Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy

11 Jul

The following is a guest post by Sophie Grace Chappell, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the Open University

Maybe we should think of it like this: Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents. There are disanalogies of course, and the morality of adoption is a large issue in itself which I can’t do full justice to here. Still, the analogies are, I think, important and instructive.

An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense. (At any rate usually–there are families with a mix of biological and adopted children. But here I’ll focus on the commoner and simpler case.) So society has found a way for her to live the role of a parent, and to be recognised socially and legally as a parent, which kind of gets round the biological obstacle.

“Kind of”: plenty of adoptive parents report an abiding regret that they aren’t biological parents, and there can be problems on either side of the adoptive relationship. It is clear that the existence of adoptive relationships creates psychological difficulties, both for the parents and for the children, that would not otherwise exist. But these problems are not big enough to make adoption a net bad thing.

One reason why not is that adoptive parents are, in the nature of the case, deeply committed to parenting. Unlike some biological parents, they aren’t parents by accident. And by and large–though unfortunately adoptive parents do suffer *some* sorts of discrimination–society recognises and values their commitment, and accepts them for many purposes as parents like any others, though of course there are contexts (blood transfusion, organ donation, testing for inherited illness) where the fact that they’re adoptive parents makes a difference.

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s all right, when you find out that someone is an adoptive parent, to get in her face and shout “Biology! Science! You’re running away from the facts! You’re delusional! You’re not a real parent!” That would be incredibly rude and insensitive. It would upset her family. It would be importantly false: there is a perfectly good sense in which an adoptive parent most certainly is a real parent. Yet since this aggressive accusation is also, alas, only too intelligible to the parent who is subjected to it, it would also be stamping up and down in the crassest and cruellest way on what anyone can see at once is very very likely to be a sore point for her. (Here I speak, I’m sorry to say, from personal experience of analogous shoutings.)

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

Nobody sensible thinks that, if you refer to an adoptive parent as a non-parent, then you don’t owe it to that parent, as a matter of basic courtesy, to retract, correct, and apologise.

Nobody sensible thinks that the existence of adoptive parents undermines our understanding of what it is to be a parent. On the contrary, it *extends* it.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are, typically and as such, a threat to other parents. Or that they only went in for adoptive parenting as a way to get their hands on vulnerable children or vulnerable parents. Of course it’s not impossible that someone who is an adoptive parent might be bad or dangerous in either or both of these ways, and of course it would then be right to protect ourselves and other potential victims from that person. But if that happened, it wouldn’t throw any shade on adoptive parenthood itself, as such.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s *automatically* a problem about having adoptive parents in parents-only spaces. There might be some special spaces that should indeed be reserved for biological parents only–pre- and post-natal groups, for instance, or a group like this that helped us when we had a still-born child in 1995 We should be prepared to listen carefully and sympathetically to the case that might be made sometimes for biological-parents-only spaces. But in general, adoptive parents have similar enough concerns and interests to biological parents for it to be, in most cases, both natural and useful to include them in such spaces.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are necessarily buying into an oppressive ideological agenda of parenthood, and, by their choice to be parents, imposing that agenda on other parents. There are oppressive ideological agendas about parenthood; of course there are. But to be an adoptive parent is not necessarily to buy into them. It might even be a way of subverting them.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s just one right way to be a good adoptive parent, any more than there is a unique right way to be a good parent in general. Though there are some things that have to be in common between all good parents, there are lots of different ways of being a good parent. The broad schema of what parenthood is, adoptive or not, is set by biology and sociology. But sociology can certainly be challenged and often should be (fighting back is called politics), and even biology is not always just to be accepted (fighting back is called medicine). Within the general role of “a good parent”, there is all sorts of room and scope for creativity, self-expression, and imaginative invention and re-invention.

We don’t always know, on meeting some parent, whether she is an adoptive parent or a biological parent. Often there are visible clues and give-aways, or at least we can see things that make us strongly suspect an adoptive relationship. But in most contexts it would be rude and intrusive to ask. The implicit social convention is loud and clear: you don’t ask, you wait to be told. But when we know all the facts about any parent, we know which they are without any difficulty.

In our society the role of adoptive parent is almost completely uncontested. (Almost, though there can be some resistance, and it can be unreasonably hard to get into the role in the first place.) If you’re an adoptive parent, you’re a parent–for most purposes–and no one sensible scratches their head over that, or decrees that you can’t sit on school parents’ councils, or sees it as somehow dangerous or threatening or undermining of “real parents” or dishonest or deceptive or delusional or a symptom of mental illness or a piece of embarrassing and pathetic public make-believe. On the contrary, people just accept you as a parent, and value your commitment to parenthood as an important contribution to the well-being of our society that you could not have made if you didn’t have the psychological set-up that you do.

Philosophical Technicalities

“Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents”, I said. So is that a “subsetting relationship”, to use the philosophical jargon? Do I mean that transwomen are a subset of women, that being a transwoman is one way of being a woman? Or do I mean a relationship between two different categories–transwomen aren’t literally *women*, but they are something closely related, maybe analogically related as Aquinas would say (Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q13)?

Well, it depends what you want to talk about. For some purposes, sure transwomen are “really women”, just as adoptive parents are “really parents”. For other purposes the relation is indeed analogical rather than literal inclusion.

But maybe we could follow the philosopher Derek Parfit (Reasons & Persons circa p.262) and say that “once we know all the facts”, the further question “Are they really women?” is an “empty question”.

Or maybe we can say what I would want to say, which is related to Parfit’s move, but different: that the question is not empty at all, but it has different substantive answers for different substantive purposes. And provided we keep the score carefully in our language-game(s), there’s no reason at all why anyone should be confused about any of the semantic-logical ins and outs of “transwoman”. Any more than they are with “adoptive parent”.


42 Responses to “Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy”

  1. Constance Gardener July 11, 2018 at 4:13 pm #

    I think this piece is a very helpful analogy, as far as it goes. But one way it breaks down that you don’t mention is that no adoptive parents are trying to force people to abandon all sorts of ordinary language or discussion of shared experiences, or insisting on redefining ordinary language in the way that trans activists are. In a world where ‘women’ are called ‘uterus owners’, cervical smear tests are done on ‘cervix owners’, and so on and tediously on, women start to get a bit peeved. I don’t hear adoptive parents complaining about prenatal classes, or insisting that no one talks of giving birth.
    Secondly, the hardest ‘are trans women women’ question, it seems to me, is ‘are trans women members of the class of people that lesbians are attracted to?’ This isn’t the same as: does a lesbian have to sleep with a trans woman – obviously not. No one has to sleep with any particular person, or even find them attractive. The question is whether it is ‘transphobic’ or ‘trans-exclusionary’ for a lesbian woman to say – I’m only attracted to natal women. Lots of trans people and activists think so; lots of lesbians say their attraction is homoSEXual, not homoGENDERal.

    • Eh July 21, 2018 at 10:03 am #

      Different language makes sense in different contexts.

      I absolutely support calling women women. This includes both cis and trans women.

      Most cervical smears are done on women. Doctors rightly keep track of women who don’t have a cervix so they don’t get repeatedly reminded to go for screenings: whether that woman happened not to be born with one – whether or not she is trans – or got it removed due to something like cancer or severe endometriosis is secondary, not having one is primary.

      On the flip side, I am a trans man. For my health, it’s as important for me to get cervical smear tests as anyone else with a cervix. People who insist on calling me a woman in that context decrease my access to it. Some trans men don’t go at all in those circumstances, just as some cis women whose cervices had been removed wouldn’t go to the doctor if they were told “you’re not a woman, you’re an it” every time – it’s psychologically brutalizing, untrue, unnecessary, and incompatible with compassionate and effective medical care.

      I don’t see why you see “are trans women members of the class of people that lesbians are attracted to” as a hard question. Some lesbians are, some lesbians aren’t. Some individual trans women are attractive to a lot of lesbians, some to very few or none. I know quite a few couples with one cis lesbian and one trans lesbian.

      “Sex” is genitals, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, gonads, chromosomes, etc. Lesbians don’t choose their partners on the basis of their ovaries/reproductive or their chromosomes, and some trans women are very similar to cis women in every other way, from how they look clothed, the hormonal balance of their bodies, the breasts that estrogen makes them grow in exactly the same way cis women do, and sometimes genitals which surgery has made visibly indistinguishable from someone who happened to be considered a girl at birth.

      A few lesbians love trans women who haven’t had any medical interventions, and whose sex is unambiguously male, for the woman that they are. More lesbians are only interested in trans women who also seem physically female to them. Both physical and mental factors matter in attraction for most people.

      Lesbians don’t all have identical partner preferences, beyond that their partners are (usually) women: every lesbian has her own tastes, and no woman (cis or trans) or class of women, is attractive to every single lesbian on the planet.

    • Andrew September 3, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

      Another, I think crucial, way the analogy breaks down: Birth parents don’t have (legitimate) safety concerns about sharing birth parent-only spaces with adoptive parents. Birth parents don’t belong to a legally protected class,, the motivation for which status is the violent threat posed to birth parents by adoptive parents.

  2. mstrinkovsky July 12, 2018 at 11:16 am #

    I think what Constance says about language modification (or “concept engineering” as Kathleen Stock calls it) is important, not just because language policing is an aggressive and entitled thing to do, but also because the genesys of this policing is the claim that non-trans women *no longer have a legitimate claim to the term women*. So we are told we must use the modifier “cis” because “woman” is no longer a term that properly applies to us. And that’s more than just words: in your analogy it would be the same as saying all non-adoptive parents must use the modifier “biological/birth parents” because the term “parents” to refer to biological parents is exclusionary and detrimental to th eliberation of someone else. The further analogy would be a demand that non-adoptive fathers relinquish the term (now inclusive of adoptive and non-adoptive fathers) and refer to themselves as “sperm providers”. There is more than a change of language there, but a demand that people reconceptualise very intimate physical facts about themselves.

    Where the analogy really breaks down though is of course with self-ID. No sane person anywhere would dream of making justice for adoptive parents contingent on them being able to self-declare themselves as parents to a specific child[1] without the intervention of the state or any outside regulating agency. Yet this is the very change that ia currently being campaigned for in the case of gender.

    [1] Or parents /without/ the presence of a specific child – as you say, the categories can be played with, and if Alex Drummon can be a lesbian with a beard, why shouldn;t I be a mother without a child?

    • Eh July 21, 2018 at 10:28 am #

      That’s not how “cis” works.

      Women are women, and can call themselves women. They can also use adjectives to say something about what kind of woman they are: short woman, rich woman, Mongolian woman, feminist woman, heterosexual woman, etc.

      If you specifically want to refer only to women who people assumed were female when they were born, you can use the term “cis women”. No one complains about calling this group of people “women” without saying “cis”… except when that’s being done to explicitly claim that no one else is a woman. There is a long history of policing who can and cannot use the term, or who is a “real” woman – lesbians and feminists have been unjustly excluded from it by some people at times, for example.

      If you have three minutes, watch . He’s a man, strangers assume he’s a man, his family considers him a man – but some people who know his history of being raised as a girl insist on calling him a woman or pejoratives. He’s not arguing for men not to be called men: his activism was for his right to be legally considered a man. Forcing him to legally be a woman would be putting ideology above both pragmatism and human dignity. The same arguments apply in reverse to trans women.

      No one wants to take the term “women” away from women.

  3. Justin July 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

    One seemingly significant disanalogy between the two cases is that transwomen claim that they have always been women, and transmen that they have always been men, long before they sought social recognition of that fact. But it wouldn’t make sense for a parent (biological or adoptive) to claim that they have always been parents, or always felt like parents, before they actually had a child (by giving birth or by adopting).

  4. houinkyouma July 17, 2018 at 7:39 pm #

    Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

    Mightn’t he reasonably refuse to be compelled to use speech he doesn’t choose to? And if he preferred ‘adoptive parents’ to ‘parents’ you may disagree but is it a position impossible for a sensible person to take?

  5. M Merk July 18, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    To become an adoptive father, I had to appear before court, together with my (adopted) daughter. We were inquired as to private details, our long term family relationship etc. In the end, I was permitted to be adoptive father.

    What would, in your opinion, be the required legal process to transition from legal “man” to “(trans) woman”?

    • tom July 20, 2018 at 5:31 am #

      I agree with Justin

      Transwomen seem to me more like a Parents that is searching for thier lost biological child.

      An adoption is a not an innate relationship , is a willed choice of a relation you never had.

      With Transwomen its an innate one sided relation that is missing the other side.

    • Eh July 21, 2018 at 10:35 am #

      Ideally, legally-binding self declaration.

      It should be legally binding to prevent frivolous use/abuses by cis people with a political axe to grind.

      It should be self declaration because the alternatives are generally months or years of expensive and often highly intrusive exercises in getting legal systems and/or trans healthcare providers to certify the same thing a self declaration would. As a result, in some countries zero transitioned trans people have ID that matches the sex people assume they are. In others, merely 2/3rds don’t. This makes life much more difficult: people without ID that matches their sex routinely can’t pick up packages from the post office, can be detained and arrested at routine traffic stops on suspicion of false ID, have a harder time getting jobs, are sometimes denied the right to vote, etc.

  6. Miranda Yardley July 20, 2018 at 3:24 pm #

    Adoptive parents form the role of a parent, that of raising the child within their family, (hopefully) making the child feel loved and providing a supportive foundation for their evolution into adulthood.

    A woman is a member of the female reproductive class. She is inculated into sex-based cultural stereotypes which prepare her for that role, and to support the husband she is supposed to take.

    The ‘trans woman’ claims to be a woman and this is based on ‘feeling like a woman’, this claim materialises by reference to those cultural stereotypes above, even though the ‘trans woman’ has benefited from generally positive male cultural stereotypes.

    The claim to be ‘feeling like a woman’ is comparable to Wittgenstein’s ‘beetle in a box’ or Nagel’s ‘how is it like to be a bat’. What is known about the etiology of transgender behaviour suggests the ‘trans woman’ may be confusing ‘feeling like a woman’ with ‘feeling sexy’. I am not kidding.

    Perhaps ‘cuckoo in the nest’ would be a better analogy.

    • Eh July 21, 2018 at 10:45 am #

      Your article reminds me of articles on why bisexuals don’t “really” exist, and articles by homophobes assuming the existence of bisexuality means that no one is “really” homosexual.

      There is a lot of transphobic hate and pure confabulation in the theories of being trans that you refer to.

      Being trans isn’t about sexiness, or social stereotypes.

      I feel better on a male hormone balance than a female one. This is far more core to my experience of being a trans man than anything about social stereotypes. I know plenty of masculine trans men, and plenty of feminine trans men.

    • tom July 22, 2018 at 7:00 am #

      A trans woman born on island raised only by a father , would still be a trans woman when she grows up.

      Feral children , are still human even if they are raised by wolfs.

      Given that there are a sexual trans woman , it has nothing to do with ‘feeling sexy’.

    • tom July 23, 2018 at 6:34 am #

      Miranda Yardley ,

      There are trans people who are not autogynephilic (and cis that are).

      • Miranda Yardley July 24, 2018 at 8:20 am #

        Hence why Blanchard’s typology is called a ‘two-type typology’.

      • tom July 25, 2018 at 5:16 am #

        the “two-type transsexual typography” is
        1 sexually oriented toward men
        2 sexually oriented toward the thought or image of themselves as women

        if autogynephilic is the second . how are non-autogynephilic a-sexual and lesbian trans woman , accounted ?

      • Miranda Yardley July 25, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

        ‘Lesbian trans women’ there you go, behavioural and anatomical autogynephilia.

        AGP is a sexual orientation. It’s no surprise AGPs May claim to be ‘asexual’.

      • tom July 26, 2018 at 7:35 am #

        Claim to be ‘asexual’ vs realy asexual ? How can one tell ?

      • Miranda Yardley July 27, 2018 at 5:38 am #

        Think about why this would happen. You don’t seem to know an awful lot about this phenomena, this piece by AA Lawrence is a good introduction.

        AGP provides a useful framework for us to understand transgender behaviour. It also gives the trans individual insight as to why they are how they are. It does nobody any favours to pretend AGP is irrelevant to this discussion.

      • tom July 27, 2018 at 9:06 am #

        If you thought it were merely a useful framework , rather then the only one , you wouldn’t say

        “Trans’ is not an innate state. Evidence ties it to sexual orientation and culture”

        Many do not consider this explanation applicable to many trans persons , and also not the best framework compared to the alternatives ; so it does nobody any favours to pretend it is relevant.

        You think everyone else wrong and any evidence to the cantrary is explainable (even as a case of lying) , extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence , otherwise any claims and its opposite is the same.

  7. Miranda Yardley July 30, 2018 at 10:26 pm #

    Please do describe any other frameworks that explain transgender behaviour in males (which is what we are talking about). Please advise on the theory and links to back your claim up.


  8. Miranda Yardley July 30, 2018 at 10:44 pm #

    Also, you’re arguing from majority. You may wish to rethink this.

    • tom July 31, 2018 at 2:59 pm #

      arguing from majority of evidence and arguing from a better explanation of the evidence claimed as support , are not a fallacies.

      If the minority cannot support their claim , and the majority can ; I would appeal to the majority based on that.

      Thank you for you patient , i hope anyone seeing this will heed to the more supported , regardless of their previous views.

      I think this discussion is long enough for this media.

  9. IGS September 3, 2018 at 2:10 pm #

    I think this is a fruitful analogy, and it can help shed light on the commitment involved in adoptive parenting that is absent in the self-identification laws being contemplated in the UK. Suppose a school is looking for parents to chaperone an overnight field trip. Of course, nobody sensible would consider excluding adoptive parents from these duties as a general class.

    But suppose someone self-identified as a parent without caring for a child? Nobody sensible thinks that person should be allowed come without very good reason. Suppose someone took in a child on a very temporary basis. I think there would be reasonable questions to ask about whether it is appropriate for that person to come along.

    Adoption is a legal process with built in safeguards to attempt to stand in for the trust we place in parents. These include backgrounds checks and demonstrated commitment to care for the child. Of course, they don’t always work, but for adoptive parents at least, they are there. I think an equivalent commitment can be shown and is often present for transwomen and transmen, but such procedures are often not in place under proposed laws. Perhaps this could serve as a good legal model.

  10. Jesse M. September 3, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

    It seems to me that the degree to which this works as an analogy depends strongly on whether one thinks of being trans purely as a matter of choosing to adopt a certain social role, or whether one thinks that biological factors are responsible for some statistical differences in the psychology of cis men and women, and that due to some developmental anomaly similar to intersex conditions, trans people’s brains have statistically more biological similarities to the gender they identify with rather than the gender that normally corresponds to their genitals/chromosomes (there have in fact been plenty of scientific studies suggesting something like this).

    As a thought-experiment, supposed we had perfected brain transplant technology, and that the brain of a male baby whose organs were failing was transplanted into a donor body which happened to be female. Now suppose this this person grew up always feeling like a boy despite their body (somewhat similar to the real-life case of David Reimer, a baby boy who in 1965 was given sex reassignment surgery following a botched circumcision, but always felt he was a boy despite being raised as a girl and not told the truth about what happened). And suppose that at some point they wanted to transition, to be seen socially as the man they felt themselves to be, despite keeping their female reproductive system. Would parents adopting a biologically unrelated child really be a good analogy here, even if there is a strong biological basis in the person’s brain for their feelings of being a man? If not, then it may not be a good analogy for real-life trans people either, for basically similar reasons.

  11. Raja Halwani September 3, 2018 at 7:04 pm #

    This is an interesting analogy indeed. But one crucial issue that gender critical feminists have is how it is established that someone is a woman, and the main problem is the sufficiency of mere belief or conviction that one is a woman. So, yes, once it is established that a person is a woman the analogy can kick in and be useful and enlightening. However, it leaves unaddressed the main issue of contention (I think a few other comments touched on this point albeit in different ways).

  12. David44 September 3, 2018 at 7:44 pm #

    “Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.”

    Just to be clear: Jordan Peterson does not (as far as I know) regard it as an infraction of his human rights to be asked to call trans women “she” (he has said that is perfectly willing to do that – see e.g. His (highly publicized) objection was to people who insisted that he used untraditional “alternative” pronouns like “ze” and “zer”.

    In that respect, his position is analogous to yours, since you too are arguing that in most contexts adoptive parents should simply be called “parents” and treated exactly like other parents, and I’m not sure what you would think about what should happen if a group of adoptive parents insisted on inventing a new word for themselves (“Rentpars”, let’s say) and demanded that everyone used that to describe their relationship with their children, instead of calling them “parents”. Should schools be compelled to write to them as such (“As Johnny’s rentpar, you are invited to attend a school conference on Friday”)?

  13. seth edenbaum September 3, 2018 at 8:02 pm #

    Transwomen are fetishists of femininity as transmen are fetishists of masculinity.
    The best essay on the subject is here. Liberalism tries to will away the fact of unhappiness.
    But why are breast implants for men any less worthy of comment that breast implants for women?
    Ignore philosophical abstraction, just try to think clearly.

  14. Saoirse September 3, 2018 at 8:35 pm #

    Serious question, how does this not illustrate that accepting transgender women are women reinforces gender stereotypes?

    Here’s why: so we’ve identified two senses in which one can be a parent or woman. There’s the biological aspect, having contributed genetic information or having a certain set of sex characteristics. Then there’s the social role aspect: parenting a child or acting like a woman.

    The social role definition of Parenthood is the primary definition (the act of parenting is what makes one a parent, sperm or egg donors are parents in only a restricted and somewhat strained sense of the word).

    However, there is no legitimate social role of women. To insist that trans women are women because they fill the social role of women is to reinforce that oppressive idea.

  15. M September 3, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    Thanks for this post. It helps me think about this in a different way, though there are some good potentially qualifying points raised in the comments.

    But … have you considered applying the same reasoning to alternative analogies? Consider the analogy

    “Trans woman is to woman, as Person who thinks she is Napoleon Bonaparte is to Napoleon Bonaparte”

    How would your processing of this analogy be similar or different? Which one is a closer analogy?

    For example, at the level of genetics, the Napoleon analogy seems closer than the Parent analogy. I expect on other dimensions this might not be true.

    • keaswaran September 10, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

      I’m not sure the level of genetics is a useful one here. At the level of genetics, the differences between a biological parent and an adoptive parent are exactly as gigantic as the differences between a person who thinks she is Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon Bonaparte.

      Perhaps there’s a reason why you think that genetics is less significant in parenthood than in personal identity or gender or sex identity, but it’s not at all obvious that this makes sense. (The term “genetics” in fact seems to be entirely about parenthood!)

      • M September 10, 2018 at 8:50 pm #

        I think we’re interpreting this in different ways.

        There is an objective genetic difference between XX and XY (yes, some people are in neither of those categories, but that is rare).

        There is an objective genetic difference between Napoleon and person-who-thinks-she-is-Napoleon. (Not sure whether any of Napoleon’s DNA survives, but in principle,,,)

        There is not necessarily any distinct genetic marker that distinguishes an adoptive parent from a natal parent. Of course there *can* be, if the adoptive parent has some genetic factor that prevents reproduction, but many adoptive parents don’t.

        Take someone who is an adoptive parent, because they are unable to be a natal parent due to an injury. Compare their genes to those of a bunch of natal parents and adoptive parents. There’s no way to know which group they belong in.

  16. Leslie Glazer September 4, 2018 at 1:02 am #

    A very illuminating analogy. But, is it one that would be accepted by gender radical trans women? I ask this because of two qualifications that the analogy brings out that may separate it from those who propose or oppose trans woman as woman. First, when we accept adoptive parents as parents we do so by defining parenting as a role, or set of behaviors and commitments, rather than as essentially connected with conceiving and birthing. But, the controversy regarding whether trans women are women is usually argued in such an essentialist way, as if they are woman essentially because they see themselves as women, not because of any set of behaviors, capacities, or even anatomy. Secondly, it isn’t clear what sort of role or behaviors or attitudes would even have to be involved to be a woman given the freedom woman have achieved over the past century. This is why I think feminists have at times objected, i.e. because what is left as defining a woman is either anatomy or the capacity of procreation, or the history of oppression connected with how persons with such anatomy have been seen and treated in our society. So, where is the role or set of behaviors necessary to use the analogy?

    • Jesse M. September 4, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

      To Leslie Glazer, do you think it’s essentialist when gay people argue homosexuality seems to be largely innate, that they were “born that way”? To me “essentialism” suggests some wholly distinct essence that makes everyone 100% male gendered or 100% female gendered (or 100% gay vs. 100% straight), I think most scientifically-informed trans activists (Julia Serano for example) understand that if there is a biological component to male/female psychological differences it is a matter of statistical differences in traits, not any kind of absolute distinction. The argument is that there is likely some kind of developmental anomaly in trans people that puts their sex-linked neural traits statistically closer to the gender they identify with than the one they were assigned at birth (an idea that plenty of scientific studies seem to support). Also see my earlier comment about why this theory would suggest a reason to reject the adoption analogy.

      • Leslie Glazer September 4, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

        The rejection of essentialism I was referring to goes back to simone de beauvior’s statement that ‘woman are not born they are made’ [my paraphrase– I dont have the quote in front of me], extending Sartre’s notion that ‘existence precedes essence’. This idea and its variants has guided the movement of feminists since to reject any categorical limitations on what women are capable of, how they ought to live, or even what characteristics they have to display. The other argument advanced by feminists is that to the extent that women are biologically women they have, precisely due to their anatomy and appearance, been seen a certain way, a way that can be objectifying or oppressive, and that this set of experiences of being a woman is not something transferable to someone just because they say they are a woman. In any case, I think your comments miss my point above, and also may be missing the point of the adoption analogy as well. Whatever the biology connected to traits, and given the way genetics is progressing I do not doubt that there very well may be many, means nothing as far as the philosophical question of how best to understand whether trans women are women, and in what way they may be identical or different. The adoption analogy attempts to put forward a way to understand how the same category could apply to both natural born women and trans women. I raised the points above as not being addressed by the analogue, and asked the further question about what the defining roles or attitudes might be that define the category. That traits associated historically or socially with gender vary statistically and how this may or may not be correlated with some biological [still undefined of course] feature, at best would say people differ in terms of their feminine or masculine attributes, but say nothing about whether they should be considered men or women.

      • Jesse M. September 4, 2018 at 9:01 pm #

        If de Beauvoir’s statement is interpreted to mean that all our notions of male/female gender roles are shaped by received cultural ideas and are not just a matter of noticing patterns of differences which are wholly “natural”, then I’d agree (similarly one could say something like ‘one is not made, but born gay’ in the same sense, even if one thinks there is a strong innate component to sexual preference). On the other hand, if it’s taken as a sort of “blank slate” idea where it would be just as easy to socialize babies born male into what we think of as “feminine” gender roles and vice versa, I think the science suggests that’s probably not true (for counterexample to this idea one could google the case of David Reimer which I mentioned in an earlier comment–he was born a boy, but after a botched circumcision the doctors decided to give him gender reassignment surgery and he was raised as a girl without knowing the truth, but always had a strong feeling that he was meant to be a boy similar to what many transgender people report, and eventually decided to ‘transition’ to being a man).

        I haven’t yet read de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, but recently I read an article that discussed existentialist ideas about “human nature” which mentioned that she had a more nuanced notion of “existence precedes essence” than Sartre, one which considered the ways in which our “facticity” influences our decisions, so that might imply she wasn’t necessarily assuming a blank slate view–that article is at

        If there is some degree of innateness to gender differences, then it may be that our received cultural notions about gender differences are due to some complex combination of patriarchal history shaping our ideas on the one hand, and collective pattern-recognition of innate (statistical) differences on the other. In this case there would be nothing inconsistent about a trans person wanting to root out and combat those gender ideas which arose to prop up patriarchy, but also feel that in terms of gender ideas more rooted in nature, they are “naturally” a better fit with the opposite gender from the one they were assigned at birth.

        Thinking about it this way, my objection to the adoption analogy is that while I don’t think it was necessarily intended this way, the analogy is suggestive of the idea that gender identification is wholly a matter of free choice without anything “naturally” connecting you do the gender you identify with, in which case the argument for accepting a transwoman as a woman might seem no better than the argument for accepting Rachel Dolezal as black (for those who don’t know, this is a famous recent case of a woman with no known African ancestry who was ‘passing’ as black in activist circles, apparently out of some feeling of connection to African-American culture).

        “The other argument advanced by feminists is that to the extent that women are biologically women they have, precisely due to their anatomy and appearance, been seen a certain way, a way that can be objectifying or oppressive, and that this set of experiences of being a woman is not something transferable to someone just because they say they are a woman”

        I think one has to distinguish between historical and psychological senses of the causes of oppression. It may be true historically that the reason various oppressive ideas about feminine roles and capabilities developed in the way they did had to do with their capacity for childbirth, but that doesn’t mean capacity for childbirth is at the forefront of someone’s mind (or even their subconscious) when they behave in a misogynistic way towards another person; gendered styles of self-presentation, like style of dress or speaking, probably play a more important role, so that a transwoman would experience most of the same problems associated with misogyny as other woman (of course they would not experience the same reproductive health issues, but neither would an infertile cis woman, for example).

        So if for feminist purposes one is interested in defining the category “woman” in terms of a group of people facing similar types of gendered oppression, I think there’s still a good case for defining it in terms of who actually experiences this oppression and not in terms of the historical causes of why these oppressive notions about gender roles originally arose.

      • Jesse M. September 5, 2018 at 12:51 am #

        “similarly one could say something like ‘one is not made, but born gay’ in the same sense”

        Whoops, I meant to write “similarly one could say something like ‘one is not born, but rather becomes gay’ in the same sense”

  17. Alan Taylor-Bennett September 13, 2018 at 5:55 pm #

    Excellent and thought provoking piece. Thank you for your wisdom and your insights.


  1. Mini-Heap - Daily Nous - July 16, 2018

    […] “Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents” — is this a useful analogy? Sophie Grace Chappell (Open U.) thinks so. […]

  2. Trans Women/Men and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy | Blog of the APA - July 20, 2018

    […] earlier version of this article was originally posted by Sophie-Grace Chappell on Facebook, then hosted on Philip Goff’s website. The post, in edited and expanded format, is reposted on the APA blog with Sophie-Grace’s […]

  3. Transwomen and Adoptive Parents | PHILOSOPHY - September 13, 2018

    […] For the rest, go to the philosophy blog, Conscience and Consciousness. […]

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