Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy

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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”.


The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. Constance Gardener says

    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.

    • 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 says

      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. 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?

    • 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.

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  4. Justin says

    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).

  5. houinkyouma says

    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?

  6. M Merk says

    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 says

      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.

    • 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.

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  8. 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.

    • 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 says

      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 says

      Miranda Yardley ,

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

      • tom says

        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 ?

      • ‘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 says

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

      • 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.

        Click to access becoming_what_we_love.pdf

        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 says

        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.

  9. donquixotedelamancha says

    What a deeply awful article. Clearly written by someone with no experience or understanding of adoption. In years of involvement with adoption, I have never heard this sentiment expressed:

    “plenty of adoptive parents report an abiding regret that they aren’t biological parents”

    People likely to feel this way simply do not get through the screening process. This statement is particularly unpleasant:

    “An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense.”

    Quite apart from the fact that this is a myth, being a parent is not about feelings. Being a parent is the act of caring for and bring up a child. There have always been parents who are not biological relations and society has always recognised them as parents. Similarly no one thinks that donating some genes and then abandoning all responsibility makes someone a ‘real’ parent. Parenthood is not some title you can ‘identify’ as.

    Professor Chappell should make arguments which stand on their own, not co-opt the experience of others.

  10. 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.


    • tom says

      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.

  11. 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.

  12. Jesse M. says

    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.

  13. Raja Halwani says

    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).

  14. David44 says

    “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”)?

  15. Saoirse says

    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.

  16. 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 says

      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!)

      • 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.

  17. Leslie Glazer says

    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. says

      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 says

        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. says

        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. says

        “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”

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  19. Alan Taylor-Bennett says

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

  20. Jamie Hamilton says

    I am a trans-woman and I found this analogy to be quite beautiful and insightful.
    No analogy is ever perfect, but Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents I think is pretty close. Why?
    Because it’s true. As a transwoman I know that I was born biologically speaking, a man. I also know through a lot of self observation that I’m not a man though, not in behavior, not in how I prefer to dress (what feels good and right), and not in the way that I think about sex.

    Without being allowed to be myself out in public and around other people I just don’t feel good. I would shut myself in if the world didn’t accept me, the blinds would be closed, the phone would be silent and all I’d be doing is passing time by not living, unable to smile completely alone and I would not want to be on this earth. Some people would not blame me, others would be glad to see my go, but everyone I know would be really sad.

    I spent a long time like that.

    All that trans people need is the same thing adoptive parents have, some of the things they automatically get because they are accepted as parents. Showing pictures of hairy guys legs in women bathrooms stalls next to a child is as unfair to transwomen as posting pictures of adoptive parents inappropriately touching their children, because it sends the same message.

    Telling transwomen that the bathroom is a safe space for women, and women only is the same as telling an adoptive parent they should not be allowed to attend with their kid to band practice or participate in parent teacher meetings because they are not the childs biological parents

    I say this because, just like adoptive parents, we earn a right to be there it wasn’t just handed to us.
    Adoptive parents have to go through a lot of hoops with adoption agencies, they have to open their home to strangers and they have to invest time. Then they make a lifelong commitment to being a parent.
    In contrast trans people risk EVERYTHING when we come out, we risk losing our families, our friends, or jobs, kids, spouse EVERYTHING. And then we invest a lot of time in our new lives and hope someone doesn’t come a long to give us grief or umm kill us.

    In that sense, adoption is no different than transitioning. Both are dramatic personal changes fulfilling who the person is at their core, both require a tremendous amount of work. In this context the only difference between the two is that one is accepted universally and the other has yet to be.

    Oh and that lifelong commitment, it’s not a burden and it’s not a hinderance because the parent/woman is HAPPY to do it, and in enriching their lives they enrich the lives of others.

    So yeah, an adoptive parent is no more a parent than a trans-woman is a woman. Neither is technically true in the strictest most rigid most hurtful sense, and yet when you see a Chinese kid call a white guy dad picking them up after school, would anyone question it? That is his father after all right? Is he not doing what fathers do and taking care of his kid by picking him up after school?
    The same could be said for that biologically male girl, that likes to paint her nails, wear make-up, and even if only infrequently gets addressed as ma’m when she goes out. Would you point fun at her and make jokes? Would you bar her from the restroom?

    She is doing what girls do in the same way that parent is doing what parents do.

    Would you call the deadbeat dad or mom that abandoned the kid to foster care his father and mother or would you refer to them as the childs biological parents? This is why in trans circles we refer to genetic males/females as cis, because we recognize that the difference requires notation when referring to them, the same as adoptive parents might when filling out forms.

    Is it not just as bad to call a transwoman a man or a fake woman as it is to call adoptive parents fake parents or stand-ins? Most adoptive parents wouldn’t stand for that but all trans people have no choice and most of us put up with worse.

    Shame on you if you do it.

    Terms like AGP and HSTS are outdated and no longer in use.
    Please refer to modern psycotherapy principals and terms if you intend on using them. Thank you.

  21. Leslie Glazer says

    The article is fantastic in opening up the possibility of thinking in non-realist terms. The analogy however breaks down however in that biological parents and adoptive parents are both parents in that they both share a function and role, i.e. they have to assume the same responsibilities and characteristics, and act in similar ways towards their children. The problem is that while parent can be defined in terms of some set of characteristics and behaviors, at least a set that have some family resemblance to each other, woman cannot be so defined, at least if we have been following the arguments of feminists over the past hundred years. A woman in that way cannot be defined in terms of some set of essential characteristics or behaviors. women in that way can be whatever they want to be, transgress any traditional role, be who they want, love who they want, and how they want, be interested in whatever they want, work in whatever field they want, and so on. So what is it that a transwoman shares with women? To make the analogy would probably require fixing women again in terms of some set of characteristics or behaviors. not sure this could fly.

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  24. Damon Pham says

    Dr. Chappell, thank you for the insightful post! I think you explored this analogy beautifully and thoroughly.

    I’m also grateful for the many commenters who raise concerns from a gender-critical feminist standpoint. They claim that recognizing “trans women are women,” on account of their social behaviors and identity, further enforces gender norms, including stereotypes, unwanted expectations, and imposed limitations. According to them, people of all genders should be able to behave in any way (within physical/biological possibilities), so why would someone need to “change the gender they were born with” (or in the words of those who recognize trans identities, to “change the gender they were assigned at birth based on their sex”)? The same goes for the statement “trans men are men, ” but women have historically been oppressed, so the issue of enforcing stereotypes/expectations/limitations is more evident. According to these commenters, the analogy of transgender identities to adoptive parent identities must be rejected because gender shouldn’t beget social expectations, whereas parenthood should. I want to offer a rebuttal to this perspective, since it seems so pervasive.

    I too am critical of gender norms, especially those which uniquely disadvantage women. However, I still think it’s essential that us gender-critical people still embrace trans identities.The reason is this: while in a perfect world people of all genders should be able to behave in any way, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are so many existing social correlates and contingencies tied to one’s gender which would make life very uncomfortable for someone who is categorized as the gender they don’t identify with. Until we have dismantled these gender norms, we have a moral obligation to recognize trans identities to avoid the severe pain that comes with gender dysphoria–not to mention respect for their desired identity. So while philosophically I agree that recognizing trans identities requires buying into gender norms (to a very limited, second-order extent), in the meantime that concern is outweighed by the cost of gender dysphoria.

    Let me be more specific about this tradeoff, because I think a key challenge to the gender-critical, anti-trans-recognition perspective is pointing out /which/ social norms are being upheld (ever so slightly) when we recognize a trans person’s desired gender. Recognizing trans identities doesn’t necessitate the perpetuation of stereotypes, gender-specific injustices, or expectations related to career, domestic responsibility, etc. For example, I don’t think in general that a trans woman wants to be recognized as a woman because she wants to be stereotyped as passive, be at increased risk for violent targeting, be expected to not participate in STEM fields, or be expected to cook and clean. These are some of the most saliently harmful social conditions which women face. Instead, she probably wants to be recognized as a woman because she wants to dress, talk, appear, etc., “like a woman,” in addition to the more abstract concept that she, plainly, identifies as a woman (and consequently, feels more comfortable in e.g. women’s bathrooms). Yes, anyone should be able to dress, talk, and appear however they want. But the fact of the matter is we currently associate certain genders to correlations in clothing, speech, and appearance. Until hardly anyone bats an eye to someone dressing, talking, and appearing like the opposite gender, let’s recognize trans identities and get back to work on dismantling gender norms in ways that are more vital and less complicated by competing concerns. (Included in the trans identities we recognize must be those who do not present as their identified gender, whether due to choice or not being able to transition as they’d prefer. The essential quality of womanhood and manhood, in my opinion, is simply what someone themselves identifies as. Of course that perspective attracts trolls asking why can’t they identify as X gender or Y fictional animal or Z object, but I won’t bother addressing that here. Lastly, it should be self-evident but must be affirmed for clarification: trans people can also be gender-critical! These people are just as much a part of the fight toward dismantling gender roles, and indeed offer unique perspectives.)

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