sides to define "person" however they like and act accordingly.

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I enjoyed your discourse and thought it to be well-balanced. But I couldn't help but notice your deference to "academia" -- as though it is the be-all and the end-all.

Imagine, for a moment a civil court case between plaintiff "J. Doe" and the XYZ Company. whatever the actual reason for the suit, each side brings in "expert testimony". Here we have two industry experts each making a definitive argument to support their client's given contention. The ultimate decision as to the validity of the suit falls on the jury. But is the jury saying that one expert is right and the other wrong? Or are they saying that one expert's argument is more compelling than the other's? Maybe their decision has less to do with the experts, and more to do with the "chemistry" between themselves and the respective counsel.

In my personal experience, I have found many in academia having high regard for themselves and forming an almost "mutual admiration society" ( thank you, Teresa Brewer). And, though they may differ in approach, there's a certain amount of pandering among them -- on the off-chance that the other proves to be right. And this pandering -- this quest for always being politically correct -- has led us down a slippery slope.

I'm reminded of something that I read a l-o-n-g time ago and attributed to Abraham Lincoln. A reporter asked him about a debate that was currently going on in the Congress. Lincoln said to the reporter (paraphrased) that if his esteemed colleagues were to decide that a sheep's tail was a leg, how many legs would a sheep have? The reporter, naturally, answered "Five". Lincoln retorted that he was incorrect; a sheep would still only have four legs, because calling it so doesn't make it so.

I have accepted that there is a difference between "sex" and "gender" -- one is defined and the other is discerned -- and I've acquiesced to the idea that a female isn't necessarily a woman. But I perceive that transpeople are themselves ambivalent, as if they're straddling a fence. The transwoman doesn't see themselves as being trans-female. So, when pressed to use pronouns, I resort to using "they" (finding the concept of "he/she" much more offensive). Academia may fault me, but I'd prefer "Let "they" who is without sin cast the first stone..." and be able to shave my face in the morning than to grovel at the feet of P.C.

As you have so adroitly pointed out, linguistics change but biology in and of itself is immutable. IMHO.

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