What does it mean to say “Trans women are women”? Should philosophers debate this? Angelos Sofocleous was sacked for tweeting “women don’t have penises” from his post at Critique, a philosophy journal, and The Times got hot and bothered: The censorious junior philosophers of Durham… appear to have an absolute moral conviction that this is something not to be thought about. There was more huffing and puffing from Conatus News: Thought Crime in the UK: in Solidarity with Angelos Sofocleous. But Angelos’ twitter says he is a writer/editor at Conatus.
Well. Sofocleous is only an undergraduate, and Critique is an undergraduate journal. And he was not philosophising, but making a bald statement, sharing a Spectator article.
My French friend has lived in Birmingham for thirty years. He has two daughters, both now graduated from university. He bought a house. He divorced his British wife, and never took British citizenship. Is he one of us, or a foreigner? Before the EU referendum, only a few hard-right haters would have said he was foreign; after, the British Government says he is. I am angry and ashamed that my friend should be excluded like this.
Emily Thornberry MP, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said, My starting point is that I’m a feminist, and I’m a feminist of a certain age. I was involved in the women’s rights movement in the late 70s and early 80s, when we had our discussions about women-only meetings, and we were talking about the importance of us as women, and our own experiences in contrast to men. That’s kind of what my background is. So I’ve found the trans debate quite challenging.
But actually talking to people and listening to people- when they’re not shouting- what really struck me actually is that what I have learnt from feminism is that there are people who are marginalised and people who are treated badly, and actually the feminist movement is big enough and big-hearted enough, and if someone believes that they have been born as a man but they are a woman, we have space.
Of course philosophers should consider what it means to say “Trans women are women”. But as with my French friend, who has been told to “get back where he came from,” there are dangers in this. We can be excluded, and we can be hurt. A tweet of a Spectator article encourages those who would hurt and exclude us.
So the philosopher might be allowed to say things in an academic journal which they could not tweet. What does this mean for other women? is a legitimate question. What is a woman?
Suggesting that there are dangers from trans women in general, extrapolating from one trans woman who has committed rape, is inciting hatred and fear so transphobic by the core definition. Any suggestion that we should be excluded should be carefully argued. Any suggestion that there are dangers from trans women should stick to facts rather than speculation, and take great care not to express those facts to exaggerate any risks, or make someone think them disproportionate. Saying there are risks from a group of people- foreigners, coming over here, taking our jobs, taking our benefits– is a simple way to incite others against them.
Any philosopher writing about risks from trans women should expect push-back. Of course we will pick up any exaggeration of those risks, any false argument. The Shadow Foreign Secretary has the right idea. But Sofocleous was not philosophising, and was not sacked for philosophising.
Here is useful philosophising about trans.