Kathleen Stock: Can you change your gender?

Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock OBE apparently does her job, here, addressing the philosophical questions What is reality? and What do words mean? She gives five putative ways in which one might change gender, and says it is impossible in three of them, but sometimes possible in two, though she says whether that is desirable is a separate question.

So where is it not possible? If “gender” is simply a synonym for “sex” meaning which of two sexually dimorphic reproductive roles one fulfils, Prof. Stock claims you cannot change sex. I am not sure this is so. Stem cells can become any cell of the body. Why could a trans woman’s stem cells not be used to create ova with her genes? If this is not possible now, I am sure increasingly expert attempts at it could be made until it was done. Uterus transplants are possible- Lili Elbe died of organ rejection after one. It is at least theoretically possible for a trans woman to bear her own child, certainly possible to bear one not produced from her ovum. Your reproductive role is only important when you are reproducing, that is, for very little of human life. A woman with five children who dies aged twenty has spent 3/16ths of her life reproducing, and she is an outlier. A trans woman could certainly adopt the social role of mother.

Theoretically if not ethically you could change reproductive role, a possibility Prof. Stock does not even dismiss. Perhaps she imagines it is not possible. She instead addresses the question of people with differences of sexual development, DSDs, changing sex. She says they are classified as having one of the two sexes, based on “an attempt to do justice to a pre-existing biological state of affairs.” Many of these people are infertile. Some with XX CAH may be assigned male, and this paper indicates that assignment is based on likely “satisfactory social and sexual function” as adults- in other words, whether they will be happier, rather than mere biology.

The example of DSDs shows that we are assigned a sex even when we are infertile, or have aspects of both, and therefore our “sex” is not simply a matter of reproductive role but social role. Prof. Stock admits “So, for instance, you don’t need to possess all of the ‘female’ sex characteristics to count as female”. Her statement that “However, you do still need to possess some of them” is mere unjustified assertion.

Her second meaning of gender is the stereotypical characteristics imagined by culture to be normal for men or women. Her examples are quite unattractive, even negative, and that may indicate she disapproves: “in many cultures males are supposed to be strong, ambitious, competitive, repressed, aggressive, and logical; and females weak, domestic, self-effacing, emotional, passive, and kind.”

Trans women might never imagine we are women if we did not more clearly fit the feminine stereotype. She says we can’t “change the cultural fact that such characteristics are deemed abnormal for your sex by others”, but we can indicate we are trans women, and people will be less shocked by our femininity. She says we can’t change gender as “sets of normative stereotypes applied to sex”, but this is unduly rigid. Most people are aware of trans people, and many tolerate us. Trans allies may generally think feminine stereotype character unfitting in a man, but see a trans woman and accept it in us. Our character need not make us “abnormal” unless you think transition is unacceptable.

Prof. Stock moves on to “socially constructed sex”, and says that can’t be changed either. Here she discusses Judith Butler. Sex is culturally constructed. For Prof. Stock to be right, society needs to reject the concept or possibility of transition. “Trans women are men”, she believes, and thinks others do too. However many people say “Trans women are women”, and for them, we change socially constructed sex.

For the other two definitions of gender, Prof. Stock admits you can change gender.

If womanhood is a matter of social role, a trans woman can be a woman. This is gender essentialism, some idea that real women fit the stereotypes. Prof. Stock really does not like this idea, and I don’t either- I observe that many people are gender non-conforming, and want them to have the freedom to be themselves, without enforcement of gender. But she admits that we can change our gender in this sense. We do this if people accept the concept of trans woman.

From what Prof. Stock says about sex, it appears she is a realist, believing that there is an objective real world, which may perhaps in some cases be knowable. Not all philosophers are, some are “idealists”. However, if you are a “realist”, you should accept that this “real world” includes trans people. We are in all ages and cultures. We are documented in Deuteronomy. In the Roman Empire, the priestesses of Cybele were trans women. To deny the reality of trans women, you have to say something like “I don’t like it therefore it doesn’t exist”, which is more an Idealist position.

Trans women exist, therefore we have changed our gender.

The fifth definition, where she says we may change our gender, is gender identity. She does not like the concept, and her distaste shows in her attempt to define it: “quasi-mystical”, “a set of feelings” rather than the most important thing in a person’s life, and “a final resort in severe cases” because one should try very hard to “alter one’s self-conception”. Gender identity is the one way gender does not change, such that we have to alter everything else to fit it.

So Professor Stock was not doing her job very well. It is almost as if she had the answer she wanted- her final four words are “the answer is no”- and made up the argument to fit.

This article is published on Medium, and also in The Philosopher, the journal of the Philosophical Society of England. That goes to show that transphobe academics can publish transphobic articles in journals, and the Free Speech hysteria is just that. A pity her argument is so poor.

Art today from Constance Gordon-Cummings.


Brandon Ambrosino went to Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s old outfit. His roommate was his boyfriend, but he experienced nothing but love from the academics there. He tells of fearfully avoiding the topic of his homosexuality, and being a different Brandon with each person, but feeling their love. It wasn’t so bad after all. These 6000 words are worth reading. He dropped out, thirty credits short of his degree. I found his article through this.

Students at George Washington University are campaigning to expel a priest from the Catholic chaplaincy for his hate-speech on a blog. He said, “Every single rational person knows that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are unnatural and immoral. They know it in their hearts.” Or so this article, which supports the priest, says. However it cites this article, which is more neutral. Legacy and Bergen say they are primarily upset about the counseling Shaffer offers. They say he urges students who have homosexual feelings to lead a life of celibacy. The first article neglects to mention that those campaigning against the priest are Catholic.

I don’t particularly resent Greg Shaffer for calling me irrational. I think I know better which of us is irrational. I resent him for using his position of power over students in his care to urge them to action which harms them. I resent him from persisting despite the conflicts this creates in his victims.

Ambrosino writes of three particular encounters with academics. He is in awe of each, their self-confidence, intelligence and charisma, and he is terrified they will bring up the issue of his homosexuality and tell him What The Bible Says about it. They don’t. They are generous and gentle with this confused, hurting boy. So he coins the word homophobiaphobia. I was expecting him to be… well, a homophobe. But as I put on my seatbelt, I realized that all that time, I was the one who was afraid. Not him. I’d been warned my whole life about homophobia, but no one ever said anything about homophobiaphobia.

It is rational to fear the hostile strong. Phobia is pathological when it is fear of the weak and unthreatening. Ambrosino was afraid because the other guy had all the power.

He went to that University because his girlfriend did, then she broke with him. In his terror and shame and pretence, which he adopted because of the way his society treated gay people, he knew his very nature was vile and sinful. I don’t know what those academics’ attitude to gay sex was, but probably they thought it is always sinful, or they would be teaching elsewhere. In the UK, people with degree-level education are overwhelmingly in favour of equal marriage, but it is not so, I understand, in the US.

Shaffer is playing his wicked power-games at a more enlightened University (I hope). He has to insist on his lie that homosexuality is wrong, because the whole atmosphere of the campus does not insist on that. The article supporting him whines about “persecuted” Christians, but the persecution goes the other way. His victims were in a relationship, and he sought to break it.Legacy, Bergen and Ambrosino are growing up, and I hope able to love and accept themselves and be themselves- no thanks to pervasive homophobia.